Stepdadding (sp?) is, without a doubt, one of the most challenging things I have ever taken on in my life. Here’s a part of my stepdad story.
An off-the-top-of-my-head inventory of past experiences I draw insights from almost every day in my quest to be a solid stepdad? The list includes experiences like this:
Designing and implementing off and online curricula for autistic students between the ages of 5-9 in a private school setting, swimming and tennis instructor for kids in that same age-pocket, soccer coach to kids a little older, 9-12, Big Brother in Big Brothers Big Sisters to my Little Brother, Stephen, for going on nearly 20 years now, mentoring direct and indirect reports in a professional capacity, volunteering time to causes I believe in.
The list is not complete but none of these come anywhere near the challenges that come with being a stepdad. Good lead-ups, at best, but the actual life of a stepdad requires even more than a highly concentrated distillation of everything cumulatively learned from these experiences. It also has to be filtered through an entirely new appreciation and capacity for acceptance, empathy, respect and love.
Being a parent to my own little boy, especially as a single-dad, was and continues to be challenging enough, but he and I have the sort of bond that I know I am fortunate to have. We are a team, through and through. With stepkids, though, there isn’t that kind of bond to fall back on when things don’t go the way we might want them to.
With my three stepchildren, all of my previously similar but entirely unrelated experience is only a warm-up to a dance that shakes its rump quite a bit differently. Because I came onto their scene only after their lives were changed forever by divorce, at first, anyway, there was absolutely no reason why they should like me, let alone listen to or trust me. I was, at their first glance, attempting to replace their dad and an intruder in their home. At least, that’s how I imagined they felt, which is why I took my time to be intentional and patient about finding a place in their lives on their terms.
Their mom and I knew we were in love right away, a rare fit, a stellar balance of passion tempered with experience. I didn’t ask for her blessing or even tell her at first, but before we got too far down the road with making plans, I rode my bike over to her ex’s, their kids’ dad’s house, one morning and knocked on the door. He wasn’t home or wasn’t answering. I would do this three more times before he was home or in the right space to open the door.
When he did open the door, he was naturally surprised to see me. We’d only just “met” a few weeks earlier, having run into each other unexpectedly at the store. He was with the kids and I was with their mom. We all stood there, in the store, like, “Huh. Yeah.” The awkward moment lasted only a moment, though, I would have expected it to last longer. Instead, thanks mostly to the kids and their lack of preconception, we acted like old friends and wished each other well as we parted ways.
I was surprised but grateful I had met their dad this way – out in our community. What good fortune, I thought.
Here I was, now, standing on his porch. He let me in and before any awkwardness could arrive, I laid it out for him: “I’m here out of respect because if I was your kids’ daddy I’d want to know that the dude spending all of this time with them is on the level. I owe you this visit and out of respect for you and for them, that’s why I’m here.”
That’s really all I remember, word-for-word. The rest is fuzzy because it became one of those moments my heart took over and left my head behind. I do remember that my eyes welled up with tears while transmitting to him that I, too, was going through things, unexpected things, and that divorce is a bitch, life is a humbling experience and how grateful I am to be able to make any impact at all on such wonderful children. I wasn’t going to try and replace him as their daddy. To the contrary. I am his advocate.
There is no way I could have known it then, but a combination of that and other choices, each made with thoughtfulness and intention, add up to us being a team. My now wife (we’ve been together for three years, married for one), her ex and I interact regularly, celebrate holidays together, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, and simply support each other and the kids. We are a blended family together with all of our children and are grateful to make up part of the world of people who love and support them, including their friends, teachers, practitioners, coaches and more. My wife says, “More to love them!”
Typically, the most challenging part about being a stepparent is not crossing the imaginary line which so many parents and stepparents draw.
Here is what stepparents are usually expected to do:
love the children like their own but not too much, make decisions regarding their homes but not specifically regarding the stepkids, be interested in their lives but not too interested in what they do at the other home, go to their sports activities and cheer them on but not offer to assist with the activities. In short, most stepparents are expected to treat them like their own – but not really.
As a parent and a stepparent, I am grateful I am able to be open and able to being an advocate for all of our children. After all, it’s not just my life, it’s our life. What a disservice I’d be doing all of us to try and exclude anyone who loves and supports them from our equation. We respect each other and share the important role of raising our kids because of the past two years of working together. Because of this, we don’t have this imaginary boundary line in our relationship. We have something better: Trust.
I don’t take this for granted. Not all stepparents and parents respect each other. Some are truly out to hurt the others, in which case parallel parenting works best. The most unfortunate part of those stories is how the selfishness and short-sightedness of the grown-ups ultimately hurts the kids. Stepparents are bonus parents and can be quite valuable to some kids, much as in the way super Aunts and Uncles can be.
So, if you’re a stepparent or parent and find yourself in a similar situation, please search your heart. I have asked myself the same question over and over through challenges past and challenges present: What serves our kids best?
Thanks for reading. And good luck.