… from the bungalow

Answers: Step-Parenting and “The Illusion”


A couple of weeks ago a reader in a situation similar to my own asked for my thoughts about step-parenting. Here is his question, followed by my response with only slight changes to protect identities. I have since received his permission to use this as the first post in a new series, which I think I’ll call, simply, “Answers.”

so how did you kind of “get over yourself” to start reaching out to your step-son when you kinda-sorta didn’t really want to? I feel like that’s what I need to do and I’m having trouble, partly because I feel like he doesn’t want it and won’t appreciate it. Sort of a, “you don’t deserve to be my friend” feeling on my part. Trust me, I know how immature that sounds/is. Any insights or suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated.

Dear Kevin,

Here’s where I let out a big sigh. *Sigh.* The step-parenting stuff is difficult. I haven’t gotten even close to where I’d like to be as a step-parent! But I’m reminded often that a healthy step-parent/step-child relationship can take many years (average of 7?). And certainly your situation is different than mine for a few reasons. Jay is older than my step-son. From what you’ve told me, it sounds like he’s been in less-than-stable family environments, even if it was not pushed on him directly. He isn’t coming into a family with older siblings to look to for queues. Etc.

Those are the parts of the “illusion” that differ from my situation with L. But there are aspects of the illusion that are the same. (I have a tendency to get “meta” with my thinking, so I’ll try to keep it simple for brevity’s sake. You know, the whole, “We’re physiologically and genetically predisposed to protect our own offspring in a way that translates to unconditional love,” and so on.)

The illusion is that he belongs to someone else.

Stepdad and L by a pondNot only does he NOT belong to someone else, but he is no less “you” than your own, biological children are “you.” We’re all fragments of the whole. We take on the drama in our lives so we can learn from them and benefit the greater consciousness. I have little moments here and there of seeing L as the individual that is L (this is difficult to put into words), and in those moments I feel compassion for him as a struggling being. I try to act on those moments as often as they come up because it is so difficult to “get over yourself” in those moments when you’re not feeling it.

Feeling the way you feel is no longer immature once you reach the point of realization and acknowledgment. I also think that reaching for something is less effective than allowing that something to come to you. Don’t force the issue. For me, the progression tends to go like this: I discipline as a parent, get frustrated with L, Karin and myself when it’s counter-productive, become aloof, “allow what is” for all of 5 minutes, then fall back on the over-bearing dad bit all over again. But I think the “allow what is” portion of the cycle gets a bit longer each time, if only by a few seconds, and I see the fruits of that here and there when he accidentally calls me “Dad” or hugs me before I leave for work. Yes, he’s younger and looks to my biological son for queues, but the underlying theme is the same. I guess what I’m suggesting is to let go without becoming detached. It’s less about getting “over” something, and more of a slide to the side. See Jay for who he is, not the mask that he wears.

Jay’s personality and motives serve a purpose, as does your presence in his life (and his in yours). Allow that purpose to unfold.

Dang, I need to take my own advice.

I hope this is helpful. It was for me!

So much for brevity…

I’d love to get your thoughts on this! Let me know what you think in a comment below. Thanks for reading and sharing!


Author: Chris

Introspection to a fault. College administrator, parent, soapmaker.

20 thoughts on “Answers: Step-Parenting and “The Illusion”

