Part Three: Dickens’ David Copperfield on the Family: Birth Children Feeling Lost in Stepfamilies

Part Three: Dickens’ David Copperfield on the Family: Birth Children Feeling Lost in Stepfamilies

They paint this rosy picture of finding the man or wife of their dreams, someone THIS TIME who will actually love them.  I deserve to be happy.  I’m not going to settle.  I don’t want to send a message to my children that it’s Okay to live like this.

Then, when I challenge this fantasy, these clients get mad at me.  “It won’t happen to me,” they say.

There’s a reason almost everyone in jail is from a stepfamily.  There’s a reason almost every child who drops out of school or joins a gang or gets pregnant in high school or gets addicted to drugs and alcohol or sexually abused is from a stepfamily or child of divorce.

And you say, my kids are good kids.  They will be fine.

That’s easy for you to say.  You are the one WANTING the divorce.

And then they tell me they would only pick someone who loved their children just as much as they do!

Right.  Tell me how you are going to do that, you who are smarting from your last marriage and more than likely more broke than you’ve ever been and desperate for some help with these kids and feeling like a failure from your first marriage and struggling with NOT hating your Ex and nursing your wounds and trying to make sense of your world torn asunder and your kids are freaking out because they don’t have a home any more (back and forth between mom and dad means you don’t have a home and after awhile it drives you crazy) and your bed, your bed, is soooo empty.  The loneliness:  Night after night.

And you’re going to make a wise choice THIS time.  THIS time it’s going to work?  When you are reeling from all this despair?  You’ll know this time what you want?  You are wiser now?  Wiser?  Really?  Or just hurting?  Hurting people usually don’t make wise choices.

This is why second marriages breakup quicker and more often than first marriages and third marriages even quicker and more often than second marriages and on and on it goes.

Maybe, before you divorce and remarry, you should look at this whole mess from the eyes of a child.  How does it look through a child’s eyes to see some other man or woman touch mommy or daddy?  How does it feel to have a total stranger come into OUR home and take over?  If you are a stepparent now it would also be good for you to look at these issues through the eyes of your stepson or stepdaughter.  It might give you some compassion for him or her.

Before you lie to yourself and tell yourself the kids will be fine, take a look at how insightful Charles Dickens is looking at a stepfamily through the eyes of a little grade school boy.  In David Copperfield, Dickens tells the story of a stepson, Copperfield, who is sent away to boarding school by his stepfather (We are convinced as readers his loving mother would have never sent him away to school if she hadn’t remarried.  Sending Copperfield away was the evil stepfather’s doing.) and what it feels like to Copperfield coming “home” for the first time after being away at school several months.

Dickens captures the insight that Copperfield’s home is NO LONGER HIS HOME!  Yes, the comforting things are there, his mother, his mother’s maid, Peggoty, all the knickknacks that hold fond memories, but it is as if it all reminds him of a dream world that can never come back.  He is LOST in his own home.  It’s so painful he wants to leave again, to just be gone and to sit with his school buddy, Steerforth:

“Ah, what a strange feeling it was to be going home when it was not home, and to find that every object I looked at, reminded me of the happy old home, which was like a dream I could never dream again!  The days when my mother and I and Peggotty were all in all to one another, and there was no one to come between us, rose up before me so sorrowfully on the road, that I am sure I was glad to be there – not sure but that I would rather have remained away and forgotten it in Steerforth’s company.”*

Do you see the inner conflict he’s having?  He hasn’t seen his mother or his dear Peggotty in months and he misses them so much, but because his new stepfather has absolutely changed his old home forever he DOESN’T EVEN WANT TO GO HOME!

And why would he?  His stepfather is mean and has changed the demeanor of his home from one of tenderness and love and endearment to one of judgment, terror, fear and coldness.

Now look:  There are literally millions of stepfamilies, stepfathers and stepmothers that have figured out how to be loving to each other and the new stepparent fits right in and the child is thrilled to have a new “father” or “mother” figure.   But this is NO GUARANTEE.  Just because you love somebody doesn’t mean your new lover will love your child or that your child will love your new lover.  If you have more than one child you are assuming an awful lot that ALL of your children will love the new person you bring home and vice versa.

