Cinderella's stepmother made her work for her keep. Snow White's plotted to have her killed, the Babes in the Wood were deliberately lost by theirs. But where were the fathers when all this was going on? Why didn't they protect their children? Janet Walker, of the Relate Research Centre, has studied the modern day equivalent of Cinderella's father and found that, post divorce, fathers still have trouble coping with the competing demands of new partners and children from a previous relationship.

The research (Post Divorce Fatherhood, October 1993, available from the Family and Community Dispute Research Centre, Newcastle University), revealed that 'the accommodation of step-parents into what was a network of relations which functioned tolerably well may prove to be a decisive event in the demise of the father's relationship with his children'. Often it is the former partner's new relationship that throws a spanner in the works but a second wife can also have the power to make or break the relationship between her partner and his children.

This crucial, pivotal relationship has rarely been studied. Where stepmothers are mentioned, they are shadowy figures in the background. Women struggling with the demands of step-parenting often find they have to keep ambivalent feelings to themselves; who wants to confess to having anything in common with that archetypal hate figure - the wicked stepmother?

Some stepmothers are able to wriggle free of their own emotional reactions and the stereotypes that imprison them, and play a positive and powerful role. They may even be able to act as go-between, allowing fathers to maintain contact with their children, while shielding them from painful contact with ex-wives. Cathy Pearson initiated the relationship between her husband and his two daughters (by different mothers). She is delighted with the result. 'It's been brilliant. I said to Alan, 'I bet you never dreamt of this day with both your daughters whizzing around in go-carts together'. I believe the girls have more rights to their Dad than I do.

'It was me who started it. I made contact with Lesley, his first partner, and said could we see Vicky. She was really worried because he had run out on her once before and she didn't want him to get in touch with Vicky and then drop her. So I said: 'You have my word, this time it will be a commitment for ever.' Then I contacted Maureen and we asked Emily out, too.'

In a way, Cathy was lucky, she had time to establish her relationship with her husband before contacting his children. For most second wives, children are a factor from the start, and a stepmother can easily feel jealous of small rivals for her partner's affections. Only these days she does not need to plot murder to be rid of pesky stepchildren; she can simply exclude them.

Ms Walker found instances when this had clearly taken place. One father said: 'I would like to see more of the children, but due to all the hassle at the last attempt I think it would be a waste of time.' His ex- wife said: 'My ex-husband used to visit every Sunday. He just used to come for about two hours, but after a while his wife used to argue about him coming. She said it wasn't fair that she should be on her own.'

It is not just new partners who may feel jealous. Children often return the sentiment in full measure, not necessarily because, as many fathers believe, their mothers have poisoned their minds. They are quite likely to feel rage on their own account at the woman who seems to have taken their father away. It takes very particular strength for a woman calmly to withstand abuse from a small child. Many will insist on reducing access to protect themselves, thereby fulfilling the worst fears of the children and often fuelling antagonism between the ex-partners.

Margaret Robinson, of the Institute of Family Therapy, specialises in working with stepfamilies. 'Stepmothers have a difficult job. Often they haven't been mothers and don't know what to expect of children. Fathers often feel so guilty that they try to cram a lifetime's love into a weekend, making their new partners feel neglected. On top of that, the children's mother may fear that, having taken her husband, she'll take the children, too.'

I'M GLAD HIS CHILDREN LIVE FAR AWAY

When Louise met her husband she was a single, professional woman in her late thirties. He was recovering from a relationship that had ended two years earlier when his wife left to live with another man.

FOR THE first two years after they split up, he would travel 200 miles every other weekend to see his children and have them to stay in the holidays. He was exhausted, life was nothing but work and these desperate visits to see his children, and then, six years ago, he met me. I think it would have come to an end anyway, but I was obviously a catalyst for change. I know he will never give them up completely, but now we only see them about three times a year and we all get on much better. I think his daughters really like me now and enjoy being with me as me, not just as his wife.

