I stood at the altar next to my husband-to-be and said “I do”, not knowing I was also saying “I do” to two ex-wives and three stepchildren—the youngest of whom was 5-years-old. Although I knew little about being a wife, and even less about being a stepmother, I was confident and willingly accepting the situation.
Shortly after our honeymoon my husband’s second wife, Shannon, called insisting Brené, the youngest, spend her summer with us. “Sure,” Bill said without hesitation. Just like that, the honeymoon was over. My wedding day confidence nose-dived as I suddenly faced the reality of an ex-wife’s demands on our lives.
The next day we picked up Brené. When she placed her tiny hand in mine and let me escort her to our car my heart melted. During her summer visit, Brené became the daughter I couldn’t conceive and together we built a relationship, delighting in one another’s company. But when Brené returned for her Christmas visit, her attitude towards me had shifted. “You can’t tell me what to do! Mommy said so!” She stormed away in a huff.
When Bill talked with Brené, he learned Shannon told Brené I was like the evil stepmother in Cinderella, intentionally planting fear in Brené’s heart and placing a wedge in our relationship. Bill confronted Shannon, who said: “No one gets to be Brené’s mother but me. No one! I’ll see to that.” And she did, consistently reinforcing the evil stepmother label.
Although Brené visited with us regularly throughout her childhood and teen years, the evil stepmother label was fixed in her mind, dashing any hopes of us having a healthy relationship. I harbored disdain and contempt toward Shannon for diminishing me and villainizing me. She became my enemy, her helpless victim. Although the dark side of me wanted to exact some form of revenge, I couldn’t be that ruthless.
Yet I was frustrated, for there was little I could do to change the situation. The only thing I knew to do was step back and see things from Shannon’s perspective. She believed I’d destroy her mother-daughter relationship, and she feared losing it. Her fear, as irrational as it seemed, left her no option but to villainize me to protect that relationship. Brené had too much vested interest in the story she’d been fed and couldn’t let go of the evil stepmother label for fear of losing her relationship with her mother.
Even now 35 years later, You’re the evil stepmother are the words frequently flying from Brené’s mouth whenever I don’t meet her demands and expectations. Once upon a time, those words would have cut me to the core. But when I understood the fear behind those words, my perspective shifted in much the same way patterns shift in a kaleidoscope when the cylinder’s turned. My anger diminished, and I felt compassion and forgiveness for Shannon and Brené. I’m no longer a helpless victim and they’re no longer my enemies—only frightened, fragile, and flawed women.