Step mom angst
February 27, 2015 3:35 PM   Subscribe

I feel like the worst stepmom in the world. I feel like I'm disengaging from my stepson...

For the past five years I have been a stepmom to a pretty amazing 8 year old kid. He is very much like his father/my husband, and therefore very easy for me to love. I am very thankful to have him in my life, especially since I am unable to have kids myself. I do love him very much and he loves me too assuming the impromptu hugs and declarations of “I love you” mean anything. (I actually don’t doubt that he loves me, I know that he does. )

We have 50/50 shared custody with his biological mother which is very trying at times and causes me a lot of stress. I worry a LOT about what goes on when he is with her. Nothing criminal or abusive, just not at all choices I would make. She feeds him extremely unhealthy food (at least half of his meals with her are fast food), she is completely disengaged from his schoolwork (the weeks he is with her his homework is often left unfinished because she doesn’t check to see if he has any), she doesn’t encourage any sort of physical activity, she bought him a tv for his bedroom and lets him watch (what I feel to be) age inappropriate tv all weekend long while she and her new husband go do something else in another room…. Basically disengaged lazy parenting. In her defense I do know she has a lot going on in her life and she had a pretty rough upbringing. And I do know she loves him very much and would never do anything that she feels would be detrimental to him, so this is probably what she considers to be normal, healthy parenting. I don’t consider it to be healthy parenting, but I am in no position to ever criticize how she wishes to raise her child. The only thing I have any amount of control over is the life he has while he is with us, and it is pretty obvious I overcompensate. I make sure his time with us is very engaged, very family oriented, very healthy food oriented (while still being delicious), very physically active, and very loving and affectionate. This isn’t about trying to one-up her, but rather just my trying to make sure he is exposed to a more healthy, loving, family oriented lifestyle.

I get a lot of comments from people about how I am such an engaged step parent, people commenting on how lucky he is to have me in his life, how I make being a step parent look easy, etc. Even his biological mother has remarked several times how she feels her son is very lucky to have me for a stepmom (and this is a woman who has nothing good to say about anyone). I feel like a horrible person and I feel like a sham because lately I have been finding myself much more interested in spending time by myself instead of engaging with him. I suggest a lot of “father/son” activities so that I can carve out some time alone, and I intentionally schedule things (like yoga class or dinners out with my friends) that will get me out of the house when we have him. I am still doing things with him, I am still engaging with him. He and I play together and he and I read together every night, but it isn’t as effortless as it was. I can’t quite pin down the emotion. Maybe it is just that it feels more like WORK. I feel very guilty and embarrassed over this and for once I can see how his biological mother’s version of parenting would be appealing. It would be so much easier to just buy him a television for his bedroom and let him spend all his time in there without any sort of time limit or boundary. It would be so much easier to just get some drive-thru for supper instead of making healthy delicious meals. It would be so much easier and so much less stressful. Our week with him start tomorrow and I am already thinking longingly of following weekend when it will be just me and my husband again. I hate myself for even thinking these things. And I am ashamed over the fact that I enjoy the weeks without him more than I enjoy the weeks with him. I am pretty sure my husband has noticed and that makes me feel even worse. My husband is a wonderful father, very engaged and loving, and I feel like I haven’t been pulling my weight as a parent. Worse yet, I don’t want my husband to think that I don’t love my step son because I absolutely do love him, very much. He is wonderful kid and I sincerely feel very thankful to have him in my life, which is why I am feeling so awful and confused over this.

For what it’s worth, I do miss him on the weeks when we don’t have him and think about him a lot. It is confusing to me that I spend a week missing him and then want to run and hide when we get him back. What the hell is up with that?!

