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 father’s widow is stingy

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 9, 2005

I know he would have wanted to give me more money, but his will left everything to her.


Dear Cary,

I’m 34. My father passed away a year and half ago. He remarried when I was 15 but started dating my stepmom (SM) when I was 9.

Dad and SM kept their finances separate. My father was known to help his kids out when she wasn’t looking. For all I know, she was doing the same with her kids. My sister, the black sheep, was barely welcome in their house, but my dad still helped her out. Which is why his will surprised me. My dad left all the money in a trust that SM administers. She gets his pension too, which leaves her taken care of for life.

I hate that this bothers me, but she’s been reluctantly generous since my dad died. She spent the first year crying poor. She grudgingly sent me my father’s desk, making it clear to me how much the shipping cost. She won’t ship any other furniture of his to me unless I pay. Meanwhile, she gave her oldest son her Volvo, the second one she’s given him. She’s now moving her youngest son and his girlfriend into her condo at an extremely subsidized rate. Everything I’ve gotten from her since my father died, I’ve had to ask for.

I’m now pregnant with my first child. I spoke to her before I was pregnant about possibly helping us out financially the first year we have a child. I explained that it would make a big difference because I wouldn’t feel pressure to rush back to work. Since I announced the pregnancy, she has offered to buy me a car seat and some maternity clothes but made no mention of our previous discussion. My in-laws, who are very generous, immediately told us how they could help us financially. They constantly surprise us with their gifts. The abundance has been especially comforting since my dad’s death.

I think I feel abandoned by my dad. I think every day that she is not generous with me I feel extra slighted. I honestly think his will was the will of a man who thought he was going to die at 90. He always assumed he would, even after his cancer diagnosis. How do I move on? Do I bring up the finances with her again? It’s making it hard for me to talk to her and then of course I feel money-grubbing.

Just writing this letter is making me sad.

Wanting More

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Dear Wanting More,

You say you feel abandoned by your father. Your father may have abandoned you many times in the past, physically, financially and emotionally. But this time he did not abandon you. He died. That is different. That is not abandonment. It is an excused absence.

Perhaps he led you to believe that he would never die and he would always take care of you, so his death does seem like a betrayal or abandonment. But who had the largest loss of all? He is the one who lost his life. His loss was the greatest of all.

It is our job, as the living, to make peace with the dead.

What do we owe the dead? We owe the dead the opportunity to truly be gone. That is one great consolation of death — that, as television ads for the advance purchase of burial plots put it, in death we do indeed settle our “final expenses.” Isn’t that a lovely thought, that there finally is, indeed, a permanent caesura to our endless invoices? Perhaps in this painful weighing of gifts is a refusal to let go of your father completely.

It is hard to make peace with the dead when we are still entangled in their affairs. So I think you need to change the way you think about the money and property your father left. To do that, you may need to face with renewed clarity the fact of his death, its utter finality. He is completely gone. Everything that was once his is no longer his. It is no longer your father’s money. It is his widow’s money. The decisions she makes about how to use her money will be based on her values and the relationship that you and she have, not on your idea of what your father would have wanted.

A person’s will leaves certain instructions about the disposition of his estate, and through that legal instrument the dead may continue to exert an influence over the living. But it is a mistake, I think, to reach beyond his legal instructions and presume “he would have wanted this” or “he would have wanted that.” Indeed, he may have told you many things about what he wanted. But unless they are written down, those utterances lose all force as the last breath leaves his body. The living are left to sort it out with the only tools they have.

Those tools are, it seems to me, our values, our human decency, our feelings for each other and our regard for our own security. Among your father’s strongly held values, I take it, was the belief that parents ought to help their children financially when they can, well into adulthood. Now, the values a person lives by are admirable in two ways. One, they have an inherent validity — it’s clear that society benefits from honest dealings, concern for children, etc. Two, they are seen as admirable because of the esteem in which we hold the person. We look up to our parents and emulate their values. That admiration based on our esteem for the person is, I think, the basis on which we say, My father would have wanted this. In saying so, we are honoring not only his values but our memory of him as a person. We are carrying on a relationship with him even though he is no longer here. We do this out of love for him. That relationship, that continuing love for his memory, is vital and should not be denigrated.

But unfortunately it is not a basis for settling property disputes. Many people loved your father and had an idea about what he would have wanted. Many people held him in esteem and shared his values. But the money now belongs to his widow. It is she who must make the decisions about how to use it. If you can persuade her that the values your father lived by are good in and of themselves, and that she ought therefore to give you more money, more power to you. Perhaps you can construct an argument in which you distill and renew the values he lived by and present that to her. But the argument must, I think, be based in present reality.

As a way of working through this you might ask yourself: What is the importance of those values he held and bequeathed to you? Why is it still vital that parents help their children well into adulthood? How did he balance the needs of children and widow, and how ought that be managed now? What concerns for her own well-being might she have that she has not spelled out? Why, on their merits, are her actions miserly or unfair? In short, what is the right thing to do?

As you think it through, you may find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with her actions themselves. Indeed, you may find that there isn’t anything wrong with what she is doing, judging by contemporary standards. If so, you may then be left with only your sadness over your father’s passing. That is a great sadness indeed. In fact, once you think it through, the money may seem the least of your loss, compared to who this man was and what he meant to you.

It is best in life to turn from matters over which we have little control and little responsibility to those matters over which we have great control and great responsibility. Those matters are chiefly the conduct of our own lives and how we care for our own loved ones, whose hopes, like ours, are that we be generous and prosper as long as we can.

Walking on a hillside meadow perhaps one day soon you will feel the wind and it won’t have his breath in it; sitting at his desk one day it won’t be his desk anymore, but your desk. I’m not saying it will happen today or tomorrow, but it is something to look forward to, a state of understanding and acceptance that will make your present anguish over Volvos and car seats seem strangely disconnected from life’s grave and joyous milestones.

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