With divorce and remarriage becoming increasingly common, there are an ever-increasing number of stepfathers today. Because children usually remain resident with their mothers after divorce, there are far more resident stepfathers than there are stepmothers. Of course, there are reasons other than divorce & re-marriage for a stepfather to exist, such as the premature death of the birth father.
In 1993, approximately 1 in 8 children would experience living in a stepfamily during part of their childhood. The statistics today are more likely to be closer to 1 in 6.
The ‘Evil Stepfather’ image of storybooks is generally not the case today. Stepfathering has come of age, with the average stepfather able to lay his hands on a wide range of materials for advice, and Family Support Groups and Associations recognising the demand for information, support, and advice to Stepfathers.
There are specific issues involved with stepfathering, and not least of these are the emotional ones - yours, your partners’, and those of the children involved. The emotional issues can appear trivial at times and may often go unrecognised and unheeded. In the aftermath of divorce, remarriage, or repartnering, emotional issues can become buried. This particularly applies to younger children, who may be quite confused by what is going on. Although divorce and repartnering is often quite appropriate, and our approach to it has come a long way in the past few years, there is still very little work done with younger children to counter the effects on them of divorce and repartnering.
As a stepfather of some seven years, I would like to suggest the following as general guidelines to any stepfather. Many of you may have already discovered similar guidelines from your own experiences.
If you are having difficulties in a stepfather role, or are ‘new’ to stepfathering, take a mental step back and try to see what those difficulties are really about. The chances are they are about power (who is in charge?), or change and adjustment (differing sets of rules about home life). There may have to be adjustments on your part as well as others.
Do I hear you worrying that your stepchildren do not love you? Perhaps they should be aware you do not want to be their new DAD. I have known Mums introduce their new husband or partner to the children as ‘This is your new Dad’ or ‘This is James, and you should call him Dad from now on’. Personally, I feel this is a big NO. Do try not to insist on the children calling you ‘Dad’, because you are not really Dad, and it could be a recipe for an emotional disaster. The child or children do have their own father in any case, (unless he is deceased) and if you have children of your own, you are already someone else’s Dad.
The best you can genuinely hope for is that you will be their friend. So tell them that is what you want. Ask for nothing but friendship and if you gain that, you may eventually gain their trust and their love.
Let your children, whatever their age, know that it is perfectly OK to talk and that you are always happy to listen to any concerns they may have, whatever the subject. Perhaps they will discuss with you their personal issues. Then again, they may be quite unwilling to talk about the things which really concern them, so don’t pressure them to talk. Just make it safe to do so when they are ready.
Do let your children make mistakes - you cannot be a universal stop on anything ever going wrong. Mistakes are good for learning and are an essential and unavoidable part of life. Do not ‘give in’ every time there’s a showdown. You have something to offer in this family, not the least being an alternative way of looking at things.
Be yourself; and Remember, children are just like adults really, but a lot smaller and more scared.
At times there can be conflicts, or potential conflicts between you and the children’s’ natural father. On these occasions you might find that the safest (and probably most common) relationship between step and birth fathers is one which commands a healthy distance and respect of the other’s feelings and views. If contact arrangements exist, try not to get in the way of them, but actively support those arrangements if you can. Where arrangements for the children to be with their natural father do not exist, and there is no good reason, see what you can do to bring them about. Do not spend too much time wondering or worrying what ex-husband thinks of your role in the family. Make a sincere attempt not to come between your stepchildren and their own father. This includes staying out of conversations that may be derogatory about him. They have their own relationship with him and any problems here are perhaps best left between the children and their Dad to work out for themselves.
You know teenagers. On the other hand, maybe you do not. There are probably two essential things to remember where teenagers are concerned:
One: They are growing and changing at a very fast rate, physically, mentally, and emotionally. This is nature at her most powerful work. Do try not to stand in the way because there is a high chance you could come off considerably worse for wear! It’s your ‘job’ to guide and assist where it’s appropriate, but do not stand in front and say ‘I know better than you and you will therefore do as I say…’ it just does not work! My experience with teenagers has shown me that no matter how shaky and makeshift it may seem, they usually have some kind of road in front of them which they are proceeding along. Learn to swallow hard and clench your teeth!
Two: Teenagers need space. Space to think, feel, grow, make a mess, and not least, space to make mistakes – you name it, they need space for it. Give it to them.
