The images are familiar and powerful ones.
“When it was morning, and Snow White awoke and saw the seven dwarfs, she was very frightened.
“She told them that her stepmother had wished her to be put to death, and how the huntsman had spared her life,” the Brothers Grimm wrote in their familiar fairy tale.
Another well-known children’s story begins, “The wicked stepmother kept Hansel and Gretel under lock and key all day with nothing for supper but a sip of water and some hard bread.
“All night, husband and wife quarrelled, and when dawn came, the woodcutter led the children out into the forest.”
Lady Teremaine, Cinderella’s stepmother in Disney’s 1950 animated classic, also is regarded as one of cinema’s classic villians.
These are but three of the more than 900 stories written about evil or wicked stepmothers, according to Nancy Recker, assistant professor at Ohio State University Extension.
(In the original versions of Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, the evil protagonist was the mother. The characters were changed to stepmothers to make the stories less frightening for children.)
“It’s tough for stepfamilies because of these cultural icons that are negative regarding stepmothers,” said Kathleen Rodgers, associate professor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University in Pullman.
Even in the 1998 movie “Stepmom,” Julia Roberts’ character isn’t portrayed as evil but as the incompetent outsider, though the family comes together at the end, she said.
Then there’s the flipside of that evil or incompetent image, where the stepmother goes in a relationship thinking she is going to “save” these kids who don’t have a mother, Rodgers said.
Those cultural messages and ideas also form expectations and thinking about what the stepfamily is supposed to be like and it what should be like, she said.
For stepfamilies, the tension and stress begin when there’s a gap between the expectations of the new relationship and reality, Rodgers said.
“The first two years are the most tumultuous because those roles are still being sorted out. It all depends on how well families have integrated,” she said.
“The research on stepfamilies talks about minimizing conflict in families. The biological parent is the key in establishing that new relationship, acting as the mediator,” Rodgers said.
When stepfamilies successfully become integrated is when you hear the parents and children referring to each other without using the term “step,” Rodgers said.
“When the mother says, ‘They are all my children,’ that’s a goal,” she said.
But don’t expect that to happen right away, Rodgers said.
“That’s one of the myths, that it’s going to happen overnight, that we’re going to the Brady Bunch.
The first two years are going to be the hardest, if they make it through that, going to be okay,” she said.
That sort of integration is much easier to do when the children are younger, Rodgers said. But families must allow flexibility to allow that relationship to develop, she said.
A stepfamily is defined as one in which one or both spouses have children from a previous relationship.
Statistics on the number of stepfamilies in the country are difficult to come by and often vary widely. The survey form for the 2000 U.S. Census did not ask about stepfamilies.
But market research done for the greeting card company Hallmark estimated there’s about 35 million stepfamilies in the country, about one of every three, said spokeswoman Mandy Levings.
Focus group research begun by the greeting card company in 1999 showed a need for cards targeted at “non-traditional families” such as stepfamilies, she said.
“Hallmark is always looking at new trends. We were ahead of the curve and I’m not sure we picked up on it quickly enough,” Levings said.
“What we’re seeing is that ‘traditional’ is no longer traditional,” she said.
Rodgers said finding creative ways to celebrate holidays such as Mothers Day is one way that stepfamilies can make the transition easier for everyone.
“Any relationship must start slowly. One thing that helps families with transitions is new examples and celebrations,” she said.
If the children leave the stepmother behind on Mothers Day to be with their biological mother, then they can choose another day and celebrate Stepmother Day to acknowledge her, Rodgers said.
Christy Borgeld began a campaign in 1997 to have Sept. 16 designated as National Stepfamily Day in 1997.
As of 2006, the governors or legislatures of 46 states (all except Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and Hawaii) had passed resolutions or signed proclamations to that effect.
“Stepfamilies need to find those kinds of creative ways to celebrate, find new kinds of traditions to form a different model, Rodgers said.