How to manage anxiety over stepchildren in home?
May 15, 2017 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Now that summer is coming, there will be 4 girls age 7-15 in my not-huge house for an extended period of time and I'm already freaking out about it. How do I cope with space invasion and a lack of control over the one environment I can typically control in my life?

I love my stepkids but they don't visit much as they live too far away. We have a good relationship. They miss me when they do not see me for a while. Their mother and I get along. They respect me fairly well, although as their father is more permissive in his parenting style there are clashes at times, but it is never anything too serious.

When they do visit I go through a multi-day anxiety attack with thoughts of my space being invaded, my life being disrupted, my regular one area of the house that's my safe haven disappearing, limited control over noise/stimulation/things getting broken. It is a major disruption and very stressful and I want to handle it better to shield them from my reactions because I'm sure they go through an adjustment of their own and it isn't their fault they ping pong like this.

I grew up an only child and I am an introvert. I don't handle people in my house well no matter how much I care about them. I cope by disappearing a lot and cleaning/organizing/decluttering in a very compulsive way. Four kids is overwhelming. My husband helps by trying to handle meal planning and encouraging them to clean up after themselves because he knows it is viscerally painful for me to have clutter everywhere.

I tagged this as houseguests but please do not give me grief over feeling like they are guests. When they only visit once a year, any mental shift into seeing them otherwise would be artificial. Also, I have this freakout over anyone staying in my home that doesn't live there all the time, so coping strategies are needed regardless of the person's relationship to me. I will admit that I feel less choice about these particular visits than say family friends staying in my house, so I have a stronger negative reaction. I have no choice about them being there. There's so many of them. They are great kids, but that's the one place I have peace and quiet and I can't reframe this as anything that isn't also about my peace and quiet and relative control going away.

Thanks for your ideas.
posted by crunchy potato to Human Relations (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A few ideas:

--can you go away together for all or part of that time? A vacation rental? I find being with family helps a lot when in a neutral situation
--can you go away part of the time they are there? Visit for a few days and then let your husband have some time alone with his kids?
posted by nanook at 7:23 AM on May 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

It's rough. I feel you. I have, on occasion, honest to God thought I was going to have a stroke from the stress of an extended family visit.

Do you at least have a bedroom that is, gently, off limits to them?

Two things I have found that were helpful:

1. I recently made changes to the guest room, including putting a big comfortable desk and work chair in there. Result = guest spent her numerous hours of Internet time in the room rather than in the common areas. Giant win! What I'm saying is, if there's an area that you hope they can be kind of corralled in, make it nice for them. Make it where they'd want to spend their time. Fun books? Pillows? Comfy couch? Internet?

2. I also made changes to my bedroom, ie the off limits to guest space. Now there is a comfy chair in there where I can have quiet time. I keep chargers for my laptop and devices in there so I can work/read/watch Netflix easily. I am thinking about getting a tiny fridge to have in there too during these visits, so I don't have to go out into the common areas to get a drink and snack.

3. If there are physical things you're really sensitive about, just put them away as much as possible. Like if you're going to live in constant dread that they're going to spill on your favorite area rug, or scratch your favorite pan or abuse your best knife, just put them away for the duration and use the cheap stuff. Better for everyone to have the stakes be low.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:24 AM on May 15, 2017 [20 favorites]

Since you're looking at a decade more of this, would a "she shed" help? You basically get a pre-made shed at a Homestore, paint and decorate it, add skylights and windows, run electrical to it (usually with a heavy duty extension cord) and put in a comfy chair, a desk, craft space, bookshelves, whatever you need in a "Room of your own." They're typically 3-season (not insulated for winter) but that sounds like it'd be okay for you!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:38 AM on May 15, 2017 [29 favorites]

They are all old enough to prepare breakfast and lunch for themselves - give them the tools to do so and show them how to clean up after themselves. Better for them and you.

Suppers? Have a couple take out meals a week. Paper plates, etc.

Have your husband do a movie night once a week. You get to stay home with a little peace and quiet.

They are all old enough to have a talk with - something along the lines of - "I am so excited you are here and we are going to have a great summer but sometimes I just need quiet. If I say I am going to go read a book in my room, do me a favor and try to take care of each other if you need something."
posted by beccaj at 7:39 AM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Would they be interested in day camps?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:41 AM on May 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Oh, I sympathize - I find family stays at least as stressful as non-relative houseguest stays, and for many of the same reasons.

Seconding several of the thoughts above: If you can set aside a room that is your space and not to be disturbed (and an expectation that you will spend your afternoons in there or whatever time frame of hours works for you), that might help a lot.

