Care and Feeding

My Stepchildren Don’t Want Me to Have a Baby With Their Father

I want to be sensitive to them, but does that mean we can’t have a child of our own?

A pensive woman, hand on her chin, looking away from a baby crib.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ShevchenkoN/iStock/Getty Images Plus and stevanovicigor/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,

My husband “Arthur” and I have been married for two years (together for four). Arthur has two daughters, aged 12 and 14, with his ex-wife “Wanda.” The girls live with Arthur and me every other weekend. The older daughter, “Sophia,” has always been standoffish towards me, although she once opened up and told me she thought I was nice but she had to be “loyal” to her mother. The younger daughter, “Kate,” and I get along really well. I care about both girls and try to strike the tricky balance of being warm without forcing a motherly relationship on them. Arthur is an amazing, devoted father who is as involved in his daughters’ lives as possible, attends all their events, FaceTimes them every day, and has been fighting for years to have more time with them. Unfortunately, Wanda is very manipulative and possessive of the girls and wants them to see her as their only “real” parent. After many failed attempts at using reason and professional mediation to come to a more equitable custody agreement with Wanda, Arthur is now involved in a court battle with her. However, it looks like it’ll be at least another year before there is any resolution.

Sophia has always been close with Wanda and has turned more and more against Arthur as the custody dispute has escalated. About six months ago, Sophia told Arthur that since he initiated the divorce with Wanda, it’s his fault Wanda is lonely and “needs” the girls. Since then Sophia has refused to come to our home on weekends, claiming Arthur is being selfish by leaving Wanda and now trying to take the girls away too. Sophia also told Arthur that Wanda had said he is just trying to create a “new family” with me and that we will have a baby to replace Sophia and Kate. Kate still spends every other weekend with Arthur and me, and she seems happy, but recently she also asked him not to have another baby. Arthur did his best to reassure both girls that he loves them more than anything and that they could never be replaced. He also tried to arrange family counseling with them, but Wanda prevented this (which is another element of the court battle).

The thing is, Arthur and I do want to have a baby. I care about Arthur’s daughters, but they already have a mother, and they don’t want me in that role. I want a chance to be a mother myself, and Arthur would love to be a father again. His love for and commitment to his children regardless of the challenges is one of the things I love so much about him. I am already in my late 30s, so I don’t feel like I can wait any longer. Both of us are torn. We don’t want to be prevented from having a child, especially when we believe it is largely due to Wanda’s manipulation of the girls. But at the same time, Sophia’s and Kate’s feelings are very understandable, and Arthur’s responsibility has to be to his existing children. Is it wrong to have another child when Arthur’s daughters don’t want us to? And if we do have a baby, how can we prepare them and help them to adjust? Everything we’ve read suggests Arthur and the girls should be in counseling, but that isn’t an option until the court case is resolved.

—Trying Not to Be Wicked

Dear TNtBW,

There is so much kindness and patience in this letter. You are very supportive of your husband and have absolutely done your best to treat the girls as any reasonable ex-spouse would hope a stepparent would treat their kids, and I think you have all the qualities of a great mother.

Absolutely, everyone needs to be in counseling (oh, boy, do they), and it’s deeply unfortunate that it’s not possible in your current situation. I do recommend that you and Arthur (or at least Arthur on his own) pursue counseling for your own benefit. I cannot imagine what he is going through, which is just textbook parental alienation, and it’s taken years from his relationship with his daughters. They are also at an age where, I fear, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to rebuild their bond with their father. Wanda can be compelled into a different custody situation by a court, but it’s unlikely she will make the kind of personal changes and growth that will ever make her a nondisaster of a co-parent. And there’s nothing you can do about that.

I think you should try to have a baby. You and Arthur want to have a child together. You are in your late 30s. Your lives have been largely on hold as you try to manage a disintegrating situation that’s difficult to control. It will likely be upsetting for his daughters, but he’s honestly doing absolutely everything he can do right now, and I don’t think you can magically heal this rupture by depriving yourself of something you want very much. You are not doing anything wrong.

