I used to ‘have a life’ (Now I have a bigger one) Life as a stepdad
When I first began falling in love with Leigh, I couldn’t really relate to her kids. Initially I kept away from them, not wanting to create any attachment that could create trauma should Leigh and I decide not to be together. They were running, noisy, emotional, needy little creatures that always wanted the inconvenient. When we realised that what was happening between us was more than a casual affair, I had to consider my willingness to have children in my life, to really let them in. I actually had no way of answering that question, except I felt a total yes to being with Leigh. So I slipped into being a stepdad.
My mother died when I was young and my father then remarried. His wife, my stepmother, was a good woman who had two grown-up daughters of her own. She didn’t, however, know how to relate to a young, traumatised boy nor the wilful adolescent I would become. So my experience of step-parents was not that great, even though a few friends were experiencing and enjoying it.
Leigh had a boy, Simon, who was five, and a girl, Mirella, two. She and the kids moved in with me, beginning a ride that is at times a roller coaster, and remains full of surprises. For the kids it all changed overnight. Mum had moved out of the family home, and moved in with another man, so I was seen as the family breaker. It was a bit rocky initially for us to say the least, but to give credit to the kids’ intelligence, they were easily able to appreciate the new, happy mum they had.
I could sense that Simon was worried about losing his mum, so one day on an outing I told him about my mum dying, at the same age as he, and that I knew what it was like to lose your mum and I told him I wouldn’t do that to him, to take his mum away. He was able to hear that, as it addressed his biggest fear, and relaxed somewhat, though it would be months before we really connected the way a boy does with an older man. That happened over having a swim together in an ice-cold river one morning where I had held his hand while we jumped into our fear (it was really cold!) and triumphed together.
Mirella was a different story. She was in the midst of the ‘terrible twos’! Ouch, she was tough. Initially the kids were coming and going a lot, from their dad to their mum, and it was obvious it was taking its toll. I bore the brunt of the kids’ anger, especially from Mirella who would come to my house screaming that she didn’t want me to live there anymore. I was often shattered by her outbursts, because whilst I knew she was only two, and I was the adult who was mature enough not to take it personally, it hurt.
We really began to connect after one night when I was minding them whilst their mum was out. Mirella woke up really upset, crying ‘I want mummy’ over and over. What could I do? I just held her for the next two hours while she howled and howled while I watched a movie. I knew from my own experience that howling can be the most wonderful thing, and that while it makes those outside of the experience uncomfortable (as those who’ve ever been left in charge of a child and they start crying or screaming will attest to!), it may in fact be the best thing to happen. She eventually went to sleep, and the first thing she said upon waking the next morning was that I was her friend. Phew! We’d made it, at least to some kind of beginning. It had been tough.
Mostly in my life I’d been single. I’d had some short affairs with mothers and the presence of a child meant that it would never go beyond just that, a short affair. For me it was a case of knowing that you were never going to be the number one interest for them, with that being reserved for the kid(s), and that let you off the hook. It was one way of ensuring that there was a use-by date, regardless of what my conscious intention was.
Before Leigh and I decided to jump, we looked at each other, agreed it was going to hurt sometimes, and life was short and we didn’t know what would happen, and jumped. Since then we have just been saying yes to everything that has come, and my life will never be the same again. The family visited the pet shop, and it was decided that I needed a rabbit, and so it was. Now I have my own pet rabbit which I wander the neighbourhood with searching for juicy grasses for her to eat!
It is 18 months since I became a stepdad. What have I learned from this? Lots. I have learned it is tough being a parent. Kids are like computers in a way, with new software being installed all the time, even new operating systems, so while there is a temptation to think that you have discovered some formula to ‘life with kids’, the next thing you know all the rules have changed! The kids have forced me to be a man in ways I never understood before, and they are really happy they can relax with the man they find.
I can also say that this ‘freedom’ I had so jealously protected most of my life is only worth something if I can surrender it, otherwise it is a hindrance to love.
I have learned lots about my ego, and how I found myself in some kind of (internal) competition with their dad, that I was a better male role model for the kids. I understood this when I saw the kids constantly comparing our home and their dad’s, that his was better when they were with us, ours was better when they were with him. Once I saw this competition, that I even thought I played with them better than their dad, that I was more in touch with their needs, took better care, was more thoughtful, saw them more, surprised that these thoughts even arose at all, all of a sudden the kids dropped the comparing. It is like that. You see something about yourself in relation to kids, and the kids change.
