Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Ask Polly: My Boyfriend's Ex Is Making My Life Hell

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "In the land of the choosy beggars, the most engrossing distraction is king!"


I have been dating my boyfriend for over two years. Recently we took the big plunge to move in together, and so far it's been great. There is one major problem, though, and that is his baby mama. Their daughter, Coral (who is 7), adores me and I adore her, we have a super great relationship. But his ex refuses to meet me. Under normal circumstances I wouldn't give a damn, but it really stresses his daughter out. She comes to me constantly asking when I'm going to meet her mom, planning times we can all hang out. I tell her I'm happy to, but it has to be when everyone wants to. She tells me her mom thinks I'm "yucky." So the issue is twofold, not only is this woman making life hard for her kid (one time I walked into the house and they were Facetiming, and when she heard me come in she hung up on her daughter), she also is effectively sabotaging my relationship with Coral.

The daughter has begged me to come to a dance recital this week, and I would love to, but obviously the decision is not up to me. Right? I'd also like to mention that I put in a lot of time with her—I read her stories before bed, cook meals with her in the morning, hang out after school. I've comforted her when she's upset and been patient when she mad. Oh, and if you're wondering where my boyfriend stands on all of this, he thinks I just need to be "nice" to the ex, which is easy since I've never interacted with her, and says eventually she'll have to come around. I think the most important thing for Coral is to have as many people around her who love her and support her consistently, but her mom is making this extremely difficult. Do I have a leg to stand on?

So Frustrated

Dear SF,

There are some situations in life when you have to be aggressive, state your opinions, and go into detail about what's right and wrong. There are other situations when it's important—not just important but crucial—to be nice and quiet and keep your mouth shut. Guess which situation you're in now?

I understand how unfair Coral's mom appears, from your position. Your boyfriend has probably told you that she's annoying, a little crazy, not always the best mother, etc. But now I want you to put yourself in her shoes. Imagine that her feelings about you are just as negative, and they feel just as legitimate. Now picture delivering the one person you love the most in the world straight to this bad woman's door, and releasing all control and influence for a few days. Imagine wandering around, worrying, while she's gone. Then imagine that she returns full of stories about how beautiful and loving and special her dad's girlfriend is. Even if you were supernaturally confident, this would get under your skin.

Being a single mom is tougher than the rest of us can possibly fathom. You need to work very hard to be generous and patient with Coral's mom. She's willing to hang up on her daughter to make sure she doesn't have to see your face. Clearly this woman is in a lot of pain. She's probably doing her best not to go completely apeshit. Plenty of women in her shoes do far worse than mumble that someone is "yucky." It's up to Coral's dad, not you, to determine if Coral's emotional state is being compromised. You can talk to him about it, but it's not up to you. And his judgment on this front makes sense to me: Let's give Coral's mom a little time to adjust to our new living arrangement. Maybe Coral's mom knows she'll break down crying or freak out when she sees you two together, and she doesn't want Coral to be exposed to that. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt.

As a stepmom who was introduced to her stepson when he was eight years old, I know how challenging it can be to share custody of a kid with a woman you hardly know. If it helps, go read Stepmonster by Wednesday Martin. Even if your friends don't empathize (and chances are they'll treat you like you're a dick for even complaining), reading that book will help. You should make your boyfriend read it, too, because his support is going to be crucial if you're going to be able to tolerate what a crazy emotional tightrope you have to walk right now. I would make him a deal: He needs to empathize with you and hear you out when you're frustrated. In return, you will be kind and tolerant when it comes to Coral's mom.

I know how overwhelmed you feel, believe me. But pay close attention: You should not assign yourself as the protector of Coral's best interests, because that's not your role. You should not view yourself as being in the middle of this situation, because even though it directly affects you, it's about the history between your boyfriend and Coral's mom. It's not about you. You should not insert yourself into the situation, thereby making it about you. You should not try to directly address this with Coral's mom. If you take action, or start making noise to other people—mutual friends, teachers, whatever—about Coral's mom being unfair to her daughter, being a bad mother, whatever, this is what will happen: You will fuck up your relationship with your boyfriend, you will fuck with Coral's life, you will potentially fuck up your boyfriend's custody agreement, and you will fuck yourself over, most of all. Because when the shit starts hitting the fan over what you've said and done, you'll feel confused and angry and ashamed, and guess what? YOU will look like the crazy one.

