Dear Margo: When the Mistress Becomes the (Step) Mom

Should I embrace my father’s new wife so that my children can know their grandfather? Margo Howard’s advice

When the Mistress Becomes the (Step)Mom

Dear Margo: I’m in my 40s, as are my siblings. Our dad, who is in his late 70s, had an affair an indeterminate while ago, but to this day won’t admit it. My parents have been divorced for a dozen years now, and Dad married the mistress. Naturally, I am not comfortable acting like we’re all “family.” I’ve told my dad I’m not comfortable behaving as if everything is fine and pretending we all enjoy each other’s company. His response has been to never call or visit, and he turns down my invitations to dinner or visiting with my kids. (We live within 30 minutes of each other.) He doesn’t even call the kids on their birthdays.

He and his wife frequently see my sibs and their kids. I am hurt but realistic about it. I really cannot tolerate his wife, and if he wants to side with her over getting to know his young grandchildren, that’s his choice. I extend invitations every once in a while, and he frequently says during those calls that he misses my kids but is too busy to see us. Admittedly, I never invite his wife, but I assume he knows an invitation for him is for both. I do attend large family events for holidays or his birthday.

Should I try to tolerate his wife so that my children can know their grandfather? It’s not just her history and role; I simply dislike her. Plus, she certainly hasn’t extended herself in any way toward me. My mom is bitter, too, about the affair and divorce, though she has admirably built a new life. Maybe because I’m a wife, mother and daughter, I side with my mom, so I would have to contend with my feelings of betraying her, too, if I reconcile. Should I call it our loss about his decision or suck it up for my kids? –Willing to be a Martyr

Dear Will: Life is choices, hon. It sounds as though you alone of the sibs have badgered your father for a “confession,” and it doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. The handwriting is on the mistress — I mean, the wall. Having made known your dislike of her, you cannot expect him to interpret any invitation as meant for the two of them. If you’re willing to put up with her, make an explicit invitation to them both. Your father will know how to interpret it. If this woman hasn’t been nice to you, it could surely be because she’s getting the vibes. It’s your call. Literally. –Margo, optionally

No Need To Feel Stuck for an Answer

Dear Margo: From time to time, a friend will say, “See you at The Smiths’ party!” What do you say in reply when you haven’t been invited but don’t want to embarrass your friend for having mentioned it? I always end up saying, “Oh, we’re busy that night,” so the friend doesn’t feel jerky for mentioning it. Should I just say, “Sorry, we weren’t invited, but have a good time”? Help. — Feeling Awkward

Dear Feel: There is no shame in not being invited everyplace your friends are. Ergo, there’s no need to fudge an answer. If this person starts fumfering around, merely say, “Don’t give it a thought. People cannot invite everyone they know to every event they have.” If the prospective host mentioned is a close friend of yours, the same rules still apply. One hopes grownups do not feel about entertaining as though they were sixth graders planning a birthday party. Chins up. –Margo, comfortably


Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via e-mail to Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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61 Responses so far.

  1. avatar susan says:

    LW#1, I am the wife that was left for the other woman.  I was very bitter and to some degree still am 11 years later.  At the beginning it would have made me happy to have our kids side with me and abandon him, like he did to us.  My kids were better people than me, they maintained a relationship with their father and although they are not thrilled w/the other woman, who is now their stepmother, they treat her with respect because they love their dad.  They don’t condone what he did, but they love him and that’s what counts.  They know he cheated and left,  and that will never change.  I don’t feel betrayed by this, if anything, I take pleasure in knowing that I was partly responsible for raising such amazing young men.   

    • avatar JC Dill says:

      Susan, that’s a really beautiful attitude, and reply. I commend you for your mature response to things that were outside your control.

    • avatar krista griffin says:

      You should be proud to have been such a wonderful mother. Of course you were hurt by your husbands betrayal. But the fact that you were glad your kids took the high road, speaks volumes about your personality. Kudos to you.

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    A friend divorced over a mistress who then lived with her ex for almost 20 years until they decided to finally get married after my friend actually suggested it.  My friend actually “gave him away” and held the wedding in her home.  Alas, the mistress was and always will be the mistress in some eyes.  But for the eyes that counted, their children, it was the moment of healing for everyone.  Which of course is why my friend did what she did. 

    All I can say about this situation is that if you’re going to extend an olive branch, it might be wise to remove the thorns.