Other things that may help depending on your family dynamics: Can partner plan for something regular and predictable to be just dad-and-kids-special-event time, that will secretly also double as You Get Some Guaranteed Alone Time? Like, for the length of their visit, Wednesday is always dad-and-kids dinner, or they do something special every Sunday afternoon, or whatever. I find that chaos is at least easier to handle when I know absolutely for sure that if I white-knuckle it until a certain day, I will have four uninterrupted hours of quiet in my house. (Similarly, if every Thursday you vanish for several hours, even if you spend that time doing nothing more than taking a walk to a nice coffeehouse and reading peacefully, might that do you any good even though it's not quite as good as being in your own space peacefully?)

If it's a summer-long stay, would a weekly cleaner help at least keep a baseline level of non-chaos?

Do the older girls have any interest in earning a little extra pocket money, and could they earn that bonus allowance for doing a nightly house sweep of the littler kids' things and dumping them back into the appropriate bedrooms?

Can you just decide right now that it's okay to eat takeout more often than you usually would, to use paper plates, or whatever else would let you dial back on the amount of mess/fuss that can possibly come up?

Basically, while it would probably help long-term to find some ways to reframe this and get more comfortable with the yearly chaos, in the short term, you need to get through this visit relatively sane and without the kids feeling unwelcome or unwanted. It's okay to trade off whatever you need to and can afford to for that - if you can swap some time or money for something that will make this easier on everyone involved, I highly recommend doing it.
posted by Stacey at 7:43 AM on May 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

1. You set house rules when they first arrive (or beforehand if you all have digital relationships). No talking before your second cup of coffee, no interruptions if you are in your bedroom (or wherever you can get a little bit away). Talk about your quiet/separate time in the same terms you would talk about working from home. It's necessary and non-negotiable.

2. Your husband steps up his expectations. "...trying to handle meal planning and encouraging them to clean up after themselves..." is not good enough. He will 100% handle meal planning and they will 100% clean up after themselves.

3. Your husband takes them out regularly for daddy-daughters time, at predictable times for reliable periods.

4. You find other respite places outside the home. I know it is not the same, believe me. But going out walking, out for a nice drive with no radio on, even to the grocery store can be restorative. For your need for solitude if not for your need for the calm nest.

5. You plan some time off work for after they leave, when nobody is there, not even your husband.
posted by headnsouth at 7:53 AM on May 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

My husband helps by trying to handle meal planning and encouraging them to clean up after themselves because he knows it is viscerally painful for me to have clutter everywhere.

Why is your husband, the father of these four girls, "trying" to "help" you take basic care of his children? This is primarily his responsibility, not yours. He needs to take the lead on cooking, cleaning, keeping them busy and out of the house, and basically everything else that would make this a pleasant visit for these children.
posted by scantee at 7:55 AM on May 15, 2017 [98 favorites]

I know your husband has some health issues, but he needs to take them out of the house on a very frequent basis.

Is there a summer day camp you could enroll them in? Art classes? Theater?
posted by delight at 8:21 AM on May 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

What Scantee said - your husband needs to do a lot more than just "try to help" take care of the children who are his. I've seen this implode several stepfamilies - dad is either Disneyland Dad or Detached Dad, and dumps all the day-to-day childcare and family labor on Stepmom, who may not even be that close to the kids in the first place, and the resentment corrodes the marriage beyond repair.

If you were to leave and stay somewhere else, whether for a day or longer, would you come home to a disaster (dead pets, house burned down)? If not - if you can get away without coming home to absolute mayhem - then that might be what Dad needs to force his hand. Because Dad needs to step up and be a parent, no exceptions.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:03 AM on May 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

You need a space that is just your own. Even if it's your bedroom. Set up a chair/desk area in there or whatever you need. If the door is shut they knock.

Your husband needs to have a plan in place for activities to do with them at least once a week for a few hours and some evening activities a few times a week, just girls & him so you can have some alone time, even if it's just a walk to the park, a trip for ice cream. Not only will it be good for you it will be good for him & them. If worst comes to worst and your husband isn't up to taking them out do you have family or friends you can go visit for a few days? Leave them at home & go to the library or the mall or local coffee shop. Make a stop at the coffee shop part of your daily routine. My mother all my life rain or shine no matter where we lived, went to a local coffee shop for a morning coffee & to read the paper. Weekends Dad would be "in charge" during that time & get us breakfast or whatever, 45 minutes peace & strong coffee everyday got my mother through a LOT.

Noise & mess is easier to handle outside. Do you have a backyard? Go outside & play is a viable thing to tell kids. Buying a cheap inflatable pool, water pistols, water balloons let them burn off energy & mess outside. (OK maybe not the 15 year old but lets be honest she's going to be on her phone/tablet most of the time anyway).