It is clear from Dickens’ story that David Copperfield’s mother loved him very much.  Nevertheless, she didn’t choose her next husband wisely and it was the undoing of her family and ultimately herself (it’s a sad story!).  Choosing her next spouse led to the biggest tragedy of her life.  David Copperfield’s life was dramatically changed as well and it takes him years to get his bearings.  Dickens is correct to show the down side of stepfamilies.  Love does not conquer all.

When Copperfield arrives home from his boarding school for the first time he’s fortunate that his stepfather and his stepfather’s sister (She came to live with them also and had a profound and sinister hatred of Copperfield.) are gone when he arrives home and he meets his mother and Peggoty along with his new half-brother who was born in his absence.  They spend the day together in bliss, reconnecting.  It was more than Copperfield could have hoped.  It ends way too shortly.

And then his stepfather and his step aunt arrive home and everything changes.  As they come home his mother tells him to go to bed so as not to upset his new family members for being up too late.  As he climbs the stairs to his old bedroom he thinks:

“It appeared to my childish fancy, as I ascended to the bedroom where I had been imprisoned, that they brought a cold blast of air into the house which blew away the old familiar feeling like a feather.”*

With all of them together he no longer feels like this is his home.  He feels distant from his mother, his maid (who remained one of his fondest friends throughout the book) and, even, himself.  He feels nothing but disdain from these new, uninvited (in his view) intruders (NOTE: His stepfather’s name was Murdstone, Dickens’ play on the words murder and heart of stone.  Murstone’s coldness eventually kills Copperfield’s mother.):

“In short, I was not a favorite with Miss Murdstone (his stepfather’s sister).  In short, I was not a favorite there with anybody, not even with myself; for those who did like me could not show it, and those who did not, showed it so plainly that I had a sensitive consciousness of always appearing constrained, boorish, and dull.

I felt that I made them as uncomfortable as they made me.  If I came into the room where they were, and there were talking together and my mother seemed cheerful, an anxious cloud would steal over her face from the moment of my entrance.  If Mr. Murdstone were in his best humor, I checked him.  If Miss Murdstone were in her worst, I intensified it.  I had perception enough to know that my mother was the victim always; that she was afraid to speak to me or be kind to me, lest she should give them some offence by her manner of doing so, and receive a lecture afterwards; that she was not only ceaselessly afraid of her own offending, but of my offending, and uneasily watched their looks if I only moved.  Therefore I resolved to keep myself as much out of their way as I could; and many a wintry hour did I hear the church clock strike, when I was sitting in my cheerless bedroom, wrapped in my little great-coat, poring over a book.*

Copperfield’s attempt to deal with his despair by holing up in his room so as not to have to deal with the constant discomfort is actually a healthy thing.  Reading would be a good pastime and because of his love for books he eventually becomes a famous writer (Copperfield’s life broadly follows Dickens’ own life, although Dickens did NOT grow up in a stepfamily, which makes his insight into the negative side of stepfamily dynamics all the more amazing.).  His stepfather, as is often the case, views Copperfield’s tendency to spend his time alone in his room as an insult and sees it as selfish behavior that must be disciplined.  He accuses Copperfield of being surly which is interpreted as being disrespectful and he will NOT be disrespected!

If you knew how often I have heard stepparents tell me they will NOT be disrespected by their evil stepchildren, you would be shocked.  Stepparents often feel as if their spouses’ birth children run wild without any discipline and they are quite often right about that.  Birth parents, especially after a divorce, have a difficult time disciplining their children because their children are hurting so badly already from the effects of the divorce.  Birth parents bear some guilt about this.  They also want their children to like them more than the other birth parent!  They worry if their children don’t like them they won’t want to stay and would rather be with the other birthparent.  New stepparents can see this pattern and confront it immediately.  Unfortunately, though the stepparent is correct the children need discipline, they are too often harsh and unloving in their approach.

