The Thing About Stepparents

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Maybe that's his father. Maybe that's his stepfather. There's beauty in the fact we can't be sure.
Maybe that’s his father. Maybe that’s his stepfather. There’s beauty in the fact we can’t be sure.

My parents divorced when I was 4, and twice a year all the way through high school, my parents met at a McDonald’s on the eastern edge of Illinois and exchanged me.

I grew up in Ohio with my mom. My dad lived 500 miles away.

Some of my strongest memories include the anticipation of that meet. Seeing my mother and father together. It always felt weird for me. Feeling simultaneously excited to be leaving with my father and sad to say bye to my mother. And feeling absolutely devastated when I’d get into the backseat of my mom’s car at the end of a long, fun summer with dad knowing I wouldn’t see him again until Christmas.

Time goes fast now. But it’s an eternity when you’re little and sobbing in the back of a car watching a McDonald’s disappear behind you at 70 miles per hour.

There is nothing fair about divorce for children. None of it is their fault. They had no say in the matter. And they are perhaps most adversely affected by the drastic and emotionally challenging lifestyle change.

I write about divorce a lot because it has been a dominant theme in my life for more than 30 years.

These are wounds that never fully heal.

But We Do the Best We Can

Life is hard. And no one tells us how hard marriage is, and the ones who try do an inadequate job conveying the gravity of their advice and warnings.

A lot of us marry young, without as much information as we should have. A lot of us have children. And half the time it breaks. And so many people get hurt, and it just keeps happening over and over and over again.

But we do the best we can.

I have a six-year-old son in first grade and he’s my freaking favorite.

He is the first line of defense and litmus test for every woman I meet. Right or wrong, I ask myself immediately: Could she be a potential stepmom for my son? If the answer to that question isn’t yes, then seeing her again is an exercise in futility.

If I ever find an actual girlfriend, it’s going to take a very long time before I introduce my son to her. That’s because I think children of divorced parents have had enough loss and change in their lives and don’t deserve to grow attached to ANOTHER person that could be taken away from them.

There’s no guarantee it won’t happen anyway. But we do the best we can.

I talk to lots of divorced parents and most share my thinking. People they date often don’t meet their children. I agree with the policy.

I know of one mother whose boyfriend has been involved in her only child’s life for months, perhaps years, but she still has reservations about marrying again (despite him appearing to be a very good man) because of her daughter.

And something dawned on me while hearing the story. Her parents are still together. She has never had any experience with stepparents.

Maybe a lot of people are like that.

My Other Father

I met him on my birthday.

I was young. He brought me candy and a board game. Just some guy.

But after a while, he wasn’t just some guy. He was the guy who loved my mom and who did very dad-like things for and with me.

He was a basketball coach and he took me with him to his practices. Taught me how to shoot a decent jump shot.

He was a sports enthusiast who refereed football and basketball, and umpired baseball games. He taught me all about the games I love.

He taught me to read when I was in kindergarten. He taught me to swim and ride a bike, too.

He supported me financially like a father.

Disciplined me like a father.

Loved me like a father.

His parents became my grandparents. His brothers and sisters became my aunts and uncles. His presence became a familiar comfort while I was missing my dad.

It’s hard to imagine how my life might have turned out without that man’s steady hand being part of it.

He taught me about character.

He taught me about teamwork.

He taught me about choosing to love.

My stepfather and his extended family were a very important piece of my childhood. And while divorce and its hardships hurt me as a child, it would be disingenuous to not express enormous gratitude for the many blessings that also came from it.

My father remarried also. My stepmom, too, is an important part of my life, but growing up under my mother’s roof, my stepdad had a much more direct impact on my development.

These are IMPORTANT, life-altering relationships.

And for all the heartache and fear attached to divorce. For all the protective measures we take on behalf of our children, I think it’s critical to never lose sight of the unknown future and the many good things that could be coming for us.

We hurt because our families are broken.

We feel ashamed because we couldn’t hold it together for those little hearts and minds that mean so much to us.

But unless you had a childhood like me, you couldn’t possibly know it.

That if you make good choices. If you find someone with a kind heart, a good soul, a steady hand, and the ability to truly love? You give your child gifts of value impossible to measure.

