Snow White revisited, Malcolm MacLean

Handy Hints for Wicked Stepmothers: New Zealand Step-Parenting in the ’90s
Nicola Lynch-Reeves,
GP Books, price not given

Pamela Trowel, a thirty-something slave of New York has just acquired, quite unintentionally, a child. Abdhul – maybe six, maybe nine, maybe a thirty-five-year-old midget – Pamela never could tell kids’ ages, especially when they seem unnaturally knowledgeable – simply arrived on her doorstep one night and stayed. About quarter of the way into The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group, Tama Janowitz has Pamela wail in silent despair: ‘Who knew what kids were really like today, unless you owned one?’ No doubt, this is a feeling shared by many step-parents, even though they tend to have slightly more warning of the impending child than Pamela did.

But let’s face it, the ‘How To’ guide business is BIG. It’s good for publishers, and good for booksellers. The demand is high – the bookstore I work in sells a huge number of the self-help-popular-psychology-how-to-cope class of book. So, what is the purpose of another, especially when the author openly admits that ‘(s)tep-parenting, and, indeed, any sort of parenting, is mostly guesswork anyway’? The obvious answer, of course, is that there is a need to make those guesses slightly more informed than the blind stumbling in the darkened basement that many of us feel we are doing.

Those of us who had the biologically necessary nine-month lead-in time to parenthood, and then the gradual (although it doesn’t usually seem that gradual) growth of the child have an advantage over step-parents who acquire this fully formed, stubborn, at times down-right resentful human being as part of their family. It is hard to put a finger on that advantage and give it a label, but it is probably all about moulding an ankle-biter who doesn’t feel that we, the scarlet grownup, have just permanently ruined their family. Or it maybe, as Pamela suggests, a question of ownership. Most children from single parent families harbour a deep seated desire/ hope/ expectation that their parents will someday get back together, depending on their age when the separation occurs. (Mine, on the other hand, was stunned to discover that kids at his day-care centre had parents who lived in the same house.) The step-parent, who after all isn’t really a parent at all, is the tangible sign that this is a false hope and quite logically often becomes the focus of some considerable anger.

Lynch-Reeves, herself the wicked stepmother of two, puts us nicely in the middle of this situation in a seriously light-hearted look at many of the predicaments that the new step-parent usually lands in, both feet firmly in the muck that uncomfortably squelches up between the toes. But it is not an Op-psych, find-the-inner-peace-and-you’ll-cope book. It really is what the title says – an old-fashioned handy hints type guide. For instance, at some stage, she says, the relationship between new kids and new parents will change fundamentally. Usually the adult will pussyfoot around for a while then throw a massive hissy-fit where a bunch of rules are laid down (hers was in the middle of a paddock after a disastrous picnic, and seems to have done the trick). Now, as parents we all know that these hissy-fits are crucial, and only effective if used sparingly – we learn it as time goes by, trial-and-error-like, but it would have helped if someone had told us that it wasn’t compulsory to be the doormat all the time, or even that it was OK to throw the occasional fit.

But it is not just the relationship with the kids that she covers. There is the coping-with-family-gatherings trauma that all must face – as the new extended family size you up and slice you through – which comes complete with a handy typology of new relatives and others in this terrifying menagerie of kin. There is also the potted guide to child development (in six pages!), ideas for coping with rainy days, sick kids, the Child Support Act, and a horrifying look at the types of things that get given up as this radical life-style change hits home. How I wish I had been warned about all these things when parenthood loomed – it certainly would have been less of a shock, despite the warning and lead-in time.

Like any good ‘How To…’ guide, it is not the specific content that is the really important thing here, but the tone and mindset that it shows. Lynch-Reeves is relaxed and entertaining, a raconteur as much as she is an adviser using her own experience and that of other wicked stepmothers (both men and women, straight and gay) to make her points. The lightness of tone is the book’s saving grace, without it the chances of having a turgid, preachy drudge are too scary to contemplate. The witch’s hat and cauldron cartoons help lighten the advice, as does the friendly, inclusive, type-face and generally good design. That said, at times the humour is too forced – the type of bad joke made by the flatmate’s geeky friend or that obscure long-lost uncle that barely warrants a groan at dinner (although these, thankfully, tend to be the exception to the rule).

A notable weakness is that there is no list of useful contacts, and no indication of other things that might be worth reading. For instance, the new step-parent of a preschooler would probably find something such as Penelope Leach’s Baby and Child useful, or in a shared parenting family, Isolina Ricci’s Mom’s House, Dad’s House. A cursory glance over the shelves of bookstores suggests that there is very little around on step-parenting, but there are a number of other books related to parenting that would have been worth drawing attention to.

The major strength, aside from the healthy state of mind she sees (implicitly) as the key to success, are her regular attempts to see things from the kids’ point of view. Alongside that, there is her refreshingly honest and disarming (as it appears on the second to last page) comment that most of it really is guesswork.


Malcolm MacLean and his son regularly debate the links between parenthood and domestic chores.





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