I wish my stepchildren would go away

I don't really like them and I feel terrible about it, but I only have love for my own daughter.

Topics: Since You Asked,

Dear Cary,

I am ashamed to say this but I can’t stand sharing my home with my two young stepchildren. My husband won full custody of them three years ago; they live with us full time during the school year and visit their mother every other weekend. I live for summer vacation when the arrangement is reversed and they go to their mother’s and visit us every other weekend. It is only when they are gone that I feel comfortable in my own home.

When they are around it is like having permanent, irritating houseguests. They slam doors, leave dirty handprints on the walls, get in my way when I’m trying to fix dinner and just generally annoy me. What’s more, I get to pay for the privilege of being constantly inconvenienced in my own home! Their mother pays no child support and literally contributes a school backpack and a package of socks per kid, per year to their material well-being. We receive absolutely nothing else from her and have no reason to believe that her circumstances will ever improve so that she will be able to help financially. So I get to carry her financial burden because she cannot.

I feel like a stereotypical wicked stepmother when I complain about my stepchildren because they are good kids. They really are. I understand that the irritating things they do are totally normal for kids their age and I think that maybe if I loved them then perhaps I wouldn’t care so much about the stuff that bugs me. But I don’t know how to make that happen. I don’t love them now and I don’t think I ever will. To be completely honest, sometimes I even feel disgusted by them.

I used to think that something was wrong with me because I could not feel love for them. When I was pregnant with my daughter I hoped that her birth would throw some internal switch inside me and loving her would help me to love her half-siblings too. But that never happened. I am madly in love with my own child but still cannot feel anything for my stepchildren. In fact, most of the time I wish they would just go away so that I could live my life in peace with my husband and daughter.

I have been honest with my husband about this. It hurts him deeply to know that I do not love his children. I also realize that on some level the kids can feel that I do not want them around. I fear that this will harm them or cause problems for them later in life but I also feel powerless to change it. The truth is that right now I really don’t want to. I just want them to go away.

Giving up custody of the kids is not an option. I made a commitment to my husband to help him raise his children. Besides, their mother does not have the financial or emotional resources to provide for them on a long-term basis. So while I would rather not have them in my home I also know that I cannot send them away: I must deal with this somehow. I just don’t know how to do it. Can you help?

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Guilty Stepmom

Dear Guilty Stepmom,

While I do not have a quick and ready solution to your immediate problem, I think I can suggest a plan of action that may be of help long-term.

First, lest you feel alone in your predicament, hear what author Cherie Burns says in her classic guide, first published in 1985, “Stepmotherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out or Wicked”: “Most of us enter stepmothering believing that we must love our stepchildren and be loved by them in return. The fact is that the ideal of a mutually devoted relationship between a stepmother and her stepchildren is seldom achieved.”

Hear that? Seldom achieved. Seldom. So you’re not so far out there, OK?

Now, more generally, what I would suggest is this: that you begin, today, right now, a long-term project of acquiring a full, deep, detailed and comprehensive knowledge about the role of stepmothering as it has been practiced throughout the ages and as it is practiced today. A good first step in this project would be to read Burns’ book. It will serve as a useful survey of the many situations and problems a stepmother faces.

As you learn about all the permutations of this role, and all the ways that past history and psychological orientations can shape relationships between stepparents and children, I predict that you will begin to have some insights into your reactions to these children and their reactions to you, and that those insights will make life more manageable. But do not stop there. Continue to study. Read all that you can. Talk with other stepmothers.

One thing may quickly become apparent: Your perspective on your role is different from the perspectives of the rest of the people in your household. For instance, you quite reasonably refer to your house as your house; you refer to your stepchildren as people who are being allowed to live in your house. It’s quite natural for you to feel this way. But consider their radically different perspective. To them, it may be that you are the one who is the visitor.

As Burns puts it, “You are the last member to enter an extended family … and you are often the last to grasp the significance of that. Family life is already in progress. You join it when you marry, at a time of high hopes, optimism, and a romantic view of family members, together with your commitment to them. Everyone else (your husband, his children, and their mother) is a bit more realistic. They know more about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, moves and limits. The stepmother is an earnest newcomer — and not always a welcome one.”

While these children may seem like guests in your house, you are like a guest in their lives. As a guest, you have certain obligations. It would behoove you to conjure, if you can, a little gratitude for their acceptance of you as a guest in their lives, even if they do not treat you as you would like to be treated.

But I don’t mean to be getting on your case or making out like you’re doing it all wrong. You’re not doing it all wrong. You just don’t know all the ins and outs of what you’ve gotten into. And how could you? Who, after all, prepares for such a role? Given how common it is today, we might start thinking about how to prepare people for such roles. But we don’t. So all I’m suggesting is that you repair this gap in knowledge, that you make a study of this new life of yours. Then you will begin to see how your situation is not so very unusual, and you may feel a little better about it. As time goes on you may become more comfortable in your role, and eventually, in the fullness of time, your feelings toward your stepchildren may ripen into a rich complexity, which, though perhaps not love, is certainly deeply human and worth cherishing.

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