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?
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.
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
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.