Please contact Evil Stepmom at ESM@evilstepmom.org with your questions or ideas about stepfamily living with 17-30 year olds.

 



Dear Evil Stepmom
A Rough Christmas

Dear Evil:


Our kids are ages 22 (daughter-his) and 19 (son-mine and daughter-his). For years the holidays were crazy with two custody schedules, but we just always made whatever day we were together "the holiday", and in our decision making for everything we just always put the kids first.
The girls' Mom was always in the picture but once she remarried, she was ready for a family again and time became evenly shared and holidays rotated. We lived two miles apart and have co-parented so well that others had asked how we did it. That was up until college started for the youngest and Mom moved an hour away.

Problem:
 Mom and her hubby tend to be very competitive and are in a position to "buy" everything.  I am more practical and am trying to teach the value of earning your rewards and enjoying the most precious thing--time together.  I.e.--The elder had a problem with truth telling and numerous times lied about car where abouts.  One day she called and asked for the car and was going to put her bike in the backseat to meet her boyfriend--I said, “No--please wait 30 minutes till I get home. I'll put the bike rack on and you can go.” She was gone with the car and bike when I got home.
We decided to take the car for a month.  That weekend Mom and stepdad bought her a car--which she totaled in 3 weeks.

Current: 
Kids are now in college. We try to actually spend some TIME together which is tough with three different holiday schedules for kids, plus we both work and they have other holiday obligations with boy/girlfriends, friends etc. Grandparents are another issue in itself.
So, we do try to work out a bit of time together and that poses a challenge. We try to be VERY flexible and don't ask much. It can be frustrating when someone "pops in" for the meal unexpectedly (and usually has a friend or two). We do not know when they will be coming or going. With no kids in the house--our meal shopping is not the same and requires a bit of planning. I have asked for plans for when they may come and go etc., or a quick phone call. Younger one is great--older one is....a challenge!


This year Mom and stepdad decided they would take a yachting trip to the Caribbean for 10 days over Christmas break (the kids have only two weeks off from school). So we didn't really get the chance for a holiday. Oh, and when they came home--she still wanted a day to do "Christmas" and then lavished them with flat/plasma big screens for their dorm rooms, a KINDLE, tons of gift cards, etc. And then they had to go to Mom’s sister's for a day too. Gee, now we get to see them for two hours one evening because that is all anyone has time for.


My two stepchildren are very different. The elder is very much like her mother...and  will do nothing to displease her for fear of losing her mom. The younger is the mediator and tries to be fair; she enjoys time with both families. She is very level headed and has a big heart and loves all her parents. She wants to spend time with her sister and hates to make waves. I hate to see her in the middle.
It gets me angry that Mom can be so selfish to not allow any time for our holiday time. I am usually very easy going and I feel for the kids who it is tough for with two houses. I know that the future with husbands, grandkids etc. will be tough. I am angry with the bribes and games coming from Mom which are easy for young adults to fall prey to.

I am hoping to find some words of wisdom so I can inwardly have some peace with this and move forward.
Thanks for your time and I hope you have some great ideas...

Signed,

Looking for Peace

Dear Stepmom,

You have a great philosophy and a mature, long-term view about raising happy healthy young adults. All your instincts are right on, and it must hurt you to watch your husband feel cheated out of time with his young adult children, especially at an age when kids are so busy and their lives are changing so fast. You really do need a scorecard to keep up with young adults.

Sadly, it sounds as if your husband’s former wife is using a different kind of scorecard, and playing a game you and your husband don’t want to participate in. The good news is, you don’t have to. If you and your husband want to see things go differently in the future, there are ways you can improve your situation. You gave me some very clear examples of what frustrates you, so I’ll focus on three of your issues.

The unannounced visit issue. I am a “Miss Manners” kind of hostess. I like to have good food, clean towels, and bright conversation ready for my guests. Which is why I used to get upset when one of my young adult stepchildren would drop in for a visit and find us without food or drink, let alone fresh flowers and a blazing fire in the hearth.

I have lowered my standards for myself vastly in this arena. I have also learned to celebrate the surprise treat of these visits, to relish getting to know the kids’ friends, and to accept the fact that frozen tofu dogs and canned beans are perfectly fine when you’re spending time with people you genuinely enjoy.

Work on becoming more flexible about drop in visits. It is a blessing when a young adult drops in, and even more so when they want their friends to come “home” with them. So lighten up on yourself, and put some emergency young adult food in your freezer. A few frozen French bread pizzas, some turkey kielbasa, and a half gallon of good ice-cream or a frozen cake will almost always work for hungry kids unless they’re really picky. 

Usually they’re just dropping in on their way someplace else, so try to keep quick prep in mind. My stepson used to say, “If it takes more than five minutes, I won’t bother.”

Be glad they visit, see it as a compliment, offer what you have, and delight in them when they grace you with their presence. They’ll feel it if you’re happy to see them rather than frustrated by or anxious about drop-by visits.

As they get older, this will get better, I promise. Their brains will firm up, they will actually make plans (with friends, not with you), and they will call on their way over, or even the day ahead—and all by the time they’re 30!

