Loving my Red-Headed Stepchild…

This is a tough article to write as my vulnerabilities and weaknesses will be revealed.

I have had the opportunity to work with other people’s children and treat them as my own through various jobs running a childcare center, directing a summer camp, and years spent teaching and coaching.   However, now I am treating and loving another man’s son as my own.  It is a wonderful and challenging opportunity.

Years ago, I heard a comedian make the comment, “I am going to work you like a red-headed step child.”   This made me both laugh and cringe and now I have a red-headed step son!

Four minutes into my blind date with his mother, we discovered that we both had young boys named William.  Our attraction was strong, so this was not a deal breaker.

As our relationship grew, we introduced the children and as the months passed, we let them decide what to call each other.  At first, it was step brother and step sister, but happily it has just morphed into brother and sister.  Now almost 3 years in, it is hilarious to hear my daughter introduce her brothers to strangers, “This is my brother Will and my other brother Will!” – At least it isn’t “Daryl!”

Given our past failed marriages, neither one of us is in a hurry to get married, but we are loving our second chance at happiness and raising our ‘step’ children together.

We have tried everything to differentiate the boys “Big/Little Will, Bill, Willie”.  Nothing worked until a friend jokingly suggested using their ages.  So now we have Will 8 and Will 6. (or ‘Eighter’ and ‘Sixer’).  This strategy works awesome for now, as birthdays bring a new nickname, but I predict awkwardness and a change when the teenage years begin.

If someone asks, I say I have 3 children.   And I do.  I feel that and know that.  But it is different.  For 2 of my children, I have been there since the first tummy kicks, and I helped deliver them both into this world.  For my red-headed step son, I didn’t meet him until he was 4.

Blending a family effectively requires a slow pace and much thought to the implications for the kids.   Early on, I was almost in awe of how easily my partner welcomed my children into her heart.   I honestly believe she loves my children as much as her own natural son.

Do women just have a greater capacity in their hearts to love?   Or is it because she had a much more open and inclusive sense that families come in all shapes and sizes, while I was still grieving the loss of my family unit and the “white picket fence” dream.

I have lots of love to give, but early on, it didn’t flow as naturally from me to her son.  If I am being truly honest, if we are watching the kids skate, my eyes would naturally find my daughter, while I would actively think to watch Will6’s progress.

I found this both mysterious and very troubling.   It wasn’t that I didn’t love and care her son, but it just wasn’t the same.  I would see him differently; his actions and behaviour would register differently. 

Will6 has a living, present, active, loving dad, and so I am not replacing an absent or deceased dad.   Will8 told Will6 early on that he could call me Dad and Will 6 quickly said, “I have a Dad.” Will8 said, “I know but I’m just saying if you miss him.”

Will6 has a great relationship with his Dad and I know that nothing I do will take away from that solid relationship.   Will6 has the wonderful gift of 2 dads – his real dad and his ‘bald daddy!”.

As a step-dad, I need to honour his dad and carve out my own relationship with Will6.   I want to be much more than just a “cool uncle” type: I want him to look to me for guidance, comfort, and discipline.  While he still defers to mom when knees are skinned and for late night frights, he knows I am also there and a pretty solid second choice.

Canadian parenting icon Gordon Neufeld declares, “The only true authority we have with our children is the authority they are willing to grant us through their desire to maintain a strong relationship with us.”  I think this is even more true when raising step children.

I have to earn Will6’s respect.  I cannot demand it, that will only lead to more problems.  I must take a more roundabout way into his heart.   Without the luxury of years spent together, I try to maximize our time together to continue strengthening our bonds.

During my difficult divorce, there were times, I felt my bond with my own children being strained and threatened.  Looking back, I know I focused too much attention on them out of guilt, for what they had been through, at the cost of building my new relationship withWill6.

Had I been more secure and confident in my bonds with my own children, perhaps Will6 and I could be further down the path together.  But we are finding our way together quickly, creating our own fun memories and rituals (“Wake up time with Dr. Crush!”).

In the early blending days, there were definitely silent battles between the children to be beside me for movies or books at bedtime.  There was also a lot of acceptance, resilience and understanding from all 3 of the children, as they had all been through the same thing.

Now my children are just fine with sharing their dad.  I do try to spend equal individual time with all 3 so that they each feel special and unique.   I always strive for equality.

It is critically important to me that Will6 feels and knows that he is equally important to me and he is not at the bottom of my hierarchy.  I love my one-on-one time with him and whether we are off to a hockey game or the video game arcade, I feel new bonds of love growing all the time.

There are definitely growing pains as a family is blended together.  I hate admitting that I did favour my children early on, in terms of who got the benefit of the doubt when battles and situations happened.   Nowadays, if I am still being honest, I probably favour Will6 more!

The ultimate goal is to be a positive force in all my children’s lives.  I want to be a strong male role model: the beacon to look to – for guidance, morality, ethics, and love.

While I wish it was totally natural and organic for me, the family assimilation came much more quickly and easily for my partner. One thing is for certain, the children are even better at it than both of us. They are thriving with their new normal and don’t have the same mental restrictions/baggage that we, as adults, carry around.

I am certain plenty of step, adoptive, and foster parents can shed some light on the challenges and delights of loving children that are not ‘your own’ and how quickly they become your own through love, time, and understanding.

I would love to hear from other step parents.  How easily did you accept your partner’s children as your own?  What were your growing pains?

Until next time…