"It was the first time I felt I had a father," Gwen answered. As Father's Day approached this year, I was asking about stepfathers.
Having worked with stepfamilies for thirty years I've heard stories like Gwen's - stories in which relationships became important after the living together part of the stepfamily is long over. Gwen's father had died when she was very little. Her mother remarried ten years later. "I gave him a hard time at first. When I went to college he came to the father-daughter dance. It was the first time I felt like everyone else. I had a father."
I hope Gwen's stepfather knew what an important gift he gave her at that dance.
Stepfathers seem to be mysterious. They are often referred to as removed and distant, different, not real. Often they are invisible. Note the June 3 New York Times' opinion piece, "What Are Fathers For?" Not one of the respondents even mentioned a stepfather. That's startling given the reality of parental separations and the varieties of new family forms. One-third of American children live in a stepfamily during part of their childhood.
Why aren't stepfathers on the media radar? They don't make much of a dent in the fairy tale canon either. I checked 'stepfather' on Amazon. There were how-to books about being a good stepfather but, disturbingly, many titles were about stepfathers as sexual predators or killers.
Adults often find ways to acknowledge and appreciate their stepfathers after feeling forced to live with them as teens, a complicated time of life for both the teen and the stepfather. Some kids get a stepfather at a much earlier age. In my experience, stepfathers generally have an easier entrance into family life when children are younger.
But even then a stepfather can be 'forgotten.' At a professional training I asked people to raise hands if they had had a stepparent. Later, at a break, a social worker approached and confessed, "I didn't raise my hand. I forgot. I do have a stepfather. He married my Mom when I was two. He's a wonderful Dad. I just forget he's really a wonderful stepdad."
There's a new, rather touching model now at the movies. What Maisie Knew shows a 6-year-old girl as the centerpiece of her parents' bitter custody battle. Both parents are neglectful. Maisie is protected and cared for by a stepfather (and stepmother, too, but that's another story). The stepfather can see this little girl's vulnerability. With crayons and playfulness, this man simply cared about her and cared for her. One watches Maisie's trust grow. She brings him to school for show-and-tell. She says she loves him. And he loves her by being a devoted adult.
Josh is another man who 'happened' into being a stepfather. Long ago he had a romantic relationship with a woman who had a pre-teen daughter. The adult relationship fizzled but Josh continued to be a caring parental presence to the daughter. Now that little girl is a 40-something mother herself. And Josh gets to be a proud and loving step-grandfather. Stepdad and stepdaughter have an incredible 30-year connection which brings joy to both and to a new little girl.
In France, the term for a stepfather is beau-pere (beautiful father). There are lots of beau-peres out there. Let's make them more visible. Add your stories. And let's not forget the stepdads as we celebrate Father's Day.