The most common replacement for the mother is a stepmother. She still has a tarnished reputation. Expressions such as “stepmotherly act, stepmotherly relationship”, etc. have become ingrained in our language as a sign of ill-treatment of another, subordinate person, in terms of neglect, underestimation, and malicious deception. In the fairy tales of many people, including ours, the stepmother is depicted as the embodiment of hatred and malice. Such a negative opinion of the stepmother was certainly not accidental. The stepmother probably used to be a really bad substitute for the mother, so in most cases, the child would have been happier if it had been left without such a replacement.
The legend of the evil stepmother, perpetuated by countless variants of the story of Cinderella, is probably based on the experience of the rule of many stepmothers in patriarchal relations between the sexes. Once upon a time, a stepmother had a reason to abuse her stepchildren and to hate their father, her husband.
In patriarchal times, women often married out of material interests, so they were attracted to wealthy widoweres from whom they hoped to inherit a beautiful fortune. If such a husband had a child from his first marriage, the danger existed that it would inherit most of the father’s estate and that the stepmother and her children would be deprived. It is therefore understandable that many stepmothers sought to distance the child from the father, or even drive it away from home, so as not to have a rival in inheriting the estate.
Today, the stepmother is in most cases no longer motivated for a negative attitude towards the stepchild. Along with the disappearance of economic motives for marriage, the mother’s motivation to hate her husband’s child is also disappearing. That is why in our time the stepmother is basically no longer an evil educator. If it is an emotionally balanced woman who loves children, who loves her husband and has managed to build a happy marriage, she will probably take a positive attitude towards the stepchild as well. Then there is no reason not to raise it properly, showing it the same emotional warmth as towards her own children. And indeed, in practical work with children suffering from mental disorders, we do not encounter a stepmother as a specific factor in the occurrence of these disorders. Among the causes of childhood behavioral disorders, it does not occur any more often than the mother.
Yet the legend of the evil stepmother still operates in the minds of some women who become a substitute for the mother of someone else’s children. They are sometimes afraid of prejudices about their stepmother, they are convinced that the environment looks at them with a critical eye, expecting from them a “stepmother’s treatment” of stepchildren. That is why they try to show a special love for the stepchild in order to prevent any objection from replacing the mother properly. But then it can happen that the stepmother misdirects her love for the stepchild because she is guided by a motive that has nothing to do the child. This is the reason why the stepmother sometimes spoils the stepchildren, even giving them an advantage over her own children. She sometimes does this so that her husband would not object to her neglecting his child. She is led to this by a certain distrust of her husband, a fear that he might leave her if she hurts him in his feelings for the child.
It also happens that the stepmother is not gentle towards the stepchild, thinking that she has no right to “treat someone else’s child as her own. Such prejudice is completely unreasonable. We have noticed that for the proper mental development of a child, it is not the physical mother that is important, but the mental mother. Therefore, any female person, who takes care of a child for a long time and raises it, can replace its mother in a full-fledged way if she treats it with maternal love, giving it her sensitivity without any restrictions.
One stepmother came to ask us for advice on how to treat her stepson, an 8-year-old boy, who is distrustful, disobedient, and occasionally aggressive towards her. We inquired about her treatment of the boy so we learned that she was treating her stepson in a more or less proper way, only refraining from any physical tenderness towards him. She never holds him, kisses him, or draws him to her.
“Why don’t you ever do that? We asked.
“How can I hold him when he is not my child; he knows that I am not his real mother, so it seems to me that I have no right to caress him, ‘was the answer.
We convinced her that she had not only a full right but also a duty to be gentle with her stepson. And she was relieved, for she carried within herself a veiled desire to give way to her feelings for the boy she had not dared to show openly. After a while, she came to brag to us that she had established a closer emotional relationship with her stepson, so his behavior towards her became balanced.
Obviously, a stepmother can be a full-fledged replacement for a mother. Therefore, the permanent loss of the mother does not have to cause the child severe psychological trauma and does not have to emotionally damage it for the rest of its life. Moreover, sometimes a stepmother is a better mother than a birth mother. In this case, the permanent loss of the mother, that is, the connection of the child with the stepmother will even be useful for the development of its personality.
A 9-year-old girl was brought to our counseling center for psychogenic vomiting. For two or three weeks she has been vomiting almost every day. The pediatrician did not find any diseased change. He concluded that the phenomenon was of psychic origin, so he referred the girl to us. We found that the vomiting occurred at the same time as the disagreements between the girl’s father and her eventual stepmother began. Some time ago, the mother left the family leaving her husband and two children, a girl and her younger brother. She never cared much for the children, nor was she gentle with them, and often stated that the children bothered her, that they were just a “burden” to her, and that they were “getting on her nerves.” The children were not emotionally attached to her; they were afraid of their mother, so they did not regret her departure from the family, nor did they show any behavioral disorder in this regard.
Not long ago, the father brought another woman into the house. He did not marry her immediately because his first wife prepared a series of troubles for him in connection with the divorce. But the other woman completely adapted to the children, sincerely loved them and completely won them over. Because they suffered from a lack of maternal love, the children became very attached to her. One day, a quarrel broke out between their father and the other woman, mostly because the husband was not energetic enough to achieve a divorce. The children witnessed their quarrels in which they discerned the threat of the new mother to their father that she would leave him if he did not divorce his first wife soon, because she did not want to live unmarried and give birth to illegitimate children.
When they realized that they were threatened with the loss of their beloved mother again, the children panicked. The emotional conflict in them between the passionate desire for the mother, which they now felt fully for the first time, and the possibility of losing it provoked an acute neurotic reaction in both children: the girl began to vomit and the boy fell ill from night terrors.
We talked to their father, and his unmarried wife, we helped them sort out their relationship with each other and leave the thought of a possible divorce. They stayed together and were married not long ago. And the children calmed down as soon as they felt that their beloved stepmother would stay with them. Without any direct treatment, their neuroses soon disappeared.