Wicked Stepmother of Myth

 As a historian of childhood, I’ve long been fascinated by the lore associated with second wives, lore that appears in every country and era. I’ve also heard complaints, sad tales--and success stories, too--from today’s stepmothers. Here’s a start on the subject.

Better a serpent than a stepmother!
--Euripides 438 B.C.

In every culture and every era stories have abounded about the evil woman who abused—and sometimes even murdered—her husband’s children by his first wife. The yoke of this legacy hangs heavy around the neck of second wives, often lasting well into the time her stepchildren reach their majority. In future posts we’ll discuss real-life stepmother/adult stepchildren relations, but first let’s set the stage by looking at four of those iconic baddies of legend.
     The quintessential Wicked Stepmother is the queen in Snow White. She is so jealous of her stepdaughter’s beauty that she orders the huntsman to take the young woman out into the forest, kill her, and bring back her heart and liver as proof that she’s dead. Then there’s the cruel stepmother in Cinderella, who treats the girl as a servant and makes her life a living hell. Thirdly, there’s the me-first stepmother of Hansel & Gretel, who, when famine sweeps the land, convinces her husband to abandon the children from his first marriage so she and he will have enough to eat. (Of course, the fact that he went along with the scheme doesn’t speak too well of him, either.) Finally, there’s the legend of Phaedra, the second wife of a Greek leader. She attempts to seduce her stepson, Hippolytus, but he rejects her. Outraged, she takes her revenge by saying Hippolytus raped her, an accusation that leads to his death.
      A prominent characteristic of all these evil second wives of myth is jealousy of their stepdaughter’s youth and beauty—“Mirror, mirror on the wall” anybody? Sometimes they display lust for their handsome stepson, and often they act out of greed to ensure that their husband’s inheritance will go to their own biological children instead of his. In every instance they go to great lengths to achieve their ends.
     Unfortunately, the stereotype of the Wicked Stepmother doesn’t show signs of vanishing anytime soon. Just last year Amazon TV presented the series, Evil Stepmothers. Wherever they went, these arch-villains left murder, mayhem, and destruction in their wake. The first episode’s title, “Not my Mom,” may sum up the reason why the Wicked Stepmother myth is so persistent. According to Bruno Bettelheim and other psychologists, there’s a common desire among children to offload the characteristics they don’t like in their mothers onto an imaginary Bad Stepmother figure. Then they can hold onto another fantasy, that of the Perfect Real Mother.
      Step-families have been a common occurrence throughout the ages, especially households in which the mother died in childbirth and the husband remarried. Today, step-families are much more likely to result from divorce.  If you have experience with step-parenting adult children, please weigh in on the challenges and triumphs of the situation in your own life.

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