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.

I lost my inheritance on a “technicality”

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 1, 2009

Due to an “error,” the stepdaughter gets everything.


Dear Cary,

It really is not about the money. My dad worked two and three jobs his whole life and ended up with a relatively small estate to distribute among his eight kids and his stepdaughter. He died first. Then his wife died. My brother took her into his home and his beautiful, loving family helped her die a better death than tied screaming to a hospital bed, which is where she was.

Now the estate is being settled and due to a technicality, an error in his wife’s will, all of the proceeds are being given to the stepdaughter, even though my dad and his wife’s wills stated that all proceeds will be shared among all of the children. We are all asked to sign a paper that we relinquish all claims to the estate and accept a token amount from the stepdaughter.

I can’t bring myself to sign it. Mostly I feel like it is a disrespect of my dad and his whole life and an unethical act. I feel like if I sign this paper and accept this insulting amount of money, I am going against his wishes and it’s just plain wrong. Please believe me that the amount of money is so small as to be negligible, even if we got the full amount that the will instructed. So it really is not about the money. I know people often say that and it really IS about the money. But the money feels more symbolic to me than anything.

I don’t know what to do. Is it Buddhism that says when you don’t know what to do, do nothing? I try to live an ethical life with my actions in line with my beliefs. (Although I don’t have the guts to be a tax resistor.)

This resistance to relinquishing the claim feels like it comes from a very deep place inside, a big no to being reasonable. I have no interest at all in suing or going to court or hiring a lawyer. I just do not want to sign a paper that feels wrong to me. I don’t even know if it will hold up the distribution process or what. I don’t care. I guess I should care because some of my sisters are in extremely bad financial positions and the small amount would be a big amount to them.

This whole thing feels like a mocking twist of fate — the Cinderella story gone south. The selfish stepsister gets the prince and fortune. The good sisters and brothers get sent out in a blizzard with no bread crumbs to lead them home. The bad guys win. I have mixed up many folkloric themes but you get my drift.

I love your column and appreciate any thoughts you can share with me, Cary. Thank you very much for your work.

Sister Left Out in the Cold

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Dear Sister Left Out in the Cold,

When an “error in the will” or a “technicality” causes one heir to benefit to the exclusion of all the others, doesn’t it make you wonder what actually happened? Do you feel satisfied with the explanation that it was just a “technicality,” an “error in the will”? I don’t think I would feel satisfied with such an explanation. So I do think you should see a lawyer — not to fight this necessarily, just to get a clear understanding of what happened.

Did someone fail to file something by a deadline? Was some language the wrong language? Was something mistyped? Was something misfiled? What exactly was this “technicality”?

In my book, there’s another word for “technicalities.” That word is “law.” “Technicalities” are what the law is made of: specific, detailed, exacting requirements. Lawyers are supposed to take care of all these “technicalities” so that the wishes of the dead are honored.

When these requirements are not carried out, and that failure creates an unfair advantage for one party to the detriment of the others, that doesn’t really sound like a “technicality” to me. It sounds more like a “screwing.”

Isn’t that really what’s going on here? A screwing?

Isn’t that really why you’re upset? There was a shared understanding and a clear intent, as spelled out in two people’s wills, about what should happen. Then an entirely different thing happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it benefits one party to the detriment of all the others.

And you’re being very polite about this.

As heirs, I guess we’re supposed to honor the dead with our piety and humility and acceptance. That’s what’s underneath this, at least in part, emotionally speaking, isn’t it?

But do we really honor the dead by letting a “technicality” corrupt what they wished for?

If everyone agrees that this “technicality” is unfair, that the estate was supposed to be distributed equally, then perhaps you draw up a document stating that the stepdaughter promises, upon the settling of the estate, to distribute the proceeds to all the children, as is the intent as understood by all of you. If she’s willing to do this, then maybe you know that it’s mainly fate that seems bent on screwing you. Whereas if she clings to the notion that this “error,” this “technicality,” is what rules, then perhaps you come to understand that it was not a technicality at all.

At the very least, you deserve to know what happened.

