AITA for telling my stepdaughter she couldn’t stay the night with me?
September 17, 2022 9:35 PM   Subscribe

Should I have stepped up as the step-parent in this situation? (+COVID complexity)

My partner has two teenage children with his ex wife who lives three blocks away from us and with whom he shares 50/50 custody. My partner and I have been together happily for a decade, and we live together. I have my own kiddo who I have parented full time for the last decade until this year; my kiddo has now moved on to college.

I am intensely introverted and very much value time alone in our home. This is a known thing in my relationship. This detail will be important later on, I promise.

My partner’s custody arrangement means he never has childcare responsibilities for his 16 and 17 year old children on Mondays or Tuesdays. And he doesn’t have childcare responsibilities every other weekend.

He was recently far away out of town on a dude vacation with a best friend during one of his childcare-free weekends, scheduled to return home on a Tuesday evening. My 17 year-old stepson was staying at his mom’s since it was her weekend. My 16 year-old stepdaughter was out of town attending a rock concert, but she returned to town on Monday.

My stepdaughter showed up at our house mid afternoon on that Monday, surprising me when I was home alone and her dad was still on his trip. I never expected her to come to our house. I thought she would go to her mom’s. It was her mom’s weekend while she was at the concert, and Mondays are always her mom’s parenting time.

But my stepdaughter asked if she could stay at our house instead of her mom’s that Monday night. I said no, mostly because I was surprised and had plans to introvert this last night while my partner was out of town (hello I am personally an empty nester half the time!)—and also, Mondays are ALWAYS my partner’s ex’s parenting time. I said something like, “sorry, sweetie, I’m planning to enjoy having the house to myself this last evening before your dad gets back.”

No one had mentioned to me the possibility that my stepdaughter might be staying at our house that Monday night. It would be highly unusual for my stepchildren to be at our house on ANY Monday night.

Right after my stepdaughter asked to stay and I said no, she took a COVID test in our kitchen and tested positive. But I still drove her to her mom’s house down the street because… I honestly don’t know why anymore? Because I had already said she couldn’t stay the night? Because this was not a day when my partner and I are ever on parent duty? Because I thought her mom would want to take care of her? That she would want her mom to take care of her? Because I didn’t want the exposure for myself? Because my stepdaughter didn’t seem to think the test made a difference to where she was going to stay after I said no to staying at our house?

I honestly don’t know why I said no to staying at our house and held to it even after the test; it just seemed like the thing I should do.

MEANWHILE, it turns out that her mom was ALSO out of town Monday and Monday night, partying about forty minutes away and planning to return to town on Tuesday.

I didn’t really know this until I was literally dropping my stepdaughter off in her mom’s driveway. Her brother was at the house and house/pet-sitting while mom was away.

I offered to make sure they had money for ordering dinner. I didn’t know what to do, but I presumed my stepkids would communicate with their bio parents about the situation. They have experience staying home alone at their mom’s overnight. I said they should text me if they needed anything, and I went back home—three blocks away. I didn’t hear anything else from anyone about the situation. My partner came home on Tuesday. I think their mom came home on Tuesday. The kids came to our house on schedule on Wednesday, and stepdaughter convalesced from COVID here until her 5 days of isolation were up. Nothing more was said about any of it.

Now, however (two weeks or so after all of this), I am being accused of being a selfish and terrible person by my partner’s ex—and my partner is being weird about all of it, too—for telling stepdaughter she couldn’t stay at our house on Monday and for not nursing stepdaughter through that first night of COVID.

It also turns out that my stepdaughter may have communicated with her dad/my partner about staying at our house that Monday night before she showed up here, but no one told me that was even a possibility. So my partner may have said something like, “It’s fine for you to go to my house, so long as pinkacademic says it’s okay.” But then I said it wasn’t okay! And I may have given a different answer if I’d known the question was coming in the first place!

TLDR: AITA for telling my stepdaughter that she couldn’t stay at our house that Monday night? Is it also bad or even worse that I maintained this position after she tested positive for COVID? And if you were me, what would you do or say now that all of this is turning into a whole /thing/?
posted by pinkacademic to Human Relations (61 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, you were the asshole. You are being incredibly rigid about your time and like ..: this is a child and this is where she lives? After the positive covid test I probably would have asked if there was a place she could more easily isolate at her mom’s house. But rejecting her because it was Monday night was a dick move and you know it. That’s why you asked the question. If I were you I would reach out to your partner’s child directly snd say I’m really sorry that I said you couldn’t stay. I was being really rigid in my thinking. This is your home and you are always welcome. I will try to be more considerate going forward.
posted by kate blank at 9:59 PM on September 17 [107 favorites]

I think you were wrong, but not because you said no. I think you should never have said that you wanted the house to yourself. If you had simply said, "I'm sorry, that won't be possible tonight" with no further explanation, that would have been semi ok. To tell a 16 yo, your stepdaughter, that you would rather read a book than spend a minute of unscheduled time with her is really harsh. Then, when you hear she is sick to stick to your guns and blow her off, is brutal.

I think you should apologize to the stepdaughter, to the ex, and to your husband. In the ex's shoes, to hear your ex's spouse who you trusted for years with your children to blow her off for some alone time reading is something I would have a hard time getting over quickly.

To be frank, I don't see anything good about this situation on your part. I am divorced and I highly value my alone time, but my kids and my spouses kids are more important than a night alone.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:14 PM on September 17 [29 favorites]

You’re the asshole. Your stepdaughter came to you for care and shelter and you completely rejected her. Can’t you put yourself into her shoes and see how painful that would be? If I were you I would apologize and maybe schedule something special for just you and stepdaughter to do together so you can try to repair any damage done.
posted by imalaowai at 10:27 PM on September 17 [37 favorites]

I don’t think you are the asshole. Just caught off guard, and clueless.

A cluelessness that could have been helped by any one of three people, partner, ex, and stepdaughter, who could have communicated to you that ex was out of town, thus why stepdaughter was turning to you. Partner and ex, instead of weirding out and trash talking you, should apologize and learn how to send a goddamn text message if they need you to pitch hit for parenting their kid.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 10:36 PM on September 17 [45 favorites]

I'm going to be pretty blunt, no matter how much you love them, they aren't your kids. It *isn't* their house on Mondays. No one told you that their mom was going out of town. Their dad also chose to go out of town. Their parents decided they were mature enough to stay home and handle any situations that came up. You ensured they were safe and fed. The only error I see is maybe you should have called your partner and notified him when she tested positive.