In a year or two when it's very clear that you're a permanent part of Coral's life, then you can insist on attending recitals and other events. But even if you make Coral breakfast every morning and pick her up from school every afternoon for the next decade, you'll still have to be polite and defer to her mother. And believe me, being generous and kind to Coral's mom is much more important and helpful to Coral than attending some recital could possibly be.

Now, should you really live with this man and take care of his kid without marrying him? I have a friend who took care of her boyfriend's three kids for two years. When they broke up, she was heartbroken, mostly over having to leave the kids behind. You seem passionate about children. Do you want kids of your own? If you're not entirely comfortable with where you stand on this front, you need to talk to your boyfriend about your future together. Personally, I'm not a fan of living together as a "test," and living together with a kid as a test is one test you're bound to fail. If you're not completely sure of where you stand in this picture, that could feed into your anxieties about Coral's mom and the time you're investing with Coral.

Even if you're secure on that front, parenting someone else's kid is a tough, tough road. At times you feel like you'll never count as a "real" parent. You always have to pay attention to the kid's shifting feelings about you and respect the kid's space, more than you would with your own kid. You also have to be realistic about how a stepchild's love and adoration can turn into resentment overnight. Sometimes you're seen as the most fun and the easiest to talk to, but other times you're seen as the cause of every problem. With a girl, you could see bratty-teenager types of behavior—the exact opposite of the glow you're basking in now—as early as age 9.

To be honest, you're probably in for a rough road no matter what you do. Don't make it harder on yourself. Right now, even though you feel like you're the one who's being persecuted, you're simply being asked to be patient and not get involved in everything Coral does overnight. Personally, even after seven years of joint custody of my stepson, I look back and I'm much more proud of the times I kept quiet than I am proud of the times I chimed in or spoke out. My stepson has four concerned parents. We all have opinions. I have far less say in what he does than his mother does, and that's the way it should be. 99% of the time, the best possible thing I can do is keep my mouth shut.

I know you love Coral a lot. But the stakes are very high. You have to be exceedingly cautious. You have to step back and accept a lack of control over your circumstances. You should try to get some distance regularly, go out with friends, lean on people outside of your boyfriend. If you tie yourself in knots over Coral and her mother, you won't help anyone. You have to let go. This how it may look for years. You will almost be a mother, but not quite. I want to strongly advise you against pouring every ounce of your energy into Coral. Her father should not put you in that role or accept you in that role at this point. It'll make you crazy. She has a mother. You can be a great influence and a friend and maybe even a stepmother, but you have to understand and accept that your role is unique, and it requires a unique kind of enthusiasm, a unique sort of diplomacy, and a unique ability to detach.

Good luck.


Dear Polly,

Your column about going to graduate school to get a career going, really yelled out to me. What happens when you do all the graduate work and get a PhD and then no career happens?

I had a soul-destroying graduate school experience. My academic advisor was extremely difficult to work with and my project was largely a failure. No one really expected me to graduate, but I pushed through and got my doctorate last fall. In the time since then, life has been pretty good to me in so many ways—I got married, traveled, got a dog—but I have been unemployed or underemployed the entire time.

At first I think I needed some time to heal from the experience. I wanted to relax and reconnect with myself and take long walks in the woods. I worked part time substitute teaching, and applied for lots of academic jobs in my field. It wasn't a huge surprise that I didn't get interviews; my project wasn't groundbreaking, and it's unlikely my advisor would be a serious advocate for me. So I broadened my search to industries tangentially related to my field, government positions, and teaching positions. I get nothing in return. Between six years of awful graduate school, and a year of job searching, I feel rejection just heaped on me in levels I didn't think were possible.

I accept that an academic career is not in the cards for me. I am willing to go on and work in other fields. But how do I change fields now? What do I do with a PhD and no concrete work experience and a year of unemployment?

I think I need to just wipe the slate clean and start over at the very ground floor. Money isn't a huge need right now (my husband has a nice job, we don't have any debts, and we live very modestly). We do want kids at some point. I could just wait tables or work at a shop to fill my time, while volunteering or working on finding a creative outlet. Shouldn't I want more, though? Don't I owe myself more than that?

I don't know Polly. What do you think?


