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Suddenly a step-parent -- help!

Sarah_V's picture

Hi everyone,

First, let me say how relieved I was to find this forum. I could really use support and advice. If anyone who has children is offended by what I say, please forgive me and try not to judge. I am doing my best to rise to the biggest occasion of my life -- having a step-child live with me full-time -- which has suddenly become my reality when it was never even on the table.

I started dating my BF almost five years ago, but we've known each other since we were kids. We lost contact for an extended period, and when we reconnected, I learned he'd been married, divorced and became a father. After a full year of dating to make sure our relationship was real, I met his daughter (she is now 9) and it seemed to go well. I didn't press her to think the world of me right off the bat and she took her time warming up but now I think we're in good shape. When we're home at the same time, we have fun.

He has been sharing custody with BM, 50-50. We settled in the town where we did so he could continue to be 10 minutes away from BM to make things easy for his daughter, keep her in the same school, all that good stuff. He told me he wasn't looking for another mom for his daughter, that she had one who was very involved and that's how he wanted it to be even though they don't get along great. A daughter needs her mother, etc.

Anyway over time it has become clear that BM is a mess. I suspect substance abuse of some kind but I really don't know... She will just use any excuse to not take her daughter for the night. I don't know how he ever thought that this would work out. He is slowly but surely taking custody, in reality if not on paper, because this woman is barely interested in her daughter. She only wants her around when it's fun and she has nothing better to do. If it involves actual parenting, helping with homework, etc., she's "too busy." Recently we had her for three weeks straight with not a peep of protest from "Mom." It was the child who eventually insisted on having what she now calls "a sleepover"...with her own mother, for God's sake!

I am having a hard time with this adjustment because as a step-parent, I have zero authority. When she's with us, she owns the living room TV, and it's six-hour stretches of cartoons. The house is trashed and she cannot be asked to pick up after herself or be responsible in any way. There has been no change in what's expected of her since we were introduced, which was years ago now. I believe her father feels so guilty about the divorce that he thinks leaving her totally undisciplined will make up for it. I don't know. He seems to really think that parents who draw any firm lines and enforce discipline have "checked out" on their kids emotionally.

I've generally been aghast at how permissive contemporary parents are -- again, I guess because I'm not a parent. I understand putting your child first in terms of building your working hours around their schedule and what they need, getting them to bed on time even if it's inconvenient for you or they punish you emotionally, because sleep deprivation leads to such problems in school, etc. But I'm dealing with a generation of parents who have to work late and then just let their kids run amock because they "don't want to fight with them" for the precious hour they see them every night, and who let them stay up late to "be cool" and then just accept poor performance in school (I've been hanging out with these parents, and if I hear one more person say "I don't care if my kid gets Bs and Cs as long as they're happy"...way to set your child up for lower earnings potential for a this really about putting your kid first, or making sure YOU get to feel like the hero all the time, even when you're totally screwing up?).

Anyway, when you build a life with a parent you have to embrace their parenting style. I actually do get that. And while we talk about different approaches to take with her in private, I have NEVER contradicted my BF in front of her or asked my SD to do anything (per a therapist, who says I can only be there as a friend and resource). And having her there only part-time, I honestly could pull this off.

But the idea that this is going to be my home environment 7 days a week is putting me into a panic. Cartoons are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, I don't know how or why any parent would want to learn to tune them out rather than get their child involved in productive activities. And I am not a maid service. A 9 year old child can be asked to collect her toys at the end of the night as part of the bedtime routine. Am I crazy? Is this child abuse? My BF is so exhausted from work, he throws his hands up at everything. And I'm not allowed to lead the charge, per the therapist, so nothing gets better.

Not that I really could lead the charge, because on top of everything else, my schedule is NO help at all to my BF, who I firmly believe WILL come to resent me at some point over it. I think I'm most afraid of that as we make this change from 50% to 100%. I am a writer and a performer and work freelance. My hours are always changing. I would basically have to give up my entire way of life to become a significant caregiver. And with the way she's being raised, I don't want to. She isn't doing great in school, she has discipline problems that lead to stress for everyone, but her father is committed to laissez-faire "let's hope the child raises herself" parenting. I have no idea how to supervise her when she has gotten so used to constant indulgence. I can't get behind it because I don't see that it's resulting in anything positive for this poor girl. And I'm home all kinds of crazy unhelpful hours, anyway...

