In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale

Apr 06, 2017 · 200 comments
DeepaR (IL)
You captured all the emotions I went thru. I stepped in a step-mom to a 31/2 year old whose mom passed away when she was just months old. I constantly judge myself and worry that if I'm the evil step-mom whenever I discipline her. We did have another daughter and I'm not as patient with her and as I am with her. I do see her and introduce her as my older child but there is always this nagging feeling if her mom would have done a better job raising her and loving her than me, I hope she never feels that I have not done by best to love her.
It's important to continiously reinvent fairytales, as is the tradition started by female French writers in Paris such as Madam D'Aulnoy to comment on women's lives in society. Recently read: Seascape by E L Parfitt about young people living in contemporary times with a bit of magic thrown in, and looking forward to reading Snow White Blood Red, one of a series of fairy tale collections (this one is for adults the first one is for a wider range from teenagers upwards).
Maureen (Boston)
I admire you for loving and caring so much for this little girl, and for taking your role in her life so seriously, not everyone is kind enough to take this on. She will return that love a hundred times over to you when you are old and gray.
joyce (Jerusalem)
This is an important article and very well done. I know some suffering stepmothers, but mostly I know formerly-suffering stepmothers who found their way past the difficulties to great relationships. One of those is Barb Goldberg, a creative and clever woman with unique (and often hilarious) coping strategies. Her website is and her book is a truly invaluable resource.
Katherine (Iowa)
"...She wouldn’t get so frustrated when bedtime lasted an hour and a half, or else her frustration would have the counterweight of an unconditional love I was still seeking...I punished myself when I lost patience, when I bribed, when I wanted to flee. I punished myself for resenting Lily when she came into our bed, night after night... Every feeling I had, I wondered: Would a real mother feel this? It wasn’t the certainty that she wouldn’t, but the uncertainty itself: How could I know?"

Well, you can ask some mothers whose babies came out of our bodies, and we would tell you YES!!! A biological mother would feel this. Any person who has to parent a small child feels this way sometimes, whether they gestated said small child or not. Bedtimes that go on for an hour and a half, cat-herding a child to brush teeth and put on PJs (or not -- go to bed naked, I don't care, just GO TO BED, PLEASE!), getting another cruddy night of sleep taking bony little elbows to the face and no privacy with one's spouse because of the monsters under the bed in the children's room -- biology gots nothing to do with it.

Lots of breathing in and out, counting to ten (or 100), digging deep for one last shred of patience when you want to yell, occasionally not finding it and yelling, reminding yourself that they are only little for a short time, and their aims are not your aims. There are pleasures and trials at every stage of life, and parent or step-parent, get your kisses while you can.
EB (Sydney)
There is a theme that runs beneath step-parent relationships: the disconnect between rights and responsibilities.

Stepparents have no legal rights. Many of us give up just as much as biological parents but knowing we are totally unprotected in the case of divorce or death. There are no doubt poor stepparents, but those who are good stepparents do so despite extraordinarily vulnerability (and often without much social support or validation).

After 12 years raising my stepdaughter, with 50-60% of care from when she was 2, my husband died. I gave up on having biological children so that we had enough to raise her in financial security; I paid for her education. I love her unreservedly. Yet I will not see her again until she is 18, as I have no legal rights and her mother does not believe I "have any further role to play." (Apart from my role as a bank: she has pointed out that unless I continue to pay for schooling my stepdaughter will need to change schools and will experience another disruption in a shattering year for her.)

I always knew the risks. I cannot regret it even though I have lost my stepdaughter alongside my husband. Loving without claim or rights is a brave and fierce thing to do, and there are many of us stepparents out there.
Grassfed Beef (West)
EB... I just want you to know your story is heard, your bravery acknowledged, your heart appreciated by a stranger far away in America. What a horrific thing to go through. I hope your daughter will come back to you later.
Hollie Z (Santa Barbara, CA)
I am so sorry that that happened to you. I love when biological moms say "It is the toughest job out there, but worth it." It ISN'T the toughest job.. A Stepparent IS the toughest job. I imagine that your daughter will reach out to you when she can get away from her biological mom. She misses you I bet. The biological mom is threatened by you and wants to control.
Let time pass and I know that she will reach out to you. Give her time to grief and I bet that she will reach out to you.
A. (Nm)
It's the worst nightmare of most mothers I know, to die before our children are grown. I think about Lily's mother and how wrackingly painful it had to be, looking at her tiny little girl and knowing she wasn't going to be there to see her grow up. I imagine a great salve to that pain would be knowing that another woman, kind and good, would come along and be the best mother she could to that little girl. So Leslie, please know that wherever Lily's mother is, she is smiling to know you are taking care of her daughter so well. While there are ample stories of bad stepmothers out there, I give huge credit to those women who will step into a situation with a deep breath and a shaky resolve to take care of someone else's children. If you care, if you try, if you do your best - you are doing better than most. So give yourself credit for that. You will be the only mother Lily remembers, and just like all memories of mothers, there will be some good and some bad. It would have been no different if her mom had lived. Cut yourself some slack. This parenting thing isn't easy for anyone. All any of us are doing is the best we can, every day. Blessings to you and your family. Everything will be fine.
Natalie (Vancouver)
Heartbreaking. Your step daughter is lucky to have you on her side.
Laura Seigle (NYC)
For almost two years until last week, I dated a divorced man who has two children in their teens. I never met them - my choice. I did not feel capable of stepping - pun intended - into the role of dad's girlfriend and potential spouse, mostly because I was afraid to hurt them. He and I got along very well. Under different circumstances, we might have had a life together. We have so much in common and being together is wonderfully easy. We met in middle age.

Our lives are complicated. I'm stretched thin: I barely have time to spare for myself, my job, my own young daughter and my aging mother. While I was dating him, and considering meeting them and having them meet my daughter - and sometimes longing to make that happen, I kept thinking of what the comedic writer Nora Ephron wrote about becoming a step-parent: make sure to get a dog so someone in the family will like you. :)

I decided I could not add this to my life right now and I feel mean spirited and un-generous. I wish I were more expansive. But this is not a role you step into lightly. So many lives are at stake.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Meeting someone's teenage children (who will leave home in a few years!) is not marriage, nor taking anything away from your daughter or your mother.

It's very sad to shut this part of your life off, because of this kind of fear. If you are middle-aged many good years do you have left, to form a new relationship FOR YOURSELF? In time, your aging mother will be gone, and your daughter will leave the nest, as this man's daughters will also leave....then what?
Natalie (Vancouver)
It won't necessarily go badly! My step daughters add a wonderful richness to my life. It is messy and complicated but it is also beautiful and loving.
Kathleen (Honolulu)
Captivating. Thank you.
Vox (NYC)
"the evil stepmother is often the fairy-tale character most defined by imagination and determination, rebelling against the patriarchy"?

Malevolence = "imagination and determination"?

And as for "rebelling against the patriarchy", in most fairy tales, the evil stepmother has inherited from her (often kindly and benevolent) husband and devotes herself to treating her step-DAUGHTER badly. How is that "rebelling against the patriarchy"?

If you're going to reinterpret timeless stories with a 21st c. sensibility, at least be accurate!
Nancy (Great Neck)
Terrific essay, having read this work twice and suggested it to friends, I can relate in any number of ways.
Debi Bryant (Pflugerville Texas)
A stepmother for 38 years, I was very moved by this article. It contains a lot of truth, a lot of heart.

No two stories are the same. Yet we can share.
AG507 (New York)
It is interesting that Cinderella is based on evil stepmother. Excellent article and observations with touching stories.

why fairy tales vilify stepmothers?
Try to keep in mind that women who become stepmothers in the course of marrying a divorced (rather than widowed) man are getting his version of the story and do not have the previous wife's experience of him. Stepchildren may well have excellent justification for loathing a person they are now asked to regard as family.
Bay Area (San Francisco)
I can guarantee you that most if not all biological mothers also occasionally (if not frequently) also feels like frauds and failures. Parenting is hard and mysterious, especially the first time. Give yourself a break.
jnyc (New York City)
I only fully understood the "ready archetype of the evil steipmother" when I finally became one myself -- "they're not evil, after all," I told my friends --"they're just annoyed!" My vision of being the coolest stepmom ever, quickly morphed into something closer to Snow White's new kin. After every motherly instinct to nurture and bond is summarily rebuffed by an angry child who will never be given permission to bond with a perceived rival, even the best intentioned, loving people can recede into a self-protective angry shell.

Lily's situation is different because she need not betray her mother by accepting her stepmother's love, and that allows her stepmother to be loving. But in the context of the more common divorce situation, children are too often used as weapons to punish a former spouse, and the stepmother becomes the victim of the fallout. My stepdaughter's mother insists on a narrative in which her ex-spouse has left her daughter for another, favored family. There can never be peace in the land when the child is required to reject a second family in the fight for the man's heart and kingdom - that is the tale as old as time -- a sad, and not very feminist one at that.
TaraW (Los Angeles)
I can't begin to express the joy and relief I felt at reading this article. As jnyc points out, Lily was free to let her affections flow, without the wrath of her mother complicating an already complex and emotionally fraught situation. In that way she was fortunate, although fortunate is the wrong word. That certainly was not my case.

Having felt like an evil stepmother for 11 years, I almost felt that I could forgive myself after reading that it is a situation that takes any woman and makes her evil. My relationship with four scarred kids has run the gamut. We've come a long way and it's mostly good now and there are wonderful, treasured moments. Hands down, it has been the hardest thing I've done in my life. But because of the emotional cost, if I had to do it over, I'm not sure if I could. It has nearly killed me! Thank you for lightening my psychic load!
James L (<br/>)
It has been my experience that little kids are perfectly able to distinguish the Imaginary from the Real, and actually enjoy doing so. It is adults that get confused by the issue.
ninewest (OH)
How wonderful for this stepmother that her tale has a happy ending.

This is my reality. I wanted my father to find happiness & remarry. He did so & most was well until the last months of his life. He was not treated though diagnosed with dementia. While he & I were both fighting cancer (he died, I didn't) his will was rewritten to benefit my stepmother and her children. When I found out my trust had been misplaced, I was heartbroken. These "fairytales" serve as a warning & they exist for a reason.
Susan (Boulder)
Why is it that the stepmother must repour cereal and braid pigtails and pick out dresses? Where is this Charles in the picture?
Larry (Oakland)
@Susan, I think you need to re-read the article. I'm copying the relevant passage here:

"He talked openly about what was hard about parenting, which made it feel more possible to live in love and difficulty — love as difficulty. He knew what it meant to wake day after day, choose three possible dresses, pour the cereal, repour the cereal after it spilled, wrestle hair into pigtails, get to school on time, get to pickup on time, steam the broccoli for dinner."
Grassfed Beef (West)
"Everything that felt like rocket science to me was just the stuff regular parents did every day of the week." I remember that feeling, as a new stepmom... Now I'm a biological parent, and guess what? It's still rocket science. Children bring something new into our lives every day. Though I don't suffer from it myself, many, many bio-parents harbor that same feeling of fraudulence.

