Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Adult Children and Stepmothers: Cinderella 2.0?

Dear Rebecca:

I am sorry for your loss, and saddened to hear that a new marriage that you hoped would improve your father’s life has caused problems between you. You may not be a little girl anymore, but you now have a stepmother, and it is often a relationship fraught with difficulties, no matter what your age.

Stepmothers have very rough reputations and a history of negative press, starting with the Brothers Grimm. Many of their most popular tales feature an evil woman who hates her (lovely and blameless) stepdaughter, most prominently Cinderella and Snow White. In the original tales, the evil woman was actually the biological mother, but in later revisions she is recast as the step, a more comfortable story for a culture that more and more was coming to revere “motherly love.”

Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim explains that fairy tales allow children to imagine and work through some of their worst fears, but in a setting far enough removed from them so as to not be overwhelmingly scary. Set in mysterious, far-off places, with mythical beasts and magical rules, the themes can be familiar, but at the same time foreign enough so the child feels that this won’t happen to her.

Parental abandonment is among a child’s darkest fears, if not the very scariest, and fairy tales deal with this issue repeatedly. Making the stepmother the villain rather than the biological parent helps keep the story’s danger a little more contained.

Another reason for the use of this trope, though, is that it has the ring of truth. So does the figure of the father, who is either away, weak, or ineffectual and thus unable to protect his child. The scenario you described in your family is not just the stuff of fairy tales.

Historically, some of the problem can be traced to past societal norms, in which mothers, who routinely died in childbirth, were replaced by second wives who then had children of their own. From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense that a parent favors her own children over someone else’s. Often chosen for the express purpose of doing the work of managing the chores and raising the children, many of these second wives were effectively servants.

While in today’s world stepparents can be wonderful resources for children, problems persist. Stepfathers are much more likely than biological ones to sexually abuse their children, for example. Just as in the fairy tales, mothers sometimes are unaware of the abuse because they are blinded by their dependency on the new husband and what he provides. Stepmothers, too, are more likely to be abusive to children who are not theirs.

Even when the stepmother has good intentions, writes Leslie Jamison in The New York Times,

“It’s as if the stepmother relationship inevitably corrupts—it is not just an evil woman in the role but a role that turns any woman evil. A ‘stepmother’s blessing’ is another name for a hangnail, as if to suggest something that hurts because it isn’t properly attached, or something that presents itself as a substitutive love but ends up bringing pain instead.”

Women who marry men who already have children have to deal with the fact that they are not the exclusive object of their husband’s love, and some come to resent this. When the children are young, there is a natural justification for the father’s protective, loving feelings, but those whose stepchildren are adults can feel especially competitive.

While the fairy-tale-version stepmother has enormous power, in real life she often feels as if she has none, thus enhancing her negative feelings. She if excluded from memories of the family’s past and traditions, as well as having limited decision-making rights. This can increase her feelings of inadequacy. One way to counter these is with a “power grab.” With the adult children not on the daily scene, the stepmother has ample opportunity to advance her cause.

All this can be intensified if the husband is elderly or weakened in some way. He naturally feels dependent on the person who cares for him and with whom he shares the majority of his time. I once overheard a friend’s stepmother talking to her elderly husband (the father) about my friend and her own husband. Not realizing that she could be overheard, she said, “Alice and Rob are always crying poor, but I don’t think it’s true. They certainly have an expensive enough car,” as the old man tried to eat his soup.

This example illustrates the idea of the wife trying to use her “face time” with her husband to press her advantage. The underlying idea, though, is that there are limited resources, and what goes to others is taken away from her (and her own children).

While often these attitudes stem from the powerlessness and competitive feelings that the role can induce, there are some stepparents who are genuinely bad news and can even be actively dangerous. Elderly men are easy targets for schemers, both in relationships and in business. But they are particularly vulnerable to caretaking women. It is known that widows survive the loss of a spouse more easily and are likely to live longer than widowers, because they are likely to have better social skills and outside friendships. Many men, like your father, have relied entirely on their wives for intimacy and are not as likely to recover quickly, or at all.

It is also known that men who have had a good marriage have a better chance of being happy in their next one. Try to distinguish, if you can, the dynamics of the situation. It may be that your stepmother is having growing pains in her role and asserting her power because she is threatened, but this will settle down as she grows more secure. Does your father seem better off than when he was alone, or is the “intimidation” you see undermining his happiness?

If you can, try giving your stepmother as much latitude as you can to grow into her role. As much as possible, indicate your acceptance of her position as his partner, signaling to her that your relationship with your father is not a threat to her. If you have gotten off on the wrong foot, adjusting course could help ease the tension and make her more accepting of you.

If you genuinely feel that your stepmother is dangerous and uncaring, you may have to try to intervene, which can be difficult and even backfire. It will be painful and difficult for your father to accept this, and the consequences could be worse than the problem.

Intervening may be necessary, however, especially is your father is not as acute as he once was. In the case of my friend Alice, she and her siblings felt that their stepmother was growing emotionally abusive as her father became more and more frail. Ultimately, she accepted a financial settlement from the children and left. Alice took over the responsibility of caring for him in his last years, but this was vastly preferable to her than allowing the abuse to continue.

Alice’s story is far from unique. Another stepmother I know murdered her older husband when he was sick with cancer, giving him an overdose of painkillers. This was not a mercy killing—he had been diagnosed only two weeks before, but she was afraid that if his adult children discovered that he had been persuaded to leave her all his money, they would try to change his mind.

Despite these warnings, most stepmothers do not have bad intentions, and a late marriage can literally be a lifesaver. Do your best to take the high road so you can put the new wife at ease. Hard as it can be to see a new woman taking your mother’s place, it may indeed be the best thing for your father. Firmly persist in your attempts to see him, however. You are right that his relationships with his children are crucial, but he may be having difficulty learning how to balance everything, and your patience and maturity will help him in the end.


Bettelheim, Bruno, 1976. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
Martin, Wednesday, 2015. Stepmonster


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  • Holly May 11, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Great post on a tough subject. Thanks. Holly