Carolyn Hax: Advice

Struggling with step-mom’s discipline

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn: I am a working professional with twin 9-year-old boys and my girlfriend recently moved in. I have them only a couple of days each week and like to make the most of our time together and choose my battles carefully.

My girlfriend is making them miserable with strict expectations, and tolerates no behaviors that are somewhat annoying, but fairly normal for kids. (She has never had children.) I feel miserable about it too. When I go to talk with either of them nicely about why they are “in trouble” … again … in private, she follows me and interrupts when he begins talking to me and says there is to be no dialogue — they just have to follow the (her) rule. Period.

I am swallowing my various thoughts about things now that I see this dynamic developing, and telling myself just to stay the course. I want to stay the course and eventually get married as we had planned on before she moved in.

What are your thoughts on our chances for a happily-ever-after? Is this just a bump in the road?

Sad in Seattle

“Stay the course” — of misery? For your kids and for you? Of an intolerant rookie muscling in on the way the veterans live in their own home? What kind of course is that? And you’re defending the “battles” you don’t “choose” with your kids, but what about the battle of preventing a hostile takeover of your own children’s sense of well-being?

“My girlfriend is making them miserable.” Your exact words. And you’re not just passively permitting it, you’re deliberately doing nothing to stop it out of fear you’ll jeopardize your effort to make her role in your home a permanent one!? What the what?

When you became a parent, you morally surrendered your right to put your own interests first, at least for as long as children are minors in your care — though what your interests are here is a mystery, because it’s hard to conceive of any being served by a tyranny so sudden and fierce that you (a) feel you have to sneak around to talk to your own kids, and (b) can’t even do that.

If this is where I’m supposed to urge you to stand up for your kids, reel in your girlfriend with a firm statement of limits, and insist she join you at parenting classes, then I’m not coming through. Forget that. Make it clear she has crossed a line with the rules, intolerance, interruptions and disrespect for your authority. Say the moving in was premature and ask her to move out.

I write this without confidence you have the strength to take this stand. However, keeping the living arrangement intact when you aren’t strong enough to advocate for your kids, or even for yourself, is to invite abuse, so please find the strength somewhere.

By all means, take your share of the responsibility and apologize for letting this move-in happen before everyone was ready, because you did and no one was.

But don’t rationalize away any of the following just because you want her companionship back: Your girlfriend isn’t discussing her concerns with you in a calm and cooperative way. She isn’t working with you on a unified, coherent approach to discipline. She isn’t holding off while she gets to know the rhythms of your home or develops an emotional connection to the kids, out of respect for their sense of home and family. She isn’t building or even prioritizing trust — with the kids or with you. She’s being presumptuous with a capital jerk.

Clearly she believes you’re too lenient with your kids — and she’s probably right, since “mak(ing) the most of our time together” is a standard euphemism for letting kids run wild in lieu of saying “no” to them. (And since your no-saying mechanism is faulty, if not broken.) But even if she is 100 percent right, her methods are a warning of deeper trouble to come. She’s strictly about compliance, in service of her certainty that she’s right.

That paired with your reluctance/unwillingness/inability to stand up to her is the recipe for a fairy tale home — the “before” version. Just add dungeon.

You won’t solve the evil-common-law-stepmother problem as long as steamrolling is her emotional MO, and capitulating is yours; instead, you’ll just accrue other problems as her involvement in your lives deepens and grows more complex.

So stop that progression now, and back it off far enough for your kids to be beyond her reach — and don’t even think about bringing her or anyone else into your — their — home again unless and until she has the key indications of getting it: humility, flexibility, openness to discussion. Un-fake-able traits all.

Please also make an appointment today with a good family therapist, just you, regardless. It takes strength to stand up for your kids amid competing desires, needs and influences — and this situation has just exposed how badly you need to build yours.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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