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Step-mum confidential

Snow white
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MIRROR MIRROR: An AUT student is doing research into whether fairy tales like Snow White perpetuate stereotypes about step-mums. Charlize Theron played the evil step-mother in the Snow White adaptation, Snow White and the Huntsmen.

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Auckland University doctoral student, Anna Miller, is pioneering reaearch that has never been done before in New Zealand, on a family structure that is growing rapidly and that everyone seems to be ignoring. 

The future doctor of psychology told Essential Mums that she believes fairy tales like Cinderlla and Snow White, which portray step mothers as wicked and cruel, could reinforce stereotypes that affect women's experiences and their identities as stepmothers.

"Children today are still brought up with these tales and these kinds of stories could perpetuate the myths that step mums are evil," Miller explains.

"For the child coming into a step family situation, the only thing they know to draw upon is a story they have been told from a young age about a wicked step mother, they carry those thoughts with them."

Miller believes it is not unrealistic that these thoughts might influence the child's behaviour towards a new step parent and could influence this interaction.

"Step mothers already have a challenging role, but this could potentially add to that.Very little is known, however, about the ways in which stepmothers feel affected by society's ideas and portrayals of their role. It is also uncertain whether stepmothers in New Zealand perceive that they are stereotyped in any way, or if they experience stigmatisation."

Where are the step-mums at?

Miller said that while research has shown that one third of all families in America are step-families, and the family structure is the fasted growing in the UK, New Zealand doesnt have any statistics on how many blended families there are here.

Although longitudinal studies reveal 20 per cent of children under the age of 17 will be part of a step-family for some time, it would seem step-families are not acknowledged as much as they should be.

"I came across some findings from overseas that said that step-families in general are quite stigmatised in society and that there are some negative stereotypes about members of step families, in particular step-mums," Miller explains.

"This sparked my interest and I started to wonder if this was true in New Zealand and whether these stereotypes exist here and to what extent step- mothers might feel they have experienced these."

Miller says through her research she realised that there is often a lack of recognition of step-families, even though it is an increasingly common family structure.

Often this lack of recognition stems into policy and legislation, as well as in social institutions.

While the impact of stereotypes relating to ethnicity, age, sex and other groups has been done, there is no research similar to Miller's project.

"Research from overseas indicates that there are stereotypes about step-mothers and it would be interesting to see if New Zealand is thinking along the same lines."

The pervasive ideal that the best type of family is the nuclear (mum dad and kids all living in the same house) could add to the stigma of the step-family structure, Miller says.

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"There seems to a perception that anything that deviates from the nuclear family structure is a deviation from the norm and therefore less functional."

Step-mums get a voice

Miller says that no research done in New Zealand, or internationally, from what she can see, has included interviews directly with step mums.

"What I have found have that there are some comments in other research about how the label of the "wicked step mother" has affected them, but there has never been a real focus of investigation into this."

Alot of the research on step-parents has included interviews with colleague students, counsellers, teachers and members of step familes, but not specifically step-mums.

For this reason, Miller is hoping that an online questionaire will allow step-mums to answer these questions from a uniquely New Zealand perspective.

She is looking for women who are currently in a de facto relationship or married to a partner who has biological children (aged under 18 years) from a former relationship to take part.

Participants will remain anonymous and may have their own children either from their previous or current relationships.

Helping step families

Miller hopes her research will provide family counsellors and psychologists with more insight into step-families and through this help them in supporting step-families.

"I think it is important for us to get an idea about how our cultue and how our society are thinking about different groups of people, because it does influence how we interact with them," she says.

" I also think step mothers often don't have a voice to express how their experience has been. There are a number of stressors that come with that role and I think this study is a good opportunity for them to express their unique situation and some of the things that have played a role in how they have coped."

Tell us: Do you think stereotypes do impact on step families and step mums specifically?

- © Fairfax NZ News

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