All of us have read fairy tales in our childhood. We remember the evil step mother in many of them- women who were out to destroy the poor little princess or the nice girl/boy or women who promoted their own children while illtreating poor young Cinderella! We have also seen endless movies which have these awful mothers-in-law who harrass their daugther-in-law and selfish daugthers-in-law who throw out their poor mother/ father in law!
These stereotypes are so strongly embedded in our minds that we tend to just assume that people are like that in real life too. But the question is are they?
Let us take the case of a step mother. Have we ever tried to understand the burden of responsibility that she might be bearing? I have a close friend who is in this situation and I really admire the patience and grace with which she has handled this role. Children as we know may not take well to the concept of a step parent and often react badly. How does a step mom deal this? While a mother has the freedom to discipline her children ,when a step mother does so it is interpreted differently. So what does she do? She tolerates bad behaviour , bad habits and risks in turn comments about how she may not really care about her step children? It is therefore a situation of "heads I win tails you lose"! It is probably the most difficult situation for a person to be in - managing a marriage and kids who may not take kindly to her and God help the woman if she also has in laws staying with her!!! Often a step mother, particularly in an Indian context might also be living with the insecurity of what the future may hold for her and her children when she loses her spouse. In a situation where children do not care for their own parents would they look after a step mother?
Same is the situation with mothers-in-law and daughters-in -law. There is one woman who is insecure and worried about her son's affections going away from her to someone much younger and another who is wondering if she would ever be able to compete with someone who has shaped her husband's life all these years and who may still have the power to influence his treatment of her. In the case of the mother-in-law / daugther-in-law equation, depending on which side of the fence we are on we beleive the steretype most suitable to us.
These stereotypes are very powerful and they often colour relationships. People refuse to look beyond what they believe of that particular "negative" stereotype. So are postive stereotypes really positive? Are all biological mothers really selfless? There are number of mothers who have often been very manipulative of their children for their own little ends? I know of mothers who are control freaks and mothers who frankly don't care. But most mothers - biological and step ones are human. They have their good and bad sides which they try to balance. Unfortunately in the case of the step mother we love to see the bad side while ignoring the good side. The same is the case with mothers / daugthers in law.
We are so scared that we might be judged and made into the negative stereotype that we spend all of our time taking that "extra effort". But does the extra effort ever win the praise from that so called world that we are trying to please? Do people recongize the contributions made by a step mother towards the upbringing of her step children. Do we acknowledge as mothers - in- law and daugthers-in-law the contribution of the "other"? Sometimes..! But times when we try to do that we end up sounding defensive! A defensiveness that seems to in itself again reinforce the same stereotype and sometimes a discrimination too.
I have often encountered some of my late mother-in-law's friends saying " We really appreciate the way you are looking after our friend even though you dont belong to our community"? Now that is insulting! Does that mean that daugthers-in-law from other communities might behave worse that daugthers-in- law of the same community? Similarly I have heard my relatives say " It is so nice of your mother -in- law to accomodate you in the same house as her even though you are not from her community"! Again unfair!
I have often wondered whether we will ever break these stereotypes? When will we have fairy tales where the fairy god mother is actually a step mother in disguise or stories where the mother- in- law and daugther in law get together to deal with the chauvinistic men of the family? It is only when we are able to project more of these stories that the old stereotypes will fade. Until then folks we just have to continue being that "wicked step mother" or the "cunning mother in law" and the "selfish daugther in law"!