Parenthood, step by step

There was an interesting On Balance post recently in which Leslie Morgan Steiner discussed a recent conversation with a stepfather:

I asked what it was like to be a step-dad to a 15-year-old girl.

“Awful,” he said. “A totally impossible job. I am completely a third wheel, unwelcome, un-thanked. But I love her, she’s a great kid, and obviously I’m really happy about being with her mother. Everything I do is like training for a marathon. My goal is that in 10 or 15 years, all my hard work will pay off and we’ll have a great relationship.”

…It is really difficult to get stepparents to open up about how hard it is to step into parenting mid-stream. For obvious reasons, they are not eager to make a touchy situation touchier.

I was also taken aback by the reality of his situation. Step-parenting is “impossible”? He’s hoping for a payoff 10 to 15 years from now? Parenting and marriage are hard enough, thank you. But to go for more than a decade without gratification? Give that man a medal.

I got the impression that this man wasn’t a father prior to becoming a stepfather, and while I’m not sure he really qualifies for a medal, I do think he deserves a lot of respect for taking it on. I’ve been a stepmother for over a year now, and while I have great stepchildren too, there’s no doubt it’s a challenging role. Since I’ve been a mom for a long time, I felt reasonably well-prepared for the tasks involved, but I’m not sure I would have been quite so receptive to the prospect without that experience.

Much as some parents might dislike the comparison, raising your own child vs. becoming involved in the raising of children when they’ve already had several years of life without you is rather like to the difference between adopting a puppy and a full-grown dog. When you’re there from the beginning, you can influence from the beginning, and you understand the background – because you were part of it. Unless your stepchildren are very young when you enter their lives, they’ve got history shaped by other people…and in most cases, those other people are still a big part of the picture (since divorce is much more likely to end marriages than death is these days), and will continue to be more meaningful and influential than you are. You probably weren’t the person who changed their diapers, heard their first words, held their hands for their first steps, or even took them to their first day of kindergarten, so you weren’t a part of those bonding experiences. By no means does that mean you can’t, or won’t, have your own opportunities to bond with your step-kids – it’s just acknowledging that you didn’t have some of the same ones that their natural parents did.

Izzy Rose blogs and runs a forum about step-parenting at Stepmother’s Milk, and like the man Leslie spoke with, her first foray into parenting is preceded by the word “step.” She’s working to create a step-mom’s community that supports and provides resources that address the particular concerns and issues that only other stepparents can really understand and commiserate over. Even for those of us who do have prior parenting experience under our belts, there are definitely unique differences in the step-situation, and it helps to know you’ve got company.

But no matter how well you and your stepchildren get along, there probably will be times that you feel like an unwelcome, un-thanked fifth wheel. I think that my relationship with my step-kids is generally very good, and I suspect they do as well – and as far as I can tell, their father is quite happy with how it’s developing too – but even so, I do have those feelings sometimes. I don’t try to step into the role that truly belongs to their mother, because I’m not their mother (and on the other side of it, I wouldn’t want my ex-husband’s second wife trying to take over my place with my son) – and yet, because I’m not their mother, I feel like there’s a gap in our relationship that will always be there, no matter how close we are otherwise. There are times I feel like they’d rather just have their father to themselves, no matter how much they like me. There’s also the rarely-voiced suspicion that they’re no different from many children of divorce, and would just prefer to have their own parents still be together.

What makes me suspect that the stepfather Leslie spoke with wasn’t a parent before is his mention of feeling unappreciated, and his reference to “the marathon,” with hopes for a great relationship in 10 or 15 years. In my observation, that’s not particular to “step” situations – that’s just parenthood, no prefix applied. Any recognition for your work from your constituency usually don’t come until after a pretty long waiting period, so you just do the job. No one entering into that job – natural parent, step-parent, adoptive parent, or combination of the above – should do it expecting instant gratification. At times, it is awful – and at times, it’s awesome; at yet other times, it’s both at the same time.

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  1. Florinda,
    Well written and thoughtful post. The line, “But no matter how well you and your stepchildren get along, there probably will be times that you feel like an unwelcome, un-thanked fifth wheel,” I have heard many women talking about lately. At least we all know we’re going through it simultaneously, but it never feels good, does it?

  2. Izzy – Thanks for your feedback. I’m lucky that I don’t feel that way often, but it does happen (much as my husband wishes it didn’t). Your site is a great place for stepmoms to commiserate over these questions – it’s good to have company!