Saturday 19 January 2019

Dilemmas: Step parents

Virginia looks at the problems of adjusting to a stepmother.

Dear Virginia, Three months ago my father married again — my mother died four years ago, when I was 20.

I really resent this woman who refers to herself as my “stepmother”. None of my siblings like her. They try to be polite and my brother says I should, too, but why? When I go home this cow is sitting on my mother’s settee, smiling away. I feel like just refusing to speak to her. Yours sincerely, Cathy

Virginia says

Of course you're angry. It's a natural reaction to your mother's death, and I can understand how bitter you feel seeing this woman try to step, apparently, into her shoes. But remember, for her, she's not stepping into her shoes. She's just your father's wife. It's you, not her, who is setting her in the context of your mother, and you who sees her as someone who's deliberately trying to replace your mother when in fact she's doing nothing of the kind.

Obviously, calling herself your stepmother is a bit tactless -- because, of course, there's no way, at your age, there's any element of mothering in her relationship with you -- but that seems to be her only fault. But to get back to your original question: why should you be polite to her? I'll tell you why. It's because, generally, society works better if we can be as polite and considerate to each other as possible. Being polite to her would make things a lot easier for your father, who, presumably, you love. Because you are not being asked to love her or even like her. All that is being asked of you is that you be polite to her.

I have no doubt that she's not particularly keen on all these adult children around, reminders of her husband's past relationship. But she overcomes her primitive feelings of fear and jealousy by smiling and being polite.

Before you see her, you can say to yourself: "I don't like this woman. She's a cow and I feel furious with her. However, just for these couple of hours I'm going to be as courteous as I can."

You may find that with politeness and courtesy on both sides, there may develop a grudging respect for one another.

The readers say

Be happy for him

I know just how you feel, Cathy. My mother died suddenly when I was in my 20s. My father found someone within three months and remarried just over a year later. I was devastated. I have now been married for well over 40 years. I know if I die first, my husband, too, will find someone very quickly. We joke about it. I tell him to choose carefully and not to jump at the first one. Like my father, he just couldn't manage on his own, and I wouldn't want him to.

Eileen, by email

Let him live again

Try to be glad for your father. It’s a compliment to your mother — he married again because he was happily married the first time. No-one can replace your mother. Don’t wish him to be sad and lonely, living in a museum to your childhood. And if he needs care when he is older, well, there’s someone else to share the burden.

Laura, by email

Time to grow up

Cathy should be glad her dad will have someone to look after him in his old age. She is now 24 years old. It’s time she was married herself — or did she intend to stay at home forever?

Marie, Dublin

Get to know her

You ask why you should try to be polite to your father’s new wife, as your siblings are, and the answer is pretty obvious: they are grown-up, polite people; the woman has done nothing to upset anyone; and your siblings love your father. Even if none of this applies to you, consider other reasons not to snub “the cow”.

First, your dislike is making you unhappy, but if you made an effort, you would get a chance to get to know her. Also, she makes your father happy. She may make him meals and help with the household, or the finances, if she works. All this relieves you of responsibility. As your father gets older, or if he has health crises, she will look after him and ensure his wellbeing, leaving you much freer to enjoy yourself.

Helen, Drumcondra

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