Dealing with the Other Set of Parents

My four-year-old stepson spends almost half of his time each month with us, and the rest with his mother and stepfather. He has his own room in our home, and has toys and clothes and all the things he would have if he were here all the time. We have always talked with him about how he has two homes. However, his stepfather is telling him that he has only one home, the one he lives in with his mother and stepfather. The stepfather also expects the boy to call him daddy and tells him that my husband is his “other” daddy. The stepfather is not open to discussing these issues and has made it clear that he wants my husband out of the picture for good. How should my husband and I handle this? We want to do what is best for my stepson without adding any more confusion to his young life.We all have in our minds the idea of a “normal” family being two parents and children, without any other parents in other homes. But the reality of modern life is very different for many families. A book I recommend is “Mom’s House, Dad’s House” by Isolina Ricci. She talks about how every child needs both parents in their life, if it’s at all possible, and denying them one parent is really harming the children. Sometimes one parent has to be cut out of a child’s life because they are abusive, seriously addicted, or so seriously dysfunctional that contact with them will harm the child. But when a child has two relatively normal parents, it is best for him to have two homes, one with each parent.

The responsibility for making this work lies with the child’s parents, and secondarily with the stepparents. Why is this stepfather taking so much control? Doesn’t the child’s mother have a voice? Perhaps she could read Ricci’s book and learn about what is best for her child. Could your ex have a meeting with her, mediated if necessary, to talk about this issue?

With regard to what your son calls the two men in his life, surely there are many terms other than “daddy.” One person could be “Poppa,” for example. If the stepfather insists on using the term “Daddy” your husband could switch to being “poppa.” It wouldn’t harm his relationship with his son, as the relationship is about respect and love, not about names. And you could also have an affectionate nickname which indicates your parental role.

Here’s another step-parent who has a similar problem :

Dear Dr. Alison,

My boyfriend and I have been living together for about six months now. He has a 6 year old son and 8 year old son, and they fit in well with my own two children. We all get along great and have done many fun things together. His sons were begging us to get married so that we could really be a family in that sense. Now, their mother has been telling them horrible things about me and my boyfriend just told me last night that his sons said (in front of their mother) that they didn’t like me. I don’t know what to do about this. I know his children really do like me – they used to follow me around the house or call for me every two minutes. We play and have done SO many good things together – and now this. I am not sure what to do – how to act around them. I don’t think my boyfriend really knows how to handle this problem either. He did tell them to not listen to him (saying good things about me) or her (saying TERRIBLE things about me) – but to make up their own minds.

It sounds as if your boyfriend’s ex is blaming you for her own loss, and is also afraid of the children liking you better than her. So she is trying to poison their minds against you. The best way for you to act is to ignore the problem and treat your boyfriend’s sons the way you used to. Don’t take it personally. It isn’t personal; it isn’t really about you but about their mother. Just proceed as usual, trust your intuition and know that his children actually like you and that if they don’t have to report to their mother on how it was with you, they’ll probably have a good time. Don’t discuss it with the children yourself; it will only make them feel “caught in the middle.”

Your boyfriend did exactly the right thing. It is his place rather than yours to intervene with his sons, and suggesting they make up their own minds is exactly the right thing for him to say. He could also add that they could refuse to listen to either parent talk about the other parent or their partner – just say “I don’t want to talk about that” and walk out if either parent starts it. It may be helpful for your boyfriend to confront his ex about what she has said. He needs to tell her how harmful this is to the children, because they need to feel happy and at home in his home as well as in hers.