I don't know why this is being litigated two weeks later. What actionable changes is your partner asking for, now or in the future? An apology just to your step daughter might smooth things over but I would push back hard on the idea that you are the default adult on call any time their parents want with no notification.
posted by muddgirl at 10:37 PM on September 17 [25 favorites]

I'm a complete introvert, so I deeply sympathize with your desire for alone time, especially on the last night you could have it. I have no kids, by choice. And I think you took the wrong path here, and have some repair work to do.

It seems likely your stepdaughter wasn't feeling well - otherwise why take a covid test? and didn't want to be alone when she was sick. Everything else aside, if there's a sick kid in front of you saying she doesn't want to be alone, you suck it up and let her stay. Especially when you realized she had Covid - you were already exposed, but instead you took her somewhere she would potentially be exposing two additional people? And then, realizing there was no adult there to care for this sick kid... you left her there alone anyway?

I don't know you, I don't want to say "you're the asshole." But I will say, I absolutely see why the kid's parents are pissed off. I wouldn't have done this to a kid I met on the street, let alone my partner's kid.
posted by invincible summer at 10:47 PM on September 17 [52 favorites]

Both her parents are feeling like assholes because they left her alone to go fuck off and party and they're taking it out on you. They can shove off, frankly. That said, I think the nicer thing to do is to just retreat to a bedroom to introvert instead of banning a kid from their home. But you didn't really know what was going on and I get it. And frankly, it's probably decent modeling for her -- you trust her to be independent, you are willing to set boundaries instead of being treated like your time is always up for grabs.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:47 PM on September 17 [24 favorites]

You're not an asshole. The kids are old enough to stay by themselves, you were 3 blocks away, and none of the other adults bothered to communicate with you. Their actual mother made the decision to leave her teenage kids alone overnight without making alternate arrangements. And she's mad at you about it?

If the kid was actually sick (symtpomatic, not just a positive test, not mild), then I'd change my opinion, especially if you have a "nursing her through illness" kind of relationship with her.
posted by Mavri at 10:49 PM on September 17 [14 favorites]

I would push back hard on the idea that you are the default adult on call any time their parents want with no notification.

Yes, this. She also wouldn't have been alone if either of her parents had shown up. You're not a perennial babysitter, especially for a near-adult who wasn't alone and is capable of calling in an emergency.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:49 PM on September 17 [19 favorites]

I think some of this depends on the actual relationships here. If you’ve been in these kids’ lives for a decade, I wonder what the relationships have been. To me and in my husband’s and my kind of orbit of kids, it would be really unusual to send a teenager who asked to be somewhere away, because…if a teenager is seeking an adult-filled space it would mean they needed something, even if it was just the better couch or something.

And in general for the kids with two homes, once they have been over 14 or so, all the homes have kind of been the kids’ homes whenever they wanted. Sure, there’s still a loose schedule but if a child wanted to stay extra at their other home they could because…it’s theirs not just on certain days, but theirs.

Now it sounds a bit different in your arrangement. But maybe it’s time to clarify things a bit.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:51 PM on September 17 [40 favorites]

When I was a kid, my parents did this thing where Dad would take us somewhere for a couple hours to a full weekend, and it was explained to me as “Mom is an introvert and needs time alone to help her feel good.” It was super helpful to learn this because then when my mom took time by herself, I knew it was because she needed alone time and not anything I’d done or anything wrong with me. It also helped me to think about my need for alone time. So, I want to start by saying I think it’s good to talk to kids about introverts needing time alone, even from your kids, even though you love them. I even think it was fine to say no initially since it wasn’t your night and another parent was on duty. However, if a kid in your care has a need they can’t meet for themselves (overnight supervision) and you are capable of meeting it, I think you should. Whether that means tracking down another parent or having the kid stay overnight at your house, you as the adult should take care of the need. Your frustration with the situation should be directed at the other adults in this situation, not the kid. The way you handled it, you acted like she was disrupting your peaceful night in. She wasn’t. The other parents were responsible for the disruption. You can and should take it up with them that you aren’t available to cover childcare for them unless it’s an emergency. But apologize to your stepdaughter for acting like her needs were a nuisance.
posted by theotherdurassister at 11:03 PM on September 17 [7 favorites]

I feel like the big missing piece here is, why did she initially come to your house and ask to stay? Was she lonely? Was she in a fight with her mother? Did you ever verify whether she asked her dad if she could stay, and he forgot to tell you? Why didn't you ask her that night why she wanted to stay?

I can understand freezing up in the moment, but if you still don't even know why she showed up in the first place, that seems like important context.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:14 PM on September 17 [41 favorites]

Children of divorced parents are often expected to act as if, and believe that, stepparents are just like real parents, with the same set of commitments and emotional investments real parents have. This is often because it is convenient for the parents to believe that their kids believe this, since it avoids awkward questions about trust and safety and allows them to feel better about the impact of the divorce on their kid. What you did by "setting boundaries" was casually strip away that veneer of intimacy, since it was almost certainly clear to her that you would never have acted this way if she was your actual daughter. This is sad and painful for the kid, who now has one fewer person in the world to trust, but it is also inconvenient for both parents, since the story they have been trying to tell has now been undermined (and in the process some of their own failings have been revealed). I don't think you should let yourself off the hook for this, but the parents shouldn't be left off the hook either.
posted by derrinyet at 11:34 PM on September 17 [53 favorites]

Looking at this in your own terms, I think you could apologize for making assumptions and sticking with a plan predicated on those assumptions even as new information surfaced that you yourself feel might have been relevant. Like, teenagers aren't always going to say up front everything you need to assess a situation, and adults aren't always going to ask--but you have more experience with supposing there could be more to the story and could have found out sooner that her mom was gone and could have been swayed by that when you were first assessing what to do about her COVID result, not to mention maybe finding out this was a tentative plan too. Instead, it seems like a few default assumptions and/or quick decisions sort of piled up to an outcome no one is really happy about--even you have doubts and call out these things you didn't know. I suspect your stepdaughter would rather hear something more comprehensive or unconditional, like many people are saying here, but she may relate to an apology focused on not trying better to understand her situation and react more strongly to her needs as they became more evident.
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:12 AM on September 18 [3 favorites]

Mod note: A few deleted. Please don't argue with other answerers, just give the OP your own helpful advice.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:37 AM on September 18 [1 favorite]

I'm looking at this entirely from the point of view of your step daughter, not her parents.

