Care and Feeding

My Friend Equates Her Stepmom Experience With My Natural Motherhood and It Drives Me Crazy

She’s a great stepmom! But it’s not the same.

A stepmother and a child smiling at each other, while the "birth mother" scowls from afar.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by JBryson/iStock/Getty Images Plus and JackF/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve been friends with Nicole since childhood. She’s been married to Joe for the past seven years. He has custody of his 13-year-old son from a previous marriage, and he lives with them full time except for every other weekend. He’s a great kid.

Nicole has really taken to being a stepmom. She never wanted biological kids, and still doesn’t, but her generosity toward Joe’s son is admirable: She reads lots of advice books and supports her stepson in so many ways.

However: I am expecting my first child, and Nicole keeps equating my motherhood with being a stepmom. She keeps trying to give me advice and platitudes about parenthood. Nicole has a lot of experience, but I don’t think our situations are the same. I’m getting ready to bring a baby from my body into the world, which is something she hasn’t experienced. While she stepped up to stepparent, and is doing great at it, I don’t think it is the same as being a birth mother.

She has said things before in front of other friends that frustrated them and made them think she was drawing an equivalency between being a stepmom and a mom. The problem is that Nicole can be really touchy and temperamental, so while I would love to politely tell her to back off with the mom platitudes, I instead just distance myself. I always thought she would be like an extra aunt to my baby. What can I do?

—Just a Regular Mom

Dear JaRM,

There are certain experiences—getting married, having a child—that are so special that we confuse the issues and believe that they make us special. Having a child, however wonderful and magical that experience is, does not make you unique.

I’ve read and reread your letter so many times. I wonder whether or not you have? My advice: You’ve written this letter and gotten something off your chest. Now let the matter go. Don’t confront Nicole about this. Don’t think about this anymore. Maybe most importantly: Don’t think this way anymore.

Maybe someday, after you “bring a baby from your body into the world,” you’ll have the perspective to realize that you’re not being a very generous friend to someone you’ve known for most of your life. Maybe you’ll chuckle at what a know-it-all you were, certain that a mere stepmom would have nothing to teach you about being a mom. Maybe you’ll be sheepish about the irony in asserting that your friend is “touchy and temperamental” when you’ve written this very touchy letter.

For your sake, I hope that’s the case. If none of that comes to pass, for Nicole’s sake, I hope she decides she doesn’t want to be a mere “extra aunt” to your child and finds some more respectful friends.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister is divorced from her high school sweetheart. I was recently visiting our old hometown at the same time my ex–brother-in-law and his family were taking a vacation there. I have no kids myself, and I have three amazing nieces, so I politely asked if, while we were all in the same town, I could see the girls (all teenagers, who wanted to see me too) for an hour or so to get coffee.

I live on the West Coast and only see the kids once a year, if that. But my former brother-in-law’s new wife went ballistic—abusive texts and emails to my sister, name-calling, etc.—at my inquiry and said no way could I see the girls on their family vacation time.

I thought about meeting them at the park since they go there to hang out. But I worried the new wife might retaliate against the girls, so I opted not to. Was I out of line to try to see my nieces during their family vacation?

—Left-Out Aunt

Dear LOA,

I don’t think you were out of line, no. Unfortunately, I’m not the one who draws that particular line.

Abusive texts and name-calling aside, let’s try to see it from the new wife’s perspective. She might be one of those people who consider vacation sacred family time. She might be trying to use this time to foster a closer relationship with her stepdaughters. She might be sensitive about her status in the larger family unit.

None of this excuses her shoddy behavior, of course. And an hour with your nieces wouldn’t have undermined the family vacation—after all, you’re family too. I’m sorry this happened, but maybe think of giving your nieces the gift of handling this well. Don’t get into a whole back-and-forth with their stepmother, and try to put the ugly incident behind you. Schedule a visit with the girls soon and you may find this whole thing is forgotten soon enough.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our not-quite-2-year-old throws tantrums when my husband and I hug, kiss, or hold hands. He’s been doing it for over two months. We’re standing somewhere hugging? He’ll try to push us apart. We’re holding hands? He’ll try to separate our hands. It’s sometimes so he can hug me, sometimes so he can hug my husband. But it always seems to be about him, not us.

We’ve tried to turn it into a family hug, but he’ll only stop screaming when my husband and I no longer touch. We’ve tried to laugh it off, hoping it’s a phase that’ll just go away. It hasn’t.

We’ve turned to being firm, telling him that Mom and Dad are allowed to hug and he’ll have to wait to get a hug when it’s his turn, then letting him cry about it. But he won’t stop crying before we stop touching.

We are both physically affectionate; our son gets cuddles and kisses from both of us and is allowed to sleep in our bed when he wakes up at night. If anything, I hold and carry him more than I should. We’ll have another baby in a few months (something he doesn’t understand yet, so I’m sure this isn’t anxiety about the soon-to-arrive baby). If he can’t stand us giving attention to each other, how is he going to deal with us giving attention to someone else?

—Enough Hugs for the Whole Family

Dear EHftWF,

“It always seems to be about him” is basically the defining feature of a toddler.

I sometimes wonder whether kids policing their parents’ affection isn’t because they want to be only children. I suppose you’ve outsmarted your son there.

I think it’s just typical toddler shenanigans. You’ve got little choice but to continue teaching your kid this particular lesson until he gets it and stops screaming in your faces.

My kids still sometimes complain if my husband and I hold hands or if they feel we’re being affectionate to one of them more than the other. What I usually tell them is that love is not like a carton of milk; it’s impossible to run out. This won’t work on a kid your son’s age, but some messages take years to sink in. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

What are your views on ratting out other people’s kids? My 11-year-old daughter has a friend, “A.” They attend different schools, and I am very close to A’s mother.

My daughter told me that A showed her pictures she had been sent from a boy at her school in which the boy was vaping. The boy was showing off his gear and talking about his love of vaping.

I asked my daughter what she and A thought of these texts, and about vaping generally (they do not approve). I asked my daughter what she thought the right thing to do was, how she could support A, if she wanted to encourage A to tell her mom. She said she didn’t want to get more involved and left it at that.

But do I tell A’s mom about the texts? I don’t know whether the girl has told her mom, though I know they are close. I know if some kid sent my girl pics of vaping (or anything else) I would want to know. But I don’t want to break confidence or cause any kind of rift either between A and her mom if she didn’t tell her, or my girl and A if it was all in confidence.

What kind of privacy should an 11-year-old expect from her parents?

—Nervous Narc

Dear NN,

I don’t think the question here is what is reasonable for an 11-year-old to expect, but what your obligation is as a parent, especially one who counts the other involved parent as a close friend.

While I think your daughter’s sense that she doesn’t want to get involved is very mature and reasonable, I think you are required to treat your friend as you’d want to be treated in the same situation. Disclose this information to her. You could ask her to protect her sources—she can maintain that she just came across this text while inspecting her kid’s phone. It’s not wholly honest, but an 11-year-old cannot expect to be treated like an adult, because she’s not one yet.


More Advice From Slate

My daughter just turned 1, and we had a birthday party for her with some extended family. As she munched happily on her chocolate cupcake after we sang “Happy Birthday,” my mother-in-law jokingly chided, “That’s gonna go straight to your hips, girl!” Should I have said something? Should I say something now, after the fact?