  1. My son has never known his biological father.
    CJ calls my fiance his “step-dad, almost” when describing who he is to other people. C so wants to be a father (he doesn’t know his own son – long story there), and since he lost his dad at 16, he really doesn’t know much about parenting.
    At first C was more military-driven – rule with an iron fist type of thing. That didn’t last long – we’re not a “do what I say or else” kind of family. We’re loving and snuggly and very very close – something C is trying to get used to.
    What I find interesting is now that C is getting used to the loving family we have, he’s starting to soften up about society too. He’s able to see the good in people and not focus just on the hard side of life.
    Maybe this reply doesn’t quite fit in with this post, but I look at C now and after just six months, his attitude is lighter, he’s much more relaxed, and is so much nicer to be around. What did it, you may ask?
    There was an ultimatum involved, and he is fighting for this relationship with every ounce of strength he has inside him. He is a good kind man underneath the gorilla-man exterior. He’s letting others see that. CJ sees it too and is starting to feel comfortable being huggy with C. C was worried about that at first, “It’s just weird!” he said.
    I told him he just had to get used to it because we’re a very touchy-feely-huggy-loving family… he’s getting used to it 🙂
    Okay this is really off topic now – should’ve used this as today’s blog post!
    Luv ya, Chris 🙂

    • Thanks, EmmaJewel. I’m glad to hear that you’re all making progress. I’m sure C’s way of doing things isn’t “wrong.” It’s just what he knows. I’m working on letting go of some of my own anger and frustration. It’s sometimes difficult, especially for a step-parent figure, to be anything other than distant. I’d say let him take it one step at a time.

      Thanks for the love! 🙂

  2. Awesome post, and fantastic advice. I had a stepson through my second marriage, but he lived 1700 miles away and I only saw him twice. Since his father and I divorced and then his father passed away, there is no contact, although I have reached out. My second husband was not the stellar stepfather that he truly could have been but the booze played a huge part in that.

    If I am ever stupid, er, brave enough to get married again, …….

    No, nevermind, Not going to happen. Ever.

    Still – you nailed it. Perfect advice. Seriously.


    • Thanks, Amy! You add an entirely new level of complexity when you introduce addiction into the mix. I know you’ve been through a lot. BUT, more power to you as a single mother. I’m glad you’re able to make it work.

  3. I say thank goodness for step-fathers. My husband is a wonderful one to my daughters. Without him, they would have never had a proper example of how a man is supposed to treat a women. They would never have believed that a father-figure could be relied upon to keep promises and, on a lighter note, they probably would have failed high school geometry without his help!! This is a wonderful post with fantastic advice!

    • Thanks, Sprinkles! It really is so important for our kids to see how loving partners treat each other. Not that Karin and I haven’t had our moments during these trying times… But my ex and I simply were no longer affectionate and were growing resentful of each other before we decided to go our separate ways. She and I are now both with more suitable partners and our kids get to witness twice the love.

  4. I loved this entry, but most of all this sentiment:
    Not only does he NOT belong to someone else, but he is no less “you” than your own, biological children are “you.”

    My first few weeks with Li’l D were such a struggle. I felt like I was failing at breastfeeding because Li’l D just wouldn’t do it.

    I then had this remarkable realization:
    He’s not me!

    It got easier from there, although there were still another couple of months of weepiness and certainty my ever misstep would be the end of him. :p

    • Thanks, Deb. I understand that breastfeeding struggles can feel devastating. F has always had oral-motor issues, and breastfeeding was impossible for him. When you don’t know that because he’s brand new and you’re brand new on the scene of parenting, it can be very confusing and upsetting.

      I’m glad things got easier for you. It’s important to be able to recognize that a) our kids are not us as the individual, but b) they are us in the “I Am the Walrus” sense of “beingness.”

  5. Im sharing this with my S.O. who has the challenge of helping me parent MY 7yo son with aspergers and OUR 2yo son. I cant always see his perspective as I have known both boys from before the first breath, thank you for your blog, it gives me MORE perspective than I could ever tell you.

    • You know I’m all about perspective! Thanks so much, Monica. The act of writing these posts helps me gain perspective, too. And the community here… YOUR comments help make this blog better. You guys are awesome!

