I didn’t find anything in the archives so I hope I’m not asking this when it’s been covered before. My boyfriend and I live together with his 11 y/o daughter, and I’m having some trouble figuring out how to be “dad’s girlfriend.” Quick background: My boyfriend (we’ll call him A) had his daughter (N) when he was 16, married and divorced N’s mom, moved two states away for work and when N’s mom was visited by CPS N was taken away. When A finally got a phone call about now N had been taken he was there as fast as he could be (18 hour drive one way) and has had N in his custody ever since (6 years now?)
One of the things I love most about A is how dedicated of a parent he is. Where the awkward happens is that I’ve only been out of my family’s home for 3 years (2 of which A and I have been dating) and I’m still struggling to figure out how to be the adult figure. A takes care of most discipline and dictates chores, rules, etc for N, and that’s great, but I don’t know what is acceptable as the girlfriend.
I don’t feel comfortable taking a motherly role, because N still has a mom even if she’s states away, and N is still at the age where EVERYTHING ABOUT ABSENT PARENT IS COOL. It breaks my heart, my (very basic) understanding of psychology makes me think that she misses having a mother regardless of all the crappy things mom did. Even after N had a telephone call where mom put the phone to her chest (or simply thought no one could hear over the phone) and said “Why doesn’t she just get over it already?” N talks about how much she loves mom and wishes to go visit.
That ball is totally in A’s court, but I’m stuck wondering what I’m supposed to be. I’ve had step parents myself, both of which took controlling/authoritative roles. I -hated- it. I’ve avoided doing that (out of my own fears of being “evil dad’s girlfriend”) but now I’m stuck in a limbo where when I’m alone with N I don’t know what might be out of line, so I turn into a wet noodle and clam up. It doesn’t help that I’m incredibly introverted and N isn’t so I have a hard time relating.
I just want some outside perspective on what I might do as Dad’s girlfriend. I’ve gone over the subject somewhat with A but he’ll usually give me a “You’re doing fine!” answer and I’m still stumped. Any awkwardeers have experiences to share?
You know what I like best about your question? That when you ask how to be “Dad’s Girlfriend,” it’s clear you don’t mean “how can I deal with the unfortunate fact that the guy I love has this pesky kid,” but “I think Kid and I could maybe be more to each other than we are, and I’d like that, but I want to get it right and I’m not sure what right is from Kid’s perspective.”
Which makes perfect sense to me. When you started dating A, you didn’t know how things were going to go with him, much less with Kid. And even if she was the coolest 9-year-old on the planet who wanted her dad to be happy and understood that having an awesome woman in his life would increase the chances of that, and even if she was prepared to accept that you might be an awesome woman, she’d have been wary, wondering if you were going to be around long enough for it to be worth letting you into her heart, and if you were going to be around how it would change things for her. And you’re an introvert, so not the kind of person who could’ve jumped in and been instant BFFs even if she’d been primed for that, which she probably wasn’t. So try not to feel bad that you’re not closer already.
But it doesn’t sound like N is seething with animosity towards you. And at this point you’ve been with A two years, and you’re all living together. My sense is that under the circumstances, the you-and-Kid-kind-of-holding-one-another-at-arm’s-length dynamic doesn’t feel right anymore. You’re ready for more. You realize that your triangle is missing a side, or at least that one side is weaker than it should be.
I think your instincts are right on about that, not just from your perspective, but from Kid’s (and maybe even A’s).
Years ago, a colleague of mine whose life-partner actively did not want a child (he already had grown ones) was planning to go ahead because her partner had given “permission,” on the terms that he would never be expected to change a diaper or give a bath, pick up the child when it (and clearly the guy thought “it”) was crying, take it to school or a doctor’s appointment, or be the one to adjust his schedule to stay home with it. The child was to be hers only, and he could absolutely ignore it. I’m sure my colleague thought he would fall in love with the child once he/she was born, but I found the fact that a man who had had any exposure at all to kids could even propose such a thing thoroughly chilling. What would it do to a kid to be absolutely invisible to his/her stone-cold parent on a face-to-face basis, every day of his/her life???? (The couple broke up, thank god, before anyone had to find out).
Need I say I like you a whole lot better than that guy? I think it can only be good for Kid to be told that although you’re quiet by nature and had bad step-parent experiences that have made you not want to tromp into her life like an elephant, and you know her relationship with her mother is important to her and you don’t want to edge her mom out or anything, she is such an irresistably awesome kid that the better you get to know her the harder you’re finding it to be just Dad’s Girlfriend. That she feels like family to you, and though no, you can’t swear it’s forever (because that’s dependent on what happens between A and you), you’d like to have a relationship directly with her — to build the third side of the triangle, without worrying too much about what label y’all put on that relationship. (Or if a non-motherly label would make either of you (or her mother) more comfortable, tell her you’d like to treat her like a much-loved niece, if that’s ok with her).
Yes, I know it’s important to be careful with prospective step-kids, given that you and the parent could break up. No, one doesn’t want to rush things. But given that you and A have been together two years and you are all living together, I don’t think now qualifies as rushing.
I think it is far, far better to risk loving each other and having that direct relationship than for her to think your reserve with her is because you don’t like her. Because that carries the message that she’s not all that powerfully lovable. Which is what she’ll think (at least sometimes) if that third side of the triangle is flimsy. Other times she’ll just think there’s something wrong with you. Sometimes she’ll wonder how her father could love someone who is apparently ambivalent to her, and what that says about his true feelings for her. (“Does he think it’s perfectly natural that she’s not that into me, because he wouldn’t be, either, if he wasn’t my dad?”)
Obviously, you’ll need to talk to A about this, but it sounds like he already trusts your instincts with his child. Unless your relationship with him is wobblier than it sounds, I think he’ll be pleased you want to give more of yourself to Kid, especially given your sensitivity to her perspective. I really don’t think you’re in danger of overreaching, given your natural diffidence.
On the contrary, I think you may need to work on the diffidence a bit. You may not be the adult in your household, but you are an adult. The ball is not entirely in A’s court. You get to raise the subject of what you need for the household’s relationships to feel healthy and happy. And you absolutely get to require that Kid treat you with courtesy and respect when it’s just the two of you. That is not a right reserved to parents; by insisting on it you won’t be usurping someone else’s rights or pretending to be someone you’re not. You may want to get some step-parenting books from the library to help you navigate those waters.
As for How To, do ordinary life stuff with her. Gradually be the one who drives her places more often (car rides when it’s just the two of you are great for connecting with kids). Encourage A to have you be the one who takes her on little errands; take her for haircuts or to the doctor; take her shopping for A’s birthday gift or a birthday-party gift or new sports gear when a season starts; if you and she like shopping, just take her shopping, period. Cook/bake. Do her nails. If you/she prefer less girly stuff, do that — just make it about the stuff; no “get to know you” lunches or awkward forced hang-out time around the house where you’re not doing something. And don’t force it; make things casual and occasional offers/invitations like “I’m in the mood for chocolate chip cookies, want to help make some?” and don’t act bummed if she says “nah.”
Basically, just eliminate the idea that you’re doing her a kindness by holding back, and do what comes naturally from there, and you’ll do fine.