There was a period in my life during which I felt drawn to older women. I had a few mommy issues and I was disappointed in girls my age or younger due to their immaturity. Thus, I decided to opt for more mature partners. Older women, however, tend to come with children from earlier.
Although being far from ready for kids, and even less for someone else’s kids, I embraced the role of stepdad — twice, actually.
The merits of those relationships seemed to outweigh the accompanying responsibilities and complexities. So, I dove in headfirst.
I had just started my university studies and I was 20 when the first of those relationships dawned. The second one kicked off when I was 25 and recovering from the former.
It’s safe to say that neither of those was a particularly wise choice. But I actually learned quite a bit about kids, relationships, and love from my 8-year step-parenting venture. Two kids and two relationships later, this period is over now — but I still remember quite a few important observations.
They are as follows:
- The responsibility of the unrelated adult
Even if you aren’t the biological parent of the child, your influence is huge. You have the potential of being a bigger role-model and a bigger helper for the child than the actual parent. Meaning, than the one who is absent most of the time, or just isn’t up to the task.
The child will instinctively turn to you if you have higher qualities as an individual or display more empathy. Sometimes, the only thing that’s needed is emotional availability. Biological or not — in that context, it doesn’t matter.
I didn’t deliberately position myself in the role of the father figure. Not on the first time, and neither on the second. But this was exactly what I got. It’s probably an inevitable part of choosing a single mother as a partner and then acting in a relatively reasonable way. In contrast to the actual father of the child.
The father of the first child was an obnoxious, abusive, drinking and smoking tw#t whose bitterness everyone could sense from a mile away. The father of the second child went behind bars for drug-related crimes.
Before opting for long-distance parenting, neither of them was particularly nice to the children or their mothers. One was violent both emotionally and physically. The other had issues with self-regulation at an emotional level (prolonged use of cocaine makes the mind work in mysterious ways).
Needless to say that when I came into the picture and acted differently, the kids easily noticed it. I was stable. I promoted a healthy way of life. I showed respect, love, and care towards the mothers and their children. Consequently, they automatically turned to me in many aspects of life.
I’m not saying that I did everything right — I certainly didn’t. But in many ways, I was a better role-model than their fathers. And, although unknowingly at that time, I shaped their belief-systems quite significantly.
For instance, they saw how a man should treat a woman. Most likely, because of that, they will have a better idea of what to expect from their future partners.
They also witnessed the value of knowledge, education, and an athletic lifestyle. Those are things that keep you healthy, focused, and propel you forward in life.
The point here is simple:
Whether you acknowledge it or not, once you enter someone’s life and kids are involved, you take quite a big responsibility. Because, what and how you do, is very likely to be mimicked or taken as a basis for differentiating between right and wrong.
Fortunately, I managed to have a rather positive impact, but we all know horror stories of step-parenting gone very, very wrong.
. . .
2. A child’s struggles are often left unnoticed
Even the most loving parents have blind spots. Due to those, they can potentially overlook significant problems their kids suffer from.
They often fail to notice changes in their children until a significant transformation has occurred. In a way, it’s similar to observing their kid’s process of growth. They just get too used to their children and, thus, become less sensitive. It’s only human and you can’t really blame them for that.
The thing is, deviations from a state of mental well-being don’t happen overnight. And their manifestations in children are easily confused with plain old-fashioned misbehavior.
Someone slightly less involved can be way more alert to deviations from the child’s normal emotional state than the actual parent. That is something that I witnessed firsthand.
As someone who wasn’t there from the very beginning, I was slightly more unbiased, and also somewhat more alert.
It didn’t require parental expertise to notice certain irrational mood swings of a 3-year old. And when she started drawing abstract penis resembling shapes, I became suspicious of a more serious underlying issue.
It turned out she had been molested by her father for quite some time — and the mother hadn’t even noticed the writings on the wall.
A criminal investigation was started and the necessary psychological treatment was administered. But it wasn’t the mother’s observance that led to this sad, eye-opening discovery. Instead, it was mine.
