You meet someone, fall in love and vow to love them for the rest of your life. They open up on their baggage from the past including children from a previous relationship. Without batting an eyelid you reassure them that it’s all okay and embrace their children as your own. You become a stepmother of innocent souls who are left under your care. But as soon as your honeymoon is over, the innocent step children become your punching bag. You beat them; subject them to physical and psychological torture.This is the story told of step mothers over and over again.
Why would a woman vent her anger on an innocent child to levels of inflicting bodily harm? This is the question many grapple with.
23-year-old Maria Mukamwezi recalls the disturbing experience she had to endure with her stepmom at a tender age.
At the age of five, her parents separated and a few years later her father remarried. That was the beginning of Mukamwezi’s Cinderella story.
“My stepmother hated me with every bone in her body; her detestation was visible to everyone, even my father, though he chose to look the other way. Life was miserable and my only wish then was to die and escape the heartless woman,” she says.
She adds; “I was forced to eat left over food, my stepmom always made sure that I missed meals by allocating chores at the time others were having lunch or dinner and later gave me what the others had left.
“My other siblings were pampered like three year olds but I was always mistreated. If we had to go for a family outing, I always wore shabby clothes. Sometimes she would hurl swear words at me,” Mukamwezi sadly narrates.
Like Mukamwezi, many children under the care of their step parents undergo a tormenting life experience which not only affects them as kids, but also as adults.
Why do some stepmothers act evil?
Kelly Johnson, a professional counselor at Live Again Rwanda, says that for a stepmom to mistreat a child is a situation that can be caused by different factors.
She says that chances of a stepmom’s attachment to a child that isn’t theirs are limited and this definitely leads to various indifferences leading to mistreatment of the child.
“One of the factors could be the fact that the parent might not feel attached to their step child in the same way they would to their biological kids. And if one isn’t patient and considerate, they end up mistreating the kids,” Johnson says.
She continues to explain that it also depends on the personality of the parent. Some mothers could be selfish and inconsiderate to the kids, others can even be jealous.
Johnson cautions that being abused by a step parent affects kids just like any other abuse. “It can cause trauma, it affects their sense of development, as in knowing who they are or how they are supposed to relate to the world.”
She adds that it affects their sense of security in their lives and sense of safety.
“Being abused by an adult you look up to often leaves one in fear and these kids end up feeling detached from the world, it affects their psychological, social and emotional development,” Johnson says.
According to Joyce Kirabo, a counselor and mentor with Rwanda Education Board, women sometimes feel insecure with stepchildren because they think that their husbands will link up with their ex partners in the name of checking on the children.
“Some people are just naturally pitiful; they don’t see these kids as innocent people who were not involved in anything so they end up transferring their anger and insecurities to the children.”
Kirabo adds that the man could be subjecting the wife to domestic violence. The husband could be mistreating the wife and in the end, she transfers the anger to the kid as an act of revenge.
However, Kirabo says that sometimes it’s the stepchildren who are the trouble causers and give the parents a hard time.
“Some kids are also badly behaved, they tend to undermine and disrespect their stepmothers. In the end, this erases even the least amount of love she would have had.”
Kirabo however says that regardless of the situation, there is no justification of mistreating kids since it can have serious effects on their lives.
“Children who undergo mistreatment by their step parents are affected physically and psychologically. They are not at ease with their home environment and this ends up affecting them, for example in academics,” she says.
Kirabo adds that the kids are physically affected because some of these step mothers use corporal punishment.
Another effect is that the biological kids are likely to develop a bad character as a result of the bad example from their mothers.They get the picture that step kids are supposed to be treated that way, according to Kirabo.
Kirabo advises parents to be very close to their children and establish an open relationship such that a kid can talk about what’s not making them happy. And that if one knows their child well, through observation; one can notice that something is amiss in their kid’s life.
Amos Furaha, a counselor at Live Again Rwanda, says that every situation is different, explaining that sometimes the problem may not be the stepmother’s since children themselves can have certain behaviours.
“The kids could be reacting to effects brought by change in their lives, for example, it could be divorce or even loss of the parent. Accepting another person in place of their biological parent could be hard, but it’s the duty of the grown up, which in this case is the parent, to understand and handle the situation,” Furaha says.
“Kids can be taken to see a therapist to help them understand that it’s not the new mother’s fault and therefore find a way of accepting the situation,” he advises.
He explains that not all step mothers are bad. How the husband and the wife relate to each other can contribute to such a situation. Communication should be used as a way of handling family matters, especially when the father comes to know about the mistreatment of his child.
Furaha explains that children who undergo such abuse grow up to be very insecure because they have to figure out almost everything and sometimes when they grow up, they can work it out but if not, life can be very confusing. Such people tend to be very isolated lonely and desperate because they have something they are missing.
Zainab Nyiramatama, the executive secretary for National Commission for Children, says that such can be caused by conflicts within the household either from the ex-partner or even with the parents at home.
She says that different strategies are being put in place to protect children, regardless of the case.
“We started putting different strategies in place all over the country and in some places they have started to be implemented. There is a programme called Inshuti Zumuryango which has been implemented, different representatives have been posted at the village level to visit homes to find out the different obstacles they are facing,” Nyiramatama says.
400 people so far have been allocated in different areas of the country and this will help the officials concerned to get the necessary information. The programme will run up to July or August this year.
Speaking at the 10th Annual National Children Summit last year in Kigali, children from across the country discussed child rights and protection.
They appealed to authorities for more advocacies for vulnerable children in villages and a special chamber in courts to prosecute crimes against children.
What women say?
Christine Kabatesi is a mother of three, plus a stepchild from her husband’s previous marriage; she says that there is nothing as hard as dealing with a step child because one is judged by whatever they do.
“If you do something good people say you are pretending and if you try to correct the kid’s mistake, they say you are mistreating them. Sometimes it’s the children who are complicated but it is always us they blame,” Kabatesi says.
Jolly Arinaitwe says that she doesn’t understand women who mistreat children just because they are not theirs. She says that women should mind what they do because what goes around comes around.
“One can never know what the future brings, anything can happen, forcing you to leave your kids behind in the hands of another woman and what you did to others can also be done to your kids,” Arinaitwe says.
I say: Stepmothers: Are they misjudged?
Sometimes stepmothers are better parents than one’s biological mother. However, no matter how good they are, their actions will always be misjudged. People need to learn to give credit to some stepmothers and appreciate their good deeds. Not all are bad, people need to know that.
People’s attitude towards stepmothers is always negative and this eventually makes their deeds fall on the evil side. We need to look at stepmothers as reliable mothers. A positive attitude towards stepmothers should be everyone’s initiative. They deserve better.
Definitely, sometimes stepmothers are misunderstood. Some do their best to raise children under their guidance, however, children tend to behave irresponsibly and that makes the stepmother’s patience run out. Children need to respect and love them. Furthermore, we need to know that some children also are not easy to raise and their negligence is not the stepmother’s fault.
I can’t say all stepmothers are bad because some have proved to be more responsible and caring than a child’s real mother. However, some tend to bury the best part about them. For instance, letting children who are not theirs suffer and lack the parental guidance and care they would get from their mother.
Some are not evil but since they think the public has a misinterpretation regarding their actions towards children who are not theirs; this makes them care less. We all have a role to play. Our attitude towards them makes a difference.
We have seen stepmothers who have raised children who are not theirs and those children are proud to call them their mothers. It is sad that sometimes they are misunderstood and put in the same category with evil ones. We shouldn’t judge all step mothers simply because one of them is wicked.