  3. avatar Miss Lee says:

    Ltr # 1  The writer should ask herself if she is willing to risk never healing this wound.  Her father will not always be around.  One never knows how long one has on the earth.  She may well find herself having the carry the burden of this estrangement long after she can do anything to heal it.  She should get over herself and reconcile with her father.  She will never be best friends with his wife but she can be civil for her father’s and her children’s sake  and ultimately, for her own.  Over time, she may well find herself uninvited to many family gatherings because her relativess will find her martyr act unnecessary and irritating.

  4. avatar Maggie W says:

    Apparently LW #1 still believes life should be a Hallmark movie.  When your father fell in love with his second wife, it is unlikely he was thinking of your approval.  You have chosen to plant yourself on high moral ground regarding his marriage.  It is unfortunate that your own children have never really learned to love their grandfather, but since you dislike his wife with such intensity, it is also better they not see that side of you either.  To extend an olive branch now would be meaningless, and your father’s wife would see through such a hypocritical gesture. 

  5. avatar David Bolton says:

    “Plus, she certainly hasn’t extended herself in any way toward me.”
    Well, I probably wouldn’t either—even though you sound like a bundle of joy and happiness.
    Look, everyone makes mistakes and some hurt other people. Relationships don’t always work out for whatever reason. You can either make the effort to forgive your father (regardless of whether or not he EVER admits to anything) or not. It’s your choice, but it sounds like you are the one who is suffering more from your feelings of anger and betrayal than anyone else. Either let the man back into your life (along with the people who are in HIS life) or move on with yours.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      And by the way—I’m estranged from my father. The reason why I don’t make any overtures to him is because I have done so in the past and it was met with apathy. My father is emotionally lazy, and I came to the realization that I can’t make him care any more about me than what he does. And since that’s not enough in my book, I have decided to move on. I don’t try to replace him, and I don’t miss him.

  6. avatar David Bolton says:

    As for LW#2, I found myself in a similar situation when I moved in with a good friend in Minneapolis. It was a major move for me, and I didn’t know anyone in the city except for my friend. He began introducing me to his friends, and they seemed like nice enough, fun people. Shortly after I got there, he was invited to a friend’s birthday party, along with our other roommate. I was not included, even though I had met this person several times, and had done something social with them. I thought it was incredibly rude then, and I still do to this day.

    • avatar Miss Lee says:

      Definately sounds like Minneapolis!  As a transplant myself, I have found that Minnesota nice is superficial at best.  Most of my friends are from somewhere else also.  Often the first thing I am asked when I meet a native for the first time – “Where did you go to high school?”  The assumption is, since I am of Norwegian heritage, that I am from around here. Even if I were, it seems a rather odd question since high school was 40 years ago for me.  But it shows how closed the friendship circles are in this town. 

      • avatar RL says:

        I’m glad you posted this because I’ve always wanted to try out Minneapolis.  Honestly what you just described is how it is in Seattle.

        • avatar Miss Lee says:

          Minneapolis is a lovely town.  Beautiful lakes, lots of things to do and a good economy.  I think the locals are pretty much like most other places.  It is human nature to be confortable with folks you have known for years.  The only place that I have lived that was different was Las Vegas. I was there from 1987 to 2000. The locals there were great and everybody was from somewhere else.  I met lots of nice and interesting folks.  Then the Californians moved in and made it a little LA complete with transplanted gangs.  Sad.  The town I loved in the 80’s is gone forever. 

          • avatar Susan Thomas says:

            Come to South Carolina!!! They are the nicest, friendliest people in the world! They open their hearts to you, and  are kind and helpful. I was collecting flowers by the side of the road and on numerous occasions people have stopped and asked me if I needed any help. I am from Connecticut and still love my home state, but the south is the way New England was years ago. They greet you in stores, smile at every chance and are the sweetest people. Some of the meanest people I have met lived in Florida but were from Ohio, who knows why. (sorry Ohioians). We have been to 49 states and the south is one of the best areas in the country!

  7. avatar Jrz Wrld says:

    LW1, grow the hell up. Seriously. My parents’ marriage finally came to a close when my father took up with a perfectly reprehensible woman. I. Don’t. Like. Her. In fact, I hate everything that she stands for. She is rude, obnoxious, bigoted, bossy, smug and self-centered. (She and my dad are actually a lot alike.) For a few years, I used to get a kick out of making her uncomfortable, but that got old. They’re still together (in an open relationship), and I only have to deal with her on occasion. But there is NO WAY IN HELL I would ever let her destroy my relationship with my father. Despite the above-mentioned flaws, he was a good father to me, and I cannot overlook that. I am polite to her when in her presence and otherwise ignore her. It’s really not that hard.
    Don’t be a “martyr” – be an adult.