I mostly had a wonderful fairytale experience as a stepmother, for years. We were very close, and also close to my girl's other family with stepdad and bio-mom. I wish I had read and listened to more about the basic psychology of step-parenting before she reached adolescence, when things took a hard turn for the very worse. She acted out, her bio-parents felt helpless, and stupid me attempted to help with the disciplining, going to counseling with the bio-parents, etc.

What I did not understand then was that deep inside, children know they need limits, even kids who are trying to burn down every limit on the block. Inside, they know their "real" parents should be providing this guidance, and it makes them resent us for enabling their parents to slack. As adolescents, they're processing conflicting feelings: separate from family, fear of separating entirely. Stepparents provide a handy repository for projecting all the hormonally driven hate that another kid would have to face flinging at their "real" parent. Read the book "Stepmonster" for other sobering realities...
person (planet)
I didn't exactly have a step mother, but I had to deal with one of my natural father's wives. She pretended to be nice to me when we were all together, when we were alone, she was unremittingly hostile.
concerned mother (new york, new york)
One thing to remember--as a mother and a stepmother--and a lesson that I learned, is that you do not have carte blanche to write about your children's lives. Their lives--and even your experience of their lives--does not belong to you. It belongs to them. So your experience of being a stepmother must incorporate the need a child may have--if not now, when they are older--for privacy around their childhood. While husbands, lovers, friends are all adults who have chosen to throw their lot in with a writer, your children, and especially someone else's children, do not have that choice. (Parents,, I think,, are fair game!). So, a word of caution. As for the fairy tale: in the legerdemain of fairy tales, which are dreams, stepmothers are stand-ins--or tropes--for real mothers. And Giants are stand ins for fathers. So, I wouldn't worry about it too much, nor would I attempt to mythologize your experience: pay attention to the individual actual child in front of you, whether you are a mother or a step-mother, and pay attention to her, exactly. One of the current cultural misapprehensions about motherhood is that it's about you--the mother. It's not. It's about the child.
R Anonymous (Northwest)
My mother died of cancer she had hidden from herself and us. I was 14 at the time and the 5th of 6 children. Mom was our everything. She was not perfect.

I remember my father stopping at a card shop to encourage me to pick out a Mothers' Day card for his soon to be new wife. The memory is so vivid of the feelings that hit me as I looked at the display. I very clearly and calmly told him no.

They were together from 1971 until my father passed away in 2015 at the age of 96.

Do I love my step mom? I appreciate, admire and respect her. She loved my father and added many happy years to his life. She took on his 6 children even though she had 5 of her own at the time.

It was not a fairy tale, good or bad.
Cary mom (Raleigh)
Anyone who acts as a loving mother/father figure to a bewildered, lonely or parentless child is a hero, an angel on earth. Young children are so vulnerable and desperately need love and protection to become loving caring adults. There is no greater gift to society than to provide a loving steady relationship and home to a child. And (I realize this sentiment is not popular in the nytimes comments section, but..) I do believe that God sees your love and sacrifice with his littlest ones and will bless your soul for eternity.
I think step children always have the same question over their heads as adopted ones do. Hard to know how better (or worse) your life would've been otherwise.
Amy Haible (Harpswell, Maine)
I met my husband of now 20 years when his daughter was 2 ½. She is now 26 and will soon have a child of her own - our first grandchild whom I will adore. And yet, if I had known the pain of step mothering I would probably have run in the opposite direction. My step-daughter's mother, who traveled extensively, and sensed my growing closeness to her child, accused me of terrible things, all untrue. Never in my life had I met anyone who lied and manipulated so successfully. My step-daughter was caught in the middle and my husband had to protect her - which often made me feel abandoned. It has been two decades. We have all made mistakes. Perhaps my biggest one was naiveté. A man who loves his daughter will often put her first, which can only leave the new wife feeling left out. And do not think the daughter doesn't know. Children sense their upper hand. Yet what loving woman wants a man who doesn't love his child? It's such a delicate balance. I once thought of writing a book, "Cinderella Re-visited" that dealt with the lose-lose position into which stepmothers are often forced. Has anyone ever asked the question, "Why did the good father marry the stepmother? Was there nothing good in her?"
Growing up, I knew a few women who had affairs with married men, who then obtained divorces to marry them. Those women were complicit or instrumental in the fathers' abandonment of their children.

It's not uncommon for men to try to create a new perfect family with a new wife who will consider the failures of a previous marriage to be entirely the fault of the first wife. There are many stories. Many of them are terrible ones. Some are good. They all should be private until the children involved can give informed consent to have them made public.
Sorry--but adults should not expose the privacy of children's lives for the world to see. Did you tell Lily you were going to do this? Did you ask her consent? Is she old enough now to give that consent with full understanding?

Yeah, I know writers write about everything. I'm a writer too. It's bad enough that we use the lives of other adults in our own work. But it's extremely wrong to use the lives of children.
Mary ANC (Sunnyvale CA)
There was nothing less than loving in this article. Lily has no reason to be ashamed and we all learned something.
Doug (Seattle)
It's absolutely none of your business whether that consent was obtained, or even whether it was required. This comment reminds me of the comment the other parents made about the soft-serve in this story.
Grassfed Beef (West)
The alternative to telling stories, some of which involve children, is keeping everything private, a.k.a. hidden. And that attitude, that pervasive, uptight culture of not-speaking, is what has enabled the worst parts of oppression to blossom. As long as truth is held close to the chest in the name of privacy, beaten spouses will slink away, victims of rape and abuse will not speak out. And stepmothers will keep getting blamed for a raft of stuff that is simply not their fault.

I'm pretty tired of seeing these comments on every single memoir-style article or column in every publication. We get it. Some people don't like children's lives and stories to be made public. OK? We get it. Now, could the rest of us please get back to our conversation?
Ex-StepMom (New York)
My ex husband and I met when his daughters were 18nmonths and 4. 12 years later we were divorced and their mother and his new wife agreed there was no more room in their lives for me. For the 12 years we were together my ex regretted having these children and never wanted to see them. Yet, I saw these girls as family and treated them with love and respect. I never had children of my own. The relationship we four had was primarily the result of my efforts not his. After our divorce their mother and his new wife were determined to edge me out regardless of the consequences. It was like a death. The cruelty of these peoples' actions was unfathomable. For the girls as well as for me. To this day, though the girls are grown and married and even have children themselves, I don't know how their parents live with themselves. I have never been thanked or apologized to. As a friend once said "all the wrong people get a good nights sleep."
Mon (Chicago)
This is one of the saddest things I have read.
Mary ANC (Sunnyvale CA)
My heart breaks for you.
You loved a man who for twelve years wanted to unmake his children? And then you got unmade, and woke up to the wretchedness of it all?

If men can betray their children, they will betray everyone. I've seen women perfectly happy to separate men from their first families, and then are brutally surprised when it happens to them, too.

Your comment is carefully worded. When you met your ex, was he still married to his first wife?
poslug (cambridge, ma)
Traditional folk tales and songs have just as many cruel mothers who betray or harm their daughters. Not as many mention harming sons unless you consider cheering them to go into fatal battle.

While the human psychology is interesting and valid, I always remember the primate studies of monkey mother substitutes. The wire mother substitute left damaged and neurotic adult monkeys. The wire frame covered with a fuzzy cloth created a more functional adult money able to transition to adult roles. The conclusion was that unavailable/wire mothering did monkeys damage. There was no extended "sister monkey mothers" in the study. It is always good to remember we are upper primates albeit complex ones. Perhaps the wicked/step mother caution in fairly tales was a reminder over the generations when tales were wisdom literature.
Stephanie Coyne DeGhett (Potsdam, NY)
What does/will Lily think of this essay? What is revealed is revealed with affection and intelligence, but this remains an essay of disclosures of moments and events that a daughter might have valued for their privacy and intimacy and between-you-and-me-ness. There are narrative snapshots of Lily as a child she might not have wanted/might not want in future for there to be public access to, however sympathetic.
person (planet)
I agree, how will Lily feel about this in 20 years?
Grassfed Beef (West)
Lily will likely be honored that her stepmom thought so much about her. Then she'll be a teen or in her twenties, and she'll find reasons to snark at her stepmom; the essay will be perfect fodder. Then, when she hits her own parenting years, she will think back to the essay and marvel that her stepmom took on this enormous responsibility with such purpose and care.

Lily will be part of a generation that grows up in the online global village. Anyone here who doesn't have Generation Z/late-Millennials in their lives? You might be surprised. Their expectations of privacy are very different to those of Generation X, Baby Boomers, and older. I used to disapprove and panic about it. Now I think it's just like living in a small town: you don't get to be anonymous and shed your history. You're stuck with being yourself. It could be worse.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
@Grassfed Beef: OR....after 10-20 years of this "over sharing", millennials or later generations may utterly reject this kind of "tell-all" confessional journalism, and be humiliated to be exploited in this fashion.
Dudeist Priest (Ottawa)
Strip death and / or abuse from the founding stepparent narrative and most people will find that the role of stepparent has all the downside of being a parent and none, or very little, of the upside; you would get more love out of a dog than someone else's child.
Ex-StepMom (New York)
Most of our friends and family said "it's unrewarding to be so nice to them. why do you do it?" It's about one's nature, after all.
Steve From philly (Philadelphia PA)
I think the piece is lovely, honest, and profoundly heartfelt. Feel free to follow your own rule in your own writing.

Lots of people write about children. If we waited for them to grow up and give permission, the stories would never be written at all. It's a subject of endless interest for those of us who have them.
Christie (Washington, PA)
The best advice I ever received was from a man who lost his first wife and promised his second wife that he would always side with her even if it meant disappointing his children because one day the kids would be gone and it would be just the two of them. Thankfully my husband agreed with that and we formed a bond his 20-year-old and 14-year-old couldn't break. Sadly, most of the negativity we faced came from outside our family, usually in the form of well meaning friends who supposed we were often at odds. (We weren't.) It does takes time, patience and humor. But 28 years later I've been in their lives longer than their real mom. And our daughter married a man with two daughters, explaining she felt confident in raising them because of the relationship she and I had made.
Steve From philly (Philadelphia PA)
I had an ambivalent reaction about this, until I realized that in any parenting relationship support of each parent from the other if the key to being a good parent, being good parents together, and doing right by the kids. It's less about "siding" that it is backing your partner up. So, great advice :-)
M.CS (Denver, CO)
...and that's another huge part of any step-situation--the couple has to be a team and be successful first while both being involved in the children's lives.
If the couple can't hang through all of the challenges together, it will fail to the detriment of everyone.
CR (Trystate)

"The best advice I ever received was from a man who lost his first wife and promised his second wife that he would always side with her even if it meant disappointing his children because one day the kids would be gone and it would be just the two of them."

According to your self-reporting, following this advice worked out well for you and your family.

But why the unpleasant focus on "taking sides" and strategic hedging-your-bets plotting for victory in the end?

