Being a stepmother is quite a challenge. Part of the reason is that we start out trying to shake the myth of the evil stepmother, a vision we’ve absorbed through years of reading incriminating fairy tales. These women may have made deliciously evil Disney villains, but they’ve made it tough for every un-wicked stepmother who has followed in their paths. But if we’re being honest, fairy tale stepmothers made some rather unfortunate errors that we can try to avoid.

  1. Don’t insist on being the fairest in the land. You’re the adult, after all. Let the kids have the spotlight. Focus attention on their achievements and interests.
  2. If the stepdaughter begs to try on a glass slipper or wants a fancy new dress for the ball, be supportive. When she marries her prince, she’ll remember that you were in her corner. As a stepmom rather than a biological Mom, you have the advantage of being the concerned— but more objective— adult relative. You may find that your stepkids come to you for advice and support before approaching their biological parents. They know you’re not likely to react with the same degree of intensity that their biological parents might. You can use this to build a solid foundation for your stepmom/stepchild relationship.
  3. Don’t force your stepdaughter to sweep the fireplace or do the mending unless your kids do it too. Treat everyone fairly. This doesn’t mean treat everyone the same— even your biological children will require very different things at different times. But be consistent and even-handed when passing out household chores. Base it on age and ability rather than biology.
  4. Never try to trick your stepchildren by offering them poisoned fruit when their Dad isn’t watching and sweet treats when he is. Kids aren’t easily fooled. Treat them as kindly when no one else is nearby as you do when you’re in a group. You want to establish a genuine friendship, not just prove to your husband that you’re trying hard.
  5. If you discover your stepdaughter cooking and cleaning for seven little men, let her be. She’ll figure out soon enough that there’s an easier way to get free room and board. Save the lecture and let life teach the lesson. The older kids are, the more the natural consequences of their behavior will help them stay on (or at least near) the right path. If you are too critical of their decisions, their Dad may feel obligated to defend them, even if he secretly agrees with you. So with older stepchildren, you usually can step back and let society reign them back in.
  6. Don’t leave your stepchildren deep in the forest with only a bit of bread. That’s just not going to play well no matter how you tell it.
  7. Talking to your mirror is not all that productive. You’re better off calling your mother— or calling another stepmom, which is even better. Find a supportive network of other stepmothers who understand your challenges and can offer suggestions and lend a sympathetic ear. Many stepmothers find that talking with a counselor who specializes in stepfamily issues helps stepfamilies learn how to cope in the new family dynamic. In any case, don’t think you have to do it alone. There’s a lot of help available.

If you’re ever tempted to curse those wicked fairy tale stepmothers, just remember: They certainly didn’t set very high expectations for stepmothers, so we’re all bound to look pretty good in comparison.

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