Dear Virginia,

Three months ago my father married again – my mother died four years ago, when I was 20. I really resent this woman who refers to herself as my “stepmother”. None of my siblings likes her. They try to be polite and my brother says I should, too, but why? When I go home this cow is sitting on my mother’s settee, smiling away. I feel like just refusing to speak to her.

Yours sincerely, Catrin

You ask why you should be polite to her. My answer is another question: why should you refuse to speak to her? She’s done nothing wrong. She’s making your father happy. It’s not her fault if the settee she happens to be sitting on belonged, once, to your mother. What’s she supposed to do? Sit on the floor?

I suspect that if she were to get rid of your mother’s settee and completely redecorate the house and change the furniture, you’d still be angry.

And of course you’re angry. All this is quite understandable. Your anger is a natural reaction to your mother’s death, and I can quite understand how bitter you feel seeing this woman try to step, apparently, into her shoes.

But remember, for her, who never even knew your mother, she’s not stepping into her shoes. She’s just your father’s wife. It’s you, not her, who is setting her in the context of your mother, and you who sees her as someone who’s deliberately trying to replace your mother when in fact she’s doing nothing of the kind.

Obviously, calling herself your stepmother is a bit tactless – because of course there’s no way, at your age, there’s any element of mothering in her relationship with you – but that seems to be her only fault. And unfortunately there’s no other word for her relationship to you. But I’m sure you could politely make it clear to her that you’d be happier if she didn’t use this term. But to get back to your original question: why should you be polite to her? I’ll tell you why. It’s because generally society works better if we can be as polite and considerate to each other as possible. Because she is not, intrinsically, an evil woman. Because being polite to her would make things a lot easier for your father, who, presumably you love. Because you are not being asked to love her or even like her. All that is asked of you is that you be polite to her.

I have no doubt that she’s not particularly keen on all these adult children around, reminders of her husband’s past relationship. But she overcomes her primitive feelings of fear and jealousy by smiling and being polite.

I’m not asking you to deny your basic feelings. Before you see her each time, you can say to yourself: “I don’t like this woman. She’s a cow and I feel furious with her. However, just for these couple of hours I’m going to put on an act, and be as courteous as I can.” That way you’re not betraying your own feelings and you’re taking control of your own behaviour rather than feeling you’re being pushed into it by your brother.

And there is, of course, an old saying, used a lot in Alcoholic Anonymous, oddly, which goes “Fake it to make it”. You may find that with politeness and courtesy on both sides, in the end there may develop a grudging respect for one another, despite the underlying – and probably eradicable – unease.

Be happy for him

I know just how you feel, Catrin. My mother died suddenly when I was in my twenties. My father found someone within three months and remarried just over a year later. I was devastated. I have now been married for well over 40 years. I know if I die first, my husband, too, will find someone very quickly. We joke about it. I tell him to choose carefully and not to jump at the first one. Like my father, he just couldn’t manage on his own, and I wouldn’t want him to. I would want him to find someone to share his life with, not to be lonely and yes, |to love them.

Try to be glad for your father. It’s a compliment to your mother – he married again because he was happily married the first time. No-one can replace your mother in your father’s affections. Don’t wish him to be sad and lonely, living in a museum to your childhood, and cynically, if he needs care when he is older, well, there’s someone else to share the burden.

Name and address supplied

Get to know her

You ask why you should try to be polite to your father’s new wife, as your siblings are, and the answer is pretty obvious: they are grown-up, polite people; the woman has done nothing to upset anyone; and your siblings love your father, or respect him, or both. Even if none of this applies to you, consider other reasons not to snub “the cow”. First, your dislike is making you unhappy, but if you made an effort, you would get a chance to get to know her. Your resentment would lift, and you would benefit.

Next, she makes your father happy. She may make him meals and help with the household, or |the finances, if she works. All this relieves you of responsibility. As your father gets older, or if he has health crises, she will look after him and ensure his wellbeing, leaving you much freer to enjoy yourself. By this time, you may have children and she can provide babysitting and help to you. You will be older, too, and I suspect “the cow” may well have somehow turned into a perfectly nice person, with faults like anyone, but also with humour, warmth and friendship to offer. She has probably suffered losses of her own, and you may be surprised to find you have things in common.

Hope Liebersohn

London W9

Next week's dilemma...

Dear Virginia,

I’m a single parent to a daughter of five. I recently had another baby (I’m now living with a very nice partner) – partly because my daughter kept saying she wanted a brother or sister. But now the baby’s here my daughter is so jealous. I’m sometimes frightened to leave the room when they’re together because |I think she will pinch the baby or poke |it in the eye. We’ve tried everything – bribery, even smacking, I’m afraid, |but nothing works. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Shireen

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