No matter how many similarities all parents may have, the truth is that we are all unique in our own ways. How you do your family is probably a little different than how we do ours, and when you have a step-family, those differences only increase.
I once explained my situation to a friend, and he was pretty vocal about his disagreement and thought a step-father should play a more prominent role in my kids’ lives. Though he made some valid points, I held fast to the idea that what works for my family doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else.
My children have a father, who is not my husband John. So prior to introducing my girls to the new man who would be in their lives, I had a long discussion with John about what I needed his role to be when it came to my children. I wasn’t looking for a helping hand, or a babysitter, or a father figure. I was looking for a man who was willing to take a back seat to my children’s father. We ultimately agreed that he could offer his friendship and some minimal guidance. But as for parenting? No thanks. I got this.
However, just last year (after a three year engagement), John and I finally tied the knot. Though our marriage certificate officially gave him the stepdad title, I didn’t want that piece of paper to change the relationship he had built with my girls. I didn’t even want the term “stepdad” to be used, as the word “dad” implies that John has some of the same powers as their father does. For some, the role of stepfather includes certain expectations like disciplining, attending events for the child, giving financial assistance, helping the kids with homework or teaching them to play a sport. While those expectations do exist for my ex-husband, they do not exist for John. And I didn’t ever want my girls to feel conflicted about where their loyalties should lie.
As you can imagine, the scenario I have created for John’s association with my daughters is probably not an easy adjustment for anyone. Asking the man, who coexists with your children, to limit his involvement and give up a certain amount of control over the children he has come to love is not ideal. However, John’s agreement to be a part of this crazy domestic structure has given my children a third constant in their lives - the “un-step-dad”.
Having John in our lives provides my girls with a relationship that can be the hardest to create as a parent. He is able to tap into their friendship during the times when my ex-husband and I need to be parents.
John embodies his role as buddy by creating an environment where my girls can feel silly and curious and playful. Even when they are acting up, rather than yelling at them, I’ve overheard him whisper, “Hey girls, I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but if your mom sees what you’re up to, she’s probably not going to be happy.” And he leaves it at that.
Because he is not the rule enforcer or the speech giver, he is a safe place for them. While he makes it known that his support is always with me, he also gives them an outlet to just be themselves. He doesn’t solely act like a friend-he actually is their friend.
He is their cheerleader, their creative guru, their chess partner, their encyclopedia, their roughhousing champion. He is what lies beneath the layer of parenting that my ex-husband and I provide. He may be invisible to my girls as a parental figure, but the very reason this family succeeds is because of him- the un-step-dad.
*This piece was published on The Good Men Project on June 17, 2016.