How do I manage this? How do I stop placing so much more value on my time alone with my husband and more value on my time with my kid? Am I the worst step parent ever for having these feelings? Please help me either come to terms with how I'm feeling, or help me stop feeling this way and reengage fully with him because really, that kid deserves me to be the best parent I can be.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a (step-)parent, so I don't have much advice on managing these feelings. But I want to say one thing:

Bad (step-)parents don't worry about stuff like this. They don't examine their feelings and behaviors towards their children, and they don't fret about how to manage these things. I know you feel like a lousy step-mom right now, but trust me: if you were truly a bad step-mom, you wouldn't have posted this question and I wouldn't be commenting on it. Chin up!
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:40 PM on February 27, 2015 [29 favorites]

The thing that is noticeably missing from your question is your husband's parenting style. You say that you've suggested father/son activities, but is this because Dad isn't involved otherwise, and you are basically a single parent when you have stepson?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:43 PM on February 27, 2015 [9 favorites]

I feel very guilty and embarrassed over this

I can't tell you how often I hear this from my friends who are parents. And they are biological parents. With kids they planned to have.

Parenting is exhausting. You are allowed not to love it 100% of the time.

+1 on wondering about the dad's role in this.
posted by Neekee at 3:48 PM on February 27, 2015 [22 favorites]

Parenting is hard work, and I think all parents wish for alone time, at least occasionally.

I suspect that your overcompensating is leading to burnout. It may be worth thinking about what a more sustainable form of parenting/coparenting would look like. There's a lot of options between "overcompensating"/"very engaged" and "totally disengaged," and you can likely pull back a bit without having to pull back all the way.

If you have any already-identified perfectionist tendencies, it may also be worth thinking about how you've dealt with them successfully in the past, and whether those coping mechanisms might help you in this situation, too.
posted by jaguar at 3:58 PM on February 27, 2015 [17 favorites]

I absolutely feel like this about the kids I gave birth to. I miss them like hell after 10 minutes apart but 10 minutes after I get back I just want an hour to myself. :-)

But for some reason no one talks about this. I think it's because parenting is both intense and boring at exactly the same time and so your brain makes you want to do something else almost immediately. At any rate, congrats - you're normal! (And you sound like a great stepmom!)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 4:01 PM on February 27, 2015 [27 favorites]

Seriously, what you describe as "now" is how I hear most parents describing their lives in general. Maybe five years is long enough that the honeymoon period has worn off, and now stuff that was exciting and new about parenting has lost its shine and feels like work. I think that's okay, as long as you are committed to still doing the work, despite how you feel.

The only other thing I can think of that might explain it is if something about your stepson has changed recently. Is he harder work than he used to be? Is he starting to hit puberty? (Seems a little young, but kids these days...). Also if he is starting to act more like a man than a child in some ways, this might be unconsciously triggering different responses in you, i.e. the mothering instinct might not be coming as easily.
posted by lollusc at 4:02 PM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

8 is totally a developmentally appropriate age to start detaching a little bit- he should be able to do things on his own (playing while you do something near him, you both reading etc), or him having playdates, and you should be able to leave him with his dad to do things with him, and not feel so bad about it. It is totally ok to crave time alone. When my girls were little and they both lived with me, I lived for my kid free weekends- my standing joke was they were the best part of divorce. It's hard to always be "on" and I think that as children move from being preschool aged to school aged their needs become much more emotionally based as opposed to the more physical base of parenting preschoolers (the feeding, and the cleaning, and the running around).

Does he have friends at your house who you could invite over? Or plan a playdate for him somewhere? Can you make plans that take into consideration the fact that he is older- going to an art museum instead of a kid based thing?
posted by momochan at 4:02 PM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Is there any chance that part of the shift from "effortless" to "work" might be in part coming from him?

Maybe there's a shift in his needs or personality that might make him less receptive to things he was happy with in the past. At 8, I still wanted engagement, but I was also wanting more time alone with my books.
posted by bunderful at 4:07 PM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not so much on his parenting style, but has anything changed with your relationship with your husband? Like, did one of you get an increase in work responsibilities, or a longer commute, or something else added to your plate that is reducing either the quantity or quality of the intimate time the two of you spend together in couple world? Or is there anything in your relationship with your husband that is contributing to an imbalance in caretaking or stress in the relationship? Illness, or perhaps family crises on his side, or even something like now you have to do all the dishes because he threw out his back?

