Care and Feeding

My Stepson Is Wonderful. But I Just Don’t Love Him.

Doesn’t he deserve someone better than me?

Anguished woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rido/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 14-year-old stepson whom I first met when he was a toddler. He spent weekends with his father and me until he was 7, when he moved in with us because his mom moved out of state and we were awarded physical custody. When we got married several years ago, I asked him what he wanted to call me, and he said “Mom.” He is smart, bright, funny, and generous, and he has a heart of gold. He deserves to have present, loving parents as much as every single kid out there does. And yet, I do not love him.

I go through the motions of what I know a parent is supposed to provide her child. I do the things, buy the stuff, spend the time, ask the questions, try to engage. And I feel none of it. I know the difference because his father and I have our own biological children now, and what my heart feels for my own is everything that I don’t feel for my stepson.

It’s difficult enough for me to struggle through parenting without feeling the parental love (oh man, managing the resentment and guilt that builds up as a result is an active, constant process)—but I can’t even imagine what I’m doing to the poor kid. I know that even if he can’t consciously recognize my lack of maternal love, he feels it subconsciously and there’s no way that this isn’t fucking him up.

Everyone has reassured me over the years that my love for him would come, not to push it or rush it. But I’ve tried so many different approaches—spending more time with him, less time with him, no time with him, one-on-one time with him, sharing my interests, sharing his interests … and still. I do not miss him when he’s not around. I do not wish to spend more time with him.

He so deserves a mom who loves him unconditionally, which apparently I can’t be because I’m deficient? Evil? I dunno. Regardless, how can I give my stepson the unconditional maternal love that he deserves and needs? If I can’t, would it be best to break up with my husband so he can find a better mom for his son, or is that way too late at this point to be helpful? (I would be impacting our biological children, too.) What can I even do at this point to minimize the damage I’m doing to my stepson?

—What’s Wrong With Me?

Dear What’s Wrong With Me?

Oh, my dear, there is so much self-loathing radiating from this letter. Your head is a tough place to be right now. I cannot possibly say with any assurance that your belief you are “fucking up” your stepson is coming from an accurate or objective place. You describe a happy, healthy, smart, and generous young man, who is being raised by what I assume is a good and loving father, as well as a woman who is actively trying to be a good parent to him on a daily basis. In the history of humans ham-fistedly trying to raise the next generation, that’s a pretty good childhood, I have to tell you.

You need one-on-one therapy immediately. I would ordinarily encourage you to first talk to your husband, but I am extremely uncertain that you are a reliable narrator of your own life at this moment, and you’re displaying some catastrophizing that a professional would handle best. (No, you should not leave your marriage!) Talking to your husband will be an important part of the process, but I’m genuinely concerned about your mental health right now and want you to start there.

I don’t think you’re in a place to hear this right now, but let me remind you (and all my readers) that love is also an action, and by doing what you describe as “going through the motions” in asking the right questions, showing interest, showing up, you are, in fact, loving your stepson. It’s the truth. Please keep me posted.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are trying to decide when to start our daughter in preschool. She turns 2 in late August, and right now she is cared for by a loving nanny. We love the convenience and one-on-one care of a nanny, but I admit to feeling as though the children of my friends who are in day care have a better sense of daily structure. My daughter is great on her regular schedule—naps and sleeps well, is social and happy—so I am not worried about it now, but I wonder when we need to start instilling a more structured day. My husband feels that preschool at 2 is a waste of money that could be better invested in her college fund, and part of me agrees with him. That said, I am also concerned that our daughter will be starting from behind with regards to daily structure and the discipline of a school day if she waits to start until 3. We have talked about just having her attend 2–3 mornings a week, but it’s still over $8,000 a year and we are already paying for a nanny.

Am I signing my daughter up for a miserable initial school experience if I wait to enroll her until she is 3? Am I flushing money down the toilet if she starts at 2?

—Am I Overthinking This?

Dear Overthinker,

Having been asked for my opinion, I will gladly give it: If you have good quality in-home child care (with you or a nanny), a 2-year-old will thrive in that environment, and it would be premature to move them into preschool just because you feel you should.

Three-year-olds are both a bit sturdier when it comes to hitting that first cold-and-flu season spent in constant contact with damp, sticky peers, and also more ready to benefit from the particular group socialization that preschool provides than 2-year-olds.

