Care and Feeding

My Ex’s Death Has Led to the Unlikeliest Arrangement

She’s still in our lives.

Woman resting her head in her hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

My ex-husband passed away a few months ago. I never really knew his wife before he died, but since his death, we’ve gotten to know each other. My kids have a strong bond with their stepmother and their stepsister, who’s right between them in age (11, 10, 9). I am now a single mother with a very demanding job who has to raise two kids by myself, whereas before my kids would switch between spending weeks with their dad and with me. My ex’s wife has still remained in my kids’ lives after their dad’s death.

I’ve been very busy at work this year so far. I asked her if she could take care of the kids after school and occasionally overnight and she said yes. We’ve had this arrangement for a few weeks. It seems to work out fine so far. I just feel a bit bad about how much work she’s taken on. I guess having two extra preteens isn’t a lot of work for her. I’d feel overwhelmed if I had two extra preteens hanging out around the house with no extra help. She doesn’t make the kids do chores or anything to help out around the house (I’ve told her she can, but she said it’s fine) and won’t let me pay her for the extra costs of the kids’ groceries or anything like that.

I would love to show my gratitude to her, but I’m far too busy to help her out with her daughter, so the only things I can think of are financial, which she won’t accept. She’s even spent her own money to buy things for the kids, like glasses cleaning kits, and extra art supplies. Like me, she’s a single mother, but she’s also recently widowed and doesn’t have any reprieve in taking care of her own kid. I like the arrangement since my kids love their stepmother and stepsister, and it’s healthy to maintain their relationship. But at the same time, I can’t shake this feeling of guilt. I’m not usually like this. I’m not sure if this stems from my feelings toward my ex-husband since I know firsthand that he is not an easy man to be married to. Either way, this guilt is eating me up inside and I don’t really know what to do about it.

—Keeping Stepmother

Dear Keeping Stepmother,

I understand why this arrangement makes you feel guilty, but I hope you can find a way to give yourself some grace here. Your children’s stepmother had a choice in this situation and she decided that she wanted to care for your kids. It may seem hard to understand why, but consider that she’s used to having them around on a regular basis. Having your kids in the house may help her to experience some of the normalcy she knew when her husband was alive. Also, you say that her own child is close to your two, so they may be filling an emotional void for her daughter as well. If taking care of your children was too difficult, too expensive, or otherwise taxing, she likely would have told you no. She might feel that she is honoring her husband’s commitments and staying close to his memory by providing you with this support.

If she won’t accept money, try giving her a gift card, perhaps one to a local grocery store or gas station; you might also present her with a gift certificate for a massage and offer to care for her daughter while she goes. And while your time may be too limited for you to offer regular child care, it would be nice for you to host her child at your home occasionally. She may never think to ask you to do that, but it may be helpful for her to have that time to herself, even once in a while. Remember that your children mean a lot to this woman, and try to release yourself from that guilt. It sounds like she is probably happy to be able to help you in this way, and that her child is benefitting from this arrangement as well.


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