Honestly, considering the point of view of vulnerable step-children, that "best advice" sounds decidedly mean-spirited and a recipe for disaster.
Susan (IL)
Bravo and thank you. What a wrenchingly beautiful piece.
Robin (New Zealand)
I appreciate your take on stepmothers and how difficult it was for you to become one. Unfortunately, some stepmothers (and real fathers) are evil and deserving of this reputation. My own children have been scarred because of the situation their father allowed them to endure (and participated in) as stepchildren. As a counsellor told me once, "S and S are playing happy families. Happy families only have one mother and you are not it". Forcing them to commit psychological matricide and then abandoning them when she had her 'real' baby has left them so damaged they are incapable of living full adult lives.
This woman's aim was not to mother my children, but capture their father.
Grassfed Beef (West)
I'm confused. Your ex-husband's new wife had custody of your children, then dared to have a biological child of her own? Or is there more to this "abandonment"? How did they have to commit psychological matricide—were you not available to them?
Nina (Los Angeles)
I was almost 13 when my mom died. Wish my stepmother had been as caring. Teens are tough but mine lacked compassion and love.
Nancy (Great Falls, VA)
Thank you, Ms. Jamison for such a thoughtful article. Unfortunately, we tend to view each and every stepmother through the same "Cinderella lens." However, as the Russian's say, "Just because you are paranoid, it doesn't mean that they aren't watching you." Just because you are a stepmother, it doesn't mean that you aren't wicked. Life experience and circumstantial situations can influence "virtue" or "wickedness." For example, a narcissistic father, a quick marriage, a damaged young stepmother who conceives 4 children soon after wedlock can lead to disastrous results. I know, it happened, and the scars remain to this day.
Charmander (Easthampton, MA)
Leslie, Lily is your daughter now. Lily has two moms, one of whom tragically passed away. It sounds to me like Lily needs you to embrace her as your daughter, not as your stepdaughter. By qualifying your relationship, you are creating distance between yourself and Lily. This is a situation in which you need to step up. (I speak as the wife of a man who lost his father when he was 3 and was raised by his stepfather -- who to my husband was his dad. I am also a stepmother to my husband's 2 children. They had their dad all to themselves for 5 years after their parents' divorce before he met me. Between that and the fact that their mom is insecure and unreasonably territorial has definitely had an effect on my relationship with my stepkids. I love them but it feels like there are barriers to our relationship. Honestly, your situation sounds easier.)
SK (Illinois)
Wasn't one of her major points in writing this that people outside of her family often tell her how to be part of it? I think it's a bit unfair to tell one person their situation is "easier," we have this incredibly heartfelt article but that doesn't mean we know this family. Telling the author to "step up" is how the cliche overbearing, domineering stepmother happens. I was the child with a new stepmother once, I wish she had given me the space to become comfortable with her instead of presuming to know my feelings and trying to swoop in to be my "real mom." Again, telling other people their experience of parenthood is "easier" than yours sort of makes it seem like you totally missed what the author was trying to explain.
Adrienne (Boston)
I am not sure if stepmoms deserve the rap at all. Biological moms seem just as likely to be bad at it. Step parents can actually be a breath of fresh air in a child's life.

Both my step mother and I became steps to mostly grown children later in life. She had had lots of experience from being a stepmother before she married my dad. I was lucky and learned lots from her. She has been a wonderful part of the family for many years.

Because of how I saw her managing to avoid the pitfalls, I realized that I didn't want to be a stepmother, but more like an auntie. My husband's girls were raised to be less worldly than I had been, and so needed some guidance negotiating American culture and I needed their loving sweet ways. But beyond that, I love being the older friend who can spoil them, tell them my own experience with learning to love when the boys get them down, enjoy cooking and stories together. They are very much my bonus daughters.

I have a very full career and never really wanted to have children, so they are an unexpectedly rich gift. They have taught me so much and continue surprise me. We've shared such happiness and tears. And, I discovered that I don't mind going shopping so much any more (they love malls...). They are my dear family - and funny enough have made me into a different person, too. The angels that appear in our lives can come from anywhere, sometimes when you least expect it.
Caroline (Burbank)
I do think it is totally up to the child what she/he will call the unrelated new spouse of a parent: There is nothing more thoughtless and hurtful when a second spouse chooses to call that child "my son" or "my daughter" when the biological parent is living. It is almost as bad--in my case-- to have the second wife to my first husband decide to call herself my grandchildren's grandmother. She is not! She is merely somebody my ex-husband met at a party.
FortheBirds (New York, Ny)
Mary ANC (Sunnyvale CA)
Children need as much love in their lives as they can get. Drawing lines regarding who can legitimately claim the title "grandma" is ridiculous.
Lida Husik (portland, or)
My mother died when I was one years old, and my father married a fairytale wicked stepmother less than a year later. The loss of my mother was compounded by the cold rejection and hitting I experienced from this woman. This was in the early 1960's. There were no shrinks, no relatives on my mother's side to help, and no self-help culture. I have used the pain in my art, and I'd like to say that it made me a stronger person, but I'm not sure that's so. Sometimes it's the luck of the draw. And sometimes fairytales do come true.
Grassfed Beef (West)
And many biological moms are that evil and cold and abusive -- or worse.

I'm sorry you had to lose your mother as a baby, and so sorry you had an abusive parent... yet selfishly glad for the art you create. You're a wonderful, inventive musician (I reviewed a couple of your albums for magazines many years ago).
Adult Stepkid x 5 (NJ)
My father has married and divorced 5 times, so I've had my fair share of stepmoms. One in particular was so lovely and kind to my sister and me. My father's divorce from her was sudden and our connection was severed. He took us girls out for lunch to tell us they were splitting and we never saw her again. Our feelings of loss were never discussed.

At my mother's home, we were oppressed daily by the volatile, misogynistic, beer-swilling, mocking, snide, anti-intellectual prize she brought home within a year of her divorce from my father and married a few years later (while we kids were visiting our grandparents and without us knowing). There was no predicting his rage, which in addition to the classic yelling included smashing of furniture. He saw femininity as ridiculous and made no bones about deriding any evidence of it, making my very identity into a source of shame in my own home. My mother stood by passively. I was so alienated that I told no one at home when I was bullied at school (even when my classmates rode by my home on their bikes shouting their favorite, awful nickname for me while our family sat within hearing distance in the living room) and hid the fact that I had gotten my period for two years. I made a habit of keeping everything in my life secret, whether it was "bad" or not. I was utterly alone.

Parents need to be careful whom they introduce into their children's lives and how they handle separations from those people.

Lily is a lucky girl.
A. (Nm)
My husband had three stepmothers and would concur. The first goaded his father into starting a nasty custody battle (we found out later this was so his father wouldn't have to pay child support and thus reduce the income she planned to live off of); his dad lost and after that his dad and stepmom virtually disappeared from my husband's life. Stepmother #2 only lasted about 3 years and he can't remember her that well. Stepmother #3 was a wonderful person, who loved my husband (who was by then an adult) and his father as much as she was allowed to. When that marriage ended, she tried to maintain contact with my husband, but the bond just wasn't there. I dearly wish she had been his stepmother in my husband's earlier years, not his adult years.

My son goes to school with a child his age who has a full sibling. a half-sibling (and two now-former step-siblings) from his mother's second marriage, and now the mother has divorced and remarried yet again and is pregnant. (This has all happened in the time since my son and this boy were in kindergarten together, to this year when they are in the 5th grade.) The latest man she married has four children by three different mothers. I can assure everyone, children in these types of incredibly complicated and chaotic family situations feel the strife and upheaval intensely. Children are resilient, but that resilience only goes so far. I wish parents would think a little harder before putting their kids through three marriages in 6 years.
Megan (Santa Barbara)
Tears in my eyes here... thank you.

I am a step mother too, to a beautiful 30 year old daughter I met when she was a toddler. So little, trusting, and sweet.

It can be so beautiful to be a stepmother -- thank you for telling the world.
Karin Hammer (Essex, Vermont)
Being a stepmom is one of the great joys of my life. On the journey it became important not to compare myself to other women or to idealized stereotypes of mothering. I was welcomed into the role by stepchildren - twice - and by my step children's moms. I miss Sandi who died more than a decade after I married into the family. During the years she was alive she had a wonderful way of reminding me that challenges relating to child rearing and negotiations usually apply in good measure to parents step parents alike. That children love us AND strategize to maximize life among parents and households and friends and schedules. That mealtimes can a negotiation where "I would eat if I could have _____" can apply to something cooked by parents, stepparents or a friend's mom. That compliments are sometimes most to everyone except the adult who earned them. I wouldn't trade the challenges of stepparenting Naomi, Nate, Josh, Jake and Drew for the world and am grateful for their patience, humor and love along the way.
Who Me? (Who Knows)
My parents divorced after 16 years of marriage, when I was three years old. My father married the woman with whom he was having an affair. She was a miserable step mother who saw me as nothing but a money sinkhole (despite the fact that my father was a well-paid executive). I will never forget the disagreeable treatment I got. How an adult could be so unkind to a child I will never know. Incidentally, in the end, she was unkind and disagreeable to my father as well.
mary (tn)
lily I'd so blessed to have you as her mother. thank you for sharing this journey.
Passion for Peaches (Left Coast)
Villains are almost always the most interesting characters in any fiction, so a I'm not sure one should assume that Lily's fascination with the "evil stepmother" holds any deeper meaning. It is also not unusual for little girls to fantasize that they are some sort of undiscovered princess-to-be (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel) -- the misunderstood and under appreciated heroine, waiting to be rescued. It may not be the healthiest role model to offer our young girls (I was more of a Pippi Longstocking admirer at that age, with no desire for princes or frilly frocks), but the female-victimhood thing is pervasive in children's stories and films.
CG (Seattle)
I love my stepmom. She was such a good Mom she that the word step mom makes me happy.
David (Seattle)
Thank you for this excellent article. As a divorced dad trying to rebuild a family, I have found that the difficulty of stepping into the role of step mon has been too much for even the best of the women I have dated. This kind of thoughtful treatment of the topic made me sad but also gave me hope.
Diane Fromme (Colorado)
While the fairy tale aftershocks still rumble among us stepmothers, Ms. Jamison also gives us hope through the honest and poignant reactions of young Lily. As a stepfamily author and stepmother of 20+ years to two children who lost their mom to cancer when very young, I am so encouraged when another stepmom offers real glimpses of what "could be" in the world of stepfamily relationships. Connection does not happen quickly, or easily. However, through the organic evolution of the stepfamily cycle (originated by psychologist Patricia Papernow), flashes of connection remain possible. In the meantime, when a natural parent has died, we stepparents forge tighter relationships with our stepchildren by honoring the deceased as part of our new families. During the tremors of the fairy tale aftershocks, we balance the holding on and letting go of our own expectations to do what's right for the kids.
Rachida (MD)
I began to read this with trepidation only because I feared that it would be yet another non-stepmother narrative from the pen of a woman who was not a step (stoep) mother but one who had married a divorced man with children. These latter women have usurped and misused a description only belonging to children and women who are united because of the loss by death of the child's (or children's) own mother. Thank you so much fro including the accurate definition which I hope many will read and desist with the father's new wife being anything other than that.
It is annoying when I, an abandoned adoptee who never knew parents but suffered under adoptive 'parents', to see the term step-parent attached to mates acquired by divorce becase I was the child of the spouse they married by entities like in the family tree I am creating. What those who do this fail to understand is a) by the time the new spouse came into the relationship, I and my sister had been abandoned and in unknown places years before-not to mention that both of my parents were very much alive. I know for a fact that those women after the estrangement of children they never met were told nothing about us; and b) my mother was not dead.
I grew up on fairly tales, but in a twist, each of the evil step-parents was a carbon copy of my adoptive parents-cruel, heartless, and often terrifying.
I wish that society had never changed the idea of guardianship for a child minus parent(s). It is far more truthful.
Marge Keller (Midwest)

I cried when I read your post. In many ways, it reminded me of when my Mother shared how lonely, sad and terrible her childhood became after her Mother died December 24, 1927. She was only 11 at the time. Wakes were held at the residence back then, and with Christmas being the next day, her body was kept on ice, at the residence, until the wake was held on December 26th. I cannot even begin to imagine her grief and isolation. She was also the only girl with 7 older brothers and a baby brother. Her father remarried within 6 months. She said the only person more harsh, cruel and cold than her father was the stepmother. My Mother was convinced her dad only married this woman for housekeeping purposes and relations - not for love or happiness.

