Most people want their lives filled with fairytale elements — except perhaps stepmothers. The tales from our childhood have not been particularly kind to these wretched women, vilifying them as the evil witch, the wicked queen or the cruel mother, forever hatching plans to do away with the sweet-faced, pure-hearted stepchild. And society has latched onto this imagery, making it difficult for stepmoms to integrate easily with their new families. While Mother’s Day is celebrated across the country with great enthusiasm, not many know that the third Sunday of May (May 18, this year) is celebrated as the Step Mother’s Day. “Stepmothers step in to take care of someone else’s child. People not only don’t help her in these efforts but also don’t acknowledge her feelings,” says Geeta Maheshwari, marriage and remarriage therapist who has penned a guide of sorts for stepmoms to help them tread this path with confidence. Titled Lessons for Step Mothers, the book contains chapters on every aspect of this tricky relationship ranging from how to deal with a teenage stepchild to making the husband understand the situation. Maheshwari, who stepped into the role of a stepmom 10 years ago, has drawn on her own experiences of dealing with a teenage child while writing this book. “It was difficult initially. Somehow, everything that I did was a problem. I was a fairly intelligent woman and couldn’t fathom why in this particular sphere everything was going wrong,” says Maheshwari. It was then that she read on the subject extensively and was able to deal with her own situation. “Writing this book was therapeutic for me. I realised that I can do only so much. Now I am content,” she says. Maheshwari claims to be the first Indian author to have written a book on the subject. “No one wants to write about stepmothers. But it is a subject that needs to be talked about. In my own practice as a therapist, I have seen an increase in the number of step families coming to me,” she says, “And believe me, 10 years from now, almost everyone in urban India will have a relative who will be a stepmother. It is important for women to know how to travel on this journey.” Those who have tread this path believe that it is important to not look at oneself as a stepmother. “I have known my ‘son’ ever since he was two years old," says Manisha Khosla, head (preventive medicine), Rockland Hospital, New Delhi. “He used to live with his mother in Mumbai. He was a lonely child with his mother busy at work and father living in Delhi.
So he found a motherly figure in me.” As he grew up, Khosla helped him deal with teenage issues as well. “I told him to confide in his father, which he did. Earlier he used to call me ‘Aunty’ and I never forced him to call me Maa. But now he calls me Mom, because he wants to,” she says. “My daughter is now a teenager and he is helping her deal with her issues. He is 20-years-old and a role model for her.” According to Khosla, how one negotiates the path to the child’s heart depends entirely on the individual. “Kids are very attuned to what you actually are as a person. So one should be natural,” says Khosla. But problems can arise, says Maheshwari, when the stepmom doesn’t have a biological child and the stepchild is in the teens. “Very often, the husbands indulge the stepchild while condemning the stepmother, saying that 'you are not a mother yourself, so you won’t understand',” she says. But when you knew that the woman is not a mother, then why did you marry her to take care of your child. Most husbands feel guilty of marrying again, thus allowing kids to manipulate the situation,” she says. She can’t emphasise enough on the husband’s role in helping his wife ease into this role. “All the women who have been successful in this role have had loving and supportive husbands.” And most importantly, society needs to change its attitude towards stepmothers. “We need to stop telling these fairy tales to our kids, stop portraying the stepmom in a bad light in films and books. Women who become stepmothers have also grown up on these tales. So they bend over backwards to dispel that image. But without the support of the husband and the society, they end up being lonely and depressed,” says Maheshwari. Maybe it’s time we told our kids that life is not a fairytale but there are ways of living happily ever-after.