Dilemmas: My new husband is driving my son away

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Molly married when her son was 10. He is now 16. His stepfather objects to his music, going out in the week, and girlfriends staying. The atmosphere is so bad that it has been suggested the son live with a friend's family. Molly would miss him and he would miss her, but might it be for the best?


I have just received a publicity leaflet for a self-help organisation which announces: "Adoptive parents, foster parents, step-parents - whatever the label, still a parent." And I couldn't disagree more. All these people can behave like parents, as actors can play Hamlet; but actors are not Hamlet and step-parents are not parents. Some step-parents are exceptionally good actors, of course, and can make you believe you are seeing the real thing. Children can even feel they are getting the real thing. These are the great step-parents, the Lawrence Oliviers of the step-parenting world.

Then other step-parents don't try to act at all. They accept that their role is not one of a parent and they go about making friends with the children in a complete different way to a parent.

In fact, you can be a hugely successful step-parent without doing one jot of parenting, just by being an enormous friend to a child - a friend of an older generation.

But the worst step-parents are those am-drammers who try vaguely to be like parents when they feel like it, without giving the children any of the love and respect of a real parent. Molly's husband is clearly one of these. First, he arrived on the scene only when the boy was 10. Molly has brought him up so far, and it is now entirely up to her to modify her son's behaviour; she needs to consult her new husband only if she wishes to. Fair enough - if her son plays his music too loud, he should be told to wear headphones. Loud music is irritating. But whether he goes out in the week or not, or whether he has a girlfriend in his own room, is of no business to anyone but him and his mother. Molly's husband married her knowing that she had a child, and trying to change the relationship between her and her son is like trying to change the shape of her nose.

I suspect that, like a lot of men, he is suddenly starting to get jealous of his stepson. He is jealous of his and Molly's close relationship; he is jealous of the boy's burgeoning sexuality. He hates witnessing his freedom during the week and seeing the miniskirted girls he brings home, because it makes him intensely envious. He clearly has no children of his own, or he would understand adolescents, and he has clearly forgotten his own youth - or, worse, wants to take revenge on his stepson for his own parents' intolerant handling of him in the past. "I couldn't have girls to stay when I was young, so why should he?" he may be whining to himself.

Step-parents often try to boot their stepchildren out of the nest when they are too young. Half the homeless on the streets of London have been kicked out by step-parents. But the roof that Molly's son has over his head is just as much his roof as his stepfather's. There is no way that Molly should think of allowing her son to live with another family at this stage in his life. Sixteen-year-olds and even 20-year-olds can still have moments of being incredibly vulnerable, and suddenly need their parents in emergencies. Molly's son will be taking his A-levels soon, or starting his first job. He does not want to have to do these things from someone else's house, where he will have to be polite all the time, feeling that he has been rejected by his mother. He wants to be at home, and secure and relaxed.

If anyone should leave the home, it should be the stepfather.


The right move is - out

Four years ago I began a relationship with a man who had children of his own, but the younger son and I did not manage to accept each other. I found his attitude and behaviour abhorrent and, worse, I found the ambivalent attitude of my partner to be a terrible strain. I survived for four months. They were the worst and most traumatic months of my life, both because of the impact his son's behaviour had on my life, and because of the way my own children were beginning to emulate the tantrums, door-slamming and aggression. So I moved out.

I accepted that my partner had the right to bring up his children as he saw fit, and whether I agreed with those methods or not was immaterial.

Molly's husband should have a little faith in his partner, and allow her to do what she thinks is right even if he does not agree with it.

The boy's father and I are no longer partners, but we are much closer and much happier than we ever were while trying to live together and I am certainly a lot more content to have put some distance between myself and the child. Now, when I do not agree with something the child does, I tell him, and when the tantrum arrives - I leave!



Stand firm and stand together

By referring to your husband as your son's "stepfather" I feel you are distancing yourself from your involvement as a wife and mother. Why should a 16-year-old share a room with a girlfriend in the family home, or play music too loud, or risk his studies, if he is still at school?

Your husband sounds like a good parent with firm ideals, while you sound as though you would put up with anything in order to keep your son happy. You owe them both support. Of course your son should not go. You have to decide as parents what the boundaries are, and then show some solidarity as a couple to your son.



Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My partner and I adore our new baby. We have just one area of disagreement: whenever he cries, at whatever time of the night, I go to him and pick him up and comfort him. My partner thinks I'm spoiling him, that it is not good for him and that if we could just leave him to cry for a few nights he would get out of what my partner believes is essentially a bad habit. I can see his point, but I can't bear to do it. What do you and your readers think?

Yours sincerely, Tanya

lAnyone whose advice is quoted will be sent an bouquet. Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail: dilemmas@ independent.co.uk - giving a postal address.