The harshness of stepparents is the most common complaint of stepchildren that I hear in my office.  It would not be uncommon for a stepchild to escape all this judgment and condemnation in his or her bedroom.  Copperfield’s stepfather interprets Copperfield’s escaping to his bedroom as rebellion and being intentionally in a bad mood to negatively change the demeanor of the home.  The stepfather believes his stepson is the causing the contrary tone!  Dickens makes it very clear, that at least from the eyes of a child, he and mom and the maid were fine for years before this evil stepfather came on the scene.  No doubt the stepfather thought things were fine at home until Copperfield came home for the holidays.

However, Copperfield is genuinely depressed and he’s trying to make the best of a bad situation so he goes to his bedroom and read.   His stepfather interprets Copperfield’s mood as rebellion instead and he’s disciplined accordingly.  His mother does nothing to intervene.  She doesn’t dare.

Mr. Murstone tells David he can no longer hide himself in his bedroom and he has to sit with all of them in the main room.  And he is NOT to look “sullen.”

“’I will have a respectful, prompt, and ready bearing towards myself,’ he continued, ‘and towards Jane Murdstone, and towards your mother.  I will not have this room shunned as if it were infected, at the pleasure of a child.  Sit down.’

He ordered me like a dog, and I obeyed like a dog.*

If you are a stepparent, you have a big job ahead of you.  Your hardest job will be to give your stepchildren some slack.  The temptation will be to write them off and to complain to your wife or husband how terrible your wife or husband’s children are.  A good rule of thumb is not to come between blood.  To the extent you criticize your spouse’s blood children is the extent that you push your spouse away.

Usually the solution to this problem is to encourage the birthparent to be the one who is firm with the birth child and encourage the stepparent to concentrate on befriending the birth child.  There are also jealousies going on here that will need to be continually worked on, namely, that the relationship of the birth child to the birth parent precedes the relationship of the stepparent to the birth parent.  This is ultimately what is behind most animosity of stepparents for birth children.

The animosity of birth children to their stepparents is usually because after the arrival of the stepparent, the birthparent no longer has as much time and energy for the birth children and a birth child can sense immediately the withdrawal of the attention from the birth parent.  The birth parent is largely unaware of this because the birth parent loves the birth child the same.  Nevertheless, a birth child is totally aware that he or she was just demoted by the new stepparent because the stepparent has literally taken time away of the birthparent with the birth child.

These natural jealousies of both the birth child and the stepparent for the birth mother and spouse are often not handled wisely and create many of the problems common in stepfamilies.  Knowing and understanding them is critical in helping to ease animosities and is one of the tasks in therapy around stepfamily issues.

I’m guessing most second marriages that break up (when children are involved) do so because the birth parent feels the stepparent does NOT love the birthparent’s children.  The birthparent thinks: if you don’t love my children, you must not love me.  That’s a common feeling and, sadly for many, this particular feeling is not far from the truth.

The other reason second marriages with children break up is just the opposite feeling on the part of the stepparent.  The  stepparent complains the birth parent lets the birth child get away with murder and the stepparent says he or she will not participate in that any longer.  Inaction on the part of the birthparent, in this case, could drive the stepparent away.

Stepfamilies are dicey!  We work through all these crazy dynamics in therapy, seeking to take the hurt feelings out of it so people can make better choices instead of letting jealousies rule the day.  It’s possible to work out, but a little wisdom along the way sure helps!


*quotes from Chapter 8 of David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, written 1849-1850.  Kindle edition.

Part Three: Dickens’ David Copperfield on the Family: Birth Children Feeling Lost in Stepfamilies

Part Two: Dickens’ David Copperfield on the Family: Jealousy in Stepfamilies

I see now that if I go through that door, I open a door to hurt and agony and darkness and a world of unintended, but inevitable consequences. Whew! That was close!”

Unlike the postmodernist, I really believe that evil exists. A lot of people I’ve met don’t, however, and foolishly think they can do things that seem pretty on the outside, but inside are full of worms and maggots and darkness and death, and somehow escape the hurt themselves. “It won’t hurt me,” they say. The greener grass on the other side of the fence beckons them and they yearn for pleasures they should not have and, too often, they plunge into darkness and then wonder why there’s no light.