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It may be something truly random and innocent, the fault of no one. But then what we’re talking about is incompetence. You’re being screwed by fate and incompetence. OK, at least you know. So what’s worse, to be screwed by somebody who knows he’s screwing you, or to be screwed by incompetence itself, by somebody who doesn’t even know he’s screwing you — by somebody who, in turn, is no doubt being royally screwed by somebody else and hasn’t even felt it yet?

I can’t decide. It’s so hard to pick. Maybe it depends on how good-looking he is.

Damn. I’m getting worked up now, too.

I’m getting worked up because words like “technicality” and “error in the will” are the costumery of scoundrels. I’m getting worked up because the law can be a beautiful instrument for justice and should not be used for obfuscation or to justify the unjustifiable. I’m getting worked up because we ought always, as citizens, be alert to the manifold and dazzling ways that people will use the law to blind us, to confuse us, to frighten us into submission, to remind us of our subservience before the masters of the law, to remind us that we are not really free citizens in the face of the law but servants from whom only obedience is expected, and that as children of parents we ought to be only meek and grateful for whatever passes to us, and never question the law or the lawyers and their “technicalities” and “errors.”

I’m getting worked up because use of the law to hide the truth reminds us that torture, in one universe, is what those who want to carry it out say it is, and that legality, for those who want to break the law, is whatever they say it is, and that what’s right, despite the manifestly stated wishes of all involved, is what the lawyers say is right, because they are in command of all the “technicalities.”

It stinks. You’re getting screwed and it stinks and you deserve to see the face of whoever or whatever is screwing you. Whether that face be the face of fateful incompetence, of greed, of selfishness, of covertly hostile maneuvering, of brilliant cunning, or of accident, of bureaucratic bungling, of unconscious wishes surfacing as error, whatever: You deserve to see the face of whatever is screwing you.

So find a good lawyer, one who is on your side, show the lawyer the facts, and don’t leave the office until you yourself understand what happened.

Then at least you know. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is healing. At least, by knowing the facts, we reconcile ourselves to the world of scoundrels and bungling and simple, blasted fate.

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I’m an unappreciated mom in a Franken-family of six!

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I take care of everything, but who takes care of me?


Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, FEB 28, 2005

 

Dear Cary,

I’m a woman living in a Franken-family of six: my partner, his two kids and my two kids. The kids are never here all at once but are here almost every day in some rotation.

I’ve just learned that in the relationship love pot, I continually make deposits and yet when I go to make a withdrawal, I get the old NSF message. No matter how much I put in, there’s nothing to take out when I need a chunk of help or energy.

My partner’s small children demand immense amounts of energy; they’re demanding and insistent, and they manifest most of the domineering-kid syndrome: whining, shrieking, stamping, kicking, even vomiting on cue if they don’t get what they want — including ceaseless attention. Outings with other adults and families are impossibly awkward. Outings in public are unpleasant enough that I avoid them.

And that’s not even the problem.

The problem is that I’ve managed to survive almost three years of this — giving as much sane advice and behavior management as I’m able — and yet if I have a very rare crisis with my young teen kids, my partner leaves me to manage it alone. (Even in an emergency in which the kids are standing across town waiting on the street in cold weather, for example: He can’t help. Take an $85 cab ride, instead, you silly single mom!)

I’m realizing that my “sacrifices” aren’t registering as even “contributions,” let alone rather large contributions. I’ve tried suspending my services and letting him manage on his own. This registers with both him and his children as being cold and punitive. (Usually, I’m full of creative ideas, anything to wean the little kids away from the TV and computer that they sit and mouth-breathe at for eight hours at a time.)

I’m in a bad cycle and desperately needing to restore myself and my integrity. The man himself is fine with me. But he doesn’t see what I give to the patched-together family. I feel unvalued, unappreciated. And I hate myself and he hates me when I’m depleted and finally begging in tears for some respect and acknowledgment.

Corollary: not enough sex. (Double-digit days between sex, which to me is starvation rations.) I’m chronically malnourished, emotionally and erotically.