I need quiet time & order. I will actually get anxiety attacks when I don't get them, that's why I haven't had kids. But I have had my niece & nephew staying for long stretches throughout their lives and I found it so much easier if I focused on them & not the storm around them. Try & be in the moment, when you see the mess & chaos, remind yourself you will get a time to organise it again. If you keep trying to do it at the same level of organised while they are there you are just going to add to the stress. What is the bare minimum you need to feel together? Is it your kitchen clean after every meal? Your bedroom tidy? Your lounge straightened up at the end of the day? Pick that one thing you can control & control that. When you feel overwhelmed, remind yourself "this too shall pass" in a few weeks you'll have your house back just how you want it.
posted by wwax at 9:09 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Four kids is a lot when you are not used to kids, and they shriek and leave things around and track mud around and I get it. At the same time, I really hate the idea of four kids who are also freaking out in their own ways at being removed from their familiar environment to an unfamiliar environment are going to have to be 100% clean the whole time...that might be an unrealistic thing to aim for. suggestion is to model for them how families might best handle this, which to my mind is with warmth and care for everyone in the situation, including of course, you.

So shortly after you arrive I would honestly tell them "I am so glad you are here having time with your dad and with me and that we get X weeks together. I also want you to know that if you are anxious or scared or upset we're in this together, just like we are in it together to have fun and joy." Then you could ask them if they have any worries and when they don't say anything ('cause they probably won't, although they might) you could say "I have one thing...I'm really not used to all the noise and mess of a large family! And having things out of place really upsets me. So I need some help from you all."

And then at that point, institute some rules. My view is that they should tidy up before every meal, and that there should be a "quiet hour" or two at critical times for you, like 6-7 or whatever. And then remind them "guys, I know it's a pain but I am feeling super overwhelmed with the state of the living room, could you take 5 minutes to remove all your things and put them in your room/the closet/etc.? Thank you."

You may find that they are loving and caring kids who will actually become solicitous of your quirks and home.

I have clutter issues and I have active crazy kids and I also find that having a closable bin/trunk/chest in critical areas helps, they just put their things in there and I close the lid. (Ours is actually Expedit bookcases with opaque bins on every floor, but same idea.) I also agree with removing any breakables beforehand, although with the youngest being 7 I think this won't be necessary too much longer.

I also agree that your husband should be on top of all this and should be the buffer.

And I think the idea of having a daycamp or other activities where they are out of the house and you are not, so you can recharge, is excellent, as are other ways he can remove the chaos for a few hours.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:15 AM on May 15, 2017 [7 favorites]

Can you make sure to get some retreat time before and after the visit? You don't say how long they will be there, but I find that having several days of quiet time prepares me for some chaos.

Children need rich (chaotic, unless you understand the system) environments. Maybe find ways to structure the richness so that it's contained, but still present for them. Have ritual organizing times every day - maybe even once in the morning and once in the evening - that let them quickly put stuff in place, not to keep things "clean for stepmom", but to achieve that state of ready-for-later-fun that is rewarding for everybody.

Also, you can start putting _your own_ child-safe but slightly complex stuff/decorations around to kind of move the house to a temporary "kids visiting" state that's still _your_ environment. When the visit is over, you can put that stuff away, and you'll have your house back. You'll know that the potential is there, that there's a definite state change in the future to look forward to, and that you're ultimately the one in control. This prevents the space being cluttered by only _their_ stuff so that you feel like the victim of a hostile takeover. The clutter will be yours, mainlym, but it could consist of things like storage boxes, places to sit, book cases, things that provide locations for their stuff. If they are new and interesting and specifically for them, they will probably _love_ using them!
posted by amtho at 9:17 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I remember your past questions and it seems like part of this is you and your husband getting more of a TEAM US approach to this and maybe tweaking your message about your need for some structure a little bit because of your new baby. So things that you might want for you can also just be things that the household needs because of the baby -- a little bit of structure, some quiet times, some bedtime/mealtime structure, that sort of thing.

It might help to get an idea, with your husband, of what sorts of aspects of your anxiety are things you are supposed to be handling/managing and what aspects are things that TEAM US handles/manages. I am not sure if I remember what your anxiety management strategies are, but coming to the table with some "meet halfway" stuff (maybe you visit friends or relatives, maybe they have a daddy-daughter outing, maybe the kids go to a day camp, maybe you start an exercise routine or therapy/meds if you haven't) are all things that could possibly happen. I am a person who lives with and manages anxiety and I know that often the things where I'm saying "That's impossible!" are the things where it's most important that I find a way to deal with.