So I paint on this canvas what happens when people chose pornography or affairs instead of faithfulness and integrity and truthfulness of character. I expose the hurt of anger over-expressed or stuffed in hopes of steering people way from a life of impatience and selfishness and discontent (is there any crueler task master than discontent?). I lay out the folly of divorce and write over and over, no, the kids will NOT be Okay and neither will you, and preach time and time again that love is NOT a feeling and the goal of marriage is NOT for you to be happy and that the person who seeks happiness shall lose it. You can’t find happiness if you seek it any more than you can drink the sand of a mirage in the desert to satisfy your unquenchable thirst.

And then I read Charles Dickens’ description of a little boy’s first feeling of what it’s like to have a stepfather and I’m thoroughly chastened. Dickens gets to the heart of the matter in a couple of sentences.

Certainly there are some healthy stepfamilies. Indeed, the whole Christian faith is built upon a stepfamily metaphor: The believer was separated from God before he was a believer and is now adopted into God’s family through what Christ did on the cross. The tone of that stepfamily, like all stepfamilies, is set by the (step)Father: God accepts us into the family even though we don’t deserve it. We forgive as our Father in Heaven has forgiven us. He sets the example. We follow. Forgiveness in the family would be good.

But, more often than not, stepfamilies are fraught with tension and jealousies, some, of which, never go away. I write this today as a warning to those of you who are tempted to divorce, because, you think, you can always remarry and your new husband or wife will just be as enamored with your children as you are. NOT! MORE THAN LIKELY NOT! I also write this so those of you who are in stepfamilies NOW can find a way to infuse your family with grace and forgiveness, instead of animosity and scorn and, in some cases, even hatred.

Hatred? Cinderella may be a fair tale, but the mood of Cinderella is, sadly, the tone of many stepfamilies.

Why is that? In a word: jealousy.

Stepfamilies are born out of inequities and loss: divorce, death, failure, shortcomings. Stepfamilies, by definition, are trying to take something, that can never be fixed, and try to make it a little bit better. Sometimes they succeed. More often, the attempt ends once again in failure. The realities are stronger than the wish.

Check out this hint from Dickens’ David Copperfield. He’s a young boy at this time with Dickens’ writing in the first person. He’s so believable when he writes, that children who read David Copperfield oftentimes actually believe a child wrote it! Dickens gets into the heart of child, and sees the world through a child’s eyes, an amazing feat in itself. In the story, Copperfield is born to a young, pretty widow, who is left with a modest estate by her former husband, modest enough for her to afford a housemaid. The three of them are very happy together and the world the child Copperfield describes is almost Edenic.

But then the evil, potential stepfather happens on the scene: A man starts courting his mother. Read Dickens description upon Copperfield’s first meeting this fellow (called “Murdstone” by Dickens, his play on words: a murderer with a heart of stone):

“He patted me on the head; but somehow I didn’t like him or his deep voice, and I was jealous that his hand should touch my mother’s in touching me – which it did. I put it away, as well as I could.”*

In this one scene, Copperfield’s life is changed forever. What amazes me as a counselor guy is Dickens caught the feeling of a child of a stepparent and the feeling of a stepparent for a stepchild in two sentences. How could do that? I’ve literally talked to hundreds (thousands?) of people who grew up in stepfamily situations. Certainly there are some who loved and admired their stepparents. More often the stories of these people are full of sadness and rare do I hear stories of respect and admiration.

The reason is because there are jealousies on both sides with the birthparent caught in the middle. The birth child and the new stepparent are BOTH vying for the mother/wife’s attention. (Stepmothers have the same temptation). She’s torn between two people she loves. She can’t make both happy. She tries. She fails both. The child is jealous of this foreigner, this intruder, this interloper who is changing his life. The stepfather knows instinctively he can never be closer to his wife than Copperfield is to his mother. In Dickens’ story this tension kills his mother. In other families the tension kills the marriage or the child rebels or both. In any case, it is rare where the birth child feels close to the stepparent and vice versa.

