Right from childhood, we are treated to fairy tales of how wicked step-mothers are; always out to dig their sharp claws into their innocent and helpless step-children’s flesh and tear them to shreds.
From the legendary Cinderella to our very own Aisha Nabukeera and many others, step-mothers have been portrayed as the cruelest thing that has ever happened to earth. But have we ever stopped to think how many of these women have actually left angelic imprints in their stepchildren’s lives?
How many have soothed and are actually more motherly than the biological mothers? Are all step-mothers weird and wicked? Below is Viola’s story as told to a Vision Reporter
Real life: My step-mother is an angel –Viola
I grew up with a woman I called mummy, until my early 20s. I only learnt of this secret that had for more than 20 years been kept away from all prying eyes. When I was in my first year at university, I learnt that the woman I so loved and called mummy was not my biological mother.
This is not to say I was saddened by the revelation, but rather I was surprised how my parents had managed to keep this away from the nosy relatives, however close. Perhaps it was because my parents lived abroad for the first few years of their marriage and when they returned, they had the two of us my sister Vera and I, who everybody thought were real sisters.
I was told my biological mother remained abroad where she married and moved on. She never ever bothered to communicate or find out what was going on in my life or if she ever did, my father must have handled it with utmost caution.
I grew up with Vera (I was about six years old her about five) and our three other siblings when we returned to Uganda in 1987.
None of us ever sensed we were not from the same mother. I don’t remember mom ever barking at me, denying me food or treating me in any way differently from her other children, despite the fact daddy travelled a lot and was always away from home.
What others had, I had; we all went to good schools and shared whatever there was at home, all provided by mom. When we erred, we were corrected or punished the same way. We took turns to do housework as a way of training; we did the same shopping and were given the same amount of pocket money when we went back to school.
Learning that mom was not my real mother
I only learnt that mum at home was not my real mother when I was at university. Even then, I did not hear it through rumours; my parents prepared me and, at the right time calmly and lovingly broke the news.
They later told my siblings.
Of course, at first, I was devastated and developed some resentment towards my parents for having kept such a sensitive secret from me this long, but because I had bonded well with both of them in as far as the way they treated me, I gradually healed
I was told my biological mother dumped me in my father’s office when I was only eight months old. Dad brought me home to my step-mother, who was then two months pregnant. She accepted me and brought me up as her own child.
On my wedding day, my biological mother was invited and introduced, of course, as my biological mother, to everyone’s surprise, but mom was given all the honour because with due respect, she had done a tremendous job of raising me and making me what I am.
I am now married with two children and with a good job in Kampala but I have no quarrel with my step-mother. Ever since the truth was revealed to me, I have tried to look for the slightest speck of hate or cruelty in her, but have found none.
The two times I have given birth, she has taken me home and looked after me when I leave hospital. She takes care of my children and gives me the best advice I can ever get. I owe it all to you, mom. You are my hero!
I owe it to mom’s advice, prayer – Viola’s step-mom
Before our wedding, my husband had told me about his ex-girlfriend who was threatening to seek a court injunction against the wedding over the pregnancy she was carrying. We discussed it at length and sought legal advice.
We were advised that since there was no legal commitment between him and the woman, they could settle the issue by him providing upkeep when the baby was born, until a time when the woman deemed it fit to hand over the child to the father. I assured him I would willingly take care of the child.
One morning, seven months after our wedding, my husband called to tell me the woman had dumped the baby at his office. I was two months pregnant and I was not working. The baby was eight months old. I advised him to bring the baby home and we named her Viola.
Being in a foreign country, I did not know what to expect from both my husband and the mother of the baby. I prayed to God to protect me and give me wisdom to handle the challenge and, indeed, He answered my prayer.
A feeling of anger and frustration engulfed me as I thought of how I was going to look after Viola when I too was being tortured by my own pregnancy. My strong Christian background helped me a lot.
I remembered as we were growing up, our home was always full of people, both relatives and strangers. My mother would always welcome everybody in the home regardless of their status. I drew from this experience and accepted the baby.
I was also lucky that after dumping the baby, Viola’s mother never returned to torment me.
Those days it was difficult to make phone calls; there were no mobile phones, but I managed to call my mother and express my fears.