My entire life, I heard this tale retold by my Mother on Christmas Eve, as if she was reliving it again and again. Even after 50 years, she still cried because she missed her Mother so terribly. I cried for and with her. She wished her dad had not remarried because of the verbal and physical abuse she received from them both.

I cherish your post and this article for its honesty and candor. There are probably as many good and kind stepmothers out there as there are mean and hurtful ones. What I never understood is how any parent (biological or otherwise) could be anything less than loving and caring and protective of their kids. It simply goes against my nature and grain.

Thank you so much for sharing your story.
Smithereens (Bolton Landing, NY)
My experience with an evil stepmother was identical to Cinderella's. In turn, I've given great thought to how I would treat the children of a partner, vowing I would never do to someone else what was done to me.

So far, so good.
mooster (Greater Houston, TX)
It isn't the preponderance to counteract all of a culture's stereotypes about the wicked stepmother, but I happened to think of Maria Von Trapp, and wanted to mention that for the way "The Sound of Music" handles the complex and ultimately lovely outcome of a stepmother relationship. Perhaps the best thing about becoming a stepmother is the chance to do something to override the ugly stereotype. Not only the step-daughter, but her friends will be enriched by noticing that a girl might be lucky to have a stepmom. If nothing else, it teaches that stereotypes are not helpful in thinking about human relationships.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
So long as you read the REAL story of the real people in the Von Trapp family and don't depend on the Rogers & Hammerstein musical as the facts of the situation.
Norton (Whoville)
A one-bedroom apartment (ok, rent controlled, so I understand the need to hang on to it) with three people (one a small child) would just about do me in. The fact that the couple sleeps on a pull-out futon really took my breath away. I give major thumbs up to the wife (step-mother) for accepting the situation, as well as loving the child unconditionally (and tolerating the lack of privacy)despite the less-than-ideal (in my mind, anyway) living situation.
I couldn't pay much attention to the fairy-tale and psychological stuff. My mind drifted. Still, I thought it was a decent, obviously well-researched article, but it just didn't hold my limited attention span, for the most part. I probably would have liked it better without all that psychology and whatnot.

The illustrations, though, made my heart sing.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Sorry, but even rent control is not an excuse to cram two adults -- newly wed -- with a six year old child and NO PRIVACY for any of them.

That alone would do in even some of the most sincere, well-meaning relationships.

They do say they "moved" but it is unclear if they are in a place where the child and the parents have their own private bedrooms, and some sort of common space to share. I don't think people need vast McMansions, but parents on a futon in the living room? What if the kid needs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, while the parents are intimate? Ew.

What people will do to stay in the glamor of NYC continues to amaze me. You'd have a lot more privacy in a mobile home in a trailer park.
barbara (east hampton)
I've had a stepmother for 54 years. It was all complicated to be sure, but she's still my stepmother.I was a stepmother to five children. I divorced and married again. I am now a stepmother to one child and a step grandmother to her son. I am still a stepmother to my 'ex' stepchildren, they still call me their stepmother. Through it all, I think I learned to be a generous and sensitive person to others, to get out of myself, to accept difficulty, to reach out and care.
Luna (Ether)
It is truly a brilliant essay.

I scrolled through most of the comments to see if anyone else had expressed this:

Sometimes the 'real' mother acts very much like a step mother, for all the same reasons enumerated. Biology is not destiny. One of my earliest realisations as young as about two, was really seeing my mother, and thinking, 'she doesn't know much how to be a mother'...which evolved into being seen as a threat to her my whole life...and every trope listed here, the ploy of the stepmother, I can easily tick.

So it makes much sense to me, to read that the 'step mothers' were often written as actual 'mothers'. I think they did a great disservice to society in whitewashing this 'othering' a good slice of what passes for 'mothering'.
CR (Trystate)

And yours is a truly brilliant comment!
Tricia (<br/>)
What an eloquently written story of a successful, loving relationship. But I wonder how many step-parents do not bond with their step-kids?

I spend 14 years raising a step-daughter whose own mother died when she was an infant. Until I came along (when she was four) her paternal grandmother took on the mothering role and she even called her "mommy." She called me "mommy" just once - tentatively and jokingly. It must have felt as unnatural to her saying it as it did to me hearing it, for she never tried it again.

I always considered myself great with kids, but she was so foreign and unknowable, and we struggled to find common ground. I thought things would improve as she got older, but actually they got worse. As soon as she graduated from high school she moved straight in with her true mother - her grandmother. Now, four years later, we rarely have any meaningful contact (she doesn't bother much with her 14-year-old half brother either.)

I am plagued with guilt that somehow it is all my fault - that I must have been a terrible mother. People tell me I did a great job, and say that she'll come round when she grows up a bit. But I have my doubts...and a broken heart.
Janelle Meehan (New York)
I'm not sure I understand the depth and length of this essay on step-parenting. It wasn't that interesting to me but obviously the author has given it lots of thought.

In my personal experience, I am a step-daughter whose father married my stepmother 31 years ago when I was 37 - 7 years after my mother died. She and I are not particularly close but still keep in touch even now, 10 years after my father's death. My father loved her and she gave him so much happiness. For that I have always loved her deeply.

I have a step-son who was 14 when I moved into his father's house and he lived with us. His mother was (and is) alive and it was always the case that SHE - not I - was his mother. But from the first day, he showed me respect, humor, and affection, and I adore him.

I feel incredibly blessed that neither of the step relationships I am a part of were ever contentious. Rather they were loving, respectful, kind. I believe the main reason for this fact is the people involved, yes even me. Relationships are complicated - love and respect can make them smooth and joyful.
Debbie R (<br/>)
Stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln was a bright, warm light in Abraham Lincoln's austere childhood. She is the one who encouraged him to read. Perhaps a statue should be erected in her honor on behalf of stepmothers everywhere.
dan (Fayetteville AR)
My experience is from the other side as a step-father which primarily required keeping my mouth shut which is exactly what I did.
Not that I had any pearls of wisdom to dispense on parenting as I had no such knowledge.
My general impression was that no one involved had much interest in what I had to say which was fair in some respects. But being sidelined doesn't make you very much of a parent.
Rio (Lacey, WA)
Dads are often sidelined, and you may find out how much you have contributed much later on. You sound like a wise stepfather to me!
Louise (Val des Monts)
I've been in my step-daughter's life for over 20 years. Recently she sent me her questions and answers to a quiz "How well does an adult daughter know her mother?". There were questions about favourite meals, TV programs, and what I'd wish for her. Her answers were absolutely accurate and we had a good laugh. She was equally accurate when taking the quiz about her mom. I can think of no higher compliment than this.
Ally (NYC)
"A woman mothering another woman’s child, Winnicott observes, 'may easily find herself forced by her own imagination into the position of witch rather than fairy godmother.'"

This was such a poignant passage for me to read that it nearly brought me to tears. The great difficulty in my experience of stepmotherhood so far (several years in) has been navigating the push and pull between what I feel able and willing to give, and what is wanted of me. It's a seesaw where, it seems, one side is always higher than the other. When a situation seems to call for more patience, more unconditionality, more saintliness than I can easily muster, I turn on myself in shame. But perhaps just as often, when I desperately want to show my love with my presence or with an action, or whatever the situation seems to call for, it is not the gesture that the kids, or their biological parents, or extended family, or whomever, really need or want.

I realized that when my love feels rejected or deemed "unnecessary," I pull away even more, reading into it some truth, as though there is something inherent in me that will spoil an otherwise happy feeling. The first communion will be happier without me, as the "other grandparents" have demanded, because of something wrong with ME. Something wicked. Even my happiest and best feelings as a stepparent, thus, point towards my wickedness, and its lurking threat of poisoning the family.

I did not realize this internal dynamic until just now.
Cheryl (Albany)
Do not be daunted. Do not let other's remarks shape your journey. Hold steady in your presence FOR the children and your husband. Be a soft presence, but be there. Have no regrets and be brave.
Greg Des Rosiers (Chicago, IL)
I'm not even a parent, let alone a stepparent. Yet I find the author's search for meaning in an oft uncharted, frequently vilified role truly compelling.

Any adult who enters a child's world from 'afar' - an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a stepparent, the adult child of an earlier marriage - treads the passages described here with equal uncertainty. Lord knows, I did with my eight nieces and nephews, five of whom I had not even met until the death of one of my two sisters. The wide eyes I encountered by the youngest as they said 'You're my uncle?' literally broke my heart.
Linda F (<br/>)
Please don't quote Bruno Bettelheim he was a charlatan who ruined the lives of many families with an autistic child.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Linda: Bruno Bettelheim was born in 1903 and died in 1999!

He held beliefs that were widely supported in the era in which he practiced. He did not solely invent those ideas. Autism was very poorly understood 60-70 years ago.

