Stepmothers want to challenge wicked stereotype thrust on them by fairytales

Sia Trokenheim says the title of 'step-mother' can have unnecessary negative connotations.
CHRIS MCKEEN / FAIRFAX NZ

Sia Trokenheim says the title of 'step-mother' can have unnecessary negative connotations.

Stepmothers are enshrined in fairytales as cruel and callous, but a new study reveals women want to challenge the wicked stereotype.

The three-year study by Auckland University doctoral candidate Anna Miller showed the majority of women who took part felt they were treated to varying degrees as if they played a negative role in their stepchild's life.

"It was like they could relate to the idea that negative stereotypes were very present in society, so they were quite aware of the societal pressures that came with being in their role," said Miller.

Psychologist and doctoral candidate at Auckland University, Anna Miller.
LAWRENCE SMITH/ FAIRFAX NZ

Psychologist and doctoral candidate at Auckland University, Anna Miller.

"It's the first time we've talked to stepmothers and given them a chance to explain where they find this societal idea and how it plays out for them, affects their behaviour, how they feel about themselves, and what they've done to help cope with that stuff."

READ THE FULL STUDY: Stepmothers' perception and experiences of stereotypes

Miller said some women felt that setting boundaries made them feel bad, they felt unmotherly or felt that they weren't included in the family. 

Annabel Morrell and her stepdaughter Katya.
Supplied

Annabel Morrell and her stepdaughter Katya.

But like Auckland-based actress Sia Trokenheim, the majority of women had a positive experience.

The actress is best known for work in the local sitcom Step Dave but the tables are turned when she heads home.

Trokenheim is stepmother to Bruno, 9, the son of her husband Andre. The couple also have a three-year-old son, Perenzo.

"I feel my relationship with my stepson is trusting and real and I love him as if he was my own," she said.

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"As we don't have him nearly as much as we would like, I often find myself giving him and my husband a lot of space to themselves so they can nurture each other's needs of having missed one another during the week. They have an incredibly strong bond and I never want to stand in the way of that ... Not knowing what is right or wrong, it's a fine balance to consider moment to moment."

The family do everything together because they want to nurture a strong unit, and build an extensive memory bank of the best memories together possible. 

And although Trokenheim has not had a negative experience being labelled a stepmother, she does think it causes some issues.

"I think it's the 'mother' in the label. Not for my sake, for goodness sake, I'd be honoured to have him as my own son, but that's obviously not the case," she said.

"I find it becomes an issue in regards to respecting the child's bloodline and I worry that it must also be rather confusing. The child, in any mixed relationship based family, knows who the mother is and to throw another woman into the mix with a similar label to their own mother could possibly unsettling."

Instead, Trokenheim said that she used to call herself "Sia, daddy's wife" for a long time. 

"I used to internally cringe when people generously and lovingly called me stepmother in his presence. But I never corrected them. That might make things more awkward. It's funny, nowadays I still don't call myself a 'stepmother' but I am happy to call him my 'stepson' for ease in social situations."

Trokenheim said if the negative connotations people based on the term stepmother was steeped in fairytales, that needs to change.

"They were horrific women who tried to shun the children so they could have the fathers to themselves," she said.

"I'd like to think we've moved on. However, another label is in order. Like I said, for the children's sake. It is a sensitive subject as it already stands, imagine then how difficult it must be for the birth mother to be forced to accept that another person is being called, or is calling herself, a type of 'mum' to her child. It must be heartbreaking. The same goes the other way for fathers and 'step dads'."

And while Trokenheim feels she has been gifted another child, at times she still feels insecure - like many of the women in the study.

"I sometimes have thoughts like, 'does he love me? Care about me the way I care about him' ... It's easy to wonder if I overstep my mark if I was to get firm. I might double check with hubby first to see what his opinion on the matter is. I try to be as equal with both boys in the way that I connect, praise, and correct them."

Wellington-based stepmother Annabel Morrell, who took part in the study, she has also doubted herself in her role as stepmum to her husband's two daughters, aged 15 and 22 - but said she found comfort with a group of women who were in the same situation.

"If someone else is a stepmum, they never ask those awkward questions, like if you're going to have kids of your own.Other stepmums get it and they're always there for you. I can't tell you enough how valuable it is for me," she said.

Morrell said the negative perceptions and attitudes toward stepmothers were "naturally ingrained" in our culture, but she believes as families change the negativity will disappear.

"I sometimes imagines the other stereotypes in fairytales, you have the fairy godmother character, she is someone very special who appears in your life and is very caring and wants to help you achieve your dreams and I wish that was the stereotype for the stepmum," she said.

"In general I think people are getting more comfortable with different family structures. The idea of a nuclear family doesn't really work anymore because so few people live in that enviroment ... I hope that it's shifting. Every now and again and they'll ask if it's tough being a stepmum, and it's immediately negative."

By the numbers:

138 women took part in the anonymous study
90 per cent said the experience was positive
51 per cent said the 'wicked' stereotype had a strong impact on their experience
40 per cent said they used the term 'stepmother' to describe themselves in social situations

 - Sunday Star Times

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