The advice she gave me has been a strong pillar. She cited her example, how she used to look after all sorts of children, from close to distant relatives and even those she did not know.
“Never throw out a child,” she stressed, “they are a gift from God. “Taking care of another woman’s child with compassion will bring blessings to your own children when you get them because such children are innocent victims of circumstances. Treat her as your own and God will reward you. And, always seek God’s guidance,” were the words of counsel my mother gave me on phone.
Another thing she told me was to always treat the child the same way I treat mine, to be confident and in control, and to always involve my husband wherever I find challenges in as far as disciplinary issues are concerned.
These words have guided me on my parenthood path. Being away from home also helped me because none of my husband’s relatives interfered because these too can be nasty.
They only saw the girl when we came back to Uganda and because she looked exactly like my children, they never got to know Viola was not my biological child until we told them.
Many times it is the tongue-wagging relatives and the mothers of such children that cause friction, but I believe my strong Christian background helped me beat the challenges and my husband and I remained close.
I also promised God that I would look after this child the same way I would do my own children, and besides, as Viola grew up she was a good and intelligent girl, which made life easy for me.
In most cases, step-children suffer because adults, out of selfishness, use them as objects to fight their own battles.
To all mothers, love, patience, understanding, forgiveness and prayer conquer all challenges.
Who is innocent and guilty?
By Joyce Nyakato
In 2006, in Masaka, Aisha Nabukeera then aged 13, sustained grievous burns when her stepmother, Safina Ndagire, allegedly ordered her to light a candle after forcing her to wear a dress doused in petrol. Three years later, the DPP authorised the closure of the case for lack of sufficient evidence.
Nine-year-old Khasifa Nakitto’s body is rotting after she sustained severe fire burns last year. Her step-mother only identified as Annet, poured paraffin on her dress and instructed her to roast maize. When she approached the fireplace, the dress caught fire burning her severely. The incident occurred last year in Itendero, Sheema district.
The latest victim, Agnes Nandaula, a student at Victorious Primary School in Kyabakuza, is nursing severe burns on her back after her step-mother, Rosette Mbabazi, poured a saucepan full of hot water on her back, accusing her of stealing sugarcane.
Mbabazi, who claims she acted in self-defence after her step-daughter attempted to hit her with an axe, was arrested and taken to Masaka Central Police Station. Nandaula is admitted in Masaka Referral Hospital.
The issue of conflict between step-mothers and step-children is, probably as old as mankind and for long, has been cited as one of the major forms of child abuse and cause of marital disharmony and marriage break-downs in blended families.
But, just like any other human beings, in all societies, there are both good and bad step-mothers.
Negative attitude towards step-parenting
Gaston Byamugisha, a counselling psychologist and lecturer at Kyambogo University, says many step-mothers in Uganda are doing a good job, but still have a bad reputation because of the few whose cruel acts make headlines in the press.
“Everything is interpreted differently when it comes to step-mothers,” he says.
Step-parenting is a challenge, especially for women have not been parents before. However, there are other factors that compound the problem.
For there to be a step-mother, something must have happened to the biological mother. It could be death, separation, divorce or unplanned pregnancy. All these conditions will put children through some kind of emotional discontent.
Before a separation or divorce occurs, there is usually a lot of fighting causing immense trauma to the children. When they lose their mother, they may need some time to heal, so seeing a new ‘mother’ in the home may cause a lot of resentment in them.
“This resentment and resistance may manifest as indiscipline and disrespect on the part of the children,” Byamugisha explains.
Mastula Namugenyi, a private counsellor in Kibuli, thinks the negative stereotype about step-mothers has had a strong bearing on the whole issue.
When a woman marries into a home and finds children, she may embrace her new role with enthusiasm, eager to impress the family and friends so that she is not labelled the proverbial ‘wicked stepmother’ depicted in the movies and storybooks.
As a result of this struggle for acceptance, she may burn out or get frustrated if her efforts are not appreciated as she would have expected. And, herein may come a lot of pulling and pushing between two frustrated sets of people.
The children’s age plays a role
A step-mother to adolescents definitely has a bigger problem on her hands.
“It is because most of these children have already been indoctrinated with the wicked step-mother stereotype,” explains Namugenyi.