I know I’m missing some big chunk of the picture here, but I can’t get the perspective to see what it is. It’s too close to me. Yes, there are pluses. The man has a fiery spirit; he is creative, intelligent, artistic, educated, articulate, broad in scope, multicultural; he loves home and hearth; he uses zero substances of any kind; he is lovely to look at and to hold. But I still feel like an appliance that never gets maintained properly. And when my engine starts making terrible noises, the solution is earplugs for the family!

Franken-mom

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Franken-mom,

The part that interests me is where you say you have tried suspending your services and that it registers with him and his children as cold and punitive. It’s not surprising that they take it that way. But then what? Do you, on that basis, immediately restore services? Why? Where does it say in the service agreement that the service provider may not under any circumstances suspend services if such action might be deemed cold and punitive? Of course there will be complaint if you suspend your services. You are providing services for free, and people get used to that. People like services for free. Who wouldn’t? It’s natural.

But suspension of services is the only leverage you have. You have to use it, even if it creates some uncomfortable moments, as undoubtedly it will.

My guess is that you are both overwhelmed. Like most people under great stress, you are dealing with each immediate crisis in whatever way minimizes the psychic harm to yourself. Since you are both so stressed, you probably don’t have the energy to converse rationally about this, to focus, to make positive, conscious changes in your arrangement. So, brutal as it may sound, I think you have to go on the offensive — for the benefit of everyone involved, not just yourself. Direct material pressure, rather than talking, is what it’s going to take to balance out the labor situation.

So let’s talk about the very real psychological barriers that might stand in your way. What are you most afraid of if you apply pressure? That he will leave you? That the daily tension around the house will be unbearable? That you will get even less of the physical affection that you crave? That the kids will hate you as only kids can? That you yourself will feel like a hardass bitch? All of these, to some degree, may result. Nevertheless, I think it is what you have to do.

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Some of your fears may be exaggerated because of past experiences. For instance, if your father left your mother rather than shoulder more of the housework, you may fear that your mate would do the same. You may attach more significance to that possibility than the actual situation warrants. Likewise, if conflict over duties in your family led to explosive fights, you may fear conflict more than you need to. It has probably been easier for you, psychically, until now, to just do the work yourself rather than endure the conflict that would result from trying to negotiate a better deal. But you can only do that for so long. You have apparently reached the breaking point.

So first try to get a realistic assessment of how far you can push, what the dangers are, and what the imagined dangers are that are holding you back. It may help to get another’s view.

Then make a plan of attack. Stealth and timing are as important as force. You might want to wait for a moment of high dramatic import. Wait for a moment when he’s made a commitment and failed to deliver. Wait for the last straw.

Then go on strike. Whatever works for you. If you’re dramatic, you may want to sit down on the kitchen floor for six hours. I don’t know. You may want to take a spa day. Or take your kids to the zoo and leave his kids with him. Whatever works for you. All I’m saying is you need to take concrete action to force some redress.

You know, this situation illustrates (offbeat thought coming) how the love of alliteration and half-rhyme, allied with a distaste for the less sexy of two academic disciplines, can change the course of history.

Stay with me here: Your struggle is about a trade imbalance in an intimate relationship. A trade imbalance is an economic problem. It has political implications, but its mechanism is economic.

Now, the slogan of the 1970s that launched a thousand domestic arguments was not “The personal is economic!” but “The personal is political!” A slogan must sound good to work right. “The personal is economic!” doesn’t sound good; it trippeth not pleasingly on the tongue. Plus economics was not a sexy subject like politics. So you had men and women battling about the distribution of household labor in intimate relationships as though they were political adversaries rather than actors in a marketplace. If the battle cry had been “The personal is economic!” maybe there would have been less zero-sum political bluffing and calling of bluffing and more businesslike partnering toward mutual profit and “win-win” situations all around, including lunches at the Copper Penny and occasional gift certificates to Staples. Or maybe not. I’m just saying.

If it helps in the negotiation, cook up some kind of bogus reason why your cessation of services has occurred, and stick to it. I’m not saying lie. I’m just saying let the situation be what it is. Don’t blame their behavior. Don’t make it about them. Don’t make it a political thing. Let the labor shortage speak for itself. Just say that for whatever reason it will not be possible to do the laundry or cook the dinner or ferry the children to their all-important crosstown activities today. Just stop doing all this stuff until they can figure out a way to make it worth your while.

