he loves his kids, i feel left out

Dear Suzie,

We have been married for 19 months. My husband has 2 children, 11 and 8, who stay with us every second weekend and half of school holidays. My husband is an excellent father and his children are secure in his love. However, when they are around I feel like a child with no choices and there is inevitably conflict. He expects me to love his children but has no expectations of them – they don’t even greet me when they arrive at our house and don’t thank me for presents we have jointly given them. I have told him that this is hurtful but he brushed it aside. He invariably takes their side in any argument about them. If I complain about an aspect of their behaviour (ie their refusal to put dishes in the sink/sweet papers in the bin), he blames me for not having trained them! I am just the stepmother with the least influence of all their parents and stepparents.

He has told them more than once not to listen to me and I have less respect or ‘authority’ than would be given to a babysitter left in charge of them. I have to clean up after them and provide materially for them but have no say in how the house is run when they are around. I feel left out and hate the weekends when they are with us. We have a good relationship most of the time – all our conflict centres around his children. I think his parenting style is permissive and he thinks I am severe and authoritarian.

I hate his kids because he loves them more than me and the bond between them is obvious. Is it unreasonable of me to expect him to make me look good in their eyes and to be the bridge between me and his children? He refuses to acknowledge that he has ever done anything wrong in the stepfamily relationship. There is a chance the children would choose to live with us in the future – I don’t think I could cope with being bottom of the heap all the time. I am desperate for help/intervention but my husband is not.

You sound upset and angry, and no wonder. But before you can expect the kids to change and amend their behaviour, you have to get your husband to see how his beliefs and behaviour are harming all of you. And before you can do that, you need to turn an eye on yourself – your behaviour and beliefs. I think you are well along the way to understanding so let me just nudge you and give you my insights and interpretations.

You’ve already recognised, I think, the power of our own background and childhood in setting a script for us to follow in managing our own relationships and family. You say when the kids come to stay, you fell like a child with no choices. Is that what you felt, as a child; powerless? And do you feel in competition with his children – not as an adult, but as another child? Does that have any echoes in your own past – was it competitive in your family? Were you the youngest and do you feel left out again? Or were you expected to look after others, letting your own needs go wanting? It’s relevant because sometimes what we do in families – especially stepfamilies – is replay a script from the past. And the issue about that is that the arguments we often have with people in the present are actually about arguments with other people, from the past. This can be futile, to say the least, because you’ll never settle a row if the person you’re really rowing with isn’t there!

And what about your husband and his behaviour. As you will have seen in the series, I have absolutely no truck with stepparents being stuck with all the responsibility but none of the power! Maybe your partner is right not to expect his kids to love you – but it goes both ways; you can’t be expected to love them, either. Affection and even love can grow in time. In the meanwhile, you should give each other equal measure of regard. And ALL of you can be expected to treat each other with respect, courtesy and mutual support. If you are to share a house, you share the keeping of it. they should do chores commensurate with the time they spend in it – tidying their own rooms, laying tables, clearing dishes, and most certainly cleaning up any mess they make.

You may need to discuss what style you adopt in managing their upbringing. Clearly, all the evidence suggests that severe, authoritarian parenting doesn’t do kids much good. But neither does lackadaisical, laissez faire parenting. And parents who are desperately trying to make up for having left their kids often slide far too much to the lax, thinking they are making up for the loss their kids have incurred. The fact is that kids need boundaries. And he needs to hear your distress and respect it as well as he does theirs.

I suggest you make and appointment with a counsellor, to thrash out these issues in a safe and secure and guided atmosphere. Find one through Relate who offer counselling for relationship and family issues. Look in the local phone book for your nearest centre or go to www.relate.org.uk . They also do phone counselling – call 08451 30 40 16 for an appointment. Or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy can suggest a counsellor in your area. You can ring them on 0870 443 5219 or write to BACP, BACP House, 35-37 Albert Street, Rugby, Warwickshire CV21 2SG or go to www.bacp.co.uk Or try perhaps the first and best place for help with any parenting or family dilemma, Parentline Plus. Their Helpline is on 0808 800 2222 and it’s free, confidential and open 24 hours a day every day of the year. You can write to them at Unit 520, Highgate Studios, 53-79 Highgate Road, Kentish Town, London NW5 1TL or go to their website at www.parentlineplus.org.uk to read or download a range of helpful materials, or contact them by email. They offer a range of support from one to one phone counselling to phone conference calls with other parents and face to face courses.

And do have a look at my book on stepfamilies – Stepfamilies; Surviving And Thriving In A New Family (it’s on the Books page of this site). You’ll find all these issues in there, which shows how common they are! Good luck!

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