  6. I think it is harder to work out the step-parent/child relationship when you have your own children. Before you have kids, you don’t understand the bond you will feel with your own. Your own don’t have to earn your love at all. It’s just there. Almost immediately. You love them BEFORE they disappoint or annoy you. With a stepchild, the love isn’t just there. It has to be nurtured, prodded, gently, patiently… and it still may NEVER come, they way you feel for your own. I don’t think this is something to feel guilty about – how we feel about our own. You can love and adore your step-kids, but for me anyway, it ISN’T and almost can’t be the same. When you love a child first, you will make exceptions for their behavior, you will accept them and their idiosyncrasies and love them anyway, without even thinking about it. With my step-kids (who lived with us 24/7), I often felt like I was bartering for love, for them and from them. As though they had to fit MY mold before I was able to feel that for them. Like there was a scale in my head that weighed it all the time. I had to get to know them, to insinuate them into my household and my daily life and take on all those extra duties & expenses, and HOPE that I felt other than resentful – all BEFORE I loved them. I hoped I could see them for their innocent selves, stuck in a situation of their parents making. I knew they existed before I dated their father. I wasn’t caught off guard by their existence. I wasn’t thrust into the relationship and had to keep my selfish side in check often. I chose it with full disclosure. How is this THEIR fault for my frustrations?

    One thing I see in hindsight, is that there wasn’t ever really a finish line to get to. Some arbitrary measure of love I had to meet. All I needed to do was to be kind. As kind as I am to strangers, or any other person I encounter in life. If I wouldn’t be rude to the slow stranger in front of me, why should I holler at the kids to hurry up or get out of my way? KWIM? Those kids looked to me for a place that was safe to just BE. They needed to know I was going to be there and that I could be depended on. They needed a place to feel like they were part of the family and not just traveling house to house to the adults who screwed it up in the first place. If the love followed in time, great, but they weren’t seeking love. They were seeking an adult who would put an end to the madness of their transient lives. They needed to really feel they weren’t a bother all the time. Kids feel those slights so strongly. They read our body language loud and clear. I wish I could say I was always successful at that, but I wasn’t.

    Be kind to your stepchildren, at the very least. Show them as much courtesy as you do your own. Remember OFTEN that they were brought to this situation, and had no hand in creating it, and no say in where it went. They are children and deserve the courtesy that anyone deserves. Kind of like smiling until you feel happy… be kind and show them acceptance until you feel it. One day, you may just feel your chest swell with pride over something they did, or they will be sick or hurt and you will feel your heart ache for them, and you will realize you DO love them. It’s OK if it’s not the same way you love your own. As the adults though, we HAVE to take responsibility for our own choices and NOT take it out on our step-kids (or our own kids.) We can’t resent them for not being more like our own or like ourselves. They AREN’T our own. They AREN’T hardwired through DNA to be like us in ANY way. They were born into one life, then the adults made choices that put them in an entirely different life and we all expected them to just adjust without a hiccup. We need to cut them some slack and just accept them as kindly as we would accept anyone’s children in our care. To do otherwise would be cruel. And eventually, love will grow whether you see it coming or not. Our hearts are like that, if we can simply get out of our own way to see it.

    Anyhow, that’s my long-winded take on it from having been in it. 🙂

    Love your blog, Chris!

    • Beth, what an amazing, thought-filled comment! You put it in a light that I hadn’t yet seen.

      Your own don’t have to earn your love at all. It’s just there. Almost immediately. You love them BEFORE they disappoint or annoy you. With a stepchild, the love isn’t just there. It has to be nurtured, prodded, gently, patiently… and it still may NEVER come, they way you feel for your own.

      Yes. The very instant your child is born, you know that you’d step in front of a bus for them. Everyone else is, well, everyone else. I think I have to forgive myself for feeling guilty. It goes two ways: guilt toward my biological children for loving another child, and guilt toward my stepson for not loving him in the same way.

      The tricky thing about being kind to him as I would any stranger is that he’s not a stranger. I’m now tasked with participating in his care and upbringing. He’s the one person in this world my wife possesses unconditional love for. It’s high stakes now, not like some guy in line at the grocery store. One thing that helps me sometimes is if I try to behave as if my actions are being televised. Sounds shallow, but I try to think about what image I am portraying to him and to the rest of my family. Having an imaginary camera crew helps give me a perspective I might otherwise have missed while being caught up in my own head. Make sense?

