LISTEN LIVE: Marketplace


Heavy Meddle: A Wicked Stepmother Stole My Father

This article is more than 8 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you'll also get some advice.

Dear Steve,

Typical wicked stepmother story here: my father got remarried to a much younger woman who effectively managed to wipe away all traces of his former life, including my brother and me. Fast-forward two decades later and we are now Facebook friends with our younger half-siblings, with whom we had no contact for the past 15 years. (Ah, the wonders of social media.) They live nearby and we're in touch pretty regularly via Facebook. They say that our dad seems suspicious that we're in touch but hasn't said anything. The idea of meeting up in person has come up, but I'm nervous. The two oldest kids are in their teens and I would absolutely love to see them and introduce them to my new baby (their nephew), who even our father hasn't met or acknowledged. But is arranging a get-together behind their parents' back even legal when two minors are involved? Is this too much added stress for two teenagers on top of school, SATs, and their already-complicated social lives? We've waited this long, should we just wait until everyone's over 18?


Scared Sibling

Dear Scared,

A few things strike me about your letter. First, how does a “wicked stepmother” manage to force her husband to sever all ties with his own children? I’ll trust that she played some role in the rift. But I suspect it’s more complicated than a fairytale. How old were you and your brother when your father remarried? To what extent did you two seek to remain connected to your dad, versus (for instance) blaming him for leaving your mother? What role did your mother play? And if you did try to maintain a relationship with your dad, isn’t he the one who bears the essential responsibility for abandoning you and your brother? It may be convenient, or even comforting, to saddle this woman with all the blame. To me, it sounds like an oversimplification of a complex and painful situation.

It’s also worth pointing out that the wicked stepmother you speak of here is, in fact, your half siblings’ mother. Do they consider her wicked? And your dad—the same one who allowed you to be erased from his life—is their dad. Can you see how this might lead to some awkward moments with your half siblings?

The question of whether you’re going to rendez-vous with these teens feels a tad overshadowed by the larger context.

I can certainly understand your curiosity about your half sibs, and the effort you’re making to forge a connection with them despite a legacy of alienation. But the question of whether you’re going to rendez-vous with these teens feels a tad overshadowed by the larger context. That new baby of yours, after all, isn’t just a nephew. He’s a grandchild.

I’m noting all this because it strikes me as odd (by which I really mean suspicious) that your letter makes no mention of how it is you became Facebook friends with your half siblings. Did they reach out to you? Did you reach out to them? It’s clear that both you and these siblings feel this contact is frowned upon by your father, which makes it all the stranger that you would choose to communicate through a social network that is open to others. (If you truly wanted to escape the notice of your father why not communicate via email or even phone?)

What I’m getting at here is that the burgeoning on-line relationship you have with these half-siblings feels inextricably linked to the troubled relationship that you and your brother have with your father and stepmother. Have you considered the possibility that you’ve chosen to connect to your step siblings in part because, unconsciously, you’re seeking to reconnect with your father? You clearly have a great deal of unresolved anger toward him, and his wife. So perhaps this is one way of engineering a form of revenge, of winning the loyalty of these sibs and forming an alliance with them against the father and stepmother who so callously betrayed their loyalty to you.


But I suspect it’s even more complicated than that. I suspect that underneath all that anger is a great deal of sorrow—at the notion that a father would turn away from his children. Maybe connecting to his other children is a way of proving your worth to him by proxy, or at least getting back on his radar. Perhaps it even represents an unconscious desire to remind your father that he has a daughter with a new grandchild.

I realize I’m at risk of coming off like a jerk (once again) for suggesting all this, especially given that you and your brother have, by your own account, suffered a great deal because of your father’s negligence, and your stepmother’s manipulations. If your account is accurate, you certainly don’t owe them anything.

But life is short, Scared. And having a new baby—that is, becoming a parent yourself—should be an occasion that reminds us of the holy duty every parent labors under. Our essential job as parents is to make sure our babies get all the love they can, even from imperfect relatives.

Your father may have failed to live up to his duties. But if ever there was an occasion to find forgiveness in your heart for him, now is it. Again, I’m missing a lot of the facts here, but the one fact beyond dispute is that your son will be better off with another loving grandpa—if your father is up to the task.

Your original question was whether it’s appropriate to get together with your step siblings. My basic answer to that is: sure, if your motives are pure. If it’s really about creating a positive relationship in a troubled family, and about securing that baby of yours a loving aunt and uncle. And hey, you’re just seeking to visit with them, right? Not transport them across state lines against their will. Nothing illegal about that.

The question I’d tackle first is whether the birth of your baby might be an event that warrants an attempt to reconcile with your father, or begin that process.

But the more I think (and feel) my way through this, the less that seems to matter. The question I’d tackle first is whether the birth of your baby might be an event that warrants an attempt to reconcile with your father, or begin that process.

I realize this would require a monumental act of compassion and patience on your part. And that it might end in disappointment. But the psychic burden you’re carrying around at the moment—the anger and disappointment—must be tremendous. And those could make the risk worth taking.

You may decide, in the end, that your father and stepmother don’t deserve such a chance. And they may also prove unreachable, unable to summon the better angels of their nature. In this case, they will have to serve as examples of how not to behave as parents.

Still, imagine how lovely it would be if the birth of this boy were the occasion that started to heal this rift. That’s not what you asked me about, Scared, but it’s what I’m going to root for.

Aim for mercy,

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

This program aired on October 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.



Listen Live