Today I’m really excited to have a point of view we usually don’t hear about.
A stepdad’s motto: Guide, but never replace
I don’t have a father.
That’s an overstatement, of course, but it’s true in a sense. There is a man from whose DNA I was spawned. I know the general region where he lives. His wife shows up in my “People You May Know” list on Facebook. My brother has a relationship with him.
In my world, I don’t have a father. What I have is Frank, and I’m glad I do.
Frank is my stepfather. I’ve never called him dad, nor has he ever demanded such a title. Since we met 28 years ago, he has provided (often silent) support, money, advice, punishment, chiding, reality checks and – in his own way – love.
I have been a stepfather for two years, and I never realized how much I learned from Frank until this wonderful boy came into my life. In the end, I base my step-parenting on this simple truism from Frank, spoken to me when I was 13.
“I’m not your father,” he said. “I’m not going to be your father, but I will be there whenever you need me, and I will be there to tell you when you fuck up.”
I live by this statement. It is my motto. I am not my stepson’s father, but it is my job to help guide him through life. What makes this idea even better is that, through the setting of clear and simple parameters, I am free to be what my stepson needs in a complimentary and team-oriented way.
My stepson does have a father. He loves his father, who lives 1,500 miles away, very much. His father and my wife have an excellent relationship in which they both work to put his best interests first and foremost in their co-parenting.
For me to try to be “Dad” would be disrespectful to him, my stepson and my wife. Instead, I perform the role that Frank performed for me as much as I can.
Now, this doesn’t mean I tread lightly. The ongoing discussion of my stepson’s slob-like behavior is mine. I had input when he brought home a disallowed video game. I call him on it when he stays up until 4 a.m. but tries to say he went to bed at 11 p.m.
My motto also doesn’t mean that I am forbidden from providing fatherly advice. I have offered to answer questions about sex. I speak openly and honestly about drugs, alcohol and social media. I discuss school work with him.
What has made this parenting strategy even easier to follow is that I am able to find connections with my stepson that have allowed us to have a close relationship without overlap with his father – or with my other children.
The boy loves computer video games. His father does, as well, and they have been known to play together across the country. What my stepson doesn’t really know is that I also like some of the games he plays. However, that’s his thing with his father. I respect that.
On the other hand, I love soccer. I’ve played my whole life. The boy also plays. I provide him with advice and coaching. I push him when he’s not giving his all. He watches me play (and play pretty well), so I have credibility with him. Through that credibility, we have formed a connection. In a pleasant coincidence, my teen son and pre-teen daughter are not soccer players (they love the local MLS team and sometimes watch games on TV to placate me), so everyone wins.
Most of all, as much as I choose not to try to replace his father, I choose to accept that there have been many years of growth over which I had no effect. This child – my stepchild – is formed. He is different from me. He is different from my other children. He is an introvert while I am an extrovert. He doesn’t know the music I listen to. He doesn’t like James Bond movies.
That’s OK. The differences are as big as the connections in making our relationship unique.
My stepson and I have what I consider a good understanding. I love him, and I think he loves me (in his own way). In 2012 he would have said, “Um, what time does my mom get home? I need help with my homework.”
Last week he said, “Ian, can you help me with my homework? And what time does mom get home?”
The changes are subtle. My name is OK now. He asks me for help. And it’s now just “mom” instead of “my mom.” In Wild Kingdom terms, I’m part of the herd.
Being a step-parent is a lot more art than science, but there are simple ways to go wrong: Stepmoms who demand hugs and kisses and who seek to be called “Mom;” step-parents who grouse about not being the primary focus of Father’s or Mother’s Day; parents of all kinds waging propaganda campaigns to curry favor with the children. None of these puts the child first. Our job is to provide the best support we can so our children grow up to be better people than us.
I love my stepson as much as my son, my daughter or the newborn girl my wife and I have. He is a wonderful boy. I will never replace his father. And I would never try.
I don’t have a father. I am thankful that my stepson has a father – I’m a bonus, and I’m very happy with that.
Ian Shea-Cahir is a dad, a stepdad, a husband, a soccer player, and a social media strategy consultant at Shea-Cahir Consulting.