July 1, 2010

Trust your instincts about wicked stepparents

Stepparents are far more likely to harm their stepchildren than a genetic parent is to harm their genetic children. This fact shows up in the various "wicked stepparent" narratives throughout world literature and is the reason why most homicide detectives, upon finding a murdered child, immediately look at mommy's new boyfriend.

Today in Starbucks, about 10 feet in front of me, a middle-aged woman and a teenage girl met and hugged each other, then sat down at a table, quietly chatting until a middle-aged man arrived, exchanged greetings, and sat down too with his back to me and the rest of the very crowded room. After some normal conversation, the man raises his voice about not being able to trust the girl and giving up on her or something like that, leaning his chair back and making an "I just give up" gesture with his arms wide apart. He says it all matter-of-factly, no affect other than minor annoyance, like he's a manager firing a tardy employee. The woman is still throughout most of the episode, but at this point the girl starts audibly crying through her defense.

At first I assumed it was just a father meting out some tough love to a daughter who's just putting on a show to embarrass him in public as her revenge for being punished. No big deal there -- I wish parents were more strict and less indulgent with their kids. Still, as things unfolded, I noticed several things that made me suspect this guy as a potentially, and even likely, abusive stepfather (or live-in boyfriend, etc.):

- From what I heard the girl say -- again it was audible even over the house music because she was pretty worked up -- there was nothing of the typical bratty protesting and pouting. You always hear the words "it's not fair" or similar, plus a lot of impudent questioning like "Why can't I just...?!" I did hear her complain about how other teenagers get to go out and do stuff while she can't -- which means she probably is something of a problem child. Still, most of what I heard her say were not complaints but that she was scared or afraid. Something about being afraid to stay in some location for a decent length of time.

- When the guy got up to walk off his anger, she immediately seized the opportunity to rush out of the building, which sent him into a rage as he pursued her. Nothing strange there, except that when he shouted, "You march your ass back here RIGHT FUCKING NOW!" he didn't sound stern at all. I got yelled at plenty, whipped too, but behind the thunder there's something lecturing and cool-headedly disciplinary about the tone that genetic parents use when yelling at their children. He instead was screaming like he'd lost control over his emotions and was about to get into a fistfight with some stranger who flipped him off on the street. (I once tutored a kid who had a stepfather, and the way he yelled at his stepson was very different from what I was used to. I was reminded of this during the episode.) After 30 or 60 seconds, she did return with him to the table.

- Even though I couldn't make out all of his words, I could still discern the tone and inflection of his voice, and he sounded like he was bitter and resentful towards her, like he'd upheld his end of some bargain and she wasn't giving him what she should have in return. Genetic parents never use that tone because they don't see their relationship with their children as a thought-out transaction -- I'll treat you this way, you do this in return. In specific cases, maybe (I'll give you an allowance if you do the dishes), but not about the relationship as a whole. And again he made some kind of bitchy, annoyed gesture with his hands like "I give up!" or "I'm done with this!"

The stepfather is going to talk this way to his stepdaughter because she reminds him of all the girls who rejected him back in high school. The girl was kind of cute. A fair amount of teachers and professors who have adolescent students are like this, in fact. Usually they single the better-looking ones out and insinuate how vapid and stupid they must be just because they took time to look nice before leaving for class. When I worked at a tutoring center, the bitter tutors always turned power-hungry and petty when working with the cuter students, like "Finally now that I'm older, I get to put those stuck-up little princesses in their place!" These guys were typically no taller than 5'4, and the man in the Starbucks was not either. They (and he) were normally dressed like schlubs, so he must have an emasculating job where appearance doesn't matter at all. He also had a shaved head, meaning he was more or less bald by nature.

Adding all this up, he fit the profile perfectly of a bitter beta-male who's going to use whatever puny power he has to make a young girl's life hell, in order to balance the cosmic scales that delivered him so many rejections when he was her age.

So was my hunch right? After she came back in from rushing out, they let her stand outside nearby where they could see her, and talked amongst themselves. As I walked to the restroom, I distinctly heard the woman say apologetically, "... both of my daughters are like this ..." Bingo: she would've said "our" daughters if he were the genetic father.

By that time, much of the earlier explosiveness had fizzled out since they let her stand outside, and when I came back from the restroom a minute later they were all gone. I really do wonder what's going to happen to that poor girl. While it was happening, I felt the urge to go over, pat him firmly on the shoulder, and tell him to keep calm. I've approached or called out to misbehaving people in public before, but here it wasn't perfectly clear that he was some wicked stepfather. It took awhile for all the pieces to fit together, and by then it was too late.

Also, the guy was a complete coward and sat with his back to everyone else when he knew he was going to fly off the hook. If any of the other patrons could have made eye contact, that alone would've made him simmer down. Especially if he could have seen the whole room staring in annoyance and disgust at him. That's the downside of not living in a tiny community where everyone knows everyone else -- then we would've known who he was and where he lived. Then the rest of us could have formed a posse, trailed him to where no one would see anything, and smacked him around before his uncontrollable bitterness escalated into assault, rape, or murder of his stepdaughter. After all, it's going to be hard for the police to learn of whatever she was tearfully afraid of, given that her mother has dual loyalties (to her vs. the stepfather) and will tend to apologize to the authorities, as she did to the guy himself.

