This Wicked Stepmother Is Real
Posted May 2, 2018 1:29 p.m. EDT
I’m 21 years old and still incapable of dealing with my stepmother. When I was 10, just months after my parents’ divorce, my father told me he was dating a new woman. I tried to act indifferent to the news, but later I sobbed to my mother. She comforted me by saying it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have another adult in my life who would love me. She was mistaken.
Two years later, my dad told me his girlfriend was pregnant, and soon after, they married. On their wedding day, my stepmother pulled me aside and said, “You’re not who I would have chosen for a stepchild, but you’re who I’ve got.” I was 12.
My relationship with my dad and his wife became increasingly stilted throughout my teenage years. What complicated this disconnection was the small human who shared my DNA and whom I adored. My half brother and I are separated by 12 years, but I love him with my whole heart.
A few years ago, the four of us took a family vacation. Tensions ran high, and the feelings I’d been having for years bubbled over. I told them I felt like an outsider and a second-class citizen in my own home — like I was a blight on an otherwise perfect family of three. Since then, I’ve maintained relationships with my brother and father, but not my stepmother. My brother, who’s now 8, often asks me why I don’t speak to his mom, who still constantly throws passive-aggressive remarks my way. If it were up to me, I’d cut her out of my life entirely, but I have to set a good example for my brother. What should I do?
— Second-Rate Sibling
Cheryl Strayed: Your letter is an articulation of the precise pickle many stepchildren find themselves in, Sibling. You’re profoundly connected to someone you don’t like by people you love very much. I sympathize. You say you wish to set a good example for your brother, and I want to assure you that you’re already doing that. By honestly communicating how you feel in the family your father made with his wife, you modeled something important to your brother.
Many of the letters we receive are from people whose problems are caused by their inability to speak truth, so give yourself some credit for having the courage to do that. I suggest you harness that brave truth-telling spirit once again and have another, calmer, but equally frank conversation with your stepmother — this one motivated not by tensions, but realities: The two of you would prefer to have nothing to do with each other, but since that’s not an option, you’d both benefit from finding a way to get along.
Steve Almond: I couldn’t agree more, both with the notion that you’ve modeled for your brother courage and candor, and that the time has come to confront the lingering tensions between you and your stepmother. To this end, it’s worth re-examining the particular circumstances that forced the two of you together. Your dad got involved with your stepmom “just months” after your parents’ divorce, a period during which you were no doubt still feeling raw and confused by the split. You were probably also troubled, and rightfully so, that your father would jump into another serious relationship so quickly. Your stepmother made things worse with that astonishingly cruel statement. This comment arose not from your stepmother’s inherent cruelty, but from her insecurity and weakness. I think it’s important to recognize that any parent who would say something so undermining to a child is clearly struggling with his or her own self-worth. That doesn’t mean that you have to accept her abuse, passive-aggressive or otherwise. On the contrary, the conversation you need to have with her should set a clear boundary, one that forces her to confront how her cruelty makes you feel. But I do think the conversation will go better if you realize that all bullies are, beneath their snarling masks, scared to death.
CS: By suggesting that you attempt to quell the antagonism between you and your stepmother, we aren’t saying your hurt feelings are unjustified. They are. But I don’t think fighting with your stepmother is going to resolve your sense of loss and betrayal. As Steve aptly notes, your stepmother has her own problems, but it’s your father who has betrayed you by allowing his wife to treat you unkindly from the start. I encourage you to put your emotional energy there as you attempt to resolve your feelings about being an outsider in this branch of your family, preferably with the help of a therapist.
SA: As always, Cheryl is one step ahead of me and right on stride. It would be terrific if you could make peace with your stepmother, but it’s your father who’s the biggest source of disappointment here. He’s the one whose love and support you need. He was also the adult making the decisions when you were a child. Those included his decision to marry a woman who undermined your sense of familial belonging. To the extent he knew you were hurting back then, he failed to protect you. And to the extent he knows this now, he’s still failing. I would absolutely seek out a therapist to discuss all of this, if that’s possible. This might seem scary because you may feel that you’re asking him to “take sides.” But you’re not. You’re asking him simply to see you, to acknowledge your feelings and comfort you. That’s not too much to ask. It’s what all loving parents should do, especially when their actions have cast doubt on that love.