I am in my 40s and live with my two daughters, X, 15, and Y, 12. Their father and I separated five years ago. X has over the years suffered from quite extreme anger issues. I sought help for this from her school and she had some intervention from a counsellor and mentor.
Two years ago, I began a relationship with Z, who was a family friend who had separated from his wife. We knew him because his son is in X’s year group. Z is the kindest and most considerate man I have ever had a relationship with. He has become a real part of my life.
The main issue is that X, in particular, refuses to accept him. She never speaks to him, leaves the room when he comes round and is extremely moody when he is with me. When we do talk about it she says that she hates him, he is annoying, it’s embarrassing being at school with his son, she will never speak to him and he makes her feel sick. I have reinforced my commitment to her and Y, and told them that they are number one in my life but it has made no difference.
Y has a better relationship with Z and genuinely seems to like him. He is at pains to be quite hands off within our family and is very sensitive to their needs.
We are now extremely discreet and if we are all in the house at the same time, I am often with them to reinforce the message that they are important. In spite of this, I find the rare times we are all together almost unbearable as the tension is so high.
I am aware that I am giving the girls a lot of power in all of this. Friends tell me I deserve to have a life and yet I don’t feel comfortable being completely selfish in this way.
Anon, via email
I had to cut a lot out of your letter because a great deal has happened in your life. I can see how you and your girls have had a tumultuous, occasionally scary, time. You have survived a life-threatening illness and a destructive relationship.
On the face of it, this seems pretty clear cut and simple. But family life never is. Psychotherapist Paula Hall (itsgoodtotalk.org.uk) has this viewpoint: “Your daughter, E, has lost her dad, she nearly lost you [through illness] and now she’s scared of losing you again [to this relationship]. Mums and daughters can get very close during times of crisis. Seeing someone else take that role now might be very difficult for her. Also – by fighting with you – your daughter may be trying to maintain an intense relationship with you in the only way she knows how to at the moment.”
X seems fearful – hence the anger. But it’s also worth noting that teenagers can go through a period of intense rebellion and withdrawal from their parents, anyway, no matter what the family setup (this is the bit they never showed in the Waltons).
X may be embarrassed by your boyfriend’s son, and therefore embarrassed that you are dating his dad. And few teenagers like to think of their parents having sex, let alone with the parent of a friend.
So what to do? Well, because you are the way you are, you will find it hard to “be selfish” so think of it another way. Hall advises: “Recognise that by putting your needs first sometimes you are teaching your children a valuable lesson – that’s it’s OK for you to have a life and put yourself first occasionally. It’s good modelling.”
She suggests you let X know how you feel, ie: “I love you but I love this man too.”
You are entitled to have someone in your life other than your children.
X may also have residual stuff going on regarding her father and the divorce. Even though she doesn’t seem to get on with her father, she may see Z as replacing him.
You need to set some boundaries that are workable for you all. If you lead from the front and are confident (as I’ve said in the past, guilt is the enemy of confident parenting) then this will, in turn and in time, make your daughters feel confident in the situation too. No one feels safe with an apologetic ditherer. But to do this you have to believe you deserve a bit of your own life and that this doesn’t diminish you as a mother.
Hall suggests, when your boyfriend comes round, saying to your daughter “You can be civil; go out; or stay in your room,” or something along those lines. Give her an authoritative choice so she feels she has some control, but all the options must involve her being respectful to you and your choice of partner. In calmer moments it may also be worth pointing out to X that one day she will have a partner and asking how she would feel if you acted like she does.
First published in The Guardian Family section, 1 November 2013.