Would you complain to your parent about their spouse?

Dear Dopers,
Since I see that a couple of recent advice questions have done well here, I thought I would throw my own in.

I am a 30 yo male whose parents divorced when I was 6. My father remarried 10 years ago, when I was already in college, so I never had much contact with my stepmother (actually to me she’s just “my father’s wife”). I have always gotten along well with my father, but our contact for most of my life has been inconsistent: we always mean to write/call but never made the time etc… Anyway, I don’t think this really bothered either of us that much in the past. The problem is mainly two-fold. First, my father’s wife wants very much for me and my brothers to like her, and is therefore continually “in our face”, calling us, sending emails, etc, much of this on her own, without my father. But I really don’t know her well and don’t have much in common with her. And when I do have contact with my father, she is always there – on the other line, in the room, reading (and responding to) his emails, etc. In short, I never have any private quality time with him – she is always in the middle. (my brothers feel this way too)

The second problem is more concerning. My father has never been well off, and a second income would definitely have made a difference in his quality of life. My stepmother used to work, but has had some psychological problems that have kept her from working for several years. So she stays at home all day, surfing the internet, bidding at Ebay (with his credit card), etc, while he supports her and her two kids. I would be entirely sympathetic to her condition (I’ve been through some things myself) if it weren’t due to the fact that whenever something FUN presents itself, she is ready to go: long weekends at the beach, family reunions across the country, vacations in Europe, etc. It definitely seems that she should be able to do something remunerative… But as a result, my father dresses in worn out clothes, cannot afford new glasses or a trip to the dentist, works like a dog, and doesn’t have any health insurance. He is approaching 60 now and we all fear what will happen when he really falls ill (of course we are all willing to help him financially should that happen).

So my question is: can I say anything to him? I feel that these problems center mostly around his wife, but I really don’t know if I have any right to tell him what I (and my brothers) feel. I know that I would be quite put off if someone in my family complained to me about my wife. But on the other hand, I have genuine concerns about how she not working could be affecting my father healthwise. I don’t know what to do. I love my father, and am otherwise OK with his wife. I want to improve things and to get these feelings off my chest, but I don’t want to risk alienating him.

So, wise Dopers, what do you think?!

Hi. I’m the step-mother. Well, maybe not yours, but in a similar situation.

I could certainly understand if my husband’s children wanted to talk with him privately on the phone or in email. I would feel comfortable if they came to me about it, but they also have a right to let their Dad know if they prefer to go that route. When you call, you might just say, “Karen, I need (or want) to talk with Dad privately this time.” Or “Dad, I want to talk with you privately this time.”

For the sake of the family and out of kindness, do include her in conversations from time to time.

If they have joint email, that’s really their business. But you can always try putting “For Dad’s Eyes Only” in the subject line and hope that she will respect that.

I can understand your concern for your father’s welfare and health. You might consider talking with him privately about your concern for his having health insurance. Or you might bring it up to them jointly. Or…What would happen if you presented your concerns to your step-mother first? It’s just an idea.

I am sixty myself. Having health insurance is a priority at any age, and not having it at this age is unthinkable! Does your step-mother have insurance? She needs to be covered too. The illness of either one could wipe them out quickly.

Why not offer to take your Dad to have his eyes checked or to have his teeth examined? If he has a credit card and his wife is taking vacations in Europe, he can afford to have decent clothes and new glasses. Dental work is expensive, but necessary. If he is not having having these things taken care of and is giving her money instead he is choosing to do that and it is his choice to make unless he is mentally ill.

As long as he is in his right mind, how he spends money that he has earned is his business. And that includes what he chooses to give to his wife. I’m sure you expect the same respect from him.

I know it must be painful not to be able to “fix” things.

If psychological problems have prevented your step-mother from working, it is possible that she may be eligible for social security disability payments. I’m not saying that she is entitled to them – only that she may be and it might be something that she should look into.

Sometimes people are unable to continue to put themselves in stressful situations (such as a work place) but are still able to benefit mentally from getting out and away. Too often people with mental problems tend to shut themselves off from the outside world. Just be glad that she can find some relief.

Have you thought about getting to know her? Maybe you have more in common than you think. Certainly you are family whether you can fully acknowledge that or not. One of the most loving things you can do for your father is to become friends with his wife – just as you would want your father to be friends with your wife. That’s what families do.

I wish you luck!

IMHO, you have every right to say something to him about your first concern, not having any quality private time with him. You could try inviting him out for lunch or something, making sure he understands it’s “a guy thing”, and no women at all would be involved. This would be less likely to put your father or his wife on the defensive.

