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Evil Stepmom


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Articles & Interviews
Help Vs. Indulgence How Much Is Enough?

“When and how do you stop funding your grownup kids? How are parents dealing with this? Once the kid is out of college, when do you stop helping them out with rent, slyly buying them wardrobes or furniture, etc.?” From a 47-year-old stepmother of three

All parents have to figure out the right level of support to give each child as they develop and mature. As a parent I may, for example, believe that teaching is such an important profession that I commit to helping my son pay for a masters’ degree to become a teacher. Or I may believe in entrepreneurialism as a valuable life skill and therefore invest in my daughter’s hip-hop recording label.

All parents, too, must determine the right level of increasing responsibility and accountability to require of their young adults in exchange for the financial support they give. If I’m going to help my son pay for his graduate degree, I might require him to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA, expect to see his grades each semester, and insist that he work to pay his own living expenses. If I’m going to invest in my daughter’s business, I might need to see her business plan, ask to review her financial statements on a quarterly basis, and require that she disclose her other funding sources.

Remarried parents and stepparents have to make the same tough calls as still-married parents do about when, how, and how much to help their young adults. However, they’ve also got some extra issues to consider. In my practice as a stepfamily coach, I often work with remarried parents who feel guilty about their divorce, ashamed of having failed at marriage, and sorry about the pain they've caused their kids. Many are also competitive with their former spouses – competitive for the time, affection, and favor of the kids. All of these feelings can lead well-intentioned parents to provide too much, too little, or inappropriate help to their young adult offspring.

The tension and confusion of parental divorce and remarriage can also lead young adult children to ask for too much, too little, or inappropriate help from one or both of their parents. Children of divorce are usually aware of their parents’ struggles with divorce and remarriage, and can use parents’ feelings and fears quite strategically. Young adulthood is, biologically, a time of resource acquisition in preparation for procreation, and young people can be very clever about identifying and securing resources – loans, furniture, gifts, cars, anything that will help them to “feather the nest” of independence. Though the drive to acquire resources as they move toward independence is natural regardless of whether parents have divorced or remained married, divorce and remarriage does complicate matters for everyone involved. 

As a stepparent of three young adults, and as someone who became a stepchild two times in my early twenties, I understand each side of this delicate dance. I know what it is to be a young adult still needing some assistance from my divorced parents, but not wanting to look like a slacker or a supplicant to either of my stepparents. I also know what it feels like to wonder whether the right thing to do is help one of my stepchildren out because this could be the big break, or whether it would be best for them if we said, “It’s time to get a real job.” And I understand how difficult it is to make decisions in a vacuum, when you don’t know how the child’s other parent is thinking about some important financial issue you’re being asked to help with.

Recognizing that divorce and remarriage almost always complicate the launching process is the first step to making sound decisions that will be in the long-term best interest of the young adults involved. Here are some other tips to help you through take off:

Put your own oxygen mask on first.
Couples can’t begin to discuss whether, when, and how to help a young adult family member until they’ve had some time to compose themselves. Parents and their partners must ask themselves, “What’s in the long-term best interest of this young adult, regardless of how I’m feeling about the situation today?”

For example, the fact that this is your stepson’s fourth attempt at college may frustrate you, and you may feel that your husband is being indulgent by continuing to pay tuition that gets wasted every time the young man drops out of school again. These are fair feelings.

But the fact is that most people without a college education today struggle mightily throughout their life: their employment prospects are far more limited, the jobs they’re eligible for tend to lack benefits and pay poorly, housing costs make finding an affordable place to live difficult, and their prospects for finding a mate and having children are more limited than their peers with college degrees.

When you take time to really think through the long-term implications of helping or not helping a young adult family member, you’re turning your thinking up and your emotions down. This will help you gain and keep your composure.

Carefully consider your convictions.
Parents have to figure out the appropriate type and level of support for each of their offspring given the child’s age and level of development. This is the very difficult question at the heart of parenting young adults through the launch: how much help, for how long, and in what form? It’s not just about money, but it’s all about resources. And parents must figure out, according to their own convictions, what’s the right level and form of help, and how much is too much or too little.  A father may believe, for example, that helping his son the college student find summer work is appropriate, but that paying his 28-year-old daughter’s rent isn't.