There is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Bettelheim wrote a major and fascinating book about our cultural folk tale traditions, and it is worth reading -- even if he was wrong about some other things.
Louisa (Colorado)
This morning is the one year anniversary of meeting my boyfriend. That doesn't sound like a big deal, but I had no idea how much meeting that handsome, shy carpenter from Tinder would change me. How much his sweet, brave, sensitive, whip-smart 8 and 10 year old daughters would challenge my image of self and expand my capacity for love. Becoming part of their life has been unimaginably rewarding, but also lonely and so stressful. My chest felt tight through the whole piece, but I didn't cry until I read this: "Love is effort and desire — not a sentimental story line about easy or immediate attachment, but the complicated bliss of joined lives." I'm very grateful to the author for sharing her story and somehow, despite all the differences, my story too.
Hollie Z (Santa Barbara, CA)
YES, I couldn't agree more. I read that line aloud to my now husband (father to 5 and 9 year old who I met when they were 2 and 5). What a ride!
Karen (VA)
I haven't read the article yet, but must offer a "BRAVO!" to the talented Mr. Ben Giles, the collage artist whose work offers illustration for the piece. I must say that I love your clever and amusing work and immediately knew that this landscape was yours!
Joan S (Denver, CO)
This is a disappointing piece to read in 2017, when no one has an excuse to ignore the importance of intersectionality in feminism. For this wealthy white woman to write this many words about how she personally felt injured by a stereotype in fiction without expanding her lens to consider the effects of negative stereotypes in fiction on women of color, low income women, lesbian women, trans women and other marginalized communities is so near-sighted. Time to do better.
Kimberly Smith (Brooklyn)
Wait, what?! That's what you got for this? So, no one can write anything from their own point of view again? How did you get that she is a wealthy white woman? I actually got working class from the article. Anyhow, not everything has to cover EVERY.SINGLE.BASE. Gosh, it's like the pepsi article all over again. BLM getting angry when pepsi was trying to pull an anodyne ad. Before anyone comes at me, I'm a working woman of color. Hold your horses ;)
Marie Dierckx (Brooklyn)
I had the same reaction to this comment. How does one immediately assumes that the author is white?? And yes, it's a very personnal piece. Clearly this woman takes her new role very seriously. Lucy is lucky.
Marge Keller (Midwest)

Joan, why should race or the economic level of the author matter? Shouldn't the focus of this beautifully constructed and written piece be about the woman who married and became the stepmother of a little girl? Even if you have never been a member of the stepmother club, this article is filled with such rich and colorful imagery and extremely poignant examples of challenging and rewarding exchanges throughout their relationships. I find it deeply disappointing that a reader could not find the beauty in this piece for a myriad of reasons, yet alone for its merits on being a stepmother.
Patti (Albuquerque)
All people feel resentment mixed with love and concern when little ones need care at inopportune times. Or when kids push the limits of acceptable behavior. None of us are at our best all the time. In fact, kids become adept at pushing our buttons in their teens and usually transform into loving family members when they become adults.

Grandparents also suffer some of the same conflicts as stepmothers, especially those of us who take care of grandkids while the parents are working or are unable to provide a stable home for their kids. Our role is to provide love and nurturing following the guidelines of parents without ever questioning the parent's decisions regarding anything to do with their kids. We aren't the parents but love the grandkids as if they were ours. If anything important events happen while in our care, there may be jealousy or guilt that rears its' ugly head.
Laura (California)
LOVE the illustrations!!
What3231 (Illinois)
Bettelheim's takes on fairy tales are discredited by many fairy tale scholars. He was a charlatan and worse. When will otherwise thoughtful writers start leaving him out of discussions about fairy tales?

He also helped popularize the mid century fiction that autism was caused by "refrigerator mothers." For that alone, he deserves to be ignored.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
There are things I don't agree with Bettelheim about, but his book about fairy tales is brilliant and insightful. I've never read anything "discrediting" his work -- do you have any references, beyond slurring him?

It is unfair to say that because you are angry about his beliefs about autism -- which were common, 60-70 years ago! -- that everything he wrote about fairy tales is therefore untrue.
jwarren (Takoma Park)
In the original Hansel and Gretel it is the parents--the mother, with father's consent--who send the children into the forest to starve, not the stepmother. Much more frightening.
Excellent essay; could have been written by my wife, who went through these issues with my daughter, the latter who apologized much later for her behavior, perhaps too late.
D. D. (Suffolk, NY)
"She has two mothers, and she always will."

The above encapsulates everything written in this brilliant essay.

Which is a good thing because I can't seem to articulate how much the entire article moved me, but I'll try.

As a stepdaughter (and one that never referred to my own stepmother as such- rather my father's wife), it gave me pause: perhaps my father's wife struggled with her role as well; she married a man with three growing children whose adored mother was alive and with whom they still lived full-time. Clearly, it was an adjustment for everyone.

So as much as stepmothers -and all of us- come in all permutations, being a stepparent to a young child whose biological parent has died, is a particular journey fraught with unique challenges for the entire family.

Despite the above, this author seems to be doing just fine, and I wish her and her family all the very best life has to offer.
Charmander (Easthampton, MA)
D.D., thanks for your post. I am a stepmom, and I don't know any stepparent who doesn't struggle with her role. I have always tried to make it clear to my stepkids that I am not trying to be their mom (their mom is alive and has primary custody) and I respect their relationship with their mom. My role is to be a loving and supportive adult who lets their parents do the parenting. Having said that, my life and my stepkids lives would be easier if their mom was more supportive of their relationship with me. Their mom is insecure and territorial in a completely unnecessary way. (It's not like I had anything to do with the breakup of her marriage to my stepkids dad or anything.)

D.D., I wish you the best and I encourage you to give your father's wife a chance. I know that being a stepkid isn't easy (what child wouldn't prefer to be in a stable 2-parent family with their birth parents?), but being a step parent isn't easy either. Sometimes I feel like I can't win no matter how hard I try.
D. D. (Suffolk, NY)
And thank you for your reply, Charmander.

However, I suppose my post should have been clearer: I'm now a grown woman with two grown children- and as such, this powerful essay touched me and made me think from an entirely new perspective.

Clearly, there are many players in remarriage and stepparents/ children. And Ex- spouses.

On the latter, I'm happy to report my mother ( who truly was the wronged party), always encouraged us to have a relationship with my father. In addition, she never blamed my new stepmother- the fault was with my dad's inadequacies and immaturity- not his new wife.

Nevertheless, my main point remains: though my stepmother and I got along, we were not close.

Then again, if she and my father had also not divorced as well, perhaps she and I would have grown closer; I'll never know. And that's what gives me pause all these years later.

I will add that when she died soon after her divorce from my father, I felt bad. She was a decent woman who was truly kind to my firstborn especially when he was a toddler. She had always wanted children but had none and delighted in spending time with him.

I hope someone reading your sound advice will take it to heart. You sound lovely and empathetic, and I hope your own particular journey as stepparent a successful one.
RN (South Carolina)
I became a stepdaughter at age 16 after my mother died. This was a long time ago in a tiny town and it was just pretty awful. My stepmother had her own daughters and really was just waiting for me to go away to college. We still get along, sort of. It's complicated.

Now, fast forward 30ish years, I'M the stepmother! My husband has a beautiful brilliant daughter who initially thought I was evil and out to steal her Dad. So it is has been a journey. She is slowly coming around. Both situations were/are tough and have caused a lot of stress. In an ideal world everyone would just magically get along. On the plus side - for the last 10 years my husband has been the best stepfather to my son any kid could ask for.
Grace Medeiros (Montreal, Qc)
Thank you to the writer for this lovely written account of her experience, not in being a stepmother, but in becoming a mom... Ms Jamison, you were never really Lily's stepmother, but are her mom of heart!
My daughter was a wonderful stepmother - until her own children came along and then she turned into the evil stepmother. I am so ashamed of the way she treated her stepchildren, all of whom have now broken ties with her.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
I want to give the author of this article, Leslie Jamison, the benefit of the doubt. But she has not had biological children of her own. For some women, it changes the metrics of the marriage and family dramatically. A childless single woman may not realize this.

Among the many myths about families, "step" relationships, the "dead mom" scenario in fiction -- is what I call "the myth of the FREE child". This is very prevalent in literature and movies. It is where a woman who likes children but has none of her own (for various reasons, including ambivalence about parenting) finds a child that has no parents, or no mother, or is an orphan or abandoned -- and the woman embraces this child as a mother, whether legally or not, and they have an idyllic mother/child relationship. But the woman in this scenario has done NOTHING to get this child -- no pregnancy or childbirth, no lengthy or costly adoption -- the child simply falls into her lap somehow. Inevitably, the child in this story is young, affectionate and adorable and quickly bonds to the "new mommy".

But this storyline can run aground if the woman ends up having another child, and now she has to contend with her natural biological bond with her own offspring. Some people are so warm and generous, they can embrace this, but jealousy and a sense of being "replaced' are not surprising in this context.
Memo Garcia (Mexico)
"I had some vague realization that the low-level panic in the back of my throat was the fuel capitalism ran on." That was my favorite part, well, almost. Then I read "Family is so much more than biology, and love is so much more than instinct." Well done Ms. Jamison, well done.
Walter F. Marshall III (Rockport, MA 01966)
Lily's birth father is alive, she is NOT an orphan; adopt Lilly and you will be her mother. Good Luck.
ML Andersen (CT)
This is so beautifully written, and speaks so highly of your devotion to your daughter. Thank you for sharing this journey ...
Miss Ley (New York)
For some of us, The Evil Stepmother in 'Cinderella' has an edge to her, and makes her more enchanting in a dark way than the doting Mother lost in childhood. My stepmother told me she enjoyed playing this part when I was an adolescent, while my thoughts veered towards my formidable mother, The Red Queen, far more daunting and alarming, navigating along with the burden of a child who had 'Nothing'.

Now. It will hardly come as a surprise and in the spirit of true confessions if I reveal that I never had children. At age 16, I made a choice that I was not going to grow-up in a real way and that troubles in the Adult World were waiting in the shadows and brewing. If I had to sum it up, one of my favorite novels is 'The Go-Between' by L.P. Hartley and I continue to take up the cause for children. It can be difficult to be one.

When my stepmother and I last spoke, she was going into a different reality. The weeping on her part was to be expected and I told her the truth: remember that you fed me and gave me a wardrobe. You asked a young man to take me out on a pity date, you will always be 'Eloise at The Plaza', I continued and most of all, you are fun.

As for visiting and staying above the stables on my father's estate, I miss George the Rat and the bat who used to fly over my bed at night. It was all a bit of a fairy tale, and before reading this essay by Leslie Jamison, earlier my thoughts were with her. Perhaps I will call one of her daughters and ask for her.
Rebecca (ATL)
I had a stepmother that I desperately hoped would love me. My own mother was pretty checked out and busy with her new marriage. My father's new wife seemed caring and a great candidate for me. Shortly after their marriage, she made her feelings clear. I wasn't her daughter, she wasn't raising any more children. Over the years she continued to say those things out loud to me whenever I visited. My father was completely enamored of her and paid no attention to our interactions.

When I married, I got a stepdaughter in the bargain, and what a bargain it was. My new daughter has given me the opportunity to have all the benefits of being a mom. We've been together for 26 years now. She's a fabulous women, who has overcome some complex issues with her birth mom. I'm extremely proud that she calls me Mom and reaches out to me weekly. I've always honored her birth mother, and encouraged her to do so as well. Take the opportunity to write a new fairy tale with your girl. You are both worth it.
Nikki (Chicago, Illinois)
............One day, I came home from school and a woman working at our house was ironing my name into all of my clothes. There was a large footlocker nearby and there were many of my personal items already neatly folded and placed into the giant suitcase. I asked, "What's going on here." The woman stopped ironing for a minute and said, "I think somebody's going on a trip." Yes, somebody was me and my younger sister. We were being shipped off to boarding school. Our stepmother saw to that. Luckily, she was out of the picture in only four years.....They were among the worst years of my life.....My evil stepmother is gone now, but will never be forgotton. The End. :)
Caroline (Burbank)
I felt a sickening pain when I read your story.
Charmander (Easthampton, MA)
Nikki, that's horrifying. I am so sorry you had to go through that. Please know that not all stepparents are terrible.
Hanna (Richmond)
I'm a step-mother to two boys and I relate to everything. Thank you. I think the worst part about step-parenting comes from outside our family. Kids who tell the boys, "She's not your REAL mom." Other adults who would say, "You can't understand until you have children of your own." They boys have lived with me since they were very young and it took years for people to take me seriously as a parent. Some still don't. When I was pregnant, my mother-in-law told my husband that once I had the baby I would start treating the older boys poorly. That I'd love the new baby more and treat it better. I always think I have a good understanding of myself as a parent until someone comes along to remind me that the world outside still thinks of me as the evil step-mother.
Carmen (DC)
I have been a full-time (step)mother to my almost six year daughter, "M" since marrying my husband when she was 2 years old. Her biological mother left when she was an infant, is incredibly unstable and not interested in her best interests and only pops on the radar every few months when she is depressed for reassurance that her daughter loves her. Very painful to watch.

