Becoming a Stepdad is Both a Challenge and an Honor
It should be called “step” parent because you are “stepping” up in to a new and important role.
“Man, if you told me a year ago I’d be on the phone with you and I’d hear a baby crying in the background, I’d never believe you.”
Said my friend Dave a few weeks ago.
I probably wouldn’t have believed it either. I have spent a lot of time doing my own thing, living in different parts of the country, exploring different opportunities and also myself.
I always came back to where my roots were, though: Family. I think we all go back to our roots, eventually, regardless of what they are. They guide us home and show us where we belong.
For me, the pandemic strengthened that notion. Things that didn’t really matter began to fall away and priorities shifted in a direction they already had been prior.
When I started talking to Rachel back in March, I obviously knew she had two children. What I didn’t know, was that I would end up stepping into a role in their lives that comes along with a whole slew of new responsibilities.
I used to teach martial arts to kids back when I was in middle school, but that was really my only extensive experience with them. My only lessons learned about parenting came through personal experience and watching my own parents and family members.
But, stepping into a parenting role is different than starting from day one with a biological child. There are routines, philosophies, expectations, behaviors, and patterns that have already been long underway before your presence in their lives.
This, like anything else in life, poses both a challenge and an opportunity. Entering into a “pre-packaged” family requires you to accept the way things are already being done while giving you the chance to (very gently) help to mold the way they move forward.
Liliana just turned one. She will never meet her biological father. He is alive, but will not be in the picture. Rosabella is five. She has a strong personality, is VERY intelligent and perceptive, and probably says “James…James…James” about 5,000 times a day.
It’s a funny thing to experience when you go over to their house or they come over to yours, and you are immediately being climbed on and prodded at every moment. It forces you to find the balance between “Hey, I need to be productive for a few minutes,” and also “I need to stop and enjoy this time with these kids.”
You see, in the beginning, everything is a bonding and learning experience. You are earning your place in these children’s lives just as much as you are in their mother’s. Rachel and I spent more than 2 months talking online and video chat before we actually met in person (that’s quarantine dating, for ya), so our bond had been established before we even met. But the kids must also approve.
This means walking a fine line of friendship. You are their friend first. Parenting and discipline is not your initial role in this equation.
Here’s where the honor comes in, though.
You are being chosen for this role. It is always an honor when a woman chooses you as her partner in life, but there is an additional layer when she is also choosing you as the male figure who will be looked up to by her children.
My responsibility in this relationship is to not only properly love one woman, but three. And to show the two small ones what it means for a man to care for their mother. How they should expect to be treated when they are older. What healthy love looks like.
I have the opportunity to set examples. Rosabella often asks me why I do so many things for her mother. I always explain to her that when you care about someone, you want to make their life easier and see them happy.
She asks me why I always, without fail, say “no thank you” to people in the service industry instead of just “no.” I see this as an opportunity to help craft a future generation of politeness.
For the small one, I am the only “father figure” she has seen in her 1 year of life. She studies my face and smiles her toothless smile when she sees me. She climbs on me and communicates through little clicks and screams which I happily reciprocate.
Studies show that little girls study facial expressions and non-verbal cues far more than boys do, so it is important for me to make sure she knows I’m paying attention and that I acknowledge her. This goes for both of the sisters…and, well, their mother too.
It’s important to understand the desire for significance and socialization in the developing female brain (See: The Female Brain) so we can best respond to and anticipate their needs. These are formative years for any child and taking on the role of a stepdad means that you are quite literally helping to create the reality another human is living in.
This also means that if you aren’t fully ready or capable of taking on this weighty responsibility, you absolutely should not do it. I feel the same way about biological parenting, but that is an opinion for a different article.
The world is lacking male role models. I was fortunate to grow up with a father whom I learned everything from (and continue to do so) by watching him. How he treats my mother, how he treats his kids, how he treats his friends and how he runs his business.
For all of us, we display these characteristics and qualities when we get older whether we like it or not. That means the impact a parent has on a child’s life is immeasurable, even if that child is not biologically theirs.
I’ve always known this — I think we all do — but the question becomes how well we will actually put it into practice when the time comes in our lives.
Entering into a step-parenting role is full of learning experiences. Mostly, you learn about yourself. Your patience is tested, your perceptions change, your awareness of what your own parents went through when raising you is completely awoken.
And, my god, can you believe how much everything costs?
Nevertheless, being a stepdad is a privilege that I believe puts us in a position to shine if we have worked on ourselves enough to contribute to the lives of others. The lessons we’ve learned, the knowledge we’ve gained, the wisdom we’ve accumulated, we can now impart onto others who are just learning about the world for the first time.
Everything they see is brand new. Every experience is their first. Every new piece of knowledge shapes what is real all around them.
Every book they get read is full of new knowledge. Every interest you show them has the potential to change their life path. Every interaction they watch or observe shows them how people should treat each other.
They are always watching, listening, and absorbing the world around them. The questions Rosabella asks me are so detailed and specific that I cannot believe she retains so much information so accurately at five years old. Sometimes I think she is smarter than I am.
The wisdom we’ve gained as adults gives us the chance to do something special in the lives of those whose paths are illuminating in front of them. We can help light their way as they discover the world and all of its magic for themselves.
There is great honor in helping to shape a new reality in a young life. One that should never be abused or taken for granted.