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posted: 9/17/2012 2:20 PM

Child care duties are crimping this retiree's plans

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Q. I am hoping for a resolution beyond the typical "walk away" or "accept."

I remarried 12 years ago. We are retired and ought to be able to travel or lead a life of our choosing. My wife and I have a great relationship when we are away, but traveling is becoming less frequent due to a growing situation.

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When in town, my wife, her unmarried 35-year-old stepdaughter from a previous marriage, and the stepdaughter's 5-year-old son have a relationship that barely includes me.

The ex-stepdaughter has a good career, and enjoys leading a life that rarely includes her son. My wife enables this by caring for the child whenever asked, and often in our home. This involves most weekdays and evenings, and some weekends when the child's father does not have him.

If I voice any complaint, I am cast as the jealous malcontent. My wife claims the mother has a mental problem and that is why she is self-involved (my words) and does not want her child around.

I like the child, but do not want the encumbrance at this stage of my life. I raised my own children. I adore my wife's three other children and enjoy our grandchildren who are raised by their own parent(s).

Am I wrong to want more from a relationship with my wife? What do you suggest?

L.

A. Of course it's not wrong to want more of your wife's company.

Calling a neglected 5-year-old an "encumbrance" packs a good deal less charm, though, even accounting for kids as hard work.

I'm not unsympathetic; you understandably thought you were past all this, plus you got a multiyear taste of life sans dependents, only to watch that life slip away.

But as any adult knows, plans aren't destiny and high expectations often just amplify our eventual disappointment.

My apologies if this resembles "the typical ... 'accept,'" but you have two very good reasons to adjust your expectations to account for this little boy.

The first is that you can't make your wife change any behavior she doesn't want to change.

The second, the big one, is that your justifications notwithstanding your stage in life, your antipathy for the stepdaughter, her duty to raise her own offspring the child's needs trump yours. You just don't push aside kids because you're owed a cruise, and you don't judge a child for his mother's failings. He's innocent.

To be fair, your wife's "jealous malcontent" rejoinder doesn't help. It's not pretty to see two adults act like children, especially as a real child counts on you both.

I have to believe, and not just because it fits my thesis, that your wife will be more open to giving you more attention if you stop resenting her compassion, and instead praise it: "You might be saving this boy. I get it, and admire you for it." Can you come by that honestly?

Then: "I'd like to help you more." Surely that's the cure for your sense of exclusion? Attachment where resentment now lurks?

Then: "I'd also like to draw some lines" X days a week for sitting, Y weeks of the year for traveling, etc. "so that we're supporting Stepdaughter versus flat-out doing her job." To get what you want, understand who you want it from.

• Email Carolyn at tellmewashpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

2012 The Washington Post

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