The holiday/vacation time issue. If the kids were older, 24 and 26, I’d say your husband needs to talk directly with each of them about his desire to spend time with them when they’re visiting. But, given their ages, I think he should consider talking to his former wife about this. I wouldn’t start this conversation with email. I’d have him call her so she remembers that there’s an actual Dad behind the “Dad” she seems to be competing with. He could try something like this:

“The kids’ Christmas vacation this year didn’t work for me. In the future I’d like to find a way between us where we can each get good time with the kids and feel like we both got to see them when they’re home. This last vacation I only got to see them once and that wasn’t enough for me. We should be able to figure out how to each spend time with the kids without putting them in the middle or making them feel as thought they’re neglecting one or the other of us.”

Your husband’s ability to deliver this message in a calm, non-angry, non-aggressive way will determine how it goes. With a reactive ex wife (which it sounds as if she is), email will probably make her say, “screw you.” But if he calls her and talks with her and can stay calm and on principle, then he can have this conversation with her. That doesn’t mean he’ll get cooperation, but he will at least have taken action toward having time with his young adult children. He just needs to remember that they are still very vulnerable to maternal pressure.

Because they’re old enough to choose now, Mom is going to say, “It was their choice!” but the kids are going to continue to feel as if they don’t have a choice. This is the terrible position so many young adults of divorce find themselves in, and this is what drives many children of divorce to distance from both of their parents. Your husband needs to see if he can get in front of this trend without putting a burden on the kids.

In future years, you can also try planning ahead a bit more. Plan a family gathering or throw a holiday party that the kids can bring their friends to. Ask the kids to participate in setting the date.

Your husband can become less blow-offable, but he’ll have to assert himself with his children and with his ex. He may need to remind his kids that other invitations will likely come their way—their mother, their friends or partners, and their in-laws will have celebrations and events they’ll want his children to attend. Their dad will be asking them for a commitment, and asking them to keep it in the face of inevitable pressure to renege.

Your goal here isn’t be to get in their mother’s way or limit her time, but to bolster your stepchildren’s ability to say “yes” and “no” to both of their parents (and important others in the world) based on their own schedules, wants, and principles.

Inclusion and exclusion, fairness to family members versus seeing friends and having fun, keeping commitments versus staying open to better offers—these are the tough lessons of young adulthood whether one’s parents are divorced or married, alive or not; lessons that young people must learn sooner or later. Few people realize what a great training ground a stepfamily is for human development.

Here again I would tell you to keep being steady and welcoming and know that the kids will start to make their own strategies for getting the time they want with both of their parents before too long. On breaks from college, young adults mostly want the comfort of Mom. As they get older, they’ll want time with their Dad, too.

The overspending/overgiving of resources issue. It is a parents’ job—animal or human—to protect, prepare, and release their young. As a matter of fact, the sole purpose of protection and preparation are successful release. For the human adult, successful release is defined as an independent adult who can stand on his own two feet and work with his own two hands.

When their young hit early adulthood, many parents get nervous about the release, either lacking confidence in their young, or fearing for themselves and their purpose in the world once the kids have successfully flown from the nest.

Too often this ends up in a parent hobbling or undermining the independence of one or more of their children. The child has so many resources freely provided to her that she loses any impetus to learn how to support herself in the world, thus remaining dependent on the parent. Parents don’t mean to do this; it happens in such subtle ways that parents often don’t see, or won’t admit, that it’s happening at all.

Some parents are overt, tearing a young person down, mocking their efforts at education, discouraging them about their dreams, but continuing to house and feed the young “failure”. Other parents kid themselves that their children are successfully launched, when Junior is actually living in Mom’s old condo in the city without paying any rent, and with no time limits on the “lease”. Or Dad may be handing Princess everything she ask for, including Spring Break in Cabo, trying to make up to his daughter for having left his marriage. Some parents fear that they’ll have no value in their children’s lives if they stop paying for cell phones, cable TV, Xbox 360, vacations, and the cleaning service.

Young people on the receiving end of comfort-with-strings-attached  get slowed down and set back by participating in this dance with a parent. They can't say no to the stuff, can't shake off their comfort habit to start their own lives because the draw of the comfort is so great and a $400.00/month apartment is so, well, gross. And this isn't only happening to children of divorce.

Your greatest hope is that their mother (and her husband) will see that all this stuff isn’t good for the kids - it breaks their drive to get things for themselves - and they will pull back to a more moderate level of giving. Meanwhile, you and your husband keep being your steady, predictable, financially conservative selves. Let the children learn from both examples they’re receiving.

There is nothing you can do about their mother’s decision to smother her children with gifts and things. But your husband can inoculate his kids against a life of consumption-for-comfort by discussing his financial goals and values with his children, by sharing with them how he thinks about earning, spending, planning, giving, and saving, and by asking for their thinking about the charities he gives to or investments he make. He can explain why he’s always willing to invest in more education but reluctant to help with "rent emergencies”.

By showing his kids that he and his wife are good and thoughtful stewards of their resources, your husband will be teaching them good stewardship.

So many good questions…you sound like a terrific stepmom. Keep up the good work, don’t worry about what anyone else is doing if you’re doing what you believe is right, and don’t forget to breathe!

Stay strong ~ ESM

















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