Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn • My father’s wife (my mom is deceased) never lifts a finger to help, never offers to pitch in, cook or buy a meal, ever. Nothing! On the other hand, she has been on 10-plus vacations with us all over the world — at our expense — countless parties, dinners, etc. She is well-off, so the ability to do something/anything is there.
I am not looking for quid pro quo, but I feel like a doormat. Am I wrong to be frustrated here? If she even offered to watch our kids once a year so we could go out, that would be a great start. Thoughts? — Relative
Answer • You’ve got a taker and there’s no alchemy to render her into a saint.
But there are tactics you can use to take the edge off and, ideally, slow the growth of any resentment you’ve been cultivating.
They are actually the same ones — not coincidentally — that parents use to discourage anti-social behavior in toddlers. Instead of putting on a dinner or family event or trip and just waiting for her to volunteer her effort, approach each of these plans as a collection of individual jobs and ask her which one she’d like.
Toddler version, to avoid a tantrummy refusal to put shoes on in time to go to school: “Which sneakers do you want to wear, purple or red?
Stepmother version, to pre-empt freeloading: “Do you want to do the salad, or set the table? I’m working on the sides, but you can take over that if you’d prefer.”
The key is to be universal and uniform. Everything you do together as a family becomes a list of jobs that everyone involved then steps in to claim. (With the exception of course of times people want to give or host as a gift to all.)
As for the baby-sitting, similar idea: Just ask. “Hey Dad (see what I did there?), would you and Wife be willing to watch the kids for us for our anniversary dinner?” If you specify an occasion, then you’ll make it clear the slope isn’t greased and you won’t be expecting them to be your child care ever after.
Once you spell out for them what you value, then you make it easier for people to contribute in meaningful ways.
Just wondering — where’s Dad in all this? Does he offer help, pitch in, reciprocate in any way? Is his wife taking her cue from him? Is this a case of a woman being held responsible for the social contracts of a couple? — Wondering
Excellent question, thanks.