So, if your husband has health issues that will prevent him from taking a more active role, you (both) find some way to get more help around the house or adjust the amount of time the kids need supervision for whatever reason. And try to split off what sorts of anxiety-triggers are kids being kids (noise, stimulation, less peaceful quiet house) and what are somewhat adjustable outcomes (broken things, messy house, etc) and work towards those things you want the most.

So yeah finding a "you space" is important, being TEAM US with your husband is important and working on adjusting your narrative from "I am having a freakout about this" to "This will be fun but stressful" and trying to work from there.
posted by jessamyn at 9:39 AM on May 15, 2017 [10 favorites]

Echoing Jessamyn, if your husband cannot be a full partner to you on this, your default shouldn't necessarily be to just pick up the extra slack yourself. Outsource as much as possible. You have your own inviolable needs, period.
posted by delight at 9:58 AM on May 15, 2017 [8 favorites]

Honestly, can you leave for much of the time they're there? Even if you only can briefly, doing so during their first few days there would give them a chance to settle in and for their father to get them into a good routine before you need to return. (If he expects to have trouble with this, or with stepping up and being the primary parent even when you are there, have him think through what he'd do if he weren't married, and have him use those solutions. They may include hiring babysitters/entertainers, a daily cleaning service, eating takeout or having him prepare and freeze meals in advance, etc.)

You might be able to find ways to change your mindset to make it less unpleasant for you, though I know that won't be possible to the extent that you won't need lots of private time. But if you're able to pretend to yourself that you're on a marvelous vacation where chaos is part of the fun, or that you're a kid yourself and can just roll with whatever is happening instead of feeling responsible for anything, or that you're Maria von Trapp, or whatever would be the best way to fake your way through, do it!
posted by metasarah at 10:23 AM on May 15, 2017

I echo the excellent advice above and would also suggest having a conversation with everyone (your husband and the step-kids when they arrive) about how best to structure the household for everyone's needs over the summer. I think including the kids in the conversation helps to set the tone that you want them to feel at home and that they are welcome in the space, but that they are also responsible for helping keep things clean and protecting everyone's sanity and happiness. It can also be great to model for kids the need for things like down time, quiet time, knowing when to take space for themselves, etc, so explicitly stating your own needs around this and asking them to reflect on their needs can be helpful. You could make it a sort of welcoming activity, maybe using the first evening's dinner to go around the table and have everyone share a preference regarding space and a preference regarding schedule. You and your husband should obviously have the final say about any major decisions, but I also think it might help for you to mentally think of the summer household as "summer household" with maybe a different structure and set of guidelines, and allow others to give some input about how that should look. Good luck!
posted by sleepingwithcats at 11:10 AM on May 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Hold up, there's a fairly-recent baby in the mix too? Is there any way the visits from the girls could be staggered, even a little, to allow some one-on-one time with their father, you, and their newest, latest sibling? Or, say, pairing oldest stepchild with youngest at the start of the visit, for a week, having all four in the middle of the visit, and winding up with middle kids with their own week at the close? Is traveling a little bit, just you and the baby, an option, to give the older girls time with Dad?

Agreeing with everyone that their father needs to step up and be on Team Us with you, especially with FIVE minor children in the house.

And with even just one kid, having a routine is a sanity-saver.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:19 PM on May 15, 2017

Oh dear. With 5 children in the house, I suspect you'll need to be ruthless about organization and routine.
Are you still working 3 jobs? What's the current baby childcare situation? Is your husband still unemployed?

Are the older kids doing any summer programs? The ymca and boys and girls club probably have some affordable options.

All the older kids should be capable of feeding (making breakfast and sack lunches), bathing, and dressing themselves. They can totally clean up after themselves and do laundry. Don't make this optional.

Supermarket shopping for this many probably requires some thought.

But you and husband gotta get on track with this. You have many more years of this.

And please don't stagger the girls' visits. This is the only break their mom gets. This residential schedule sounds strange to me.
posted by k8t at 8:47 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I can't believe you're taking this on as well as everything else outlined in your previous questions. Honestly, your husband needs to step up and take on this one. None of this 'trying' or 'helping', he needs to DO and BE.

Given that you're the breadwinner in his situation and you're overwhelmed already, you need to be protected so you can continue to function. If I were you, for the first week of this visit, I would skip town with the baby and work from an air BnB or friend's house and leave it to him to get the kids into a routine.

Then when you come back, you're not responsible for ferrying around, feeding or entertaining (how can you, you have three jobs and a baby to look after!) He is. For a start, he's not working and has the time and primarily, because he's their parent and presumably they're here to be with him. Accept no argument on this.

