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Carolyn Hax: Stepmom wants ‘normal’ Italy retreat vs. always deferring to kid

6 days ago 46

Dear Carolyn: My husband has custody of his 8-year-old daughter every other weekend. In our five years together, I have been utterly respectful of his duties as a father and his kid’s well-being.

But I have been invited to do a seven-week fellowship and retreat in Italy, and I would love to bring my husband. We have NEVER taken a nice trip together. We didn’t even really do a honeymoon because of work and his kid.

He said no to Italy because it would mean missing three or four visits from his daughter. For the first time, I felt mad and deprived. The other participants will have their partners there, exploring the city while we work. I want us to do this one normal thing.

It is not possible to bring the kid with us. If my husband came with me for a little while, then he couldn’t stay for longer than about 10 days minus travel time, so that’s not worth it either.

Am I being totally selfish to want this? I feel that way, but I also feel entitled to want this normal thing. My one confidante about this, my mom, says it’s what I signed on for when I chose a man with a child.

— Selfish?

Selfish?: Your mom’s right; this is exactly what you agreed to, eyes open.

But that doesn’t mean you always have to like it, must always exude daisies and sunbeams, and can’t ever feel “mad and deprived.”

Just go feel mad and deprived somewhere outside the range of your stepdaughter so you can let it dissipate naturally. If you plan to keep confiding in Mom, then tell her you know it’s what you “signed on for,” but you have unresolved feelings you’d like to talk through so they don’t keep gnawing at you.

If Mom can’t be that person for you, then choose someone who is able to agree with you that weeks overseas retreating together is “normal,” because, well. Let’s just say I’m amusing myself with the mental image of the reception you’ll get if you choose wrong.

I kid, but a therapist is a good option here if feasible. Family blending is hard.

Which brings me to my second point. Having your moment to feel bad about missing out on something you want is more than mere self-indulgence. It’s about healthy emotional management.

If your response to your husband’s no-go on Italy were, “It’s A-okay, honey, because I’m so! lucky! to be your spouse! and a stepparent!!” then that would be forced and weird and, with repetition, distorting. Others wouldn’t know how you really felt, and eventually you might not, either.

So it’s important to trust that you can be 100 percent confident in your marriage and 100 percent pro-healthy-stepchild and still be bummed sometimes, out loud, about the restrictions on your husband’s time without feeling guilty about it.

So do that. Not harping, or dwelling, or undermining, of course; so-called venting (complaining with no productive purpose) only hands over more of your life to your problem and to others suffering in earshot. I’m saying only that you allow yourself to be honest about how you feel, and tell your husband that you understand (yes?) but are also really disappointed.

And: If you’re not okay with “no” to everything as a never-yielding fact of your lives, then say that, too; you understand seven weeks overseas is excessive, but what about one or two somewhere, someday soon?

And: If you made your agreements with him in good faith, and if you’ve learned some new things about yourself since, then it’s better to be transparent with him about your evolution than to just muscle through any dissonance till you crack.

I’m adding these two discussion extenders because I see signs of distortion already in your letter. Have another look. “I have been utterly respectful of his duties as a father and his kid’s well-being.” “We have NEVER taken a nice trip together.” “We didn’t even really do a honeymoon.” “For the first time I felt mad and deprived.” [My emphasis.] And, “he couldn’t stay for longer than about 10 days minus travel time, so that’s not worth it either.”

That all reads to me as:

Fine-fine-fine-fine-no-really-it’s-fiiiine-no-really-fine!-BOOM.

Doesn’t it to you, now, too?

And the BOOM hits twice: The “normal” thing that deprivation has pushed you to want so badly seems like a way bigger ask than a “nice trip” or a honeymoon would ever have been — plus it has you completely dismissing as inadequate a perfectly lovely 10-days-minus-travel with your husband in Italy this summer. Is it truly “not worth it” because it’s a week and not seven?

So here’s what I’m thinking. Maybe you’re overdue just to be you. Where you recognize you aren’t a saint and can’t always smile off the cost of your choices — even as you know you made them willingly and would (presumably) make them again because he passes every character test. And where you ask your husband to bear with you as you freely, lovingly meet others’ needs while also learning to understand and make room for your own.

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