We feel sad, broken and frightened sometimes. Afraid of the unknown future. Of screwing up our kids even more.

But maybe sometimes we’re just overthinking it.

Maybe if you just find one of the good ones—and they are out there: good, kind, smart, decent people—you create joyful opportunity for yourself and your children.

Maybe it’s not the same as what you’d always imagined, but maybe on balance, it really isn’t so bad for them. And maybe it’s even a little bit good.

Maybe there are fewer tears and more laughs.

Less pain and more hope.

Because that’s the thing about stepparents.

The really good kind, anyway.

The ones like mine.

42 thoughts on “The Thing About Stepparents”

  1. Man, I can so relate to this, Matt. So well said. My parents also divorced when I was young, mostly due to my father’s drinking and temper. The man my mom married when I was a teenager had a lot of wounds to heal for both of us, and he did so with love, integrity and trust. He is my measuring stick as both a father and stepfather. When I got divorced eight years ago, I had custody of my two children. Both were very young, and like you I viewed any potential date through the eyes of my children. Fortunately for me, the amazing woman I married six years ago had the same viewpoint — and her own two small children. We both took our time introducing each other to our children. One of our boys has Asperger’s, and I view my being his stepfather as a way to give back what I had been given in my life through my stepfather. I thank my lucky stars every day for what I’ve been given, as a son, husband and stepfather.

    Without question, whoever your future brings into your life will be saying the same.

    1. Can’t thank you enough for sharing all this, Ned.

      I don’t know what to say beyond that. I’m glad you get it. And I’m glad you had a great stepfather. And I’m glad you’re being one yourself.

      Though I would have never thought otherwise. Thank you so much for reading and leaving this note.

  2. I agree with your “don’t meet the children unless you are sure he is the one” rule. My ex husband left when the kids were very young and they would latch on tightly to any male who was halfway nice to them. It was very tough for me to watch and even tougher for them to go through. These weren’t even guys I was dating – someone from church, a married family friend, etc.

    My parents divorced when I was 20 so although in theory I had a step-mom, the marriage didn’t last long and I never met her. My mother had a long term boyfriend and we took an instant dislike to each other. So I never had the positive experiences you are describing. Thanks for the post. It was a good one.

    1. I’m very sorry you never had the positive stepparent experience I did. I wish no one had to deal with divorce. But whether you’re a child, or have children, good stepparents are the silver lining across the board.

      Thank you for reading and leaving this comment, Sharon.

    1. I was very blessed. I’ll never say otherwise.

      No one comes out of this life unscathed. If you get a bunch of good people to love and love you back along the way, I think that’s about as good as it gets.

      And that can be pretty great.

  3. I had a horrible stepmom and stepdad growing up. They taught me life lessons.

    Now, I have a wonderful stepmom and wonderful stepdad. They taught me life lessons.

    My daughter had a wonderful stepdad, to whom she is still close (even though we aren’t married anymore) and a wonderful stepmom, who recently lost her battle with cancer.

    Stepparents can be wonderful, amazing, life-altering people. I’m very grateful to have mine and very grateful you wrote about how important they can be.

    1. You’ve told me about some of those relationships before, Andi. And again, my deepest sympathies for your daughter losing her stepmother.

      I’m so glad you’ve had the positive experiences with stepparents that I did.

  4. Beautifully said, and as a step mother who tried her best at the age of 33 to be a step mother to an 8 year old girl, it is a pleasure to read something positive from a step child about his relationship with his step parents. I came into my step daughter’s life never having been married before, with no children, and realized only many years later how odd it is to suddenly have a child in your life whose needs you are tending to, trying to “bond” with, while not knowing them as they grew. I made mistakes but did my best, Divorce has colored her life forever, her choices as an adult, with the 3 children she now has herself. I couldn’t change that. I tried to bring something positive into her young life and teenage years to maybe make the circumstances she was thrust into a little easier. I hope you find that woman willing to make the effort to love your child, to understand her role in his life and how to fit the pieces together and make it work. She will find, as I did, it is so worth it.

