About three years ago, I overheard my stepdaughter talking to a friend as they walked out of school together. She said, “I’m going to my dad’s house today, but I’ll ask my mom when I get home tomorrow!”
A completely harmless comment, but it confirmed a feeling I’d been having for months. That night, and various nights after that, I sat with my husband and talked through a big dilemma we had created:
His daughter very obviously viewed our house as “dad’s house” and her mom’s house as “home.”
It was the root of many of our other frustrations. We had expressed annoyance that my stepdaughter was constantly expecting to be entertained and taken to do things, but we had been blaming it on her age and “kids these days.” In reality, it was because we had spent years setting the expectation that “dad’s house” is a place you visit a couple of times a week to have fun and buy things.
I had felt burned out and edgy for months, but we had been blaming it on my depression or my bad attitude. In reality, I was getting sick of having to act like we had a special guest in town to entertain every week.
My husband had felt confused that only his ex knew of struggles their daughter was having, but he had been blaming it on “young girls just prefer to open up to their moms.” In reality, she just felt more comfortable dealing with “real life” with her mom, since her dad was just a place to visit.
It’s Time to Make “Dad’s House” a HOME
Needless to say, a lot of realizations started snowballing in our household. My stepdaughter didn’t feel at home. I didn’t feel like a real wife. My husband didn’t feel like a real parent. Something had to give—for everyone’s sake.
Luckily, we’re a pretty dang good team around here. I can honestly say that while there is still room to grow, we have mostly tackled this issue and with great results.
Here’s what it took for us to go from being “dad’s house” to “home:”
We stopped using the custody schedule as an excuse.
“But she’s only here 1/3 of the time, so she’s never going to feel the same here as she does at her mom’s!” is nonsense.
My parents bought a new house last year. I’ve never lived in it. I spend maybe 5% of my time there. But I jump in and help with dishes, I have heart-to-hearts with my mom, and I have a favorite spot on the couch. The portion of my life spent there doesn’t determine how it feels to me. The people and atmosphere there are what make it feel like home.
Similarly, “but we only have her 1/3 of the time, I shouldn’t have to waste it on washing hair and chores!” is also nonsense. No time spent raising your child is wasted; it all matters. Time spent doing the “boring stuff” is time you spent parenting, which is what the custody schedule was intended for. Parenting time. Not partying time.
We implemented “nothing days.”
I remember a time—delightfully distant now—when I would pick up my stepdaughter from school and the first words from her mouth were always, “so what are we doing tonight?”
I would respond to this by either detailing the packed day I’d carefully planned (play date with so-and-so, since last Tuesday I told them this Tuesday, then the craft I picked up at Michaels to entertain you until dinner, which we’re going out to Olive Garden for since I know you prefer restaurant food to my cooking, and also I invited Grammy over, since she hasn’t seen you in two weeks and wants to see you while you’re here) OR I would scramble to give her a good enough answer by suggesting things I could do to entertain her: go get ice cream, pick up a friend to play with, etc.
Whatever would sound fun enough that I wouldn’t risk her being disappointed and wanting to go “home.”
But with the realization that we had become a vacation destination, we put an end to jam-packed days every day we had my stepdaughter. Are some days still busy? Yes. Do we still go do fun things? Of course!
But often, if my stepdaughter wakes up on a Saturday morning and asks what our plans are, we gleefully answer, “nothing!”
Of course there was pushback. There were heavy sighs and sulky faces and conveniently timed “I miss my mom” breakdowns. But long-term, sustainable normalcy was more important to us than having a temporarily cheerful kid, and we stuck to our guns.
Eventually, the routine became a huge relief—for everyone. Now my stepdaughter sees me folding laundry and offers to do the dusting. We tell her to take 30 minutes to find something quiet to do, and she gets caught up on her reading minutes. She helps me prep lunch and chats with me about school. It’s obvious we all feel more at home when our home feels more normal.
We rolled our (emotional) sleeves up and dug in.
My husband and I share the terrible habit of avoiding anything emotionally uncomfortable, which resulted in an entire faction of parenting that was going completely ignored in our household.
Slowly but surely, we (moreso my husband, but also me where he thought a “mom” touch would be helpful) started becoming more emotionally involved in my stepdaughter.
Instead of noticing she was having an off day and “fixing” it with a trip to the trampoline park, my husband would sit down and check-in with her: ask what she was feeling, offer encouragement, sympathize instead of getting defensive when she said she missed her mom.
For me, this meant that instead of robotically sticking a Band-Aid on a scraped knee and telling her to walk it off, I worked on getting on her level, giving a hug, sharing a story about the time I crashed my bike too, and listening to her tell me how scary it was.
We worked on emotionally investing, and the return was a child who felt invested in.
No dad becomes the “Disneyland Dad” on purpose. My husband had the best intentions of being a great parent. But originally, he was living in an apartment containing a pull-up bar and a cabinet full of whiskey. He was doing the best he could with what he had. And what he had was a LOT of Chuck-E-Cheese tokens.
As he settled down into reality with his family and stopped being a wild houseguest in his OWN life, it was time to create a sense of normalcy—for his daughter, for his wife, and for himself.
In this house, we now have Saturdays spent doing yardwork whether it’s a “custody weekend” or not. We have fun days at the lake, but we also have alone time and homework time. We have teary-eyed discussions about the pains of growing up with divorced parents. We have leftovers for dinner.
We have a HOME, and I highly recommend it.
P.S. If you’re still hung up on the “time” thing, here are some tips for maintaining house rules when your child has two homes.