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The Indian society has a stereotypical notion in place when it comes to stepmoms. It is time, we stop glorifying or stereotyping the concept of ‘step mom’ and stop the judgement.
She was standing in front of her new home. There was no one at the door to receive her. No floral decoration, no banana tree branches flanking both sides of the door with decorative earthen holy pots at its feet, no gathering of married women, led by a mother-in-law, waiting happily with anxious anticipation to receive her with all the customary preparations. There was no shehnai playing in the background, no uludhwani to welcome her.
She slowly and hesitantly pushed the half open door with her palm. There was no sacred brass pot kept at the threshold of the main entrance of the house, filled with a heap of rice over its brim that a new bride is supposed to gently tumble down by her toes before stepping in. There was no platter of water mixed with Álta (a red dye Indian women, especially Bengali married women use to paint the sides of their feet) in which a new bride is supposed to dip her feet and then walk inside, stepping onto a new cloth rolled out on the floor, leaving her footprint on it, symbolizing the arrival of ‘Lakshmi’ – the goddess of wealth .
She knocked at the door. A young, adolescent boy came out. He was, at first, a little startled to see her there. But, he did not ask her who she was. He guessed who she could be. The fresh sindoor along the woman’s hair parting was enough introduction. The woman did noticed the awkwardness, the slight shadow of resentment mixed with a tinge of sadness in his eyes. She tried to smile and slowly and shyly asked, “You are the eldest one, right?” The teenager nodded and then turning his gaze towards the floor, said in a low voice, “Please come in.”
She stepped into her new home.
She was the second wife of a middle-aged man – a widower with half a dozen children. All those matrimonial rituals to receive a new bride into her marital home were not meant or required for her. Her marriage took place over the tragic incident of the untimely death of the man’s previous wife.
Hence, there was no celebration. In some cases, a second wife may arrive after a sad separation with the first one. In that case, some ceremonies may still happen. But in this case, there was none. Her marriage was truly an “arrangement of convenience” without all these frills. The man in his early forties needed a woman, firstly to manage his household and family of half a dozen children aged between 6 months and 16 years and secondly as his spouse and companion.
The average looking, slightly dark-complexioned woman, much younger than the man she had just got married to, came from a poor family. They could not get her married to an eligible bachelor. When they received this proposal, they were more than happy to give away their daughter’s hand to him.
There was no demand for dowry, jewelry or anything. The only pre-condition and expectation was that the woman would readily accept the role of a ‘mother’ and deliver the responsibility of nurturing a big family of children left by the previous wife of the man, besides playing other roles of a new life-partner to him. The woman had no choice or say in this arrangement.
She accepted it as she knew it was always better to be someone’s wife than spending all her life as a single, unmarried woman in her maiden home, depending on her poor father or brothers. Which she knew, wouldn’t be a much honourable life.
The woman, who arrived alone, without a ceremonious reception, died after spending around five decades of her life in that home. She did not have her own children. She took care of the six children of her husband’s previous marriage. I could see her depart as a sad, defeated, unfulfilled soul.
The boy, who received her on her arrival for the first time, did the funeral rites. He was in his fifties by then. As per Hindu norms, a son is supposed to shave off his head as a mark of respect and a part of the last rites of his parents. In this case, the priest conducting the ceremony said a stepmother is not entitled to that right by the scriptures.
Today, there is no photograph of the woman in his house. The photograph of his own late mother sits rightfully next to his late father’s photo. The stepmother, the second wife, the childless woman is remembered and still criticized only for all her frailties and misdeeds and nothing else. After all she was a stepmother.
This has happened with scores of women. They were picked up from an underprivileged background and right away assigned the responsibility of a ‘Mother’ – the most important and difficult job of parenting. Her age gap with the step children, mental maturity or emotional strength, nothing was considered to check if she was fit for this role or not. In case of stepmothers, the complexities of parenting are further compounded. Hence, it should be thought about more.
Has society ever spared any thought on this? I don’t think so.
Many a times, the men’s families turn a blind eye to the reality of a woman’s psychological and emotional complexities in raising a stepchild.
This proves that patriarchal society has not understood motherhood in its true sense or from the perspective of a woman. It has either over-hyped it or downplayed it.