Regardless, I was also dismayed at how stupid Disney culture and evil stepmothers pervade pop culture and children's media. Also, it wasn't easy becoming a wife and mother overnight, and we definitely had our share of growing pains, thought are completely gelled as a family. Looking ahead to hopefully having biological kids with my husband I pray with all my heart that my daughter never feels competition with half siblings. She may not be able to say I'm her biological parent, but she has also had unlimited attention and resources for 4 years - something any child after her will not have. I hope she can see that our special relationship forged over these years is indestructible, and that when she grows up she never looks back and says "I was not treated well or fair by my stepmom" - that would kill me and is everything I'm working against. I can't control everything, but just hope that is the case.
Rachida (MD)
Carmen, Why all the blame on some one who produced movies from Novels/Tales written throughout the centuries? Walt Disney gave us such wonderful hours and pleasures unimaginable-including the poisoned apples, the ugly stepsisters who were daughters of a grasping, greedy women. He also gave us Fantasia, Mickey Mouse, the Unforgettable Journey, two Cinderella's, Pinocchio, Bambi, Davey Crocket and the Mouseketeer Club.
And how do you claim motherhood? You are not the girl's mother nor are you a stepmother. Her mother is apparently alive even if current circumstances are that she is no longer in the bosom of the family. It sounds as if the mother has clinical depression-perhaps bipolarity- and other mental illnesses, yet you dismiss her as if she was some evil mother.
You control nothing my dear. Your DNA controls you just as this man's daughter is controlled by her own DNA which came from her parents.
BTW, kids are naturally competitive-genetic or not. It comes with the territory called childhood.
And.... should you and her father have children, let the kids make their own relationship. At least they and she will share DNA with the father-each sharing 50% of his, although it will be random (recombinant).
Sounds as though you are much too competitive and have little understanding about relationships or of children-especially the vulnerable ones.
One last thing: the first child always has that supposed unlimited attention. But I doubt that it was truly unlimited...
Must put the negative connotations associated with stepmother at the feet of Disney. How many Disney movies are absent the birth mother?
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
There is a huge, vast amount of literature, novels, folk tales, oral traditions...movies, TV shows...right into the present day....which are based on what I like to call the "dead mom" scenario.

It both gives characters a measure of freedom (no mom to tell you what to do or nag you) our modern culture, implies that dads are the "fun parent"....and allows a lot of sentiment about a mother who is not there, and can be viewed as angel. Also being "motherless" is a quick, cheap way to get sympathy in fiction (*by no means, am I saying it is unsympathetic in real life, only that writers and filmmakers exploit it).
Sivaram Pochiraju (Hyderabad, India)
I don't think Cinderella story is some figment of imagination. It must surely be based on some real life characters. As everyone knows, negative spreads fast that too far and wide. Same is true in the case of Cinderella story since it's popular globally.

I don't see any negative side on the part of the writer the way she has treated her stepdaughter. So far so good. I hope she will continue in the same fashion as and when she chooses to have a kid of her own.
Velvel (Chicago, IL)
I had a stepmother, and my mother was a stepmother to my stepsisters. I only wish they had been so thoughtful about their roles in our lives. My stepmother was especially hard on my brother, thinking she was doing him good and that he needed a "strong hand." She was clearly partial to her own son, who ended up getting my brother's room, while my brother, after moving in with them permanently, ended up sleeping on a pull out couch for the entirety of high school. My own mother viewed my stepsisters as both an emotional and a financial threat. The history is long, too long to go into here, but suffice it to say, we all needed much therapy as adults (my mother excluded since she didn't think she did anything wrong). I don't think step-families have to follow this path; I think it depends on the individuals and whether they're interested in investing the time and themselves in forging good relationships. To anyone out there with a child who is thinking of remarrying: Don't just look at your mate as a spouse; look at them as a potential parent. Make sure they understand the emotional commitment and potential difficulties they may encounter at the beginning of the relationship. I know that if my parents had made that a priority, we all could have had good lifelong relationships with our step-parents.
Rachida (MD)
Your stepmother sounds like my adoptive mother and father. The classic story of the couple who 'could not' have children ...until the adoption and the onset of the birth of their child. Their son, and later children, became he/they whom the sun rose and set upon. I became the scullery maid-just like 'Cinders' -and a lot worse. I know your pain only too well. Best wishes to you and for your life.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
People ARE weird about that kind of stuff. When my sister in law remarried (her third husband, his second wife), the new husband put his own two sons (ages 9 and 11) out of their bedrooms, and into the BASEMENT!!! and installed my sister in law's two children (a boy 6 and a girl 8).

My impression at the time was that he was "getting even" with his ex-wife in some way over the children. In a year, both sons moved out of the basement and in with their mother, which was likely the "plan" after all.
Mary Craig (Cleveland OH)
Stepmothers (and I have had three of them) wield enormous power in a family, affecting the lives not only of children and their step-and half-siblings, but grandparents and someday grandchildren as well. I wish that all women embarking upon marriages to men with children would carefully consider the tremendous potential for both nurture and destruction which they hold in their hands.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Boy, I only WISH.

I must be an expert on this, because I was a stepmother myself -- I HAD a stepmother -- and my children's father remarried, so THEY had a stepmother. I had it coming from all directions.

And trust me: it's a lose-lose proposition. I could not win! Everything I tried to do, in good faith, I was undercut at every pass by my kid's stepmother -- and anything I tried to do with my step kids (my husband's children by his first marriage) was undone by HIS ex-wife.

Divorce and remarriages make these types of "blended families" very complex. Even TODAY, when the oldest of my step kids will turn 40 (!! yikes !!) in a few weeks....and all the kids are adults....there are hard feelings and "things we do not speak of" and resentments going back 25 years.

And this is among people who were all basically decent and loving, no monsters or sadists among us. We just disagreed about things like "how much freedom do you give a teen?" or what standards there were for things like bedtimes, homework, driver's licenses, etc.
cb1977 (NC)
Nice to read such a well-researched article!

It seems like there are a lot of variations to the stepmother role. Does the stepmother have children from another marriage? Is the mother still alive? At what point during childhood does the stepmother come into the picture? As a baby or a teenager? All of these variations bring their own complications.

I had one of those "evil" stepmothers. She felt threatened by us, maybe because we were the product of my dad's other marriage and my mom was still alive and very much present. She didn't have children of her own. She was cold and considered us a nuisance. Luckily we lived with my mom primarily.

My stepfather, on the hand, had 5 adult children when he came into the picture during my teenage years and was tremendously generous and kind to us. He was more of a partner to my mom than a dad. My mom said she wasn't looking for someone to help raise her kids but wanted a partner (we were 15 and 13). That set up turned out great for us in the end.
Nikki (Chicago, Illinois)
I kissed my mother for the last time on Mother's Day, 1966. She died hours later. I was 13. The next day was my birthday. I blew the candles out on a cake and got into a shiny black limo with my family to go to my mom's wake that afternoon. My father and mother had six daughters. I was second youngest. My father was lost without his brilliant and beautiful wife. We were devastated as children and teenagers to imagine life without our funny mom. Everyone adored her. But one month later, my father met a woman from NYC and by November, they were married in a very lavish wedding in Manhatten. We girls were completely distraught and in shock that our lives had changed so drastically, so quickly. I called my stepmother "the wicked witch of the East." (more to come...)
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Wow -- even without the whole story -- it is shocking, even in 1966, to think your father managed to meet a new spouse FOUR WEEKS after his wife died.

I've heard that story before, with and without minor children involved, and I never get over it. FOUR WEEKS. I mourned my dog longer than that.
R (Coe)
love this illustration
Marge Keller (Midwest)

I became a stepmom when my husband's three daughters were 9, 10 and 11. They adored their mother. Every question they asked always seemed to end with an uneasy feeling of them thinking I was going to take their mother's place. The BIG question finally came up - what to call me. They really did not want to call me "Mom" or any variation of that word. Of course my first knee jerk, smarty pants response was, "How does Mrs. Keller sound?" They were not amused and rolled their eyes. I finally, softly, explained to them that they already have a Mother, the wonderful and loving lady who gave them life, and that I could nor would never want to replace her. I said they should decide what they wanted to call me. I told them my only ground rule was respect - for each other and each member of this family. I gave them kisses on the forehead and left the room for them to mull over my words. I was shaking while baking some cookies because I was in unfamiliar territory, not sure what I done. A little while later, they came into the kitchen, hugged me and asked if they could call me "Step". I smiled and cried and said I was fine with that. Having those girls feel comfortable and secure meant more to me than anything else. To this day, we are very close and happy.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
My stepkids asked me this, and I told them "you may call me Evil Stepmother".

We all laughed. In time, they called me by my first name, which was fine. They had a living mother, and I had no intention of competing with her. Also, they were teenagers when I met their dad, not small children.
Eva Klein (Washington)
The evil stepmother is always enabled by the evil father, whose preference for a steady romantic commitment and sexual partner takes precedence over his responsibilities to his former family. It is the stand-aside fathers who let their wicked wives terrorize the unwanted reminders of the first marriage that bear the most responsibility.
Erika Nossokoff (Fort Collins Colorado)
Your article made me think of a book that is a big help to other step mothers of children whose mothers have died. It's called Step Parenting the Grieving Child by Diane Fromme. I highly recommend it.
Becky (SF, CA)
Stepmother is my least favorite role in life. There is no winning and there is no privacy. One should only date their perspective spouses with the step children at every date to understand what your life will be like. However, worst than step children are the ex-wives that never go away.
Norton (Whoville)
Becky--I can't agree more. I became a naive stepmother to two teenagers. The ex-wife (not even the birth mother, just the second ex-wife) would not stay out of the picture. Granted, these two children grew up with her, since the birth mother went out of the picture early, but I wanted time to spend with the step-kids alone to get to know them. A lost cause. My marriage ended in a few years due to the situation (and the fact that the two kids did not want their father married again in the first place.)
Charmander (Easthampton, MA)
Becky, I can relate especially re: ex-spouse. The blended families I know that are the most functional are the ones in which the exes are mature enough to encourage and support the kids in having a good relationship with the stepparents.
Jennifer T. (India)
Maybe the issue was not the kids or the ex wives but the man you married who, with your marriage, was on his 3rd??? Which failed? The guy was a loser and you failed by choosing to marry him.
george (Chicago)
Why do we have to over think everything we do.
Nikki (Chicago, Illinois)
As I was saying.......We were Midwesterners. She hated our Wisconsin city. Thought it too boring for her NY state of mind. My father did everything he could to please her and make her feel extremely comfortable and welcome. Just like in the Cinderella story, she looked the part. She always looked amazing and was dressed impeccably. My father's money, put to fine use. .......
426131 (Brooklyn, NY)
Many children's stories from years ago are outdated. I suggest parents read them first before reading it to their children. Many are paternalistic, racist, sexist, and fail to deliver a clear lesson.
Lee Harrison (Albany/Kew Gardens NY)
Throughout Europe's middle ages children were chattel; they automatically belonged to the father. In death or divorce (yes, they had divorce) they went to the father or his family.

