When the Sugars answered a letter from a woman who felt trapped in the role of "wicked stepmother," dozens of listeners wrote in asking the same question: what about the stepchildren, who have no control over the restructuring of their family? In this episode, the Sugars respond with an episode devoted to the other side of the story.
They're joined by Jane Alison, author of the memoir The Sisters Antipodes, which tells the story of how her parents swapped spouses with another couple when she was 4 years old. Her story was also adapted for The New York Times' Modern Love column. Jane's 2016 novel is Nine Island.
This episode was originally released on November 17th, 2016.
I’m a woman in my late twenties, and recently became a “stepchild.” My parents divorced when I was nineteen. After returning home from my first year of college, I discovered my dad was having an affair, and had front row seats to their implosion. Within the next few years he had developed an addiction, disowned me and my siblings, and disappeared from my life. My mother was devastated, and my siblings and I were left to pick up the pieces.
Several years later, she was dating. It moved fast. Like, from meeting online to married in under a year. He seems to be a kind man and is good to my mom. She seems genuinely happy, and I am thankful for that.
But, I cannot stand him. He tries so hard with me and my siblings. It irritates me, and then I feel childish for being irritated. Every conversation is about how much he loves my mom and cherishes her. How he has this “unconditional love for me.” And I am like, “Dude, slow down. Do you have any hobbies? What is your favorite color?” It feels fake, forced and frustrating. When he talks, I have to resist the urge to make retching noises. I think he has the best of intentions, but it is way too much.
Even more than the emotional overstepping, his very existence is the reminder to me of so many griefs in my life: my parents divorce, my father's abandonment, the fact that my family will never be what it once was.
I have tried to talk to my mom about my fears and sadness, and she responds one of two ways 1) ignoring my feelings and moving on; or 2) crashing into guilt and tears about how she is a "terrible mother." Then I end up comforting her and feeling guilt ridden for sharing how I feel. I feel like I’m losing the only parent I have left.
What do I do with this pain? My mom can't hear it. She doesn't want to hear it. She can't manage her own guilt, and then I am left alone in my grief. I know it's not his fault. But I had no choice in any of this, and the place I once called home no longer exists. And he is there painting a fairy-tale when I have come from a nightmare, and I don't buy it, and I can't stand it.
Steve Almond: This is such a powerfully self-aware person. Here’s the deal: You didn’t have a chance to grieve the loss of your family, and your mom, in her quest for happiness and stability, found somebody else. Your stepfather is painfully aware of your mom’s past and that she was betrayed and hurt and that so were you, and so he’s overdoing it. And you also feel that your mom has abandoned you. It’s not just your dad who blew up the family; it’s your mom not being able to deal with the fact that you’re not over it, and you need to feel more grief and feel that you’re not alone in it. You have to find a way to tell your mom, “You have to be my mom.”
Cheryl Strayed: Step-Whatever, I don’t think that you really need to process this with your mother and stepfather. I think the person you need to heal is yourself. You say you’re in your late 20s, the divorce was when you were 19, so it sounds like you’ve gone the better part of a decade having to adjust to this new family structure. And it’s full of sorrow, and it’s full of pain and anguish, and now that your mom has moved on and found happiness more quickly than you’d like with a man who doesn’t behave exactly the way you prefer, it’s brought all of that sorrow and loss front and center for you. The answer isn’t that your mom says, “OK, because it causes you pain that I married to this super sweet guy, I’m going to leave him.” I get that you would want to adjust his behavior, but I don’t really think that that’s the problem. I relate to this so much, because my mom died when I was 22. My stepfather, who I loved like a father, pretty quickly got involved with another woman. Suddenly there was another woman sleeping in my mother’s bed, and it was very difficult. Their relationship brought up my profound loss, and the truth was that my family would never be the same again. What’s causing you to suffer is your sorrow and your righteous grief. You wanted your parents to stay married to each other. You wanted the life of your childhood to continue into your adulthood, and it hasn’t, and that is really painful, but you do have to find a way to accept it.
