I'm a horrible eavesdropper. I don't really care what the conversation is about, I just like to know what other people are saying. It isn't one of my finer qualities, but as I near my fortieth year, I'm pretty sure it's here to stay. Remarkably, up until a few months ago, I'd never overheard anything that I wish I hadn't -- until one day this summer when I took a break from watching my son at the pool and got distracted by a little girl playing with her mom.
Their conversation went like this:
Little girl: "I'm going to be the princess and you be the wicked stepmother."
Little girl: "I'll bring you something and you tell me that you don't like it and you want me to make something else. You have to be really mean."
Little girl: "Here, I brought you some cake."
Mom: "I don't like cake! This is awful, bring me something else! Right now."
Little girl: "That was really good Mommy. Let's do it again!"
The mom looked over at me, smiled and shrugged and said "God, I hope I'm not offending anyone. Do you think there are any stepmothers around?"
Like me, you mean?
Her confusion was understandable. Unlike the stepmothers of fairy tales, you can't actually identify "real" stepmothers by sight. We have grown adept at hiding our horns and have largely ditched the scary witch-like clothes for more modern apparel. We like to blend.
It's no wonder. Fairy tales and children's stories abound with the horrors that "evil" "wicked" stepmothers inflict upon innocents. (There is, however, a noticeable lack of evil stepfathers, a lapse which I'd like to attribute to the troubled childhoods of the Grimm boys and Walt Disney.) Ordering a huntsman to cut out your stepdaughter's heart? Refusing to let her go to the ball? Abandoning children in the woods? Uncle Walt even named Cinderella's stepmother's cat Lucifer.
So I can't say I was surprised that that little girl at the pool wanted to be a princess while her mother played the unappreciative, demanding, hostile stepmother. That doesn't mean I'm taking it lying down.
No one's denying that step-parenting can be hard. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. (These people could be the same ones who deny ever sending their kids to school sick, but I don't want to open that can of worms again). Most people become stepparents in the aftermath of a divorce, which as we all know, is super fun and brings out the best in everyone. Add that to the ugly fables and things can get dicey.
Which is why I understand why people want to reject the "step" label. The thinking is that it would be so much easier if we could just say we're just people who love the kids in our lives, and leave it at that. As a stepmom and a stepdaughter, I understand the temptation - step-parenting isn't for sissies. With all of the bad press, it seems like a no-brainer. Who wouldn't want to ditch the "step"?
Well, me, for starters.
I've never been uncomfortable being called a stepparent. It's another piece of who I am and I chose this role. Maybe I'm okay with it because I've never ordered anyone to bring me my stepson's heart in a box, and I encourage attendance at parties. I haven't poisoned fruit to knock off a pain-in-the-ass relative and I don't leave children stranded in the woods (though if I did, I'm sure I could convince the police it was accidental). Being a stepparent is challenging -- but so is being a parent -- as evidenced by the daily struggles I have getting my son to eat vegetables, go to bed and use the word please. My stepson, on the other hand, readily eats a wide array of nutritious food and has excellent manners.
Here's what no one ever tells you though: Step-parenting brings all sorts of rewards. If you work at it, you have the opportunity to have a friendship with, and be a source of love and support for, a good kid. My stepson has shown me a thousand kindnesses, small and large, and I love his generosity of spirit and character. It probably would have been easy for him to treat me like a wicked stepmother, but he doesn't. Could be we're the lucky ones, but I have to believe there are more of us out there.
So screw the storytellers. I'd like to reclaim the word "stepmother" and rescue it from the clutches of Les Grimm and El Disney. Rather than dance around the label, I'm going to embrace it. I'm picturing "Free the Stepmonster" t-shirts, a non-profit and an occupation of the local movie theater. Forget blending -- I'm going to fill my pockets with poison, carve hearts with gusto, polish my horns -- and smile.
Stepmothers of the world, unite.