I don’t like his kids

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 6, 2009

I thought I could learn to love being a stepmom, but I don’t


Dear Cary,

I’m probably one of the most unromantic people who ever lived, and have always cringed when someone says they found their “soul mate” or their “one and only,” because really, out of all the people alive at any given time in the world, what’s the likelihood that your “other half” would walk into the same bar or church or drugstore that you did on that particular night? I mean, if you truly have a soul mate, isn’t it likely he/she is in mainland China or Bangladesh instead of in your town? No, I always thought that the key to really being in a successful relationship was figuring out which compromises you could live with and finding a person who matched those.

Instead, at 37, I fell deeply in love with and married a man whom I could probably characterize with a complete lack of irony as my “soul mate.” I love our relationship — I have never felt more deeply or intimately bonded with anyone in my life, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Except I can. When we met I was single — never married, no kids, never even lived with someone else. I left home when I was 15 (I didn’t have much of a relationship with my own parents) so I had things my own way for a long time: 22 years.

I’d like to interject here that I’m relatively normal, and I have friends who like me and would probably also tell you I’m normal (with a few caveats). I think I’m in the realm of normally attractive; but I didn’t mind being single, and in a way I had the best of both worlds for a long time. I dated a man for 20 of those years who didn’t want to live with or marry me, and while early on in the relationship I thought that I could somehow change that, over time I grew to like it. I had a date when I needed one, felt some security in the relationship, but acted as an independent agent most of the time.

In my late 20s and 30s I traveled alone a lot, which was a pretty hedonistic pleasure and something I still miss. Eventually, though, I outgrew that quasi-relationship and began to want a real partner to share my life with. When I met my husband I knew practically immediately, unquestionably, he was the one. But after two and a half years, I am at my wits’ end — not with my husband but with his kids (three of them, ages 7 to 17).

I should say here that there isn’t anything wrong with his kids; they are nice enough, generally polite and respectful. But I don’t like them much. I don’t ever feel comfortable in my own home when they are there. I miss my privacy, I hate that they take what goes on in our house to their mom’s; I miss coming home to a quiet house, no TV or loud voices or questions about what’s for dinner. But mostly I miss my privacy — I lived too long alone for it to be otherwise.

I imagined (I think we both imagined) that I would grow to love them, but it just hasn’t happened. They are with us half the time and I just dread their visits. I don’t treat them poorly and I try hard and mostly consistently to make sure they have good lives when they are with us, but I am just exhausted. This weekend they ended up staying an unexpected extra couple of days with us, and I just had a complete meltdown about it. It feels like I never get a day off when they are there — I can’t let down my guard, I feel obligated to keep working hard to create the illusion of a happy, loving home, so that everyone can be happy, but I’m not happy about it at all. I’m trying to be less selfish, but it feels like when I come home from work my second job begins. It’s just hard, all the time. Intellectually, I know it’s not that having them an extra couple of days is any big deal, but emotionally, I am absolutely exhausted, and I couldn’t pretend to my husband that this was OK. A huge debate ensued (another, as I haven’t kept my feelings hidden prior to this) and he finally said, “You just don’t belong here. You belong with that guy down the street with no kids.” It was a kick in the stomach, but perhaps right. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. I never really wanted kids, and this pretending all the time to try to make everyone happy is wearing me down. Or maybe that’s a cop-out. But that’s why I’m writing you.

I know you have already discussed a very similar topic, and people were particularly savage with the poor woman who wrote in. I might have been one of those savage letter writers myself had I not had this experience, but now I can really identify with some of her sentiments.

This is the hardest thing I have ever done. I try to show up, I try to make sure the kids get the time and the money and the experiences I know that my husband wants for them, I try to be the partner that he wants and that includes accepting his kids. Part of what attracted me to him in the first place was the love he has for his kids. But I am at the end of my rope. I am just deep-down bone-tired in ways that I can’t express, and I don’t have much reserve left to draw from.

And I don’t want to hear from all those asses out there who say, “Well, you knew he had kids.” Yes, I did, but no, I couldn’t have really had that deep-down, gut-level understanding of what it meant until I had worn these shoes for a while. I love my husband. I want him to be happy. I don’t love his kids, and I can’t make myself feel that I do, but I wish the best for them and want them to be happy and well-adjusted too.

I just don’t know that I can keep this up, and don’t want to walk away from what I truly believe is the best relationship I will ever have. I’m just not sure what to do.

Stepmom

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Dear Stepmom,

You have to meet your own needs. If you can’t meet your own needs within this relationship then the relationship can’t last.

Some people might not approve of your needs. Screw them. You didn’t invent your own needs.