In those with land, when that father remarried the new wife had very powerful incentives to kill these children, and it happened fairly commonly, even though the new wife would often be surrounded by those loyal to the existing children, and not really hands-on in raising them. This is the origin of the evil-stepmother tales -- ugly reality.

Today in most cases children go with their mothers, and the bad stories are abusive step-fathers -- who usually aren't motivated by primogeniture and landed estates.
Adrienne (Boston)
A social worker friend told me that there is a high mortality rate for children of women who do not bear a child from the stepfather. I was kind of shocked, but he said the numbers were significant.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Even worse....adolescent and teen girls are at the highest risk of being molested by a stepfather (or "mom's new boyfriend").

Though there are many very decent stepfathers out there....there are also very high rates of this kind of abuse. Ask any social worker. The greatest threat to a young girl is the presence in the home of a biologically unrelated male who is older than she is. (Sometimes the aggressor is an older stepbrother, too.)

Even worse, this can set up a dynamic with the biological mother as she is "threatened" by the spouse/boyfriend's sudden interest in her daughter -- the relationship may have been fine when the daughter was six, but suddenly she is 12 or 14 and looks grown up. Meanwhile, the mother/wife has aged. She can refuse to believe her own daughter's accusations, because she fears losing the husband/boyfriend in such a humiliating fashion.

It does not take a vast leap of imagination to figure out the ancient roots of these fairy/folk tales.
me (nyc)
I finally severed my relationship with my stepmother after 38 years and have gotten the inner peace I desperately wanted. A horrible, petty, jealous woman with zero compassion or warmth, she made my adolescent and adult years miserable and drove a wedge between me and my dad. I've chosen to take those lessons from our frayed relationship and learn from them, so that I can be a kinder person to my boyfriend's 7-year old son. Thus far, I think I'm doing okay, as he asks his dad if I'm going to be free to play video games with him.

It was nice to read about someone having a conscience about her role and value in a child's life.
Jacqueline Dzaluk (New York)
This is so beautifully written, yet there is so much second guessing and angst. Many of the emotions and fears the author expresses are indigenous to biological mothers. It's a big overlap on a zen diagram.
It's an interesting intellectual discussion of the roots and cultural mythology that casts a dark shadow over the stepmother.
But, I hope in real life, the author does not wrestle with the negativity of these constructs to the extent expressed in this article. It is possible to think too much!
Mary Anne Cohen (Brooklyn)
VEN diagram.
Billy T (Atlanta, GA)
There are some good and some bad.

My brother-in-law's second wife is as ideal a stepmother as anyone could ask for. Ditto for one of my co-workers.

My father's second wife. not so much. On top of everything being about her, she had no brothers and, thus, did not have the faintest clue as how to how to raise a son. Fortunately for me, I was exiled to be raised by my mother, who accomplished miracles with her meager resources.

Blessings to all stepmothers (and step-parents in general) who have developed good relationships with their stepchildren.
Rajeev (Berkeley)
Luminous writing, heartbreaking and heartwarming. Thank you.
Mindy (New York)
Beautiful written story. A sentiment coming from a stepmother. I was especially moved by the the comment about love being effort and desire. No truer words were ever spoken.
Pat Yeaman (Upstate NY)
Ms. Jamison writes wonderfully about the fears and anxieties of being a step mother. What she may not realize is that these are the same issues of self doubt felt by all mothers, birth or step. No matter how we are admitted into the danger filled realm of "motherhood" we are all equally scared about not being equal to the job, not being able to live up to the saintly stereotype of the Good Mother. We can all take courage in Ms. Jamison's words - a "mother is not a saint. She’s not a witch. She’s just an ordinary woman." We all do the best we can and that is enough.
MIMA (heartsny)
Face it, being a birth mother can be a challenge. Being a "step" must be an enigma. So many questions, how to do it, without interfering with so many issues of others.......that had nothing to do with the "stepchild" itself.

Kudos to "stepmoms"who try their hardest. Empathy to the "stepkids" who struggle with "stepmoms".

If only some things in life were easier.
Deborah Meister (New York)
Thank you for this article. As a person with multiple step-parents, who have been wonderful additions to my life, I have long been frustrated by our culture's tendency to idolize the nuclear family. Rather than defining family strictly as two biological parents, plus children and a dog, it is so much richer to think of it as something that can be expanded by love and choice, open to a whole world of step-parents, godparents, "aunts," and "uncles" whose price of admission is their willingness to love and support a child. (Conversely, it would be far better for children if our culture, and especially our courts, were willing to remove kids from abusive situations quickly and permanently rather than engaging in years of efforts to reunite families where love and care are not provided.)
The author writes, "It was as if Lily had bestowed a deep and immediate trust in me — unearned, born of need — and now I had to figure out how to live inside that trust without betraying it." That is exactly the experience of a biological parent. What matters is not the origin of the relationship, but the faithfulness with which the adults seek to "live inside" the trust they have been given. I am richer in my humanity from the gift of extraordinary people who have loved me by grace, not by nature, and I hope every child has a few such adults in his or her life.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
This is a popular meme of the left, but it is wrong.

While it is wonderful that some mature and loving adults can step in to parent an orphaned child....the very basis of ALL human families and human civilization is the nuclear family -- a man, a woman and their biological offspring.

Take that away, in the name of "political correctness"....and all you have are ad hoc relationships that may thrive and then wither as romantic relationships come and go.

Ask a stepmother -- I mean, a kind & decent stepmother -- or a stepfather for that matter -- about what happens after they bond to their new stepkids, and embrace them, and then the new marriage fails, and they get divorced. Now they and these children they may love now have NO LEGAL RELATIONSHIP at all. If the children are minors, their biological parent can take them away -- keep them from ever seeing the stepparent -- and of course, remarry and bring yet another stepparent into the family, along with MORE step-siblings.

Do this a few times, and you have a dizzying family tree, where nobody has any clear relationship -- or obligation -- to anyone else. Children in such mixed up, messed up complex families are miserable and often neglected, as parents move from romantic relationship to relationship.
Susan Katz (New York City)
Ms Jamison,
As a mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother I can say without reservation that everything you have described - doubt, resentment, exhaustion, despair, steely resolve and heart shattering love - is what makes a mother. A mother of any origin.

Susan Katz
M.CS (Denver, CO)
As a mother, mother-in-law and grandmother, you have never been in the role of step-mother. Your comment discredits everything that this article is trying to get across.
Kim (VT)
I've seen a fair number of step-mothers fulfill the stereotype: it seems to be some kind of primitive behavior to circle the wagons around your own and kick out the ones that aren't.

Mostly want to say that the illustrations are wonderful. Nice work Ben Giles!
Dadof2 (New Jersey)
Two tales of good & kind stepmothers pop out: First, in Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" the step-mother is good & kind albeit foolish, and it's her step-son and his wife who are evil, throwing her & her daughters (his half-sisters) out.
Then there's the movie "Enchanted" where Giselle (Amy Adams), pursued by her first love's evil step-mother, becomes herself the beloved step-mom to the little girl, Morgan.

Both of my brothers are step-dads. One still is, staying extremely close to his now-grown step-children despite being divorced from their mother (her idea).

The other, moments after marrying their mother, poignantly had to comfort his 8 year-old step-daughter who thought he, too, was going to die. He didn't. Instead he adopted her and her brother, both now grown as well. When they had another daughter, he told the two older ones "this doesn't separate us: It binds us together!" That's what happened they are simply brother and sisters who adore each other.

And our younger is adopted, so we are both, in our way, step-parents, though he has no memory other than of us. He & his brother are as close as can be, too.

In a rather strange action movie called "Unleashed", (imagine Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon and Jet Li all in one picture) Morgan Freeman, a blind piano tuner with his step-daughter pianist, Kerry Condon as they take in Jet Li:
"It's funny how families are made."
Yes, it is.
But it's what you make of your family, not how it's made, that matters.
AJ (Midwest)
Almost 100 years ago, my grandmother lost her own mother in the influenza pandemic. The 40 year old "spinster" who then married her father brought my grandmother the message that a woman needed to be able to support herself and encouraged her to go to college . She helped her win a scholarship to one of the nations top colleges ( well the one of the ones that took women) and helped set our family on a path that revered education and independent women. My grandmother actually hid her beloved " mom's" status as a " step" from her own children lest they think she was wicked. It was not until my mother began her own college career did the truth come out.
Gwe (Ny)
When my twins were 20 months old, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Although they are now 14, I spent those early years wondering if I would get to parent them. In my dark nights of terror, I would pray for someone like you to step in if my worst sort of nightmare came to pass. There's nothing more terrifying to a young mother than her children being rendered motherless.

I prayed that my husband would remarry. I prayed he would have the foresight to find someone with enough compassion, intuition and love that they would celebrate hot little hand slipping into hers the way I did. I prayed the spaces I made with my children would not turn into gaping holes incapable of being filled the way she filled hers when she said you could lie on Mommy's spot.

I never thought past the teenage years--the terror of my abandoning them began and ended in those primary years when their vulnerability is at it's most open.

As it turns out, I was lucky enough to be there for my children's milestones. I am sorry that was not the case for Lily's mom but I bet she celebrates you from afar.

Clearly Lily celebrates you. I think her telling you that Cinderella's stepmother was her favorite was way of cementing her love for you. Your relationship with her sounds like mine with my kids. Eventually she will be a teen and you will annoy her like all daughters feel about their mothers....and what a triumph that will be.

Thanks for the cathartic ugly cry...and I hope you are writing a memoir!!
Jess (Canada)
Gwe, your comment made an ugly crier out of me. How beautiful it is to celebrate mothers and stepmothers alike.
William S. Oser (Florida)
I can't write anything here, too many tears in my eyes. Thank you for "the cathartic ugly cry" also
Lisa Spinelli (Boston)
I became a stepmother as my two step daughters were entering adulthood, 16 and 18 years old. I've since chosen to call them my "bonus kids" instead of stepchildren.
MJ (Holyoke MA)
As a professional storyteller, I have read that these women called stepmothers in fairy tales are called so not because they are so, but because a real mother would not act in such ways.
tadon (baltimore, md)
In the original Grimm version of Hansel and Gretel, it is the birth mother, and not a stepmother, who sends the children into the woods. This makes the story even more chilling and it is unpleasant to read.
Rachida (MD)
MU--I wouldn't want to burst your bubble of ignorance-but I will so that misinformation isn't spread.
You think a 'real' mom doesn't do ignominious things? Better think again! My mother (and father) abandoned my younger sister and I at 6 mos and 2 + years of age , respectively, thus separating us from them and our brother all for life.
And that, sir, is just the beginning of the tale... which is not fiction but real life.
Stories are life's instances and events; sometimes it is called history and when embellished a novel or novella or fiction or myth.
Stepmothers are wives to men whose first wife has died leaving his children motherless. 'Step' was in reference to stepping in to another's place or shoes.
fortress America (nyc)
Unclear indeed why Step moms are historically evi,; here we see that is only partially true.