I ask because in my experience sometimes when I'm frustrated with one person in my life, it can sometimes start to bleed out to other people who maybe remind me of them or serve a similar role in my life. And I thought maybe that is the case for you, too, especially when I saw this sentence: He is very much like his father/my husband, and therefore very easy for me to love. The good news is that usually I can tell when it's happening and use some CBT techniques to reframe the situation.

And you know, what do I know--it also just kind of sounds like maybe you need a spa day or a vacation! I think probably all parents, as said above, feel this way to some extent or another. What shines through loud and clear in your post is the depth of your love and warmth towards your son. I don't think you need to worry for one minute about being a bad stepmom, but I do think that working on identifying where the feelings are coming from and how to address the root causes will bring you some comfort.
posted by stellaluna at 4:08 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

It would be so much easier to just get some drive-thru for supper instead of making healthy delicious meals.

I hear you that you're trying to balance out the less-engaged parenting from his mother, but it sounds like you're putting so much pressure on yourself to be super-[step]mom that you are getting really burned out. Sure, healthy food is good, but going through the drive through (or ordering reasonably healthy takeout, or eating ice cream for dinner) is fine to do sometimes! Yeah, it's not great to have an 8-yr old watch age-inappropriate TV all weekend, but if you need some time to chill it's 100% fine to let him watch a movie or two / play a computer game / entertain himself. I bet that if you are able to relax your standards a little, the weeks he spends with you won't be so draining (in terms of energy) and you'll start to enjoy them more.
posted by insectosaurus at 4:37 PM on February 27, 2015 [16 favorites]

I'd agree with the other posters that it does sound like you're overcompensating, putting so much energy into being the "right" kind of step-parent that your time together can become a bit of a chore. It sounds like you're defining your parenting in stark opposition to his birth mom, instead of being the kind of step-parent that comes naturally to you. If anything, letting the kid off the leash a little bit will probably make your way of doing things seem less constraining and more attractive. Relax and try to have some goofy fun with the kid.

(I say this as a person who has no kids, but I was a child of divorce so at least I may have some clue about how your step-kid is feeling.)

It is confusing to me that I spend a week missing him and then want to run and hide when we get him back. What the hell is up with that?!

I think it was Wil Wheaton who said that whichever side of a door a cat is on, it's the wrong side. People can be a lot like that too, especially regarding the stuff that really matters. It's hardly rare to love your kid so much it hurts at the same time that you kind of want the kid to go away and give you your damn life back.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:47 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think you are looking at this all wrong. From what you described:
1. You encourage lots of father/son time (you realize that evil stepmothers do the opposite, right?).
2. You schedule things that are beneficial to your mental health to give yourself a break.
3. You let the poor boy have some alone time - god forbid he has to entertain himself!
4. You still do quality activities, like reading together, providing healthy food, encouraging good behaviors, homework.
5. You worry about him, because you love him.

Please don't think that in order to be a good parent, you have to be a helicopter parent. It sounds like you are doing great. Now relax before you freak everyone out.
posted by Toddles at 5:03 PM on February 27, 2015 [16 favorites]

Eight year old boy = Be silly whenever you can. Parody media he gets exposed to. Parody life. He will get it and you can curate for him. Be absurd and you will get better results when you need to be serious. Ask him where his off button is and enjoy the aftermath as he thinks that you might be able to turn him off.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:06 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

He's 8. He's beginning to detach a little from you, too, and from his mother and father. It's pretty normal. They have their own lives. I agree that he deserves to have some alone time or some time hanging with friends.

You don't have to be his buddy. And as I say to the parents of my students, if you spend all your time on nurturing, you are being a bad model to your children. Children should see that life does not end when you have kids. They should want to grow up and have as much fun as you are having.

Yeah, be there for him. But go ahead and have a life.