Yes, it will be scary. Let’s just have faith that they respond like rational actors.

There’s nothing wrong with negotiating. That’s what your mate and the children are doing, after all, perhaps without realizing it: They’re seizing advantages and then fighting to keep them, using whatever tools are at their disposal. You, I suggest, ought to do the same. I have a feeling that once you get started, you’ll find you’re better at it than they are.

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What happened to all my dad’s money?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 19, 2008

He remarried, he moved, and now all his savings are gone!


Dear Cary,

I recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas where my father gave me news that made me furious. I’m not really prone to anger, which makes this even more surprising.

My mother died in 1999, and my father soon moved to California and remarried a short time after. I had reservations about his wife, but I kept my mouth shut out of diplomacy. I was just glad to see him happy.

He told me this past year his marriage had been difficult, and he had moved out of their house. During my trip to see him last week, he explained that their house was now up for sale. With some prodding, I also found out his life savings is now gone, and that his wife and her family took advantage of my father’s kindness over the course of seven years. Some of this financial help was in money lent to his wife’s son (which was paid back to his wife, not my father), down payments on their house, and the purchase of a car (which has been given to his wife outright). On top of this, when my father needed other forms of support from her family, they didn’t offer the least bit of help. Now, their house is up for sale, and I doubt his wife will give my father his share without a fight. The trouble is, my father is not a fighter, and though he says he is concerned about all of this, his demeanor says otherwise.

First of all, I feel betrayed by my father. I will admit my own selfish reasons — money he threw freely at his new family could have helped me. I wouldn’t have asked him for money unless it was an absolute emergency, but the fact that he didn’t even think of me in this matter hurts. Second, I am furious at his wife and her family. I can’t understand how so many people could take money from one man and then be so unconcerned when he leaves their life. Thirdly, I am angry at myself for not catching this sooner. Would it have helped had I told my father that I had a bad feeling about his wife? We’d talk on the phone about once a month, but he never brought any of this stuff up. My father is 70, and the fact that his life savings is now gone due to his naiveté and a family of parasites doesn’t really seem to bother him. This makes the situation even more difficult for me.

I’m not sure what my question is — I found out about all of this a few days ago and maybe just needed to vent. I mean, I can call a lawyer on my father’s behalf, but the money he gave his wife and her family is gone. I think the best he could hope for is to get half of the money from the sale of the house. Also, I want to call his wife and tell her off and let her know I’ll be fighting to get what’s owed to him, but I realize this may complicate things legally. I want nothing to do with her or her family aside from this financial issue.

If you’ve read this far, thanks. Maybe my question is the universal one: What do I do and how do I go on?

Where’s the Money?

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Where’s the Money?

Remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

Remember this also: He will never tell you that.

In the swirl of emotion and drama, when it appears that your father has been robbed, that he is a helpless and passive victim of his second wife and her children, when you are tearing your hair out because he will not lift a finger in his own defense, remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

His needs were expensive, as it turns out. But he got them met. And now he is broke. It’s unfortunate but there it is.

Some needs we do not like to admit we have. After a long marriage, a man may not know how to fix himself a sandwich or wash a shirt. He may not know how to sit with himself alone in a room crowded with thoughts and feelings. He may not know how to make new friends, or cry, or walk through crushing grief with a high head. He may not know how to tell anybody how frightened and alone he feels without his wife. He may not know how to ask for help.

But he knows how to give away his money.

Your dad used his money to meet his needs. And now it is gone. It was a real need he had, and he met it the only way he knew how.

We do not always spell out our needs, especially the ones that are deep. Our needs may be perverse or trivial yet they are real. We may have a need, for instance, to appear powerful and nonchalant, untroubled and above it all. We may have a need to feel the indebtedness of others. We may need to be secretive and not tell anyone what we are feeling. That is a need, but it is a need that is a surface need, covering a deeper need. There are other surface needs masking deeper needs. If the gas gauge on your truck is on E, maybe you don’t like the feeling that gives you. Your surface need is to deal with that needle. Maybe you break the glass and push the needle up until it says F. That might make you feel better. But it won’t solve the problem. You need gas. We often get our needs met without solving the problem. Rather than meeting some needs, we need to interpret those needs, or transform them, by digging to the roots — fear of abandonment, fear of being ridiculed, fear of feeling weak and out of control. And then we deal with those deeper needs by building better foundations — a stable financial situation and stable relationships.

