My stepson is impossible! What's a stepmother to do?

I've been a stepchild myself, and as a mother I've raised kids with stepparents -- but I never had problems like this.

Published December 19, 2006 12:35PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

What I am struggling with is both common and uncommon. Of course I didn't know it was common until I found myself in the thick of it, having always taken the uncommon route toward most things in my life to rather good, if not perfect, result. So now I find myself with a common problem that I have looked at every possible way, and my struggle continues unabated, and, I fear, in vain. I've requested and received counsel from all the traditional sources -- friends, family, book, magazines, Web sites and professionals in my area of concern -- and I am still struggling. I hope your uncommon wisdom might offer a new perspective for me to consider.

First, a little background: I am in my mid-40s, divorced for many years with two adult sons in their early 20s who are by all accounts doing well in preparation for their chosen careers. They are both well adjusted, and while not without human weaknesses, they are kind, compassionate and self-possessed with the confidence they need to make their way in the world. Their father and I divorced when they were 1 and 3 years of age. They have an excellent relationship with both their father and me. Likewise, their father and I have an excellent relationship and raised them as cooperative co-parents. They have had stepparent relationships to manage as well, which their father and I worked together to support. I was also raised with two stepparents from a very early age. So I know firsthand two sides of the stepparent triangle -- being the stepchild and being the parent with a stepparent to my children in the picture. I am now learning about the third -- being a stepparent.

Now, the scenario: I met a man within a year of his painful divorce, and we fell in love. We've been together for 19 months, and although we've had a few bumps, we have an amazing relationship on most fronts. He is 50, and we both feel like we've finally found the perfect mate. He is dear and kind and intelligent, sexy, fun, and very good to me. I am also very good to him. I love him deeply, and always will no matter how we proceed. He lived and worked 70 miles from my home base, where I own a house and am a professor at a university. I told him that I did not want to enter into a relationship that would require so much traveling, but he owns his business and when we met, he told me that he would like to move his business to the town where I live, and would do so if things between us went well enough to merit a commitment to each other. He also has a 10-year-old son, with whom he shares custody with his ex-wife, who also lives 70 miles from me.

Recently, we decided that we would like to make a permanent commitment. He moved into my house, and now commutes to his office two to three days per week. On the evenings when he is in the office, he spends time with his son after school and they have dinner together. His son comes to stay with us every other weekend from Friday night to Monday morning. I have been very good to his son as well, and am always, always kind to him. I have bent over backward and forward to entertain him, take care of him, buy him things to have at my house that he likes to eat and to play with (books, Legos, a basketball and hoop, etc.). Many times, I have provided childcare for him when both of his parents were otherwise occupied with their work or other engagements.

His son is an exceptionally immature boy for his age. He is incapable of being alone and follows his father around like a remora to a shark. He is not able to be in another room in the house without anxiety and needing to know exactly where his father is, or, if his father is out, where I am. For months, he would not sleep alone, and his father indulged him by allowing him to sleep with him. Of course, this was a problem when I was around. His son would frequently sneak into bed with us, and when I asked my fiancé to not allow this, he told me that he thought it was sweet and didn't see what the problem was. After many months, and a temporary severing of our romantic relationship by me, he agreed with me that his response was unreasonable and that his 10-year-old son was old enough to sleep in his own room, in his own bed.

But this is just one example of how this child is overindulged, by both his father and mother, and how emotionally messed up and manipulative he is. His parents seem to have a tremendous amount of guilt associated with him and consequently give in to his behaving like a toddler. I do not agree with the way he is parented. In my family we have always set certain expectations for conduct, for which there would be ramifications if those expectations were not met. For the most part the boy has a good, if brooding disposition and I don't think he is malicious. But his over-dependence, neediness, whining and incapacity to think and act on his own drive me crazy, and the way my fiancé and his ex-wife parent him is not helpful. In the past several months my fiancé has witnessed some things and now realizes that his son has some problems. He asked me to help him address the problems and try to reverse course. I told him that I would. But when I bring it up, my fiancé becomes defensive and I end up feeling bullied. So I've stopped bringing it up. But then he asks me, and I tell him what I think and how I feel, and we end up having a huge fight, after which he dramatically self-flagellates and feels like he can't do anything right or please anyone.

I should also mention that his son has not taken well to his father moving in with me, although the boy was consulted on the matter and enthusiastically approved, and has spent most of his weekends here for over a year. He has his own room in the house (which his father and I decorated specifically for him) and has made a few friends in the neighborhood. Still, whenever the time comes to make the drive here on the weekend, the boy throws a tantrum that makes his father feel terrible. He comes home and tells me about it, which starts the weekend off and we end it with a fight when the weekend is over. My fiancé is a dear man who loves his son. I understand that. He wants to do the right thing and not hurt anyone. He also loves me, and I him. I love his son, too, but I don't like the way he behaves, and I'm powerless to do anything about it. And now we are all trying to live together, in what used to be my house. I find myself getting anxious and a stomachache when the weekends approach, and waiting for the relief of the boy leaving as Monday approaches. I'm starting to grit my teeth when my fiancé talks to me about anything related to his son, and I don't like being that way. I am a person who loves kids. I love being a parent. I love being an aunt. I love my friends' kids. I even love this kid. I have great relationships with pretty much everyone. I don't want to feel this way. What do you suggest that I do?

I'm Not an Evil Stepmother

Dear Not an Evil Stepmother,

Of course you're not an evil stepmother. You're doing everything you can. But there's no way you can get into his head and experience what he's going through. So he remains opaque to you. And how can you have empathy for someone so opaque?