  8. avatar impska says:

    LW1: Sometimes it’s not easy to disentangle ourselves from nitty gritty of our parents’ divorce and all of the emotional drama that follows. First, ask yourself what you would do if this woman was not “the mistress,” but just your step mother who you didn’t like very much. Would you put the effort in so that you could maintain a relationship with your father? Would you attempt to fake it, so that your kids could be comfortable seeing her as one of their grandmas?
    I disagree that it’s too late to mend this fence by extending invitations to both of them. If this has gone on very long, you may need to have a frank conversation with your father: tell him that you’ve decided to put the ugliness behind you and that you hope that they will join you in putting the effort into mending the relationship.
    As for your mother, does she act resentful to your other siblings, or are you just supposing that there may be repercussions with her? If you think it’s necessary, then you can tell her that for the sake of your children, you’ve decided to try to work out a relationship with your father, but that you love her and empathize with her.
    Since our parents’ relationship affects us, it’s difficult to come to the understanding that it’s really none of our business what went wrong, who did what, and that it’s not our place to take sides. Whatever their mistakes in their relationship with each other, our relationship with each of them is separate, and shouldn’t be reliant on whether or not they were good spouses to each other.

  9. avatar Dana2011 says:

    To LW #1

    I can understand not wanting to pretend to get along with the former mistress/now step-mom for the sake of the appearance of family harmony.
    Perhaps your response to this situation would have been different if your father had been honest and acknowledged how much his actions hurt you, as your mother’s daughter. When someone has an affair, it affects the entire family, not just the spouse who was cheated on.  While healing and forgiveness are certainly beneficial, it doesn’t mean you have to accept your father’s new wife. He’s the one who’s drawn a line in the sand by refusing to continue a relationship with your children.

    Forget what everyone else’s opinion is on this site, it’s YOUR life.  All that matters is that you make choices that honor who you are, what you feel and believe, and what you can live with.  Perhaps ask yourself what would be worse 20 years from now:  Your father passing away and knowing you and your children didn’t have as close a relationship as you might have if you tried to tolerate the new wife(assuming your father reciprocated), or spending time with this other woman and your father feeling ill at ease, knowing that she played a big part in destroying your parents’ marriage and caused your mother tremendous pain. It’s also possible that no matter what you do at this point, the relationship with your father has been irreparably damaged to some degree.

    As Margo said, it’s your call.  And it’s up to you to be at peace with whatever decision you make.  Good luck!

    • avatar Kathy Fisher says:

      What I’m not seeing addressed here is the actual marriage before the affair….When my parents separated, I was 19 years old.  They were not a good fit, mistress or no mistress…Perhaps their similar goals at the beginning of the relationship were enough to make up for their VAST personality differences, but it wasn’t enough at the end of the day….My mom didn’t set healthy boundaries; my dad was selfish, and enabled by her to step over what little boundaries she’d set..My mom was in many ways “a saint”, and that was probably her biggest fault…she also had control issues; communication issues (she didn’t speak up until things got really bad – then she’d explode and my dad would be shocked that the boat was being rocked when everything seemed fine to him)  It was a very complex situation, and I when the mistress came into the picture, I was mature enough to understand that she was only one piece of a very, very large, complicated puzzle.   My dad was far from perfect, but he worked his ass off to provide for us, made me laugh, took me fishing, supported my unconventional career choice….So when he married “the mistress”, I welcomed her into my life because I could see how much he loved her, and how much more suited she and my dad were for each other than my parents could have ever been….We formed a close relationship over the years, and now that dad is gone and she is moving on with her new life and a new relationship, I miss her with all my heart.

  10. avatar A R says:

    L1: Well. Gosh. You seem to be very….conflicted about what you want. You didn’t want her around, yet you fret that she never has reached out to you. You told your dad to forget being one-big-happy-family, yet you wonder why he makes excuses. You invite him in name only, and ruminate over why she doesn’t realize that she is included in the invitation.
    At your age, you’ve got to make a choice, and it won’t be one that suits all your needs. You either have him around, with her in the bargain, or you don’t have him around.
    If you want him around, you had better figure out a way to deal with your emotions. He’s made his choice–the new wife is more important to him that jumping through your emotional hoops. Right or wrong, he’s played his hand. Now you have to decide whether you are in or out.
    L2: Just laugh and say that you haven’t heard about that one yet, but you sure hope they have fun!

