Care and Feeding

My Stepdaughter Wants to Live With Us Now. How Should She Tell Her Mom?

We all have a decent relationship, but she’s terrified of how her mom will react.

Woman hugging a teen girl sitting on a bench outside.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kikovic/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 have a very mature, wonderful stepdaughter who is about to enter high school. About six months ago she decided she wants to live with her father and me (until now she’s been with us pretty much every weekend and a lot of holidays). My husband and I have a decent relationship with her mother, though she is very temperamental and manipulative; as such, my stepdaughter is terrified of telling her. We have discussed many scenarios of how she could broach this subject with her mother. My husband has told his daughter that they could do it together, but she feels it should just come from her. I don’t know what advice to give her to help her get through this incredibly difficult conversation and transition. I’ve found lots of books on helping kids through a divorce, but they were never married, and I’ve been in my stepdaughter’s life since she was a baby. Any thoughts?

—Decent Stepmom

Dear DS,

There is indeed very little that has been written about navigating co-parenting between former partners who were never married, but that should not dissuade you from looking to books and articles about divorced couples for guidance. You’ll just have to take the time to ensure they are specifically addressing the issues you are facing (such as the manipulative and temperamental behavior you mention).

That said, I am inclined to agree that a one-on-one between mother and child would be the best place to start, followed by conversations between your husband and his ex and, eventually, between the three of you and/or one-on-one between you and her. You, your husband, and your stepdaughter must get on the same page about why this change is a good idea, and how you two will be able to both support this young woman and ensure that she maintains a healthy, regular relationship with her mother after changing households.

If you all live in close enough proximity to undertake a 50/50 arrangement, you may wish to explore that first. It may be difficult to convince your stepdaughter’s mother to adjust from being the primary custodian to a weekends/holidays schedule (potentially controversial take: I think more families should explore equitable divisions of time in general), and it may also be a challenging adjustment on your end as well, even if you all are enthusiastic about the switch. If increasing the time your stepdaughter is with you and your husband still leaves her feeling convinced that she’d like to spend the majority of her time with you all, then you may wish to try to make the more drastic change.

Otherwise (barring any details that I’m unaware of), your husband and his daughter have every right to request this switch, and if you all decide that this is the best arrangement, your responsibility is to be supportive and encouraging, while being mindful that you can’t step in and fix this for them either. Help your stepdaughter craft language that honors her relationship with her mother, while explaining why the change is ideal for her. Make yourself available to speak to her mother if necessary, and be prepared to let her know how you’ll help to ensure that the two of them will still have adequate time together and that your stepdaughter came to this conclusion on her own without any prodding from you or your husband. I hope this goes as smoothly as can be for you all.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are officially adopting a 3-month-old baby girl in two weeks, and we’re very excited. She is Black, and my husband and I are white. We’re taking great care to prepare for this new chapter in our lives, including reading books that have been recommended here in the past. Right now, our little girl’s name is Kaia. My husband’s grandmother and my aunt both passed away last year, and I’ve been wondering if it would be OK to change her first name to Angelique (after both my husband’s grandmother and my aunt’s favorite singer, Angélique Kidjo) to honor them, and make Kaia her middle name. She’s too young to be impacted by the change now, but we wonder if “Kaia” could have been chosen for a reason by her biological mother and that she could be upset to learn that we changed it when she’s older. What do you think?

—Nervous About a Name Change

Dear NAaNC,

If you haven’t already, speak to the officials with whom you worked to adopt your little bundle of joy and see if there is any way you might be able to find out the significance of the name that has been selected for her. If so, let that guide your decision. If that isn’t possible, I think the change is totally fair; you’ve chosen a beautiful first name for her that has both personal and cultural significance, and by making her original name her middle name, you’re maintaining a connection between your daughter and her bio mother. If it is the case that you just can’t make peace with the switch—say there’s some persistent feeling that you’re making the wrong choice—then you may wish to honor that instinct and try “Kaia Angelique.” Best wishes and congrats on the exciting new addition to your family!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Hi! I’m an 18-year-old about to leave home for my freshman year of college, and I’ve been feeling really guilty about how relieved I am to be away for a while. I don’t think my home life has necessarily been the best, but I really don’t want to be jumping to conclusions or looking at it as a stereotypical moody teenager, so I thought I would ask for a bit of an outside opinion/some perspective. My mother can sometimes get very angry with my family members and me seemingly out of nowhere, yelling, cursing, and calling us names. While it doesn’t happen every time she’s angry, I’ve been called lazy, selfish, oversensitive, dramatic, and stupid, and I get nervous whenever she’s in a bad mood. These rough patches all seem like brief exceptions to the rule, though. Most of the time she’s incredibly kind and supportive. Is this normal parental behavior? Am I overreacting? Thank you very much for your help.

