Have you ever wondered why fairy stories feature so many wicked step mothers?
The recurring feature of a widower with children, bereft of a mother, springs up in children’s tales with alarming frequency and proceeds to unfurl a nightmare of a new wife and her murderous schemes on the children.
Snow White who faces murder at the hands of the woodsman commanded to bring her heart in a box.
Hansel and Gretel who are led into the woods to be abandoned and trapped by a cannibalistic witch.
Rapunzel who is locked in a tower by a jealous stepmother to live in solitary confinement.
Cinderella who is locked in a dungeon by her stepmother to serve the family as a slave ………
Other stories feature children alone in the world facing murderous grown ups wishing to exploit, imprison or eliminate them.
In 2015 I am marrying a man with four children and face the duty of step-parent. What does this mean for me and my relationship with them? Are we doomed?
I don’t believe so. In true form, fairy stories speak of a reality more spiritual in nature. Reading between the lines, a mother represents to children true unconditional love. When she dies they are left with a loving father who is helpless to care for them in the same motherly way. His choice to remarry exposes the children to one who does not have their best interests in mind, one who does not love unconditionally.
The relationship of children to adults, especially parents is an interesting one. In a sense, children are a motif of one’s mortality. As they grow and learn, the adult ages and declines. Their ascendancy signals the adults descent from beauty, health and vigour. This very motif is shown in Cinderella, the wicked step mother’s vanity emphasised in her magic mirror’s declaration she is no longer the “fairest in the land”. What greater threat to a woman to no longer be beautiful and desired? What greater threat than the younger and more beautiful youth ready to take her place.
This motif is shown in more ways that simply fairy stories but plays out in power plays between humans of all ages and genders. The Mean Girls of high school bully those younger to establish primacy and control of the alpha males and jocks at school. The “queen bees” belittle and control their own flock of followers to keep a pecking order and establish dominance. Almost a carnivorous cannibalistic dynamic is created, in which the younger threatens to take the seat of power and the older seeks to exploit and maintain control at all costs.
Indeed, parenting is one of continual death to self and sacrifice of self for children. It’s a dynamic that is directly contradictory to the above dynamic. A parent willingly gives up their own place in the world to make way for the children – they give time, money and care to make sure the children have the best start in the world. For the biological parent this is both selfishly motivated – it is a sign of one’s genes continuing in the world, one’s seed flourishing. But it is also a signal of true love.
Parenting gone wrong is then the purest symbol of evil. And it’s not limited to wicked mothers or step mothers……..
Look at Darth Vader !
So what can I learn about being a good step parent [or parent for that matter] from these stories? I’m reminded of the following account from Matthew 20: 20-28. Jesus describes his own death and this conversation proceeds.
A Mother’s Request
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”“We can,” they answered.23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.
Understanding Jesus to be a king, the mother has asked what every mother wants for her children – to have the best. She wants them to be favoured and preferred. But what she asks she does not understand. In seeking favour in her terms, she seeks dominance, control, primacy and power. A seat of influence for her two boys.
Jesus asks the men if they can drink his cup. Having just described his death – he speaks of the nature of his love for humanity. As a true lover, he lays down his life that the children will grow in life. Will they do that? Can they do that?
25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus talks of the rulers of the Gentiles who “lord it over” the people and who “exercise authority” over them. His command to his followers is to become a servant, become a slave to others. To follow this king and to sit at his side equals laying down your life for others.
And this is the true love story.