Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: I have two stepchildren, 17 and 15. They switch off between our house and their mother’s. My husband and I have been married three years and have a 6-month-old daughter.
I am really sad about the lack of affection between my stepkids and my daughter. They never hold her or play with her or ask to feed her. They basically pretend she isn’t there.
My husband says to just give them time, but he doesn’t do much to encourage all of us to do things together. It’s like he spends time with his older kids or the baby but not all of us at once.
I want us to be a family and it doesn’t feel like we are now. You can’t force affection, but I would like to know how to encourage it.
DEAR STEP-PARENT: Treating this as an isolated problem that started six months ago, I look to your husband. His either-or approach to his kids offers both the easiest explanation and the easiest possible solution. Get him invested in doing more as a family unit, and you’ll slowly, naturally promote more of a bond. It’s tough with older teenagers, but doable.
But treating this as a problem that can’t be isolated to the past six months, I think we’re closer to the truth. Because any blended family issue is going to have a backstory that includes the dissolution of the kids’ family of origin, the formation of the blended family, and the three or so years of family building that preceded the birth of your child.
If there are seeds in that history of the alienation you’re seeing now, and if you planted them yourself, helped in any way to nurture them, or even just pretended they weren’t there, then you’re accountable too.
I don’t have enough information to judge, obviously — but you make no mention of the emotional conditions into which you brought this baby. If you weren’t invested in emotional cohesion before you had your daughter, then it would be a bit rich for you to expect it now that it’s your own child who would benefit.
So, ask yourself the hard questions about how the “before” — yours, his, theirs, everyone’s — brought you to this “after.”
Then bring that insight to your husband, along with ideas for how to eat dinner, travel, celebrate and make conversation as one unit versus two. The best way to encourage affection is to show it, and the best way to show it is for its own sake, without defensiveness, and without any notion of a quid pro quo.
RE: STEPKIDS: Babies are intimidating as heck. I think the first baby I held was when I was like 30 and my best friend basically shoved hers in my arms. So if you’re waiting for teenagers to ask to hold your baby as a sign of family cohesion … er … it could be a long wait.
RE: STEPKIDS: I can see how a father of kids approaching adulthood would want to spend time with them that’s not dominated by a baby. Make the best of the time you all spend together but recognize that alone time for them is OK, too.
DEAR ANONS: Both make perfect sense, thanks.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.