Something similar happened during the second relationship. Namely, I noticed how a teenager misbehaved in a very specific way. This misbehavior was also accompanied by self-isolation and a general joylessness. Altogether, I saw that as a possible manifestation of clinical depression.
I vividly remember one occasion when the mother wanted to take her daughter to the beach. The kid refused — as she had been doing on many prior occasions — and it eventually turned into a fight.
It later occurred, that what the mother took as a teenager’s typical display of attitude, was actually caused by the fact that the girl had started to cut herself and wanted to hide the signs of self-harm.
The separation of her parents and the later imprisonment of her father had indeed caused clinical depression.
The biggest take-away from this is the fact that kids often suffer quietly. Adults, thus, need to pay more attention to changes in the behavior of children. Otherwise, their suffering and struggles might be left unnoticed.
This could have dire consequences because children’s capability for adequate self-regulation is limited.
It definitely made me think about the future perspective of having children myself.
I don’t want to fail to notice the problems my kids might have to struggle with. And readers who already are parents should give it a thought, too.
. . .
3. Someone else’s child will always remain someone else’s child
Although I became pretty close with both of the children, there always remained a certain distance between us. Something, that was hurtfully used against me in strategic moments by the kids.
For instance, I remember being reminded of my role as their mother’s boyfriend — and not their real father. This happened on quite a few occasions when I had to call them to order.
On those occasions, I also felt a peculiar underlying ungratefulness that was, without any thought, ready to bite me. It occurred, despite everything I had done for them, the moment I found myself in a bigger argument with them.
They carelessly labeled me unworthy of authority for lacking the same bloodline. And they also took me as a nuisance their mother so wrongly chose.
I mean, it was true — I wasn’t their real father. And maybe it was partly due to my fragile ego. But it really stung when all my previous efforts were so easily discarded and I was just seen as a nobody.
I didn’t want to be a stern and grumpy, finger-pointing grown-up. And I was well-intentioned. But there are and always will be things that reasonable adults just don’t tolerate. Lack of hygiene or common sense — and too much attitude, for instance.
In those situations, I had eventually no choice but to enforce the right way. That, however, led to heavy resistance. An uproar, which a biological parent would probably not have encountered at such a level. Or, at least, he would have faced fewer insults.
In addition, I realized there is likely a difference between your own and someone else’s kid in the context of tolerance towards their misbehavior.
I can only speculate — as I don’t yet have kids of my own — that one is willing to take more with their biological children.
Conversations with people who have the background of both — raising their own children as well as those of someone else — seem to confirm my theory.
Ultimately, I’m not saying that you can’t be heartwarmingly close to someone else’s children. You surely can. It just seems to me that there will always be this little something that whispers,
“They’re not entirely your own.”
Even if you look past the fact of not sharing the same bloodline, the kids themselves are likely to remind you.
. . .
4. Your relationship with the child lasts only as long as the relationship with the mother
It takes time and effort to allow someone else’s child to take a place in your heart. It might perhaps vary from person to person, but I had to work quite a lot on myself to fully accept those children.
Eventually, I did — only to lose them from my life when those relationships dissolved.
People normally don’t start relationships with the assumption that they’ll fail at some point. They usually do it in good faith. They invest — even if what they do seems to push against all odds.
And I fully agree with this tactic, because going half-heartedly into a relationship only sets the stage for inevitable doom.
However, you should acknowledge that partnering with a single parent is a more complicated undertaking. And, in case things do go south, it’ll also be more painful for you than it would be in simpler circumstances. Because, you’ll have put effort into building a relationship with two people, instead of one. And you’ll also lose two.
It’s very rare that the interaction with someone else’s child continues after the relationship with the parent gets terminated. Even if the initial intention is different, people usually slip out of touch.
New lives and relationships form, and having a former step-parent helicoptering around is just too awkward for most people.
. . .
5. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready
Mostly, people start relationships with single parents because of the parents themselves. And not their children.
