My little niece recently had a difference of opinion with her mother as to what she should wear to a birthday party. There was a clash of two strong wills and as is usual in such cases, the mother emerged triumphant. The daughter, however, was not going to retire hurt without landing a glancing blow of her own.
Defeated but undaunted, she drew on all the dignity of her three-year-old self and announced with quiet satisfaction: “I know why you are so bad to me. You are not my mummy, you are my stepmother.”
Her mother, who had endured a hard labour of many hours to bring her safely into this world, was crushed. She kept a brave face on in front of her daughter – it never pays to show any weakness to the little mites – but shed bitter tears back in the privacy of her room.
When she related the incident to me a few days later, still looking stricken, I’m afraid I reacted most inappropriately: I burst into loud laughter. In my defence, I really did think this was hilarious, the kind of devastating put-down that only a three-year-old could come up with.
Once I had my giggles under control, I asked: “But how does she even know what a step-mother is? And that she is supposed to be bad to her step-kids?”
Well, it seems the misguided mother had been reading the story of Cinderella to her for the past few months. And even though she didn’t quite understand what the word “step” implied, she knew that stepmothers were supposed to be evil old crones who mistreated their stepdaughters, making them slave in the house while their own daughters swanned around having the best time ever.
So, if her mother was treating her badly, making her unhappy, then it stood to reason that she must be a stepmother as well.
Once my amusement had subsided, however, I got to thinking about the stereotypes we expose our children to in their formative years, the subliminal messages we send out to them through all those fairy tales and children’s books, and the damage we inadvertently inflict (which often survives well into their adulthood).
The evil stepmother stereotype is the most obvious one. Go through all the kiddie books in the neighbourhood library or book store and try and find a stepmom who is not an evil old bat, torturing her stepchildren and taking a perverse delight in their misfortunes. Hardly any storybook admits the possibility of a loving, decent woman taking on the responsibilities of her husband’s kids and bringing them up with the same nurturing warmth that their birth mother would.
It is hard enough to bring up someone else’s children. But imagine how impossible this task becomes when these children have been raised on stories of evil stepmothers and their dark doings. Surely, when these kids regard the stepmom with suspicion and hostility, treating her like an intruder in the family circle, rebuffing her affectionate advances, it must take the patience of a saint to go on loving them regardless.
So, the stereotypes come to be self-perpetuating. Children are programmed to think of stepmothers as evil (stepfathers don’t get the same bad rap, for some strange reason) and in time every stepmother who is stuck with this image ends up conforming to it.
But frankly, when it comes to the stereotypes we impose on our kids, the evil stepmom is the least of it. Far more damaging to the psyche of countless generations of young girls is the concept of a Prince Charming, who will come and sweep them off their feet, rescuing them from a life of drudgery and degradation.
The implication is clear: even to five and six year olds. Girls are weak, vapid creatures who can’t stand up for themselves. The only weapons at their disposal are their beauty and charm. The best hope they have in life is to attract the attention of a rich, powerful young man who will ride to their aid and whisk them away to a beautiful palace where they will live happily ever after.
Is it any wonder then that women grow up obsessed with the idea – and the ideal – of romantic love? That they invest so much of themselves in finding their own Prince Charming who will kiss them and awaken them to a bright new world of possibilities. That they see themselves as fragile little things in urgent need of rescuing. Or even, that they believe with all their might in happy endings.
But the truth is that life is no fairy tale. And we do our kids a huge disservice when we bring them up to believe in the moral of these stories.
Yes, sometimes step-moms can be cruel and unloving. And yes, sometimes you do get to walk into the sunset with your own Prince Charming.
But equally, sometimes you end up kissing dozens of frogs without a single one of them turning into a Prince. And sometimes, stepmothers can be affectionate and loving rather than two-dimensional monsters.
See, that’s the thing about fairy tales: they’re just figments of someone else’s imagination. When it comes to real life, you get to write your own script.