On one hand it has deified motherhood. On the other hand, it has taken motherhood so much for granted. It doesn’t understand that a woman, just for being a woman, does not have an obligation or instant inclination to feel motherly towards anyone she is expected to or asked to, especially towards stepchildren.
In most cases, quite naturally, a stepmother fails this humongous expectation of the society and thus, earns the bad reputation of a stereo-typical ‘stepmother’.
Despite serving this difficult role, most of the time not as their own choice, step mothers carry this tag of evil human beings, through-out ages in folktales, mythological stories or epics, worldwide.
In one hand, the society labels a stepmother negatively. It does not understand her predicament. On the other hand, it casually imposes the unrealistic high expectation of being Yashoda (who was not a stepmother; she was a foster mother who raised and took care of Krishna for a while without knowing that he was not born of her womb) on them which requires almost divine power to overcome all ordinary limitations of human emotions. This is unfair and an example of mindless double standard applied by the patriarchal society on women.
I think this happens due to the following reasons:
Ignorance of women’s minds and bodies
Ignorance, lack of insight and awareness of society (read men) about female psychology, her sexuality, her motherhood, her emotional complexities.
Being male, men do not have the direct experience of bearing and giving birth to children. That makes them incapable of experiencing firsthand what motherhood is in terms of physical and emotional attachment with the child from the day of conception. They do not, hence, realize how difficult it often is for a woman to love and care for a child, who is not her own, with whom she does not have that intimate physical and emotional connection to develop the sense of belonging and bonding. If it would have been so easy to mother children, not one’s own, there would not have been so many orphan children in the world, waiting to be adopted.
Not many stepfathers, hence no precedent
Women widowed or divorced, especially with children, cannot marry second or third time as easily as men. Marriage is not a considered a socially acceptable solution for them for the same reason – need for a companion and support to raise her kids and run the household.
All over the world, it has always been much easier for widowed, divorced or separated men with children, to marry second or third time, same age or much younger women. Society, legal and religious systems, predominantly patriarchal, have always been favourable to men in this matter, on the pretext of his legitimate need for a companion and a wife to manage his household and children.
This is not the case for women, who are widowed or divorced and have children with them from previous wedlock, left behind or deserted by their fathers.
Women in such a situation rarely marry for the second or third time. Hence, men hardly get the chance to experience how it feels to take the role of a father of his wife’s children from her previous marriage. There is no popular male role model, idol, example, inspiration or reference point either for them to emulate, such as there is ‘Yashoda’ for women.
Lack of empathy for their wives’ jealousy
Men do not understand how stepchildren can remind a woman of her husband’s intimate relationship with his first wife and can make her feel extremely jealous and angry.
It is natural to feel jealous for a woman about their spouse ’s or partner’s ex. This sense of jealousy often manifests into angry, apathetic and unjust behavior with the child who was born out of another relationship of one’s partner.
To sum up, society never thought how emotionally challenging and draining it could be for women to be stepmothers. It just takes advantage of women’s underprivileged and weaker position in the society (especially in Indian context) and makes them play this difficult role. Most of the times they fail in it and also end up being judged and bad mouthed.
To me these women are misunderstood and sad victims of circumstances. People need to understand that and stop judging stepmothers. Mothering is considered to be exclusively subject to a woman’s own offspring. A stepmother can, at the most, be as humane as possible, if not motherly, towards the stepchildren.
At the same time the entire world, including the stepmothers, also need to realize that the stepchildren, who lost their own mothers at an early age or never received and experienced their own mother’s love and care, are the most unfortunate victims of circumstances. Rarely can someone else substitute the role of one’s own mother or compensate for her loss.
Hence, patriarchy should stop fantasizing the story of Yashoda and Krishna happening in real life and expect the same from women.
Image Source: YouTube/Mom
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Born in the land of Royal Bengal tigress, Somma was tamed in the hooter driven
Very well written Somma. I especially liked the point that just being a woman doesn’t automatically make you obliged to be motherly or have those instincts. The society rarely judges a father as much as it judges a mother as a bad mother or good mother.
I’m so glad someone has written about this much needed aspeCt of a woman’s life.
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