We all know the fairytale of Cinderella and her wicked step-mother. But is it really just a fairytale? The stereotype of the wicked step-mother is so wide-spread, it’s no wonder it ended up in a fairytale. [A great book about this is Women Who Run With Wolves (Estes 1996)]. And you could tell me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s more common than not for step-parents (mother or father) to treat their own children better, rather than valuing all children as creatures in need of love and guidance equally, even if they struggle with an inner-conflict about it.
So, here’s the story of my step-mother. Once upon a time J, not long after my mom died, my dad remarried. I did the strangest thing and refused to call her mother until the day they were married, although the rest of the kids on both sides freely called the ‘step-parents’ mom and dad. At some point in my life I looked back at this and thought about it, and I concluded it wasn’t because of spite or malice or anything negative, but rather the opposite. At some level I valued this ‘role’ of a mother so greatly, that I couldn’t just freely use it. And in my mind, I needed some defining moment or proof or… explanation(?) for why I was calling this person my mother. What has she done, who is she, that she should occupy this space, this award, this position high on a pedestal of my respect.
Did them getting married qualify as that? I don’t know, probably not, maybe I was just giving it the benefit of the doubt, because it was a sign of disrespect if I wasn’t calling her mother. It’s not that I didn’t like her, and I was really excited that they were getting married, although mostly because of the kids. She had two, and we were two, and it was great to have an older brother and a younger sister that I had not had before. And a big family! Like the Brady Bunch or the Lampoons.
If I try to look back and recall what I felt when I did start calling her mother, I think I felt it was an honour, a privilege, a gift really. Something for her to be pleased and happy and feel special that I would call her mother, I would love her, respect her, and trust her. Unfortunately, it appears those feeling weren’t mutual J. I wonder sometimes if that bothered her or if she noticed. I wonder if it had any influence on how bad things eventually got. I wonder if she’s sorry. Or if she even thinks of me at all.
So, how bad did things get? Well, of course parents and other adults in the family don’t feel children need to know what’s going on, and even later in life my dad isn’t very forthcoming. So, who knows how much of the story I really know or that I recollect is true. I guess they weren’t getting along too well. I think there were issues about favouritism or penalizing one or the other set of kids. They had a baby too – my ‘brother from another mother’ let’s say (because I really dislike using step and half to describe siblings). I think there were financial troubles. But what it eventually came down to was whether me and my brother were getting along with our step-mother….I think.
She had started her own catering business and set-up shop in the market on the weekends. There were early days, long hours, of prep, cooking, time at the shop. Not to mention cooking, cleaning, taking care of the baby at home. So, us kids were expected to help out alot. I think I was always willing to help, but I guess I screwed up alot, wasn’t able to pick up things fast enough, too slow…I don’t really know. But she was always mad at me for something or other and always beating up us kids. Not to say we never got beats with my mom and dad, but it was different. It was formal and it was rare. Come downstairs, bend over, and get the wooden spoon until it broke. Or at worst, a few licks of the belt. But with our stepmother, she didn’t care, she just got angry and exploded. No warning, with whatever object was close, otherwise her bare hand.
I don’t really remember most things she got made about, except that I don’t think they were significant things. I forgot to clean one of six things? I needed to be asked to tear myself away from the TV to help bring groceries in? I wasn’t taking the initiative to prepare meals for the family?Being an adult now, thinking of raising my own family, you can’t expect kids to just miraculously take initiative, or learn a new skill without extensive teaching and guidance. And an awareness that they’ll mistakes often and for a long time. Hell, I taught my BF in his mid-20s how to make rice. I still shrink clothes in the laundry.
The things I do remember. One time I put a small amount of laundry on large or medium setting. I got put up against the wall, slapped across the face multiple times. I left my used pads wrapped up in toilet paper in the back of the wash room cabinet and she found them one day and I got beats for that. There is actually an explanation for that, as gross as it is, I was embarrassed that my brothers might see them in the garbage can, so I was at some point going to dispose of them when no one was around, but I may have forgot. I don’t even know what I was in trouble for with this memory, but she put a knife to my throat and I think somewhere in that conversation was the same memory of her blaming me for an abortion she just had. Because it was my fault her and my father were not getting along and might not stay together. I remember my younger brother getting beat quite often, she’d pick on him alot. Often because he wet the bed or lied about something (he developed this compulsive lying behaviour that he has since outgrown).
