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.

 

Feel the love

brownie

‘When we arrive in the world after a taxing journey into the unknown, the comfort of another human being awaits each one of us. Warmth, holding, safety, love if we’re lucky, are accompanied by and communicated through food. This is our first act on earth. ‘

This is how my post called ‘Comfort Eating’ began nearly a year ago and I want to revisit this intimate connection between food and how we feel inside because it lies at the heart of our obsession with food. It is implicated in the psychological knots we tie ourselves in about what we eat and what we should look like. If things go well in our earliest days, eating and love and the comfort of contact with another become inextricably bound together in our brains as they grow. This becomes part of what we call reality and however bad your childhood was, if you’re reading this you somehow got enough food to get by and you likely got enough love to get by as well … and maybe more. We are very good at feeling wistful for the love we yearned for and didn’t get. It is often difficult to feel the love we did get because we are angry and sad about what was missing.

Early on babies do not distinguish between love and food and what we learn about love and food we mostly learn unconsciously when we are newborn babies. Small wonder then that when we need love many of us look around for something to put in our mouths. There is no right or wrong here, just observation. This is how being human works. If we can stop punishing ourselves for eating the ‘wrong thing’ or ‘too much’ and just notice how much love we really need, that can help. If we can pledge to provide it for ourselves we take a big step towards forgiving the person who didn’t give us enough.

Promise yourself right now that whatever else you do you will not shame yourself around food and weight. That is a huge step towards bringing love and self-control into the same room. Refusing to shame yourself can liberate you from the tyranny of food : what should I eat, how much, have I ‘earned’ it? We don’t eat because we ‘deserve’ to. We eat because we need to. The more we listen to our bodies with an open mind the easier it is to find out what we need to eat and when.

We are not here on earth very long but long enough to find out how to feed ourselves with kindness. Does that sound like a good plan?

Ultimate Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Gary Rhodes’ recipe)

10 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs

8 ozs unsalted butter

3 ozs cocoa

3 ozs plain flour

8 ozs plain chocolate

4 ozs hazelnuts or pecans, chopped

4 ozs white chocolate in chunks

Whisk eggs and sugar. Melt the butter and add. Then add flour and cocoa. Melt the plain chocolate and add that. Then the nuts and the white chocolate.

Grease a shallow tin and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into very small rich cubes. Eat with creme fraiche and raspberries adjusting the ratio of cake to fruit according to your situation.