“I’m gonna be the coolest stepdad ever.” I’ve legally been a stepfather to three for a little over three months now. But I’ve been in their lives for about two years. Long before my wife and I ever actually got married, I was entertaining the idea of becoming a stepfather to her kids. I knew we were going to get married from early on. To be honest, it really didn’t freak me out. Maybe it’s because of my laid-back nature or maybe it’s just because I didn’t dwell on it. I didn’t overanalyze the situation. I certainly wasn’t sitting in front of the computer all night reading every article on parenting or being the world’s best stepfather. Actually, I didn’t read any articles on parenting or being a stepfather. I’ve always thought things have a way of working themselves out. So, with that attitude and some basic understanding of how relationships work, I decided I was just going to wing it. And you know what? Things are going better than I could’ve ever imagined. But, there are a few basic points that I stick to that help the relationship with my step kids run smoothly. The most important thing I try to remember about being a stepdad is building a good relationship.
I try to create and share experiences. Obviously, I know what I like and dislike. But I’ve taken the time to try and introduce my step kids to my hobbies and interests as well as learning theirs. I’ll be 34yrs old at the end of the month and my oldest step daughter (Sierra) will be 21 in March. My next oldest stepdaughter (Autumn) is 17 while my stepson (River) is 14. My wife (Christy) is 11 years older than me and she had Sierra in her early 20’s. My step kids being older does make it easier for them to take part in some of my interests and perhaps it’s a little easier for me to identify with their interests as well since our ages are not that far apart. River likes to hunt (like I do) so of course we spend hunting season seeing who can bag the biggest buck. He killed a big one a few weeks ago and all I heard for an entire week was about how he was such an awesome hunter and how “sucky” I was. Then on my last day of hunting I knocked down a deer of a lifetime. A massive 10 pointer. Of course, I’ve aimed constant verbal jabs and slights in his direction regarding his hunting skills since I made the kill. That ongoing banter and joking around helps to build the relationship but it also breeds friendly competiveness. He’s involved in basketball, football, and track as well. Of course I go to all the games I can and make sure I support him. But maybe just as importantly, I make sure he sees me there. When he’s an adult, he might not remember exactly what happened in those games. But he’ll remember that I was there on the bleachers watching him.
Autumn is a little different. She plays soccer for the high school but also with a travel team. She’s really good. Good enough to play on the next level. So, I make sure I get to her games as much as I can. Well, the high school games. Travel soccer apparently goes out of state regularly. Also, is it just me or do these youth league travel sports programs cost an arm and a leg? One angle I take with Autumn is her relationships. It’s anything from setting boundaries with her friends to how to handle the guys at school. One reason this works is because although I’m an adult male in her life, I’m not her father. Sometimes kids don’t like talking about certain topics with their actual parents. Who would’ve thought? But seriously, I’ve already lived what she’s going through in high school. It helps me relate and build our relationship. Plus I scored serious brownie points when I pulled her out of school one day and took her to see the One Direction movie. She just found a puppy on the side of the road a few weeks ago. I grew up on a farm around animals so I give her advice from time to time about raising a good dog. That interaction and exchange of knowledge adds brick and mortar to the relationship.
Sierra is a bit different. She had already gone away to her freshman year of college at Liberty University when I started dating her mom. She wasn’t around to see the relationship grow other than the sporadic weekend here and there. Spring and winter breaks were spent bouncing between our home and her father’s house. The logistics made it difficult to build the relationship that I wanted. So I had to take advantage of the opportunities (and make a few) when they surfaced. One thing we try to do is go to church when she’s in town. She grew up in the church and I’m all shiny and new at being a Christian (thanks to my wife). But it’s a great way to share an experience. Its common ground and its one that can grow throughout a lifetime. I got her a sky diving gift certificate last Christmas. Of course we all piled into the car together and drove the couple hours to her jump site. Although I didn’t jump with her (she’s crazy), I got to share in her experience and strengthen our relationship. People don’t forget about the time they went skydiving. I’m just happy I could be a part of it. I think it’s important to point out that it wasn’t just about the jump she took, it was also about the time spent interacting leading up to the date and sorting out the details. And of course, hearing all about what she was thinking and feeling afterwards. That dialogue and interaction is also part of the experience. I’m getting ready to write a children’s book and Sierra is excited about doing the illustrations. The creation process will be a bonding experience in itself. The other thing with Sierra is that she’ll be a senior next fall and by all accounts she’s in love with a fine young man who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times. She’s got some huge life changes coming her way. I’ve lived what she’s getting ready to do. I keep that in mind and offer advice and stories. Sharing experiences and relating to my step kids is a huge factor in how our relationships unfold. I just have to find and sometimes create that common ground
I try not to commit to any particular role. You might remember my opening line of the article, “I’m gonna be the coolest stepdad ever”. That’s what a lot of guys think when they’re posed with the idea of becoming a stepfather. That’s the last thing I want to do. I don’t want to get pigeonholed into being one dimensional for my step kids. That’s why I don’t commit to any one role. They don’t need me to be some super cool friend. It’s okay for me to share laughs and experiences, but I don’t want to be their best friend. They already have friends. When that happens the boundaries of the relationship get blurred and it starts to break down. I also don’t want to take on the role of father figure. They already have a father and they see him regularly. That’s not my job. They don’t need two dads. But if I need to take over that role in certain situations, then I gladly do it. I also don’t want them thinking they can run over me (they wouldn’t because they’re good kids) or that I’m some drill sergeant hard ass. I know if I’m hard on them all the time, my relationship with them will deteriorate. But I also know when to put my foot down. The same goes if I don’t show any backbone. I know when to be firm but also when to back off. It’s important for me to remember not to take on any one role, but rather, take on a little from all of them.
