“Dad, Mr. B yells at us more than you do.”
These aren’t exactly the most comforting to words to hear from your child as they describe their stepfather. I can imagine few situations worse than having your child’s welfare in the hands of a strange man. So when my 7-year-old son told me this from four states away, I remained calm. But a boat-load of questions were swirling around on a tidal wave of emotion in my head. Who does this guy think he is verbally abusing my boys?
Until this point, the boys had been vague about their mom’s new husband. Since this was their first and only concrete description of Mr. B, I planned on pricing airline tickets the second the conversation with my son ended. After hanging up, I headed toward my desk where my 6-year-old stepdaughter was standing on top of the computer tower as she played Webkinz. This is a regular problem and my response was strong enough to induce crying. But when I saw her tears, it made me stop and think for a moment. Was I being a hypocrite here?
As a stay-at-home dad with two stepdaughters, there have been a number of incidents when I’ve raised my voice for valid reasons. Could it be possible the same might be true for my boys and their stepdad? And what would the girls’ biological father say if he saw his little girl crying after witnessing me holler at her?
Being between these two other men made me a father in the middle. I’m the actual parent to three sons who spend most of their time under the roof of another man, and the step-parent who spends most of my time rearing another man’s children. Given this position, I have to constantly be conscious of such dynamics in dealing with these other dads—one of whom I know fairly well and the other being a complete mystery.
The first thing I remind myself is to stick to the advice co-parenting experts consistently recommend about keeping your emotions in check, and tracing them to their source before acting on them. Some feelings are legitimate and need to be expressed constructively, while others should be reigned in, in order to avoid making a bad situation worse. In the case of Mr. B, a fear of the unknown spurred my reaction which is understandable. However, what I failed to account for was that fear can extend both ways. According to Dr. Isolina Ricci, author of Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for your Child, “Fears… can be subtle and hidden, but everyone, even the new bride and groom, has them.” I may harbor concerns for Mr. B because I don’t know him, but he doesn’t know me either.
As a new stepdad, it is likely Mr. B has his own apprehensions, and unleashing a furious round of shock and awe on him wouldn’t help matters. This is why Dr. Ricci advocates reaching out to the other party, preferably with the step-parent taking the initiative to reassure the other and establishing a line of communication that is congruent to your mutual comfort levels. Realizing you both have concerns can make taking this initial step easier, and the kids will notice when this barrier has breached.
I often ask myself where to set the bar in terms of my parental involvement as a stepdad and as a noncustodial dad working with a stepdad. If a dialogue exists, then the answer is simpler: it’s whatever you agree on. I parent my stepchildren as I would my own, but there are some exceptions, such as handling disciplinary actions. For minor stuff (like high-wire acts on electronic equipment), I’ll put a halt to it on the spot. With major issues, however, I get their mother directly involved (and if need be, she contacts the girls’ dad). We will agree on a consequence and she delivers the verdict with me present so the kids understand I’m in the loop, but in a way that they can’t use against me later with their dad. With my own kids, the opposite is true. Unless the boys are with me, my paternal involvement is kept at a minimum—a classic element associated with parental alienation.
It’s a frustrating situation. To my wife’s credit, she shares that frustration as she recognizes the potentially serious negative effects on my children. But for the same reason a third party shouldn’t influence the development of a relationship with a father and stepfather, my wife sticks to our strict policy of noninterference when it comes to contentious topics between our former spouses. “Step-parent[s] need to sit back and be supportive of their spouse’s efforts,” advises Dr. Douglas Darnell in his book, Divorce Casualties: Understanding Parental Alienation. However, he warns that, “To get overly involved especially in emotional topics… becomes a problem.” This is why my wife avoids inserting herself into a these conflicts and vice versa. To do otherwise only fuels an already tense situation that doesn’t need any further complications. And third party involvement is not limited to adults.
Whatever relationship you may have with the other father—good or bad—putting the children in the middle of things is one of the worst transgressions that can be committed in effective co-parenting. This is another item experts commonly warn against, yet it’s an easy trap for fathers to fall into especially when unanalyzed emotions motivate them to do things like compete for a child’s favor, ask a child to be a spy or badmouth the other dad. Interrogating my son about Mr. B’s yelling was tempting, but doing so with the intent of undermining his parental authority would have put my son in the precarious spot of having to choose sides.
This would’ve been a huge mistake according to Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran, who co-wrote Joint Custody with a Jerk. Putting kids in the middle “…places them in a vulnerable position. They will wind up feeling disloyal and resentful.” These feelings can also result in the child hyper-defending the other parent they perceive as not being treated fairly, which ironically, also puts them in a position of choosing sides even though the maligned parent is not asking to be defended. For me to seek out the favor of either my sons or my stepdaughters would, over the course of time, undermine me once they realize they were being manipulated.
So where does this leave me?
There is no indication the situation with Mr. B will be anything more than it is now, which leaves me with no other course of action except to keep the communication channels I already have open. Basically this means listening to my boys’ concerns and attempting to clarify them with their mother. A few days after hearing my son’s description of Mr. B, I asked their mother about it. She explained the boys were not listening, and after repeating herself several times, Mr. B intervened. This was reassuring, especially having been in that situation with my stepdaughters more than a few times. As they like to call it, I’m being “yellish,” which makes me chuckle with an underlying worry that this is how they portray me to their real dad. Then again, if there was a problem on his end, I’m positive we could talk it out.
There’s a confidence in my step-parenting skills from having this option available to me, and despite the absence of this same option with Mr. B, there’s another type of confidence I have gained in the awareness of these issues. Continuing to educate myself on topics like blended families, co-parenting, parental alienation, etc. has translated into an assurance that I am doing what’s best for all my children. As a dad in the middle of one biological father and another stepfather, using what I learned to deal with each of them has aided in maintaining the healthiest possible relationship I can with both my stepdaughters and my three boys.
Points for consideration:
1. Avoid engaging the other father emotionally. Try to separate the emotions from the issue (easier said than done, I know).
2. Reach out to the other father at an appropriate moment. Be reassuring and try to put him at ease.
3. Don’t force a dialogue if it’s not there.
4. Spouses should be supportive, but remain uninvolved or act as go-betweens.
5. Don’t place children in the middle or force them to take sides.
6. Establish a relationship level with the other father you are both comfortable with.
7. Be in-tune to your children’s associated emotions, but also be cognizant if they are working you and the other dad against one another.
8. If there’s no dialogue between you and the other father, maximize the channels that are available to you.
9. Continue to educate yourself on related issues (blended families, co-parenting, parental alienation), while avoiding sensationalized news stories that bolster your fears.
10. If you suspect your child’s welfare may be in danger, immediately consult both an attorney and a counseling professional who both specialize in these types of serious situations.