Young children have little memories of their mother and are, therefore, able to accept a new mother much faster. Older children are looking forward to start their own lives and therefore may ignore their stepmother while adolescents are in the are not sure of what to do next.
Why the ill-treatment?
According to Byamugisha, many women do not choose to be stepmothers. For instance, in a case where the husband fathers a child out of wedlock and brings the child home for the wife to raise.
So, to the wife at home, this child will be a testimony and reminder of her husband’s infidelity resulting into marital disharmony. And, many women, out of frustration, direct their anger and vengeance towards the children, despite the fact that the children are innocent.
When 35-year-old Aisha Namuyimbwa got married, all was fine for 10 years until her husband brought home a 10-year-old boy. She also had three children.
“It hurt, but I tried to treat him like the rest of my children. It didn’t work out,” she recalls. Her step-son always waited for his father to return home to report all the shenanigans that had happened at home. “We found ourselves fighting all the time because of the boy,” Namuyimbwa says.
Every time she looked at the boy, she saw him as the cause of all the marital troubles she was going through.
There is a case of women who come into a home to children whose father and mother have divorced or separated. These encounter a challenge in form of competition with the biological mother of the children.
In many cases, the biological mother will try to make the new woman fail by using her children and turning them against the new woman.
Sensing the competition and feeling insecure, the new woman will then turn against the children to punish their biological mother, who is now a competitor. In most cases, in all this conflict, the children, who are being used as the objects in the conflict will end up being the victims.
“Another cause of conflict is the relatives who, in an attempt, whether genuine or pretentious, to sympathise with the children, poison the young minds and turn them against the step-mother,” explains Byamugisha.
What is the father’s role in all this?
When Salma Nankubuge beat her step-daughter for stealing money, her husband rebuked her in the presence of the girl. He told her to never ‘mistreat’ his daughter again.
Nankubuge was hurt because she knew she would have punished her own daughter the same way under similar circumstances.
After the incident, the girl became rebellious because she knew her step-mother had no authority over her.
Byamugisha reasons that this results from the fact that men have been brought up to believe stereotypes and are not sure of who to trust; their children or wives.
Ivan Minde, a resident of Kitintale Zone 12, agrees that men are sometimes to blame for the friction between children and their step-mothers. He says there has to be a level of trust between the husband and wife.
“If your children disrespect her, put them to order,” he reasons.
That way, they will learn that it is important to respect not only their step-mother but also all the other people, young and old. Byamugisha says it is crucial for men in this situation to prepare potential step-mothers mentally for the possible challenges of such a relationship. This includes discussing the mode of punishment for undisciplined children.
How step-mothers can cope
Namugenyi advises step-mothers to avoid confrontation with the relatives or the children as this exacerbates the situation. You also lose respect.
According to her, it is natural for children not to readily accept another woman who is taking their mother’s place in a home. They need time to adjust. She also advises stepmothers to avoid discrimination and treat their stepchildren the same way they treat their own children.
Children and Mothers speak out
Anonymous, 25 years old
My mother left me when I was four months, and all the responsibility was given to my grand-mother. When I made six years, I was taken to my father’s home which marked the beginning of my hell on earth.
I was isolated from the rest of the family from the very beginning. I used to wake up very early to wash plates and mop the house before going to school. I was always late for school.
After school, I had to wash my step-sisters’ and brothers’ uniforms and fetch water four kilometres away from home. Whenever I came back late, my stepmother would beat me and report me to my father that I like playing. My father would also beat me which has made me fear him up to date.
My step-mother would serve others food and made me wait for my father to return and report me. I always missed food and went to bed hungry.
Tina Wandera, a mother of four
It is important for adults to know that children are innocent victims who are severely affected by the conflict, divorce, separation or death of their mother. They should therefore, be kept out of the wars and not used as tools in the fight by any of the parents.
Clovis Biribonwa, a step-mother
Fathers need to know they have a big role to play to calm the situation. They should be as transparent as possible as they attempt to deal with the issues of step-parenting and avoid taking sides.
Josephine Nakalembe, Nakawa
My stepmother treated us like her own children. She did not have her own children and even contributed to our school fees up to high school. Not all step-mothers are bad.