Overeducated & Underqualified

Dear O&U,

If you ask "Shouldn't I want more?" that tends to mean that you do want more. When someone is supporting you, it's tempting to think that you can just set aside tough questions and go with the flow. But I don't think that suits you, or you wouldn't be writing to me about it. I understand the temptation to imagine waiting tables or working in a shop as some kind of toned-down existence, but the fact is, those kinds of jobs are incredibly taxing—and if you've got a PhD, they're likely to feel a little depressing, too.

Maybe you're hesitant to forge a new path that you'll have to abandon once you have kids. Just remember that those vaguely relaxing and enjoyable afternoons spent at the coffeehouse will soon transform into afternoons grappling with dirty laundry at naptime. I know plenty of women who seem perfectly happy in this role, but my sense is that it doesn’t make sense for you. It's hard enough to have a flexible, lower-paying career, because you tend to be the default parent / housekeeper when your spouse is unavailable. Imagine how oppressive it'll be when you have no real career, contribute no income to the picture and therefore don't feel you have an excuse to hire a nanny or put your kids in daycare, yet you don't necessarily have an overwhelming desire to bounce an infant and change diapers nine hours a day, either. Just because a lot of women are choosing this path, doesn't mean that those of us who aren't cut out for it are somehow less courageous and valiant than them. You can love spending time with kids and still love having your own career and your own time away from the house, just like your husband.

Although your experience with your advisor put you in a really difficult position (and whew, it sounds downright traumatic), maybe there's some related field that dovetails well with your experience. I know you've spent a lot of time looking for work already, and maybe you're avoiding the whole question, since it tends to make you feel depressed not only about your nonexistent career, but also about the traumas of the recent past. But don't allow these negative emotions, all very justified and understandable, to cloud you from seeing the world of possibilities stretched out before you. You have to challenge yourself to face this problem.

Spend one hour a day brainstorming and gathering information. Pick a few careers that might appeal to you, then look for more information, more listings, more career development options. You have to get creative with this. Discouragement and dread will come up, that's natural. But remember that taking a slow path to the right career is actually a luxury. Try to push through the trauma and savor the process. Attach some kind of soothing ritual to it: First, the long walk in the woods. Then, a pot of really good tea, the accompaniment to your career-development hour. Then, some reward. A book, a bath, some bad TV. (By now, a lot of people reading this are wishing they were you.) I know it doesn't feel that great to you, but you'll get there. The more you tackle this challenge head-on, the better you'll feel about the future.

You will figure this out eventually. Don't give up!


What are you running from? Write to Polly and find out!

Previously: Ask Polly: Why Can't I Leave My Ex Alone For Good?

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Mel.

28 Comments / Post A Comment

Hey, could you elaborate on "I'm not a fan of living together as a 'test'" a little bit? Thanks!

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Reginal T. Squirge I can: if you are "not sure yet" about it, don't sing anything. Leases included.

wee_ramekin (#33,118)

Wow. Those were great answers to both questions.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Do I have a leg to stand on?

No, you don't. If you are still calling Coral's father your "boyfriend", you have no right to call yourself her stepmother (or do many of the duties of one). Even after you start calling him "husband", in these matters pertaining to his daughter you are supposed to be his leg to stand on.

Take it from a stepfather who stepped into a complicated situation and managed to do good in it by making every effort to be as selfless as possible.

@Niko Bellic And what's going on with her partner? He thinks she needs to be "nice"? Sounds like he's avoiding the whole topic. He needs to read this column too.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Hiroine Protagonist Well, yeah. This whole situation is primarily his fault, because his daughter is his responsibility. He can be someone's "boyfriend" on his own time, but he shouldn't let his daughter play roles in his romantic sagas, only in his solid family commitments.

It's really irritating that they are so sure that this will last for the purposes of parading the validity of their relationship in front of his ex (and leading his child on in that direction), but not enough to go and get married (because that would be too serious – they are not that sure yet!).

oillil (#232,784)

@Niko Bellic I think you're mistaken to think that because she calls him her "boyfriend" they aren't serious. Many partners are together decades without ever getting married. The fact that he has introduced his daughter to her and they've decided they want to live together shows that he is serious, gestures are greater than words

@Niko Bellic

Well, I think the nomenclature isn't as serious as you're suggesting. She's moved in, they've been together more than two years – I'll take their word for it that they're serious. What I'm saying is that it is HIS job to manage the relationship with his ex. If roles were reversed and she had the live-in partner I bet he'd be a lot more on board about communication and boundaries and stuff.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@oillil "The fact that he has introduced his daughter to her … shows that he is serious"

You are not supposed to use your children as "proof of validity" of relationship. Children should be introduced to it only after the relationship has already been proven valid by other means (and "living together as a test" doesn't cut it).

