In the spirit of reflection, expected this time of year, I typically look back on the most important events in my life over the last twelve months. And while this year’s list includes a new marriage, better job, and bigger house, what surpasses them all, in terms of its impact, is becoming a stepdad.
If completely honest, I underestimated just how complicated step parenting would be. Yes, I’d heard the stories and read the challenges with blending families. But I’d been part of my step children’s lives (from now on I will do my best to call them ‘my kids’) for almost seven years before the Queen and I married. As the two oldest of our four, I recognized they would have the steeper hill to climb. They needed plenty of advanced warning that I would be a permanent part their lives. To help ease their transition, the Queen and I started talking up our marriage two years before the engagement, and that lasted another two years before becoming man and wife.
With all this I felt we had history and that gave me a good understanding of their personalities, how they thought about things and the way we related with each other. That was my first mistake. This perception led me to believe unwisely that any inevitable friction between us, after I officially became a step dad, would be their growing pains getting accustomed to our new reality, instead of anything I might struggle with. That was my second mistake. I could never have imagined that being a step parent would be one of my most challenging jobs.
Step parenting isn’t easy. Anybody saying otherwise isn’t doing it right or doing it at all; and in the seven months since becoming a stepfather I’ve had two revelations; discoveries that have given me new insight into my new role. I can’t imagine these aren’t similar for any new step parent. Even the Queen, in her patience and perfection, admits to the struggle; and both of these epiphanies have everything to do with the parent and nothing to with the kid.
Even before living under one roof I noticed a difference in how I treated our four kids. To be blunt, I played favorites and felt somewhat justified in doing so, though I knew it was wrong. We lived in separate houses; I had my kids and she had hers. We weren’t a family in the real sense. Yet for some stupid reason, I believed that would work itself out after our marriage, and I would become the picture of egalitarian parenting just because we shared the same address. I can’t overestimate how wrong that has turned out to be.
I still respond to my biological children differently than the Queen’s biological kids. In a future essay, I’ll unpack how blended families magnify and intensify the blind spot we all have as parents. For now, I’ll just say this – the way I react to my four kids differs depending on who shares my last name; and hard as I may wish otherwise it’s proving a behavior hard to change.
On a near daily basis, I catch myself getting irritated by the slightest impiety on their part while my biological kids can do the same damn thing and I’m nearly oblivious, or worse, find it amusing. I have less patience with the Queen’s children, hold them to higher standards, and have far less tolerance when they step outside acceptable behavior, which for them borders on near divine perfection. I expect them always to be courteous, helpful, saintly, and above all respectful. Need I be reminded they are teenagers. They get no hall passes or justifications. While on the contrary, when I’m not blindly suckered in by my biological kids’ excuses, I’m usually writing them on their behalf.
As parents, we naturally defend our children even when sometimes we know better. Just think of this latest escapade with the Affluenza teen. In most cases that’s good, noble, and expected. But it can also have consequences depending on who’s being protected. And step parents have a built-in defensive mechanism – their step children. I’ve discovered the easiest and most natural way to defend my biological children is through comparing them to their step siblings. If the Queen criticizes my kids, defenses come up and the immediate response is throwing my step kids under the nearest available bus by pointing out their faults. I’m rallying to my kids’ defense through leveling the playing field.
Only recently the Queen called out our youngest, my biological son, about disrespectfully talking back to me. She was right; but her assessment compelled me to remind her that our middle daughter, her biological child, is no better. My response had nothing to do with the matter at hand. Instead, it was like a salve on my wounded parenting pride. I took her reprimand as more a condemnation of my fatherhood than an accurate analysis of our son’s behavior.
These two epiphanies are dangerous because they can become seeds of discontent. If we don’t recognize that genetics unconsciously play a role in how we behave as step parents, and then do something about it, resentment will inevitably grow in the heart of our spouse. If we aren’t sensitive to the way comparison will eat at the bond between spouses, bitterness will take root in our own hearts.
But I believe naming them is the first move towards defeating them. Yet that’s typically the problem. We often miss the red flags. They get hidden in the excitement of a new family, the thrill of marriage, and the rosy tint that colors it all in a shade of “everything will work itself out”. So by the time we pick up that something is wrong, those seeds have sprouted into weeds that can choke the life out of a relationship and the vines now resemble nothing like the buds that gave them life. They’ve grown distorted and all we see and experience are the offshoots – disrespect, conflict, and resentment just to name a few.
I don’t expect the Queen and I will be put these to rest anytime soon, and something tells me they may never completely disappear. I think for the moment we’re doing all we can and should. We recognize these things for what they are. We accept that right or wrong, it’s part of how we’re currently wired and we’ve committed to quickly, and gently, revealing them to each other when they rear their ugly heads, and working to handle them differently. We talk often and openly when it happens and we’re quick to show grace and patience to one another, since they’re the same sins we’re just as guilty of committing.