HoneyKids writer Jana looks back on her own experience of growing up with a stepfather to help other step-parents with their own relationships with their stepchildren.
Telling your child or children that their mum or dad will be moving out of home is never the easiest news to share. And for kids, being told the life they’re used to (and everything that comes with it) will be thrown out of the window means they’re bound to get angry and sad. When it happened to me, I was angry for a very long time – like cut-up-my-parents’-sheets-with-a-blade angry. And then I wasn’t. I fully accepted my stepdad, loved him and even wanted him to adopt me. Yes, kids will go through some crazy in the beginning but I’m living proof that it all works out in the end. As a parent, I look back at those times now and think how tough it must have been for my stepdad to deal with everything. Hopefully, through my own experiences, I’m able to help step-parents navigate their own budding relationships with their stepchildren.
Here’s my story:
When I was seven years old, my mum and I packed up our things and moved to my granny’s house. At that age, I knew things weren’t going too well between my parents. But what I didn’t understand was why my dad was no longer part of my everyday life. I grew up around families with the ‘traditional’ set-up: mum, dad, two kids. To me, if people didn’t have siblings, that was normal. But not having both parents around? That was just plain weird. And then, a few months later, my mum introduced me to the man who would end up becoming my stepdad.
Step-parenting ain’t easy – for anyone
When my stepdad and Mum started dating, I’m told his first question was, “Do you think she’ll accept me?” All those evil fictitious stepmothers didn’t do future step-parents any favours! Not only that, but many kids believe their step-parents are out to take the place of their mum or dad, which also puts them in a negative light. I remember being wary of my stepdad at first, but the more we started hanging out, the closer we became. But what really changed things was when I realised that my parents’ annulment wasn’t about me: it was about them being better off without one another.
Parent’s lesson: Remember to reiterate to your children that your divorce/separation/annulment isn’t their fault. The less cause you give kids to blame themselves makes it harder for them to shift the blame elsewhere, such as at their step-parents.
Caught between being Dad and Stepdad
Although my stepdad never intended to take my dad’s place in my life, it was something that naturally happened. He was the person who would create elaborate treasure hunts every time he’d buy me presents, put sofa cushions on the grass so I could do gymnastics in our garden and shared my love for Looney Tunes. He was also the one I could turn to for advice, especially in my teenage years when I was too scared to ask my mum.
Parent’s lesson: Quality time, regardless of being a step-parent or not, means everything.
All the responsibility, no legal rights
My stepdad wanted to adopt me, and I wanted him to adopt me, too. In fact, I started using his last name, even without the legal name change. When my mum and stepdad got married, my stepdad took on all the responsibilities of a father – education, clothing, feeding, caring, homework helping – but had no legal rights to me. As a parent, I can’t even begin to imagine how this must have felt. Investing yourself emotionally and financially in a child who can never be really yours must have been heartbreaking.
Parent’s lesson: When all parties are sure, do the paperwork ASAP. Many step-parents feel powerless because they aren’t able to fully become a child’s parent.
As a parent, I can only imagine the struggle my stepdad went through, especially in the beginning. Also, knowing there was an actual, biological dad out there probably unsettled him. As did the time it took me to stop calling him Uncle David!
Although my stepdad wasn’t there during the first six years of my life, he’s been around for the last 30. Sure, he wasn’t there for my first steps or to rock me to sleep at night, but he was there to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day. He was there to take me home from the hospital when I had typhoid fever. He was there when I was being a bratty tween and teenager. He’s the one my kids love playing with and talking to. And the only one in my family who understands my obsession with books and war history. He is my family, and even if we look nothing alike, I’ll always think of him as my dad.