The Almost Stepdad

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There are multiple ways to lose a child. To lose a parent. None of them are good.
There are multiple ways to lose a child. To lose a parent. None of them are good.

One of my best friends just lost two children.

Two little boys. The oldest, 5, and his younger brother, 3.

The kids are still alive.

They weren’t kidnapped.

But he lost them just the same. Because his adult relationship with their mother broke. Because of disagreements and friction and differences and misunderstandings that had absolutely nothing to do with them.

One day, a man had sons. Boys had a father figure.

The next day, they did not.

The five-year-old and my friend Randy were particularly close. The three boys—3, 5, and 34—would pile into bed together at the end of a long day and watch a football game. Or a race. Or a cartoon.

The boys’ mother owned a house adjacent to a golf course. Randy would take the five-year-old out to the 150-yard marker on the hole nearest the house each night, and the two would hit approach shots into the green and putt out, practicing, trying different shots, working on their swings and ball striking.

“He’s a little stud,” Randy told me over breakfast this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio. He beamed with pride talking about how awesome this five-year-old boy could hit a golf ball.

“His dad taught him well.”

How it’s Supposed to Be

I have a stepdad. A good man. A guy that did these EXACT same things with me.

Taught me to read. Taught me to ride a bike. Taught me to swim. Taught me how to kick, punt and catch a football. Taught me how to use follow through on my free throw shots in basketball.

He was the man I sat next to throughout most of my childhood, watching all those ballgames.

My biological father who I wrote about in The Champion is a fan of Chicago sports teams. The Bears. The Bulls. The Cubs.

But I grew up in Ohio since before my fifth birthday. With my mom. And eventually, my stepdad.

And when I was five and six and seven I was sitting on the couch watching the Cleveland Browns—the sports team I still love today above all others.

That was my stepdad’s influence. His doing.

My father probably felt a little knife twist anytime I’d mention my affinity for the Cleveland Browns. He had to know it was because of my stepdad.

I know I wanted to light myself on fire anytime my son mentioned Rich Guy’s name—the man my wife was sleeping with.

But my father respected my stepdad. Because he knew he was a good man. And that he genuinely cared about his son. His only child. Me.

In return, my stepdad never said an unkind word about my father, even though my mother wasn’t afraid to verbalize all of her frustrations with him in front of me.

In their own, unspoken way, these two men—my two fathers—had one another’s backs. On my behalf.

I recognized that same dynamic when my friend Randy spoke fondly of the boys he had spent so much time with, forming that special stepdad-child bond even though he and the mother had yet to make it official.

Life has a way of delivering really important people to us during critical times.

Like angels.

And while these friends, mentors, spiritual guides, guardians play invaluable roles in our life journeys, the end of those relationships can sometimes be a little messy.

Things always get a little messy whenever humans are involved.

The Loss No One Talks About

Divorce and broken homes are more common than ever. And there are more people on Planet Earth today than ever.

Which means this loss is being experienced by more and more people all the time.

I won’t insult the all-important biological bond that binds parents and children. My stepdad is one of the most-important people in my life. But he can’t replace my father.

On the flip side, I believe strongly that we choose our families. That some people are so important and special and spiritually connected to us that a new kind of family relationship is born.

You see it in relationships between adopted children and their new parents.

You see it in best friends.

You see it between coaches and players. Teachers and students. Soldiers. People united in crisis or tragedy.

Losing children this way must be horrible.

My home is broken. And I miss my son every day he’s not here. And I didn’t deserve to lose him. But I still get to see him. Half the time.

And, I must feel gratitude for that. No matter how bitter that pill is to swallow. No matter how screwed over I feel from my wife’s exodus the day after Easter just a little more than six months ago. I need to maintain perspective.

Because my friend Randy loved two children. Unselfishly embracing the role of stepfather. And doing a great job.

And now he lives alone again. No warm body in his bed. No children to tuck in at night or greet in the morning.

I stood on the deck behind Randy’s townhome last weekend. The one he had to take off the market and move back into after vacating the house where his ex-girlfriend and two sons live. A bunch of people were at Randy’s with me, drinking beer, eating delicious food, telling jokes.

A lady named Molly and I were talking. She’s good friends with both Randy and his ex-girlfriend. On the wall of the little boys’ home hang photos of their little league teams.

Randy coached those teams and is in all the photos.

“There’s Randy! There’s Randy!” the boys always say, excitedly when they spot him in the photos.

“Those boys miss him so much,” Molly said to me in a quiet moment. “They love him.”