Every action towards a person also communicates something about how you see your relationship with this person.

From her point of view, you told her that you see her as a friendly acquaintance. An adult semi-stranger, whom you only tolerate in your house on certain days and only for your partner's sake. You've taught her not to rely on you for more, when she needs someone.
As she came to your house, she almost certainly saw her relationship with you differently. Depending on how secure she is in her other relationships, this may have broken her heart a little.

I'm not into the asshole framing as I, too, am very rigid about me-time. But if it's not true - if you see her as more than a tolerable adult semi-stranger - then if I were you, I might want to take steps to repair or at least reset the relationship to make clear what your relationship actually is.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:00 AM on September 18 [85 favorites]

I think a lot depends on everybody's cultural values and general approach to kids. To me, in my personal worldview, it's pretty clear that kids come first; that your stepkid is your kid, that by virtue of entering their family when they're young you have a strong duty towards them that goes beyond any legalistic arrangements, that you don't just say "no", you talk to the kid and to their parents first to try to find out what's going on and what they need, that a kid's needs (any kid's) trump your need for alone time 100% (and I say this as an intense and energy-depleted introvert), that part of your job is making sure the kids feels 100% at home in your partner's home, and that kid's relationship with you also affects kid's relationship with your partner. If I had a partner I would absolutely, dealbreakingly need them to be someone who would see things the same way. Again, I don't know what everybody's expectations are among all the people in this question, and I know not everybody has the same approach. But it looks like you're not all on the same page here and you really need to talk about it.

what would you do or say now that all of this is turning into a whole /thing/

I would before anything else make sure I really understood where everybody's feelings are coming from.
posted by trig at 1:51 AM on September 18 [9 favorites]

I'm an introvert too, but turning away a child is deeply uncool. If she's known you since she was 6, you probably are a trusted adult in her life. Or were, anyway.

Did you ask your stepdaughter why the switch? The first thing I thought of is that she doesn't feel comfortable around her uncle who was house sitting while her mom was away.
posted by basalganglia at 3:15 AM on September 18 [32 favorites]

Is it possible that your stepdaughter felt unsafe staying alone with her brother?
posted by Ginesthoi at 4:09 AM on September 18 [7 favorites]

What if one day while your stepdaughter was at your house you announced that your plans had changed and you would not be going out after all, and she responded with disappointment and said, "I was really looking forward to not having you here." I imagine you'd be at least a little hurt. You just did basically the same thing to her.

You made it crystal clear that having her at your house is a negative for you. Depending on what your relationship has been like, that may not have been news to her, but if she hadn't quite realized it, she might be feeling pretty hurt now.

It doesn't sound like you were outwardly mean about the whole thing, but your reaction to the idea of having her stay there does seem kind of unexpectedly extreme. She might have been shocked to learn that having her there makes that much difference to you, in a negative way. If she's 16, she's probably not going to be following you around asking questions and trying to get you to play with her, right? I have a 16 year old and for the most part having him in the house is not a whole lot different from not having him here. He does his own thing and I can do my own thing.

You should at the very least apologize to your stepdaughter. If you think you can convince her that you actually enjoy her company, at least at times, it would be nice to try. But if you really just don't enjoy her company, you may not successfully be able to fake it.
posted by Redstart at 5:19 AM on September 18 [16 favorites]

In your shoes I would have really wanted to say no, since I also intensely value my alone time, but I would not have. Certainly not after learning she had covid and then that there was no adult home at her other home. “Of course you can stay here, I have my own plans so I’ll be in my room but I can order you a pizza and you can let me know if you need anything” was an easy way out here.

Your partner screwed this up if he knew the kid might want to stay over but he didn’t tell you. But that doesn’t change that you also didn’t handle this one well and you set up a precedent that this kid can’t rely on you or on being allowed into her own home. That’s not a great thing to do with a teenager who could need you for more serious things someday and has just been given the impression that you won’t help her if it inconveniences you.

I think it’s time to apologize to your stepdaughter, tell her you were surprised and didn’t handle the situation well, and reassure her that of course your house is always her house, whether or not her dad happens to be home. It’s also important that your need for alone time is respected but that’s another conversation for another day; you have some basic trust to rebuild first.
posted by Stacey at 5:34 AM on September 18 [32 favorites]

It seems like the first question should have been "What's going on? Why don't you want to stay at your mom's?," especially if this had never happened before. I also wondered if she didn't want to stay with the brother for some reason (could be innocuous, like she finds him annoying.) Anyway, I agree that you should apologize to her and let her know that she's always welcome, assuming you want her to feel like you're a safe person she can always come to.
posted by pinochiette at 5:37 AM on September 18 [16 favorites]

There’s definitely some problematic stuff with how her mom and dad were so unavailable to her, so this is not all on you, but yes, turning her away was awfully unkind.
posted by obfuscation at 5:37 AM on September 18 [15 favorites]

Every adult here screwed up and made a sick kid shoulder the weight of their mistakes. Everyone should apologize to her first bc I’m sure she’s hurt, then each other for a total lack of communication. You did act very carelessly but you were caught off guard and didn’t think. It’s not something that can’t be remedied but splitting hairs between the adults doesn’t fix anything. Make it right and do better next time. Then let it go.
posted by Amy93 at 5:44 AM on September 18 [18 favorites]

if you were me, what would you do or say now that all of this is turning into a whole /thing/?

I would take her for a coffee or whatever you both enjoy and apologise (for turning her away and for saying you valued your alone time above her need for safety), and also reassure her that if she again showed up unscheduled you would not turn her away. I really think you should have let her stay and you should have called her father to get an opinion on his view.

I also agree with pinochiette, the first question/ reaction should have been to ask her what happened to bring her to you. Maybe she already had done a test elsewhere and felt she needed to be somewhere with an adult, because i think doing a covid test in your house after you told her no seems like a non-verbal appeal for help.
16 is such a vulnerable and awkward age.
But i also think that the situation now can be used to talk and let her know you are there for her.
posted by 15L06 at 6:07 AM on September 18 [11 favorites]

Hi, step-dad here and president of the local chapter introvert. There's a couple of things to point:

Because this was not a day when my partner and I are ever on parent duty?