Nevertheless, it happens sometimes. It’s easier for younger children to accept the new stepparent. Most of those seem to go pretty well…for a while. However, it is common for those relationships to get pretty difficult when the child reaches the teen years. It’s not just the child that has difficulty. The birth child predates the new stepparent and jealousies of stepparents are often off the charts. This occurred in David Copperfield and we’ll explore that common tendency in our next blog.

Part One: Lessons on Family Life from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

Part One: Lessons on Family Life from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

Mine is supposed to hold 3000 books or some such and it is the size of a regular paperback.  Wherever I go, I can have a library that 50 years ago would be the envy of the world.

What is really amazing are these classical collections from the world’s great literature for literally pennies:

The Complete Works of Mark Twain (300+ works for 99 cents)

The Works of Charles Dickens (200+ worksfor $2.39)

-The Complete Works of Jane Austin for (Her 6 major novels and one short novel for $1.99)

-And, of course, my favorite, The Works of G. K. Chesterton (36 books) for 1 buck!

There you go. For under $10 I have over 500 works to carry around.  But that’s just the beginning.  I’ve wanted a copy of the ESV Study Bible, which is as big as bale of hay (2752 pages, 2 million words and the equivalent of a 20-volumn Bible library).  I wanted it in premium calfskin at over $160 bucks online or $240 in the store, but I picked it up for my Kindle for only $8.54!  $8.54?  Crazy.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t want the calfskin version (Hint, hint).

And that doesn’t even count that I’ve added the works of John Bunyan, The Sermons of George Whitefield, The Whole Bible Commentary of Matthew Henry, the World’s Best Classics (originally ten volumes, which, for the Kindle was $3.19!) and many others and I can take them wherever I go.

You can pick up a Kindle for $79 now, so you really have no excuse.  My wife and I both have one and we can read the same novel or work, which is a nice, little touch to life.  We not only can travel together to different places in our car.  We can travel the world and history in our Kindles.

If you get a Kindle, be sure to search for the classical works you might be interested in using the phrase “Mobi Classics”  It’s a company that has taken many of the classical works of literature of the world and converted them into format for the Kindle.   There are other companies that do this, as the old volumes are considered public domain, but I’ve found out the hard way that unless the company that does the formatting includes an “active Table of Contents” the material is virtually worthless: You can’t find your way around.  Mobi’s done a great job of making the material accessible.  Mobi’s versions cost a little more, but they are very much worth it.

I just spent the last month or so reading Charles Dickens’, David Copperfield.  In a regular book it would be over 800 pages, so you won’t finish it in a weekend.  It’s a major commitment.  Dickens came to mind because of the accessibility of his books on my Kindle, as well as having stood by his grave and memorial in Westminster Abbey a couple of years back and reading the statement there that said he was  “a sympathizer with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death one of England’s greatest writers.” 

You can find this picture of Dickens on the Internet with him writing either right or left handed. Rumor has it he was left handed.

David Copperfield was viewed by Dickens himself to be his favorite work and is considered the most autobiographical of his novels.  It follows David Copperfield from his birth through middle age with most of the book occurring before Copperfield is 20 years of age.  Being that February 7, 2012, is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, it’s a good time to be reading him.

“I make myself known to my aunt”

I try to read a few novels in the winter to escape the monotony and it helps me get out of our self-absorbed modern day with our narcissistic perspective that we are somehow superior to previous generations (NOT! There’s nothing new under the sun!). Reading a novel of 150 years ago (Copperfield appeared over 19 monthly installments around 1850 in a series in a magazine) helps to escape for a moment own day and to see the truths that have stood the test of time and also to chasten us in our own narrow and often shallow mindset. It broadens my horizon. I sit in a little office all day. I need to get out of there and soar above once in awhile to get a bigger picture. A novel from a different era does that for me. It’s also cheaper than a vacation to a different part of the world.

This little diversion is good for me, I think. Dickens’ David Copperfield was an enjoyable journey and I thought I’d share a few of his insights about marriage and the family with my readers in the days ahead. I was both encouraged and admonished, a good combination.

So stay tuned.