I started grad school and wrote a novel when my daughter was that age. I absolutely adored her, but being her constant companion was not my job.
posted by Peach at 6:07 PM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's hard to uphold a higher standard without acting judgmental, but that's what's called for here. First you have to acknowledge that some fast food, while not ideal, won't kill him. Making any sort of judgmental statement to your son is asking him to choose between you and his other Mom. He will be upset and confused. Over compensating for a perceived lack of discipline elsewhere is problematic- it will only make you look like Attila the Hun. If you set reasonable limits and stick to them, your son can adjust to two different parenting styles, as long as you're consistent and clear, so he knows what to expect and can feel secure within his limits. And of course he will test those limits, and you must reassure him by letting him know when he has crossed the line, and establish predictable consequences for doing so. Make sure you and your husband have talked about and agreed on the rules, and do not let your son play one of you against the other. There will be powerful temptation for him to do this, with the other parenting style going on. You two must support each other.
posted by halhurst at 6:24 PM on February 27, 2015

You are an awesome parent. Later this year, my biological daughter is spending eleven days out of state with my parents and I'm so freaking thrilled about it. Parenting is hard, and it's kind of an unspoken given that time away from the child(ren) is the best thing ever. So, even though he's your stepson, welcome to parenthood, mama! He's your boy, too, and that's why you're feeling this way. This is what parenting feels like. It feels hard because it is hard, and you're absolutely, totally, pulling your share. You wouldn't be having these feelings if you weren't being the best parent you can be.
posted by Ruki at 7:09 PM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

My son is 9, and this is totally normal. I struggle to give him enough time with me but also enough time to myself. And his dad is very engaged! But kids are bottomless need-wells, at least up to a point, and so you can very easily feel that whatever you do is never enough.

And it's not! That's the hell of it. The best parenting in the world won't protect them from hurt, or guarantee success in life. It will help, but the older they get, the less any of it is in your hands.

So find a spot on the Perfect/Horrible Mom Continuum you can live with. With my kid, he's pretty good as long as certain shared times/rituals are upheld. He likes order and consistency, so always doing X with Mom is a thing for him. Within that boundary, some weeks he sees me more, some less.

Also know: you will fuck up. You will piss him off, or let him down, or just fail at Mom-ing, now and then. Apologize when you should, try not to get to torn up about it, keep going and try again. Sometimes it won't be your fault; he'll just be in a bad place and you can't help him till he's done being angry or sad. Sometimes it will actually be your fault, and that's when you apologize.

And all of this is ok. You love him. You'd pull him away from danger, you'd feed him if he was hungry, you'd buy him a coat if he was cold, you'd hug him if he was lonely. Yes? You care. You're a good mom. You're not THE BEST MOM ever. You're not good enough to make up for all the things his birth mom doesn't do, either. No one can be those things.

So treat it like any other relationship, and think about your boundaries. What minimum time does he need from you, specifically? What are your rituals and habits together? Make sure you keep honoring those. The rest is more flexible. Give him hugs when you go by and he's reading or watching TV or on his computer. Give him his coat when he goes outside. Nag him about brushing his teeth. Praise his good grades. All of these are about love, too.
posted by emjaybee at 7:10 PM on February 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

What is your time like when he's not at your house? Do you make healthy delicious meals and do you and your husband always do these engaged family oriented things? If not, it's probably hard - if not impossible - to shift into this "performance" mode when the boy does come over. He may sense that it might not be as authentic a home as you and your husband have when he's with his mom, and feel like he's intruding or interrupting.

I have step-parents on both sides and was raised primarily with a step-dad. He was a good step-dad for the specific needs we had. He wasn't intrusive but was supportive and available. On the other hand, my brothers (his sons) did not have a great step-mom on my mother. The relationship was strained from the beginning for reasons too complicated to explore on my phone tonight, but one thing she experienced was a great frustration at their mother's parenting style, which sounds like how you've described the boy's mother's here. My mom tried to keep things up like you do, but the inconsistent environments resulted in done behavioral things and she didn't always respond well. Basically she acted out the disengagement.

The good news is you're aware of it and the even better news is you don't have to reinvent the wheel. I suggest done counseling with someone who specializes in blended families and even co-parenting classes for your husband and his ex do their child can benefit from consistent environments.
posted by mibo at 8:34 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I feel like a horrible person and I feel like a sham because lately I have been finding myself much more interested in spending time by myself instead of engaging with him.