You may remember your own teen years. I certainly recall mine very well and I only in recent years have I begun to understand how my parents restrained themselves from homicidal acts where my moods and attitudes were concerned. I will be eternally grateful that I was allowed that space to grow.
“Quality time” is an American expression brought about to describe the phenomenon of allotting specific periods of time to genuinely pay attention to others in an age when work, paying bills and social activity becomes overwhelming and eats up all available concentration. Personally, I do not understand why any adult would need to set aside ‘special time’ weekly to ‘pay attention to their children’. What it does take is making the effort on a day-to-day basis to be sincere in your approach to children, to ask sincere questions and pay attention to what your children are saying to you. Observe their smiles (or lack of them), and be aware of what is happening to your children. Forget about “quality time” and make all time with your children count for something. If you want to be a parent, guardian, stepparent, or any kind of person with responsibility for one or more children, know this: it is going to age you, it is going to be demanding on you and it is most certainly going to require your attention!
The role of Father
Stepfather is a role. It is not who you are. If a child’s natural father is not around, and if you have some, any, or even all of a father’s attributes; if you are in regular contact with a child, you may find yourself taking on a stepfather role to them, either intentionally or by default. If this is you, may I suggest the following as basic guidelines?
If a child sees you in a ‘parent’ role to him or her, be aware of it and do what you can to be a good role model to them. Realising this is how you are perceived may come as a shock - and you may not really want the role of course. However, responsibility comes to us all at some stage in life and it doesn’t have to be onerous. Enjoy the role you have, and make time for it amongst your other activities. In the years to come, sooner than you may think, you will be glad you did. If you can have some effect in aiding and assisting a younger person to grow and develop, aside from the good it will do the child; it will make you feel very good about yourself. It is about empowering another, not asserting your own power. That is a subject in itself, and one that can be a difficult issue for men. Like any attribute worth having, you have to work at it!
This is a poignant time for me to write about fathering & Stepfathering. In the past year I have been able to resume contact with my own two sons after some six years of being out of touch. Six years? I hear you say. Yes, six years is a long time to remain out of touch with your own children.
Throughout those six years I had reasoned that the boys would be all right. I had few doubts that their mother was a good mum, and I got on with my life in my new family with my new wife and three stepchildren. Because I was unable to see my boys during that time, I focused on my ‘new’ family and did all I could to be a good Stepfather, including writing a book on the subject. My three stepchildren are all in their teens now and if I were to re-write the book, it would be quite different, which I suppose, is a testament to the changing nature of childhood.
Adults change, Children change – almost continuously, it seems. My own two boys had changed out of all recognition after six years and I am still getting used to the way they look now.
Children need Dads
I resumed contact with my boys after the youngest attempted suicide at twelve years of age. Even now, it is hard to be certain of exactly which event or series of events hastened such an occurrence. He was being bullied at school, a school that was quite inappropriate for him, and there were other issues also; but I did conclude one very clear message: Children need their fathers. Let us be quite clear about this: Children need fathers. At the very least, they need someone to ‘be’ their father.
Many aspects of the Stepfather role do come naturally. I try to keep to a golden rule: When I am with the children, I find out what it is they want to do, and (providing it is not something too inappropriate), I try to do just that with them. One of my children loves to mess around on the PC. At twelve years of age, he knows more than I am likely to understand in the next ten years, and I really learn from him. Another of my children is an ‘expert’ (from my point of view) with video games, and as much as I discourage violence, I find a certain childish pleasure in destroying armies and blasting my way out of guarded rooms with a twenty-millimetre Superlaser Cannon.
It is easier for an adult to understand a child than it is for a child to understand an adult. Adults have been children, but children have a way to go before they have had your experiences and develop into adults. So give in and play those games. Preserve a small part of you that relates easily to a child. You may be ‘only young once’, but I’ve always stashed away a small part of me that’s “immature forever” and bring it out just to play around with once in a while with the kids!
In life, it is easy to get the feeling that you should automatically ‘know what to do’ – as if we have all had experience in handling everything life can throw at us. Many things do come naturally. Many do not. Perhaps the major factor is whether you love the children enough to really want it to work, to really want to help them grow into mature and capable adults.
Stephen Kaye is an Author and businessman. He owns www.kaymexdirect.co.uk .