I'm not saying it's necessary to parade around with a marriage certificate, but there is some significance to presenting yourself as a fully committed couple and a family, especially when your entire complaint is about not getting the recognition from others (also – I put "boyfriend" and "husband" in quotes to emphasize the significance of the use of the actual words and the effect they have on people). I suppose you can buck the society (including especially sensitive members of it – such as your child's mother) by making your own arrangements and calling them how you see fit, but you can't then come back and cry how you are not allowed to "fit in"!

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Hiroine Protagonist "What I'm saying is that it is HIS job to manage the relationship with his ex"

This is pretty much the same thing I said with this:

"in these matters pertaining to his daughter you are supposed to be his leg to stand on"

@Niko Bellic Actually, no. I don't think it is. I was a step-mom for five years. It was my partner's – not my husband, we never married – job to deal with the relationship between him and his ex. Part of that was negotiating how I fit in. Luckily, or not, his ex hated him so much that I was much loved for being a buffer, by both. In this instance, I feel like the boyfriend/partner/common law husband, whatever, is shirking his duty to manage his relationship with his ex as it pertains to child-rearing. He and his ex should have had some open talks about this new relationship and how it affected her and how it affected him and his relationship. I mean, in my opinion. There isn't enough info in this letter to determine how serious the couple living together are, especially not to condemn them so harshly, imo. I don't believe it mentions living together as a test, either. Polly mentions that later. I hear that your experience is very vivid, but I think you're being too harsh here dude.

oillil (#232,784)

@Niko Bellic would you suggest they get married before they live together and he introduces his daughter to her? I'm not sure what indicates seriousness or a committed relationship to you, but that seems like it would be a poor approach…..

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Hiroine Protagonist "I think you're being too harsh here dude"

Ugh… you are probably right. People keep telling me that! I'm also very sorry if you had to live through being a step-mom for five years and then not being one any longer. Being a stepparent is a very tough, tough thing to do, and I guess my point was that people entering those relationships should be aware of how serious that is and not expect being given too many "legs to stand on". And let me state it clearly: I do agree that the primary responsibility is on the parents.

@Niko Bellic Oh my goodness, I just teared right up. Yes. It was very very hard. Leaving an 10 year old after being in his life for so long… Hoo boy. But – his dad is happier with his current partner, they've been together 8 years and counting and she has a son, so he has a sibling. And I, who will probably never have kids of my own, got to parent a loving sweet intelligent awesome little boy. Gah. Ninjas cutting onions around here.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@oillil I'm saying this: if as a stepparent you start asking of any of the two parents to start taking you more seriously, you should make sure you did all you could from your end to demonstrate your own seriousness.

If you think getting married is not important – then why not just do it? It will not bear on your relationship, but it will help with these other people you have to deal with. If you think marriage is important, than the fact that you are not doing it yet proves that you are not feeling secure enough in your relationship.

Either way, not getting married at this point while asking to be recognized as a parent really makes no sense, and is the next logical step in this whole process. Of course, the father should lead the way on this, and if he is not doing it – then he is the problem number one in this story.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Hiroine Protagonist I'm so sorry. It is one of my worst fears, even if it is (thankfully) only irrational, as my wife and I are having a very good marriage thus far.

@Niko Bellic <3

oillil (#232,784)

@Niko Bellic I can understand your intention that they need to be secure and clear in their relationship, but I think leaping into marriage to prove something to anyone is a bad idea.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Hiroine Protagonist I agree w/ you 100%, it seems like most if not all of the allaying of fears / setting of boundaries needs to be done by the dude (whether he's a boyfriend or a partner or soulmate or whatever) and he sounds a bit blase about it all. Either LW1 isn't being fully upfront about her concerns or he's thick and / or shirking.