Welcome to parenthood! We all feel exactly the same way.

May I recommend the excellent book "All Joy and No Fun", along with relevant Metafilter discussions here and here, which discuss exactly this issue.
posted by math at 9:07 PM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am still doing things with him, I am still engaging with him. He and I play together and he and I read together every night, but it isn’t as effortless as it was. I can’t quite pin down the emotion. Maybe it is just that it feels more like WORK.

It sounds to me like you've made the transition from "I am your new parent and I want to be uber-parent" to "I am your parent." (I say this as someone with both a stepmother and a stepfather; there is zero nada zip zilch judgement in that statement).

Basically--and I'm speaking from the kid-with-stepparents perspective here--step-parenting is kinda like dating. There's this fun new time where you're new, and yeah you're invested, and at the same time you're on best behaviour. That it took five years to hit "oh, now I'm a parent" speaks volumes, positive ones, about you as a person.

Every parent has times when they just DGAF and want anything except to be around the demanding snot-factories. This is normal as all hell. What is super-encouraging is that you don't want to be that person! You want to be there for this kid.

One solution is to talk with bio-dad and figure out a schedule for when Awesome Kid is with you two. Carve out some time for each of you to be alone and do your things and be your own people. This isn't just good for you, it's good for the kid too--each of you is going to bring different things in a 1:1 situation that are going to teach him how to be a great human being.

Because, seriously, I have no doubts he's going to be a great human being. He's got at least one person around him who gives a damn--if you didn't, you wouldn't be asking this question. What you're experiencing, I think, is the impostor syndrome that all parents experience. And you want to do better. Sure, it's going to take work, and you're not always going to want to... maybe a useful way to think about this is that it is a relationship. Not in the romantic sense, obviously, but I'm sure there are times with your partner where it feels like work, or you just want to go do something else, need alone time, whatever. Relationship with a kid is no different, largely; the only real difference is that in this relationship the boundaries you set are not with him, they're with the other caregivers.

Negotiate with them so that you can all find the time you need to be the best people you can be.

Seriously, I wish I could sit down with you and give you a round of applause just for asking this question. What it shows is that you want to be there for him, and that is a huge thing for a kid. Huge.

I feel like in any situation when someone asks about being disengaged and they don't want to be, they're already showing how very much they want to be engaged. It's 'just' doubt that's holding you back here; figure out your boundaries: your absolute no ways, your absolute yes pleases, and the areas that are negotiable. Maybe you need every Tuesday to be yoga class and dinner with friends, and every Thursday is Playdate Night With Awesome Kid. Maybe you need Saturday mornings to sleep in, and Sundays can be Adventure Days. Kids respond well to structure. Enlist your partner, work with them, and the two of you can absolutely figure out a balance that lets both of you have adult time while still being engaged with Awesome Kid.

Honestly, I'm kinda tearing up a bit, because this kind of "how do I better" is something I would have cheerfully shanked someone for to get from either of my stepparents. You're already doing it right, the only thing you need to do is negotiate some time for yourself. And, I'm just some whoever on the interwebs but maybe this is what you're looking for: you hereby have absolute permission to still live your individual life and do your individual things and at the same time be a loving and engaging parent. Modeling behaviour is maybe the most important thing to do for kids, and that very much includes modeling how to live your own life while giving to others.

You're doing a great job. And you can keep doing that great job while having your time for yourself.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:08 PM on February 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

It sounds like you're doing a great job. But what is your husband doing? It sounds like you're having to do everything - even encouraging him to spend time with his own son. Also, what is he doing to support the co-parenting with his ex wife? Is he doing half the management of school, activities and childcare or is she having to do all that too? Has he made sure she is in a decent financial position so that she can splurge for healthier food, including healthier premade food? Is your husband helping with school work and school meetings?