If your 2-year-old needed to be placed in preschool, for whatever reason, I wouldn’t worry about it at all, but since doing so is an added financial burden, I can cheerfully tell you that waiting until 3 is a good choice. If you want to add some structure to your child’s day, you can do that without dropping 10 grand.

Best of luck, whatever you decide!

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My stepdaughter is 9 and is very attached to our old dog, “Rover.” The dog now has metastasized cancer and cannot be cured, so we are doing our best to make him comfortable in his final days or weeks with us. It’s unclear how long he will last before we have to put him down to end his suffering. Now he has good and bad days, and it’s not yet time for him to go. That could change very quickly, however.

Although my stepdaughter understands that Rover has cancer, and that is it is serious and he cannot be “cured,” I don’t think she has internalized that the cancer is going to result in Rover’s death, and sooner than we all would like.

My question is, how do we involve stepdaughter in putting the dog down, which seems inevitable? I don’t want her to feel like we decided to kill her dog and hold it against us. But it might have to happen even if she doesn’t want it to. Also, what do we do if she wants to attend the actual vet appointment when the drugs are administered? Is it better that she be there for closure and understanding of what happened? Or is it too traumatizing?

—Saying Goodbye

Dear Saying Goodbye,

I’m so sorry about Rover. The only thing worse in this situation than the loss of a beloved pet is being forced to make an active decision to end that pet’s life. You have all my sympathies (and my empathy, having been down that road myself).

Take a moment to reflect on how much better you are already handling this than the generations of parents who opted for “Buster ran away!” and “Ol’ Patch is moving to a farm upstate.” Honesty and transparency are vital for your children, but they’re not easy gifts either to give or to receive.

Talk to your vet. A 9-year-old is old enough to be part of this process, but your vet will have walked many, many families through this sad transition and may have age-appropriate policies and/or resources to make this a bit easier. This may mean a sit-down with Rover and your vet and your family where your vet talks about the realities of the situation and the options at hand. It may involve talking about what Rover’s day-to-day life is like, and how you’ll know when that changes from being OK to being not OK.

If your daughter decides she wants to be in the room, I think she’s old enough to be there. One suggestion I have which may or may not be an option in your veterinary practice (it varies a lot) is to see if your vet is willing to come put Rover down in your own home. This is 100 times easier on Rover and will also provide a more stable and familiar situation for your daughter than a sterile room, a nervous dog, and a lot of howling from the waiting room.

Regardless, I think erring on the side of honesty and giving her the chance to have and express difficult emotions around Rover’s loss is the way to go here. When the time comes, you might ask her to help you make a scrapbook from photos of happier times with Rover, or to write a poem or a little eulogy.

I wish this wasn’t happening, but I think you can make this experience something that will help your daughter in her life and not scar her. You’ll be in my thoughts.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Here’s what I hope will be an easy question for you: What do you think of little kids and sugary drinks? I’m talking specifically juices and sodas.

I don’t like the taste of juice, and I’m an often-lapsed but recovering Diet Coke addict. I’ve taught my 6-year-old that Diet Coke is bad for me, and he discourages me from drinking it and I have cut back dramatically. He accidentally mixed up drinks at a restaurant with me one time and was horrified by the taste and bubbles. My husband is a juice drinker, and we always have apple juice and orange juice around. For reasons I don’t recall, we used to give my son watered-down juices, though he’s generally grown out of that and drinks only water or milk now. We have an almost–2-year-old and my husband gave her apple juice recently. I didn’t get mad, but I see zero need for children to have juice or soda. (My only exception is when they’re sick and we’re pushing fluids on them, and water isn’t enticing them.) When we’re at restaurants, I let my son get chocolate milk or watered-down lemonade, so it’s not a total ban, but I worry about cavities and/or weight issues with wider access to these things in the future.

—Water, Water Everywhere

Dear Water, Water Everywhere,

You’re fine. The existing system is fine. This isn’t a huge deal and you’re handling it fairly well and have drawn sensible boundaries.

One thing I do want you to avoid: It’s very easy to scare a kid by telling them you do something that’s bad for you (i.e. Diet Coke). You can say “sodas are a sometimes food for grown-ups”; you can say “mostly I like to make healthier choices but sometimes I like a treat”; but little kids worry about their parents and if they see you doing something you say is “bad for you,” they’re going to stress about it and try to make you stop.

That’s unnecessary. It’s already happened with your 6-year-old, it’s going to be OK, but don’t repeat that with your younger child. There are much better ways to limit sugary beverages, and you’re already doing most of them!