My children existed in such an estrogen-filled universe through their nursery years–between preschool teachers, other mothers and caregivers–that my younger son once asked me, “Did you know that some people live with their mommies AND their daddies? Isn’t that crazy?”
I got divorced when my two boys were 3 and 2, respectively. I moved out of the marital home with armloads of differently-sized diapers, clumsily-folded strollers, and raisins inextricably wedged into the folds of the two carseats.
Fast forward. It’s four years later, and I just got married. He’s a wonderful, kind man–truly a mensch. And now, out of nowhere, he’s a stepdad.
Stepdads don’t come with the “evil” connotations of stepmothers. In fact, they’re incredibly ill-defined–what is a stepdad, really? Yes, it’s someone who is coming into the family picture for the kids due to his tremendous affection for one of their parents (not to toot my own horn or anything). But it’s also someone who is stepping in mid-act. It’s someone who may not have been a father in the first place (J. hadn’t had children in his first marriage), but suddenly has an opportunity to play a father-like role. It can be a tough row to hoe.
Bad Post-Divorce Dating
A few years ago, before meeting J., I despaired of meeting any man whom I’d want to marry, largely due to people like R.
R. and I had had a lovely date on a summer night–Philharmonic in the Park, some wine, some dessert, great conversation. He walked me back to my car at the end of the night.
“So…where do you see this going?” he asked me, looking at my Honda Pilot.
“Um…home?” I said. Turned out he was talking about something a little more long-term.
“I mean, after all, it’s like, you’re NEVER going to love me as much as you love your kids you already have. So what’s the point?” he asked.
I assured him that that was, in fact, the case–I would never love him at all. um, it was the FIRST DATE. And last, as it turned out. I got in the car and peeled away with nary a glance in the rearview mirror. But what he said got under my skin.
Finding Love Again
A few years later, even though I’d found that dating with two young children was a veritable “man repellent” to a certain set, it wasn’t to J. He hadn’t had children in his previous marriage, but wanted them. “What’s the problem?” he asked me once. “I got a deal with you–three for the price of one!”
I was nervous about him meeting my boys. My mind went wild with all the things that could possibly go wrong. Maybe the boys would look down on him for not intuitively knowing the names of every esoteric Star Wars character. Or maybe he would see one of them snarfing chocolate milk at lunch, or eating with their hands, and think, “You know, there are plenty of interesting women out there who don’t have organic chocolate milk boxes in their fridge or Purell in their bag.” But somehow, it was as though the boys saw my love for J. and took it on for themselves–and similarly, J. saw my love for the boys and decided to make it his own.
J. took to his new role as though he’d been born into it. The kids come in the house and ask for him right away. He’s the hot bedtime storyteller, the one whose approval they covet. He’s sat through several screenings of Harry Potter, which he not-so-secretly enjoys. He even relishes building their IKEA furniture–which, as he points out, is really just a grown-up version of Lego.
But It Can Be Tough
Don’t get me wrong: this is not to say that it’s always easy.
Becoming a stepparent when you have no prior parenting experience is a pretty steep learning curve. J. accords me deference in terms of discipline for the children, but it can be frustrating. When you haven’t had kids before, and you walk right into it, you sort of expect them to listen to you right away. This expectation is similar to my ever-present expectation that one morning, I will catch sight of my butt as I get into the shower only to find that my cellulite has miraculously vanished in my sleep. Getting kids to respect your authority takes practice, practice, practice. It can be agonizing, tiring, unrewarding…perhaps even more so when you’re coming in late to the game. Fortunately, J. has a high tolerance threshold.
And let’s note that this whole parenting dynamic is new to me too. It can be hard for me sometimes, as I make breakfast for the newly-created family in our newly-acquired home, when I remember the old home, and how wrong things went. I think about how I got my bearings (or as my friends say, ‘my groove’ back) as a single parent, with the ever-present help of my parents and siblings, who were constant in a way that my marriage was not. Each time I get scared, I try to remember to choose to be grateful for how lovely things are, rather than fearful of how things deteriorated last time.
Some couples find that living together after the wedding is sheer bliss. They’re in a newlywed phase of unwrapping Tiffany boxes and writing thank you notes in between long, langorous kisses–“Oh darling, I’m so happy we have each other.” In contrast, it can be hard to return from the exotic honeymoon to referee conflicts about Legos, bedtime, or homework. But maybe it’s better for reality to happen sooner rather than later. Because then you get to see what things really look like, move around in them, change them and adjust them according to who you are and who you want to be.
The Stepdad’s Take
The other day, J. and I were both working from home while the kids were in school. I turned to him and asked, “What’s it like, being a stepdad?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
When I pressed him, he said, “You know, I just don’t think of myself as a stepdad. I know I’m not their dad, but I feel like I am kind of a dad, just because I love them.”
And this is where I am delighted to report that that long-ago date R. was proved conclusively wrong.
“Kind of a Dad”
The heart is a funny, obstinate little muscle–it can expand far beyond where you’d think it could. “Kind of a dad” is somehow more accurate than “stepdad.” “Stepdad” implies a level of increments. But J. really is “kind of a dad.” Due deference has to be given to the fact that he’s not their actual father – the kids know that they call him J., and their father is the one with the title of ‘Daddy.’
It’s a delicate balance, but it works. The boys had their holiday concert a few weeks ago at school. I attended with J., while the boys’ father came alone. Each one of my sons, when they were on the stage, located their father nearly immediately and smiled and waved. Then they kept looking around until they saw J. and me. “Hi, J!” I saw each one mouth as they gave a little wave. To them, I realized, what a stepdad means is having one more person to root for them – one more person who cares enough to want to share their triumphs and disappointments. That person doesn’t take away from the people who are already there any more than a new baby coming into a family makes the parents love the ‘old baby’ any less.
Becoming a stepfather can work beautifully when everyone realizes that, more than anything, the new family role is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for someone new to be in kids’ lives, and to play an important part in their lives, their memories, who they are and who they will become.
I suppose, though, that becoming a stepfather isn’t too different from anything else. After all, life is full of opportunities to love and be loved. The question is to what extent we choose to realize them.