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Choice not duty: A mother interviews her husband about step-parenting her child

These days an increasing number of families are blended families, which means more step-parents and step-children. Julia Kerr reflects on the challenges of welcoming a new parent into your family, and talks to her husband about becoming a step-father to her son.

I didn’t know anyone with step parents when I was a kid.

My parents were married. My friends all had parents who were either married or single, and all I knew of step-parents was what Disney taught me. And Disney step parents did not love other people’s children like their own.

Disney step-parents wanted to ship “the little brats” off to boarding school and were constantly at war with the children for the attention, affection, or money of their new spouses. Disney gave me the impression that having a step-parent was a rather unfortunate situation to find yourself in.

But as I grew up I realised that in more ways than one, real life is not like a Disney movie. There are no mice helping me with my housework and realistically, glass slippers sound like a terrible idea. And as I grew up, I was introduced to blended families and people whose stories were different to mine.

Stories of men who had raised sons even though they hadn’t fathered them. Stories of women who were bringing up daughters as their own even though they hadn’t carried them in their bellies.

I began to learn that family was more than just your blood and that family love could extend beyond your DNA.

While I know not all step-parents are kind, and not all situations are good, in my personal experience it has been common for the relationship between step-parent and child to be positive. Far more common than Disney would have ever led me to believe.

Now at age 30, with two kids of my own, the dynamics of my own family are vastly different to what I grew up in. I’m now someone’s step-daughter. My sister has raised a son she didn’t give birth to and my oldest son has two dads – the one who made him and the one who chose him.

My son was nine months old when I met my now-husband, Logan. It took four years for him to make that transition from “Mum’s boyfriend” to “my step-dad”.

Julia’s husband and their two children.

And it has taken nine years so far (and another baby) for me to learn to relinquish some control. Sometimes I still see him as just mine, even though I share him.

Sometimes when my husband suggests something I don’t agree with, or clashes with my son, my default is to take it personally rather than to just think that sometimes ten-year-olds clash with their dads. While I appreciate there would have been a lot for him to learn and get comfortable with in becoming a step-dad, there was also a lot I had to get my head around too.

Allowing someone else to step into a parenting role alongside me was a delicate balance of encouragement and restriction. I didn’t want to parent alone, and after a certain period of time, I did expect that this man who was now sharing life with me would step up as a parent – but only as I said so. I would still maintain full control of discipline, future education prospects, and birthday presents. Sometimes Logan would try to claim dad rights on things and I would shut him down because it didn’t fit with what I wanted. After that I’d go and mollycoddle their relationship because it didn’t look like what I thought it should.

I often got frustrated and upset when things didn’t go the way I’d pictured it between Logan and my son. Their relationship had to work and I think subconsciously I was always scared it might not. I was terrified I’d end up heartbroken, so sometimes I really forced it, which in hindsight probably just caused me a lot of unnecessary anxiety and didn’t really help anyone.

I spoke to a counsellor once about my concerns about their relationship and she told me to let it go and develop naturally.

Sure there were positive things I could do to help encourage the relationship but regardless, they would butt heads sometimes because that’s natural. My partner would get frustrated at my son sometimes because that’s natural. They will love hard sometimes. My son would choose me sometimes and sometimes he would choose his step-dad and I had to be OK with both of those things. I had to let him be involved and figure out how to be comfortable with relinquishing a bit of that control.

I learned I had to treat my partner the way I wanted my son to treat him because he could only see him the way that I did.

I have spoken to a lot of people on the step-parent spectrum. People with positive experiences and others with very sad stories. I’ve spoken to people raising someone else’s children and people like me who are sharing the responsibility with another person who wasn’t there at the beginning. I spoke to people who are having to co-parent with ex-spouses who don’t want them involved and the challenges that they face. I spoke to someone who is raising children with a widower and the constant questions that raises: forever wondering “What would their mum do?”

So many I spoke to spent a lot of time worrying they’re not getting it right. Many struggle not to overthink the relationship between their partner and their child. Many worry they can’t meet the needs of their new family. Many are concerned that they subconsciously favour their biological children in blended families.

They all sounded like normal parents worrying about normal things.

When talking about the challenges involved in step parenting, we all agreed on one thing – Other people’s kids are almost always more annoying than your own.  Because we are naturally predisposed to the genetic quirks of our own children, it takes time and often a lot of patience to learn to love someone else’s as you would your own.

Finally, I decided to speak to my own husband about his experience in becoming a step-dad. Here’s what he had to say.

So, what’s it like to be a step-dad?

It feels much the same as being just dad for me. Now that we have our own son too, I know that there are differences in the kind of love but it’s still love. The step-dad love is just a less inherent kind, that love took time and I had to learn to love him where as it’s obviously different with a biological child. It’s just there, it’s not a choice, if that makes any sense? Not that love is [a choice], but there is a difference.

Was there was any specific point you realised you’d made a transition from ‘Mum’s boyfriend’ to ‘step dad’?

I don’t recall any specific points really but I do recall feeling good when he decided he wanted to call me Dad. I feel like that cemented my role in his life a lot more. It’s always been a little odd because he has always had his biological dad around. I’ve always felt as though there is a part of him that will always get some of the dad stuff from his biological dad and not me. I don’t mind that but I will always think that there is a separate part of him that he has kept just for his biological dad.

How different have your relationships with your step-son and your biological son been?

I have questioned myself at times as to whether I have been harder on him (my step-son), or not bonded as closely with him, as maybe I could or should have, because subconsciously I resented him because we didn’t get a chance to be just you and I. I’ve never consciously had a thought like that but I have wondered if maybe somewhere inside me there was something like that there. And maybe it contributed to me not finding it as easy to build the relationship I have with him. Or maybe that’s just normal and it’s all part of the parenting thing. I’ve never done this before so I don’t know how it’s meant to feel.

Sometimes I wonder if our personalities clash or if it’s just an age thing? It’s impossible to measure because I don’t know what it’s ‘meant’ to be like and it’s hard to compare the relationship between the boys when they are at different ages. That was a really hard to thing to say so I hope you can take that objectively.

I can because I think about that too. What would it have been like in the beginning if it was just me and you? What would it be like now if we didn’t have kids at all? What would it be like going out for dinner tonight instead of reading Hairy Maclary 17 times in a row, or wearing matching underwear instead of finding Lego men in my bra? I’m sure everyone has those thoughts sometimes. And I think it’s normal to clash sometimes too: I quite often think ‘I love you but I don’t like you right now.’

Are we allowed to think like that?

Yes.

OK.

*

Step-parents have a unique influence and a special relationship with their step-children because their love and support is a choice not just a duty.

It does take effort, understanding, and compassion by everyone involved to make the relationship work. My husband provides this for both of my sons. He reads to both of them. Fights for both of them and passes on his love of 70s rock to both of them. While we may see some differences in the relationship, to both of them he is just Dad. While one love came naturally and one took a little time – the love is still there just the same.

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