One tragic way we deal with fear of losing our money is, paradoxically, to keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of running out of money, we keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of being taken advantage of, we keep giving our money away. In this way, fear of the money running out makes the money run out.

We are accustomed to thinking of money as something we use to meet our needs. One way to deal with that is to turn that around and place ourselves at the service of our money. We can say, OK, as of today, now I meet the needs of my money. What does my money need? It needs to be taken care of! It needs to multiply. It wants to multiply! It wants to earn interest! It wants to be put to productive use!

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That’s a good thing to do with things that need nourishing and care. We place ourselves at the service of those things. Creativity, for instance. When we place ourselves at the service of our creativity, it blooms. When we keep asking it to provide for us, it dries up.

There is another angle. Yes, we use our money to get our needs met. And our needs often mask other needs. But the other angle is: People come into our lives and use our money to get their needs met. They have needs and we have needs and there is an exchange of money and need, emotion and need.

It is a common tale: The wife dies, the husband remarries, the new wife takes his money. This happens over and over and over.

And then, when all the money is gone and the second wife is gone, you begin to meet some of your dad’s needs. Your dad is lonely, weak, confused, sad, in need of a sandwich and a fresh shirt perhaps. You begin to meet his needs. The relationship changes. It is painful.

So now we come to the concrete section where you take action. I suggest that you do indeed contact a lawyer and take whatever other concrete steps you can take to get the facts and ensure that your father gets any and all money that is due him. Do not delay. What you need, first and foremost, is a complete accounting of your father’s financial condition and legal status. As to his legal status: Is he married but living apart? Is he planning to get a divorce? What is his status? As to his financial condition: What are his sources of income? What are his assets? Go through all his papers and figure out what his situation is.

This will not be easy.

If it were as simple as saying to your father, “Dad, I want to go through all your financial activities over the past few years so I can understand where your money went, and help you control your money in the future,” and if he would say, “Ah, that sounds like a splendid idea, here are the keys to my file cabinets, and here are all my tax returns, and here are my letters, and the deeds, and mortgage statements, and here is a record of the private arrangements I have made with various of my wife’s family members, and here is my checking account, and, by the way, why don’t you become a signatory to my checking account so you can monitor all the checks I write?” well, that would be nice, no?

But how likely is that? More likely, I would think, your efforts to become involved in your father’s financial dealings will be met with obstacles that range from suspicion, covert resistance and apparent lack of interest to outright hostility and stonewalling. It is a tremendous emotional change for a father to admit that he has maybe made some mistakes or been taken advantage of. It is a tremendous change for him to admit that he now has to let his children look into his affairs, and possibly criticize or question his judgment.

You have to look in private places. You have to get permission. You have to ask for things you have never asked for. Or you have to snoop. You have to ask other relatives for information. You have to ask people your father has dealt with for information about those dealings. You have to talk about and understand financial arrangements and real estate transactions that you have no expertise in. It is hard.

And this is all stuff that some families never, ever talk about, or talk about guardedly, or in code, or in such a way as they don’t ever really say anything. In order to do all this, you, too, are going to have to change. And you are going to have to face that you, too, have some needs that have been perhaps unacknowledged.

But now it’s time for a change. For you to change means you may have to face your own needs — your need for your father to place you first, for instance. He didn’t do that. He met his own needs. He forgot about your needs. And he met the needs of this other woman, not your mother, not your mother who is dead. Not the mother you grieved. He let this other woman come in and replace her. Another need you may have right now is the need to not be so angry at your father that you could strangle him with your bare hands. That need is not being met right now. So you have to face what is behind that anger. What is behind that anger is sadness and fear. Your father has shown his weakness. He has shown his needs. The man you depended on for so long is now the weak one who needs your help. You are seeing the beginning of his decline. A new era is begun. You must be strong and responsible as he slips into being dependent and needy.