Until family counseling is back on the table, all you can do to help them through this is continue to be warm, kind, and present, but also not doormats. If the girls ask Arthur not to have a baby, he should reiterate that they will never be “replaced,” just as Kate did not “replace” Sophia, but that having a child is a decision adults make, and that’s a decision the two of you will make together. I never think it’s a great idea to announce you’re trying to conceive, as it invites all sorts of unwanted opinions and advice, not to mention that if you find it difficult to conceive, it will not be pleasant to spend that period of time being barraged with pleas and tears. They are 12 and 14. If you become pregnant, they can handle it. I don’t have any illusions that a baby sibling will manage to “bring everyone together,” but that’s not why you want to have a baby. You’re having a baby because you want to be a parent, which is, in my opinion, an excellent reason.

I feel horrible for everyone in this situation except for Wanda, who is likely a deeply unhappy and troubled person who also deserves some of my sympathy, but I cannot quite manage it.

Please keep me posted.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m in the early stages of pregnancy, and my husband and I are thrilled about it. I had surgery in January, and the doctor told me to wait for two periods before we started trying. Lo and behold, we got pregnant on the very first try! When I announce my pregnancy, it will be pretty obvious to everyone that it happened quickly, since everyone in the family knows I definitely was not pregnant at the time of my surgery and saw the painful two-month recovery I endured.

What I don’t know about is how to share this happy news with my sister, who has been struggling with infertility for four years and had a miscarriage this year. She now knows that it is quite literally impossible for her to have a biological child. We’re planning to wait until week 12 to minimize any painful associations with her own miscarriage at 11 weeks, but how should I tell her? However we tell her, we are planning on sharing the news with the rest of the family in a similar manner so she doesn’t feel like the odd one out. We live in different parts of the country and occasionally have group calls or video chats, but mostly communicate through text. Is it best to send a text or email to allow her time to process, or is that too impersonal? What is a good script to use? I know this will hurt, but I don’t want to do anything to make it worse.

—Guiltily Joyful

Dear GJ,

You’re a thoughtful person. In this situation, I recommend an email, for the exact reason you mention above: time to process. She will want to be happy for you, and an email lets her have her own, private, initial reaction in her own time. I’m very confident that she does not want to burst into tears on what should be a celebratory phone call and then feel terrible about it.

In the email (and I do suggest email and not text, as she can respond to an email the next day without it seeming odd, whereas if she gets a text and needs some time to gather herself, it’ll be more stressful for both of you to just have the message hanging in space), don’t try so hard to be gentle that you make her feel like you think she’s fragile or about to melt down. Even if she is fragile and does want to melt down. Just try to treat her like who she is, a much-loved person who will be a wonderful aunt to your baby.

I don’t think you need to say anything at all about the speed with which you conceived; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. “Hi Amanda, Daryl and I are having a baby! I’m about 12 weeks pregnant. I love you so much, and I’m excited for you to be part of this next phase of our lives.”

And then just follow her cues. I would share pregnancy details (ultrasounds, etc.) only if she asks for them, and obviously you’re not going to say things like “Ugh, my morning sickness, my back, etc.,” so I do not feel like I need to cover that.

I don’t know your sister, and I don’t know how much you have talked about her infertility or her level of comfort with talking about her infertility. It’s entirely possible that it would be welcome and appropriate for you to say “I’m so sorry if this news is painful for you in any way. I will never take it personally if you need to step back from a conversation or take some time.” That’s something only you know.

Congratulations on your pregnancy!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My biological father was … really not great … in a whole bunch of ways, including verbal and emotional abuse, and my parents split up when I was 10 because he wanted to sleep with someone else. Many years later my mom is finally able to acknowledge exactly how bad their marriage was, but she also says she has no regrets because my younger sibling and I are the best things that ever happened to her, and without my father, she’d have had kids but they wouldn’t be us. (She also has beloved stepkids from that marriage and from her current marriage, which by the way is SO MUCH BETTER.) That has never bothered me! In fact, knowing that she can look at us and see some positive traits of his, instead of just all the negative ones I see in myself at 3 a.m., is reassuring to me.

But this came up in a conversation with friends a while back, and one of them had a very strong negative reaction: that this is a terrible thing for my mom to say and puts too much pressure on me to justify her choices.

So here’s my question: I lost my fertility very early, and so we have just one child and she’s a donor-egg baby (well, now she’s a donor-egg teenager). We’ve been open with her about this from the beginning, we’ve always treated it as no big deal, and we’re also open about the fact that we originally wanted more kids but that in many ways having an only child is pretty great!