It’s also not that someone looks specifically for a partner who already has a child with someone else. Except, perhaps, for other single parents.
I’ve seen a few do that. They assume that people in a similar position might be a better match. You know — equal baggage supposedly means a happier relationship.
But, a significant number of cases is just an unplanned story of boy meets girl. And one of them coincidentally happens to be a single parent. While the other one isn’t.
Regardless of that, they’ll soon fall in love. And if the motivation of the childless adult is big enough, he’ll somehow try to fit the child into the picture. To make the relationship work — since those are usually the terms.
Even if he’s not ready for it…
But this, no matter how big the will, is not a wise move.
Since you cannot force yourself to get ready to co-exist with children. At least not without hurting all people involved — yourself included.
Living with children needs above-average patience and an actual wish to share a roof with them. It also requires quite a lot of selflessness, readiness to put them first, and tolerance towards their often irrational moods.
Developing those traits is something that takes time even for otherwise mature grown-ups. And it’s advised that people start thinking of a life with children only after they have reached that point. Otherwise, it will be mentally excruciating for everybody involved.
First of all, it will cause massive stress and irritation for the childless adult who is trying to wiggle himself into a role he’s not prepared for.
Over time, that irritation will be rather hard to hide. This, in turn, will potentially lead to a feeling of being attacked for the child and their parent, and is likely to produce arguments.
Secondly, if regular arguments arise in relation to the child, it may also result in walking on eggshells for the single parent and their kid.
Even if those arguments seem justified from one perspective, reaching this point is a red flag. It’s a sign that the relationship has probably turned dysfunctional.
Doing big things for love is something a hopeless romantic like me would almost blindly recommend. However, prematurely forcing yourself into the position of a parent — or, in this case, step-parent, is not among those things. There’s just too much emotional turmoil involved, and there is not much of a chance for a happily ever after.
Been there and tried it — but without much success.
. . .
6. Raising someone’s children can be great prep work though
Living together with someone else’s children, had, of course, its merits as well. In a way — and despite the stress — it prepared me for having children of my own.
Well, raising a child is in its essence a rather selfless act. And in an ideal setting, becoming ready to raise a child means having reduced one’s ego enough to prioritize the wants and needs of the child without feeling much annoyed by it. It also means having a rather positive outlook on what it means to raise a child in general.
Raising someone else’s children is hard work. So hard, in fact, that it demands even more selflessness than raising your own would.
And, whereas all children may show some temper from time to time, there is a certain thanklessness that can often be felt when putting your efforts into raising someone else’s. One that people raising their own children usually don’t feel.
When you’re raising someone else’s child, you can be seen as a mere substitute who is discardable the moment a bigger clash takes place. And you can also be seen as temporary by default.
Usually, kids don’t discard their real parents when they get into a fight with them. And parents still remain parents. Even when relationships between adults dissolve. But this is mostly not the case with step-parenting.
If you, despite that, still manage to continually show love and affection and are capable of turning the other cheek without much effort, you probably have mastered your ego sufficiently to be ready for parenting in general.
Everything I felt during the eight years while raising those children, was such good training that having children of my own seems a relatively easy task now.
Hell — I not only had to deal with temper tantrums and ingratitude but also with someone’s emotional backlash caused by molestation, another person’s self-harm and serious depression — and many more things people normally don’t have to face in the context of regular parenting.
And if I could face all of that for someone else’s children, why wouldn’t I be able to put in whatever effort necessary for my own?
Also, people usually have only one chance at parenting. I had the opportunity to test and observe the outcomes of multiple approaches. I’d like to think that I now know slightly better which mistakes to avoid with my own children.
In addition, I certainly became more alert to children’s issues and internal struggles. As a result, I improved my ability to provide sufficient emotional support if ever necessary.
However, using someone else’s children for training purposes is not something I’d recommend. It’s just not ethical. They’re little individuals with their own complex inner lives. And when you screw up, you’ll contribute to producing broken people.