I’d heard from parents that kids bring you into the moment. I had always scoffed at things like that, as I thought that parenthood was an escape from the world, from choice, from freedom. Now I find myself busy, doing my thing like reading the paper in a café, and Mirella will come up and ask me to take her for a swing. ‘Too busy’ has been my standard reply, wanting my space to do my thing, missing the moment of a child’s joy at going really high on a swing. Too busy? Yeah right. Weighed against each other in terms of what gives me more, I would have to say the swing wins hands down over the paper. Jealous as I have been about my space (read, ‘accustomed emptiness’), and the investment I have made in my life decisions to do what I want when I want, now I am aware of the narrowness of vision of the non parent.
One of the things I have become aware of is that I, and as far as I see, most people who have no kids of their own, have strong protective strategies in place that prevent letting kids get close. There were so many ways in which I would keep the kids away from me. And I saw that it came from a reluctance to say NO. Being unable to say NO clearly, unemotionally, also means that you cannot really say YES, and that to me is the main reason people have difficulty with letting others in, especially kids. Even being forced to have to say no would create resentment in me.
Parenting is often a case of setting boundaries, and as a non parent I found it offensive, in a way, that I should have to tell someone not to impinge on my sovereignty, that I need and deserve respect just like they do. Again and again. But as I come to see, the problem is actually my attitude. I found it really hard to say No clearly, yet I have seen that often a Yes actually closes the connection, while a No can open it up. I was terrified of the kids’ ‘childish’ emotional volatility. What would I do if they did a tantrum on me? Now I don’t take this emotional volatility so seriously.
Being unable to say NO, clearly, unemotionally, also means that you cannot really say YES, and that to me is the main reason people have difficulty with letting others in, especially kids.
Not being the natural parent I find I can see things easier than either of the real parents can, yet I also miss other things. I can see Simon is out of his body, and what he might need to get in it. I had trouble seeing that the tears, which I judged him for shedding at the drop of a hat, were roadsigns to an emotional maturity that only recently have I claimed. I, like most men, was not allowed to cry as a child, or at least not with the frequency and abandon that I saw Simon, and I realised that made an emotional coward of me. I also saw Mirella dominate the household, my household, and after speaking about it, Leigh and I instigated changes in that which she actually loved. I also got to see that two-year-old girls have rights too. Leigh was a pretty democratic mum in that she would consult her kids about important questions. I could see it was sometimes too much responsibility to place in such young minds and only served to confuse them. Making those decisions for them helped them to relax enormously.
I found it odd to be a father figure to a couple of kids who didn’t know I existed 18 months ago. These kids have a similar genetic make-up to their father, good and bad. I have the odd conversation with the father, men’s stuff generally, mostly staying out of the dramas that happen between divorcees. I can see though that the things that piss Leigh off about her ex are the same things that piss me off about her kids, which are exaggerated whenever they return from a few days with him.
I am blessed the kids have a fantastic mother. Leigh decided early on that basically she was a single mum living with her lover, and that whatever input she received from me was a bonus. Fortunately her ex is quite wealthy and pays her a reasonable child support each month and the divorce settlement eases the financial pressures. She chose to make our relationship her priority, and to consciously shoulder responsibility for the kids, probably like the actuality in most marriages, not force me to share them. This does wonders as it frees me to love these kids in my own way at my own pace. I enjoy the fact that sometimes the kids stay with their father which gives us time for us, to go out spontaneously, sleep in, have weekends in bed; all the things a single person takes for granted.
One issue we’ve had was around Leigh protecting her kids from me, and me from them. If they did something that disturbed me then she would deal with it, until I realised that this un-involvement was undermining my position in my home. So while it had been easier to be in the safer role of friend, I chose to assert myself more in this area. Leigh trusted me with her life, yet it took quite a letting go for her to allow me to deal with her kids when they breached their boundaries. Once I took more responsibility for how the kids behaved, or rather my response to their behaviour, and started setting and enforcing boundaries, the kids actually began to trust me more, to feel safe with me.
Initially Leigh was also protecting me from them. If I wanted to watch the news on TV she would make sure the kids didn’t disturb me, or she would make sure they didn’t wake me up in the morning, or she would ensure that the house was always clean and sterilised of all kid signs. Slowly slowly many of these protections have disappeared, with no doubt more to come. Primary parents separated from their co-parent can feel burdened with parenthood, and are particularly sensitive about burdening others, especially if it happens to be a lover who can choose to leave. This puts them into a very vulnerable situation which may actually manifest in keeping others away, particularly those they want to be intimate with.
We talk about having a child together, which should we decide to do so will no doubt present me and us with a whole new slather of issues, which we both trust we will be able to deal with as and when they arrive. Being a step-parent has been a great bridge from being ‘free’ to considering parenthood. As it has stretched me, it has made me a bigger person for which I am very grateful.
Published in byronchild/Kindred issue 4, December 02