I’ve also frequently told her that she is great, and that while my illness sucked, the cost of fertility treatments sucked (we could’ve put that money towards her university tuition!), and I have some sadness about never knowing what kids genetically related to me might have been like, those kids wouldn’t have been her. She is the best thing that’s ever happened to her dad and me, and we have zero regrets about the life path that led to her being our kid.

Since that conversation with my friend, I’ve been second-guessing myself. Is it wrong of me to speak openly about feeling that all the crap we went through to have her was 100 percent worth it because she’s our kid and we love her? Am I putting too much pressure on her by saying I’m glad she’s who she is? And is there something wrong with me that I can’t muster any resentment against my mom?

—Have I Messed Up?

Dear HIMU,

It sounds to me like you’re doing just fine. I think your friend was likely trying to be supportive, but you have no obligation whatsoever to resent your mother if you do not resent your mother. I have plenty of letter writers who do resent their mothers and cannot imagine trying to work up resentment if you legitimately do not have any close to hand.

If you feel like she underplays the bad parts of your childhood, by all means, address and process that, but if you get the sense she just wants you to know that she loves you and cannot imagine her life without you, that’s great.

You sound like a normal, loving mother. You are proud of your daughter and grateful to have her. I would, however, make sure you don’t keep wandering around saying “All the hassles I endured and all the money we had to spend having you was so, so, so worth it!” constantly. Just let it drop and focus on being a parent. I don’t think you’ve damaged her in any way by being “open,” but there’s no need to belabor the point. She’s a teenager. She knows you love her. She’s been here for a long time. Just enjoy the ride.

What’s It Like Not to Connect With Your Newborn Immediately?

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp chat with comedian Mike Birbiglia in this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Usually when I hear about marital strife in heterosexual relationships, it’s because the mom is doing it all while the dad is either slacking off or incompetent or annoying and gross. But in my heterosexual marriage, according to my husband, it is I who is slacking off, incompetent, annoying, and gross. To quote a recent New York Times article, “criticism is [his] love language.”*

To be clear, I DO NOT agree that I am an incompetent parent, housekeeper, and human being. I am a full-time working parent, and I could get into all the details of everything that I do for this household and my daughter, but instead I just ask that you trust that while I do not cook, I do work really hard at everything I do do; and while like all parents I make mistakes, the fact is that I am genuine and intentional in my parenting choices and efforts.

As a co-parent, I am grateful that my husband is a very involved parent. As a wife, not so much, as I feel that my husband conveniently ignores the things I do and chooses only to ascribe importance or value to the things he does. As such, he has viewed me in utter contempt and hatred for over four years now. It’s great that my kid has an involved dad, but it sucks that I have no friend or partner.

My husband also suffers from intense anxiety, which means he has to control everything and has very high standards. If I don’t meet those standards, I am not just a different parent with different views, I am a BAD parent and a BAD person. I anticipate a response having to do with having empathy for his anxiety, and I agree but just want to say that it is really hard to have empathy for anxiety while getting screamed at, berated, or insulted. Hence the tragedy behind most conflicts in life, I guess.

I am asking this because I feel like there are other women like me in this position, but we aren’t usually the ones that are heard from. It’s difficult because there’s no one to complain to, because it seems like most couples are either conflicted in the opposite direction (or harmonious and happy!).

I fantasize about getting divorced so that I can both parent and run my household the way that I choose without getting constantly criticized and condemned. I know this is probably a very common and also naïve fantasy, but I would love to hear from others about why it is or is not.

*Not a real love language. The New York Times was being sarcastic and so am I.

—Terrified in Texas

Dear Terrified,

Look, I wouldn’t waste any emotional energy on what the “normal” gender fault lines in other heterosexual marriages are. Your marriage is very bad. If you are being “screamed at, berated, or insulted” and you fantasize about getting divorced, I think you should tell your husband you are desperately unhappy in your current situation and that he can either pursue more effective treatment for his anxiety in conjunction with very serious marital counseling, or you are heading out the door.

I am being concise because there really isn’t a lot of wiggle room if you genuinely feel like your husband actively hates and is contemptuous toward you and has been for years. That’s not a relationship dynamic you want to model for your child. This is a hot mess. You don’t need to poll society on this one. If you do end your marriage, I am obviously concerned that his anxiety and his conduct will have an impact on your child during his time with her, but this is not a sustainable situation. I truly hope that putting your cards on the table can be a wake-up call for both of you.

I’m very sorry.

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