Jane Alison, sharing the story of The Sisters Antipodes: When I was 4, my parents, who were Australian diplomats, met a couple in Australia who were U.S. diplomats. Both families had two little girls who were the same ages, and the two younger girls were my stepsister-to-be, Jenny, and myself. So we had not only a very similar name, but we also had the same birthday. These couples were totally besotted with each other, and within a matter of months, they swapped spouses. My father was going to begin a new life with his new American wife and his two American stepdaughters, and my sister and I would go with our mother and our new American stepfather. So there was this mirrored situation. Both couples ended up having little boys within a week of each other, so now we had half-brothers between us, too.
For seven years — this was back in the late 60's/early 70's — we didn’t talk on the phone and we didn’t see each other. There was a lot of space in those years of distance to just have fantasy and jealousy and longing. The way I could see it, I had a stepfather who might look at me, but he was looking through me to my little parallel; and meanwhile, on the other side of the world, there was another little girl who had my father. At a certain point, we took on our stepfather’s last name, our stepsisters took on our father’s name; we became American, they became Australian; we acquired American accents, they acquired our Australian ones. Our identities were very flexible, and what it felt like to me was that we were just so replaceable.
At the end of those seven years, when I was 11, we all landed on the same continent. We were in D.C. and they were up in New York, and by now, my mother’s marriage to my stepfather had failed, so our families weren’t parallel anymore. My sister and I were now, it felt to me, weaker, because we had a struggling single mother and a stepfather across town with his new girlfriend. We’d go up to New York to see our father with his family, living much more luxuriously, so it was very complicated. It was not just a matter of dealing with, say, a new stepparent, but the fact that the new stepmother had been married to our former stepfather, and now he was not even married to our mother anymore, so it felt as if there were seven different points of relationship to manage. I felt like I was somewhere between a diplomat and a spy, shuttling up and down between New York and Washington, because everyone was very interested to know how the other household was doing.
One thing that was most difficult for me was the sense I had of great loyalty to my mother, who was alone in Washington and trying to find work and keep the house together. And then there was this glamorous, talented, brilliant step-mother, who was enormously attractive to me, but also frightening.
Cheryl: Do you remember when your parents sat you down and said, “Not only are we getting divorced, but we’re going to switch with this couple”?
Jane: I don’t remember it, and that’s because it didn’t happen. They may have said something to my sister, who was two and a half years older, but I was 4. I think the emotional whirlwind was so great for all the adults that I just don’t think we were part of the equation just yet.
Cheryl: Were the fathers grief-stricken because biological kids went with their moms. How did your father and stepfather talk to you about what happened?
Jane: There wasn’t much talking. They could have been grief-stricken, but I didn’t really see it. I think my stepfather missed his own daughters terribly, but he was also a very hard man. One problem was that I was able to, and very much wanted to, take his younger daughter’s place in his eyes and please him. So I did that, which lead to a great deal of guilt because he enjoyed having a substitute little girl who would act clever. It was an act of desperation. You need the love, and if it looks like it might come from this quarter, even if it’s the wrong quarter, you’ll take it.
Cheryl: What about your stepsisters?
Jane: The relations were never good. The one with my parallel, Jenny, was very, very intense. We could be very close but then very competitive with each other. She ended up becoming a heroin addict and did not survive. She died about 10 years ago, so that was absolutely tragic end to one side of this story.
At the conclusion of your first episode with the “Wicked Stepmother,” I was in tears. My mother died of cancer when my sister and I were young, and shortly after, my father remarried. Because my mother died when I was so young, I viewed my stepmother as my mother growing up. Looking back, it is very clear that she did not view me as her child.
My stepmother was strict, demanding and difficult. At a young age, my sister and I were required to clean the house to perfection. If something was sticking out of a drawer, she would dump the contents on the ground for us to clean up. When we had to do "family tree" projects in school, she made my sister and I write down her family history as our mother's side. She told me that she gave birth to me and was in labor for 13 hours, even though as a child I knew this was a lie. As my teenage years approached, we fought more. I talked back to her and acted like a typical teenager. She told me I was stupid, and that there was no point in me going to college, even though I had a full-ride scholarship. She would scratch me, push me down the stairs, and pinch me. Two weeks before my high school graduation, she sent me to live in the detached garage of our very expensive house in our affluent neighborhood. She would not let me inside the house, not even to use the restroom. I had to go outside in the grass.