And it extended to her kids as well. Maybe just not as abusive as often. My older brother (step) she threw a boot at him and chipped his tooth. I think that was when he started fighting back. I think he even ran away once for a whole night. I tried to runaway. I walked around the neighbourhood trying to get a job, with no luck. Then trying to hawk my jewellery, which apparently was not worth anything. And that plan backfired because word of it got back to my parents. I thought of killing myself. I remember lying on the basement bathroom floor with a bottle of pills, crying, willing myself to take them, but in the end I did not. I would write little slogans for myself, carved in my desk, like ‘stay strong’. It seemed like she was simply out to break my will, my spirit, whatever was in me from before I met her.
In reality, her first marriage was with an abusive man. Really abusive. And she left with her young son and baby girl, raising them for a few years I think as a single parent before she met my dad. So, obviously that’s got to fuck a person up. She also comes from a developing country (as does my dad) with …how to say this without being derisive…patriarchal ways that marginalize women and children alot. So, I only guess at what she may have gone through ‘back home’. Not to mention the ideas about how girls or daughters ‘should be’ based on how she was raised probably leads to expectations of me. Later in life I can imagine just the kind of girl she wanted me to be. Dutiful, obedient, taking care of all the cooking and cleaning while she worked, and keeping the kids in order in her absence. So anything other than that was a strike against her. I was defying her, I was not respecting her, I was not loving her. According to her. But how is a 10+ year old, not having been raised in the same environment as her, in fact a very different environment, supposed to even understand that!
In my eyes, then and now (even though I can see where she is coming from), kids are supposed to have a childhood. Their only responsibilities should be for some chores, some occasional babysitting, and cooking for fun. There was a big disconnect, I can see that now. But how come they couldn’t see that then?
So, things went from bad to worse. My brother and I were sent to my uncle’s for awhile (my dad’s brother). Then I was sent to my grandmother for an entire summer because my stepmother was raving mad when it came to me. And I felt so bad (still brings tears to my eyes) when I think of what my younger brother must have gone through in my absence – she would have terrorized him. I’ve always meant to ask him about that. Then the bottom fell out – she decided to move out with her kids. My dad wanted to reconcile, so he spent more and more time over there, sometimes leaving us kids alone overnight, only coming back to check-in for a bit. Eventually, it was deemed an unsuitable arrangement for us kids to be alone in the house (go figure!), so her brother and his wife and their baby came to live with me and my brother. They were very nice people, no problems between us. But at some point I guess a decision was made that my father and step-mother wanted to get back together and sell the ‘old’ house. So, you’ll never guess what happens next? My brother and I are offered to move into the new house and take rooms in the basement.
Well, I don’t know where I got the state of mind to call up my aunt (my mom’s sister) and tell her what was going on. She was really livid and I was really calm. I never thought of it back then in terms of being wrong or right, justified or unjustified. It was just the way things were and if anything, a general uneasiness or unhappiness with where things were headed. I guess I thought I didn’t want to go and we could live somewhere else. With my aunt, maybe, but at that point I don’t think I cared where, could have been an orphanage. I don’t know what kind of conversations took place between the adults ( I should ask my aunt about it), but it was settled that my aunt would take me and my uncle would take my brother.
There was a specific moment I remember when my dad was there and my aunt was there…I’m not sure who else. And I guess I was being asked what I thought, how I felt, what I wanted to do. I was sitting in a chair, writing on my jeans, scribbles, becoming increasingly agitated, angry. I think I was waiting, waiting for him to speak up and say he wanted us to stay. Waiting for him to claim us, not abandon us. And he didn’t. And I was so angry. And I wouldn’t talk to him. I wouldn’t look at him. Not even to say that.
We may have had conversations here and there, but at some point we had a phone conversation, where I told him I disowned him. We didn’t talk for five years after that. Until I was 22-23. To this day I have issues about abandonment in romantic relationships.
My step-mother…for some reason I think we met again. And I was emotional, a feeling of reconciliation, I was crying and so was she, and we hugged. But I don’t remember when or where this was, or if it even happened. The one thing I can tell you is that it took me a long time to fight back, to even talk back to my step-mother in my dreams. I’m talking late 20s.
Well, I do apologize if you managed to make it this far. I never thought this post would go this long. And there was even more to it that than that…a story for another day.