So my emotions are all over the map. I have to be clear that I care about this young girl. I really do. I don't blame her for any of this, it is all her parents' doing. When she stares at the tube for hours and makes huge messes, hey, she's a kid being a kid. That's what we all did whenever we could get away with it. But at the end of the day, I live there too! And I feel less and less relevant to ANY decisions that are being made. Plus I don't know how to contribute meaningfully toward all these new demands without giving up the career I've worked 45 years to build.

I love my BF and want this to work. Aside from his parenting, he is otherwise a disciplined, thoughtful and smart guy (I really do think the guilt over the divorce has scrambled his brains on that front). He loves me and, ironically enough, chose me even though I wasn't exactly Mom 2.0 material because we're so compatible and otherwise everything goes so great. But it makes me so insecure. Now that her needs have changed, is the era of Sarah soon to be over? He says no...but looking at the realities of what we're facing, unless he suddenly has all this money for a nanny, we're in big trouble. I see that even if he doesn't yet.

I am trying to contribute in as many ways as I can without losing myself. But within this context, I feel like a terrible person. Everyone thinks I'm supposed to feel this huge urge to give up everything for this child that isn't even mine. I feel like I can't possibly be what his family really needs. We talk about it, but you can't really have an objective conversation with any parent. Their love for their child will always dwarf all other things and I'm not saying that's wrong...I'm just saying, I don't know what to do or how to handle this. Sad

smdh's picture

Run, run as fast as you can. Do not give up your life for this effed up situation. That kid (through no fault of her own) is heading for disaster and you will be the target and take the blame. Run. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. It isn't an entire generation of people raising their kids this way. It is a bunch of asshats who were married and now think CODs (children of divorce) need to be protected and super duper indulged. RUN! RUN! RUN!

ItAlmostWorked's picture

I agree with poster above. RUN!!! I don't want you to end up in a similar situation to my own and I don't even know you. RUN!!!

If I read this advice 7 years ago, I would have thought I had enough love in my heart for it to work out. I don't have much left in my heart these days. Step parenting with a guilty SO is crazy making. Get out while you still can. Sad

Orange County Ca's picture

I wrote this a long time ago and I hope this helps with your problem. It may not reflect your exact situation but you'll get the idea:
The situation with my step-kids finally got to the point where I decided that my efforts to raise them was futile.
First I told my wife in private what I was going to do and why.
Then I stopped investing myself, time and money in their upbringing. I realized that by conscious choice I could cease being responsible for them or their actions. Neither would I take credit for how they turned out, good or bad. I simply stopped interfering in their lives. This is not to say if they would start a fire on the living room floor I would not intervene. But if they did not do the laundry as scheduled I ignored it. Nor did I do any of their chores. If the trash overflowed in the kitchen - well tough. Mom dealt with it when she got home.
You will be absolutely amazed at the look on a kids face when s/he realizes you don't care enough to even tell their bio-parent they did something wrong. And you'll be amazed at their future behavoir and attitude towards you.
I stayed friendly enough and taught one how to drive when she was old enough. But they could no longer blame me for the consequences of misbehaving just because I saw the misbehavoir. I never told. If they were caught in a infraction it was not my fault. They began to realize that they were responsible for their actions because of what they did not because I caught them.
I would talk to my wife in private if I had issues, but once she made the decision I backed her up 100%.
Once the kids realized I was no longer the ogre they thought I was their attitude changed. I was not their friend, but neither was I the enemy. They came to realize that I had not done those things to irritate them. They in fact missed the things that they had come to depend on me doing. Permission to go to the mall when their Mom was not home? "Sorry, can't do that".
Their mother slowly came to realize that I wasn't overreacting to their actions. In fact I wasn't reacting at all. She came to understand that she would have to control the situation and she did.
With that things got much easier around the house.
Billions of kids grew up in the world without help from me and turned out just fine.

frustrated-mom's picture

I can relate, since my DH went from being a NCP to a CP very quickly and it was something I was completely unprepared for and neither was he. He was fine as a Disney Daddy who entertained SD (then 14) like her fun uncle, but had never had any sort of disciplinarian role and she didn't see him as an authority figure.

