Hansel and Grethel’s wicked stepmother devises the plan of leaving them both in the woods where they will be ‘torn apart by wild beasts.’ She persuades her husband to carry out the plan, arguing that if he does not, they will all die of hunger. The children come across a house made of sweets and manage to escape the clutches of the evil witch who lives there. They return happily to their father and discover that their stepmother died. We are not told how she died but we do know that the witch met her end in the hot oven that she had prepared for Hansel.

In Hansel and Grethel we wonder who is more evil, the stepmother or the witch. They are identified with each other, and their symbolic roles are interchangeable. They both symbolise a fear and dread of the evil power of the mother, the other side of the sugary sweet mother often portrayed as an ideal in fairy stories.

In reality of course, mothers are human beings who are capable of normal loving feelings and of normal angry (even hating) feelings – a real mother is neither wicked nor sugary sweet but is somewhere in the middle. This isn’t how babies see the world, however. Babies are unable to stay with this middle point – to know someone’s ‘good and bad side’ both at the same time is not an easy concept for babies. They are either happy or sad, and if their mother leaves them for just a short while before tending to their needs, they cry and yell with despair and rage. For them, “mother” is two different people: one all sweetness and light, the other a wicked witch who persecutes them.

Gradually, children learn to tolerate frustration and begin to obtain a realistic picture of the people around them. However, in times of stress, we all, even as adults, revert to that state where we are perhaps furious with the world, suspicious of it, and struggle to manage ambivalent feelings. We “split off” the different bits of our ambivalent feelings, seeing the world in extremes. Fairy stories are a wonderful example of this way of thinking; a reversion into a more infant-like and less complicated way of thinking. And they have great power, a hold over our imaginations. The wicked stepmother, then, is an archetype, as is the wise and good fairy godmother – they are two sides of the same mother, in their most extreme sense.

What does this mean for an actual step-mother in today’s world? She is already labelled along with a long culture of evil mothers – she might feel doomed from the start! It is not uncommon for step-mothers to be experienced as ‘bad’ mothers in contrast to a child’s birth mother. Children feel a strong need to be loyal to their mothers and they cannot manage ambivalence at the best of times, let alone managing ambivalence for two mothers! Instead, as we’ve already seen, they may reduce their ambivalence by projecting good and bad feelings onto birth-mum and step-mum respectively.

Time and the establishment of a normal relationship is what helps the stepmother to be seen for who she is – a mother trying her hardest, and not always getting it right, to love and care for a child who she has in a sense adopted as her own but who still has loyalties to a birth mother. A hard balancing act but one that gets easier with time.

Dr Angela Evans

Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists


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