Splitting is a recipe for mental health that we learn before we can speak. It is a normal healthy strategy the human psyche employs before reason arrives. We imagine there’s a good mother that comes and feeds us and a bad mother who doesn’t come. We imagine there really are two separate people. The good mother is happy and smiling and loving. The bad mother is Mother on an off day, in a bad mood, grumpy, tired, fed up or maybe when she just needs five minutes to herself! It’s a convenient ‘pre-conscious’ behaviour which enables us to hold conflicting experiences in the same tiny heart and mind before we can ‘understand’ or rationalise what is happening. And before you tell me it wasn’t like this for you because your mother was always there, let me clarify. For an infant lying in its cot and feeling miserable, Mother feels hateful even though she’s just finished feeding you and fallen asleep next to your bed because she’s exhausted.
It is too confusing and produces bad feelings if we ‘think’ bad things about mother. (It is too difficult for many of my adult clients so no wonder the dependent infant has problems.) How will we love her again if we really feel these bad feelings about her? And how will we survive if we don’t love her? We need her.
Let me say this with flashing lights and siren accompaniment : this is about the normal infant with the more than adequate mother. All mothers fail their infants every day and they need to so in order that children can learn to handle anger, disappointment, fear without cracking up (or as we hygienically call it,trauma.)
By the age of about two we are ‘supposed’ to have developed what they call ‘object constancy’ which means you can just about tolerate knowing that wonderful Mother, whom you adore, has off days and is the self-same harridan that handles you roughly and burns the toast and yells or puts on her best dress and goes out for the evening leaving you with a babysitter. Trouble is most of us don’t seem to reach that integration by age two and some of us still don’t get it by age fifty-two. Some of us feel the only safe way forward is to hang on to that ideal mother in our heads and guess what happens to the horrible hateful feelings we’re not dealing with?
You’ve read the title to the post and you’re way ahead of me. Enter the wicked step-mother who is purpose built for all those negative feelings we can’t allow ourselves to feel about Mum. If you’ve ever read a fairytale you can’t help noticing that stepmothers get a bad press. They are murderous, greedy, manipulative and fatally attractive to innocent men. Snow White’s stepmother actually plots to have her killed, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother sends them out to starve in the forest. These iconic monsters of children’s literature represent a safety valve for kids to hate their mothers in an entirely healthy unconscious way. But hey, if they’ve got a stepmother in their lives they can keep all their good cosy feelings for Mum and channel all those bad, ugly feelings towards That Horrible Lady Who Has Stolen Daddy. And Mum is superhuman if she doesn’t encourage this splitting. Who wants to be the villain? (As a mother and stepmother myself I have some experience of being the Good Cop and and the Bad Cop and I know which is nicer.)
But this naturally occurring splitting also points to an unhealthy split that many societies (yes, and religions) make between the good female (self-sacrificing, sex sanctified by reproduction or abstained from) and the bad female (autonomous, dangerous, sexual and unapologetic). Mixed feelings about sex lie right at the heart of this and the impossible question : how can my saintly, pure mother whom I love also be a powerful sex goddess? Many of us wall up the sex goddess in the garage the minute children arrive because we just don’t know how to combine those roles. The paradox of the Virgin Mother is one we are still wrestling with. Stepmothers embody all those unmotherly female attributes that the world finds just too powerful to feel comfortable with. The wicked stepmother is beautiful but not maidenly. She is sexual and autonomous. She is in touch with her own sexual desire but not as a means to procreation! She is in a mothering role without any of what we euphemistically call ‘mothering instincts’ (for which read ‘biological investment’). Wow! No wonder she’s hot stuff.
This is the first in a series of posts about parenting and step-parenting and in the next one I shall be addressing how as mothers and step-mothers we can cope with the horrible feelings coming up in ourselves and the horrible feelings coming towards us from our step-children. And don’t worry! We will be asking an all-too-unasked question, Where Does Dad Fit In With All This?
Happily this experience is not the same for everyone but I encounter many women for whom this is a really painful area and not much talked about with love. Look out for my next post but meanwhile there is support for stepmothers here and it looks really good.
Recipes are taking a back seat today but more soon.