You're always on parent duty. ALWAYS. Especially as they get older and sometimes they want to pull away and sometimes want to cling. You're the rock that they know they can cling to, anytime, anywhere.

I get you're an introvert and let's face it, we resent when our introvert time gets crashed by someone else. I get around this by having made it abundantly, and crystal clear that there are times that I need my alone time/space or whatever. But that I'm always here for the kids and if they need something, to come ask, they won't be turned away. I just have balance my needs with being a parent.

The kid asked to stay on a specific night when she's never there. That means something is up. Could be big, could be small, but her asking on that specific night probably meant something. So I would have let her stay, inquired a little bit if there was a problem and proceeded from there, based on her response. Maybe we would have talked. Maybe I just would have listened. Maybe I would have made sure she had something to eat, something that was a favorite of hers. You get the point, I would have checked how she was doing and made clear that if she wanted to stay she could, because this was such a special request.

Yeah, I would have resented a bit that my introvert time was crashed, but that's the job as parent. I would have tried to adjust things so I could still get some of that time, like setting her up with food and movies if that seemed to suffice. Or talked to my partner and made clear that on Tuesday I'd need more alone time. Basically something to make sure the kid knows they're loved and cared for and that you're there for them. Because the last thing you want is for her not to come to you years from now when there's a serious problem, because she thinks your introvert time can never be interrupted.

So I think you need to have a talk with your step-daughter and admit that you goofed. Say something like "oh, it's been a rough week and I was caught up in my own feelings of wanting to rest and yes, I fucked up and I'm sorry. I should have said yes and fixed you your favorite meal and I didn't and I'm truly sorry. I know I messed up here. But I do want you to know that you're welcome here, whenever, for whatever ok? 'cause I know I'm just a step-parent, but that still means I'm parent to you and I want to be here for you if you need something. Please don't take my mistake as how it will always be between us. I'm here and I want you to know you can come to me if need or want something. Can't promise that I'll say yes to everything, but at the very least, you can come spend the night and raid the fridge and have a place to rest."

Being an introvert doesn't excuse you from parenting. You can (and should) develop techniques and strategies for being an introvert and a parent sure, but in the end, kids will break those boundaries, because life isn't neat and ordered, yet you're still on parent duty. You always will be. That's hard sometimes, but in the end it's beautiful and worth it.

Now, however (two weeks or so after all of this), I am being accused of being a selfish and terrible person by my partner’s ex...

It's odd that this is coming up two weeks later, but it's not clear how y'all communicate or how often. I personally wouldn't worry about it too much. You did make a mistake and could have handled this better, but there is no perfect parent. Admit your mistake to her mom, apologize, and ask for a sit down with her and the dad to figure out what went wrong with communication and how these things can be handled better in the future (i.e. kid asking to spend the night on a non-regular night). Once that's figured out, be sure and communicate that decision to the kids as a united front.

Best of luck and be kind to yourself about all this. Yeah, you could have handled this better, but there's still time to learn from it and become a stronger family for it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:49 AM on September 18 [75 favorites]

You were the recipient of a shitty situation all around. But, as an adult, you should have stepped up once you realised that there was no adult at their house. Getting covid, and only 16... I would have wanted an adult around.

Like, I would have invited a neighbor's kid to stay and looked after them in that situation, let alone my step daughter. So, situation not your fault but ultimately your reaction, yeah, YTA.
posted by gaspode at 6:55 AM on September 18 [10 favorites]

If an unknown sixteen-year-old child showed up at my door, and asked if they could stay with me, and if I didn't feel unsafe, I would feel it was my responsibility to make sure they were 100% OK.

I would for sure be as warm and welcoming as I could, offer them a drink and a sit-down, and have a gentle conversation in which I worked to figure out why this was happening and how they were feeling.

Children are everybody's responsibility.

That said, people, including adults, can't be expected to be perfect or to know everything or to be prepared for every contingency. When we're cornered (and someone wanting into your space on a rare introvert night counts as cornered), we don't have time to think things through.

Please consider her trust in you a gift. Maybe you could talk to her personally and let her know that you are willing to be a resource in an emergency, and that you do love her.
posted by amtho at 6:57 AM on September 18 [18 favorites]

This sounds like the opening anecdote in a story that goes very bad. This girl is now under the impression that her presence is an afterthought, an imposition, and at best a matter of contract for the adults in her life. Can you see where that kind of idea could take her? What if she'd said, "fine, everybody's having a good time without me and nobody cares if I have COVID, I'm going to have a good time too," and went God knows where?

You owe her not only an apology, but what is generally described as "one." She gets a big fat favor from you at some point. And as said above, everybody needs to sit down and reorganize their lives to make sure their minor children are okay and know that they are okay.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:08 AM on September 18 [18 favorites]

Coming back to this in the morning, because I was thinking about this poor kid off and on all night - I would also suggest one of her parents check in with her about this rock concert she was at. Could something have happened there, that made her feel like she needed to be around an adult? Kids that age are not the best caretakers of each other in a crowd, even if they 100% mean to be - and also kids that age are not big talkers-to-adults about things that may feel too personal or embarrassing. It's possible something happened there that made her feel unsafe.
posted by invincible summer at 7:52 AM on September 18 [15 favorites]

This is a child you've known for most of her life that your partner has *equal* custody of. The house you live in is also her home, just as much as her mother's house is her home.

Kid's needs come first, and you know this. How would you feel if your son came home one day and your parter told him he couldn't stay there because he's supposed to be in college now? You would be furious.

Your partner's ex should not have gone out without notifying one of you, but once you found out there was no adult home, you should have turned around right then and taken your stepdaughter back to your house. Leaving sick kids alone with no adult present is not cool, no matter what.

