Dilemmas: Now who's behaving childishly?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When parents split up and remarry, they are often so preoccupied with their own affairs that they forget the anxieties of other family members. Children in their early teens particularly, in their efforts to appear mature and grown-up, often fool adults who gladly go along with the pretence and use it as an excuse to behave appallingly childishly themselves.

Fran found herself pulled all ways last week, when she wrote of her anguish about visits to her father. She was not made welcome because her stepmother seemed jealous of Fran's presence, and made all kinds of rules about how she should behave.

When Fran complained to her father, he took his new wife's side. Fran dreaded the visits so much that eventually she stopped going. She then got an arm-twisting letter from her stepmother saying that her absence was making her father unhappy. What should she do?

Shirley Burnham, of Marlborough, writes: 'It is very hard for Fran, at 16, to deal with parents and a step-parent and it is likely that she will have to cloak herself with a maturity that they lack. Fran is the same age I was when my father remarried. It was a ghastly experience for me and I can remember all the anguish clearly. One feels torn in half; hurt, angry, muddled . . . You grow up very quickly because the happy bubble of childhood has been dramatically burst.' She suggested writing to the stepmother and asking if she could be with her father alone a bit more.

More focus on the stepmother comes from Alison Foster, of north London, who finds herself in a similar situation - but in the role of stepmother. 'I have dedicated most of my emotional energy in the past five years to trying to establish a good relationship with my 15-year-old stepdaughter, Mary, but almost whatever I do is interpreted by her as wrong. She is determined not to acknowledge that there is the basis of a good relationship between us. In the same breath, she can say how much she admires me and appreciates me but that she can never forget that her father chose me instead of her. Not me instead of her mother, me instead of the daughter] Adolescence surely has a lot to do with how teenage girls feel about any woman their father chooses to love.'

Natasha Roderick-Jones, of Chipping Campden, asks whether Fran's 'misbehaving' at her father's home might not be a subconscious way of blaming her stepmother for the break- up of her parents' marriage. She feels that Fran should consider her stepmother's feelings more, arguing that the woman may be suffering from the 'Rebecca syndrome'.

'The stepmother is probably jealous of Fran's mother,' she writes, 'which may seem ridiculous to Fran, but it will be a gnawing feeling eating away inside - perhaps she also fears the husband will go back to the first wife. Second, she may be feeling that Fran shares a history with her father which may be threatening - it's a past in which the stepmother has no part.'

She suggests that Fran should try to understand some of her stepmother's anxieties. But why? The focus in most replies was on the poor, jealous, insecure stepmother. Yet Fran is sad and jealous, too. And when faced with two such people, the question to ask, if one of them is 16, is: 'Who is the grown- up?' Here, the stepmother. She took on a visiting stepdaughter with her eyes open; she had a choice, Fran had none. If she feels insecure - and I'm sure she does - this really isn't Fran's problem. She should sort that out herself or with her husband.

As for clumsy attempts at parenting, Fran already has a mother and doesn't need another. But there is another culprit. What kind of weed is her father that he cannot sort things out?

'I was 13 when my father remarried,' writes Paula A Conway, of Edinburgh. 'His wife's behaviour got more and more difficult to deal with - she even insisted I call my bedroom 'the room where I sleep' rather than 'my bedroom'.' Later, on the rare occasions she visited, she suffered 'slamming stepmother syndrome - when I attempted to talk to my father, doors started slamming, car keys were dramatically snatched up, gravel flew and tyres screeched over the drive. Never, ever,' she advises, 'underestimate the cruelty of a jealous woman. Although in time Fran will come to terms with the situation, unless her father works to change things, her stepmother is likely to continue her behaviour.

'Why doesn't the father confront his wife? The initiative for changing the situation must come from him and not via his wife in the pretence of some girls- together letter, which, if I had received one at her age, would only have alienated me further.'

Spot on. My advice to Fran is to reply coolly to the letter, saying that she realises their relationship is difficult, feels that at present visiting only makes it worse, and that perhaps it is no one's fault. But the relationship with her father is a separate issue. She should write to him, saying how sad she is that he could not write to her directly and saying how much she wants to see him. Could he either be instrumental in initiating a rapprochement between her and her stepmother or, if not, could he not come to town and see her? On his own? I wish her luck. But only 50 per cent of divorced fathers keep in touch with their children. True, many are hampered by their ex-wives, but many are just extremely lax and lazy. Maybe it will turn out, sadly, that Fran's father is one of them.

Dear Virginia . . .

I'M 35 and work as a personnel officer. I have a good salary, a house, a car and a boyfriend who I have been going out with for nine months. The only thing missing from my life is a family.

I have had several relationships but none lasts - I seem to go for people who are mad, bad and dangerous to know. The man I'm seeing is great, but like all the rest, he's made it clear he's not interested in anything long-term. What worries me is that my biological clock is running out.

A friend simply got pregnant by a one-night stand, and she asks why don't I? I tried to discuss the idea with my boyfriend but he had a fit, saying he wasn't ready for children. But he never uses contraception, and I wonder if he might not change his mind if I got pregnant - and if he didn't, I'd still have a baby.

Why should I be denied the chance of motherhood when I'm financially secure and have so much love to give a child? What should I do?

Yours, Angela