Wicked Step-Mother

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.

 

Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Now this post does not have a title that trips off the tongue easily but hear me out. This is about the mind and the heart and how we may get the best out of them. In this context the heart is not some sloppy sentimental old dear hanging like a millstone around the neck of that great warrior, the mind, and rendering it less efficient. It is the winged Sufi heart, a warrior in its own subtle way. The Sufi heart is a thing of great beauty and wisdom, a connector between body and mind, a temple within which to worship which reveals that where ever you turn, there is God’s face.

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Did you know the Buddhists do something handy when they are meditating. If they are distracted by discursive thought they simply label it ‘thinking’ and return the attention to the breath. It’s a great technique. No fighting, no arguing, just name it and return to the present. Thinking is pretty much how we run our lives here in the West. It has had a great press in these parts since the Enlightenment, so much so that we seem to have forgotten all other ways of being. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is a wonderful tool and it does things we cannot do without. Following a recipe springs to mind. Reading instructions for your new chainsaw (aargh!).

Our minds are a bit like the government. They tend to hog all the credit for what happens when it goes right and to blame the rest of the system (the body, the heart) when things go wrong. Yet the mind is wrong about all of that for our actions are rarely, as they seem, the end result of careful consideration. We now know that the body is preparing for the action you have committed to (lifting that glass of wine to your mouth) way before our minds know we have ‘decided’ to act. Monitoring our physiology reveals that the brain is already enjoying dopamine to the reward pathway while you still think you’re deciding whether to have the drink of not. Our conscious decision-making and careful weighing of evidence is not quite as linear a process as it feels. If you don’t believe me take a look at The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

So the mind is not quite the action hero we thought. In addition, things not even accessible to my mind crop up all the time it’s just that the mind is very reluctant to acknowledge them. They may be of the elevated philosophical kind (the infinite nature of the universe, the apparently localised nature of time – what’s that all about??) but they may also be personal and hum-drum. Shall I go to my brother’s birthday party even though I am upset with him? Shall I tell my friend I don’t like the way her boyfriend treats her and of course he’s like the last boyfriend? The mind has a strong storyline about these things but the logical conclusion may not feel right. The heart has its reasons, said old Pascal, that reason knoweth not and while he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want at a party, he had a point. He was no slouch in the mathematics department, young Blaise, but he knew the limits of thinking. In tricky areas I have to ask my mind to take a step back and engage with my Heart instead.

So what has all this to do with eating? Put simply, it is interesting when you are contemplating what to cook tonight or put in your mouth right now, to try that Buddhist technique and label all that is going on within your head as ‘thinking’. Let your enquiry into what to eat become a kind of meditation from which a wonderful action can emerge. It can let the steam off the pressure-cooker of the brain and its constant efforts to do the right thing.

This very morning I ended up in the beach kiosk having a splendid breakfast, a departure my mind had all kinds of reasons for not making. Great decision, thanks to my heart.

 

And now finally, you’ve been very patient, a recipe. This is a great dish if you have mixed vegetarians and meat eaters at the table since it goes brilliantly with steak or roast chicken or fish but can also hold up its head on its own.

Mozzarella Stuffed Aubergines for four

You can make it a day or two ahead and bake it as needed. If you don’t know what time people are arriving, take the dish out of the fridge in good time and get your oven nice and hot. When they knock the door pop it straight in the hot oven for half an hour or so while they are having a glass of Prosecco and an anchovy puff. (I’m coming to those).

1-2 aubergines depending on size

2 packets of mozzarella

A large bottle of tomato passata

Start by griddling some sliced aubergines, lengthways, pretty much as thin as you can slice them. Brush your griddle with olive oil and either salt and drain the aubergines first or simply sprinkle a little salt on them as you take them off the griddle to cool. Now cut the mozzarella into convenient chunky strips and wrap each one in a slice of aubergine. Roll the aubergine up into a sausage.

aubergine

As each little roll is ready position it in a shallow oven proof dish. When the dish is full cover the lot in tomato sauce. You can either use a bottle of passata ready made from the supermarket, or you can use the same bottle of passata that you have improved.

How to improve bottled passata

Depending on how much time you have you can either :

  1. let it reduce slightly in a large shallow pan with some olive oil, salt, fresh basil and a smashed garlic clove. (Some people add sugar – you need to taste and decide.)
  2. or add roasted fresh tomatoes to the pan as well

If you have mozzarella left over you can put slices on top. If not serve the baked dish with fresh Parmesan. It makes great leftovers too. It is calorie heavy so make sure to eat it with a large plate of salad and a light hand with the bread basket if you’re watching the pounds.

Anchovy Puffs (Halloumi also works)

I hardly like to give a recipe for these since I serve them all the time and they are shamefully easy. Once upon a time I got the idea from a Victorian cookery book called Mrs De Salis’ Sweets and Savouries which I bought as a student. I also use her Christmas pudding recipe. However we will not be using Ruby the kitchen maid to make the puff pastry when she gets up to light the boiler. We will be using Tesco’s best.

Roll out your shop bought puff pastry (fresh is better than frozen but frozen will do). Cover the sheet of pastry with individual anchovies our of a tin or jar and cut round each anchovy leaving a margin of pastry so that you can make a parcel of it. Now brush round the edges with milk and roll them up into fingers or parcels – it is impossible to make them unattractive so don’t worry – and put them on baking parchment on a baking tray.

Brush with milk or milk and egg and put into a very hot oven (180 degrees) 10 minutes before you want to serve them. Serve with paper napkins as they are a bit oily and flaky as well as delicious. (You can put your Stuffed Aubergine into the same oven.)