Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Adult Children and Stepmothers: Cinderella 2.0?

No one is as valued as a good mother: she is the most important person in setting us on a course for a happy life. And we have high expectations of mothers, who are supposed to love us unconditionally and to put their children first. As adults, though, we need to rebalance the equation so that Mother understands that the relationship is now reciprocal, and that is not always an automatic process. It can take a conscious effort to make this shift.

In observance of Mother’s Day, when we stop to acknowledge and celebrate our mothers, I am addressing a question that comes up quite often in women’s lives: the later-in-life stepmother. What happens when an older father, divorced or widowed, remarries, and how can you handle it? As this question reveals, these relationships are not always easy—for anybody.

Dear Dr. Ford:

Two years ago my mother died of cancer at the age of 75. My parents had been married for 51 years; my father, then 78, was devastated. My brother and I did our best to look out for him, but he insisted on staying in the house they had owned in the Northeast, and neither of us lives nearby. He seemed despondent for a while, and, like many men, he had always allowed my mother to handle social arrangements, so he wasn’t getting out much, despite his neighbors’ best efforts.

We were both very pleased when he started dating a woman in her late sixties whom he met at a dinner party. It was a good sign, we thought, that he had a renewed interest in women, in spite of his deep love for my mother and his advancing age.

Now, however, my brother and I are not so pleased. After a very brief courtship, he asked the woman, Rita, a divorcée with three adult children, to marry him. She moved into his house, but soon decided she didn’t feel comfortable in my mother’s “space.” The house they bought instead is larger and in a very fancy neighborhood. My father, a retired CEO of a small company, is wealthy, but had always lived modestly. Now they are putting in a pool (he does not swim, but Rita’s grandchildren want one) and have bought a very expensive car.

While I am worried about my father’s dwindling resources, I am honestly much more concerned about the nature of their relationship. He seems entirely dependent on her, and she takes advantage of that fact by being demanding and controlling. Everything is done her way, and, in my opinion, she intimidates him.

Worst of all, she is putting a wedge between my father and me. She seems jealous of any attention he pays me, and he won’t pick up my calls when I phone, opting to call back when he is out of Rita’s company. That is increasingly rare. Last time I visited, I asked if he and I could go to lunch alone so I could ask his advice about an important personal matter and he said he couldn’t because it would “hurt Rita’s feelings.”

I was upset and hurt myself by this, but also concerned. I know my father loves his children, and I feel as if his wife is keeping him from one of the most important things in his life. In a few months I am going to have a baby, and when I suggested that they visit when I get home with her, Rita said they’d have to see because they are planning a long trip soon.

Is there anything I can do to improve this situation? My brother is very busy and less affected by this, since Rita doesn’t seem to feel as competitive with him. Am I overreacting, or is this a problem that other people have too?


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  • Holly May 11, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Great post on a tough subject. Thanks. Holly