    1. Thank you for walking the path and always trying to do the right thing. I really appreciate you wishing that same good fortune for me and my son. That child deserves good things and good people.

    1. I’m so glad you think so. 🙂

      It’s so interesting how big and scary stepparents can be from a divorced-parent perspective.

      And I’m so blessed to have had the childhood experiences I did to help offset some of those fears, a few of which are completely irrational.

      A truly good person can only enhance your child’s life.

      Wish you well. I’m sure these are big, stressful choices. I suppose I’ve been lucky to not have to make any of those so far.

    1. Your faith in my choosiness will be rewarded.

      You can rest assured she, if she exists, will be a very special human being. 🙂

      I’m so flattered you believed that already. Thank you.

      1. Lol, the reason why I believe this is because of a few reasons.
        Your not afraid to be alone.
        Your son is your life.
        You seem to like your self
        You have standards.
        You dont want the 3 F’s

          1. If you dont know what they are, you dont do them.
            Find them
            F. them
            Forget them
            I had a very young and impossible ex-brother-in-law, ex-husband and all their friends. I probably know more about “locker room chit chat” than any women should.

        1. It’s been a long time, yes. But I don’t live under a rock anymore, so I dabble in something that almost, kind of, sort of, maybe looks a teeny bit like dating.

          1. Coffee dates are best, its how I met my boyfriend of 9 years, you can talk for 20 mins or 2hrs, and it only costs you $5! No dinner, then you are stuck with someone for hours who you know you dont like. And it costs $, yuk!

  5. Beautifully said. Sadly I watched my son lose his relationship with his dad due to a stepmom who didn’t like him and a father who sadly did not stick up for him. Yes he acted up, he was 6, he was confused and frightened as his life was changing. He missed his dad. She has managed to completely exclude him from his father’s life and the final death knell came when they emigrated a million miles away from him. I held the big, lanky 18 year old that he has become as he literally shook and sobbed in my arms on the day his father left. Luckily I found a good one for my son 13 years ago – a guy who loves him like his own but I guess he will never get over the rejection of his dad and I guess I will always feel responsible in some way. I really believe that the good step parents out there do not get nearly enough credit. Below is the link to my blog on my man and my grandkids.

  6. As a step-parent for more than 30 years, I was blessed. My wife-in-law (ex-wife of my ex-husband and mother of my step-sons) and I are and have remained friends and partners in loving and sharing of our sons. We agreed when they were 2 and 4 we would work together to raise them up and lift them up into the world and never faltered in our efforts, no matter what. Now they are men to be proud of with families of their own, now we share grandchildren.

    I loved this one Matt.

    1. I think that’s amazing because it’s so hard for so many people to do. It’s a great story.

      I love that you loved it. Thank you.

  7. Great post. For me, that never had step-parents, but know find myself realizing that my son will have them, it’s a very interesting perspective from someone who lived it already.
    For me, it makes me fear the future. I never experienced nothing like that, I don’t know what to expect for my son. Is it better for him to stay with one parent, or to move back and forth between parents? What will be his relationships with his step-parents? How will be mine?
    Yet, your post game me a glint of hope. Not all is bad.
    Thank you.

    1. I have all kinds of mixed emotions about another man raising my son. I can’t even begin to explain how much so.

      But I have faith in the enormous love his mother has for him. And I pray as often as possible that whoever that man might be has the kind of heart and soul required to get the job done.

      I don’t necessarily wish for another guy in my ex-wife or son’s life.

      But I very much wish for their happiness and wellbeing. And a good man will only help on that front, and I’d be a lying sack and total hypocrite to suggest otherwise.

  8. My parents split when I was about 5 or 6 – in addition to memory problems (brain injury) I lack a proper non-photographic memory of them together. It was a horrible marriage. Or so I have been told by a number of people. There are some moments I recall. None of them happy memories.

    Both of my parents remarried. When I was 11, I chose to live with my father and (step) mother. When I was 20 my (step) mom adopted me. My choice. An unprecedented request of the family courts given my age. That should paint a pretty clear picture of my relationship with my bio-mother and stepfather. Non-existent. Even after an attempt to reconnect (as an adult).

