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A Word to Stepfathers

The desire for a happy family does not exist solely in the hearts of women.

Although most culture have had a tendency to emphasize the financial role of a father over that of the nurturer, decades ago a few brave men started to change that. In my own circle of friends, a newly married couple in their early forties decided to have a child. They were both professionals with civil service careers. It was 1985 and the conventional practice was that dad was the primary income source and mom either stayed home to care for the family or balanced a career plus her family responsibilities. Carolyn returned to work when their son was six weeks old. Her husband, Dale, negotiated a job-share arrangement with his employer that would allow him to stay with the baby for most of the day. Within a few months he would leave his job permanently to become a full-time dad. Dale was unaffected by the jokes and criticism he often received from his peers. Caring for his child was the desire of this father’s heart.

Undoubtedly, it is easier and more natural to nurture one’s own child than to be a stepparent to someone else’s. The mere title of “stepfather” can conjure up all kinds of perceptions ranging from “insignificant” to “cruel”. The comedian Robin Williams has a routine where Jesus, as a teenager is reprimanded by Joseph for having run off to the temple without permission. His response “you’re not my real father” probably indicates how long that retort has been used.

The chance of a stepdad being reminded at some point that he is regarded as powerless and merely “mom’s husband” is almost certain. The good thing is that when an event is predictable and inevitable, we have the opportunity to prepare for it.

Perhaps one of the most disarming strategies in conflict resolution is to agree with the opposition. In this case, a rebellious child is stating a fact and a truth you do not dispute. Your response can begin by validating that. But the words you choose next should be used to convey another truth. Hopefully, you have already taken the time to anticipate and plan your message. Practice it so the communication will not get lost in the circumstances. The emotion you deliver it with is also important. The following is a suggestion to help you organize your own thoughts:

You are correct. I am not your real father; but I am your real stepfather. I have made a commitment to function in the role of male-parent in our home. I understand that this is a difficult adjustment for you because I am experiencing some of the same struggles. But in order to create the family your mother and I have planned, we are sharing responsibility and authority. I am always willing to hear your concerns or objections. I promise to negotiate where it is appropriate and stand firm when it is necessary.

The father’s heart allows him to admit his own anxieties and fears without compromising his leadership in the family. Listening and then verbalizing an understanding of the child’s feelings is a powerful tool and empathy does not require agreement to be effective.

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