Care and Feeding

I’m the Only One Who Parents My Boyfriend’s Son

I’m basically parenting my boyfriend, too.

Woman dealing with 7-year-old boy while her boyfriend plays video games on the sofa.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Care and Feeding:

My boyfriend and I have been living together for four years, and purchased our home together two years ago. He has a 7-year-old son, “Mikey,” whom we have a little less than half of the time. When it comes to the possibility of our own marriage and children, we have remained in a state of ambiguity, with neither of us really for or against it.

Through the process of helping to raise Mikey, I’ve begun to realize that my partner and I have some fundamental differences in regard to child rearing. He is very loving and affectionate and engaged with his son, but there is little discipline or structure unless it’s initiated by me. Sometimes I feel like I’m having to parent him while he parents Mikey. Things that might seem like common sense to most adults don’t occur to my boyfriend without my prodding: not allowing Mikey to have six hours of screen time, making sure he goes to bed on time, having him practice tying his own shoes or reading, not backing down on these things the second he has a tantrum. I recognize that Mikey is my boyfriend’s child and that he has to make the decisions about how he is parented, but I end up stuck in the middle when he doesn’t do the right thing.

At this point, I’ve realized that even if I decided I did want a baby, I don’t see us being able to function like this full time. My boyfriend is incredibly loving, normally very attentive, generous, and patient—all qualities that are important for a partner and father. But he just can’t seem to manage the more difficult parts of parenting. I want to be able to be more nurturing and fun with my stepson, but the other stuff that needs to be done won’t happen if I don’t do it—and I feel like Mikey is going to hate me if this continues.

I also manage all of the household scheduling, plan all of our trips, buy Mikey’s clothes, figure out how to make holidays special (even when Mikey is with his mom), etc. For instance, Mikey’s mom changed part of his routine for this new school year and instead of making any attempt at figuring it out on his own, my boyfriend just asked me the details and claimed he didn’t have the time to do so himself. He just expects me to handle nearly everything, which I do begrudgingly because it has to get done.

Before you ask: Yes, I’ve brought these concerns up with him, several times. In fact, we were very close to breaking up about it at one point. But I love this man with everything I have, and I know he feels the same. Is it possible for us to be great partners together but just not great parents together? I would rather be with him than be a single mother, but I feel like if we were to have another child, it would break us up.

–Raising My Man and His Kid

Dear RMMaHK,

Girl.

Girl.

Girl.

I had half a mind to reply to your email with my number so we could just talk through this mess on the phone. Alas, there may be other women out there in long-term relationships with adult-size children who could use this advice, so we’ll just do this here. First, let’s establish a few things:

1) You’re uncertain about starting a family with your boyfriend.

2) You own a home with said boyfriend, in which you are helping to raise his child approximately 50 percent of the time.

3) You perform a disproportionate number of the duties involved in raising that child, who you refer to as your “stepson.”

Honeybun, you’ve already started a family with your boyfriend. Though there isn’t a legally binding agreement in regard to your romantic partnership, you are tied to him through the ownership of the home. And given the role you have in Mikey’s life, he might be difficult to sever ties with as well … even though you don’t get to do the fun stuff and are the default authority figure in your home.

Does your boyfriend bathe Mikey and get him dressed for school? Does he prepare all his meals? Contribute extra money toward shared expenses so that you might pursue a career that you’re passionate about without worry, or lavish you with presents in gratitude for the extra work you put in on the caregiving front? Has he provided invaluable emotional support or nurtured your spirit somehow? What does he give, provide, do for you (and his son) that might deliver some semblance of equity?

Few relationships are defined by a perfect 50/50 division of labor, and as we know, most hetero partnerships find the woman providing unmatched care and effort in the home while also working outside of it. However, your particular situation has found you taking on many of the responsibilities of raising a child (who is not yet your stepson, no matter how much you love him) on behalf of a man whose child-rearing skills seem to be severely lacking.

All of this is to say that it doesn’t matter that you’d rather be with your man than be a single mother, because to some extent you’re a single mother right now. There’s a man in your bed and to hold doors for you, but he’s leaving you to do the work of parenting alone—the work of parenting his child. You ask, “Is it possible to be great partners together but not great parents together?” Sure, but you’re not great partners at this point. You are unhappily doing the work of caring for Mikey in ways that his own dad is either unwilling or incapable of doing. That is not a partnership, sis.