You've really blown the lid off your true feelings for this young person, who is at a very vulnerable age and clearly thought you were someone who she could trust to be there for her. If you want to ever have her trust you again, you have some serious repair work ahead of yourself. I worry for this girl, who has a bunch of adults in her life that don't seem to recognize how critical it is for children to feel like they belong in their family, whatever form that takes.
posted by ananci at 7:54 AM on September 18 [31 favorites]

Her mother was 40 minutes away at a PARTY! Why didn't you call her to tell her her kid was sick and she needed to come home? Maybe the daughter knew her mom would blow her off and thought you would offer her a bed and comfort. And then what did you do? Send her home because Monday is not on your schedule and you wanted to "introvert". As opposed to caring for an actual sick child who has been part of your family for 10 years!

It sounds like the adults need a reset on what is where in the hierarchy. I think most of us agree that a child, even a step-child, and in particular a sick child, who might have gotten a lot sicker and more miserable alone while you were "introverting" on schedule - that child is at the top of that hierarchy. Think about your reaction. Really think about how you responded.

You've disappointed people, and it's not clear from your carefully worded posting that you understand you were deeply in the wrong. Your partner clearly considered you a safety net for his daughter, and felt so secure in that that he didn't feel a confirmatory call to you was necessary. This act of selfish inflexibility will undoubtedly reverberate in that relationship, too.
posted by citygirl at 8:02 AM on September 18 [25 favorites]

Generally speaking, if a teenager seeks out adult attention it is because they really need it. I agree with everyone saying you should apologize to your step-daughter and do some serious work to repair that relationship. You say that as you dropped her off you told her to text if she needed anything, and that since she didn’t you assumed everything was okay, except—she already told you she needed something. She needed to stay with you, and you said no. There was no scenario, no matter how bad, where she was going to call you again that night. If you ever want her to be able to rely on or trust you again, you need to apologize, tell her you were wrong, and believe it.

I also feel compelled to say, I’m a little confused about this:

It also turns out that my stepdaughter may have communicated with her dad/my partner about staying at our house that Monday night before she showed up here, but no one told me that was even a possibility. So my partner may have said something like, “It’s fine for you to go to my house, so long as pinkacademic says it’s okay.”

“May have said”? Did he or did he not tell her to come over? Why don’t you know? Did your step-daughter say he gave her permission when she arrived, but you didn’t believe her? Have you bothered to confirm with your partner? Something feels off here, either with the way you all are communicating (or not) with each other, or with how you are framing the story to yourself.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 8:19 AM on September 18 [32 favorites]

Also, one other thing really jumped out at me. You say:

Her brother was at the house and house/pet-sitting while mom was away.

Is this her 17-year-old brother? Or another adult brother who lives somewhere else who was staying there specifically to take care of things while their Mom was away?

If this was an adult sibling specifically there to take care of her, I could maybe understand more why you were so comfortable dropping her off (except that, like several others here, I would be concerned and want to verify she felt safe staying alone with him, because that is a major red flag).

But if this was her 17-year-old, also a teenager, brother—the one she lives with all the time, who also lives at your house and their mother’s house full-time—why would you say he was “house/pet-sitting” rather than simply…staying home alone? A person can’t house or pet-sit their own house and pet, and certainly not when they are themselves a child. But if this was in fact the situation, you may need to think long and hard about the way you conceptualize these literal children and their needs.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 8:36 AM on September 18 [13 favorites]

Hey, pinkacademic -- I know you're doing your best. I have done worse things, believe me. What you can do now is focus on these other people and figuring out how you can do better in the future, and reassure them that you want to and will do better in the future.

If you absolutely cannot ever be flexible in your introvert time, then make sure these other people, especially the kids, have all the information about you they can get so they understand why it is necessary, and what the bad consequences will be if you don't get it.

If you can, try to plan your life so you _can_ have a little more flexibility.

She's 16. That's when a lot of us decide whether other people are wonderful or the opposite, and the choice can seem arbitrary, but I think it's based around whether we can see people acting in a way (not just talking) that shows that they really truly care about us and about other people. That connection among humans is something very young children take for granted (except possibly for some neurodivergent people, which isn't to be dismissed).

So, if you can, possibly, figure out what parts of yourself or your time you can give to her. You might need to be super creative; you might need to ask several therapists until you find one creative enough to have a good idea.

You and I -- and I count myself as someone likely to make the mistake you did, if I were tired or upset or distracted -- have benefited from this mostly-there human bond network. I feel a strong desire to nurture it.
posted by amtho at 8:51 AM on September 18 [4 favorites]

So random question OP. Could you be autistic? Because I can easily see how I, myself, would really want to handle this situation in this way. Being rigid with my schedule and especially my expectation of having an empty house. And while I am deeply empathetic in situations I understand (and this one I would understand as a stepmother who sees the kids EOW plus big chunks of time on school breaks), I also have been known to come across like an ass sometimes in situations where I didn't understand the "rules."

So as a stepmother and autist that needs tons of alone time and regularly tells my bio child I'm going to lie down but he can come if he needs something, if my teen stepdaughter showed up wanting to stay on an unscheduled night, I would internally feel crushed or even angry but I would wear that kind stepmom face and mask all that for her. To be honest last minute plan changes usually give me a meltdown but I can stave it off til I'm alone and I would do that here.

I would tell her she's welcome, and if something has happened that she is struggling with that we can talk about it. I would give examples of situations I would feel the need to disclose to the bio parents and those I felt could stay between us so she could gauge whether she wanted to talk.

I would at some point also mention that I had been expecting to have an empty house and of course she is welcome to stay but please don't be offended if I disappear once you have what you need (and come find me if you do end up needing to talk or something). In my case this isn't unusual as I disappear a lot when they are here due to being overstimulated (and sometimes yes that very normal but taboo feeling of jealousy comes up and I hide so I don't risk showing it to anybody).

So anyway. OP if you are autistic that shouldn't be an excuse here, but it can be an explanation to preface asking for more explicit communication of relational expectations.
posted by crunchy potato at 9:08 AM on September 18 [7 favorites]

Your partner told their kid she could stay at yours without telling you, which set in motion these events where you reacted poorly, and now the heat is totally on you for reacting poorly; and not your partner for causing the whole situation—is that what happened?
posted by kapers at 9:09 AM on September 18 [11 favorites]

You've really gotten a range of reactions here, some very indignant. But even if you were the asshole, I'm assuming it's not because you dislike this kid. Boundaries in mixed families are difficult!

And if you had let her stay, who's to say her mom wouldn't have taken offense at that? That shit happens too.

