One of the issues that has come up for discussion at our OnlyDads meetings – from those men in relationships – is their role as “stepdad”. As with most aspects of parenting, there are no set rules and little in the way of guidance to help men fulfill this vital role to the best of their ability.
We know that our website needs more information around this whole area of “step-parenting” and we turned to our friend Keith to get the ball rolling. He was asked for some words that covered the “joys and challenges” of being a stepdad; what he has written sent shivers…
…”I hate the term ‘stepfather’. For me, it conjures up images of distance, not intimacy.
The media have turned it into a term of suspicion (and thanks to Cinderella, stepmothers have it worse!)
Even in these modern times of complicated, ‘blended’ families, eyebrows are raised when a husband’s relationship with his wife’s daughter is a ‘step’ one.
But I am one. Legally. I am married to the mother of my wife’s daughter. And I use the term ‘stepdaughter’ all the time, both in the blogs I write about parenting, but also to everyone who, on introduction, asks: ‘So, is this your daughter?’ To which I reply, ‘No. She’s my stepdaughter.’
But I never use the term stepfather, or stepdad within our family. And nor does my, er, stepdaughter. We call each other by our names: in her case, Daisy, or Dais; in my case, ‘Beef’, or ‘Cheeseglasses’ (don’t ask!).
It is this informality between us that makes my relationship with her very different to the one I have with my two sons. I am very much ‘Dad’ to them, and I am very proud of that fact.
Logic, therefore, suggests I am not proud of being Daisy’s stepdad. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. I am immensely proud of the 10 year-old girl who has been part of my life since she was one year old. And I am immensely proud of the relationship I have with her.
But even as her ‘primary carer’ since my wife and I swapped roles a year ago after I was made redundant, I still don’t regard her as my ‘step’. She’s just Daisy. My sons’ big sister. My wife’s daughter. Her dad’s little girl.
And it is this lack of comfort with the term ‘stepdad’ that makes my parenting of her fraught with difficulty.
I’m not her dad. She has her own dad who she talks to on the phone twice a day, who she sees every weekend, who she spends at least half of her holiday time with. And not just with him, either, but with her ‘stepmum’, her three ‘step siblings’ and her other little brother by her own dad and his wife.
Yes, it’s complicated. Both logistically and emotionally.
I don’t cuddle her like I cuddle my boys, because she’s not mine. I don’t discipline her like I discipline my boys, because she’s not mine. She has her own mum and her own dad to give her both those things.
Occasionally, this is frustrating for both of us. If one of my sons is upset, I pull them onto my lap, stroke their hair and kiss their tears away. If one of my sons steps out of line or back chats, I give them hell. I am their dad. It’s my job.
But I don’t feel comfortable doing either of these things with Daisy.
I put myself in her father’s shoes, and imagine how he would feel if his life and soul was being cuddled and comforted by a man who wasn’t him. I put myself in his shoes and imagine how defensive and protective he would feel if a man who wasn’t her dad was tearing several strips off her in the way I do my sons.
So I keep my distance.
And instead, what has developed over the years, is not a father/stepfather relationship with her, but a friendship.
Yes, she’s only 10, but she’s an ‘old’ 10. She’s finding her way in the world; she’s full of questions and curiosity. And it’s me she turns to with these questions.
It’s a different relationship to the one she has with her mum or her dad. She tells me stuff she would never tell them – and I would never tell them, either.
It might be struggles with homework; it might be issues with classmates. But she comes to me because she knows I’ll listen; because she knows I’ll never break a confidence. Because she knows I won’t judge her.
Yes, I’m her stepdad, and I have all the stepfatherly responsibility of feeding, clothing, running around and nagging.
But hopefully, with my own approach to step-parenting, I will never have to suffer that moment of teenage rebellion when one’s stepkid reacts to an instruction with the cruel retort: ‘You can’t tell me what to do – YOU’RE NOT MY DAD.’
No, I’m not. Never pretended to be. Never want to be. I’m ‘Beef’. And to me, my wife’s daughter will always be Daisy. Mates. Forever. Hopefully.