A common and understandable desire children have is to spend time alone with their fathers. To date, the common response has been that children should be entitled to spend time alone with their fathers. Any stepmother who disagrees is quickly branded with a host of derogatory slurs all pointing toward her selfish, evil agenda.
This topic is sensitive in nature and far too complex to fit into that simple and convenient narrative.
To begin with, the word “stepchild” is a title that reaches far into adulthood. Stepchildren are only actually “children” for a small portion of their lives. Once they reach their late teens and beyond, these individuals become more capable of critical thinking. This post refers particularly to stepchildren 17+, adult stepchildren.
A woman I know (Jill) recently married a single father (Tom), who has three adult daughters all in their 20’s. Tom is a very successful professional and Jill is considerably younger than he is. Jill also has children from a previous marriage. Tom’s grown daughters are struggling to accept their new stepmother. Even Jill empathizes with the difficult time Tom’s daughters have had accepting someone new in their father’s life.
However, Tom’s daughters have been intentionally cruel to Jill. In a group setting, they refuse to acknowledge Jill’s presence and use mean girl tactics with each other to alienate Jill. The daughters have nothing but destructive things to say about Jill and her children to family and friends. They were openly opposed to the wedding, and intentionally wore black to symbolize their disapproval. Additionally, the daughters have confronted Jill on several occasions with humiliating accusations, demoralizing criticisms and insulting demands.
I had the opportunity to speak with Tom’s ex-wife, Sarah. Sarah also had very unflattering things to say about Jill, which mimicked the same types of maligning rhetoric her daughters speak. And then Sarah said, “I just wish the girls could spend more time alone with Tom, without Jill always having to be around.”
The situation I just described is not just an inability to blend; it is an active decision to choose war over peace. It is forsaking any expectations of civility for the opportunity to punish the stepmother. The stepchildren’s resentments fuel their behaviors, and very often their behaviors are encouraged by other family members and friends. It’s really never too difficult to find someone willing to encourage a fight against a stepmother.
Tom’s daughters are all successful in their own right. However, they are so caught up in their disdain for Jill, that they are choosing behaviors which are very unflattering. Either they don’t see it, or are too driven to care. Self-reflection doesn’t seem to be even a consideration. They want what they want, and so they act as though they are entitled to it.
It’s understandable that children, even grown children, would find it difficult to accept a father’s new spouse. However, feelings and behaviors are two separate things. This generation seems to be increasingly unaware of the difference. Our world is witnessing a devolution in the way we treat each other. One of the contributing factors has been a world of permissive parenting. Parents, particularly divorced parents, are often too afraid of rejection to set limits for their children. They prefer to be friends with their children, rather than risk offending them. Their parenting decisions are often guided by guilt or fear.
As a result our society is filled with hypersensitive narcissists, who exhibit childish self-regard, prolonged adolescent behavior, thoughtlessness and sand-pounding aggressiveness.
These Millennials are reflecting some of the same traits in their families that they are best known for in society and also in the workplace: a feeling of entitlement, the need for instant gratification, and having big expectations but not knowing or valuing the steps involved to reach those expectations.
So are grown stepchildren entitled to time alone with their fathers by intentionally excluding their stepmother, half-siblings and/or step-siblings?
In an adult world, where transactions happen for mutually beneficial reasons, these deliberate aggressors have little to offer. Just how much tolerance do we expect from the stepmothers? Are these women actually expected to offer kindness and understanding in exchange for grown stepchildren’s deliberate, obnoxious rejection? What a confusing message for stepmothers. Society damns stepmothers as evil, yet also holds them to almost angelic expectations.
Are these disgruntled, adult stepchildren entitled to treat someone with disgust and then expect kindness in return? It seems like a bit too much to ask.
The fathers are often stuck in the middle of this tension-filled tug-of-war, afraid to show too much loyalty to one side for fear of losing the other. Without an active war in place, it would be much easier for him to actually spend time with his grown children. If his wife doesn’t feel under constant attack, she might not feel so threatened by her husband spending time alone with his kids.
Some of the alone time Tom had with his daughters prior to his wedding was spent listening to his daughter’s pleas for him not to remarry, insistence that he have his fiancé sign a pre-nup and a drive with them to his attorney’s office to make sure his assets were out of Jill’s reach. The “alone time” often included the daughter’s husbands, girlfriends and other family members. Basically, “alone time” equated to “without Jill” time, an intentional move to exclude Tom’s wife.
These acts of aggression are a choice. They represent a part of an equation that never results in healthy, balanced, adult relationships. Adult stepchildren who choose to make their hate for their stepmother their top priority fail to see their responsibility toward peaceful contributions. Instant gratification trumps long-term objectives of peace. These individuals also fail to see how their hostile behavior makes their goal of having alone time with their fathers even harder to achieve. Rather than looking at their own behavior, they often just make their demands louder and more insistent, further damaging their relationships with their fathers.
Adult stepchildren are not the exceptions to rule for civilized behavior. They’ve suffered some disappointments, as has every human on this planet. Nobody gets through life without them. Adult stepchildren are humans, just as stepmothers are. They are no more entitled to make demands on others than their stepmothers are. If they don’t feel like treating their stepmother with civility, expecting her to be generous seems like a delusional expectation. Yet it’s not uncommon for sympathies to go to the grown stepchildren and blame to go to the stepmother when demands aren’t met.
The “alone time” request, in a peaceful family, could be completely understandable. However, when a family is at war, that request could easily be seen as an aggressive move to shove the stepmother out and yet another act of exclusion. A stepmother whose patience has been depleted, who is suspicious of her stepchildren’s intentions, whose eagerness to win them over is gone, might not care to meet any of her grown stepchildren’s demands, including that she share her husband.
It seems as though each generation brings changes to our world, yet the stereotypical Disney portrayal of evil stepmothers remains lodged in everyone’s minds. Could that be because it remains advantageous for the majority in our world to continue blaming the unwanted newcomer? Does it bring too many uncomfortable feelings for most to even consider that grown stepchildren have some responsibilities in their own relationships? Is it just brain-numbingly easier to always blame the stepmother? Are we so sympathetic to the wounds divorced children have, that we feel we have no right to expectation polite, courteous behavior?
Parents who condone aggressive, obnoxious behavior do their children no favors. As hard as it might be for some parents to address it, it is their responsibility to teach their children how to interact with others even when they don’t feel like it. For the children who never learn these valuable traits, there will be lifetimes of consequences. And for the grown children who learn and master the skills expected in successful relationships, there will be rewards… like alone time with dad.