“We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to,” I said to Randy over breakfast. “Believe me, I know how unpleasant rehashing everything can be.”

“No, it’s fine,” he said. “You know, it’s funny. Not being with her isn’t nearly as hard as not getting to see those boys.

“I really miss them. They’re the best.”

“Do you think there’s any chance for reconciliation?” I asked Molly outside Randy’s house.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But there’s always hope.”

Author’s Note: A special thank you to any stepparents who might be reading. You’re doing God’s work. And I appreciate you. And for those of you who have lost children you love because of broken relationships with the kids’ biological parents, my heart breaks for you. God bless all of you.

26 thoughts on “The Almost Stepdad”

  1. Your spot-on remarks beg the question: Why does the woman always get the children? Simply because they popped out of her hoo-hah? Because there is no substitute for mother love? What about father love? And why, oh why, are the judges and courts of the world doing this?

    So now it’s a brave new world: Joint custody. So named because this arrangement is so maddeningly frustrating that you want to smoke a joint. Since this is the world we have to deal with, my suggestion is to validate your own feelings while understanding that your ex-wife likely harbors similar feelings, similar pangs when she can’t tuck your son into bed or wake him in the morning.

    Granting the children to each parent half the time is most certainly NOT some kind of Solomonic solution. By contrast, it is a punishment, society’s way of saying hey, you two couldn’t make it work, so now you’re each going to be deprived of your children half the time.

    What’s that you say? The children are the ones who suffer? Ooh, whatever happened to “the best interests of the child?” Having worked in the court system for several years, I can tell you that the whole thing is a farce. Anyone who thinks using children as ping pong balls is the proper solution is either an idiot or doesn’t have a heart.

    That said, what is the solution? One parent should get custody and the other visitation. And that doesn’t mean that the mother is always the one who gets custody. Judges: Quit being so darned lazy and do your jobs. And if you think that it is truly in the best interest of the children to have them bounce back and forth, get off the bench. Now.

    1. Your comments are interesting.

      I can’t begin to imagine how much different my life would be had a judge ordered joint custody in 1984, forcing my mom to stay in eastern Iowa/western Illinois.

      Literally, everything about my life would be different now. Who’s to say whether that would have been better or worse, on balance? But my father didn’t deserve to lose 70 percent of my childhood the way he did. Nor did I deserve to lose my father that much.

      In my current situation with my son, I can’t imagine, even in her worst and most-selfish moments (and it’s all there for people to read about from June-August) an attempt to take her son away. As a caretaker, on a micro level, she is an exceptional mother. More importantly, I wouldn’t dream of asking my son to not see his mom.

      It’s a shitty and emotionally complicated situation. I don’t see any definitively right or wrong answers.

      But I do know one thing. Sometimes, some really amazing people come along. The stepdads. The stepmoms. They don’t replace our parents. They just sort of sub for them on a case-by-case basis.

      And these heroes teach us critical lessons about what it means to love unselfishly in a cynical world where too little of that goes on.

      And I appreciate them so much.

      And I hope there can one day be a decent man in my son’s life who will love his mother.

      And I hope there can one day, should the stars align, be a new partner for me.

      People who can help teach my son these invaluable life lessons about love.

      Thank you so much for reading and writing. And for thinking about this topic. This is the kind of thing that forces me to throw up my hands and say: I wish life were simpler.

    2. While I agree with you, I also have to ask – what then is the solution when both parties love and deserve their kids? Who knows – maybe in today’s day and age – even THAT is an edge case… but what IS the right solution then?
      Let’s say you’ve got Jane and John. Both are good people. They both work, they both love their kids, and for a long time, they loved each other. They go through something and their marriage falls apart. They want to make sure their children are happy. But they know that they can’t do it living as husband and wife together. What then? No matter what solution is proposed – it sucks all around.

  2. Jennifer Baker-Grogg

    Thanks for sharing this post. I just happened upon your Typo blog yesterday and found myself coming back today. A beautiful, yet sad look into a broken home. It’s hard to describe the completely unnatural feeling of not having your kids with you each day, especially to those that are in a whole, original family. There are many angels out there – I married one. Keep on keeping on, and I’ll certainly keep reading!

    1. Thank you so much for reading and taking time to comment.

      I’m so glad you snatched one of the good ones. They’re gifts.

      As are you for being kind and encouraging this morning. Again, thank you.

  3. Good morning!

    I hadn’t planned on commenting, but now I feel compelled to respond – to the comment, actually. I’m not trying to start a heated debate on someone else’s comment section (although that’s probably not a bad thing, but I haven’t had enough caffeine to fully engage in one).