I adapt well. Like I said, I’m a pretty laid back guy so it isn’t too difficult for me to adapt. Ever think it’s weird hearing all about a teenage girl’s menstrual cycle? Well you better get over it quick, fast, and in a hurry if you’re marrying a woman with teenage daughters because it’ll be talked about just as openly as you and your buddies talk about the college football playoff system. Remember when you were in middle school and EVERYTHING was a huge fart joke? Or when you had the attention span of gnat? Get used to it again if she’s got a 14yr old son. If she’s got a kid in college then prepare every summer to hear all about the crisis at the lifeguard stand or some other minimum wage job and how the responsibilities are “killing me”. Sorry Sierra and Autumn, one day you’ll look back on those minimum wage jobs and wish things were that simple again.
While writing this very paragraph I had to stop for an hour so that I could pick up my stepson from basketball practice, bring him home for a quick bite to eat, then take him back out to church for a youth meeting. Ever have a Saturday where there’s about five great college football games on and all you want to do is lay on the couch all day and watch TV? I can’t do that anymore. Somebody always needs to go somewhere or needs the TV so they can watch Dr. Who reruns or the latest episode of Teen Wolf. But, I can set aside time to watch one of those games. Even when I’m on hour two of the trip and the One Direction songs are melting my brain into a lumpy pool of pink mush, I deal with it. It’s not about me anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining at all. I knew full well what I was getting myself into when I said “I do”.However, it might be just as important to mention adapting my schedule to make sure I have time for not only my wife, but for me as well. My wife and I still go out on dates. We still spend time together. We make time for one another. I go to the gym four or five days a week for early morning workouts. That’s my time to clear my head. Put my headphones in and get after it. Although I’ve adapted my life and schedule to meet the needs of my step kids, I still haven’t lost sight of my wife’s needs or my own.
I try to be dependable. This is important in any relationship, but especially if you’re going to be a stepfather. I started dating my wife as she was coming out of her divorce and it was no small stretch to say she was an emotional wreck. Her kids did a pretty good job hiding their emotions while in front of me, but I knew they were taking it hard. It was (and still is) very important for me to be there for them. I needed to walk the talk. I had to keep my word no matter what. I wanted them to rely on me and I made sure they understood that. Their lives were turned upside down and I knew they would need someone they could count on. The last thing my step kids needed to see in me was indecision because their world itself had become uncertain. I tried to always be there and always at the ready. Not forcing myself on them of course, but making sure they understood I was there to help them. Car won’t start? I’ll be there with the jumper cables. Need a lift from practice? Look for me outside the gym. Want some advice on the boy from school? I know his perspective. Not sure how to skin that buck? I’ll show you. Don’t know how to handle your friend? I have the answer. Not sure about what job to take for the summer? Let’s figure it out. I make sure that when I make decisions, I stick with them and try to see things through to the end. I’m a pretty level headed guy at all times and I don’t wear my emotions on my sleeve. This was extremely important when first establishing a relationship with them because their parents had split and their mom’s emotions were running high right along with theirs. The last thing they needed to see was the new guy exploring his feelings. You’ll hear people talk about guys needing to get in touch with their emotions. Bullshit. My step kids need to see their mother with a man, not a mouse. Another thing I try to do is leave work, at work. Whatever happens during the day, I try to drop at the doorstep. I essentially want them to depend on me being the same guy, day in and day out.
The way that I speak to them makes a difference. When we’re hanging out, I talk with them like I would talk to my buddies hanging out at a bar. This may sound crazy but I just scale it back from rated R to PG-13. That jovial banter breaks the thickest of ice and it puts everyone at ease. I can tell they’re relaxed because they’ll mess with me and take plenty of shots without hesitation. The playful sarcasm leaves everyone laughing. One thing I decided from the very start was that I would never speak ill of their father. Never. The quickest way to drive a wedge into a relationship with a kid is to start blasting their parents. I don’t want that and I’ll never do it. When they tell a funny story about him, I laugh. When they talk about something cool that he’s done, I agree with it. If he’s done something they don’t approve of, I listen and tell them I understand how they’re feeling. The fact that they’ll discuss their father in front of me lets me know they’re comfortable with me and is one of many indicators that our communication lines are open.
So far, being a stepdad has been pretty easy. Maybe it’s because I worked to create and constantly improve relationships with my step kids, or maybe it’s just because I lucked out and they are genuinely good people. Probably a little of both. If you’re a guy reading this and in a relationship with a woman who already has children, I hope you can learn something from my experiences. Just remember to make good decisions because those kids are watching your every move. Make sure you treat them with respect just like their mother. For all you guys who are pondering the decision to date a woman with kids, just remember that I did and I’ve never looked back. It made me a better man. Who knows, you may just end up loving her kids as your own.