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

by | Feb 15, 2012

It makes me mad to hear people who are unhappy in their marriages tell me their children will be fine if they divorce.

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.

Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall is a marriage therapist with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa. To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.

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