. . .
6. Broken relationships lead to broken children
Which brings us here — to a point that should be obvious. But, I think is only semi-obvious until you see firsthand how much children suffer because the relationships of their parents fail.
All problems don’t necessarily manifest straight away. And some can remain well hidden, but — with very few exceptions — children’s mental health gets greatly harmed. Both children I shared the roof with had severe issues.
In the younger one, those issues manifested as uncontrollable temper tantrums. In the case of the teenager, there was depression, avoidance, and self-harm. And what I saw, was probably just the tip of the iceberg, compared to what went on internally.
One way, or the other — everything they suffered from was a result of their parents’ dysfunctionality.
Therefore, I strongly advise not to have children with the wrong partners. By those I mean partners with whom the relationship will inevitably fail.
Some might think,
“How the hell am I supposed to know if the relationship will last?”
Well — there is no guarantee or fool-proof scheme. But there are tell-tale signs of dysfunctionality which you should take seriously. Lying, cheating, substance abuse, gaslighting, and violence, for instance.
How many relationships do you know that have thrived despite suffering from those things?
Or, even if those relationships have managed to last — how many children from those relationships have grown into happy, content, and well-functioning adults?
I, personally, don’t know any. All my adult friends and acquaintances who have come from broken homes either have been — or still are struggling with issues of mental health.
Yet, there are people who rush into making babies — despite the obvious red flags of their relationships.
I don’t want to sound too harsh, but I think some children are better left unborn, instead of welcoming them into broken families where they would be torn between the power struggles and quarrels of their parents — or worse, where they would suffer violence and abuse.
And I also condemn the stupidity of people who think they can save their doomed relationships by having a baby. Because they can’t. It will just stretch the duration and extend the circle of sufferers.
So, if you have any doubts about your relationship, or worse — if the relationship shows signs of dysfunctionality, or has passed the point of irreparable damage — please, be responsible enough to avoid having children.
. . .
7. Love is not enough
Most relationships have, at least at some point and for some time, experienced love. Or something that the people involved perceived as love.
Even the single mothers who I used to live with could still remember the feeling that initially drew them towards the fathers of their children.
The sad thing, however, is that it takes so much more than love to keep a relationship going.
Truth be told, the feeling of love, or having a child together is not even closely sufficient.
Why else do we see so many single parents?
I wish I was omniscient and able to write down a comprehensive list of all factors that would guarantee a healthy and lasting relationship. Unfortunately, I’m not.
After witnessing many failed relationships — not only my own, but also those of other people — I’ve just learned that love does not conquer all.
For instance, it doesn’t help in the case of mismatching intellectual capabilities. It doesn’t turn a pathological liar into a trustworthy person. It doesn’t erase systemic, deliberate cheating. Nor does it erase violence — and very seldom does it prevent future incidents from happening. It also very rarely helps in problems of substance abuse, and so forth.
Thus, I urge you not to be as naive as to think that love will mend a relationship that has felt like an uphill struggle from the start. It’s not an antidote for dysfunctionality or mismatching characters.
The heart wants what it wants and is often blind to the obvious, but some relationships are just not meant to be.
. . .
To sum it all up
I did learn quite a lot from my step-parenting venture of 8 years. The life-lessons gained from those observations will most likely make me a better parent for my own children.
I also developed a deeper understanding of adult relationships — about what works and what doesn’t, and about the many possible pitfalls. All of which will hopefully allow me to make smarter decisions.
In a way, those two relationships were like a growth accelerator that delivered life-altering lessons at a concentrated rate. And I would be much less of a man than I am today if I had followed a more linear and simpler path.
But it also made me old rather quickly. And I’m not really sure that I wanted to experience everything that I did.
Not all single parents come with problematic children. Not all child-involving relationships come with pedophiles or drug-dealing fathers.
But raising someone else’s child still remains a really difficult task, and if someone were to ask me if I’d do it again, I’d probably say, “No.”
Previously published on medium.com and is republished here under permission.
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