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.

What happened to all my dad’s money?

Write for Advice

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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