You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat other people’s children. My mom has been married four times (including a brief marriage to my deadbeat bio-dad) so you might say I’m sort of an expert on having step-dads. The man my mom is married to now is a gem -- but unfortunately, I didn’t grow up with my current step-father, because my mom married him when I was in my 20s and already living 2,000 miles away. I grew up with lesser step-dads.
I always knew that my mom loved me and that my biological father did not. I also knew that the subsequent two men my mom married were “fathers” in name only. There was an impermanence there, which I guess I must have sensed. I spent a lot of time feeling like an “other” in my own home, and I always suspected I was in the way. These step-dads didn’t really take the time to form a relationship with me. One was from a country with different social conventions regarding women, and when I was eight years old he proclaimed to my mother that he would not allow me to date until I turned 25. That marriage didn’t last long.
The other step-dad had two kids of his own, and he was a good dad to them. But he also had a habit of disappearing into the basement with a cocktail when his kids weren’t staying with us. In other words, it was pretty clear he wasn’t interested in being anything other than my mother’s husband. I was a surly teenager, and I suppose the arrangement suited me fine at the time.
So when Jeff and I moved in together some years ago, I did a lot of thinking about what that might mean for my son, Oliver. For one thing, Oliver’s childhood is very different from mine. He may come from a “broken home” -- I hate this term, by the way -- but at least his parents are still friends and his father is not only involved in his life, but is, in some ways, a better mother than I will ever be. My son doesn’t need a father because he already has one.
But still, it’s been a challenge. At first, I spent a lot of time worrying that Oliver might feel like he and Jeff and I are not a real family, or that Jeff might decide he doesn’t want the responsibility of contributing to the raising a child who isn’t his. The first time Jeff spoke sternly to Oliver in a moment of totally justified discipline, we got into an argument about it. In hindsight, I was clearly projecting my own childhood experience, which involved step-parents who did not love me, onto Oliver’s.
Because here’s the thing: Jeff has made an effort to form a relationship with my son. On weekends, the two of them sometimes walk to the ice cream place down the street. They play Minecraft together. The three of us build forts in the living room and watch movies. Occasionally Jeff will pick up a Pokémon pack for Oliver during a trip to Target. He hugs my kid goodnight and tells him he loves him. He corrects him when his behavior is less than desirable and tells him “good job” when he does something right. These are the things parents do, and I consider Jeff a co-parent who is helping to raise my son.
For years, Oliver asked when we were going to get married. He started dropping hints at seven, telling me that he thought a wedding was, “kind of like a princess ball where everyone dances.” Last year he started referring to Jeff as his “step-dad” in conversations with his friends and teachers. Before that, he described him as “my friend Jeff,” I think because he knew that “my mom’s boyfriend” didn’t properly describe the scope of their relationship.
One of the great things about raising a child, for me, has been to watch Oliver become his own person and form relationships with other people -- friends, teachers, caregivers, and now, step-parents. The great part is, the other adults in Oliver's life tend to fill in the blanks and make up for what I lack. For example, while I tend to lose my patience quickly, Jeff is infinitely patient. When I am reaching my limit, there is another adult in Oliver's life who can swoop in and make up the difference. That is a true gift, and I'm so lucky I've been able to give it to my kid.
I’m glad he’s having an experience that I did not. On our wedding day, Oliver gave me a hug and said he was so happy Jeff was finally his step-dad. I’m glad, too.
Did you grow up with an awesome step-parent? Are you a step-parent yourself? I want to hear about it!
Somer is on Twitter: @somersherwood