I was afraid to be a stepfather.
I had met this fantastic woman. I’d been divorced a while. She opened her heart to me, and framed in the center of it was her son. Before I got serious with her, I wanted the easy way out: no responsibilities, just date nights and weekends away. I’d thought that would end it, but my partner thought more of me than I did of myself.
The title is stepfather — as in, the prime suspect in 700 episodes of Law & Order. As in, step in. Or, more importantly, step up. When you do step up or step in, everybody’s expecting different things of you, and there you are, Magellan, with no roadmap, no compass, and no clue. You started this. You had this relationship burgeoning with this amazing woman, and after a little while you come to that fork in the road. It’s a non-negotiable package deal where your future is now dependent on how you get along with the kid and what you are to him.
I had no idea what that role looked like in everyday life. Am I the cool uncle, just over for an extended stay? Firm handshake, look him in the eye. Tousling his hair and throwing a ball around, maybe playing a video game or two. Give a couple of tips, buy ice cream. Start off easy. It’ll be a snap. I’m a nice guy. What could go wrong?
“You’re not my father.”
That’s what could go wrong. Then you’re sure he is silently adding “asshole” to the end of everything he says to you. No problem, asshole. Great idea, asshole. But he’s not; he’s a good kid. You’re paranoid because you’re out of your depth.
You’re not his father. You sure as hell can’t be his friend. So what are you? Ultimately, the world decides for you and labels you, once you string together enough days. You’ll be judged by your actions, hopefully over a long-enough timeline. Snap at him one time and 100 good days are undone, if not in the kid’s eyes then certainly in the eyes of his mom. In the eyes of his grandmother, you should just kill yourself.
I did have some idea, though. I had already raised my kids from my first marriage. My two girls are strong, grown women, and I felt like I was a good dad. I didn’t have a real yearning for more children, but I’d always wondered what it would be like to have a boy.
I had a stepfather and it was bad. My father is extremely attentive and was always around after my parents’ divorce. My mom’s husband was a selfish, immature man who shrank to insignificance in comparison, which was constant. I am blessed to have a great stepmom, and while she had been a great role model in this, in the beginning I had genuine doubts about myself. My kid had issues, like all kids do. There were hard days and nights with a lot more ahead. My daughters were easy (or so I told myself), and I failed them in a lot of ways — mostly because I chose to believe what I wanted to and took the easy way out for myself on a lot of things when they were teenagers. I screwed up, and it cost them in their development.
As a father, there is so much I’m not proud of among all of the wonderful memories. I’m older and more patient than I was and I’ve been through a lot. My response to problems is a lot more measured, and I’m confident enough that I don’t sweat the small stuff very much.
I like kids, though. I have always been a creature of habit and of duty. I’ve always prided myself on being reliable, at least where my kids are concerned. But again, he has a dad already. All I can control is what I do and what I think about the things that happen. I’m just making damn sure I’m there and that I do the best I can for him every day. I hope that is enough.
Stepfathers become an example of what to do and what not to do, every day of the child’s life. Your actions, or lack thereof, are on constant display and open to judgment. You’re going to feel like you are in an impossible situation. You’re set up to fail. You are not going to make the big decisions, just influence them. You will be held fully accountable for every nuance of this decision you didn’t make for the rest of your life and, since it’s your kid doing the judging, actually longer. It’s like being vice president.
It’s also a stepdad’s job to reclaim the brand from every headline that begins “Stepfather’s Gun Collection…” or “Stepfather Caught Videotaping….” So, how do you do that, actually? I think it happens when you go all in supporting the family. It’s your job to be everyone’s rock, John Wayne. When problems arise or discipline time comes, you have to be your wife’s wartime consigliere. The thing is, if you embrace the mayhem, truly immerse yourself in the every day, the work of it, the routine of it, you will become your best self.
That is where the joy is, if you are up to the challenge. Growing up in a family of divorce is chaos. You need to learn to take pride in being the one who can cope with the constant barrage of change and be a stabilizer. It’s not about resigning yourself to things; it’s about enjoying the Class IV rapids that life with kids becomes. Your little family establishes its own dynamic and evolution ain’t pretty. You have to make it your mission to accept the challenge to be present and really work at being good at this.
I am a patient guy. I’m also great at finding something fun in insane situations. I took advantage of my experience screwing up with my two older kids. I knew a few different approaches to parenting that absolutely, positively do not work and a few that do.
For me, it came down to the words on the tombstone. They never say a damn thing about jobs or finances, do they? No, they say beloved husband, beloved father and grandfather. I decided to spend more effort being those people and earning those titles. So if your title is “stepfather,” wear it proudly and embrace the mayhem.
Richard Unger is a father, stepfather, grandfather, and godfather and is waiting patiently to become a father-in-law. He lives with his family in Staten Island, New York.