The relationship between a mother and her child, they say, begins in the womb. The foetus grows up listening to the mother’s words, even being influenced by her moods and thoughts. The mother, in turn, feels every movement of the foetus, and ensures that she nourishes and nurtures the little one to the best of her ability. This intimacy forges a strong bond between the two long after the birth and well into the child’s life.
Indeed, the role of a mother in a child’s life is an important one. Some say that it is unparalleled. Some even argue that no one can take the place of the mother in the life of her children. But the truth is, it happens more than we think. Bitter divorces, illnesses and accidents could snatch mothers away from their children, creating a deep void.
Many a time, this void is filled by another person in due course. The father may choose to remarry and bring home a partner who becomes the stepmother to his children. While the new person strives to fit into the family, they might find that cultural barriers, traumas and misunderstandings get in their way. In this feature, Soulveda delves into this complicated relationship and finds out how people have made it work for them.
What makes the role of a stepmother complicated is–first and foremost–a harmful cultural notion. The fairytale of Cinderella was probably among the first to imprint in our minds that a stepmother can be a bad person. Several movies, books and TV shows may have told us over the course of our lives that a stepmother cannot connect with her child the way a mother could. This notion may also be furthered by the negative experiences of a few people. “Such prejudice might put a lot of pressure on the new person who is simply trying to fit into the family,” says Amita Mani, a counsellor. “Combined with the grief of losing or being estranged from the mother, such notions become barriers to the success of the relationship,” she explains.
These barriers make the initial years a challenge for everyone involved. Such was the case for Chaithali Pisupati, communications professional and stepmother to an 18-year-old daughter. “My stepdaughter Khushi was 10 when my husband and I got married. Her mother lived close by and was still actively involved in her life. At first, I felt like the third wheel in the relationship,” she shares. “I felt quite lost. I had to deal with the responsibility of a child without really having the right to make any decisions about her.”
Stepmothers become mothers overnight, and try as they might, their role may not be as important as that of the mother in the child’s life. And sometimes, the child may have trouble even accepting the presence of the stepmother in their life.
It’s not hard to imagine the state of mind Chaithali must have been in. Stepmothers become mothers overnight, and try as they might, their role may not be as important as that of the mother in the child’s life. And sometimes, the child may have trouble even accepting the presence of the stepmother in their life. This happened with Sharanya, an entrepreneur and stepmother to an 11-year-old. “Around the time my stepdaughter was eight, she started behaving coldly towards me. It was as though she was trying to make her dad spend all his time with her, and she completely ignored my presence at home. On top of that, her mother was also being very demeaning to me. It was a rough phase,” she admits.
When such things happen, stepmothers tend to go out of their way to win the approval of the child. Says Mani, “They may let the child overindulge in their favourite food items or activities and let them off the hook for the mistakes they make. Or in some cases, if the child refuses to engage with the stepmother, she might simply back away and not try reaching out to the child again. Both of these are unhealthy approaches to the problem.”
When neither overindulgence nor complete non-involvement is right, a balance of sorts might be necessary. This balance, however, might not be easy to achieve. Sometimes, the problem may be that the child feels as though the new person is trying to replace his or her mother. Like in Sharanya’s case, they might act instinctively to protect what is left of their family unit. The solution in such cases, Mani suggests, would be to make it clear to the child that you’re not there to replace their mother. By giving the child the space to process their feelings and letting them know that they can come to you when they need a friend might help build trust.
This is exactly what Sharanya did. She says, “I did not force a mother-daughter relationship on my stepdaughter. I wanted her to see me as a trusted, grown-up, parental figure. And it has worked.” Khushi too warmed up to her stepmother fairly quickly. A teenager today, she is more of a friend to Chaithali than a daughter.
All relationships evolve over time. People grow up, circumstances change and wounds heal in due course. If there
*A few names have been changed