On Being a Stepfather

I was pleased to find a report on MSNBC.com on titled It’s tough being a stepdad. In my experience stepparents are often underrated, and do not receive much consideration. The stories we hear tend to be negative–when stepparents fail, as often we do.

You see, I am a stepfather. I got married late in life to a woman who had three lovely children already. The two oldest were already past the age of 18, and I remember with great amusement my pastor telling me that I didn’t have to worry about them. He gave excellent advice, but he missed it on that point. I still had occasion to be very much involved in their lives, despite their age, involving both joy and sorrow.

Our younger son was 12 years old, and was in chemotherapy for cancer when we got married. He passed away five years later. As things got more difficult with the cancer treatment a good friend of the family called me aside and said, “Henry, many people are going to ignore you in this situation because you’re the stepparent. But don’t forget to take care of yourself.” Well, some people did ignore me, but to be honest most people gave me all the consideration I could possibly ask for.

My relationship with all my children grew with time. Let me offer a word of advice from my experience: Don’t be in a hurry. Children don’t get used to you overnight, and trying to force things doesn’t help in the least. I tried to be very patient, and I have heard from the kids now that they are substantially older that they appreciated that. There are some things you have to get involved with, and there are some things you should. Just be sure you think carefully about which are which.

The second point I would make to other stepparents is that your relationship with your stepchild isn’t something that takes away from, or loses something to the relationship with the birth parent. While my children’s father was alive, I was careful not to say anything bad about him, and never to try to replace him. It won’t work, and it is neither necessary or desirable. You can have a good, constructive relationship with a stepchild that is yours, while nurturing and encouraging the relationship with their birth parent. My children’s father passed away suddenly, early in the morning, when he was out of town. My youngest son came to me within a few minutes after he heard the news and said, “Well, Henry, I guess it’s all up to you now!” He never called me “dad.” I was always his stepdad. I had and have no problem with that–stepdad is an honorable title.

I made it a note in my last paragraph, but let me make it explicit as well: My third suggestion is to never run down the child’s birth parent. It’s a game you’ll lose, and it’s a game you should lose. Learn what isn’t your business and stay out of it.

Now I have grandchildren. I like to call people’s attention to the bumper sticker that reads, “If I had known how much fun grandchildren were, I’d have had them first!” I say, “I did that!” There were easy points, and there were hard points, but it was all worth it.

I offer this for what it’s worth. This was just my experience, and I’m no expert. Not even close! But I do know that stepchildren can be a joy, and that giving stepparenting the time and attention it deserves is well worth the effort.

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  1. Quietpaths says:

    Very important thoughts you wrote here. I grew up in a blended family – my natural parent was step dad to two of my half brothers. He didn’t figure it out until way too late but he has tried over the years to make things right. It wasn’t an easy job but he could have used a few pointers such as yours.

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