Sadly, divorced parents have the opportunity to sabotage the dance of separation going on between their young adult offspring and their former spouse. The other parent may be inconsistent, or he may deliver resources without holding the young adult accountable to a performance standard, or she may shower them with generous but useless gifts when what they need is tuition and book fees. You can’t control these things. You can only control what you think and how you choose to act.

One divorced mother of two young adults had her sons both on strict budgets during their college years to prepare them for being on their own. One day she accidentally discovered some large purchases made by her younger son mid-way through his senior year. When she questioned him, he confessed that her former husband had been sending both sons a considerable amount of money several times each year.

"Here I thought I was teaching them how to live on limited resources. I was having serious financial conversations with each of them on a regular basis for years. It was no fun for me, but I wanted them to learn to be responsible with money. What an idiot I felt like when I learned that both of my sons sat through my lectures on austerity and nodded, secretly knowing that their dad would give them more than I was giving them to live on at school. It's been hard to teach them about money against the backdrop of someone who uses it to show off and guarantee their affection. It has also been hard to deal with my anger about the three of them essentially colluding behind my back."

It is very difficult to parent by your principles when you’re being sabotaged. Still, she did what she believed was right, and that fact will not be lost on her sons. A part of divorce is making financial and parenting decisions independently. You have to decide what level of support you think is right for you to provide, and what accountabilities you will attach to that level of support.

A stepparent needs to find a position from which they can be a positive presence in this family system, and a place where your convictions and your mate’s align. For example, my husband and I disagreed about whether to move during his son’s last year of college (his son was living with us at the time). When I finally understood that my husband was committed to seeing his son more often during his last year of school, and that this house would give him that opportunity, I could see that staying another year was going to be good for their father-son relationship, and for the family in the long term. And what’s good for the family is good for me.

Next, look at your connections.
Parents and their young adult offspring are engaged in the dance of separation. Often it’s two steps forward, one step back for a while. This dance is a necessary, if messy, part of launching that parents and stepparents must navigate with particular care. Parents have to lead in this dance. Stepparents might be involved if their resources will be called upon, but usually in the background with their spouse, not directly with the child.

The message many twenty-somethings are sending their parents is, "I need your money, not your advice." That’s fine, but parents still set the terms and conditions of family resource distribution when it comes to kids. So if parents want to impose their advice or ask questions or require documentation, it’s their choice to do so. And it’s the young adult’s decision to take the money and sit through the advice, or reject the advice and reject the help.

All of this can be difficult for parents who feel guilty about the divorce – “Oh, their father and I hurt them with the divorce. I only want them to be happy now.” Parents who fair the best in the ongoing conversation about the road to financial independence are those who are in the closest contact overall with their adult offspring. When parents are in frequent light contact with their young adult children they know more about their kids’ lives and have richer opportunities to help their children see financial independence as a key to freedom and strength.

One of the first things I coach remarried parents to do is to get into regular one-to-one contact with each of their adult offspring. Over time, this creates a more comfortable and familiar environment in which to have conversations about the adult child’s thinking and decision making about education, career, family, and all nature of things found on the path to independence. It also helps the parent to see opportunities for non-monetary help – advice, coaching, contacts, feedback, and emotional support. Money and material goods are only a part of the parent/child relationship and need to be seen as such.

As a stepparent, you need to support your mate, and stay in calm, neutral contact with your young adult stepkids, while keeping out of their business.

Finally, you’ll need the courage to act.
The dance of separation can be hard for a stepparent to watch. The pattern between parent and child is painful but universal: the child dances toward the parent to get resources, and then away from the parent to gain some comfortable distance for himself as an individual.

One of the most difficult parts of being married to the parent of a young adult is watching this dance and the ways in which it often confuses, hurts, or frustrates the parent. It can be hard for a stepfather to participate in clear decisions about what's in the best interest of his young adult stepdaughter when he is angry at her for taking resources from her mother then holding her at arm's length. And the whole thing is even harder to bear if you and your mate have decided to mingle resources.

This is why the wise stepparent is always looking for a position from which she can act in the best interests of both her mate and her stepchild.

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