So, I would meet with the kid as suggested and tell her "Hey, I got focused on the rules and I was trying to do the right thing but I probably came off as an asshole to you. I'm sorry. I don't want you to feel unwelcome. You're a great kid and I like being your stepmom. Can you tell me what happened that night and why you wanted to stay? I promise if it happens again I'll ask more questions."
posted by emjaybee at 9:33 AM on September 18 [12 favorites]

How would you feel if your own college-age child showed up at your house unexpectedly, sick and asking to stay the night for some unclear reason, and your partner turned them away because he wanted to spend time alone? Perhaps spending some time channeling that feeling might help you understand why the others are so upset.

That said, you are human and this is not unfixable. But you do have some repair work if you want the kid to trust you again, and don't want problems with her mom or your partner over this. Finding out why she wanted to stay would be an important first step, although--if your stepdaughter is anything like I was at that age--I doubt she will be forthcoming now.
posted by rpfields at 9:37 AM on September 18 [10 favorites]

Honestly, there's a lot of mind-reading going on of what your stepdaughter was thinking and feeling that is maybe not so accurate. People really like to browbeat women who aren't mothering in the way they think they should mother, and they will reach pretty far to find a cudgel to do so, even if it means completely inventing scenarios where terrible things could have happened.

Sometimes teenagers do things like forget that it's Monday instead of Tuesday because their mum is out of town and the schedule's a bit weird, or whatever. Or feel kind of awkward because they are coming down with a bit of a cold, but knowing that an adult is three blocks away and aware of the situation makes them feel better (and cared for!) and they move on. Sometimes stuff is just...fine.

It's the actual teenager's actual feelings that matter here, not whether or not you were an "asshole" according to us or to her parents. Her parents have no business criticizing you given the circumstances, and we have no idea how she's feeling (and it sounds like neither do you?).

I would suggest gently bringing it up to her--without apologizing--and saying something like "hey, I'm hearing that you might have been upset about not being able to stay here Monday, I didn't realize--everything ok?" If she gives even a scintilla of a hint that she's upset at this, including non-verbal indications -- rather than her mom/dad -- then I would explain gently to her that you care about her, that you will always be around if she needs you, that you trust her to be independent and strong, that you don't want her to feel shut out of her home but also that you need time alone in your home sometimes, and that you are sorry that she was in an uncomfortable situation.

Overapologizing models things for her that we don't want to model for our teenaged children, in my opinion. We should not be endless parenting martyrs in front of our children. It is bad for them.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:40 AM on September 18 [17 favorites]

Honestly, if your question is what your next steps ought to be, a few things in your post stick out to me and make me think that it might be a good idea to check in with Stepdaughter in a more general way (above and beyond discussing & apologizing, which I also think is indispensable), because they worry me a little:

- You say it would be highly unusual for your husband's kids to be at yours at all on a Monday, yet Stepkiddo not only showed up but actually asked her dad if she could--meaning that, while it was clearly a surprise to you, it wasn't exactly a spur-of-the-moment decision on her part.
- Did she know her mother was relatively close by? Did she call her when she realized she had tested positive for COVID and that she couldn't stay at yours?
- Her elder brother was already at their mother's place: if she was asking to stay at yours because she was already starting to feel unwell, it wasn't because she thought she'd be alone at her mom's.

To be perfectly honest, the vibe I get from your question is that you don't necessarily dislike these kids but nevertheless kinda sorta regard their presence in your home as an imposition. (And, speaking as the child of divorced parents: YES, this is your home, but it is also Stepkids' father's home, which by default also makes it theirs regardless of the official visitation schedule.) I'm also an intense introvert, so I get it, but if this characterization of your relationship is accurate--and maybe I'm being unfair--I can guarantee you this kid can sense it, and that she would not come to you out of the blue like that, on her own, unless she really, really felt like she needed an adult and/or to Not Be At Mom's House at that particular moment.

I'd strongly suggest that your husband, yourself, the two of you and/or another trusted adult check in with her re: her trip that weekend and/or the home situation in general to make sure she's doing alright, because it sounds like this may actually have been something of a distress signal.
posted by TinyChicken at 9:47 AM on September 18 [16 favorites]

I agree hard with all the people pointing first and foremost to your relationship with your stepdaughter. Maybe you didn’t have a stepparent, but if you think back to when you were sixteen, and imagine feeling sick and asking an adult you’d known and lived with for two-thirds of your natural life to spend the night - for whatever reason! - how would it have felt to be turned down? To have that refusal stand after you tested positive for the global pandemic disease that’s been ravaging the world the past two years? What would *you* want to hear from that adult?
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:00 AM on September 18 [6 favorites]

I'm an introvert who deals poorly with having my down time interrupted (it was a significant reason I hesitated about getting a dog, for goodness' sake), and I'm also someone who thinks, perhaps against the current trend, that sixteen-year-olds can cope with most ordinary situations on their own. And the other adults in this kid's life dropped the ball, too. But...I'm not going to say you were an asshole, but you were unkind and immature. It doesn't matter whether it was an emergency or one of the dire but fortunately low-probability scenarios people have mentioned or not. A child for whom you have some responsibility needed you, and you turned her away, explicitly for me time. I think you know this was wrong deep down, which is why you've written so many paragraphs to AskMe, and I think you should listen to your better self on this one.

What to do about it? I like Brandon Blatcher's script. If you're not normally effusive/sentimental, you don't have to pretend to be, but you do need to be very explicit that you were wrong, that you're sorry, that you understand that her feelings were hurt, that you'd like to rebuild trust. The problem with something like this:

"hey, I'm hearing that you might have been upset about not being able to stay here Monday, I didn't realize--everything ok?"

Is a sixteen-year-old, after being bounced from my own home by an adult because my presence would interfere with their relaxation, there is no way I would admit to that adult that I was upset about it. No way. Because I would "know" (in my sixteen-year-old mind) that that adult thought of me as an unbearable imposition and I would think that the best thing to do would be to pretend that I needed nothing from that adult whatsoever. And that would hold in the future, even if I was in a bad situation where I genuinely needed an adult's help to get out of trouble. I don't know if I'm anything like OP's stepdaughter, but I am someone who suffered from some neglectful parenting even by Gen X standards. The apology needs to be full, direct, and without prompting from the step-daughter.
posted by praemunire at 10:24 AM on September 18 [17 favorites]

Response by poster: Update: Thanks everyone for your replies, which have led me to do some soul searching and to commit to providing extra care in my relationship with my stepdaughter.