    • avatar Margy says:

      Hey A R,
      You expressed my thoughts exactly! When I read LW 1, I thought huh?!Is she serious? Can’t she see her thoughts and actions are not connecting?
      I once worked in a tight knit department and a fellow temp (an older lady who I realized way later was desperately hanging on to her job) gleefully told me she had fun at co-worker’s baby shower. I said I didn’t know there was a baby shower (and privately thanked whoever did the organizing that I wasn’t invited or asked for a donation as I was very poor) and that I was glad she had fun. I managed to outlast all the temps by several months. I was amazed because I was (and still am) like Emily Deschanel’s character on Bones. I say and think rather differently. Most times I realize it (way later) or someone lets me know…

  11. avatar uniq says:

    LW1: I would suggest having a few sessions in therapy, primarily to sort out her own conflicted emotions involving her father.  If she still decides she wants to repair the relationship (and is even capable of doing so), maybe she could have a few sessions with the father.  Talking things out with a neutral party present could make it easier, and leave the kids and the new wife out of it.  Work things out between father and child, then worry about integrating families.  Just my two cents.

    • avatar Nancy Pea says:

      i like your two cents. but i doubt the father would go to the therapy. for whatever reason (and as somebody else suggested, it could easily be for protect another person in the relationship) he would not be open to discussing what happened to have him take on a mistress.  many women get to a certain age and find they have lost their sex drive (i know of what i speak having lost my own, i like to say my ex got it in the divorce and i don’t get visitation), they want to stay married and expect their husbands to just go along with it. especially if it was more a chore for them (not every man is good in bed, but still is a good father). so they feel hurt when he steps out of the marriage and takes care of his natural urges.
      but even if he refuses the therapy, she should definitely go. i can totally understand where she is coming from. but it has to be up to her. the first wife sounds like she needs therapy also. i’m not fond of my first husband (RIP we will meet again) or his last wife and how she treated my children. but i cannot blame her all her actions solely on her. he was at fault to when he abandoned his kids for her and their life together. when my daughter got old enough to look him up, i didn’t stand in her way. her and her brother communicated with him just fine. but were never close. they didn’t attend his funeral. but do keep in touch with their half brothers and families. i have no problem with it at all! i have even chatted with the widow a time or two. but we aren’t close. that’s just the way it is. so hopefully some therapy will help.

  12. avatar susan hiland says:

    LW1: It hurts when a father choices a “mistress” over a mother but that is just the way it is sometimes. As someone who lived through a mess like this with my grandfather, I can tell you this is not helping the children one damned bit. The sender is selfish, and running the high “moral” ground when she needs to be thinking about her kids. Granddad isn’t getting any younger and time is a wasting. The kids should be able to spend it with him while he is still alive. So butch up, grit your teeth and plant a smile-it won’t be forever, and you are giving your kids  memories that will last a lifetime. It is worth a little discomfort in the short run. Trust me in the end you’ll thank yourself for being the “bigger” person.

  13. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    First of all, I love Baby Snooks’ comment that if you are extending an olive branch remove the thorns first.   I may steal that line someday. 

    LW#1 I concur with almost all the posters and Margo that it is your decision to make.  I am not an excuser of infidelity and I realize that it impacts not only the spouse but the entire family.   That said, no one knows what really goes on in a marriage and what may or may not prompt a spouse to cheat.  Some are just selfish people who don’t give a darn about anything but their own feelings and some who stray have been in loveless soul killing marriages that will never bring happiness to either spouse (and it doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault if a marriage is loveless and soul-killing).  Clearly, the best thing to do in such a situation is to divorce before infidelity but if men and women were angels…

    If you love your father and think that your children would benefit from being around him then suck it up and make amends which would include telling your father that you will make an effort to get along with his wife.  If you find him morally repugnant and of no value to you or your kids then I do not know what your angst is all about. 

    LW#2…Margo is right..this isn’t 6th grade and not being invited to an event is not a sign you are a social pariah.   I do understand your wish not to embarass someone who assumes you are going to a party but I think Margo’s response is on target.  Mr. Gray and I are not really very social people, but on the occasion that we are invited to a party or an event, I usually refrain from mentioning it to others who are in the same social circle because who knows what reasons the hosts have for inviting or not inviting others.  

    • Very well said.
      Also, I know of many cases in which one parent absolutely refuses to criticize the other and finds him or herself victimized by a parent who has no such qualms. The official versions of family histories are sometimes written by the most bloodthirsty battlers.