It's impossible for kids to all of a sudden switch and it puts you in a horrible situation where you're dealing with a child who your SO has no control over. My DH made all sorts of excuses about how much she had been through in the events leading to her having to live with us, and having a damaged kid in your home where you have no training to deal with them and a parent who is too sympathetic and too concerned about their precious feelings is a recipe for disaster.

I hate to say run, because it means leaving a relationship that was working. I have a feeling that's what people would have told me if I posted on here at the beginning of my crisis with my SD. It's sad to see a good relationship end because of a child.

I suggest finding some place else for this child to live. My DH eventually sent my SD to live with her aunt and uncle because it wasn't working with her in our home. That was working well until daddy guilt set in with DH.

Trying to get guilty parents to start parenting is too difficult and once kids get past the age of 7 or so, their personalities are set and it's a tremendous fight to get them to change or recognize parental authority.

paul_in_utah's picture

I can really relate to you. There are a lot of similarities between my situation and yours (guilty mommy, no discipline/structure/consequences for SD17, no parental authority extended to me, etc). After about 13 years, I finally disengaged, and it helped a lot. I also travel for work, which has been a real blessing, as it kept me away from SD17 most of the time. Overall, my situation had become manageable.

However, as a word of warning, I have to say that you are headed for disaster down the road. I am a bit farther along in the step-process than you, so I have seen what often happens with indulged, entitiled skids. In my case, my SD17 was never a great student, but really fell off the cliff at the beginning of the current semester. We eventually found out that SD had been cutting class 5-10 times a week, and was a regular pot-smoker. There were also suggestions that she had become sexually active. After hearing this, it FINALLY got through to DW that major changes were needed, and SD went to live with her father (see some of my other posts for more details).

If SD17 was still living with us, I would definitely be one unhappy camper. As it is, the mere thought of her once-mothly visits curdles my blood. Unless you are REALLY, REALLY sure that your husband is worth it, you need to either completely disengage, or else get out. You are never going to be respected, and the years of shit piled on top of your head will take a toll on your sanity.

Orange County Ca's picture

I agree with 'turtles' comment. This guy is great except when he beats me. I've read females writing this so often.

If disengaguement won't work for you (see above) then leave. Sure breaking this up and establishing a relationship with a childless guy is going to be easier than a lifetime of this. Isn't it?

Sarah_V's picture

I'm doing my best to keep quiet and just listen to get as many viewpoints as I can, but I do find that a bit harsh. I don't want to belittle what battered women go through and I am certainly far freer to leave than any of them. The only one being truly misused in all this is SD.

What I was trying to say is that nothing about this man's personality, work ethic, moral code or anything else matches this parenting approach. Now I am starting to see that it is what it is, and it doesn't matter how we got here, this is where we are! But this isn't what even he thinks a normal father does or should do. As I've heard others say, he's obsessed with "what she's been through," he doesn't think it's OK to treat her like a normal, undamaged child (which I want to at least try sometimes, in hopes of mitigating the damage and teaching her the world is structured and safe again.) He's trapped in this permanent compensation mode which I thought was temporary to get her through a rough patch. Now I'm more aware and realizing that this is how it's going to be, hence my discomfort...

We did talk about these things before living together, but little is playing out as we agreed it should. I actually appreciate people telling me I'm a little naive here...that's something I need to come to terms with because I've honestly been shocked at how this has gone after really getting to know each other and talking about the future we'd both like to build.

We are where we are, but I'm not going to equate living with my BF to living with an abuser. I am free to go and just have to decide if I should, based on what he does, not what he says.