You have reached one of life’s turning points, and you are not alone. My advice to you is to begin now, because you could be at this for the next 20 years.

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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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My stepmom accused my sister of coming on to Dad

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Cary’s classic column from

I think my stepmonster is a borderline personality case


Hi Cary,

I’m writing to you because, much like many of your readers, I have a family dilemma over a decision I’ve made and I’m getting so many different reactions that I don’t know what to do.

The short version is that when I was 16, after my father’s business tanked and all the money was gone, and my mother was left with nothing in the divorce, my father moved across the country to be with an old girlfriend. He tried to take me, but I refused to leave the place I loved and our depressed, often drunk mother whom I dearly loved and refused to abandon in our usual sick, but well-meaning role-reversal. He did take my little sister.

Clearly this is already a dividing event, but the true problems came when his new wife began to show her true colors. An angry, religious bully of a woman, she pushes everyone around to the point that I’m pretty certain she may have borderline personality disorder. She is extremely quick to anger and almost enjoys seeing terror in our faces, making threats but never getting physical. My beautiful younger sister, 14 at the time and the most loving, guileless human I’ve ever known, was very much caught up in this. One day my stepmonster accused this wonderful girl of coming on to our father at the dinner table. My sister kept this secret from me for years and asked me to do the same from others that could help until she was out of that house. As a result, she often hid herself in baggy clothes, spending very little time with our father for fear of being accused again. This is particularly infuriating as our parents had taught us to never be ashamed of our bodies — that being naked and sexual nudity were very different things. Once my sister moved out, I told our mother and the resulting shit storm has caused a serious rift that my father solely blames me for. As a result of his inability to see his culpability in this (what parent doesn’t immediately leave someone that shows no remorse for doing this to their child?), I have decided to no longer speak to him.

When I told him this, he repeated the same things he said to me when I expressed anger at him leaving: that I’d understand when I got older and that I’d “get over it.” I’m 24. Half the family seems to think that he’s just weak and I should pity him, allowing him to take part in my life. The thing is, he hardly ever communicated before. The only things I got before this were cards to me on my birthday or Christmas that he didn’t even sign (she did).

I feel like making it final was important, that he needed to see that his actions had consequences. He can’t just give up on his girls and expect them to love Daddy unconditionally. Others in the family can’t believe that cutting him out is right or that it’s what I need to do to protect myself emotionally. Did I do the right thing? Or is cutting out a parent, no matter how weak-willed or stubborn, the wrong thing to do as a child?

Thanks Cary. Hope you’re well.

Cut Him Out?

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Dear Cut Him Out?,

I think you did the right thing. It was what you needed to do. You did it for yourself.

I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rule about never being allowed to cut off contact with a parent. Often it’s something you have to do. It may not last forever. But that’s for you to decide.

This is a hard thing to get but it’s important. Sometimes we have to do things because we are taking care of ourselves. It’s not going to make sense to other people. Other people are going to say that we’re not following the right code of conduct. They will say we owe something to someone. We are going to get all kinds of grief from family members when we do things we have to do that violate the unspoken code. That’s the price of doing what you have to do.

It would be nice if we could all do what everybody else wants us to do. But that’s impossible. Why? Because not everybody wants us to do the same thing. If you do what your dad wants you to, you won’t please your sister. If you do what other family members want … see what I mean?

Conflict is good. There’s no escaping it. We all want different things. We’re in conflict because we’re individuals. Knowing that there is no escaping conflict and disapproval is a good thing. Every time I write something, somebody is going to disagree. No matter how hard I try to be on good terms with everyone I know, not everyone is going to like me.

There are a great many unknowns. That’s an amorphous truth that may seem to mean nothing to some but to certain people in certain situations at certain times can seem quite profound. In a family where many relationships are contingent and shifting, it’s helpful to keep in mind just how much is unknown. So you do what you have to do to keep your own sense of balance and well-being, and you recognize that not everybody is going to love you for it.

It’s also helpful to remember that you’re not teaching your dad a lesson. You’re taking care of yourself.  The family is beyond your power to fix or control. All you can do is take care of yourself and refuse to be drawn in to the craziness.

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