    I work with teenagers. More than half of them are the product of divorces, with different custody arrangements. They have been dwelling in the aftermath of a variety of custody arrangements – for 10, 12, 14 years. In order to educate and inspire them, I have to love and understand them. They’re my “kids,” as much as my own.

    Joint custody cannot just be labeled a “ping pong like punishment” without knowing the parents involved. NO divorce arrangement is healthy once the parents fall into the downward cycle of denouncements and accusations. That’s what really fucks the kids up.

    I’ve actually researched this, little nerd that I am. And research points to the conclusion that, ironically, children whose parents are in LESS CONFLICT will fare best in EITHER arrangement.

    Less conflict even when there is remarriage, people. New spouses, don’t you dare resent the presence of an ex-spouse. Ex-spouse – help your child sort out these confusing new loyalty issues instead of undermining the new spouse.

    Really got on my soap box there. Now I really need some more coffee. 🙂

    1. This is a place for saying what’s on your mind. I appreciate you taking time to do so.

      I think what you’ve said sounds wise. Thank you for sharing it.

      I accidentally don’t fight with my spouse because I’ve never found value in conflict. Not because I’m going above and beyond in the good-parenting department.

      But I think our son benefits from us being polite and pleasant with one another. He and I pray for his mom every night before bed. I hope that’s always true.

  4. Tears again, Matt. Beautiful post, honestly.

    When I was young, I dated an older man who had 3 kids. They were amazing, and I developed a very strong bond with the younger two, a 5 yr old girl and a 3 yr old boy. We played, I helped them with crafts, we made cookies and art, and I fell madly in love with them. So much that when the chemistry with their dad fizzled, and our relationship scaled back to more friendship than romance, I stuck around, pretending things were ok because I didn’t want to hurt those precious kids.

    Before long, he ended it, feeling like I was too young to waste so much time that I didn’t have a real connection with. He let me visit the kids several times after we broke up, and I think that made it easier on them (like I was drifting away instead of being ripped away), but it was very hard for me. I think I loved them almost as much as I do my own son.

    Raising kids is the most important thing God tasks us with, and it really does take a village…

    1. Thank you for sharing this story.

      I had never really thought about this unfortunate aspect of single parents dating until now, when I’m faced with the prospect.

      I’m sad for all adults and children who have to deal with this above and beyond all of the other hardships they endure.

      Thank you for continuing to read this stuff. Appreciate you.

      1. I love it all, man. Like that commenter said the other day, you write in a way that makes me feel like you’re talking to me. Like we’re pals. It’s really great!

        (It’s a small world too, you’re actually FB friends with a classmate of mine!)

  5. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t exactly welcome my stepdad with open arms. I was still hurting from my parents’ divorce and resented his forced intrusion in my life. I was in high school by this time, and like most teens, was extremely selfish and unable to see beyond my own wants and needs. It was a rocky time, to say the least.

    As an adult, I’ve come to see how much he cares for my mom and does everything possible to make her happy – including dealing with her bitchy daughter when if would have been so much easier to throw up his hands and move on. And for that I’m extremely thankful…

    1. My mother is on her third husband. He is treated with politeness and common courtesy. That is the limits I’m willing to go. We all have our reasons for feeling as we do.

      But a lot of times, innocent children and innocent adults are torn apart as single parents enter and exit relationships.

      It just made me think about the pain others have. I hope I never have to experience this. I hope my son never has to, as well.

      Thank you for reading and sharing.

  6. My husband’s family emigrated To Australia when he was 5 and then five years later his dad had an epiphany that he no longer wanted to be married so G’ s mom came back to the states with G and his brother. They didn’t see their father again until they were adults. I can’t really blame G’s mom for wanting to be back in the U.S. near her family. But then G’s dad used their distance and the fact he never saw his children as an (inexcusable!!) excuse to withhold any child support. A shitty scenario- and what would have been the best solution for my husband and his brother? Half the year down under and half the year in the states? F Maybe that works for uber-rich celebrity divorces, but not for regular people like G and his brother. Unfortunately, they never had a wonderful stepdad to fill the void.
    I think you got it right when you said these things are just messy. No way around it. And I don’t think there can be hard and fast rules, only guidelines on how to deal with each individual case.
    Bottom line: If children are genuinely loved and respected by whomever, step parent or otherwise, they will know it. And will thrive.
    Great post.

    1. That’s a sad story.

      But yes.

