Heavy Meddle: The Stepfather Dance
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I’ve been married for a few years now, I have two wonderful boys from a previous relationship in which the biological father is not in the picture at all, never has been and never will. I now have two more boys with my husband and I can tell that the first one we had is his pride and joy.
Apparently, I wrote down on some school paperwork that my husband is the stepfather of our older children. When I told him that I was approached by a teacher to verify this, my husband got very upset. He said it was embarrassing that the teacher knew that I “demoted” him and that from now on he wanted nothing to do with the older kids’ school, such as teacher-parent conferences. He won't pick them up anymore. I honestly don’t know what to say or feel about all this.
To my kids he is their dad. No other man has been in their life but him. Shouldn’t he feel proud and more of a man because he is doing what the biological father couldn't? I feel like he must be embarrassed by me, as well. Still, It’s not fair to the kids.
Any advice would be really appreciated.
Mom in Distress
Your husband is clearly humiliated and angry over your decision to identify him as a “stepfather” to school officials, rather than just “father.” You weren’t seeking to offend him, of course. And in certain contexts, actually, making this distinction is something school officials might wish to know, if not require.
Still, your husband was deeply hurt. He clearly feels that not being the biological father to his two eldest children diminishes his public stature as a father, and perhaps his private feelings of esteem. You were absolutely right to assure him that his decision to be a father to your two older kids is an act of tremendous courage and nobility. The value of a being a parent resides not in our genes so much as the actions we take every day to help our children grow and thrive. But your saying this and his believing it are two different things.
And to be fair, there is a clear cultural stigma associated with stepparents, one whose influence stretches from our most popular fairytales (the wicked stepmother in Cinderella) to our popular culture ("The Stepfather" is one of the most terrifying horror films ever made). This is a form of bigotry that people tend to deny in the clear light of day, but which they privately harbor. And not only are stepparents subject to this public prejudice, but they also face the complex challenge of trying to establish a relationship with children who may feel alienation or even resentment toward them. I say all this not to excuse your husband’s actions. But to understand the depth of his anguish and where it may be coming from.
The value of a being a parent resides not in our genes so much as the actions we take every day to help our children grow and thrive.
It is very upsetting that he would allow his personal feelings of shame and anger to affect how he parents his two older children. And it’s also upsetting that his reaction has made you feel that he’s “embarrassed” by you. This is precisely the form of revenge he may be seeking: to humuliate the person whom he feels has humiliated him.
You two are in an incredibly painful and complicated situation, one that doesn’t just involve the two of you, but your four sons. For this reason I strongly suggest that you seek professional help. This could be from a marriage counselor or a spiritual advisor — someone who can help the two of you sort through the dark feelings that have surfaced around this episode.
Ignoring these feelings is not going to make them go away. On the contrary, the resentments will grow deeper and more intractable.
Your husband deserves to feel pride and self-respect in his role as a father to all of your children. And you need to feel that your husband loves you not in spite of your two older children, but because you two chose to raise a family together, not based solely on a biological link, but an emotional and psychological one.
I hope you will both make space within yourselves for the healing that you and your family need.
Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.
Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is also the co-host of WBUR's advice podcast, Dear Sugar Radio.