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The pains of step parenting


I always wondered why she was always angry every time her mother visited her Borrowdale home.

Stembile would shout and scream telling her not to finish her food or to touch anything in that house.

What was her mother’s crime, I would wonder?

Stembile’s mother abandoned her and three other siblings at her paternal grandmother’s village in Murehwa when she was hardly five years old.

Her father, a high-profile politician, had gone to join Zimbabwe’s war of liberation and Stella says everybody in the village had concluded that he had died.

“But the funny thing is that we would receive parcels of clothes which were also shared by other children in the clan. My mother never set foot at our village which is not so far away from hers. She resurfaced when I was at Murehwa High School

“I hardly recognised her and she introduced herself. My father had now become a minister in the government and had taken a new wife when he heard that our mother had left us at our village. So what did she want from me now?” she would ask.

Stembile always spoke tenderly about her granny and when this old woman died in 1983 she mourned for months.

“She was a mother to me and she deserved the best. My mother is no different from a baby dumper. Am I not right? Her village is walking distance from our village but I never saw any visitor from my mother’s side that ever set their eyes on us from the day we were left with our granny.

“She said my uncles had barred her from coming to see us but I am not satisfied with that response. I hate my mother and her new husband. I love my dad but I don’t like his new wife.”

And true to her words, she never set foot at either parent’s house until the day she died four years ago from a heart ailment. Three of her siblings had died earlier, leaving a very heartbroken father who had tried by all means to embrace her into his new “step family”.

Stembile never accepted her stepmother and they always clashed. So bitter was she that her anger spoiled many other relationships at work, I concluded.

She was a woman who had never experienced parental love and although she yearned to get married, she only managed to have a child.

“She is forcing me to call her ‘mother’ . . . she is not my mum. My own mum abandoned me when I was a toddler. I hate these two women.”

I am sure we all know about Zimbabweans currently involved in some form of step relationship. It is becoming evident that more Zimbabweans will be living in stepfamilies, a big shift from traditional nuclear families.

Although I have not managed to get statistics about step parenting, judging from what I have seen in many neighbourhoods, I think Zimbabwe is slowly becoming a nation of step-related individuals.

In pre-colonial Zimbabwe, people lived in villages, and it took an entire village to raise orphans or children whose parents had divorced. But with urbanisation, the social security network that cushioned these children in rural Zimbabwe has fizzled out.

Parents are remarrying and moving in with their children, a situation that has sometimes brought about untold suffering and emotional pain for both step parents and step children.

In his 1994 study, The Changing Character of Stepfamilies, Professor of Sociology Larry L Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin stated: “About half of the 60 million children under the age of thirteen in America are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner.

“Nearly half of all women, not just mothers, are likely to live in a stepfamily relationship, when we include living-together families in our definition of the stepfamily.”

He lamented that most graduate schools of psychiatry, psychology, and social work provide no specific training in dealing with these particular dynamics of stepfamilies.

“Often, the methods and information appropriate to the nuclear family can be destructive . . . if applied to the highly specific dynamics of the stepfamily system.”

A colleague from the media recently went on holiday with her stepchildren to Kenya and as they were booking into a hotel, a porter made a remark praising this woman and her children who had decided to carry their own bags to the rooms. But one of the three children responded sharply saying: “No, she is not our mother . . . our mother is dead . . . ”

“I was so deflated but what should I have done? It’s true that I’m not their mother and that is the sad truth. She said it in total innocence. But such a reaction hurts and I’m learning to adjust so that we all live in peace and harmony.”

Professor Bumpass in his research says that unrealistic expectations beget rejection and resentment.

“There is no model for the step relationship except for the wicked stepchild and invariably cruel stepmother of fairy tales. Note the absence of myth around the stepfather.

“It is vital for the survival of the stepfather to be able to see and delineate expectations for each member of the family, especially the primary issues of upset in step: e.g., money, discipline, the prior spouse, visitation, authority, emotional support, territory and custody.

“The conflict of loyalties must be recognised right from the beginning. The conflict is particular to stepfamilies and is a round robin of confused emotions.

Often, just as the child in a step relationship begins to have warm feelings toward the stepparent, the child will pull away and negatively act out. He/she feels something like: “If I love you that means I do not love my real parent.”

The feelings are normal and must be dealt with. The dilemma raised in the question “who am I loyal to first?” go all the way around in the stepfamily.

But I have testimonies from a friend who lives in Sweden who was raised by a stepmother from the time she was three.

When we started working in 1981, we would go shopping for our parents and one day something happened.

My friend would normally buy similar clothes for both her step mum who lived in Zambia and her biological mum who lived in Houghton Park.

This time around, she did not have enough money to buy two dresses at the same time like she used to.

“Hey Ropa, help me. Who should I buy this dress, My mum or step mum?” I couldn’t answer that question. But she quickly retorted with an angry voice.

“I am buying this dress for my step mum. Which woman in this world would raise a three-year-old, who is not hers; take that child to school up to university?

Where was my mum? She never set foot in Zambia and I only met her when we came here . . . No ways! The mother I know is my stepmom.”

Another workmate recently expressed his gratitude towards his step brothers who paid for his entire education. He said his step mother and her children never discriminated when they were being raised.

“I shudder to hear the horrible stories about what happens in some stepfamilies. Look at me now. I am grown up, holding down a good job, courtesy of children from my stepmom.”

That is a powerful testimony coming from a young man who developed a strong bond with the stepfamily, although his mother still exists and they too share happy memories.

“Anyone can a raise a child that is not theirs but I emphasise to stepparents not to make children choose parents. I love my mom, dad and stepmom and we all get along.”

Professor Bumpass says in conclusion: “Recognise the hard fact that the children are not yours and they never will be.

We are stepparents, not replacement parents. Mother and father (no matter how AWFUL the natural parents) are sacred words which evoke powerful feelings.

We are stepparents; a step removed, yet in this position can still play a significant role in the development of the child.”

Feedback: rmapimhidze@newsday.co.zw

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