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The woodcutter's wife: a stepmother's tale

Author: Dolla S. Merrillees
Published: Jun 17 2008

When asked what I would like to be when I grew up, I can't say I actually aspired to being a divorcee, however glamorous it sounded, or, for that matter, a wicked stepmother. I don't know about you, but it's not exactly every girl's childhood fantasy, and besides, I was brought up to believe that divorce was nearly always attributable to loose women, menopausal men and the ensuing infidelity all this engenders, whilst stepmothers were, quite simply, an abomination. Infidelity, divorce and was like some obsessional mantra of my childhood. Against this background, never did I in my wildest dreams imagine I would find myself accomplishing, well, at least the latter two. And so on a beautiful balmy night as the celebrant declared us husband and wife, like many other women before me, I made the transition from divorcee to wife and wicked stepmother and in the twinkling of an eye became a member of that internationally recognised sorority-women who marry men with children?.

Our constitution is The Stepmother's Bill of Rights. This admirable document, written by Barbara Mullen Keenan, outlines ten worth objectives for a successful marriage and stepmother-stepchild relationships. With stepfamilies predicted as the family of the twenty first century, the Bill of Rights sets a new political agenda for stepmothers: a renewed commitment to consultation, respect, responsibility and decision making processes. It itemises issues such as housework, the distribution of chores, use of personal possessions, and having one's private space violated (presumably by intrusive stepchildren). It specifies the stepmother's right to determine when ex-wives, in-laws and adult children will visit and for how long. But its fundamental premise is that the marriage is the first priority and that all problems will be addressed together. Open communication? I get it.

It's certainly a charter to aspire to. It was evidently my solemn duty to lead by example and dispel the myth of the wicked stepmother either that or embark on a global public relations campaign for 'our kind'. But first I needed to discover for myself whether I was facing mere prejudice or whether I had truly begun a long, slow descent to the dark side. As I, in turn, assumed the mantle of stepmother, I became intrigued by the origins of the species. Was her evil reputation, steeped as it is in folklore and tradition, really warranted? For centuries, the stepmother has been portrayed in literature as a notoriously evil and cruel protagonist. In Persian, Greek and Roman myths, Russian folklore and Germanic legends, dating as far back as the 5th century, the stepmother is invariably depicted as the villainess, plotting evil against her stepchild or stepchildren and in reprisal meeting a gruesome death. In most tales, the stepmother is resentful of her stepchild for many different, if not understandable, reasons: inheritance, jealousy and intrafamilial romantic triangles. She may be worried that the inheritance will go to the other woman's child; she may be jealous of the stepdaughter's beauty or of the time a father devotes to the child instead of to her; she may even be humiliated because a stepson has spurned her amorous advances.

It was in Germany, however, that the art of the fairytale reached its peak, in the 19th century Children's and Household Fairytales collected by the brothers Grimm. Millions across the globe have grown up avidly listening to the enchanting, sometimes terrifying tales of Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Snow White. My parents read them to me and I in turn read them to my children. What is not commonly known is that in the earliest known version of Snow White, dated 1810, the handsome queen is actually Snow White's real mother who, dismayed by her daughter's ever-increasing beauty, is driven by intense jealousy and sexual rivalry to get rid of her. Minor changes were made to each subsequent edition until 1857, by which time the wicked aspects of the natural mother had been transformed into a malevolent stepmother. I don't know about you, but I remember standing in front of the mirror, rehearsing those immortal lines:

'Oh, mirror, mirror on the wall, Who is the fairest of us all??

Similarly, in the 1810 text of Hansel and Gretel, not only is the woodcutter's wife identified unambiguously as the 'mother', but both parents cooperate in their attempts to abandon the children. By the fifth edition (1843), the metamorphosis into an evil stepmother fairytale is complete. So why the changes to these tales? It's not so difficult to imagine that the Grimm brothers were uncomfortable with the idea of parents harming their children. Let's face it; the notion is certainly deeply repugnant and incomprehensible.

But you need not just look to the past: interpretations of these tales thrive in popular culture from the 2002 movie of Hansel and Gretel, starring Delta Burke as the wicked stepmother to the 2005 production of Cinderella by the Latvian National Opera, forced to close down for depicting Cinderella as a cleaner in a bordello, the ugly sisters as prostitutes and the evil stepmother as the madam. But my all-time personal favourite is Cinderalla (2002) by Junko Mizuno. In this psychedelic book, dad and the stepsisters have been transformed into zombies, the family runs a yakitori restaurant, and the prince is so sick he's on a permanent IV support system! As my stepson would say, ?That's intense!?

These myths may appear innocuous enough but they do serve to reinforce the negative stereotype of the stepmother. With stepfamilies predicted as the family of the 21st century, the notion of the biological family unit is changing. Today's families are rarely the tidy, homogenous nuclear models many of us knew when we were growing up or at least saw idealised by TV shows like Little House on the Prairie. Mum, Dad and their genetic offspring remain the dominant structure, but in suburban streetscapes there are same-sex parents, single parents, de facto partners, step-parents, step-siblings and half-siblings involved in the mix, as well as an assortment of races, cultures and religions struggling to merge customs, habits and parenting styles. Despite the cosy, caring lives of the Brady Bunch, reality is a little more complex.

Parenting is a formidable task at the best of times, but step-parenting is in a realm of its own. Not only are you, in a primordial sense, nurturing genes that are not your own, but it's a practice full of unwritten conventions and obscure rules. And I should know - six years ago, I set out on a journey in pursuit of love and, with a little luck, a happy ending, and found myself within the space of twelve months becoming a full-time stepmum to a child who resides with us permanently and has little or no contact with his biological mother. It's no exaggeration to say that I was unsuspecting, ill-equipped and unqualified. What's that term Americans use? Greenhorn - that was me. Like many other step-parents before me, I did not have nine months to prepare for the birth of this child, nor motherhood. I inherited a ready-made model without instructions, and our early years were characterised by misconceptions, unrealistic expectations and absurdities. The complexity of dealing with someone else's child day after day, coupled with my anger and frustration at the absent mother, has at times been overwhelming. The fact remains, being a step-parent can be very isolating.

We may have become an instant family, but the transition to stepmother or stepchild does not automatically mean love or even affection for each other. It takes time to define your roles and responsibilities, to develop a relationship with the child, and to build trust on both sides. So where does this leave me now? Have I transcended the parameters set for me by the wicked stepmothers of myth? I'd like to think that over the intervening years I have somehow evolved beyond my species, that maybe this is where I finally get to offer encouraging words of wisdom and impart practical know-how to aspiring step-parents. In the eyes of my stepson, at least, I've exceeded my calling. For over two years now I've been 'Mummy', for better or worse. Maybe it's because, despite the bluster of the wicked stepmother, he trusts me and knows without a shadow of doubt that I?m here and always will be, on the sidelines cheering him on, holding his hand, watching his back, and ultimately believing in him. There's no doubt I'd be gutted if he went back to calling me Dolla.

About Dolla Merrillees

Dolla Merrillees was born in Canberra, the youngest daughter of an Australian diplomat and archaeologists. A nomadic childhood was spent traipsing around archaeological dig sites and engaging in diplomatic protocol in various war-torn countries including Lebanon and Cambodia, equipping her with skills she believes has helped her to negotiate the minefield of stepfamily life. Dolla is the author of The Woodcutter's Wife: A Stepmother's Tale (Halstead Press)

The Woodcutter's Wife: A Stepmother's Tale

The Woodcutter's Wife: A Stepmother's Tale

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Author: Dolla S. Merrillees
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