I’m not ready to be a stepmom

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 13, 2009

If I marry, I get a 16-year-old who can barely take care of herself.


Dear Cary,

I’m 29 and my potential stepdaughter-to-be is 16. We live under the same roof, and it’s driving me crazy inside.

Let’s rewind the story by six months to last July, when my boyfriend and I chanced upon a really nice flat with a magnificent sea view and decided to sort of officially move in together. He bought the flat because he had the money (with some chip-in from his mother), and I helped to make it a home with gadgets, accessories and lots of tender, loving care.

His daughter from a previous marriage, let’s call her Anna, “moved back in” with him years ago because her mother became mentally unstable when the girl was about 10. She abandoned Anna in a foreign country in a fit of madness. At that time, he used to rent a condo with a friend, and I stayed over a few nights a week. Anna spent most of her waking hours either in school or at her nanny’s who lived just a few floors below. I hardly saw her and neither did he, but we did make it a point to at least have a nice dinner together every weekend. It was an arrangement that suited me fine.

When we bought the flat, I knew the present arrangement would happen because she seemed old enough to care for herself and would no longer live near the nanny. What I didn’t realise was how much of a child she still is. I feel bad saying the following but the thoughts are real, so why lie in a letter seeking help? She appears to be a mess.

She has never gone for a haircut on her own. She does not know how to boil water, do a bed, dress herself appropriately and often needs to be reminded to brush her teeth and wash her hair. I brushed these initial signs aside as my inexperience with teenagers. Maybe my expectations were too high. But her dependence on instructions, sloppiness, clumsiness and general head-in-the-clouds mishaps simply surfaced every time she asked for help for something really basic, dropped a mug because she couldn’t tear her eyes off one of her books (she reads and finishes on average one fantasy book a day and generally does nothing else during the hols), soiled a towel with menstrual blood and just kept reusing it till I noticed and stopped her, and proclaimed to be an expert in something and then failed miserably because she simply imagined she was.

To be fair, she’s having a tough time negotiating the nitty-gritty of life because of an opulent lifestyle lived as child. She had maids to feed her and wash her, a chauffeur to drive her around, and a full-time tutor who coached her in every subject. The aforementioned lovely nanny continued the trend of waiting on her hand and foot. The woman also happens to absolutely love Anna. They keep in contact and she often invites Anna back for sleepovers. Come mid-February, Anna will be going to a new school, and the nanny has even told her to come back to stay with her because her own children have gone to university and she wants to have Anna in the house.

Looking at the bigger picture, going back to stay with the nanny is a short-term solution. I should think about Anna as a permanent feature in my life with my boyfriend should we get married. Like it or not, I will be her stepmother, and I can’t keep offloading her to someone else because she can’t take care of herself and I refuse to play caretaker or teacher. In my mind, I can hardly take care of myself.

In my most selfish moments, I think about how she will have a problem graduating because her studies are in a mess, since there’s no one to constantly monitor her. Seeing that she was getting nowhere on her own, we got her tutoring for a few of her weaker subjects, but I think it was too late. In any case, she told me that she thought getting tutoring for all her subjects was the norm. I think she expected to be rescued and was disappointed. I don’t know how she is going to pass junior college and get a degree at any rate. I also think about how she is going to get a job, clueless as she is about what her interests, strengths or weaknesses are. Being kind of unattractive physically, she might have problem falling in love and getting married. She still hates boys, for goodness’ sake! As I said, in my most selfish moments, I think about being burdened with Anna for the rest of my life.

I love my boyfriend. We have a great four-year relationship, and I can’t imagine leaving him. But. If I can’t accept a future with his daughter in the picture, if I can’t love her like my own, if I refuse to pick up where all other sensible adults in her life left off, then where is all this going? Her dad tries to be her friend, but I think what she really needs is a mother. Someone to teach her about the basics all over again. He can’t do that. It’s not in his nature or capability and he may well end up yelling at her and getting no improvement.

My mother was a free-and-easy but loving type who stressed independence in her children early. She wasn’t big on verbal guidance and detailed instructions. Looking back, I can’t remember how I picked up all those common skills that seem to just develop. No one had to tell me I was old enough to get a haircut by myself. I simply went when it was time and I loved it. No one had to tell me not to use dirty towels. Or maybe someone did, but I can’t remember. Whichever the case, I don’t know how to teach whatever this “common sense” is without going mad. It’s alien territory. My mother didn’t teach me so much as showed me in daily life. You don’t verbalize the basic! It’s so damn awkward and it makes me angry! And since we are talking about angry, I hate doing her laundry, folding her panties! I would rather be doing that for my mum and not someone else’s daughter! You see how mixed up my thoughts are about this?

So, what should I do? What should I do? What the hell should I do about Anna for the next two years, for the next 10 years, for the rest of my life? Or should I just say, I’m not the right woman for this father-and-daughter pair and move on?

Asking for It

tuscanad_sept2016

Dear Asking for It,

I think clearly you are not the right woman for this father-daughter pair and you should move on.

To put it simply, resources need to be directed toward the care, feeding and upbringing of your boyfriend’s daughter. He is her father. Her mother is incapacitated. So he has a clear, unambiguous duty to raise her. You do not. You have no responsibility toward this girl. But if you marry your boyfriend, then you will have the same clear, unambiguous duty toward her as he does. Since you know that you’re not up to it, to marry him would be unconscionable. It would verge on the fraudulent: to knowingly take on a role in someone’s life that you do not want and are not capable of performing. So if you can do any good in this situation, it would be by telling your boyfriend that you are releasing him from the relationship so that he can turn his full attention to being a parent.

You say that while your boyfriend was renting the condo and Anna was living there with him, you and he hardly ever saw her. That may be one reason she does not know how to care for herself. No one has taught her. The comparison you make between your childhood and Anna’s childhood is not quite fair. Your mother did not go insane and abandon you. Your mother was there for you. Your mother taught by example. Of course you picked up life skills. I understand that it drives you crazy to see this child who has not picked up any of the life skills you took for granted at her age. Yes, it is baffling and crazy-making and outrageous. But it is because her mother went insane and abandoned her and her father did not pick up the task.

So now he has to raise her. In order to accomplish that, certain resources are needed. It is unclear whose money paid for the child’s opulent upbringing. But since she still has a nanny, there must still be resources, in a trust, or in your boyfriend’s bank, or in his mother’s bank, to pay for the care, feeding and education of this girl. Those resources should be explicitly directed toward that end. If your boyfriend cannot structure the resources at his disposal so they are used appropriately, then a professional should step in and set up a legal structure to ensure that the resources go where they are needed.

Having set up the legal structure to direct the appropriate resources toward the raising of this girl, then your boyfriend needs to act as a parent. The child should live with her father, and the father should pay the nanny to make regular visits to their home both to teach the daughter how to care for herself and to teach him how to care for a child. He should also arrange for the daughter to make periodic visits to the nanny’s home, so that she can absorb what life lessons she can about the orderly running of a household. Who else can help? What about your boyfriend’s mother? Can she make regular visits to the home and also help raise this girl? You mention that she has financial resources. She may also have love for her granddaughter.

In short, what I am recommending is that your boyfriend admit that up till now he has not been a good father to this girl. I am recommending a radical change, a radical shifting of priorities. If he is unable or unwilling to do that, or if he is incapable of even comprehending what is meant by a radical shifting of priorities, then my second choice would be for the child to go live with the nanny, and for all the resources earmarked for her support to be directed there.

But in my heart I feel that this father ought to dedicate the next few years of his life to raising his daughter. And you ought to do what the situation calls for, which is to urge everyone concerned to do what has to be done, and then step aside.