Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn: My father's wife (my mom is deceased) never lifts a finger to help, never offers to pitch in, cook or buy a meal, ever. Nothing! On the other hand, she has been on 10-plus vacations with us all over the world — at our expense — countless parties, dinners, etc. She is well-off, so the ability to do something/anything is there.

I am not looking for quid pro quo, but I feel like a doormat. Am I wrong to be frustrated here? If she even offered to watch our kids once a year so we could go out, that would be a great start. Thoughts?

— Relative

Relative: You’ve got a taker and there’s no alchemy to render her into a saint.

But there are tactics you can use to take the edge off and, ideally, slow the growth of any resentment you’ve been cultivating.


(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

They are actually the same ones — not coincidentally — that parents use to discourage antisocial behavior in toddlers. Instead of putting on a dinner or family event or trip and just waiting for her to volunteer her effort, approach each of these plans as a collection of individual jobs and ask her which one she’d like.

Toddler version, to avoid a tantrummy refusal to put shoes on in time to go to school: “Which sneakers do you want to wear, purple or red?

Stepmother version, to preempt freeloading: “Do you want to do the salad, or set the table? I’m working on the sides but you can take over that if you’d prefer.”

The key is to be universal and uniform. Everything you do together as a family becomes a list of jobs that everyone involved then steps in to claim. (With the exception of course of times people want to give or host as a gift to all.)

As for the babysitting, similar idea: Just ask. “Hey, Dad (see what I did there?), would you and Wife be willing to watch the kids for us for our anniversary dinner?” If you specify an occasion, then you’ll make it clear the slope isn’t greased and you won’t be expecting them to be your child care ever after.

Once you spell out for them what you value, then you make it easier for people contribute in meaningful ways.

Re: Relative: Just wondering — where's Dad in all this? Does he offer help, pitch in, reciprocate in any way? Is his wife taking her cue from him? Is this a case of a woman being held responsible for the social contracts of a couple?

— Wondering

Wondering: Excellent question, thanks.

Re: Relative: 1) Why on God's green earth are you paying for vacations for parents who are well off? Stop that right now. 2) Covert contracts are a bad idea. They're especially bad when used with stepparents who were not involved in raising/programming you. Stop keeping a mental ledger, and use your words. 3) Does your dad ever offer to set the table/babysit? Why do I think he does not but you give him a pass? Just throwing that out there . . .

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Out There says thanks.

Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at wapo.st/haxpost.