It sounds to me as though you are doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Maybe it's just the way you wrote it. But it sounds like maybe you could be doing less and your husband could be doing more. And it is possible that might change things for the boy at his other home too.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 1:04 AM on February 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Whoa, if I were as engaged a parent as you, I'd be burned out! (Credentials: Mom of a one year old and a four year old).
My evil perfect coworker once airily said, "I don't believe in making a big fuss about kids, children should just be part of the life you have already." And granted, she is evil and almost certainly lying (unless her pre-kids life involved baking birthday cakes at one am, sucker!) But I still use her statement as a measure of how well I'm meshing my own life with that of my kids to a family life.

So I guess what I'm saying is, don't make weekends about him. Make him part of your weekends. Because that's what being a family is; a collective experience.

I don't know what that means to you. Maybe curling up and reading a book while he watches a good dvd? Maybe going to the supermarket and having him pick the yoghurts? It's okay if your weekend is not in any way special, educational or Fun!!!, family is about the comfort of everyday life. And that includes you-time.

Also, let go of the need to organise the weekends. Let your husband decide what he wants to do with the kid.

And finally, let go of the sweet public approval. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but you've built up a public image of yourself as super-stepmom, (she's amazing and perfect, even bio-mom approves!). And that must be a stressor because God forbid you start slacking off, who would you be then in people's eyes?

And then maybe there will be more special things you'll want to do with the kid, and you will do them when you really want to.

(My favourite of my dad's girlfriends was an unremarkable lady. But she was nice and really good at listening to me chatter. I felt accepted and liked. That was all it took, for me, to remember her forever.)
posted by Omnomnom at 2:18 AM on February 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

To expand on the public approval bit: don't buy into it. You're not super-stepmom. You're an ordinary person who has needs and wants to be lazy. You have a big heart, loads of love and make a big effort, yes. But you are also allowed to be a little selfish, a little not-loving-enough, a little thoughtless, a little not-looking out for his best interests all the time. Accept that this is part of you. Be gracious accepting everyone's compliments (they want you to feel good!) but don't buy into how supermom IS you.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:27 AM on February 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just wanted to chime in that it sounds like you're giving 150%. You're a giver! And maybe you've reached a sort of tipping point or burn out. I was in a relationship for a while with two wonderful kids and I got burnt out myself, through no fault of the kids themselves. The reason why is that I ended up putting my needs last at all times, partly out of a sense of fairness--kids should come first. But also, the dynamic with my ex enabled my excessive desire to give. Suffice it to say he rarely considered my needs without a struggle, something that was not in my nature to struggle for, and that was one thing that led to our breakup.

For the super stepmom who doesn't have her own kids (this is you, btw), it is really the role of the unsung hero. You're expected to (and as a giver you want to) give a lot and oftentimes unless you're very vocal and insistent about your own needs they get relegated to the last rung. It is really easy for that to happen with givers because it is not in their nature to insist on their needs. I'm guessing you've reached the point where you NEED to look out for your needs (ie: alone time) or you will burn out. Realize this: you can't be a super stepmom unless you DO take care of your own needs because, trust me, they will rear their heads in some way and what's happening now--proactively taking your alone time--is the best way for this to happen.

Is it possible your husband is letting you be too much of the giver and you're just naturally trying to balance this out? That happened in my relationship. "Oh, hey, you want to do the dishes? Sure!" turned into leaving dishes at all times knowing that I'd end up doing them anyway. (What made matters worse is that dad didn't think the kids should have to do chores, but that's another story)

I also found myself relishing time spent alone when my bf would go somewhere with the kids, or my weeks off. This is totally normal whether or not you have a supportive SO. I think if you relax a bit in knowing that you are being a super stepmom (and that your stepson probably wants alone time with his dad anyway) you'll be fine, as will your stepson. Also, as he gets older more and more you'll find you both can do your own thing in the same room and that's fine, too. I enjoyed working on my own thing while my ex bf's 10 yr old daughter did her homework or played alone in her room, which more and more she preferred because she was moving into tweenhood.

