Care and Feeding

“My Stepmother” or “Dad’s Wife”?

My widowed father is likely to remarry soon. I’m 20; where does that leave me?

Young woman looks worriedly toward older couple walking away arm in arm.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by dmbaker/iStock/Getty Images Plus and amazingmikael/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother died in mid-January. We saw the loss coming and had a lot of beautiful experiences with her in the interim. Overall, I’d say we’re adjusting to her passing pretty well.

My dad has recently started dating again. He misses the companionship that came with marriage, and while I don’t think he’s going to rush into anything, I wouldn’t be surprised if he remarries within two years.

My problem is I’m 20 and just about to start my second year of college. All my siblings are five to seven years older than me and have their own lives. I’m still living with Dad when I’m not at school.

What are my responsibilities here? Is this hypothetical woman in a place where she would be more like a parent of mine, or my dad’s wife? If Dad moves in with someone, do I move as well, or is the expectation that I find my own place? I worry that because everyone else is established, I’m going to end up forgotten.

—Too Old to Parent, Too Young to Neglect

Dear Too Old, Too Young,

I am so sorry for the loss of your mother, but glad that you were able to share quality time with her as you prepared for this transition and to have a peaceful grieving process.

The difference between “my stepmother” and “Dad’s wife” is made by any number of variables. If your father remarries in two years, as you suspect he might, you will still be a young woman who is capable of benefiting from a maternal relationship. But if, say, he marries a 38-year-old, it’s quite unlikely you’d have that sort of nurturing dynamic with someone so close to your age. That said, he also could partner with a 65-year-old who doesn’t have strong maternal instincts or any interest in functioning as a parent.

Because you and your siblings are adults now, you shouldn’t expect that your father will find someone who wants to take your mother’s place in the lives of his children (not that a beloved mother can ever be replaced)—and, as you said, what he’s in need of at the moment is the companionship of a partner. However, he certainly should be concerned with how any woman he’d be with long-term may interact with his children and/or grandchildren, especially considering that they have lost their mother.

Talk to your dad about what you are feeling and what your needs are at this moment. If you’d planned to live at home between semesters and perhaps for some time after college, make sure he is aware of that and why it’s so important to you. Let him know that you are open to embracing a new love in his life, but that you have some anxiety about your place as the baby of the family. Share these conversations with your siblings. Your responsibility is to treat any new woman who comes around with the respect she deserves (which means that if she’s awful, don’t defer to her, confer with your family, and figure out how to address that), and to also be open and honest with your pops and siblings about what you need and feel.

—Jamilah