By Gayla Grace
"Thank you for the love and stability you've shown me all these years," my daughter acknowledged to my husband, Randy, last year. She was about to graduate high school and was overcome with appreciation for the years of sacrifice and commitment he had devoted as her stepfather. A tiny glimpse of success as a stepfather was celebrated, an earned reward for years of step-parenting. But it hasn't always been that way. Randy and I remember well the early years of our marriage and the opposition my two girls dealt him. Visitation with their father usually included coercing the girls to resist any relationship with their stepfather. Randy was forced to overcome the "stepmonster role" created by society. But through love and perseverance, the walls slowly came down, allowing a bond to form that could not be broken.
Step-parenting is a difficult role, particularly in the beginning. Stepfamily authority Ron Deal writes in The Smart Stepfamily, "There is no doubt that throughout the years of integration stepparents are often the most rejected, least affirmed, and most vulnerable adults in stepfamilies. They are expected to make the same sacrifices as biological parents but reap very few rewards." As a stepparent, it's easy to recognize the truth in those statements. But a stepfather can overcome the "stepmonster role" and form meaningful relationships with his stepchildren, if he's willing to make a long-term investment in their lives.
Stepfathers play an important role with their stepchildren if they consider themselves an additional parent, rather than a replacement parent. If stepchildren have a biological dad in their life (whether he plays an active role or not), they are not looking for another one, and will respond unfavorably to a stepfather trying to replace him. But there is always room for another adult in their life to love them, meet their needs, and show genuine concern for their well-being.
Effective stepparents often begin their role with their stepchildren as a friend, rather than a parent. The most common (and potentially destructive) mistake stepparents make is exerting too much authority before a relationship is formed. In the beginning, if the biological parent takes the lead in disciplining the children, it allows the stepparent to form a relationship with trust and respect, rather than resentment and hostility. As a friendship is formed, the stepparent can begin a more active parenting role.
Stepfathers can offer objective opinions to the parenting process. Because they are not as embedded emotionally, stepfathers can cite irrational behavior or destructive patterns that need to be addressed. My husband has provided much-needed advice on parenting issues with my two girls when I have been unable to see the "big picture" because I was too close to the action.
Stepfathers must recognize that their stepchildren's relationship with their biological father will influence the relationship with them. If the father is supportive of the stepfather's role in his child's life, it will make it easier for a relationship to develop. But, unfortunately, that is not usually the case. My girls were three and five years old when I re-married and their father's insecurity slowed down the relationship-building process with my new husband. My girls expressed a desire to call my husband Dad at an early age, but their father prohibited it. As the girls got older and connected emotionally with my husband, they determined to call him Dad, despite the negative persuasion.
It is not uncommon for a stepfather to feel like an outsider at times, particularly if he doesn't have children of his own living with him. When the marriage relationship is healthy, a sensitive spouse can ease unsettled feelings, nurturing the relationship and encouraging his role as a stepfather. It's also helpful for stepfathers to accept relationships where they are, savoring positive experiences with stepchildren as they happen, while recognizing that meaningful relationships take time to develop.
Stepfathers may not see the rewards of their parenting efforts for years. But patience and perseverance yield long-term rewards. Galatians 6:9 reminds us, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." (New International Version) A stepfather who offers love and stability with steadfast devotion can make a difference.