Advice by Chuck and Jae

New Stepmother With Identity Crisis

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reader writes:  I’m writing for some expert advice in my new step-motherhood. I am almost 35, and avoided marriage for some time because I really enjoyed doing things on my own and wanted the freedom to pursue my career without consulting a husband. Two years ago, I rekindled a friendship from high school with my now husband. He was going through a separation with his then wife, who left their marriage of 11 years for another man. I found myself quickly head over heels in love, and moved in with him, before the divorce was final, into the home he shared with his wife and children. She had moved about a mile away so the kids wouldn’t have to change school systems.

He and his ex-wife have joint custody of two young boys, ages 4 and 9. Under their agreement, she is their primary parent, and has them about 60 percent of the time. His ex married the man she left him for just 2 weeks before our wedding, but did not inform him or the kids she was doing so.  She and that man are now divorced. As a result of her being a single parent, she has asked us to take the kids on more and more, so she can pursue her personal life. She is always respectful to me, by the way.

The bottom line is: My husband seems very clingy, always needing validation of our love in many ways. His children and I have a good relationship, but I find they are quite clingy to me as well. So much so that these three people I love often make me feel suffocated. Coupled with living in a house I did not choose just down the street from the ex-wife, I often feel like I am getting lost in their world. After all this time being independent, traveling on my own everywhere, and taking on new pursuits, I find myself in a family dynamic that crowds me out, and I’m struggling to cling to my own identity I’ve known for years. It feels as though I’m wearing many hats, but I lost my own.

I feel as though I care for the children and love them so much, but I am prevented from making any real decisions for them – even taking them to the doctor or helping to decide things for them with their mother and father. All while my husband depends on me heavily in caring for the kids on a daily basis.

It has left me wondering what an appropriate role for me should be and, just as important, what kind of role I really want to have. I don’t think my husband and I disagree on money or even how to raise the kids. And I get along with his ex just fine. This is me, having an identity crisis, and missing my old self and the freedoms I used to have, because I’m lost in their world. I’m questioning if I can have the freedoms I love and still be a wife and stepmom. 

Red flags are flying up so much lately that I’m scared I made the wrong decision in marrying him. How could a woman my age with my personality not see this coming? I truly believed I could handle it all, and I’m scared that I can’t.

Chuck and Jae reply:  Your story is an excellent example of why it’s so important to keep the heart alone from dictating the pace of a relationship’s progress. It’s obvious to us (and we’re sure it is to you) that both you and your husband needed to take more time to think things through prior to acting on your feelings for each other. Your husband and his children apparently had insufficient time to process their loss, which could explain their “clinginess” toward you. Now they are afraid of losing you as well. It’s possible that they are also unconsciously picking up on your feelings of suffocation and ambivalence, which is intensifying their fears. To further complicate matters, your husband and his ex appear to be taking advantage of your good nature by giving you the lion’s share of responsiblity for the kids. And, this responsibility is not accompanied by commensurate authority to make important decisions for the children.

Despite these handicaps in the relationship, there are some positive elements. First, you and his ex get along well and she is “always respectful” to you. We suggest you use this rapport to initiate discussions with her and your husband over how you might be able to be more clearly involved in decisions regarding the children, to include getting legal permission to participate in school and medical matters.

The second positive is that you and your husband agree on child-rearing and financial issues. These issues have historically been a source of major conflict among remarried couples. This suggests that agreement on other issues of concern to you might not be too difficult to achieve. We are especially thinking about your concerns with regard to your personal freedom and individuality. This does not have to be an either/or proposition. Think about what individual activities would help you both reclaim your personal identity and allow you to still function as an effective wife and stepmother. This might include occasional solo travel, membership in certain groups, or other types of activities. Obviously, you will need the cooperation of your husband and his ex to achieve this. Above all, don’t beat yourself up for the choices you have made up to now. It may still be possible to transform what appear to be negative choices into fulfilling positive ones. We wish you well.

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