Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week she counsels a woman whose adult stepchildren are so ill mannered that their visits leave her exhausted and resentful.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am exhausted from entertaining summer visitors. I never seem to know how to say no. I have been married to my husband for six years, and it is mostly a good marriage. I was a widow and came into this marriage with a lovely small three-bedroom cottage on the water in the Northeast. My husband’s children and their children camped out this year for two entire weeks, for a total of four weeks over the summer. Neither of his children (both in their 40s) lifted a finger. I did the three meals a day, included them in activities that we had been invited to (had to ask three different friends if that was okay), baby-sat multiple times so that they could have adult time, and got not even a thank-you note from either his son or his daughter.
My husband really looks forward to time with his children and their families, and I feel a bit ashamed at carping about this four weeks out of our twelve-week summer holiday. But it really affected me a lot this summer. I am in my late sixties and I don’t have the energy I once had, if the truth be told. I make the big effort every day to look good, do some exercise and enjoy time with friends and my husband. This year I began to dread the summer weeks before my stepchildren and their families arrived, and I’m still annoyed now that they have gone. My daughter and her child come twice a summer for four days, but she pitches in to make the time we spend together very collegial and not stressful.
I don’t know how to discuss this with my husband. He knows I am put out, but he has not made any conversational overtures regarding this issue. Honestly, this is the biggest thorn in our relationship, and I wish I could just get over it. Do you have any family therapy advice? Advice about how to talk to my husband? I don’t want this increasingly burdensome annual ritual to affect my otherwise pleasant relationship with my husband’s children.
Dr. Ford Responds:
Wow, did these “children” get a sweet deal when their dad married you: two weeks’ free vacation by the water in a full-service hotel with all meals and free babysitting! No wonder they come back every year! Despite the fact that they are family, their behavior resembles freeloading much more than “visiting.”
Many adult children continue to behave around their parents the way they did when they were young. If it was the pattern in this family for the parents to do everything for the kids, this may be contributing to their behavior, as well as your husband’s tolerance of it. That does not, however, make the situation any less appalling or unacceptable. Adult children in their 40s should have progressed beyond such selfishness, particularly when staying with a step-parent. I’m surprised that the son-in-law or daughter-in-law do not behave better, but perhaps they, too, recognize that this is the way it works in the family.
As you yourself have said, it cannot continue. Your precious vacation time should not be something you dread.
You need to confront your husband as soon as possible, while the memories of this summer’s debacle are still fresh in his mind. Point out to him, gently, that you respect his need to see his children, but the way it is working out now is leaving you overwhelmed. The family therapy point of view is always to present your feelings: Rather than saying, “You do this,” you say, “I feel like this when this happens.” (Try to avoid the accusatory “you”.) Tell him that you do not want to be a person who carps at him—on the contrary, you want to be able to enjoy the visits as well. Tell him what aspects most overwhelm you—for example, they stay too long, and they seem to expect you to do everything. Ask him what he thinks might improve the situation. Perhaps he will agree to limit the visits, pitch in more and help, or hire some outside help. Better yet, maybe he can confront the kids about their expectations. If he does not come up with acceptable solutions, provide some of your own.
Approaching things from another angle, do you expect too much from yourself as a hostess? Why not let them fend for themselves for breakfast and lunch? Put out cereal and milk, bread and peanut butter. Ask them to clean up when they’re done and tell them where the grocery store is if they have an appetite for more. Though this may sound outrageous to a gracious hostess, they are family but they are acting like guests. Treat them like family—grown-up family. At dinner, suggest a rotation: a different family member cooks and cleans up each night.
Actually, some guests prefer to be left to their own devices and are uncomfortable when the hostess works hard to please them. They feel they can’t say it, but the hostess’s efforts make them feel as if they are an imposition. Though this may not be the case with you and your stepchildren, I have definitely heard of hosts who whip themselves into a frenzy trying to please the guests, leaving them feeling guilty (and overfed).
There’s no denying the truth in the old adage “Guests are like fish: after three days, they start to stink.” If your stepchildren and their kids are going to stay for an extended time, they will have to learn to behave like real family—considerate, thoughtful family members. Likewise, you and your husband will need to treat them as grown-up people who are responsible and aware of others; you both should expect them to behave with manners and respect. Come to think of it, this might not be a bad thing to teach their children, too.