My son Oscar was in a school adaptation of Hansel and Gretel a few years ago. Like all the parents in the audience, I was proud as Punch, but still there was part of me silently wincing.
The cause of my discomfort? The moment when Hansel and Gretel shove the witch in the fire, and run away to live happily ever after with their father. Although this was not for the obvious reasons (two pre-teens rejoicing in burning alive a sentient being, albeit a cannibalistic sorceress), but because the witch was also the children’s stepmother — their beloved father’s second wife. Once again, she was cast as a malign interloper, an evil presence in the family, whose removal was to be celebrated.
Yes, it’s a fairy tale, but the message is clear. Stepmothers are bad news. And this irks me, because I am a stepmother — a loving and loved one. I’m also a mother, but I was a stepmother before I became one: when I met my partner Ben in 2004, his sons Orion and Hal were just five and two. We then had two more boys together, Bay and Oscar, who are 14 and 12. I can honestly say I have put more thought and effort into my relationship with my stepsons than anything else in my life.
Kirstie Allsopp questions why we allow the stereotype about bad step mothers to persist in fairytales such as Cinderella. Pictured: Kirstie Allsopp with her partner Ben and stepsons Orion and Hal in 2008
We step-parents don’t always get it right — there really is no comeback to the angry retort ‘You’re not my mum!’ from a recalcitrant teen missing his mother. This is thankfully something I’ve never experienced, but plenty of others have, and anyone who professes it’s plain sailing is lying. But step-parents, in my opinion, really do get a rum deal.
That is why, when I heard Andrew Lloyd Webber being interviewed recently about plans to bring a new adaptation of Cinderella to the West End, I couldn’t resist dashing off the tweet: ‘Is there any hope it has a fairer, kinder depiction of stepmothers?’
From Hansel and Gretel to Cinderella and even Baroness Schraeder in The Sound Of Music, the stepmother is habitually depicted as some old hag who wishes nothing but evil on her stepchildren.
Can you imagine if police officers or educators got the same treatment? If children’s stories were full of wicked constables or vile school teachers, children would be afraid of these people.
We don’t fill our children’s books with ghastly dentists or doctors, because we know making our kids scared of them would be damaging. So why do we allow this stereotype about step-parenthood to persist?
We got such a bad rap because, in the past, if you had a stepmother it usually meant your mother had died, and your father may have married someone else, who, most probably, had also lost a spouse and had children of her own to look out for.
Kirstie said in Cinderella (pictured), the evil stepmother is determined to promote the interests of her own daughters above those of her stepdaughter
At a time when so many people lived hand to mouth and women had so little power, losing the man who provided for them was extremely dangerous for wives.
Even after meeting a new man, they’d still have to be very careful about their own children’s interests.
That is very much the case in Cinderella, as the evil stepmother is determined to promote the interests of her own daughters above those of her stepdaughter. She must ingratiate her daughters with their stepfather so he can give them away in marriage. Without a dowry they’d be worthless.
But this view reflects another era, and the modern world is a very different place. Now, most children who accrue a stepmother do so after their parents’ separation or divorce.
When they first told me they loved me, it was seismic
Some 42 per cent of marriages in the UK end in divorce, and the failure rate for the relationships of unmarried parents is even greater. This could mean children have almost a 50 per cent chance of gaining a step-parent — and all of them will have seen or read these ‘wicked stepmother’ films, plays and books as children.
Like I’ve said, anyone who tells you it isn’t a tricky relationship is lying, and because the boys were so young I definitely had to parent them rather than just be a ‘friend’. When a three-year-old is attempting to cross a road without looking left or right or holding your hand, you have to be an authority figure.
I fervently believe the onus is on the adults to make it work. In some countries, if you have children under 18 a course with a counsellor — which may teach you how to get along with a new partner’s ex, for instance — is a pre-requisite to being granted a divorce.
Kirstie (pictured) said she's a little tougher than her stepsons mother, but she does have a good relationship with her
In other areas, such as Scandinavia, the language surrounding blended families is much more positive. Stepfamilies are even known as a ‘bonus’ family.
The first time I met Ben’s boys is seared into my mind. Ben is nothing if not a devoted dad, so although I met him in April, it was not until October that I met his sons.
I was introduced slowly and gently into their lives, but it must have been a shock for them nonetheless.
Ben had arranged a lunch party at his home in Devon as he thought that would create a relaxed atmosphere.
At two, his youngest son was too young to understand anything, but for my elder stepson it was a different story. Someone in the group mentioned my name and his head flipped round — he’d obviously heard me mentioned before and wanted to put a face to the name.
I quickly came up with a plan: one of our friends was doing the barbecue and needed ketchup, so I sidled over to this adorable little boy and said: ‘This is your house isn’t it? You probably know where the ketchup is kept don’t you? Could you run inside and fetch it?’ When he brought it back I told him he was a star, and so began one of the most important relationships of my life. It has become a source of immense joy.