This tumult caused by wicked stepparents -- which is not occasional but always boiling where they are found -- remains unseen by most people who have permissive attitudes toward divorce. My parents divorced but remained friendly and I saw my dad very often, so it's only natural that I should have had fairly liberal views about divorce -- I saw first-hand that it wasn't so bad, and isn't that better than the fighting that may result if they'd stayed together? Except in my case I never had a stepparent or live-in boyfriend to deal with. (Given my nature at the time, or now, that man would be dead.) I'd much rather have two genetic parents stick it out, even if they no longer loved each other and even if they were fairly hostile towards each other, than to split up and risk bringing stepparent barbarity into the picture.

If a divorce-considering parent worries that, if they stayed together, the child might have to endure the sight of her parents fighting, just wait until she has a wicked stepparent mercilessly chewing her out and ready to strike her without pity.


  1. It could be that the man is a therapist whom Mom hired to straighten out her wayward daughter. His walking out in feigned anger and the raised voice might be just part of his act. Meeting at the Starbucks makes sense because it's a neutral site, favoring neither the therapist nor the daughter.


  2. Zero chance of that. Anger was not feigned, and completely blowing up in public is not what therapists do. They keep their calm.

  3. You mean smooth running step-families and cool step-parents are another lie sold to us by syndicated television series like the Brady Bunch?

    All kidding aside: A step-dad is in an unenviable position. One so unenviable that its best avoided. What can a man do if confronted with a young adolescent step child who hates his presence and is willfully destructive of his property and person? He can either be a "cool-step-dad" and let her do whatever she pleases (which makes him look like a pussy to the mother), or attempt to "parent" the child and be resented by the kid forevermore.
    Either way, the guy loses. The position is best avoided.

    Step-families are an unnatural aberration, despite all of that "it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-bastard" bullshit we have been told. The mom ought to wait to remarry until her kids are grown for their sake if she really loves them (which she does, she just loves herself more).

  4. "Step-families are an unnatural aberration, despite all of that "it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-bastard" bullshit we have been told."

    Comment of the day!

    I am saving that on a sticky note on my desktop.

  5. "If a divorce-considering parent worries that, if they stayed together, the child might have to endure the sight of her parents fighting, just wait until she has a wicked stepparent mercilessly chewing her out and ready to strike her without pity."

    This post brought tears to my eyes as I had a wicked step-mom and this situation you witnessed was one among very many that I found myself in with her. I feel bad for you to have witnessed it. I'll be giving birth any day now, so I'm very emotional and would like to share...
    When I was 10, I was left in a car to finish putting stamps on business envelopes while my step-mom went inside a restaurant to eat. She left the keys in the ignition so I'd have a.c. only I forgot to get them when I finished to join her. When I walked in, just walked in and was still standing, she asked for the keys to which I responded that I'd forgotten them.
    She absolutely lost it. She screamed and yelled at the top of her lungs causing the place to go quiet. It was so surreal and traumatic that I blocked everyone out and just stood there in shock. Nobody said or did anything and I sat down, ending my memory of the event. Her behavior behind closed doors was so much worse. And constant. From the time I got up until I went to bed, seven days a week from ages 5-12 plus during visits as a teen.

    I nodded in agreement with everything you said.

    Introducing one's child to a wicked step-parent due to divorce is a very real and great risk, far more than people realize, I think. I've also felt that it was the step-mom who is more likely to be wicked than the step-dad (I'm aware of the stats and know that step-dads are potentially dangerous, too). I've known many great step-dads, but rarely would I categorize a step-mom as such.
    I've said the following for years, "Unless she is a font of religiosity and/or class, a woman will be hostile to her step-children".

    BTW, my step-mom is/was ugly and obese who constantly tried fattening me up and even once gave me my little brother's leftover worm pills from a treatment so convinced was she that something amiss had to be causing me to be thin. My mother was a hottie and thin and a counselor, assigned to me after I finally spoke out at age 12, said that a major component of the abuse was probably due to me looking so much like my mother.

    Finally, my experiences make me completely immune to the romanticisation of the beta male (and denigration of the alpha as synonymous with the thug-cad) that I sometimes see go on in the Steveosphere. Many of these guys are probably not that weak to allow such evil to be visited upon their own children, but it is still a very harsh world and strong men are still needed. And that's all I will say about that.

  6. Dahlia, you might be onto something about how evil step-fathers vs. step-mothers are. Anthropologists who study primitive cultures have shown that men are more generous toward people outside of their close blood relatives, for example specializing in getting food like meat or honey that ends up widely shared throughout the tribe.

    Women, however, tend to focus on foods that only make it to their close blood relatives, like nuts, tubers, and berries.

    And psychologists have shown that men are more caring and generous if you're talking about strangers, while women are more caring and generous on a smaller, kin-based scale.

    So perhaps step-fathers are showing the male pattern of being mindful of those who aren't genetically related to them, while step-mothers are showing the female pattern of being stingy toward strangers.

    And it would be even worse if the step-mother is a hag while the step-daughter looks, well, youthful.

    It seems like you got the worst combination of step-parent / step-child. That's probably why the wicked step-mother and hounded step-daughter is the most common pattern that we see in popular culture, like Cinderella or Snow White.

  7. A man would be insane to be in a step-parent situation with an attractive daughter. Having a good relationship with her makes it infinitely worse. Not only are mothers frequently jealous of their daughters, but it's a short step from that to accusing you of doing something untoward with the daughter.


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