ETA: this might be a great resource for you: Stepmom Magazine
posted by lillian.elmtree at 4:47 AM on February 28, 2015

Oh hell to the yeah, do I get you. I've got three biological kids that I singlehandedly raised and it's exhausting to do well. Mind-numbingly, bone-wearying exhausting. I know how that goes.

Way back in the day when my kids would spend weekends with their dad, all I could manage to do was lie on the couch while I missed them like crazy. I could rarely rouse myself to do anything but watch tv and run a few errands because I needed to recharge.

I think you've got a few things going on. First is that you're doing all this awesome but exhausting stuff because his own mother isn't. I'm sure there's some resentment on your part. The things you're doing are really wonderful and clearly you're an awesomesauce adult in his life, but maybe if his mother stepped up, you wouldn't have to work so damned hard, right?

I think the other critical element is you're misinterpreting that completely normal feeling of high-level-excellent-parenting-exhaustion with not loving the kid. It's completely normal to be exhausted by kids and to be psyched as hell when they leave.

Here's my pep talk: You're doing remarkable work with the kid and getting out and doing yoga and other things for yourself while he's there...that's great!! But the thing is, kids ARE a lot of work to raise well. It's tiring. It takes a lot of your energy. Sometimes parents want to hide and put on the TV and get Chipotle* for dinner and not go to the damned Science Museum once again or for a hike. But we hike and cook and kayak and play board games because it's better for the kid. SO many times it's not what WE want to do. But...ya gotta do it. That's the crappy secret about parenting. Sometimes you just gotta buckle down and BE A PARENT. And I think that you ARE doing that and what you're feeling is completely normal exhaustion.

On behalf of all kids, I'd say, please keep doing what you're doing. You're a beacon in this kid's life.

*There's NOTHING wrong with getting fast food every now and then. Also, you can all start binge watching Sherlock or something. A little fast food and a little TV time, it's fine. I give you permission; please give yourself the same permission.
posted by kinetic at 5:26 AM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do you ever listen to podcasts? I think you might enjoy one called "One Bad Mother." It's kind of the perfect antidote for a parent who's being too hard on herself. I think you might find listening to it to be hilarious and cathartic.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:32 AM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Congrats, you're a mother.

When you become a mother you realize a few things:

1) the idealized "mom" standard is an inhuman and impossible standard to meet

2) judging other "bad" moms jinxed you, because inevitably when you're actually a mom you will do at least one "bad" mom thing, or at least desperately want to

3) parenting is WORK. Women do a ton of unpaid, uncompensated WORK. Fun is often more fun than work! Women aren't bad for wanting to have fun instead of wanting to do work!

4) despite 1-3, you love the kid and miss them when they're gone--when they're gone, you miss them, but when they're there, you want alone time! What even is that!

I'm also kinda waiting for you to discover this one?

5) the fact that you're a woman doesn't make you more responsible for childcare than equally situated men
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:46 AM on February 28, 2015 [7 favorites]

You're definitely normal and I agree that bad parents and step-parents don't often think about things like this. There's a lot of good information here but I wanted to say two things having pretty much finished parenting now.

The first is that great parents are not always great at every age group. You stick me with 6-10 year olds and it will be amazing. I'm useless for infants or toddlers. My mom was great until I hit puberty and didn't have any clue after that. My wife was great for teenagers. So while you might feel like you're failing, you're probably just being slightly less awesome. You're also on a huge cusp in his development. He's going to start really surprising you soon with his changes and my guess is you'll re-engage because you'll see all these new things you can share.

The second thing is that no matter how good of a parent you are, the whole experience often feels like a string of failures and shortcomings. Even if you're giving 100%, you'll wish your 100% was bigger and better.

You sound like a wonderful person to be in a child's life. What you're experiencing is the normal ebb and flow. Although you've been doing it for 5 years, you're still a young parent in some ways. There is more of a qualitative difference than quantitative between 5 years of parenting and 15 years. Navigating all this takes time. If your step son was experiencing a difficult transition, you wouldn't beat him down, so don't do it to yourself either.
posted by milarepa at 6:23 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

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