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I have need some advice, so I thought I would write in. First a little background – we’re all a mess: My husband and I have full custody of his 11 year old daughter. We’ve been together since she was 9 (not long), and my husband has had full custody since she was 6 (Mom left). Mom is local and has visitation rights. My SD sees her most weekends for all or part of the weekend. Mom has health problems that got significantly worse last year: blood disorder, for which she takes the chemotherapy pill, and problems with her feet and back. She uses a walker and wheelchair, and was told recently that she will never walk again. She is now on disability. I’m 38, with no living children of my own. We were pregnant with a baby girl last year, but I missed carried at 20 weeks. Shortly before losing the pregnancy, I was also laid off from my job. And my change of lifestyle has resulted in losing some friendships. So I’ve been home with my stepdaughter full-time for the last year, managing our day to day life – homework, dinner, soccer mom stuff, etc., plus doing a little freelance work, and also going through a big grieving process of my own.
SD has been acting out a lot – of course! The last year has been very hard on all of us. And she has the teen years looming. She lies, sneaks stuff, whines, talks back, and is super emotionally manipulative. She puts little effort into chores or studying. When we ask for an attitude change or call her out behaviors that are impacting her grades, she cries and asks us what right we have to judge her and be mean to her (!). She accuses us of not loving her. We get the cold shoulder, the eye roll, the arguing, etc. Basically she cannot handle any discipline or critique without melting down. And It’s really not all doom and gloom around here. We tell her we love her multiple times a day. We both try to help her talk about her feelings about her mom and the divorce. Her dad is playful and affectionate with her, does lots of sports stuff with her. She and I have good after-school chats and sometimes go for treats or do yoga together. We pay for horseback riding lessons. But still. I don’t think anything we do for her will be enough to make up for her Mom being sick.
My question is: what should my role be in disciplining her and in helping to maintain the rules of our house (which are pretty basic: respect, pitching in, doing your best)? And also: what should I make of her behaviors? Are these normal developmentally? Are they normal blended family behaviors? Are they the products of loss and stress? And if the latter, is it my job to fix them? I want to support her emotionally and help her learn better ways to communicate, and I know she is going through some hard times. On the other hand, the way she talks to us and the way her grades are sinking is just not okay. On the third hand, I’ve gotten very emotionally wrapped up in this dynamic – bracing myself for the arguments and the whining and the blow offs and the blow outs. Sometimes it is just too much, and I want to say, “Who cares? You guys work it out. I’m going to a movie – see ya’!” I would never walk out, but sometimes it is tempting.
One of the extra stressors is that her Mom has totally different parenting values than us. She never says no, gives SD whatever she wants, lets her watch TV all hours, smokes in front of my SD, criticizes my husband, claims she is going to sue us for custody (never does), complains to SD about her money problems, and gives SD guilt if she wants to do something with her friends instead of visiting her. Basically she treats SD like her pal, or worse, her caretaker, and doesn’t do any of the tough work of parenting. I’m doing all that hard stuff voluntarily for her kid, and I do, I admit it, resent it sometimes. Especially when SD is so negative to me.
So basically – SD’s Mom has been really lax with her, and my husband is lax with her sometimes and strict with her sometimes, and she’s never experienced a real system of consquences for her behaviors. That’s what my husband wants for her now, and I agree, but it feels like a huge uphill battle. Up a hill of baggage that was here before I ever came on the scene. I want to back him up, and he needs my help to figure out a good system. And I certainly want SD to both behave better and feel better inside. But after my own losses, I need time and energy to get my health and career back on track. Am I allowed to have typical stepmom boundaries even though I have full custody? Even though her Mom does not mother her and somebody needs to? I love SD and don’t want to let her down. I also don’t want fights and constant negativity. How much of this is my job to fix? And if I don’t have a role in fixing it, how do I just live with it?
Stepmom in Boston
Dear Stepmom in Boston:
Thank you so much for your eloquent letter and your amazingly generous heart and spirit. You and your family have been through a lot and the fact that you remain open-hearted is a major accomplishment!
I think you are correct in your assessment that your stepdaughter’s behavior is due to her relationship with her mother. It sounds to me that this girl is acting out because she is sad and scared about her attachment to her own mother. That could be why she is so needy with you and your husband. The fact that she is acting out the way she is says to me that she feels safe with the two of you. Safe enough to test you to see if you’re going to go away like her mother has. Safe enough to test your love for her (and her dad’s).
Children of divorce are often hungry for love and attention and it seems like no matter what you do they are never sated. Her behavior sounds very fear driven to me.
As a full-time stepmother you are in the unique position of being loved for your attention and hated at the same time because you are not her mother. It’s a hard place to live, especially when you are in your own grieving period.
I agree that the girl needs to have boundaries set up and real parenting done by you and your husband even if she whines and pushes back. Kids need boundaries to feel safe. The way to do this is to talk with your spouse about household rules and then he can present them to his daughter and tell her that you have the authority to enforce them when he’s not around.
Now a few questions for you. How can you be a full-time stepmother and feel good about it? She’s going to annoy you more than your husband because she’s not your biological child. You don’t have the same well of unconditional love. But she is still a child that is in desperate need of love and attention.
The rewards we see from parenting our stepchildren come in small little things like a smile, or an attempt at a connection by them in the form of a conversation, or maybe even a thank you. But some of us never get a “Thank you” from our stepchildren for how hard we worked. That leads me to a second question for you. What’s the big picture vision for you in this situation? When this girl successfully reaches adulthood with your help, how will that make you feel? Will you be proud of yourself?
Many veteran stepmothers cite their own personal growth as a major reward of the sacrifices they have had to make in order to be part of a stepfamily.
We all need boundaries. So when you ask if you can have stepmother boundaries, my answer is yes with a caveat. I don’t know what type of boundaries you’re asking for here. But you have the right to be treated with respect in your own home. You have the right to feel good in your own home. Since you are raising this girl, you have the right to parent her (with the support and authority of your husband backing you up). You also have the right to take breaks if you need them. At the end of the day, she’s not your biological child, but she is going to remember every thing you’ve done for her. She’s going to remember those conversations at the table after school and all the times you drove her to soccer and showed up in her life. Kids watch we do more than they listen to what we say.
Your role is something that you all need to figure out together. How much is your job? Your job is exactly as much as you can handle, as your husband helps you create, as your particular stepfamily defines. And you have a say in what your role looks like.
Bless you for your hard work, your huge heart, and your sacrifices.