The Evil Stepmother
by Maureen F. McHugh
My nine-year-old stepson Adam and I were coming home from Kung Fu. “Maureen,” Adam said — he calls me ‘Maureen’ because he was seven when Bob and I got married and that was what he had called me before. “Maureen,” Adam said, “are we going to have a Christmas tree?”
“Yeah,” I said, “of course.” After thinking a moment. “Adam, why didn’t you think we were going to have a Christmas tree?”
“Because of the new house,” he said, rather matter-of-fact. “I thought you might not let us.”
It is strange to find that you have become the kind of person who might ban Christmas Trees.
We joke about me being the evil stepmother. In fact, the joke is that I am the Nazi Evil Stepmother From Hell. It dispels tension to say it out loud. Actually, Adam and I do pretty good together. But the truth is that all stepmothers are evil. It is the nature of the relationship. It is, as far as I can tell, an unavoidable fact of step relationships.
We enter into all major relationships with no real clue of where we are going; marriage, birth, friendship. We carry maps we believe are true; our parent’s relationship, what it says in the baby book, the landscape of our own childhood. These maps are approximate at best, dangerously misleading at worst.
Dysfunctional families breed dysfunctional families. Abuse is handed down from generation to generation. That it’s all the stuff of 12 Step programs and talk shows doesn’t make it any less true or any less profound.
The map of step parenting is one of the worst, because it is based on a lie. The lie is that you will be mom or you will be dad. If you’ve got custody of the child, you’re going to raise it. You’ll be there, or you won’t. Either I mother Adam and pack his lunches, go over his homework with him, drive him to and from Boy Scouts, and tell him to eat his carrots, or I’m neglecting him. After all, Adam needs to eat his carrots. He needs someone to take his homework seriously. He needs to be told to get his shoes on, it’s time for the bus. He needs to be told not to say ‘shit’ in front of his grandmother and his teachers.
But he already has a mother, and I’m not his mother, and no matter how deserving or undeserving she is or I am, I never will be. He knows it, I know it. Stepmothers don’t represent good things for children. When I married Adam’s father it meant that Adam could not have his father and mother back together without somehow getting me out of the picture. It meant that he would have to accept a stranger who he didn’t know and maybe wouldn’t really like into his home. It meant he was nearly powerless. It doesn’t really matter that Adam’s father and mother weren’t going to get back together, because Adam wanted to see his mom, and he wanted to be with his dad, and the way that it was easiest for him to get both those things was for his parents to be together.
It’s something most stepparents aren’t prepared for because children often court the future stepparent. You’re dating, and it’s exciting. Adam was excited that his father was going to marry me. He wanted us to do things together. But a week before the wedding, he also wanted to know if his mother and father could get back together. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand that the two things were mutually exclusive, it was more that they were unrelated for him. When I came over I was company, it was fun. But real life was mom and dad.
Marriage stopped that. That is the first evil thing I did.
The second evil thing that stepparents do is take part of a parent away. Imagine this, you’re married, and your spouse suddenly decides to bring someone else into the household, without asking you. You’re forced to accommodate. Your spouse pays attention to the Other, and while they are paying attention to the Other, they are not paying attention to you. Imagine the Other was able to make rules. In marriages it’s called bigamy, and it’s illegal.
What’s worse for the child is that they have already lost most of one parent. Now someone else is laying claim on the remaining parent. The weapons of the stepchild are the weapons of the apparently powerless, the weapons of the guerilla. Subterfuge. Sabotage. The artless report of the hurtful things his real mother said about you. Disliking the way you set the table, not wanting you to move the furniture. And stepchildren — even more than children in non-step relationships — are hyperalert to division between parent and stepparent.
I was thirty-three when I married, I had no children of my own and never wanted any. I’m a book person, so before I got married I went out and bought books about being a stepmother. I asked that we all do some family counseling before and during the time we were getting married. The books painted a dismal picture. Women got depressed. Women felt like maids. Women got sick. There were lots of rules — the child needs to spend some time alone with their natural parent and some time alone with their stepparent in a sort of round robin of quality time; a stepmother should have something of her own that gives her a feeling of her own identity; don’t move into their house, start a new house together if you possibly can.
I liked that there were rules so I followed them and they helped a lot (even though I suspect that, like theories of child-raising, our theories of step relationships are a fad and the advice in the books will all be different fifty years from now.) But I was still evil, and that was the most disheartening thing of all. I felt trapped in role not my own choosing. Becoming a stepmother redefined who I am, and nothing I did could resist that inexorable redefining. I suppose motherhood redefines who you are, too. Part of the redefinition of me has been just that — sitting on the bench with the row of anxious mothers at the little league game or at martial arts. Going to school and being Adam’s mother. Being Adam’s mom. It has made me suddenly feel middle-aged in funny ways. I used to go through the grocery line and buy funky things like endive, a dozen doughnuts, a bottle of champagne and two tuna steaks. Now I buy carts full of cereal and hamburger and juice boxes. I used to buy overpriced jackets and expensive suits. Now I go to Sears and buy four sweat shirts and two packages of socks in the boys department.
When I bought endive and champagne, the check out clerk used to ask me what I was making. But no one asks you what you are making when you buy cereal and hamburger.
Beyond all this loomed the specter of Adam at sixteen. The rebellious teenage boy from the broken home, hulking about the house, always in trouble, always resentful. Like many stepchildren, Adam came with an enormous amount of behavioral baggage. He acted out the tensions of his extended family. He was sullen, tearful, resentful of me and equally resentful of his mother. I knew that Adam was the victim in all this, but when you’re up to your ass in alligators, it is hard to remember that your original intention is to drain the swamp. I had read that I would be resentful, but nothing prepared me for a marriage that was about this alien child. I didn’t marry Adam, he didn’t marry me, and yet that is what my marriage came down to. By the time Adam was dealt with, my husband and I were too exhausted to be married.
My relationship with Adam was good, better than the relationships described in all those books. He was a happier, healthier, more behaved child than he was when I married Bob — after all, it is easier to parent when there are two of you. People complimented me on what a fine job I had done. I was the only one who suspected that there was a coldness in the center of our relationship that Adam and I felt. I could console myself that he was better off than he was before I married Bob, and he was. But I knew that something was a lie.
One day Adam said angrily that I treated the dog better than I treated him. Of course, I liked the dog, the dog adored me, and Adam, well Adam and I had something of a truce. The kind of relationship a child would have with an adult who might ban Christmas trees from the house. So the accusation struck home.
I started to deal with my stepson the way I deal with my dog. Quite literally. A boy and a stepmother have a strange tension in a physical relationship. I hug Adam and I kiss him on the forehead, on the nose, anywhere but on the mouth. I am careful about how I touch him. I suspect that the call from Child Protective Services is the nightmare of every step parent. But after that comment I began to ruffle his hair the way I ruffle the dog’s ears. I rubbed Adam’s back. I petted him. I occasionally gave Adam a treat, the way I occasionally give the dog one. At first it was all calculated, but within a very short time, it was natural to reassure Adam.
It has made all the difference.
Adam is almost twelve, and the specter of the delinquent teenager in the dysfunctional family still haunts me, but it doesn’t seem so likely at the moment. As Adam grows older, my husband and I have more time to be married.
Speaking from the land of the step parent, I tell you, this business of being evil is hard. It is very hard. Being a step parent is the hardest thing I have ever done. And what rewards there are, are small. No one pats me on the head for having given up the pleasures of endive and champagne and tuna steaks for spaghetti sauce and hamburger. That’s what mothers do. Except, of course, they get to be the mom.