I suggest that in order to meet your own needs within this relationship, you make some unusual changes.

One simple change might be as follows: You don’t live there all the time. You find a second place to live part of the time, while the kids are at the house.

Meanwhile, while you negotiate with your husband, you radically alter your current schedule. You claim as much control over your space as you can.

The situation is this: You need your own space. You need more time to yourself. You need frequent breaks from the group. You need peace and quiet. You need what you need.

You are 37. You are an introvert. In terms of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, you may be an INTP or INTJ — an introverted intuitive thinking perceiving type, or an introverted intuitive thinking judging type. Basically, according to type, you have certain requirements. Your requirements — the ecology of your energies, as it were — are real and pressing. You either meet them and function well, or you fail to meet them and function poorly.

In order to negotiate any kind of change, you will also need to know what your husband requires. His requirements may be unspoken. He will have to make them explicit. Does he require you to live in the house every day while the kids are there? What kinds of labor does he require from you while the kids are there, and in what amounts? What is negotiable? What can be traded off? I am thinking of meals and housecleaning. It may be fair that he expects you to share in the housecleaning and meal preparation, but could it be done by you while you are alone, or could you pay, out of your salary, to have it performed by a housecleaning service? Likewise with meal preparation: It may be necessary to the economy of the house that you prepare some meals for the kids, but can you do it on your own time? Do you have to eat with everybody, or could that be negotiable?

Discussing this will require you to separate labor from the sentimental duties of family life. The very notion of such a thing may be upsetting to him if he has not studied feminism or Marxism. For instance, if you were to get out of the house while the kids are there, yet still come by to pick them up and take them places, and still prepare meals for them, would that be a workable compromise, or would it violate some unspoken desire for you to play the sentimental role of mother and wife? This can be a volatile area, because it brings up childhood memories and desires. But if he is a rational and flexible man, perhaps you can work with him on this.

During this interim period, here are some strategies for getting much-needed breathing room.

Make a time map of a week with the kids in the house. Schedule yourself out of the house as much as you can. Find places you can go in the evenings to get away for a few quiet hours. Perhaps the library? Or a sport? Is there a gym or a running path you can use to get away? Create tasks and appointments outside the house that you must take: a meditation class, a yoga class, a meeting with a friend, a lecture, a scientific demonstration, a meeting with a psychologist, a poetry reading. Heavily schedule yourself plenty of outside activities. Then, when you leave the house, remember that you have choices: You do not necessarily have to attend these things you have scheduled. You can change your mind. You can simply leave the house and have some time to yourself. You can occasionally decide to stay home and enjoy the family, too. The important thing is to protect this being inside you that feels violated and exhausted by all this contact, over which you feel you have no control and no choice.

This is not about “emotional space.” This is about actual space: a room with a closed door and no other people in it. To get what you need to stay in the relationship will require some novel  changes. Just because they are novel does not mean they are wrong, or can’t work.

Keep in mind what is at stake here. You have found the best relationship of your life. If it’s going to succeed, you have to find a way to meet your needs.

You may not be able to orchestrate all these changes on your own. You may need to enlist the help of a counselor or therapist to carry out the steps involved. You may also feel significant resistance to carrying out these steps. In fact, not to overstep the bounds here, but sometimes when we have defined ourselves in a certain way, we must then prove to others that we are that way. The way we do that is by not being able to do certain things that are uncongenial to our nature. That is, we are rewarded by failure.

But that may be going a little too far. Let’s just say that these steps are important but will be difficult, and if you find yourself avoiding them, get some help.

You may also have certain beliefs that act as barriers. For instance, you may believe that you ought to have motherly feelings and play a motherly role. I don’t think you have to play a motherly role. I think you should stop trying to do that.

Lastly, on the subject of your personality type, consider this paragraph about how the INTP functions, from TypeLogic.com:

“When present, the INTP’s concern for others is intense, albeit naive. In a crisis, this feeling judgement is often silenced by the emergence of Thinking, who rushes in to avert chaos and destruction. In the absence of a clear principle, however, INTPs have been known to defer judgement and to allow decisions about interpersonal matters to be left hanging lest someone be offended or somehow injured. INTPs are at risk of being swept away by the shadow in the form of their own strong emotional impulses.”

If this were true of you, it might explain why you undertook this emotionally draining and challenging role: In the presence of a charismatic attraction, your thinking side was submerged temporarily. Thus you allowed yourself to enter into a situation which, had you been able to think about it clearly, you would have known would be very risky and possibly unworkable.

You may still be able to save this thing. But it will require some novel problem-solving.

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