      • I have TOTALLY done the “hidden camera as governor of my actions” thing. HA! And when I do lose my temper, I often wonder what Dr. Phil or Super-Nanny would say about my outburst if HE saw the film. In the back of my mind, I remember that my son will choose my nursing home someday. LOL!

        We don’t have to be perfect. No one expects that of us. We need to be dependable for our kids, care for their basic needs and be as kind as we are capable of, always remembering that they don’t have the life experiences we do, in order to make the same choices we would. Also, always be willing to apologize for our language, actions, insensitivities, etc. when we don’t make good choices.

  7. Wow, I really liked reading this, albeit long after it’s been written now. But, I’m so happy to have found a blog from a single dad’s perspective, especially one with a new partner and child to add to the mix. I’ve been with a new partner, myself, now for about a year and a half. We are both single parents, although he has 50/50 custody of his children, whereas I’m about 95 % custody. However, the stress of running two families, two separate households, etc, has been an interesting task. We took a “break” for about 4 months because of the stress. Now, back together again, we are focusing more on what you said above, “I also think that reaching for something is less effective than allowing that something to come to you. Don’t force the issue.” This is working, we’re not trying to “measure up” to anyone’s ideas or ways, and it allows us to enjoy each other, our kids together and separately, much more easily. Blending families is very trick stuff! Great post, and thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, SWM! It does sound like you have a lot going on. I’m glad you were able to connect with this post. Isn’t it interesting how quickly dynamics change when you add or remove even one member of the family from the mix? My ex-wife often talks about creating a family eco-system that involves all family members while keeping the kids’ best interests in mind. Having a cooperative, positive co-parenting partner is SO beneficial. I’m working on my feelings toward Karin’s ex, but it seems impossible to overcome. I know it’s not, but it seems that way. Is your new partner’s ex cooperative?

  8. I am very lucky in that I have positive relationships with both my ex’s long-term girlfriend as well as my boyfriend’s ex. When I met J-we had each just bought a new home, and therefore, moving in together, marriage, etc, is not on our current list of to-do’s. So, it is easier in that neither one of has us to parent the other’s children very often, although situations have arisen, of course. His ex reached out to me in gratitude early on for treating her children so well and loving them. Even when we had our split, she was supportive to me, expressed that she was sorry, and hoped things would work out (and I’m happy they have!). Likewise, I’m grateful that my ex’s girfriend is so terrific to Maycee. If there’s issues with something the “step-parent” is doing, if it is something that seems off, over the top, etc, then discussing with your kids’ mom is the best thing, at least a starting point. Then, of course, we have to check ourselves because I know for me, I have an incredibly difficult time letting anyone else’s “ways” affect my child. The “family eco-system” is a beautiful idea, but the more people involved, the more difficult it is. I commend you for such an open mind, your dedication, and your willingness to make it all happen. Can’t wait to read more!

    • It can be tricky with more people involved, but when most of us are working together, things tend to run pretty smoothly. I’m glad to hear you’re in a similarly good position with the others involved in your kids’ lives!

  9. I just realized that I never commented on this post. I don’t know that I ever even read the final published post until now. Sorry, love.
    That said, I have to say that you’re doing a fine job of being Lucas’s dad. He loves you. I know that’s the truth because he shows you his true colors, just like he shows me. He no longer feels like he has to earn your love and he feels safe knowing that you love him, no matter what. I think that’s pretty great.

    Oh, and WOW to Beth’s comments! I don’t think I knew she was a step-parent in the past! Such insight and wisdom! I’m glad we have her in our corner! 🙂

    I love you!

    • Thanks, Karin. I think you’re right. He is himself around me and tests my limits (near-constantly, it seems) because he knows I love him.

      Ditto that sentiment re: Beth!

      I love YOU. 😉

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