Invoking Bruto Bettelheim invokes the entire psychoanalytic Freudian parental dynamic, Sigmund's work on THAT is long discarded (not even taught in history of psychology), but...

In a psychoanalytic framework, here is the reverse of the classical Oedipus complex, a gender complement, the Electra one;

Evil step mom, is the bifurcation good mom and bad mom, think Dorothy and Oz and a few witches there, good and bad

Also, Freud's little girl hostility to the competing (step) mom, becomes inverted to the mom's hostility to the child, ... got it?
Step mom is also a simple competitor for the exclusiveness of the dad's affection...,

Of interest maybe is that the abused child - via evil step mom,- is always an only child, except for Cinder Ella, who has sororal adversary; and in Hansel and Gretel, there is brother.

The young lady here wants to call SM 'mommy,' which sounds like those ancient dark Freudian demons are not much in play

and as for choosing to be evil SM, this is maybe a form of 'owning' the evil,

Villains are always more interesting emotionally, flamboyant and dynamic characters, vs the 'good two shoes' of virtue

in H&G the bad mom (who is pretty dumb, outwitted by kids) is into the oven, and in Dorothy the bad mom/ witch is under the house, only shoes remaining

pretty lethal

and oh yeah the good mom/ witch - YOU should play the evil witch!

try it!
Colenso (Cairns)
'Cinderella sits amid her fireplace cinders, sorting peas from lentils, her ash-speckled body appeasing a wicked stepmother who wants to dull her luminosity with soot because she feels threatened by it.'

This misses the point, which is that the wicked stepmother also has three ugly stepdaughters whom she has brought into the household with her. (They have to be ugly, of course, ill-tempered and generally unappealing, in order to ensure that Prince Charming will fail at the ball to give any one of the unfortunate girls a second glance. When I read Cinderella as a youngster, I always felt sorry for and identified with her three ugly stepsisters, not with Cinderella who was obviously going to go far in life.)

This entire account, therefore, while beautifully written, moving and entertaining, skirts round the more important issue – which is not the role of the stepmother per se, but rather the status and potential for competitive and conflict of her own biological offspring, who are rivals to the other children already in the household

In all higher species of animals, including humans, parents have a vested interest in promoting the interests of their own biological offspring over the interests of non-related offspring in the same troupe who are rivals for access to scant resources.
Rachida (MD)
Promotion of one's own offspring is protection of the continuation of the DNA aka familial lineage. Most species do this, not just hominins. It is called preservation-something the undereducated late 20th early 21lst century humans don't understand because they are not introduced to the concept. It is the reason for the chastity belt in medieval times, and the reason a lion kills the offspring of the lioness he has just mated with-to preserve HIS offspring. It has nothing to do with resources, but only to do with preservation of DNA-mitochondrial (female) and Y (male).
Ravenna (NY)
As I remember, there were only two ugly stepsisters. Cinderella made the third daughter.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Aside from taking it way too are assuming that the Disney version is THE ultimate version of this folk tale, which is among the oldest in human culture and goes back to ancient China.

Disney bowdlerized Grimm's Fairy Tales, which themselves were rewritten and "tweaked" because of the Grimm's own sensibilities and feelings. And let's recall that unlike the oral traditions these folk tales come from....Disney and the Grimm Brothers were MEN. The oral traditions almost certainly came mostly from WOMEN.

There are many versions of the Cinderella story (and her name isn't always Cinderella) and sometimes she has several sisters, and sometimes one, and sometimes they are ugly and sometimes they are pretty -- just not as pretty as she is. Sometimes it is that their feet are too big, not that they are actually homely.

At its center, the story is about the competition for scarce resources (a father's love, a mother's love, wealth, romantic love and marriage) between siblings, and between artificially related step-siblings most of all.

It is problematical when trying to discuss the traditions of folk & fairy tales, when people automatically default to the Disney films as "the true version".
Minmin (New York)
Fascinating essay on the stepmother and your experience in the role. Consider also the many fictional examples of stepmothers with their own biological children. In these cases, the animus really arises when the children, particularly if all are daughters, approach marriageable age. Given the limited roles for women in the time periods most of these stories arose, a good marriage is the true measure, and the average evil stepmother wants her biological children to succeed, as an extension of her own desire to succeed.

The Japanese classic The Tale of Genji has a very memorable evil stepmother...but an equally memorable self-sacrificing stepmother in Murasaki, who raises her husband's love child since he considers the biological mother of his infant daughter unsuitable to provide her with the best social opportunities.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
The Tale of Genji is unusual in that it was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu. Unlike fairy tales or folk tales, it is not a oral tradition, but considered to be the first fiction novel.
Nancy (Corinth, Kentucky)
Read Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment." Clears it all up nicely.
Also provides some insight into how the Disneyfication of these traditional tales may have diminished their cultural utility.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Thanks for mentioning that, Nancy. It is a very excellent book, that puts all this fairy tale/folk tale stuff into perspective. It is very true that Walt Disney -- while making very popular films -- rewrote and drastically changed many of the classic Grimm's tales, and twisted their meaning in the public imagination. It was the death of the oral tradition, and the colorful animated images sweep away any sense of the original stories.

There are a lot of people -- most people I'm sure -- today who actually think that the dwarves in the original Snow White tale were named Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy and Grumpy.
IIreaderII (USA)
Beautiful writing, thank you!

I wish you years and years of happy parenting Lily, with less of the wickedness that naturally comes with all parenting.
Phyllis Mazik (Stamford, CT)
I had three "mothers." My birth mother died when I was seven months old. The woman who my dad hired as a housekeeper/caretaker was a loving mother figure to me. My dad remarried when I was six. The housekeeper was no longer needed, but luckily she and my new adopted mother became best friends. My life's lesson was to be open to others and to love because there is treasure everywhere.
Hilary (Memphis TN)
I love how you consider them all mothers, wouldn't the world be wonderful if we looked to others in such positive ways?!
DWS (Boston)
My mother died when I was 4 and my father remarried when I was 8 to a woman 10 years younger than him and 17 years older than me. My father and stepmother then had two more children. I think this type of situation is the one that is most often depicted in fairy tales - and also the one that causes stepmother problems.

Basically, I was in the way and I was also completely alone. My stepmother was given total authority over me and yet it was not in her interest for me to do well, because she saw me as competing with her own children. This grew worse when I became a teenager because our small age difference meant that she also saw me as competing with her as a woman. My dad did not have the will to interfere because he had his new family. My real mother was dead, and so I had no one to help me against this person who hated me, but who was given total power over every aspect of my life. I left as soon as I could.

I know there are many good and kind stepmothers out there, but there are also many situations like mine. I wish my father had cared more about how I was feeling. So - while it is good to give stepmothers a chance, it is also good for widowers to be wary and to not trust them completely, especially with daughters and especially if the stepmother is young. I think this is the warning that many fairy tales try to impart. This warning is not accurate in many cases, but I think it's the reason that the "wicked" stepmother story is so prevalent across so many cultures.
426131 (Brooklyn, NY)
Your father is more to blame than the stepmother.
Dr. J (CT)
I am so sorry for your early loss, and subsequent very unhappy situation. It reminds me of a question I often had when I read these stories with "evil stepmothers:" Where were the fathers? Pretty much absent or very weak indeed. I am not sure what this means, but it doesn't speak well of the men in these tales. Maybe it means what you write: that fathers should assume the responsibility to play an active role in their family's lives.
AMo (Jersey City)
Hi, DWS,

Just wanted to thank you for your comment and let you know that you are not alone. While the particulars of my story are different from yours, we share competing for the affections of a weak father. I suspect we have a lot of company and wish this paradigm got more press. Thank you for sharing your story.
meg (sarasota fl)
Good article! But what a wonderful illustration!! Kudos to Ben Giles!
Charity Eleson (Madison, Wisconsin)
Fascinating article. I am both a mother and a step-mother. As I read this article, I was struck, once again, how women, due to the ascendency of men telling the tales that defined us in earlier centuries and echo throughout time, are forced into a narrative not of their own making and then---and this is the real kicker--feel they must respond to that narrative as opposed to their own feelings, both positive and negative, about their lives and roles in society. We continue to need new fairy tales and new paradigms.
Kat IL (Chicago)
Thank you for elucidating what I felt but couldn't quite verbalize while reading this wonderful essay.
Gwe (Ny)
You are so right.

I found myself skipping the paragraphs with the stepmother lore and, instead, culling all the details around the author's own relationship with her step-daughter. I had no interest or patience in the step-mother lore. I already know they are crap, right along with the whole prince that rescues you, and women who hate you because you are beautiful etc etc

The irony is her story alone might not have gotten her a feature story in the NYT. For that, she needed an academic angle i.e. the whole history of the fairy tale stepmother. But as a real woman living a real life, I just don't hold any creed on any of that. It's as relevant to my life as what she had for dinner.
leeserannie (Woodstock)
Nice essay, Ms. Jamison.

I'm saddened that the evil stepmother motif continues to weigh on you and other contemporary women. In the Western fairy tale tradition we inherit this negative stereotype from once-upon-a-time when women and children were the property of men. The tales show the perspective of the abused child and give us few glimpses into the subjectivity of a woman whose only power lay in the domestic sphere, who often would have been married to give the father help keeping house and raising the children of a dead mother who, presumably, would have been sorely missed -- perhaps after dying in childbirth. If the father was close to his "princess" and showed her the kind of affection his second wife yearned for but didn't receive, that would have stirred up insecurities and jealousies that may have been acted out by a stepmother's feeling in competition for scarce resources, be they bread during a famine or attention from the breadwinner. These tales taught girls to look out for themselves.

The Disney version represents the "dead mother good/stepmother bad" split in oversimplified extremes that unfortunately pass the negative stereotypes on to each generation of children even though the motifs are not helpful in contemporary American society. It's good that you are looking to the source tales, history, and other children's literature for context. Lily will benefit from that.
vtbee (Bridgewater)
Thank you for sharing the honesty of your struggles with the process of living into a title fraught with such historic negativity and peril. As a stepmother to five - I joined the family when they ranged from 12 to 22 - whose biological mother is living, I can relate to your desire to participate in a support group.
I've learned/continue to learn to let go of others' definitions or expectations of the role, daily discovering and re-defining what it means for me and for us as a family.
Best wishes to you and Lily and Charles.
Jamie Ballenger (Charlottesville, VA)
Wasn't that the case in The Wizard of Oz written at a time when many mothers died when they and their children were still young? Glenda the Glamorous mom girls wished they had, the Wicked Witch, the scary, mean mom they are stuck with, and dear old Auntie Em, the plain, simple, devoted mom girls do not notice until they are moms themselves. Pax, jb
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Let us not also forget that the "Disney versions" and the Grim versions of these ancient folk tales were rewritten by .... men. This is a MALE-oriented view of the stepmother/child relationship.
See also