When I became a stepmother, I searched everywhere for stepmother stories, deep ones that share honest truths, beyond the binary opposition that alternately deems stepmother or (as backlash) mother "wicked." I explored the narratives in my MFA critical thesis, which was recently honored with the 2016 Antioch University Los Angeles Library Research Award, and in the final section of my memoir about love and mothering, Shiva: A Memoir Concerto, which I'm now beginning to send out to literary agents. (I recently got my first rejection; remind me to tell you about it another time.)
The fact is, being a stepmother is perhaps the most nebulous of family roles. We have little preparation time, few helpful resources, and a wicked reputation as our only role model. I sensed all of this subconsciously from the moment I moved in with my now-husband and now-kids, but amid learning my new role as a parent, I also had to unlearn everything I thought I knew about being a mother. Stepmothering is mothering, but has its own beauty, its own challenges, its own rewards. To understand it, we women cast in this role must first cast off the shrouds of too many cultural tropes -- those of stepmother, of mother, and, at their foundation, what it means to be a woman in the world. We must deconstruct our very selves.
Last night, as I tucked Shiloh into bed, she and I began talking about names. She's preparing to rewrite the fantasy novel she began in third grade (she'll enter seventh grade in September). That book of hers, and the way Shiloh woke early every morning to work on it, inspired me to write my own book. Writing and love of story is something she and I share. Last night in the dark, we ran through names of characters. Indiana, River, Ximena, Madalily, Celestia. As she searched in the dark for a pencil to jot them down, we talked about names from Shakespeare -- Tatiana, Ophelia, Miranda, Ariel -- which led to talk of The Little Mermaid and the fairy tale origins of some of the most beloved Disney films. She's read some of those pre-Disney tales, and knows how gruesome and dark they are. I told her about how the stories were original tavern and spinning room tales, not meant for children. They were entertainment before television, with all the twisted characters and fearsome plots that we now see on the big screen. The Brothers Grimm in Germany and Charles Perrault in France captured the regional yarns from travelers passing through, and wrote them down. Over time, especially through the work of the Grimms', the tales softened enough to bring into the nursery. The rest, as they say, is history, because the easy "Once upon a time... happily ever after" format and simple archetypes moved away from drinking stories into bedtime stories into Disney blockbusters.
"Through all these changes, do you know which character remained bad?" I asked Shiloh, smoothing the blanket over her shoulder.
"Who?" she asked.
"The stepmother," I said. "They're always evil."
"I'm going to write a good stepmother story," she said.
Some of my work on stepmothers has recently ended up as the new issue of Lilith Magazine's cover feature story on Stepmothers. If you have or are a stepparent, or have biological kids who have stepparents, this is for you. I hope you'll share it with the stepmothers in your life.
I'm grateful to Lilith for bringing this underappreciated family member front and center, and honored to have my work contribute to the small body of work on this topic.