And don't feel bad about it, I mean sure, spend fun times hanging out and enjoy them inbetween your jobs and the baby but the grunt work of looking after these kids should be by the person who fathered them and who has all the time to actually do it. This person is not you. If you get any pushback on this from your husband, ask him how many of your three jobs he will be taking on if you finally have a nervous breakdown from all of this?
posted by Jubey at 11:37 PM on May 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Am I missing something here? Last update, your husband was suffering from extreme mental health issues, comparable to a TBI in severity, that were so debilitating he was deemed a safety risk to the new baby. Your mom had been doing primary caretaker duties but was having health problems, and the childcare situation was so dire that his mom offered to take the baby out of state for a month on an emergency basis. Suddenly it's OK and safe for his four minor daughters to come into this environment? I feel like either this is a wildly dangerous setup or you are being grossly exploited and your husband is giving you the run-around about the reality of his mental health. Either he is too sick to be safe around kids or he isn't. Bowing out of parenting his newborn at the cost of your mother's health is bad; bringing in four more vulnerable kids for you (and I guess your mom?) to care for is unspeakable. It sounds like you are a high achiever and an incredibly strong person who is committed to making untenable situations work, but I think you are being seriously taken advantage of.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 12:26 AM on May 16, 2017 [14 favorites]

Thank you for saying what I wasn't brave enough to, but yes, that's how I read it as well, unless the situation has drastically changed.
posted by Jubey at 2:48 AM on May 16, 2017

Thanks everyone for the fantastic ideas, as usual. I love the idea of a she-shed.

moonlight on vermont and others who are confused, he is in treatment that seems to be working, and his safety issues are much worse watching an infant by himself. His other children are self-sufficient enough that it is far less of a problem with them. Also, I was the one who determined he couldn't be a safe caregiver to the infant alone for the time being based on evidence of poor judgment due to his health problems. Poor judgment around older children isn't ideal but it isn't potentially catastrophic in the same way it can be with an infant.
posted by crunchy potato at 5:53 AM on May 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Crunchy potato, I owe you an apology. I could not be gladder to hear that my dark take was totally off base and that your husband is doing better. I see a lot of acatastrophes in my work/personal life and that makes me prone to catastrophize, and my "job" on mefi seems to be to give people permission to leave bad relationships. I cant imagine how patronizing and pathologizing this and my response to your last Ask must have come across, and how counterproductive tha kind of talk must be when you are working hard to make a complicated situation work. I don't know you but from what you've posted here I admire you, and I'm sorry to have given you grief.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 6:48 AM on May 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Quite alright, moonlight. There are definitely problems that would elicit a DTMFA reaction (to us both, depending on which one of us posted, probably), but I did at least want to make it known that he wasn't trying to shirk his caregiving responsibilities and that efforts to create equity are ongoing and more successful than they used to be. I do not see your perspective as counterproductive, just not fully informed. No worries.
posted by crunchy potato at 8:00 AM on May 16, 2017

I'm not certain on what your financial means are, but if there is a certain price you'd be willing to pay for the sake of your mental health, there is a lot you can do for outsourcing at least temporarily during this visit. I have some expertise in this area because I work a full time job and I outsource pretty much everything. It really does take the stress level down a notch.

1. House cleaning - weekly, to include doing laundry and folding it.
2. Any other extraneous chores - check Task Rabbit
3. Meals - meal service. I'm sure you've heard of Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, etc. If it covers your area, there is one called Gobble that does the prep for you. There are also a bunch where no prep is required like Factor 75.
4. Although it seems like the 15 year old ought to be able to watch the siblings if you need some time away, if for some reason that isn't an option, outsource childcare - find a babysitter on (you can search for people who have online references and background checks done)
5. Groceries - Instacart. Peapod. Don't forget you can maintain a family shopping list that your husband and ay kid with phone access can add items to on apps like ToDoIst and Cozi. Want to order out and they don't deliver? Uber Eats.
6. For everything else in the world, Amazon Prime. Prime Pantry for groceries. Don't want to entertain? Stream movies.

Your sanity has a high value. What you can't outsource, delegate. 15 years old is old enough to cook meals and want to do your chores for extra spending money.

When you're too tired to do anything, tell them to go play outside and come back when it gets dark.... a lot of my favorite childhood memories are from doing exactly that.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:28 PM on May 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Regarding babysitter, a lot of people might not think of this, but you don't have to have a babysitter stay at your house while you go out.

A lot of times when I have a babysitter for my kids I ask the babysitter to take them out while I stay home.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:29 PM on May 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

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