Both of you are somewhat ambivalent when it comes to the idea of a second child and legal marriage, but I’m curious to know if your attitude about those things predates this relationship. If having a child of your own isn’t something that you deeply desire, then so be it. There’s nothing wrong with casting that aside to be with someone with whom you don’t wish to have a baby. Are you OK with operating as you have all along, so long as a new baby isn’t thrown into the mix? Are you ambivalent about marriage because without it, you know that you can walk away at some point with relative ease?

You can discuss these issues with your man until you are blue in the face, but until there are some consequences for his shortcomings, you and I both know he won’t change. I think you should make it clear to him that you are unable to continue on this path and that you refuse to do the heavy lifting alone any longer—but I don’t know that you are at that point. Like most truly responsible adults, you can’t bear to watch what would happen if you dropped the ball and stopped keeping everything together.

What would your partner do if you weren’t doing the work of raising his son? My guess? He’d find another willing woman to do it, leaving him free to be the “fun” dad who gives piggyback rides and extra screen time. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s time for you to see just how deep his commitment to you truly goes. You say you’re madly in love with this guy, and I think it’s important that you figure out if he’s madly in love with you, too. Is he in love enough to grow up and change for you? Either let him know that you need a change to make this work, or make peace with the fact that so long as you’re willing to be the mule of the home, how it is now is exactly how it’s gonna be. Best of luck and please, I beg you, do not get pregnant until you have established some requirements of this man as a parent and seen him live up to them.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m the recently (and happily) divorced dad of two girls, ages 6 and 9. My ex and I are not necessarily close with many of their friends’ parents, so many of them may not know that we’ve split up. Do I need to disclose that I’m now a single dad when I’m scheduling play dates?

I’m the same father I always was, our house is the same house, and I have supervised our children and their buddies alone countless times. But given everything we hear about how men are creeps, I wonder whether certain parents might look askance at sending their daughters over to a single dad’s house to play?

—Trying to Do the Right Thing

Dear TtDtRT,

Your concern that parents will feel differently about letting their daughters come to your home is at once ridiculous, unfair, and completely justified. Alas, we’re socialized to be on alert for creepy behavior from men and to see them as inferior caregivers. (Meanwhile, we’re often unable to recognize predatory women.) My own mom sent me to visit friends and relatives with a stern order to avoid being alone with any men under any circumstances, and grilled me when I got home about any inappropriate behavior that may have taken place while I was gone. Now that I’m old enough to have heard some family stories she didn’t share with me back then, I can’t help but to understand why she took that approach—but these days I caution my child about all adults and kids, because terrible knows no gender or age.

Next time you make a play date, simply say, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that Sarah and I have divorced and she has moved out. It’s a peaceful situation and the girls are handling things pretty well. I wanted to let you know because Tasha may be expecting to see Sarah here when she comes by next week and may come home with some questions.”

If they don’t have your ex-wife’s number and she’s also down to host some of these get-togethers, share her contact info. Be prepared for the possibility that some parents will be more comfortable sending their kids to her home, and try not to take it personally. There are some specific indignities that accompany single fatherhood (the politics of the public bathroom, for example), but you’ll get enough fawning of the Wow, a man who is raising his children? Amazing! variety to balance it out. Good luck!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Are there any parents out there who do trips without their kids? We took one about three years ago (our kids were ages 1 and 10 at the time) and another one the following year. We’ve been discussing the possibility of taking another one in the near future, but I’m feeling some guilt this time around.

When I ask other parents where they stand on the matter, I get the stink eye, followed by, “Oh no, I’ve never been away from my kids for more than one night.” Are we being selfish? Is it unusual for both parents to peace out for a few days for a little bit of quiet time?

—We Need a Break

Dear WNaB,

If kid-free trips are unusual, it’s only because there are so many people out there who seem to treat parenting as a sentence, the best parts of your life completely erased so that you might become a full-time indentured servant to your children. It’s illogical and unhealthy. Taking time away from your kids is one of the best things you can do for yourself—and for your continued ability to care for them.

“I’ve never been away from my kids for more than a bathroom trip”–ass mothers make me sick. (I’m sure there are dads out there like this, but I’ve yet to meet one.) It’s one thing for a parent not to spend time away because they don’t have the resources or don’t have the desire to do so; it’s a whole ’nother one if they’ve made being tragic, self-sacrificing parents part of their identity. That has nothing to do with you.

Enjoy your vacation and bring back some cool souvenirs for the kids. Also, on the off chance that you’ve never taken a family trip, be sure to make time for one of those at some point as well. It doesn’t have to be far or expensive to be memorable for them. Happy travels!

—Jamilah

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