Bittersweet (#765)

@oillil I'm not sure they're "leaping into marriage" if they've been together for 2 years…

oillil (#232,784)

@Bittersweet fair enough. I think my reaction was mostly a result of @Niko Bellic mocking SF for calling her partner her "boyfriend." I can imagine being with someone for ten years and still calling him my boyfriend. And his reasoning that "if marriage isn't important to you then why not do it" seems misguided to me… There's a reason that people fight for the right to marry and that's because it's a big fucking deal. It's forever, not just to make things convenient for us now. And I guess especially coming from divorced parents, I would never encourage someone to get married, especially with children involved, without a LOT of time and forethought.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@oillil "And I guess especially coming from divorced parents, I would never encourage someone to get married, especially with children involved, without a LOT of time and forethought."

LW has already crossed a much more serious boundary: she has been acting the role of a stepparent and the child already loves her as such. It's too late to "keep it light" now. Things are already as heavy as they can be.

To say that getting married at this point would be too much risk for the child is simply preposterous. All the risks have already been taken. The child will be hurt if the LW breaks up with her boyfriend, even if there was no legal divorce to go through.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Niko Bellic I'm sure yr perspective is rooted in (intense) experience but what I'm getting from you is sort of an overarching doubt about the fundamental possibility of adequate stepparenting. I mean ffs the way you describe it you'd think forming a relationship with a child you didn't parent is roughly as dangerous as launching cruise missiles at a nation with a standing army. We all understand the risk of a de facto family unit falling apart on a child for a second time but if the assurance of prolonged stability that is apparently required for a post-separation relationship were really attainable then stepparenting in general would be a foreign concept.

Frankly the notion of depriving oneself of romantic possibility / yr child of potential parent-esque figures for the sake of protecting them from heartbreak is really stark. The way I figure it, the possibility of love's got to win out over the possibility of loss, because the possibility of loss is actually a certainty – we are all going to die, after all, and people we love will abandon us in one way or another. It sucks like hell but there's no sure way to sandbag anyone from it.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Much agreed with the advice here (I am a stepmom too) and I have this to add. LW1's "boyfriend" is curiously absent from this discussion. The adult relationship is the bedrock from which the rest proceeds. My husband and I made a reasonable success of step-parenting (I had one kid, he had two before we met) by putting each other's needs even before those of the children. You love this guy, you will do what he thinks best as much as you possibly, possibly can. Take his lead and respect the kid's natural parents. This woman is not going away, if you stay with this guy. Everybody is better off not taking any side except the child's.

lorabora (#240,239)

Does it bug anybody else how the first LW puts the daughter in the middle of trying to arrange a meeting? "I tell her I'm happy to, but it has to be when everyone wants to." So you basically told the 7 year old, I want what you want, but your mom doesn't, so she's the problem here. Umm? That strikes me as a really passive aggressive way to get what you want, which is maybe for the boyfriend to put his foot down and say that you get to meet the ex? Or that you can go to the recital?

Try, "This isn't the time for that yet." Or "It will happen when it happens. Tell me about your day." Don't use Coral like a pawn for influence. It's hard not to feel jealous or insecure and want to prove how important you are, but you've really got to try to keep it under wraps if you want to have a healthy relationship down the line.

I thought Polly's advice was great.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

With regard to LW1, I thought it was odd that the daughter told the quasi-stepmom that the mommom thought she was 'yucky'. At 7 I was old enough to know that that was a serious provocation which could have a lot of consequences. So I take it something's going on with the child; she finds the present situation bad enough to want to overturn it. We also have the missing-in-action boyfriend (not 'husband', boyfriend) who has casually set up a second familial situation without, apparently, preparing his daughter or her mother for it, or dealing with the inevitable problems subsequently. It doesn't seem like a good situation at all. I too would suggest not signing any long-term leases until it resolves itself.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

In response to all the "if they are serious, then why aren't they married?" stuff:
-Maybe they are govt. employees, and one will have to forfeit their pension if they marry the other,
-Maybe marriage would require the girlfriend to contribute her money to alimony or child support, and the boyfriend isn't ready for that yet?

As a lady who has loved men with kids that weren't mine, I think Polly's advice was swell, especially the last line. Hopefully that patience and detachment will fill LW1's heart and displace the angst over things she can never change, and over things her boyfriend might not change either.

misiekpl (#242,183)

Frankly the notion of depriving oneself of romantic possibility / yr child of potential parent-esque figures for the sake of protecting them from heartbreak is really stark. The way I figure it, the possibility of love's got to win out over the possibility of loss, because the possibility of loss is actually a certainty – we are all going to die, after all, liquidy and people we love will abandon us in one way or another. It sucks like hell but there's no sure way to sandbag anyone from it.

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