The unique and sensitive nature of the stepfather-father relationship is a common occurrence these days. Joel Schwartzberg talks about this relationship in detail.
There’s a man who spends more time parenting my three children than I do – way more time.
My kids – Charlie, 16; Cindy, 13; and Miranda, also 13 – spend one full day each week with me, and the other six with him.
He attends their recitals, school plays, tennis games, and cello lessons much more often than I do. He regularly picks them up, drops them off, wakes them up, helps with their homework, travels with them, eats with them, swims with them, vacations with them, and raises his voice to them.
He’s their stepfather.
This man was in the audience when Charlie took 10th place in a statewide spelling bee. I was at work.
This man pushed Miranda’s bicycle until her little feet matched the rhythm of the road. I was on an errand.
This man watched Cindy co-emcee her elementary school talent show. I’d sworn off elementary school talent shows years earlier, and if you’ve ever attended one, you understand why.
Who’s the father, really? Or so biological fathers like me might think.
But here’s the thing: Kids are brought into this world by one and only one dad. That puts a crown on his head that never comes off… unless he removes it himself. It’s not a crown he can physically see – it sits on his own head after all – but the kids see it clearly, and automatically respond to it.
While the connection between fathers and their kids can be strained, abused, neglected, ignored, denied, and defiled, it’s virtually un-severable so long as a dad is known and alive. And even those aren’t always mandatory conditions.
I say all this with ample respect for stepfathers, adoptive fathers, grandfathers, coaches, uncles, Mr. Rogers, Andy Griffith, Bill Cosby, David Gergen, Gregory Peck, Charlie Rose, Michael Landon, Michael Gross, Conrad Bain, and all other father figures.
I respect my kids’ stepfather too… though to be fair, he’s nothing like me. He runs in marathons; I roam in malls. He likes public radio; I like Radiohead. He’s 10 years older than me; I’m 10 pounds heavier than him.
My children sometimes call him “Bub” – I’m not sure why. But they don’t call him Dad, and are not inclined to. That’s not an arbitrary decision on their part; it’s because they already have a dad.
Bub and I share only necessary words when I pick up the kids, and there’s been only one heated exchange – when I entered the house at my son’s invitation and not his. Afterward, Bub walked out to my car in full harrumph and told me tersely, “Please only come inside the house when you’re invited.”
Come to think of it, he may not have said “please.” I suddenly understood that I was probably a topic of conversation in that house more often than I’d realized.
I’m tempted to check out Bub’s Facebook page or his personal blog, on which I’ve seen photos of my children liberally posted. But I resist because I truly don’t think that much about him. Like an in-law, uncle, friend, teacher, or neighbor, he is merely another contributor to my kids’ welfare. My fatherhood is no more threatened by him than my manhood is threatened by Channing Tatum. (Though my wife still watches Magic Mike alone.)
I share these ideas with other divorced and remarried dads whenever I can. I tell them, “No matter what you do with your kids, if you commit to it regularly and responsibility, you’re the dad.”
At first, it’s a hard sell. They tell me they feel threatened, robbed, and marginalized – pushed to the farthest corners of their kids’ lives.
I remind them that having limited contact is not a problem exclusive to divorced dads. There are full-time soldiers who don’t see their kids for years. And business executives who leave the house too early and come home too late to see their children much more often than I see mine.
Do we question the fatherhood of these men? Do they question their own fatherhood?
At a divorce-themed conference, a separated father once lamented that when he goes mountain biking with his son, they rarely say a word to each other.
“You go mountain biking with your son?” I asked.
“Every time you see him?”
I don’t go mountain biking with my kids. I don’t even go biking with my kids. My kids and I have scampered up icy hills in mall parking lots, tiptoed carefully across streams behind playgrounds, and exploded bottles of seltzer in the driveway – dangerous stuff. But mountain biking? No sir.
I tell the man the truest thing in my head: that I envy him. I envy the muddy, rocky adventures he shares with his son – the rich scenery, the punishing uphill, the exhilarating downhill, the pumping adrenaline and backbreaking exhaustion that binds their experiences. What words between them could compare with all that intimacy happening around them?
Where do I get my faith in the enduring connection between fathers and kids? First answer: Intervention. I’m talking about the TV show. If you’ve seen only three episodes, you know this much: No matter how long ago these dads left home, how cold they were or continue to be, or how much they’ve cruelly neglected or criminally enabled their children, they’re typically just one “I’m sorry” away from absolute redemption.
I’m not saying these terrible dads are always – or even often – worthy of the sudden adoration they so easily trigger, but it shows just how bulletproof the father-child bond is. Breaking it would be like trying to chew your way through steel.
It’s also something I learned from observing my kids, though it’s not obvious. Like most kids, my children don’t offer up earnest pronouncements of adoration like the young Huxtables and Keatons did all the time on The Cosby Show and Family Ties. Nor have they ever presented me with “#1 Greatest Dad” trophies, T-shirts, or cards – even on Father’s Day. (My children are woefully deficient in their senses of ceremonial obligation.)
Instead, I see their attachment in the most banal of interactions: the comfortable and joyful way they leap into my car when I pick them up, and how they respond to my jokes, drink my coffee, beg for quarters, text me willingly, and actively participate in whatever we do.
Through these telling clues – and with a minor leap of faith on my part – I realized that our unique bond is permanent and largely invulnerable.
We dads are smart like Cliff Huxtable and dumb like Ray Barone. We’re mature like Atticus Finch and childish like Louis C.K. We’re doting like President Obama and cold like Captain Von Trapp. We can be present like Mr. Moms or absent like deadbeats. But we’re all dads – impervious to everything but the Super Bowl, Kate Upton, innocent requests from our kids, and (speaking solely for myself) cats.
Frankly, I like that there’s another man in my kids’ lives. There can never be too many grownups loving and protecting them. But while Bub and I may yet have a number of things in common, true fatherhood of these three is not among them.
Photo credit: Flickr/Ross