stepfamily dilemma

Dear Suzie,
I live in Australia and have been watching you on Lifestyle. I keep thinking to myself, who are these actors acting out my family. I have a 12 yo son and my husband and I have a 2 yo together. My husband and I married when my son was 10 yo. My husband and son used to get along however, when I fell pregnant with my daughter things turned horrible. I don’t know how long I can continue to be the referee between them. Please come to Australia and help me!!!!

I’d love to come to Oz! If only an Australian network would ask me to come and do a series Down Under…

As for your dilemma, as you realised, Stepfamily issues are similar from family to family, all around the world. Your situation is a common one, so please be reassured it’s not your fault. You’re not being a uniquely incompetent mother nor is your son being a uniquely horrible child. It’s the situation that is difficult, not the people caught up in it.

To tease apart what is going on, and what you might do about it, look at it from your son’s point of view. You don’t tell me what happened to his father – when he left your lives or how. You might have been glad to get rid of him or maybe it was a grief you’ve never resolved. Whatever, to your son it would have been a terrible loss, whether your ex left the year before you remarried, 5 years or even 10 years ago, before your son was born. Whether he is in touch or not, your son will be struggling with anxiety and guilt over his absence – children usually assume a father leaving is all their own fault. And whether he is in touch or not, your son will be trying to make sense of that and his own part in the situation.

You say your son and your husband got along well. That’s actually quite unusual in such situations and what it did is give you the belief that all was well and didn’t need attending. As you can now see, stepfamily situations are always tricky and always need thought and negotiation.

But the getting along was presumably before you married – when you were dating or living together? From the figures you’ve given me – your son is 12, your daughter is 2, you married when your son was 10 – you would have married and produced a child in quite a short time frame. That’s a lot for a 10 year old to struggle to integrate. What would he have made of it?

He might have felt overwhelmed by the changes. Liking a man who comes and gives you treats and days out, who makes your Mum feel good, is one thing. Having him become your mums husband is quite another, and having him assume the mantle of your Dad yet a further step.

And then, having become your Dad, he suddenly throws away that role as not good enough; he brings in his own child. Do you feel surplus to requirements? You’ve lost your own Dad, you’ve lost being the only person in your Mum’s life, you’ve now lost being this new man’s only child. And you’ve seen what happens in your Mum’s life when she and a bloke decide they’re not getting on; a 12 year old can harbour fantasies of being sent away or rejected, as no longer up to scratch, in such a situation.

And that’s just a fraction of what a child in such a situation may be feeling. I haven’t even touched on what you and your husband may be doing, totally inadvertently, to stir the situation. Children often feel put out and left out when a new baby comes along. All that cooing and gurgling over the new one can make them feel excluded and made second best. And telling them you’ve produced a baby sibling just for them can actually make it worse – they’d rather have a new bike!

So what to do? For a start, forgive all of you. As I said, it’s the situation that is difficult, not you. Secondly, get some support. Contact the Stepfamily Zone which is the online site for the Australian Stepfamily Association.

I’d love to recommend the book that goes with the series “Stepfamilies – surviving and thriving in a new family” pub Simon and Schuster but it doesn’t seem to be available on the Oz Amazon site although they do seem to suggest it is coming. Follow the link from my Books page and you can read about it and you might consider ordering it from the UK site and having it sent to you.

Ask around your area – ask your own doctor for instance – if there is family therapy available. It would help all of you to have someone guide you through the dynamics of new family formation so you can see the very natural and normal emotions that have gone into creating this dilemma, and how to untangle it. Your husband needs to start being part of this too – it’s not your responsibility to referee between them, he should be acting to make is own relationship with what is now his child too. Good luck!

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