On the second issue, though, about his finances. . .well, I can certainly understand your concern, but it’s really none of your business. Your father is a grown man, and assuming he’s still got all of his mental faculties, these decisions should be his to make.

Perhaps you could accept your step-mother’s friendly advances, and, as a friend, gently push her in a direction of, if not working, at least not spending your father’s money so fast. I’m thinking that perhaps you could befriend her, and then say something like, “You know, it’s been a long time since Dad’s had some nice new clothes, but I know he can’t afford them right now; can you think of any way you and he might be able to save a few bucks so that you and I could go get him some new clothes for Christmas?” or something like that. This won’t work at all if she doesn’t feel that you like her, and may not work anyway, but it seems like it may be worth a shot.

Best of luck!

To be honest, telling your dad that his wife is annoying you is one of the worst things you could possibly do. Criticizing someone to their spouse is a) rude and b) counterproductive, unless you want to create a them-vs-you dynamic.

She’s his family, just like you are, and it sounds like she’s trying to create a family dynamic here. ONE family dynamic, that includes all of you–her, dad, the kids, you and your brother, everybody–instead of treating it like two seperate families. What is this about not knowing her well, anyway? It’s been ten years and she’s made multiple friendly overtures. In my family, someone would have already chewed your ass for not making more of an effort, for your father’s sake if not for hers.

Respond to her emails, get to know her a bit better, treat her like family instead of someone who just happens to be married to family. I’d bet dollars to donuts she’ll back off a little and give you guys more space. If she feels ignored and excluded from the family, she’ll keep pushing harder and harder to keep you from shutting her out completely.

As for the money, well, it’s their money and they’re the only ones who get to decide how to spend it. You could mention to your step-mother that you’re worried about your father’s health, and ask how long it’s been since he’s had new glasses, or seen a dentist or whatever. Respond to the answer with shock and concern and the suggestion that some nagging on the subject would do Dad some good. Or mention that you want to get him some clothes for Christmas, birthday, Father’s Day, Be Kind to Animals Week, whatever, but you don’t know what size to get him.

How would you feel if you had been married for ten years and your father complained to you about YOUR wife?

That old saying about the parents’ butting out of the children’s marriages works both ways.


For your second issue, it sounds like what you’re actually afraid of is that your father WILL fall ill, and because his wife has frittered away what little extraneous discretionary cash there is, that you and your brothers will be in the position of paying for your dad’s care. That sucks, esp when it seems like the cash is just be spent capriciously. I’d suggest talking to your brothers about this issue. Someone needs to ride his ass about the health insurance thing. At his age, that is truly non-negociable. Perhaps one of you can collect the information and give him a little presentation to him on just what’s going to happen to his precious little second-string family if he has a health issue. This is especially important if he has a catostophic injury, because you and your brothers are not likely to be able to cover $100K of medical bills.

As to your first issue, I can kind of see it from both sides. Dad’s wife is probably NEVER gonna relax unless she’s sure of where she stands with you. You have something very important with her, namely, you both really love your dad. CrazyCatLady made an exceptionally good point, ten years is a long time and it doesn’t sound like you’ve made much of an effort.
What I’m hearing is that you are okay with wife #2 in theory, but that in practical application, you don’t much care for her as a person. Unfortunately, I think that you probably just need to suck that one up if you want to continue to have a good relationship with your dad.

Thank you all. You have made some very good points.

Just to clarify one thing. During the 10 years my dad has been remarried, I have never lived closer than 400 miles, and for 6 of those years, have been out of the country. I would guess that during that period I have seen him about 10 times (sad when you think about it). As I said, my parents split up when I was six, I lived with my mother, and he was never that great at keeping in touch. I got used to it. I guess ours is not a ‘close’ family, but my dad and I are reasonably comfortable with the frequency and I do care about him (my wife always tells me how amazed she is at our quirky similarities). As for his wife, she came into the picture when I had already moved out and gone to college, and my entire relationship with her is based on those 10 visits, and I have been reasonably nice to her. I admit that if I had made more effort, I might know her better, but I don’t think there is actually that much scope there. And the cold hard fact is, either you have chemistry with a person, or you don’t. Anyway, I take the point made and agree that my stepmother does deserve my respect and I would be out of line to suggest anything about her to my father.

And CrazyCatLady, I appreciate the offer to chew my ass, but as I mentioned, I am a married guy. :smiley: