Stepmonster in the Spotlight: What Kate v. Camilla Can Teach Us Commoners

For stepmothers at weddings, reality is no fairy tale. Here's why.

Posted Apr 26, 2011

The upcoming royal nuptials are an event to end all wedding events, as the media repeatedly reminds us while the days tick down to The Day. But this particular brouhaha is a reminder that it's wedding season for us commoners as well. Hard as it may seem to believe at first glance, the very issues that are eating away at the royals and the royals-to-be (has anyone noticed how thin Kate looks?) are our issues as well.

The British royal family has been modernized, whether they like it or not, over the last two decades, largely by the addition of Diana, known as the "People's Princess." Sure, she was an aristocrat. But her eating disorder, penchant for rock music, embrace of charitable causes like AIDS work and raising public awareness about landmines, and her public displays of warmth for the children she obviously adored--not to mention a messy marital denoument and divorce--made the royals seem human as even Princess Margaret's shenanigans never did.

Whatever you thought of the addition of Camilla after Diana's death, it was arguably this change that made the already-altered British royal family relevant in a way it had not been before, and truly modern. After all, nothing is more contemporary than a stepfamily.

And as endless tabloid stories over the last months testify, nothing is scarier or more titillating than a stepmonster, except perhaps a stepmonster-in-law.

"Camilla calls her Kate Simpleton!" "Camilla Goes After Kate!" "Camilla Controlling the Show" the headlines here and overseas have blared. The basic theme is simple: Camilla, a homewrecker and cold stepmother to her husband's young adult boys, is even nastier to Kate. A mother-in-law is bad enough, the thinking seems to go, but a mother-in-law who isn't even your betrothed's real mother? Intolerable.

No one who isn't there can possibly know what Camilla is really like, or what she is actually up to, but we can all read the cultural script. Camilla is a villain, Kate is a victim. This oversimplified cliche nevertheless points to a fundamental truth--big "family" events are hotspots and sometimes power struggles for stepfamily members. Plenty of remarried couples with children will be facing the May into June season of weddings, cookouts, graduations and graduation parties with more anxiety than joy. That's because there's nothing like these "family" and "rite of passage" events to put pressure on relationships and make stepfamilies feel freakish, unusual, or not good enough. And to bring out a stepparent's sense that she is an "outsider" or unfairly vilified within the family system.

As I researched and wrote my book Stepmonster, women with stepchildren told me all kinds of stories about weddings--their own and those of their stepchildren. A common theme was disruption. Young stepchildren who had tantrums mid-ceremony. Older and adult stepchildren who sobbed loudly or behaved rudely on dad's big day. Even ex-wives "dumping" the kids, at the last minute, on the bride and groom as they headed off for their honeymoon!

When it's the stepkids getting married or graduating, some women partnered with divorced dads may not even be invited "because it would hurt my mom's feelings." Such an attempt to split the couple is transparent--but still all too effective if the couple is not a strong team.

The image of Camilla as a controlling stepmonster and stepmonster-in-law masks a more nuanced and perhaps surprising reality painted by anecdotal evidence and research on stepfamily life. During this season especially, women with stepchildren may be facing an intensification of the usual dynamic in which they are the least empowered members of the stepfamily system, pushed to the outside by stepchildren in loyalty binds, and blamed by his kids and the world in general for divorces they may have played no hand in causing. For stepmothers at weddings, reality is often no fairy tale.

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