Mommies In-Step

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Mirror, Mirror, on the wall: Who’s the fairest of them all?

Why stepmothers, of course. This according to one AU researcher and 2016 graduate, Cara Zaharychuk.

Through the years, television, motion-picture and fairy-tale portrayals haven’t been kind to the stepmother. From Cinderella’s venomous grey-bunned arch-enemy (who, in Disney’s version, forced the latter to scrub bare floors laden with talking mice, all so the raggedy stepdaughter would miss her ball debut) to Snow White‘s evil ‘step’ queen — the plethora of pop culture archetypes have been downright nasty.

But, according to Zaharychuk, stepmothers ought really to be revered rather than reviled.

Cara and fam in Croatia

AU Master’s graduate Cara Zaharychuk with her husband, stepdaughter and daughter, on a 2017 spring trip to Croatia. [Photo courtesy of Cara Zaharychuk, April 2017]

Her thesis paper, published earlier this month in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage (and cited in the prestigious U.K. newspaper The Telegraph) shows stepmothers to be important and positive support systems for the stepchildren within their familial vicinity.

Zaharychuk, a Melita, Manitoba-based AU alumna and Master of Counselling graduate, is herself a stepmother to two adult children, and a mother to an eight-year old daughter. Those roles, along with an interest in child development, prompted Zaharychuk to explore the topic last spring during her final AU course.

“I just really wanted to learn more about family dynamics and why things were the way they were and how they could be changed,” she said in an interview with AU Newsroom.

‘Step Monster’ no more

Zaharychuk says society’s fixation on the trope of the ‘wicked stepmother’ should be adjusted to reflect the ever-changing face of today’s family unit.

“Stepmothers should not be stereotyped as wicked, distant or cruel,” she explained in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage article.

She notes how dispelling the latter notion can actually “aid in reducing negative repercussions,’ and that effectively incorporating [stepmothers] into the family can actually result in a more positive and healthy transition for, not only children, but for everybody involved.

“When the stepmother has a clearly identified role within the family, the overall family function is improved,” she said.

Stepmothers should not be stereotyped as wicked, distant or cruel … [the latter can actually] aid in reducing negative repercussions.” ~ Cara Zaharychuk, AU MC ’16, April 10, 2017

While Zahraychuk says her relationship with her stepchildren is ‘on a really good path’ now, that hadn’t always been the case. A decade ago, she married their father, Dwight, whose children at the time were just 10 and 12 years old. The first few years were bumpy, she notes, but suggests those formative-age factors may have had some bearing on rockier family dynamics.

“I assume because my stepchildren were older when I came into their lives that their routines and family rituals were set. So then trying to add an additional person into this unit that they’d already adjusted to, made things more difficult,” she says.

Zaharychuk’s research led to some pivotal personal discoveries.

“It really clarified to me why I was so confused with my position within the family. I didn’t have a role; it wasn’t organized and so I didn’t just immediately fit in and bond with anybody,” she explains.

“I struggled and wondered why it was difficult and then when I began to do the research, I [learned] that when you don’t have a role and there’s no organization – that’s why I was feeling so lost and out of place.

She references her own inflexibility and a proclivity toward organization, rules and guidelines, as the sources for her initial frustration on the family front, which also led to feelings of guilt –  something she now realizes was nobody’s fault.

“It was just the situation and I truly believe that if we had just been more flexible and communicated better, it could have been easier,” she says.

Zaharychuk says she hopes having her research in the public domain might help other stepmothers to better understand their roles within their own family units.

“The meaning behind the paper is to enlighten the role of the stepmother. And I am also a mother – so I understand that a stepmother is a secondary role to the birth mother. But it’s an important one, too, and can be very beneficial to the functioning of a blended family.”

Word to your [Step] mother!

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