Dear Alice and Emily,
I am writing you because I am newly married, pregnant, and find myself the step-mother to an adolescent girl. I try really hard to form a relationship with her, but she seems uninterested. Her mother is involved in a lifestyle that is frankly, quite frightening to us, as she is heavily involved in a Wiccan coven. I try to include her in our lives as much as possible and try to encourage my husband to see her often. However, he doesn’t seem to feel the need to pursue more of a relationship with her, even though I have tried to nag him into it. I just want to be a happy family, but I feel like no one is cooperating.
Do you have any suggestions?
Making an Effort
Dear Making an Effort,
Alice here, I totally sympathize with you about desiring to have a home where everyone is happy and has a real relationship. But this is not a nuclear home, and your step-daughter and husband have a relationship that predates your involvement. I have been where you are, wanting to act as a go between for my husband, his kids and my kids. It only ended in frustration for everyone. In fact, it resulted in some pretty big fights. So here are the boundaries I learned the hard way.
- Your husband and his daughter are solely responsible for their relationship. Your only role, ever, is to act as a listening and supportive ear, if and only if, he wants to talk to you about it. They have twelve years of history that you are not privy to and must be allowed to work it out themselves. Even if you feel like he goes about it all clumsily or all wrong, your only role is loving support until he asks for advice or help. Anything else is controlling.
- You have no control over your husband’s ex-wife. Your best bet is to avoid criticizing her, especially to the daughter. If you suspect or have evidence of abuse, that is a whole different ball game. Because I am a Christian, I would pray over this and invite my step-daughter to church. At twelve years of age, however, she is probably smarter than you give her credit for. Over time, she will come to her own conclusions about the big questions. Your best bet is to be open to discussion but to avoid lecturing.
- Pursuing a relationship too enthusiastically with your step-daughter may not be your best bet. This sounds awful, I know. But I had an adolescent step-daughter once. I have learned the hard way that relationship, particularly with some kids, takes years to build. Concentrate on being safe, being available, and making each interaction positive. Give her the emotional space to come towards you rather than trying to impose expectations.
- Lastly, concentrate on making your own little family unit as solid as possible. Second marriages come with some baggage. No matter how you look at it, your real priorities are those relationships that you live in every day. The more secure your relationship is with your husband, the more welcoming and safe your home will be to your step-daughter.
Emily, and previous adolescent step-daughter here. Pre-teen girls are a bit like cats, if you come on too strong you’re bound to get scratched. I highly recommend backing off and giving your husband and stepdaughter the space to negotiate the terms of their relationship on their own. Over the course of my parent’s divorce, I developed a relationship with my mom that not everyone else would understand but any interference from my stepfather usually ended in a fight. He may not have understood why our relationship worked the way it did, but that is because he was not around when we bonded through the turmoil of divorce. The truth is that this is not your relationship to try and make look the way you think it should. You may know the details of their unique history but because you weren’t there, you can’t understand the emotions.
The best thing for your step-daughter is for you to build your new family in a healthy, accepting way and make sure there is always a clear invitation extended to her to come and go as she decides. Happiness and health have their own magnetism so work on that in your home and make it clear that she’s welcome to participate. Then let it go. Don’t push, don’t have expectations, and most importantly, don’t criticize her mother, especially in front of her. Your heart is in the right place but your focus is not. These things work themselves out and you don’t have to take responsibility. Isn’t that a relief?
Good luck and congratulations on your pregnancy!