A (Step-By-)Step Father How To Guide

Now that another Fathers’ Day has come and gone, I got a nudge from myself to blog about being a step parent.  I have been a step father to two great sons for almost 30 years.  This blog is not to say being a step parent was easy or to provide a twelve-step program to success (pun sort of intended).  Instead, this is a father’s day pause to reflect on the challenges and joys of step-parenthood.  Also, in case I fall into a time vortex, what I would do the same or differently.

Great-Grand-Father's Tale of the Revolution—A Portrait of Reverend Zachariah Greene.  Metropolitant Museum of Art (detail), Accession Number: 1984.192

Great-Grand-Father’s Tale of the Revolution—A Portrait of Reverend Zachariah Greene. Metropolitant Museum of Art (detail), Accession Number: 1984.192

On that note, yup, I would do it all over again.  The things that I would change are all about me being a better role model and parent to the boys and not about them. They are/were good kids and they did not choose to go from having a just a single mom to having a step dad.  This point leads me to my first lesson as a step father, you married the kids mom – you did not marry the kids; they were just part of the package.

However, they are still children.  When in doubt about your responsibility as a parent, remember this simple rule: adults are responsible for giving children the right sort of memories.  Some of those memories will involve having enough food to eat and a warm bed to sleep in.  It goes without saying that those memories do not include abuse or neglect (the likes of Hansel and Gretel notwithstanding).  As for the operative word, the ‘right’ memories; they don’t all have to be happy memories.  Some of the most important memories will involve a ‘bad choice well explained’ after the fact.  Ideally though, your step children’s good memories will outweigh the bad from the moment you enter their lives.

In this case the operative word is ‘enter’.  Your spouse and their children had a life before you came along.  It may have been brief or you may find yourself with grown step children.  No matter the point of entry, remember this: “you will never be part of that portion of their life”.  Don’t begrudge, belittle or betray it.  Instead, listen, smile and honour it.  One of my reflections is that in my desire to establish my own family I had forgotten that these people had one before I showed up.  Until you establish your own traditions and stories, for a long time you may be seen as an interloper to their family.  Guess what, you are an interloper; get over it and start to build those good memories.

Despite years of effort, credit for your contributions to the newly formed family may not be forthcoming.  Your response should be, ‘so what’.  Biological parenthood can take as little as a brief moment of passion.  Step parenthood, like good parenthood,  takes a life time of ongoing choice and commitment.  Stick with it, you may be surprised with a thank you that seemingly comes out of the blue (even if it was itself years in the making).  Beside, even if you don’t get a thank you, eventually the kids will graduate school and move out… and then life starts to get really weird!

Hypothetically speaking, someday you may find your self at a step-grandchild’s birthday party with your wife, stepson and step-daughter-in-law.  Also at the party is your wife’s ex-husband and perhaps maybe a few other subsequent-ex-wives.  Throw in a mixed family on your side and you may need to graph some of the relationships of child having the birthday.  As for the kids themselves, they are cool with it.  More presents and people to love them is what a mixed on mixed on mixed world means.  And that means you need to be cool with it because it is not about you, it is about modeling the behaviour of an adult who loves and supports unconditionally.  These will be memories that you can give your step-grand children (and to your own children, and their half brothers and your step daughter-in-law and…. etc.).