Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Dad was planning on divorce—then mom got sick: My mom died when I was 7 and my sister was 4 from cancer, which she’d had for a couple of years. My dad met a widow with a young child, and they moved on together pretty quickly—we were all living together within a year, and another sister was born soon after that. One of the reasons that it was always OK—weird, but OK—was how happy my stepmom made my dad. Like, grinning all the time, playful, flirty, a little demonstrative. You could just tell they loved each other deeply, and she loved us, and it wasn’t a “widows needing comfort and a co-parent thing.” It’s more than 20 years later and they’re still together, and there are five mostly grown kids now, and we’re a pretty well-adjusted blended family. My stepmom has been Mom for most of that time.
Most of my memories of my parents’ marriage, on the other hand: pretty stressed. That’s understandable because she was sick from the time I was 4 on. I always assumed that there had been a happy period, that they had been in love once, that the “co-parenting” I sort of remembered was blocking earlier, better times. But recently my uncle let it slip that prior to the diagnosis, my dad had been pretty close to filing for divorce. Like, maybe weeks away, and had been talking to a lawyer about how to petition for joint custody. Instead, he stayed with her and managed her care for the next two years. It’s completely thrown my perception of my dad and my stepmother. I know not all marriages are great, but I’m having a hard time coming to terms with this and not being angry with him. He says that he loved my mother and wasn’t going to leave her when she was sick, but yes, the relationships were completely different, and he’s “lucky and astounded” that he and my stepmother found each other and have had a happy two decades. He thinks I’m an adult and should have some empathy in the situation, but all I can think of is that his “second chance” literally came at the expense of my mother’s life. My stepmom is trying to stay out of it, but my fiancé and I have missed the last three family Sunday dinners because I’m too angry to see his face. What should I do?
A: Right now, I think you should allow yourself to be angry, and take a little time and space to process this new information. It sounds like your dad is already aware that you know, so you don’t have to worry about whether you should say anything to him. Since everything is out in the open, I think the best thing for you to say is, “I know this was all a long time ago, but this information is new to me and it’s hitting me harder than I could have anticipated. I love you, but I want to take space to process some of my feelings before I talk about it with you again. Can I let you know [in a few weeks, or leave it open-ended if you need to] when I’m ready to talk?”
I’d encourage you to set up a few sessions with a therapist, or even a grief counselor. Grief can often pop up at unexpected times or long after the loss of someone we love. I do think that your father’s request for empathy makes sense, but that doesn’t mean you have to rush yourself out of what you’re feeling right now. I do hope you can allow yourself to feel these feelings and also acknowledge that what he chose to do—to care for your mother for two years, to commit to her well-being and her comfort, to be with her as she died—was loving and compassionate. And just because your father was contemplating divorce at that time doesn’t mean he never loved her or that they were never happy together. I don’t think that his new relationship came at the expense of your mother’s life, but I understand that part of what’s causing you pain is that your mother died young and your father is alive and happily married. That’s unfair, but it’s part of the deep unfairness of life that people don’t necessarily have any control over, and I don’t think you can rightly hold your father responsible. Take this time, be honest with your father about what conversations you’re ready for, and let yourself feel whatever comes up—but treat him with respect, and strive to move toward empathy and understanding at your own pace.