Rebranding the wicked stepmother

2012-04-20 00:00

“GRANNY,” said our six-year-old granddaughter the other day, “look at the fairies.” She is currently devoted to fairies, quite certain of their existence. She was looking at a small cloud of flying insects hovering in a group. For all I know perhaps they were fairies indeed, though I had always imagined fairies to be rather larger than a gnat. But Charlotte has sharp eyes and she may see things beyond my vision. Although in her short life she has had to deal with hardships like the separation of her parents, her faith in fairies and fantasy remains intact, unaffected by cynicism and disillusionment. She sees little flying beings, and knows they must be fairies.

The real fairy tale, however, was the conversation itself. Because “Granny” is really a stepgranny, stepmother to Charlotte’s father and to the rest of my adult children, step-granny to eight other grandchildren. And according to all the old stories, a step-granny ought to be a spectacularly beautiful but fearsome witch to be avoided at all costs for fear of one’s life. No wonder Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron have both agreed to take on the role of Snow White’s stepmother in two soon-to-be-released movies. They may not be fearsome but they are certainly beautiful — and I’m not sure how comfortable either would be in a conversation about fairies. Stepmothers are bad news. Snow White’s stepmother tried to kill her. Cinderella’s stepmother kept her as a kitchen slave. Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother tried to have them abandoned in a forest.

So Charlotte should not have been walking hand in hand with a stepgranny talking about fairies. She should have been keeping stepgranny at a safe distance. But this granny, though beautiful in our eyes, is neither a Julia Roberts lookalike nor very fearsome, though she can be strict.

Perhaps in the far-off days of the Brothers Grimm, when mothers often died in childbirth and fathers married again, stepmothers were a real and feared feature of life. No doubt, when children of the new marriage came along, the older children felt pushed aside and unwanted. Stepmothers did not get good press. And things may not have changed all that much. Now, not because of death but because divorce has become so common, many children have stepmothers, stepfathers, stepgrandparents. No doubt still there are tensions in all reconstituted families. Divorce takes its toll on children.

So spare a thought for stepmothers — and stepfathers too. Dealing with someone else’s children, children with divided loyalties and understandable resentments, calls for huge resources of empathy and patience. Most step-parents try to be loving, but the children, in many cases, find it hard to return that love out of loyalty to the parent who has been displaced. Step-parenting is a lonely and often selfless role.

But it can end happily. The said step-granny and I have been married for 30 years now. One of my children, reflecting on her own divorce, wrote this in a magazine article to celebrate our anniversary: “Chances are my ex will remarry and our two sons will get a stepmother — one of those supposedly evil psycho bitches who feel threatened by stepkids and make it their life’s work to make the children feel unwelcomed burdens best kept far, far away.

“Well, not if they have my experience — now three decades worth — of having a step mum. To say she is a mere stepmother seems so trivial. She is so much more than that. She’s been officially “ours” for most of our lives — 30 years and counting. She is the core of our family’s stability, a devoted and much-adored granny to nine grandchildren and an integral member of our clan. I thank God for sending her into our lives.”

Families take many different forms these days. President Zuma, approaching his sixth wedding at age 70, might be considered by some to be a brave man. Managing the disputes between four wives and 21 children would be a feat before which most of us would quail. Like King Mswati of Swaziland or King Zwelithini of the Zulus, he has set before us a rather different model of family life from that to which most of us are accustomed. But then we have become accustomed to single-parent families, multiparent families, same-gender parent families, and match-and-mix families following divorce.

Families come in a host of different shapes. No doubt they all have their stresses and strains. Above all it is surely the children who are important, whatever the shape of the family. Children need to be protected from cynicism. They need to believe that life is good. They need to be raised with love, with good role models, with space to be innocent and to believe in fairies. Stepmothers can do that too, if they’re given a chance — though with five stepmothers the Zuma children may have their work cut out for them.

With the viral phone footage of a gang rape this week pointing yet again to a society suffering the consequences of, among other things, poor parenting, RON NICOLSON calls for another take on the image of the stepmother

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