Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Another Nail in the Coffin for Stepmothers

When I first heard that Kyron Horman, the 7 year old boy from Portland, Oregon was missing, my initial feeling was concern for his welfare; I hoped he quickly would be found, and recover from this terrible ordeal. Upon learning that his stepmother, Terri Horman was the last person to see him, my next feeling was dread. In my gut, I just knew this was going to be another example where stepmothers get a bad rap. I worried that both the media and everyone who read about this story would immediately go to the default stereotype that stepmothers are evil and wicked.

My heart goes out to this poor little 7 year old boy; I can’t bear to think about his terror and loneliness separated from his family at such a young age, and I can’t imagine the anguish his family is experiencing. It’s a tragedy for everyone involved in this case including the police officers and citizens who are desperately trying to find Kyron.

I don’t know what happened to Kyron and have no idea if his stepmother is responsible for his disappearance, but I do know that Terri Horman should be perceived and treated as an individual without prejudging her as a wicked stepmother. Not all stepmothers are bad people. Did you know that there are between 11 and 18 million stepmothers with stepchildren under the age of 18 in the U.S.? Stepmothers come in all shapes and sizes, with different personalities - the vast majority of whom are loving, kind, and compassionate to their stepchildren. If Terri Horman is responsible for hurting Kyron, it isn’t because she is a stepmother, it is because she is disturbed and crossed the line between rational and irrational thought.

Unfortunately, stepmothers have already been damaged by the media sensationalizing Kyron’s disappearance and depicting Terri Horman as a wicked stepmother. This adds one more nail in the coffin for stepmothers, reinforcing the negative stereotype that has existed for centuries. Thus, the job of overcoming this erroneous stereotype becomes much more challenging.
The wicked stepmother stereotype has been firmly embedded in our culture for centuries, taught and passed along to very young children by fairy tales, such as Cinderella and Snow White. One way to overcome this stereotype is if parents would take the time after reading Cinderella to their children to explain to them that most stepmothers are loving and kind. Even though Cinderella’s stepmother was cruel, not all stepmothers are bad. Parents might then give their children some examples of good stepmothers whom their children know to contrast Cinderella’s wicked one.

Stereotypes matter. Unconsciously, they oftentimes influence us to hold beliefs and make decisions based on inaccurate information. This changes our realities because we act on information that we haven’t taken the time to verify as fact. If people believe stepmothers are wicked, how they treat them will naturally be affected, and not in a good way.

Stepmothers, too are negatively affected by the wicked stepmother stereotype, and would benefit greatly if it was neutralized. In my book, The Happy Stepmother I discuss that when women become stepmothers, they embrace their new role with enthusiasm and hope, and try to prove to family and friends that they don’t fit the stereotype. Frequently, they work too hard to fit into the family, exhausting themselves in the process, and hitting their heads against the wall in frustration when they are not accepted. Many stepmothers are rejected by stepchildren who maintain an emotional distance from them because they, too, also unconsciously believe the wicked stepmother stereotype. It is nearly impossible to form a close emotional relationship with anyone who holds an underlying belief that you are wicked. This is so sad for stepmothers.

I fervently hope that all of us will work towards changing the cultural perception of stepmothers as wicked. I also pray that Kyron will soon be found.

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