    • avatar Nancy Pea says:

      i like how you don’t bring up invites from one event to another person as who knows why they weren’t invited. that is a good suggestion. not always is a person left out of a get together because they aren’t welcome. sometimes it’s because they are only inviting certain ppl, maybe it’s a party for a member of the family that are close to only certain members of that crowd, like a god parent or best friend. there are so many reasons that one party might be left out without trying to cause a problem.
      very good advice and i will remember to keep that in mind when i see ppl that are in those certain circles. it would be a shock if it were a surprise party for that person and i gave it away. lol!

  14. avatar Briana Baran says:

    Re: L#1: I have actually been is a similar (let me be perfectly clear, everyone’s situation is different, but mine was very close, on the surface, to LW1’s experience) situation. Some 27 years ago, my father had an affair while he was still married to my mother. He filed for divorce, she counter-filed and contested. She won her counter-suit to prevent the divorce…then discovered that when (there was no “if”) he refiled, she would have irrevocably damaged herself in court by contesting the original case, and would have lost everything…her house, alimony…everything. She then filed for divorce, on the grounds of his infidelity.
    My sisters and I were all adults, or very close (my youngest sister was, I think, 17). The divorce was no surprise, as my parents’ marriage was a nightmare of the lowest order. The affair was a bit of a surprise, according to my mother (who has ego to burn), my father had never given any indication in any of his many travels of having dalliances along the way…and he had ample opportunity. The woman was a wowzer, middle-forty-something, hyperactive (I do mean that), an extremely talented artist, highly intelligent (I mean that as well) but terribly insecure, phobic, incompetent business-wise, unable to meet deadlines (she was his employee), impossible to work with for other employees, a Scientologist (which would lead to some interesting threats and difficulties down the road)…and, mmm, well…everyone is going to hate me for this, but I’m being truthful and unbiased, and was totally shocked the first time I saw a professional photo of her…she was ugly. My father, who could make anyone look gorgeous in a photograph, could not make his paramour even vaguely attractive. And my father loved surface beauty…that was one of the reasons he married my mother.
    So, why all of the background, LW1? I am addressing you directly. You were an adult when your father had his alleged affair, and your parents subsequently divorced. A real adult, not a 20-something near child. Should your father have been unfaithful to your mother? No, that was unfair, unkind and unwise, and even potentially dangerous. Obviously, it hurt your mother deeply, and even though she has gotten on with her life, she still retains a degree of bitterness. I understand, to a point. But, Martyr (interesting self-labeling), it does take two to make a marriage work. Please, women of WoW, I am not saying that LW1’s mother was responsible for her husband’s affair in any way. I do know that when a partner strays, there are reasons. And when that wandering moves from a temporary accommodation into seriousness, and the individual leaves the old relationship for the new, something went profoundly wrong in the first case. It does not mean that LW1’s mother did anything wrong, or was a bad wife, or anything even remotely like that. But, when marriages become terminal, there are reasons, Martyr…and there may well have been things under the surface that you still have no idea existed at that time.
    And that would be for a very good reason…it wasn’t your marriage. Here you are, an adult, and you are minding your parents’ business for them. And it’s twelve years in the past. Your mother has built a new life, though I am curious as to why, if this is the case, she is still bitter over the affair and divorce, which are part of her old, and obviously toxic, life. That is a lot of wasted energy. Your siblings have moved on, and whether they approved of your father’s alleged affair (if he’s never admitted to it, regardless of what you think you know, it’s always going to be a suspicion), which I sincerely doubt, or actually like his present wife, which wasn’t stated, they are making the best of the situation, and allowing their children contact with their grandfather.
    The issue seems to be with you. You say that you’re not comfortable behaving as if you’re all still a family. I see not just resentment toward your father and his wife, but also your siblings for what you may perceive as them “siding” with him, and through him, with her. Your siblings, and your father are still family, unless you are “disowning” them (for the amateur lawyers, I mean that in a strictly metaphoric sense). So are your nieces and nephews. Such bitterness and resentment after a dozen years is at least unhealthy…and I’m not buying the “…maybe it’s because I’m a wife, mother and daughter (?)…” bit. Especially the daughter part, because you were clearly all grown up when your parents’ relationship disintegrated, and your father’s “betrayal” of you was minimal except as it affected your identification with your mother. As a wife and mother, you ought to be confident enough in your own relationship not to be identifying so closely with your still-angry mother, and to be able to move forward in life. He’s your father, Martyr, not your partner.
    As to you deliberately (which is clearly intentional) not inviting his wife when you invite him to visit, the man isn’t stupid, and he knows when he’s being indirectly punished. He probably tolerated this for a while after the divorce, and even felt he deserved it…but twelve