There have been frustrations along the way, too, as the children are swapped between two households, with differing rules and parenting styles.
Kirstie revealed as a step-parent you dread Sunday nights and the thought of the children going back to their mother hungry. Pictured: brothers Hal, Oscar, Orion and Bay
I am probably a little tougher than their mother, although thankfully she and I have always had a good relationship and, for a while, my youngest two attended the same school as her two subsequent children.
That said, as a step-parent you dread Sunday nights and the thought of the children going back to their mother either hungry or saying they’ve been given something ghastly to eat. (When they get older the worry switches to whether the homework was done properly.)
But without a doubt, the hardest part of early step-parenting was mealtimes.
I remember a particularly heated stand-off with Hal, when he was about three or four, over a chicken drumstick. He was adamant that he wasn’t eating it — I was adamant he was. The drumstick remained uneaten and he refused to eat chicken for a year after that.
Anyone who tells you it isn’t a tricky relationship is lying...
Another tale that has entered our family folklore is one of me deciding to take the eldest swimming in the sea on holiday. He was probably about seven and had been having lessons at a pool, so I encouraged him to venture into the sea.
All of a sudden, a huge wave caught us and completely turned us over. I managed to hold onto Orion’s ankle, but only just. I was heavily pregnant with Bay at the time, and was dragged along the bottom of the ocean.
There was this completely bedraggled, frightened child, and there was I, the person who had encouraged him into the sea. The stepmother who nearly drowned him!
Once, when we’d had a huge Christmas in Devon with loads of friends over — remember those? — I’d made the attic into a sleeping den and put all the children in there, to free up their rooms for the guests.
The children loved it so much that afterwards Orion told me he wanted to make the attic his bedroom. I was horrified. ‘Can you imagine someone coming to the house asking where my stepson sleeps and me having to say, “He’s in the attic”. It would be the ultimate wicked stepmother cliche.’ In the end, I relented.
You do feel judged to begin with — as if everyone is watching you. Once, when I was called to the nursery to collect one of the boys after a scratching incident, I felt sure the other mothers were looking at him thinking, ‘Poor little mite — his parents are divorced, no wonder he is acting out.’
And it’s not just being a stepmother that is seen as a negative. I’ve noticed some people are quite keen to pass on poor comments about my stepchildren in a way they never would when it comes to my own sons. They seem to think that because the eldest two are my stepsons, I’ll somehow want to hear bad things about them, which I most certainly don’t. If anything, I’m more protective of them than I am the younger two.
Then come the rewards: the first time the boys told me they loved me, it was seismic. It was about two years after I’d met their dad.
We were in the downstairs loo and I was asking them not to be so messy, saying: ‘I do love you, but could you not dump your wet swimsuits in here?’
One of them replied: ‘We love you too’, and I just burst into tears. Of course, they were shocked by my reaction and didn’t tell me again for a while. But it was such a relief, and prompted a huge outpouring of emotion.
Kirstie said her eldest stepson's friend seemed genuinely surprised to realise they get along. Pictured: Kirstie with Hal, son Oscar and Bay
A few years ago, I took my eldest stepson and a friend of his to Winter Wonderland in London. We had already been once that year, but I felt his experience had been held back by the younger children, and he was a big thrill-seeker, so we went again. In the car, his friend brought up the subject of step-parents and seemed genuinely surprised to realise he liked me.
I’m also fortunate in that the four boys get on so well. I am never more proud than when I see the gang my stepsons have formed with my own two sons. From the moment Bay and Oscar were born, all four boys have considered themselves a unit, and there’s no ‘step’ about it. They are brothers. Full stop. They love each other and protect each other.
I can still remember Orion’s delight at pushing Bay around the garden in his pram, and also the way he admonished me when Bay fell off the sofa as a baby. ‘That wouldn’t have happened if I had been looking after him,’ he told me. And he was right!
I’ve also always insisted that we are more complete when all four boys are with us. And, although the boys are now 18 and 21 and I am less involved and more of a friend, I do point out to them how hard I have always tried. The Devon house had been the boys’ home before I met Ben, and it definitely helped our relationship that I respected that. I think it also helped that they were boys, as boys are often easier.
The fact that my own children came later was beneficial, too. I think if you are trying to forge a relationship with stepchildren at the same time as trying to help your own children bond with a new stepfather, it’s much harder.
So today I don’t want to ‘ban’ Cinderella. (Though to be honest, as someone with large feet, that particular story was hugely damaging long before I became a stepmother.)
But I do want us all to think a little about what we tell small children about step-parents, because there’s a strong chance they will either have one, become one or know someone who is one.
And changing the narrative isn’t as hard as you think. Funnily enough, after I expressed my reservations about Hansel and Gretel to my children’s teacher she organised a class trip to see a very modern reworking of a children’s tale. Its name? Wicked!