Q: My husband's first wife died four years ago. I moved into his home with his two young children. Nothing has changed since the moment she passed. I'm trying to make a life for my husband and me and it's virtually impossible. My husband says we can't afford to move, and he wants to stay here for his children, but I feel so uncomfortable. I keep telling him that the kids will grow up and move away and that this is the parents' home. He doesn't agree. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: This conversation should have happened when you decided to marry, and then you could have slowly made changes before moving in so that when you became part of the family no one was shellshocked by your presence.
As it is, making changes now may be perceived as you trying to take over and attempting to wipe out Mom's memory. Since that's a recipe for disaster, the best thing you can do at this point is to reach out to Dad and the children, discuss what changes, if any, they feel are appropriate, and follow their lead.
Don't be afraid to make suggestions, but be gentle. There's a lot at stake. It could sabotage your relationship with the children, which in turn will affect your relationship with your husband.
Yes, it's your life, too, but you knew your husband's history before you married. Because he married you doesn't change that. Your presence hopefully softens the blow and breathes life back to his world, but you walked into their space, so you must be careful how you go about it.
Dad must openly support your efforts and set an example for the children. Be patient. Never bad-mouth or compare yourself in any way to their mother. At the right time you may want to present yourself as a helper, never a replacement, and while it may be difficult, try to openly respect their mother's memory. The children will be drawn to you and respect you, as well.
Good Ex-etiquette for Parents is based on "Putting the children first" — but it sounds like you may be having trouble with this concept if you are telling your husband that the home belongs to "the parents" and the kids will eventually be gone. Although that is certainly true, few parents want to hear that when their children are young, especially when there was such a loss already experienced.
You may not see it, but you are treading on very thin ice. Before you start labeling yourself a parent, make sure you are accepted as a parent by both Dad and the kids.
Finally, in a perfect world, it would be best if you could start in a new home so that all could start on equal footing, but if your family can't afford to move, you must do your best to create the home you want. I've lived this situation myself. I decided that spending so much time feeling like an outsider was unproductive and I began to concentrate on becoming a positive influence in the home. Although it took time, it worked for me and my family. That's good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is founder of bonusfamilies.com.