For 8 years, I had absolutely no contact with my stepmother. She would not allow her children to talk with me, and I was not allowed at family functions. Last year, my father put his foot down and decided I would be welcomed back into our immediate family. It’s not been easy for me.
I do not like being around my stepmother. It stirs up bad memories. Her subtle abuse continues, with her sending me emails saying things like, "Just try to be happy, I know it's hard for you.” When we’ve been together as a family, it has been hard for me to see how differently my stepmother treats her own children. I love my half-siblings, but my sister and I are very different from them, and we were raised in very different circumstances.
Do you have any suggestions or tips for navigating this situation? I’ve always had a good relationship with my father and my sister and would like to spend time with them and my half-siblings together. We have so many memories to be made - graduations, weddings, families of our own. I don't want to be excluded from my own family anymore. How do I let go of the anger I have towards my stepmom? How do I learn to be around her, and laugh off her behavior rather than be silently outraged by it?
Tired of Being Cinderella
Jane: I sometimes think that we expect too much resolution in this world. Sometimes there isn’t a way to hug and make everything better. I think sometimes to still be angry is appropriate, but you want to be able to live with it. I know that I was able to find my way out of most of my feelings by writing. One thing Cinderella could do is try and convert the anger into something else. Maybe write an ongoing, imaginary letter to her father or to her stepmother. Also, she’s a grown-up now. Why can’t she create more rules and boundaries of her own? This woman was so powerful to her when she was young, but now things are more equal. Can she determine when she will be at events and when she wishes to see only her father or only her half-siblings? Can she accept that her anger is valid and it’s not going to go away; it just has to be managed?
Steve: Reading the letter, I was so struck by the absence of the father. Where’s dad when Cinderella is peeing the grass or she’s pushed down the stairs, or when her stepmother is appropriating a birth story that she didn’t experience and trying to erase the biological mom from the family tree?
Jane: I don’t understand how the father could have been so passive, and I do think that’s the main relation Cinderella might want to try and uncover.
Cheryl: Cinderella, your anger is valid. Your stepmother was abusive to you. The hard part about step-families is when your abuser is still a member of the family, you need to make the decision: Am I going to set a boundary and say, “Because I don’t want contact with that abuser, I, therefore, will not have contact with other family members who I do love and value”? It sounds like you don’t want to make that decision. I think that the next thing you need to do is say, “Who was the person who was supposed to protect you?” Your father did not protect you, and even though you say you’ve had a good relationship with him, you need to open it up and say, “OK, Dad, I’m so glad you’ve now, after eight years, invited me back into the family after years of witnessing this woman be cruel to me and my sibling. But in order to welcome me back, I need for you to take responsibility for not protecting me and loving me as you should have, and for not standing up to your spouse when she treated me badly.” You can begin by saying, “Listen, I have compassion for you. It must have been so hard to lose my mom. I understand why you found somebody else to love.” Maybe if you show some compassion for him and his perspective, he’ll show some compassion for yours.
Steve: And part of what I think is so instructive about Jane’s having written this beautiful memoir about her complicated family is that she’s saying, “Actually, I need to tell my story and not have it written out of the family account.” Your dad and stepmother might not consent to that, but there’s no way you’re going to be able to be happy and functioning if you feel like you haven’t been allowed to express the truth of your life to the person who matters most to you.
Jane: I wouldn’t underestimate the power of writing a letter. When I finally was ready to publish “The Sisters Antipodes”, I had to tell my family about it. There was great push-back. My father said, “You don’t have the right to publish this book, and if you do, we won’t read this book.” It was a terrible moment, but after several months, he came around and asked me to send him the book. He read it, and then his wife read it, and even though she and I are no longer in touch, we do wish each other well. He ended up telling me it was a beautiful book and that he didn’t agree with everything, but why would he? You can sometimes find something good on the other side of doing something very, very painful.