When we were having frequent weekends with them, there was never any time for anything else and I found it very hard. They were very young and very clingy and the whole thing would be very tense. When you are not used to being with children it can be very difficult. There were screaming fits and, as a non-mother, I felt 'how dare they behave like this, and why can't he stop them?'. Just sitting round the table was a problem. They would all be fighting to sit next to him. I never felt I had a role to play. When he and I were alone, I was growing this positive new identity. When I was with the children I was playing a ghost role in his past. We weren't us, we were daddy and an appendage.

I'm sure they found my presence as strange as I found theirs, but when a six- year-old suddenly says, 'I'm going to take my Daddy away and lock him up and put you on the rubbish dump,' it is hard not to feel rejected. Then, instead of comforting me, he would be cuddling her and saying how much he loved her. I felt terribly jealous. When you are with someone you have only just met and you are very much in love, and he has this love for these other people, it is hard to take, even though I knew it was different from his love for me.

What made it worse was that I desperately wanted a child. Every visit seemed to coincide with my period. The fact that he was the father of three children and I wasn't getting pregnant made it much harder for me. It seemed so unfair and the children became the focus of my misery. I would get into a complete state and yell at him that he shouldn't have had children in such an awful relationship. Sometimes he would explode back. I would be jealous of anything which showed his connection with them. I hated his photo album filled with pictures of beautiful children and another life. There were few women I could talk to about it because it seemed so unnatural to resent his children when I was also saying that I wanted to have a baby.

I think he thought I wanted him to cut off from them completely, but if he had cut off from them I don't think I could have respected him. I don't think I would have wanted to be with someone who hurt his children. Maybe they do miss him and I am just blocking it out, but I think they are happy and, I have to say if I'm being really honest, that I am glad they live far away.

THEY PLAY US OFF AGAINST EACH OTHER

Sharon met her husband at work. He was then married with children. After a seven-year relationship they married and now have a child.

WE HAD an affair and he left his wife. At first he moved in with me, but after three months he got a place of his own. In fact we didn't live together again for years because he was worried about the impact on the children.

All our arguments have centred on the children. I was jealous of them. I know it sounds terribly childish, but I felt that they were keeping me from getting what I wanted. It isn't just me that feels like that. I have other friends living with divorced men and they have been through the same thing.

We used to spend most of our time together in his house or mine, so I was always there when the children came, anyway. He couldn't just tell me to go, could he? I mean, you can't just turn a relationship on and off like that. It isn't fair. I used to get upset if he went up to their house, and when she insisted on him going out with them as a family, for their birthdays, because I know she just did it to spite me. It's been much calmer since we married. Now he thinks we were wrong not to do it sooner because, while we weren't together, she could cling to the hope that he might go back to her. It's only really in the last year that we have been happy.

We still have the children every other weekend and for two weeks in the summer. When their weekend is coming up, my husband is on the way up, he is really excited and looking forward to seeing them and I am on the way down. At the end of the weekend it's the other way round and I am starting to cheer up at

the thought of them going. It's actually better when they are with us for two weeks and we can all relax a bit, but even then I have to watch what I say all the time. As soon as they go home there are calls to my husband saying that I have upset the children.

One day my husband sat down and told them the things that their mother had reported back to us. They say they tell her those things because they don't want to upset her. She doesn't want them to be happy with us. Now we have agreed that I won't ever look after them on my own. If he has work at the weekend they don't come. In a way that's worse for them because they see less of him but, quite honestly, I don't care. It's better from my point of view.

After all these years of seeing them every other weekend and for two weeks in the summer I don't actually like either of them. I think they are scheming and wilful, they play us off against each other and I find the way they treat my husband disgusting. Of course, the mother makes things a lot worse. Her constant, vehement dislike of me, and of being left, spills over on to the children. She has poisoned them against us.

The Step Families Association has a national helpline and local groups to provide stepfamilies (full or part-time) with support and an opportunity to talk (071-372 0846).

Illustration: Amanda Hutt

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