However, it is this last one, being a step parent, that, for me, has been most significant. I greatly underestimated the job. Parenting step kids is far different from raising biological children. Yet being a step dad has already given more than it’s taken. It’s taught me about myself, as a father and a man, in ways that I could not have imagined.
But for of all I’ve experienced and learned, from greater patience, deeper grace, to recognizing how I am routinely a raging hypocrite, what I could never have imagined then, but what seems obvious now, is the feeling and impact of once again living with a mother.
I was divorced when my children were nine months and two years old. For a decade, we lived in a home without a mom. It was just us, my kids and I. For ten years, I tucked them in, read to them, gave them baths, fed them, and kissed their boo-boo’s. I arranged their playdates, helped dress them, and made sure they got to recitals, birthday parties, and practices. For those concentrated periods of time, I was dad – and mom –rolled in one.
The three of us got into a unique rhythm that our little trio could easily follow. The cadence was comfortable and became expected. Not only did they grow accustomed to me as a person, my mannerisms, hot buttons, and shortcomings, they saw me, when we were together, in both roles. Yes, they had a mother, but during my time I was the proxy. Unlike nuclear families, where there is often a good cop bad cop, or he said she said, here I was both. They learned what could be gotten away with and where I would hold firm. What I said was how it would be since there was no other to run towards. They knew what they could and could not get away with.
Yet for all I might have been, I still wasn’t a mother and this distinction would become very evident when I married again.
Like many fathers, I am more inclined to be a parent of law versus one of grace. I believe in firm boundaries and high expectations. I have less patience and experience more frustration. I am a parent who holds to his word, sometimes to a fault and expects others to do the same. I’m a parent of consequence; do something wrong, and a price must be paid. I have little time for crying or whining. Moreover, while there is a great need, perhaps now more than ever, for that type of parenting style, healthy kids need both law and grace, and I know there were times, over that decade, when my wiring wouldn’t allow me to be what my children needed at the moment. When what they really could have used was warmth, sympathy, and forgiveness, they usually got cold criticism and ‘I told you so.’ When they would have most benefited from mercy, they routinely got judgment.
I was a living example of the pitfalls of single parenting. Two parent families typically include both grace and law. However, for ten years, I was the only parent in our house, and when you don’t see a parent of grace in action, you may believe that law is the only and best approach. Worse still, without that opposing force – a natural friction exists between grace and law – you can easily drift further away from the center, in either direction. It’s no less true for a single parent of grace who has no parent of law for an anchor; it typically results in kids who, among other things, never hear the word, ‘no.’
Others were amazed that things ran with Six Sigma precision around my home and I was proud of my professionalism at managing household and children. I was told I was a great dad; my kids were well behaved and did well in school. All the accolades left an undeserved confidence because I began to think my way, the law way, was best. Not because it was, I just didn’t know or experience a different approach. I didn’t question and was never asked to question how or why I was doing things.
The necessity of motherhood can never be overestimated, I’ve written on this often. But what I realize now is my view was mostly mechanical and cerebral. My opinion wasn’t formed by direct observation but was mainly theory and conjecture because I couldn’t see motherhood daily in action. My own childhood became distorted with time; my sister reminds me that my perceptions of what happened as a child aren’t always what did happen.
While I knew that a child needs a mother, I’m not sure I understood the real reason why. It’s fair to say I didn’t properly understand or appreciate that need or the true power grace has in a child’s life until I was living with a mother of grace every day. Though I knew there was an ocean of difference between fatherhood and motherhood, I didn’t grasp how wide that distance was. Living with a mom, arguably, for the first time, changed that. Overnight I started doing life with a mother and a wonderful parent of grace. I started to see in the little moments, it’s impact and just how different, at times, the ways I did things and how I could have done some of them different, and better.
But living with a mom in the house isn’t without frustration, mostly on my part. Two years later and I’m still learning what it feels like to be pulled back towards the center. When I naturally want to lean into the law, to pass judgment and hold to account, I’ve now got grace whispering in my ear reminding me that sometimes there’s another way.
This takes on an entirely different element in blended families. Because when I want to apply the law, I must now be careful about whom it’s directed towards. I’ve realized step parents have limitations. There are certain things that for a step dad are outside my scope of responsibility. So, in my desire to parent as equally as I can, not playing favorites between kids, I’m forced to change. If I can’t apply the law equally, I’ve opted not to apply the law at all. That’s been hard for me to manage, it’s like a suit of clothes that doesn’t fit quite right. It’s one of my biggest challenges living in a blended family.
Being a stepfather has forced me to consider different perspectives. Living with a mother has modeled what it might look like. I’m blessed to have such a wonderful parent of grace, who has worked to pull me back towards the center. My children feel it even if they don’t know what to call it. The work done in me through this is something that could never be undone, even if I wanted. I’ve accepted that a child needs law and grace to grow into healthy adults. I know I’m a much better man and father than might have otherwise been, and I know it couldn’t happen without a mother in our home.
Other essays in this series.