I realized in reading your replies that I left out a piece of information that might have been pertinent. My stepkids have never stayed at our house with just me before without extensive advanced planning because their mom is very litigious and has often written to their dad/my partner to complain about any kind of parental relationship that has developed between me and their kids. Their dad and I manage our way through all of this as best we can—but partly as a result of the ex’s hostility, our parenting at our house has proceeded on more of a “parallel” rather than a “blended” model, if that makes sense, for the last decade. My partner and his ex have a very high conflict relationship. I do my best to tend to my side of the fence, as it were, and keep a wide berth otherwise.

Had our stepdaughter stayed with me that night, then, it’s also very likely we would have gotten an angry email about the fact that I had “taken custody” of my stepdaughter on the mom’s court-agreed upon parenting time without her permission and without any supervision by the dad. Although this wasn’t something that was top of mind for me in the moment of making what is now a decision I regret, it was definitely a quiet background factor. Honestly, having some time to myself has been important not least because of the stress around their high-conflict parenting relationship.

And I can now clarify that my stepdaughter had texted her dad/my partner about the possibility of staying with me that night; dad learned in this exchange that mom was out of town, and dad did say it was fine to stay at our house if I said it was fine—but then dad also confirmed via a text exchange with the son that mom had supposedly planned to have the kids stay at her house by themselves that night (biomom calls that pet/house sitting, by the way—that’s not my language). So dad/partner didn’t clue me in because he thought the arrangements were settled with his kids. I didn’t text him when stepdaughter stopped by because I thought she would text him about her COVID test, and I honestly thought mom would come home at that point.

I really regret now the part I played in not communicating as the only adult on the ground in this situation. There is no open line of communication between the kids’ mom and me—which, trust me, is unfortunately how things need to be. But I should have checked in with my partner/their dad, for sure.

Anyway. Thank you for your replies. I’m lucky in that I feel seen and understood by my stepdaughter, and that I feel confident that if she had felt unsafe, she would have said so and pushed back against my shortsighted preference for solitude. She often comes to me first with those kinds of things. We are also lucky that her case of COVID was extremely mild.

I realize, however, that I have some repair work to do and that I’ll need to be better prepared to think on my feet and communicate directly around these issues going forward. My partner and I have talked this out and agreed that we both dropped the ball when it came to keeping one another in the loop—and that was the source of conflict between us, which is now resolved.

Thanks again, everyone.
posted by pinkacademic at 10:33 AM on September 18 [64 favorites]

Yeah, relationships between step and biological parents can be fraught if they don't get along and your response to your stepdaughter makes much sense now. You were trying to avoid a potential shitstorm, but did make sure she was generally ok and somewhere safe, so good on you for doing some navigating in a potentially haphazard situation!

The important part is that you and your partner learned from this and both agree communicating better would have helped and agree to do so in the future.

Best of luck to you all!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:43 AM on September 18 [7 favorites]

Based on your update - the rigid requirements of the biological mother not withstanding - the children are in their late teens and are going to do what they want more and more. She may not like that of course but there's also not a lot she can do about it short of locking them up at home during her parenting time. Perhaps have a chat about how you're going to deal with situations where the agreed schedule and what the children want and do get out of sync with your partner.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:12 PM on September 18 [1 favorite]

Hi! I just wanted to give you a huge virtual hug and some words of support.

I have been in the exact same situation as your update. And the path of a stepmom in that type of situation is fraught, to say the least.

The only thing that makes situations like our survivable is really strong boundaries. Which means being able to tell the kids “no.” This is also a hugely important lesson for the kids to understand the importance of boundaries and respecting boundaries set by others. Because they for sure are learning all the wrong lessons about that from the other adults in their life. (Based both on your original ask and the update, and my experience.)

I would recommend confirming with your partner that he understands the importance of respecting and communicating the firm boundary that his children may not stay at your house if he is not there. Period. And he then communicates this to his kids.

If the daughter wanted an adult around, she needed to contact/call her bio mom. If bio/moms answer is “no,” and you hear about it, document it. Unfortunately the only way to protect yourself from someone who is litigious is to think like you are always building a case.

Also, I can’t recommend the book Stepmonster highly enough. It speaks to exactly what happened in this thread and discusses why it’s not something you have to (or should) internalize.

Good luck! (And in my opinion, you are not the asshole. You just weren’t 100% hind sight perfect in a bull shit situation that you did not create. (And anyone who thinks they would have says the “100% right” thing in these circumstances needs to walk a mile in a step moms shoes.)
posted by susiswimmer at 2:15 PM on September 18 [14 favorites]

Do you want to have a close relationship with stepdaughter in any way once she is an adult? If so, you need to apologize to her.

Deciding if and when you need to apologize to someone isn’t something that’s decided by a court. It’s not as if you present all of the evidence of your own wrongdoing, your partner’s wrongdoing, his ex’s wrongdoing, and the history of their divorce, and then a judge hands down a verdict to definitively rule whether you were really truly in the wrong.

It doesn’t matter what your partner did or his ex did, I’m certain they also need to apologize. Focus on your own behavior and whether you feel like you treated your stepdaughter with respect. I think deep down you know you didn’t. Be the bigger person and apologize even if her own parents can’t.
posted by scantee at 2:55 PM on September 18 [2 favorites]

You know your house is her home, too, right? I think a lot of people default to mom's house being "the Real Home" and Dad's house being "a place where they come to visit". It's bullshit.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 3:58 PM on September 18 [12 favorites]

Yeah, with 50/50 custody it's hard to say that either partner's house isn't the kids' home (and while I understand a step-parent's feelings might be complex, what the hell kind of parent wouldn't want that to be the case). Unless the custody arrangement changed substantially over time, dad's house has been their home longer than it's been any step-parent's home.
posted by praemunire at 4:10 PM on September 18 [2 favorites]

Yes. I'm coming from the position of having been a stepchild here so that's my bias, but your home is her home. I can imagine a few cases where she would not be allowed to stay over - no adult will be home overnight, or there's some important morning plan that will get screwed up if she's not where the plan calls for her to be, or she's trying to get out of being grounded at the other home, or something. But the default shouldn't be that she needs your or her dad's permission to spend the night at her own home.