You were never a 10-year-old boy. I was. So maybe I can get into his head for you, in an imaginative and no doubt distorted and amplified way.

I'm thinking back to what it's like to have pain that you don't understand and cannot express in words, to have needs that aren't being met that you can't express, to want things you can't have and not even know what they are, to hate the people you love, to be mean to the people you love and then feel sick remorse and want to hurt yourself in self-revenge, to know there is something wrong with your family and not know what it is, to be only 10 and powerless, to be shuttled like a bag of potatoes from house to house, to feel you've lost the adults in your life to other adults, to just generally feel angry and sad and want to kick and scream. I'm trying to put myself in his shoes and imagine and remember -- some of it I can remember, some I have to imagine. I'm trying to put myself in the shoes of somebody who is just a real asshole of a kid, a real fucking pain -- needy, angry, scornful, hurtful, smart but stupid. OK, so I'm there. I'm that kid. And what would he say? He would say leave me alone and let me go my own fucked-up way until I get old enough and strong enough to act like an adult. I would say stop expecting me to act like an adult, I'm just a kid. Stop asking me what I want, I can't say what I want because I don't know what it is. Stop pretending that giving me what you think I want or what a reasonable 10-year-old would want is going to make me happy. Stop expecting me to be grateful for fucking up my life. Stop expecting me to be grateful for the room of my own. It's your house. It's not my room -- it's your room decorated to look like my room, or like your idea of what my room would look like if I were your son which I'm not. I'm my dad's son, not yours. Stop expecting me to love you. I would think: I want my dad back. I want my mom back. I want everything to be like it was before. I want my dad to love my mom and my mom to love my dad and I hate the shit I went through when they were fighting. I hate the fact that I keep expecting the world to end.

This is what I would be saying if I were articulate, but if I'm an angry 10-year-old boy I'm not articulate so all I really want to do is set your house on fire and watch it burn. So sue me, I'm a 10-year-old boy. I should join the Boy Scouts maybe and have some after-school activities? Please. I'm an angry 10-year-old boy and I want to blow things up, OK? I don't join scouts, I burn things, I kick things, I try to make your life miserable because it's all I know how to do. Yeah, and I'm supposed to have coping skills? And who was supposed to teach me these coping skills? My fucking dad? And when was he going to teach me these coping skills? In between fights with my mom? And stop looking at me like that. Stop disapproving of me. I am what I am right now. Deal with it. You want my dad? I come in the bargain. Stop thinking of me as a whiny, clingy person. I'm 10 fucking years old. I'm a child. OK, so bright stepmom, so your own kids are so well-adjusted, well great for them. I should maybe have had you for a mom? But I didn't. I had my mom for a mom and she didn't teach me to be well-adjusted so don't blame me. Blame my fucking dad and mom. So I want to climb into bed with my dad? So what right have you got to throw me out of bed? Who the fuck are you, anyway? Yeah, sure, you're smart and lovable and you're being kind to me and I'm supposed to be grateful but guess what -- I'm not grateful! I don't care! I should care but I'm just a fucking 10-year-old! Why the fuck should I care? What if I don't care? What if I'm not reasonable? What if I just don't fucking care? What am I supposed to do? Pretend to care? I'm a 10-year-old boy! You have your two boys who turned out so excellent so big fucking deal. They didn't have my mom and dad. They're not me. And at least they had each other. I'm all by my fucking self. It's me against my dad and mom. It's me against you. It's me against the school. It's me against the woods, the night, the highway. It's me against everything. So don't act like you fucking know. You don't fucking know.

OK. That was me getting into the head of a fucked-up unreasonable 10-year-old. It's not like I had to work that hard at it. I'm sort of a fucked-up 10-year-old boy myself. But I would never say such things to a person, especially a nice person such as yourself. But a 10-year-old boy might, if he could. We're probably lucky they're so inarticulate.

So what I'm saying -- the good I am trying to do here in my seemingly perverse way -- is that you have a very pained, hurt, confused and angry kid on your hands. He's not going to make sense. He's going to be a 10-year-old. He's going to try to hurt you. (You know, they're charming when they're nice and don't make sense. But when they're mean and don't make sense, it's terrifying!) You might think about lowering your expectations -- both for yourself and for him. Divorce hurts kids. Not all kids, maybe, but sensitive, confused kids, kids who don't have the tools to deal with it, kids who haven't been given those tools, kids who don't know how to change their expectations, kids who aren't well parented, kids who maybe just aren't equipped to make adult-type shifts to adult-type situations. Divorce hurts them bad and they show it.

He's a kid.

I don't blame you. It's not your fault he feels this way. He would feel this about anyone who came into his life at this time. I wish you all the best. I hope you don't beat yourself up. You've got an enemy in the house. He's not going to make it easy for you. You're just in the way -- between him and something he can't even express. You're just an object for his pain to latch onto.

So I wouldn't expect necessarily to win this one. There are plenty of things you can try, of course, but the most useful thing I can do for you is this -- to try to voice the pain and confusion that he's feeling, because he can't voice it. So maybe if you approached him like a kid who's experiencing all this, with some profound respect for the power and complexity of his ruin, the smoking ashes of his childhood, maybe it would just change a little the emotional tone. Maybe you could just sit there and appreciate his fire starter's doom, his evil fury, the majesty of his incoherent outrage.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Since You Asked