Sarah_V's picture


stepalong's picture

I would love to be encouraging b/c it sounds like you have a really good heart and really love this guy. The sad truth is though, that without a husband who is supportive, who demands excellence from his kid, we as stepmoms are kinda screwed. I am a full time stepmom to a sd 10 and only been married 2 years, but in that time I've learned a lot. We are happy now and things are really pretty great, but oh my-the first year of marriage was honestly probably the worst year of my life. And my husband was supportive, he did not let his d get away w/ stuff, he disciplined her, grounded her etc, demanded she treat me w/ respect, etc. So I can't imagine how it would have been if he enabled her behavior, was OK w/ her being lazy and was permissive. You hit the nail on the head w/ not being able to lead the charge--that's true--and why as stepmoms we MUST be able to depend on our husbands to lead the charge. Once they lead we can follow and become an authority figure in our sks life, but w/o thier lead, they will only view us as another ineffectual adult.

So let's say given the above you still want it to work-you can try these things-
1. communicating w/ your BF about what your and his expectations are of kids/parents and those dynamics
2. I wouldnt care what my husband did, if my sd was watching tv 5 hours in the common space, well, wait, that would never happen. I'd tell her to get lost in so many words and go play or whatever. That is NOT ok--and that's not "taking charge" but you dont have to accept that--it's your house too and you tell her "Ok! enough TV, time to go play" and that's that. THat is something I personally think you have the right to dictate.
3. Get your own therapist. and make sure it's one who actually knows about stepfamilies. I have found that most therapists are inherently woefully biased against stepmothers to begin w/ and fall into the "poor pitiful child" routine and defend dad. couples counseling is great, but you need your own to help keep your sanity
4. Insist on you guys doing some child development class/book together. I know it sounds stupid, but serioulsy a ton of people have litearlly ZERO understanding of normal child development and what is age appropriate and what is not. sometimes just reading stuff in a text book kinda illuminates the "Oh, so I'm not being mean if I tell her to pick up her clothes?!??!" b/c kids thrive on structure and having role/responsibility in a family for example.
5. Insist on finalizing/legalizing the custody situation one way or the other. I would much rather have my sd full time and KNOW that's the case, than be in this constant limbo of "Is BM gonna get her this week or No?" It's not ok for the kid and it's not OK for you.
6. Find another stepmom who in your eyes has "Succeeded" at the gig and learn from her. Avoid talking to "normal" moms about the difficulties b/c you're right, they have no clue and inadvertently invalidate you.

Good luck. At the end of the day, be glad, b/c it is your choice and you get to decide how your life goes!

Sarah_V's picture

I really appreciate your comment. All very practical advice. And yes, I definitely do have to get my own therapist, because the child development person we're seeing is definitely not concerned with me at all. Even my boyfriend noted how hard she is on me when I try to get my needs on the table along with theirs. Apparently, I'm not supposed to want anything anymore because SD has needs. I help her all the time! But I'm not her mother, I moved to this town to support their co-parenting, and I do have limits.

And yes, the custody thing has to be finalized. My SO has told me he's sorry that this all landed on my head, but what "this" is remains a little foggy and there's no way we can make a plan for our future without firming it up. Sometimes I think he's babying SD because he can't believe her mother is just...letting her go. My feeling is, OK, the woman has let her go. Now we're going to provide a healthy home. Let's get on with figuring that out, and not traffic in quite so much guilt-driven BS that isn't helping her at home, helping her at school, or helping her anywhere else.

Hasn't anyone ever noticed that spoiled children are NEVER happy? Isn't that the point -- to make happiness possible for a child?


Again, thanks. I really appreciate your words and advice.

Julies's picture

If the child development therapist is being hard on you, do you think she's trying to wake you up/kick you out of the situation rather than baby you along? Maybe she sees an accident waiting to happen and is trying to expedite it.

trystme's picture

You do realize this is NEVER going to end right? Whether it gets better or gets worse, it will never, ever end. As long as you are with this man you will be dealing with SD issues. I wish that someone had told me that so that I could have made an informed decision prior to marrying DH.