It may very well be that she needs to be given the responsibility of communicating to all her parents when she chooses to veer from what the rigid plan calls for - that would be very appropriate at her age, would take the responsibility off your shoulders since it sounds like you have very good reasons for not being part of the direct-communication-with-mom loop, and would give everyone a chance to say "hey there's XYZ special situation going on that means you really need to be at Other Parent's house tonight."
posted by Stacey at 4:19 PM on September 18 [2 favorites]

It's clear from the update that OP's home isn't the stepdaughter's home when OP is the only adult there. And that's because the bio mom won't let it be. What a shitty situation. Bio mom put you in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Given what you shared in your update, she's not worth worrying about. Talk to your spouse and stepdaughter about what happened and why, and ways to handle situations like this in the future.
posted by Mavri at 8:56 PM on September 18 [12 favorites]

Stepparent of teenager here. The huge flag here is that she came to be with you on a day when she was scheduled to be at her mum's house. There was a reason for that. If I were you I would be trying to be as nice and apologetic as possible to everyone whilst trying to get to the bottom of that somehow.
posted by tillsbury at 9:11 PM on September 18 [4 favorites]

The "litigious bio mom" scenario is completely different from the "idk, I just wanted some me-time" scenario. So if you haven't already, you should make clear to partner and kid that that was your motivation
posted by Omnomnom at 10:46 PM on September 18 [12 favorites]

If it comes down to pissing off her mom or telling her in essence that you would rather spend time with your book bc you want to avoid conflict with the bio mom after 10 years, I am still on the side of ignoring the agreement and letting her stay. I say this as a divorced dad whose ex routinely would ask to override our custody agreement and I would evaluate the request solely on what was in the kid's best interest not in what was in mine. My kids understood that at the time and subsequently have thanked me for it more than once. They appreciate not being put in the middle of my relationship with my ex. Now that they are adults, they appreciate it even more.

To be worried that bio mom would go to court to complain that you took care of her daughter who had covid while she was out of town rather than have her housesit with her brother is not as bad as the me-time excuse, but it is not a good excuse in my opinion.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:02 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]

This is a question about what a step-parent should have done in a situation where a child is attempting to change a rule the child's biological parents put in place. It's not a question about, for instance, what a divorced parent did when the other divorced parent attempted to change a rule. The parent in that example was in a completely different situation in a completely different role with a completely different party with also a completely different role asking for a rule change. What would a divorced parent speaking as a divorced parent have to say about another divorced parent who failed to inform their current spouse that the usual rule--my children do not stay in this house when I am not here--had been suspended? That might be of use, possibly.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:33 AM on September 19 [4 favorites]

Everyone is wrong.

Your husband and his ex-wife dropped the ball and they are no doubt displacing their own guilty feelings onto you. They should have communicated better. They should have stepped up.

However, you are also wrong, because although you had no technical obligation, your stepdaughter is a person who was suffering from a lack of parental care and you should have stepped up because it was the right thing to do, and I think you know that.

Your fight with your husband and his ex should be completely separate from your relationship with her. You treated her like their burden, instead of like a person. I think you know deep down this was not morally optimal. Your feelings of anger at husband and ex are justified but your actions were also pretty uncharitable.
posted by stockpuppet at 11:28 AM on September 19 [5 favorites]

I really don't see this as your fault, even before the update. Stepdaughter's legal guardians were the ones responsible for her whereabouts, and neither of them contacted you, so at that point you had no responsibility to care for her, and how dare they to blame you for it. (And as you mentioned, that could've potentially caused legal trouble for you - with a litigious bio-mom I definitely would've been reluctant to have her stay as well.) One thing I haven't seen mentioned though is the fact that phone calls still exist. There's a lot about miscommunications and texting, but this seems like a "let me call your mom/dad and check with them" situation. Even if you had let her stay, that still would've been a good idea from a CYA perspective- at least one of her legal guardians should've known, and agreed to, her location that evening.
posted by storminator7 at 7:08 PM on September 19 [2 favorites]

As a parent with 50-50 shared custody, I can tell you this: divorce negatively impacts these kids' lives 100% and the parents 0%, because the kids are the ones stuck with moving from one house to another 52 times per year for the rest of their childhood. Can you imagine doing that yourself? It's stressful and annoying and truly unsettling, because the kids ARE unsettled. 52 times a year. Unsettled from here to there and there to here.

So the very least any parent can do is make sure the kids don't feel like they don't have a home of their own. Make sure the kids know that BOTH homes belong TO THEM, not just to the parent who lives there full time. The kids are not moving from hotel room o hotel room that they have rented just for that week. The kids are moving from their own home to their own home, both of which belong to them even if they are not living there.

This task ought to fall to the parents but ... idk, with litigation it would be impossible. To me it is obvious that your stepchild had just as much right to be there unexpectedly as your partner would have if he returned home unexpectedly. But in your situation, if litigation is the threat hanging over your head, who knows??
posted by MiraK at 9:51 AM on September 20 [4 favorites]

Your husband is the asshole for not letting you know his daughter would be staying on Monday with your permission - he basically made his parallel parenting problem yours to manage. He should get over his putative fear of his former wife; this fear is being used to extract domestic labor out of you, who would otherwise be an empty nester with a home all to yourself.
posted by edithkeeler at 2:15 AM on September 21 [1 favorite]

I would put this less in terms of you sucking and more in terms of you missing an opportunity. As someone suggested above, she was wanting or needing something; the fact that she asked you revealed a level of trust that to me is kind of touching in a kid that age. It suggests to me that you've been doing something right for the past ten years. Maybe she was acting entitled and clueless, but at least on some level she wanted to spend time with you. I would take her out for lunch or coffee and say, "I wasn't prepared when you came over and I dropped the ball but actually I appreciate that you did come over."

Another thought is that maybe being covid-positive added to the confusion. She may have been run down and fatigued and did not communicate well. But anyway, she is coming back from a rock concert and she is not tripping or visibly hung over and she wants to see a parental figure. That's good! You don't want her thinking twice about reaching out to you someday soon when her date wants to drive drunk or something.
posted by BibiRose at 7:53 AM on September 23 [4 favorites]

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