      Just, love. People recognize it when it’s real. And it cures a lot of what’s wrong with the world.

      Thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry those boys grew up like that. It has to change a person.

      Love him, please. Every day.

  7. Good luck to Randy, yourself and all the people who lose children this way; any loss like that is difficult – it is so sad that we adults and our relationships can manage to destroy so much without necessarily meaning to…
    Perhaps, we are best to hold on to the love we were fortunate enough to have and hope that should it not be able to grow we can at least take from it a bit of light to carry us through the darkness.

    1. The ugly is very, very ugly.

      But the beauty is magnificent.

      And I would never dream of discouraging humans from chasing that fleeting beauty.

      Things break because WE break. Not because things are doomed to fail.

      If we can get everyone to recognize what breaks, why, and what they can do to help repair one another and themselves, we can save ourselves from an awful lot of the heartache that exists in this world.

      I’ll never quit encouraging people to try.

      We can all be the change. Everyone of us.

      I appreciate you reading and commenting very much. Thank you so much for taking the time to do that.

      1. Encouragement is sometimes all we need and sometimes breaking isn’t all bad – change will come and we need not avoid its knock on our door. Instead we should invite it in…perhaps for a wee chat.

  8. Thank you for this post. You’ve got me thinking.

    I’m a single mom who dates. My son’s father is a single dad who dates. We both also have in our lives (at times and to varying degrees) friends, other parents from school, extended family members, neighbors. My son’s dad and I talk about how important it is that we keep our son’s social circle rich and varied. We both know that our partnerships may not last despite our hearts and our best efforts.

    My son’s dad and I have chosen to get over ourselves and stay on friendly terms. We talk about this, about choosing this approach. We run in some of the same circles. If one of my ex’s friends’ kids is having a birthday party on a weekend I have our son, my ex makes sure I get the invitation. I am friendly with my ex’s girlfriend and he is friendly with my boyfriend, and even the boyfriend and girlfriend and their kids all know each other. This is because we make a point of including everyone in social events, playdates, and parties.

    This is my son’s new life. It may suck for him. I can’t tell. He seems to move pretty easily through it all. There is nothing he can’t say to either of us. He sees his mom and his dad both in a number of healthy relationships in all the parts of our lives. I hope we are helping him learn how to stay nimble and balanced in this chaotic, teeming, unpredictable world.

    His dad and I have chosen civility and friendliness over resentment. We each retreat to lick our wounds, for sure, but we do that in private. In counseling. In the quiet of our time with our significant others.

    The boundary between our son’s two lives stays porous. The bridge between his parents is solid. This has not been easy, but boy, it sure becomes easier once you make the choice and get into the habit.

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to write this thoughtful and informative note.

      I, too, am amicable with my ex-wife. I don’t really feel it on the inside, but I know no other way to behave. I’m not quite ready to start hanging out with her socially, even on behalf of our son, but hopefully in time. It all still feels pretty fresh.

      As a child of divorce, I can say that I hated when my mom and dad were in the same place at the same time. But that could have been a byproduct of their respective personalities, as well as the fact that I don’t much remember them living together. Just flashes.

      Sounds to me like you love your son, put him first, and choose love and civility over hate and animosity.

      I don’t see how any of that can be a poor choice.

      I’m so glad you chose to share.

      And I’m so flattered you took the time to read this post. Thank you.

  9. Beautiful and heartbreaking. My Stepdad is so crucial in my life, I can’t imagine what life would have been like without him. It takes a special person to take on someone else’s children and love them.

    1. Thank you. And, yeah. Stepparents, the ones who do it right, are amazing people. I’m beyond grateful for them and healing they provide.

      But I was really taken aback when I heard my friend talk about the loss of two children on his life and how difficult it was dealing with the fact that there were just… Gone… overnight.

      And it is a tragedy. A small one. But a tragedy nonetheless. And I think all single parents or people dating them really need to be mindful of this.

      Appreciate you reading. A lot.

  10. I have just recently found your blog and have enjoyed what I have read so far. One of my sons recently went to live with his father and the other end of my country. I cannot put into words how this feels, but I was really touched by your comments in this entry and wanted to thank you for sharing.

    1. I wish I knew what to say.

      I am so sorry, in ways that can never sound sincere enough in a stupid blog comment, that you have to live far away from one of your children. There are no words.

      But I hope you can at least try to understand how much I appreciate you thinking some silly thing I wrote here resonated with and meant something to you while you’re hurting.

      Thank you very much for this kind note.

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Matt Fray

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