6 Axioms of Step Parenting
My stepdaughter and me at the beach last summer. Image: John Cave Osborne
I went from carefree bachelor to father of four in just 13 months thanks to marrying a single mom then quickly conceiving triplets. What’s more, my wife is currently pregnant with child number five! During my metamorphosis, I’ve found that taking on so many roles in such a relatively short period of time has been quite trying. But none of my roles have been more trying than that of stepdad. Yet none have been more rewarding, either.
And though I by no means profess to be an expert in the ways of step parenting (or parenting for that matter), I attribute whatever success I’ve had to a handful of axioms I try to keep in mind as I parenting my oldest child.
1. Seek Respect, Not Affinity
Gaining respect is paramount. Image: twicepix's photostream via Creative Commons
I was lucky in that I came on the scene when my stepdaughter was just three years old, a far less challenging stage than, say, adolescence. Still, regardless of the age of the stepchild, a common mistake I often see stepparents make is trying to become buddy-buddy with their stepchild. Don’t get me wrong. Every great stepparent is also a wonderful friend to a child, but not every wonderful friend is, in fact, a great stepparent. So from day one, I sought my stepchild’s respect, not her affinity. Sometimes I successfully attain both. Yet sometimes gaining respect comes at the cost of her affinity. That’s okay, though. The way I see it, we have the rest of our lives to be buddies.
2. Don’t Try to Replace the Parent
It's one dance you should never cut in on. Image: familymwr's photostream via Creative Commons
Every situation is different, and I fully understand that if a biological parent is deceased or perhaps just a deadbeat who has totally checked out, then it’s imperative for a stepparent to replace that child’s parent. However, the vast majority of divorces are like the one my wife went through — ones in which both parents have custody of their child and play a major role in raising him or her. Which means that I, as a stepparent, am part of a team who is raising a little girl. And everyone on that team should have one common goal — for that little girl to grow into a confident, well-adjusted, and morally-grounded adult.
Guess what? If she’s going to do that, statistics (overwhelmingly) suggest that she’ll need to have a strong relationship with her father. So why in the world would I ever want to replace him?
3. It’s Not a Contest
It's not a contest, folks. Image: Michi Moore Image's photostream via Creative Commons
But not ever wanting to replace her dad doesn’t mean that I don’t want to build special memories with my stepdaughter. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to “father” her. After all, I spend nine out of 14 days with her. I’d be doing her a real disservice if I didn’t act in the capacity of a father. As such, my stepdaughter has two dads. And it’s only human nature to occasionally wonder how I’m stacking up.
But human nature isn’t always grounded in rationale. In fact, it’s usually grounded in emotion, and wondering how I’m stacking up is a perfect example. Because it doesn’t matter how I’m stacking up. What matters is that I’m being the best parent I can possibly be. And parenting isn’t a popularity contest. (See axiom number one.)
4. It’s Not About You
Hate to break it to you, but... Image: madnzany's photostream via Creative Commons
I was born into a blended family, so I learned firsthand from my parents just how difficult being a stepparent could be. As such, I had plenty of respect for the challenge that lay ahead when I married a single mom. But now that I’m actually a stepdad? It’s even harder and more complicated that I had thought. And if it’s complicated for me, just think what it must be like for my stepdaughter — the one whose parents got divorced before she was old enough to speak in complete sentences. The one who lives in two different houses and has two different dads.
My parents may have shown me that being a stepparent was tough, but my stepdaughter has shown me that being a stepchild isn’t exactly a picnic, either. So I try to remember that whenever she acts out or fails to give me the respect I feel I deserve. Because as tough as this road is for me to navigate at times? It’s even tougher for her. So it’s no time to feel sorry for myself as we try to navigate that road together.
This isn’t about me and my difficulties. It’s about my stepdaughter and hers.
5. It’s Never as Good as it Seems and It’s Never as Bad as it Seems
The reality lies somewhere in between. Image: aginorz's photostream via Creative Commons
Being a stepparent is a lot like a stock analyst’s report on any given company: it’s never as good as it seems, and it’s never as bad as it seems. I’ll never forget the time I took my stepdaughter camping for the very first time. You would have thought I had flown her to the moons of Jupiter, so taken was she by the entire experience. The end result was a little girl who was absolutely smitten with me, or so I gathered by the demigod status I seemed to have attained. Yet just a day or two afterward, she turned on me and suddenly I was the mean ogre who never let her do anything fun. She rebelled against me for days. Weeks, even.
In actuality, I was neither the demigod, nor the ogre. I was just her stepdad, a complicated role, to be certain, a role which should never be assessed on a micro level. The results won’t be in for at least another decade. Possibly two.
6. Begin With the End in Mind
I hope she can see me. Image: gurdonark's photostream via Creative Commons
Back in my white-collar days, I was regularly subjugated to mind-numbingly boring training sessions which were laden with all kinds of cliches and self-evident truths (much like this post?). But one cool thing about each and every one of those sessions was that I always left them with at least one takeaway. And one of my favorite takeaways was from a session conducted by Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The second “habit,” Begin with the End in Mind, is something I try to do whenever embarking on any significant endeavor, and I can't think of a better example than step parenting.
The end I have in mind? College graduation. When our little girl will hopefully walk across a stage to accept her diploma. If, indeed, that day comes to pass, I envision a scenario in which she’ll look out into the crowd and see three people (four if her father were to remarry).
When she sees her mom, she’ll think “Wow. There’s Mom. I love her so much.” When she sees her dad, she’ll think “Wow. There’s Dad. I love him so much.”
And when she sees me? I hope she thinks “Wow. There’s John. He never had to love me so much. But he always did anyway.”
Because that’ll mean that she was able to feel my love for her. Hopefully in feeling it, she'll eventually understand that when I made a lifelong commitment to her mother, I also made one to her. And in so doing, I vowed to love her just as if she were my very own child. Which, indeed, I’ve done up to now and intend to do for the rest of my days. Love her as if she were my very own child, that is. Because after all, she is my very own child.
My oldest one, at that.
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