—Relieved to Leave the Nest

Dear RtLtN,

While most parents lose their temper on occasion or find themselves feeling incredibly frustrated with their children, what you are describing sounds a bit different than what would be considered “normal.” Of course, there’s no way I can say for certain from the outside, but what you’re describing sounds like it may be hinting at some issues with anger management and/or mental health challenges.

Is there another adult in your life who you can safely speak to about what you’re experiencing and your concerns about your mother? If so, you should: They may be able to encourage her to receive some support or, at the very least, reflect on how her behavior has affected her family. Otherwise, you may have to start this conversation with her directly.

If you feel safe doing so, let your mother know how you feel when she speaks to you in such a way, and that you are concerned about her. There is no guarantee that she will be able to receive this information, but it’s possible that she doesn’t realize how out-of-control her anger has become. Perhaps hearing about it from you will lead to some serious self-reflection. If not, don’t take it personally or feel that you are to blame; issues that prevent a parent from exercising some restraint while addressing their children are not the responsibility of those kids.

It may be the case that none of this works out well and that you’ll simply have to wait until you’ve departed her home to get some peace. Unfortunate for sure, but no reason to feel guilty on your part. Do your best to call attention to the issue and focus on ensuring that your own future parenting/interactions with those you love are defined by the sort of respect and care you were not always afforded within your own home. Wishing you all the best.

What’s the Best Way to Keep a Toddler From Escaping?

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I (both women) got married when our daughters, who are both from our previous marriages, were 3. Their dads are not in the picture, and they grew up going to the same schools and in the same grades. Now they’re both 15 and just finished ninth grade, and I’m worried and annoyed by my bio daughter “Kate’s” attitude toward her sister, “Maia.”

Kate is more studious and a bit of a tomboy, and she has mostly male friends who she plays video games with. Maia is more social and athletically focused, runs track, dances, and has a large group of “popular” female friends. She has had a couple of boyfriends, while Kate has had none. Both girls get the same (good) grades, but Kate sees herself as somehow better than Maia and her friends and complains about how guys “only go for girls who dress and act fake like them” and how she’s “the actual girl they need.” She brags about her time spent studying while Maia was off “worrying about her looks” (aka training for the track team). Maia just brushes it off, but this is very annoying for us. We’ve tried talking to her about it, but it starts up again whenever Maia isn’t around. It’s getting exhausting, and I’m at the end of my rope. Help.

—Tired of My Teens

Dear ToMT,

It sounds like Kate is having a very common and uncomfortable experience for a girl her age—feeling insecure about her own “attractiveness” to her male peers—that is exacerbated by having a sibling who represents both what she (allegedly) doesn’t want to be and the sort of attention she wants to receive from guys. You should address this directly. There are lots of “types” of girls, and while there are some traits that are often described as appealing by boys, there is no one way to be attractive. What she needs to do, instead of hating on her sister for having the romantic life she so desires, is to figure out how to make connections with guys on her own terms.

Remind her that one of the most harmful things that a young woman can do is to look down on other young women because of the way they look or act, or due to how much guys may like them. Ask her to consider that it may not simply be a matter of wearing tons of makeup, or being “fake,” or achieving a certain shape that draws dudes to her sister, but rather her confidence, the sort of conversations she’s engaging them in, their shared interests, etc.

Kate should spend some time thinking about what she likes about boys, what sort of qualities she desires in a boyfriend, what sort of qualities she’d want a boy to desire from her, and how that lines up with her actual behavior. Guys often do like smart, funny girls who play video games with them; however, if she’s always equipped with a playful insult, or never shows any obvious interest in dating the boys in her social circle, or anyone else, it’s very easy for her to become and remain one of the guys.

Ultimately, you need to help her reevaluate just what bothers her about her sister and her friends, what she’s actually hoping to achieve when it comes to boys, and what steps she has or has not taken to make that come true. Best of luck to you all!

— Jamilah

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