The notion of remarriage offers the idea of a second chance, or a rejuvenation. A return to the hope and romance of youth. In fairytales as old as time, children stand in the way of that hope. A woman who may never have had any children herself is forced prematurely into the role of mother for children she doesn’t love. Her body hasn’t been wrecked with childbirth, but equally she has never had the need to be compassionate. Maybe the wicked stepmother will have her own children, but they will only warp her affections even more, as she will only understand how to love her own.
Romances can be thought of as a completion of another person, and a journey together that begins with utter devotion. But if the father already has children, his devotion will always be fractured, his love will never be wholly hers. Thus in order to gain the full extent of that possessive love, she has to either kill the children or put them to work to the degree where their identities are subsumed by the drudgery of the labour they engage in. Inherently though there is a pathetic indignity to it – the necessity of competing with and fighting against children.
In the era of most early fairytales, where children were still treated as property, there is a horror to the notion that they could be set the most gruelling, abusive tasks by a wicked stepparent in a fruitless attempt at vengeance for the way the children are loved. This would be the result of a hatred of an entity that is indestructible (at least until the stepmother’s detestation of the children overcomes her love for her husband and she snaps and kills them) but completely powerless. To despise something so weak, so inoffensive simply because one of the few faculties they have is the love for their father, there is a visceral extremity in this capacity to hate.
Often stepmothers are wicked witches too. If they aren’t siphoning the life out of their children by setting them to menial labour, they are literally siphoning the life out of them. It is but a matter of time before any figure of impure beauty such as the second wife seductress that crashes through the family ends up with occult power behind them.
Why might this be? Children for many families represent an extension of the growth that the parents have found valuable in their own lives. We teach children everything we know in the hopes they will learn from their mistakes and might surpass us, but also as an extension of the ego. By taking forwards our knowledge and utilising it in the world in a myriad of scenarios, children have chances for development that we never had. A lot of people put all their hope for the future in their children instead of themselves when they have them. Children are the futures that parents never had made either consciously or subconsciously in their own image.
But the wicked stepmother never made that choice to translate her hopes for a future into a child, and have a child as the extension of her own identity. Usually the established, somewhat wealthy father, and that marriage represents the future to her, and the children are only a relic of a past that is dead (via their biological mother). The wicked stepmother will show no desire to put any of herself into the children by raising and teaching them. The wicked stepmother has not a scrap of self-sacrifice that traditional parenting demands. She represents parental knowledge withheld, and someone trapped in the family scenario who shows no desire to put any of her own development or ambitions on hold for the children she has been forced to look after. The wicked stepmother has complete mastery over herself and always will, so she retains her beauty and role of temptress even when settling into marriage.
One could easily see how power over the self ends up translating into a type of magic. When the daughters grow up to be more beautiful than she is, in an attempt at all costs to resist sacrificing any of her identity, she will happily kill or siphon off the life and youth of the children before her to retain that dynamic of complete autonomy that seems so alien within a family setting.
Though we may consider the wicked stepmother an archetype of the days of the Brothers Grimm, we still have characters such as A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Esmé Squalor. The extraordinarily wealthy fashionista leeches power from the children by reducing them to a mere accessory – ‘orphans are in’ – and triumphantly parades them around to enhance her own reputation. Like the wicked witch stepmothers often become, Esmé uses her powers of fashion to create chic outfits to disguise herself with and seduce anyone in her path to the children’s fortune and status. Fundamentally, children will always represent the chance for parents to impart their knowledge and offer chances for growth those parents never had.
When faced with substitute guardians who are unwilling to sacrifice themselves, that core process of growth will be disrupted. For as long as children even in some part exist as an extension of parental identity, the self-assured wicked stepmother will exist alongside them.