    Divorce is not easy on anyone. Least of all children. It is complicated and messy regardless of efforts to spin it otherwise.

    BUT I would not be the person I am if my bio-parents were still together. And I certainly would not I am have my mom. The mom meant for me.

    (Good post. Hope you and your little man are well.)

    1. Perfectly stated, I think.

      Divorce is shitty. And I won’t spin it all rosy. But blessings can and do emerge from difficult circumstances so long as people make better choices moving forward.

      We’re doing the best we can, always, and that continues to get better every day. Thank you very much.

      I wish you and your family the same. 🙂

  9. My kids are lucky to have two crazy parents who occasionally disagree, but who always love each other. But they are also lucky because they have two grandmothers and one “Bunny” (the nickname of one grandmother’s boyfriend) and lots of “Mamas” and “Papas” who are super close friends who are like aunts and uncles to my kids and also actual aunts and uncles, too. Also, they have godparents. I try to make a home that allows them to know that whoever or however they develop, there is a place for their voice in our household. But if that doesn’t hold, they know they have this huge cobbled together village of people. We hold each other’s children, see them on vacations, pick them up from school, feed them, send gifts, and sometimes, we move on.
    Maybe the “my Mom’s boyfriend” (or “my Dad’s girlfriend”) thing becomes complicated by us adults way more than it does by the kids. My kids never question why a good friend of mine is so present in their lives, but when we move someplace new or even change schools, they see that person less. It’s just life and they accept that… so far anyway. So here’s hoping you find loads of “mamas” and “papas” and aunts and uncles for your son, and in a few of those, maybe some romance for yourself, too.
    Beautiful post. Really lovely.

  10. My father divorced my mother early enough that I have no memory of him prior; only visits.  Things just went by so quickly, as neither are great parents.  I’d say I miss him, but I have no idea really.  That kind of expected divorce.  No stepfather.  Sad.

    1. The best stories ever told involve people who were handed nothing, shown nothing, and made something of their lives anyway.

      It’s the best kind of success story.

      We have a chance to do things better than our parents did. I fell short once.

      But maybe I get to try again someday.

  11. Having recently brought a stepfather into my son’s life, I truly appreciate this post. I met and began dating my now-husband after my divorce was final. His interaction with my son and how they got along were integral in how I felt about him as a potential life mate. I would never have known the extent of his connection with my son unless I had allowed them to develop a “father-child” relationship as my boyfriend and I developed our own adult relationship. The whole thing was full of hard choices and missteps, but I am ever-hopeful (and so grateful to you for sharing) that your experience is similar to my son’s when he considers his step-father’s role in his life. My son’s father also lives in another town, but they don’t see each other for long summers. Their visits are sporadic and usually initiated by me, because I know how important it is for my son to know his dad and know he is loved by his dad. But, I can’t make the relationship develop between them and I can’t make my ex understand what his son actually needs from him as a father. I hope I’ve done my best by choosing a man who realizes the gravity of his role as a stepfather, and now bringing a stepbrother into my son’s life (due in May) for us all to grow as a family in love, respect, kindness and joy. I wish the same for you, as you deserve to reap the benefits of the hard work you’ve put in to self-analysis and self-development.

    1. Thank you so much for leaving this thoughtful comment.

      I’m so glad his stepfather and he are building those bonds. It’s a great thing. And congratulations on your pregnancy. I didn’t know that!

      And, of course, thank you for that closing thought. I spend every day thinking about my life and how to make it better.

      All the evidence keeps leading to the same place: Help others make their lives better.

      I think when everyone does that, things just have a way of working out.

  12. Pingback: They Don’t Love Your Kids, and They Shouldn’t Have To | Must Be This Tall To Ride

  13. My husband left a few weeks ago and with him he took his beautiful daughters from a previous marriage. I tried so hard to be everything you mentioned in this article to them. I had formed the best relationship I could. I loved them so much. I had never wanted children of my own, but they showed me I do have a mothering instinct in me somewhere.
    When my husband decided one day, out of the blue, to leave, he destroyed another family unit for those girls. And, sadly, stepparents have no rights. I might never see them again. But this article touched me, because I know I did my best for them.

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Matt Fray

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