Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer “radical empathy” and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
Today the hosts think about relationships between step-parents and adult children. A woman writes that despite being an adult, she is still coming to terms with her parents’ divorce many years later. And talking about it with her mother and stepfather isn’t helping things.
I’m a woman in my late 20s, and recently became a “stepchild.” My parents divorced when I was 19. After returning home from my first year of college, I discovered my dad was having an affair; I had front row seats to their implosion. Within the next few years he had developed an addiction, disowned me and my siblings, and disappeared from my life. My mother was devastated, and my siblings and I were left to pick up the pieces.
Several years later, she was dating. It moved fast. Like, from meeting online to married in under a year. He seems to be a kind man and is good to my mom. She seems genuinely happy, and I am thankful for that.
But, I cannot stand him. He tries so hard with me and my siblings. It irritates me, and then I feel childish for being irritated. Every conversation is about how much he loves my mom and cherishes her. How he has this “unconditional love for me.” And I am like, “Dude, slow down. Do you have any hobbies? What is your favorite color?” It feels fake, forced and frustrating. When he talks, I have to resist the urge to make retching noises. I think he has the best of intentions, but it is way too much.
Even more than the emotional overstepping, his very existence is the reminder to me of so many griefs in my life: my parents’ divorce, my father’s abandonment, the fact that my family will never be what it once was.
I have tried to talk to my mom about my fears and sadness, and she responds one of two ways: 1) ignoring my feelings and moving on; or 2) crashing into guilt and tears about how she is a “terrible mother.” Then I end up comforting her and feeling guilt-ridden for sharing how I feel. I feel like I’m losing the only parent I have left.
What do I do with this pain? My mom can’t hear it. She doesn’t want to hear it. She can’t manage her own guilt, and then I’m left alone in my grief. I know it’s not his fault. But I had no choice in any of this, and the place I once called home no longer exists. And he is there painting a fairy tale when I have come from a nightmare. I don’t buy it, and I can’t stand it.
Steve Almond: This is such a powerfully self-aware person. Here’s the deal: You didn’t have a chance to grieve the loss of your family. And your mom, in her quest for happiness and stability, found somebody else. Your stepfather is painfully aware of your mom’s past and that she was betrayed and hurt and so were you, so he’s overdoing it. And you also feel that your mom has abandoned you. It’s not just your dad who blew up the family; it’s your mom not being able to deal with the fact that you’re not over it, and you need to feel more grief and feel that you’re not alone in it. You have to find a way to tell your mom, “You have to be my mom.”
Cheryl Strayed: Step-Whatever, I don’t think that you really need to process this with your mother and stepfather. I think the person you need to heal is yourself. You say you’re in your late 20s and the divorce was when you were 19. So it sounds like you’ve gone the better part of a decade having to adjust to this new family structure. And it’s full of sorrow, it’s full of pain and anguish, and now that your mom has moved on and found happiness more quickly than you’d like with a man who doesn’t behave exactly the way you prefer, it’s brought all of that sorrow and loss front and center for you.
The answer isn’t that your mom says, “OK, because it causes you pain that I married to this super sweet guy, I’m going to leave him.” I get that you would want to adjust his behavior, but I don’t really think that’s the problem.
I relate to this so much, because my mom died when I was 22. My stepfather, who I loved like a father, pretty quickly got involved with another woman. Suddenly there was another woman sleeping in my mother’s bed, which was very difficult. Their relationship brought up my profound loss, and the truth was that my family would never be the same again. What’s causing you to suffer is your sorrow and your righteous grief. You wanted your parents to stay married to each other. You wanted the life of your childhood to continue into your adulthood, and it hasn’t, and that is really painful. But you do have to find a way to accept it.
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear how a woman is trying to overcome anger at her stepmother.
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