The Love Lessons I've Learned As a Stepfather

04/26/2017 06:17 am ET Updated Apr 26, 2017

By James Prenatt

I don’t know yet what it means to love someone the way a parent loves their child. I heard somewhere that having a child was like falling in love with a thousand people in a thousand lifetimes all at once. I don’t have any biological kids, so what do I know? I feel at times that I will always be secondary; secondary to him as a father, secondary to my wife in the hierarchy of love.

Her motherly nature, her protectiveness and unconditional passion were apparent from the start. When he calls in the night she jogs to him while I lie there and tell myself it’s probably not that bad. When he is sick she is relentless in her care, nurturing in a way that me, with my deep voice and stoic demeanor, could never live up to.

My father was never a “boys-don’t-cry” type. He had a big heart and anytime we cried he tilted his head to the side and said nothing. He looked as if he would cry himself, the weight of us on his shoulders at all times, an understanding of how we felt and that it was okay to feel that way.

I was home-schooled and I spent a lot of time on the farm with my grandfather. I was named after him and he would tell me that I had to do well as his namesake. He was a social butterfly who proudly showed me off to his friends and acquaintances. But he was also a masculine product of his time, who didn’t understand why I was quiet and shy. He was impatient and the things he said could be damaging, if not a big deal at the time, adding up eventually.

They’ve both influenced my parenting. I talk the way they talked, using the same phrases and often not seeming an authority until provoked. I have this fear of intimacy, and I think most men do. We don’t touch, hold hands, or provide the same gentleness that mothers do. Only, we can and some do. Maybe it’ll be different when I have kids, but either way I have this thing where I’m fine loving, caring, and talking to friends and partners, but when it comes to family, especially men, I hide my emotions and avoid feeling close to them, or letting them get close to me because that’s what strong men do, right? How is that?

However when it comes to my wife, I share everything: more intimacy and honesty than with anyone else in my lifetime, tears, protectiveness, touching, nourishment, the pain I feel when she is in pain. So when I find myself unable to understand the way she treats him and the way he needs her, I try to think of the way I feel about her. I hope it’s not far off.

I believe in the Fate of Fatherhood; that we will be treated a certain way by our fathers, try everything to not become them and in the process, turn into them and treat our sons the same way. But there are also the good things we learn from them. I heard that the way our parents love and treat each other is how we’ll treat our spouses, especially how men treat women. I feel that just by loving his mother the way I do, he will love this way, too.

My wife said she realized she loved me when I told her I’d be happy to meet her son. I can’t reciprocate the same “I knew when” answer for either of them. But if there was a moment, it was the Mother’s Day we took him to meet my family. On the way in he reached for my hand. As we walked into a crowded room of bright eyes excited to meet the first child brought into the family in years, he hid behind my leg, shy and playful. In that moment I knew that it was me he was looking towards for comfort. I picked him up and he put his head on my chest. He did not differentiate me as stepfather or biological parent. He knew that I was someone to trust and I knew that I would not be able to be nurturing if I did not love him.

Before we moved in together we’d have family nights on Sundays. We would grab fast food or go to the playground afterwards. Every now and then, I would say this:

“Hey baby, guess what?”

“What?”

“I love you.”

Then, “Hey buddy, guess what?”

“What?”

“I love you.”

In response he said he loved me too, probably for the first time. I smiled. Kids, like adults, know the weight of these words and don’t throw them around loosely. Now here I am, doing things I never thought I could: reading stories at bed-time, taking him into our bed in the morning for a few extra minutes of sleep and cuddle time, taking him to school and watching him while my wife is at work. He calls to me at night, he runs to me when I pick him up from school, and he hops onto my lap while we watch TV.

We might repeat our father’s mistakes, but we will also learn to love the way they love. I may not see my features in him, but I see it in my actions. One day as I got him and his mother settled in the car before they went home, he said it:

“Hey Mommy, guess what?”

“What?”

“I love you.”

“Hey Jimmy, guess what?”

“What?”

“I love you.”

I can't know if I love him like he's my own, but it's good enough for us.

Previously published as ‘The Fate of Fatherhood’ in The Wild Word magazine. www.thewildword.com

James Prenatt lives in Baltimore, MD with his beloved wife and stepson,  who tells lovely stories about bunnies and crabs. He
James Prenatt lives in Baltimore, MD with his beloved wife and stepson, who tells lovely stories about bunnies and crabs. He writes fiction and poetry along with contributing to blogs such as Everything for Dads and Parent.co. He likes punk rock, good movies, and bad coffee.

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