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?

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.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice.
  • Make a comment to the editor.

  • More Related Stories

    Featured Slide Shows

    • Share on Twitter
    • Share on Facebook
    • 1 of 11
    • Close
    • Fullscreen
    • Thumbnails

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
      Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
      Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Here by Richard McGuire
      A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
      The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
      This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
      For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Over Easy by Mimi Pond
      When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
      You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Shoplifter by Michael Cho
      Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
      This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

    • Recent Slide Shows



    Comment Preview

    Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>