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Stepparents need heroes too
You can't always get what you want, but...
Scrolling through the photos on my phone always reminds me just how hazy my memory really is. Almost every time, I spot a photo that makes me think, “I did that?!” or “We were there then? I have absolutely no memory of this…”
That’s why, whenever I tap the photos icon on my iPhone, I’m always glad I take so many — my “Recents” album alone contains more than 32,000 pictures — because there are vast swaths of my life that have long escaped the orbit of my memory, and now are lost somewhere out there in space.
Other times, though, I remember everything. What I wore, what the sunlight was like, the temperature in the air, the emotions I felt. Every moment is frozen in time; I can recall every last detail, even years later.
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Meeting my stepdaughter for the first time was like that. It was the end of summer and she was six years old, loved American Girl dolls, and was getting ready to go into the first grade. To be completely honest, I’d never been more nervous to meet anyone in my life!
At the time, my wife and I had been dating for a few months, but she wanted to make sure I was someone worth introducing her daughter to before she did so. We took our time getting to know one another — which I was glad about, as it took the pressure off and gave our relationship time to breathe and grow.
When we finally did meet, I was so self-conscious. I knew if this introduction didn’t go well, if her daughter didn’t like me, that would probably mean we wouldn’t see each other much longer. So, the wheels were turning in my mind: what do you talk about with a six-year-old? What are they into? What kind of sense of humor do they have? (I had no idea at the time; I have a lot more experience with that now 🤣)
She was as nervous to meet me, it turned out, as I was to meet her. So much that my (now) wife had to take each of us aside and reassure us that everything was fine, that there was no reason to feel so apprehensive, that each of us are regular people, like everyone else.
We regrouped and talked. She shared with me the story about each of her dolls, and I shared with her what I knew about them from my niece’s collection. Thankfully, it went well and we hit it off — or at least, I didn’t make too much of an idiot of myself!
Fast-forward about a year and a half later, and now my wife and I are married. The three of us are living in a house we’ve bought together, along with the golden retriever I brought into our new family. And that’s how I thought of us, as a family. Of course, we hadn’t started out together as one; but we were all living in the same house, so that made us a family, a real family, right?
Well, not exactly.
After we’d been living together for about a week — still finding places in the house for our furniture and all our stuff we’d moved over from our previous places — my wife learned she would need to take a work trip to Los Angeles.
“You think you’d be okay with taking care of her while I’m gone?” she asked.
“Of course!” I replied. “No problem at all.” It seemed like the perfect chance for me to bond more with my stepdaughter, especially now that we were living in the same house — to just hang out, watch movies and eat pizza. How hard could it be?
Only, she wasn’t ready for that. My stepdaughter asked if she could stay instead with her grandmother, who lived nearby.
“Okayyyy,” I thought. “That’s fine….” I added, but inside I was nervous that something was amiss. (A stepfamily, especially a new one, can be a fragile thing to hold together. And when you’ve been divorced once already, as I had, you treat the things you care about like an egg you’re holding in your hand — very carefully.)
I came to realize that, even though at first I thought I could be, I wasn’t really an instant dad. I wasn’t there when she was born; I wasn’t there when she took her first steps or said her first words; I wasn’t there for her first bike ride, or the first time another kid was mean to her on the playground.
Instead, I was a little like the actor who replaced Darrin in Bewitched, trying to step into the role of dad, when clearly I wasn’t in the original cast.
Years ago, I had dinner with friend of mine, who also was then a single mom, and she mentioned something I’ve never forgotten. After dating a couple of different men over the previous year, she could tell they didn’t get what she and her daughters needed: “I’m not looking for someone to replace their dad,” she said. “They already have a dad.”
What I needed, it became clear, was help in navigating this new role. I tried books, and even found a couple that helped. But a quick trip to my nearby Barnes & Noble showed just what an afterthought step-parenting is to what most people’s conception of what parenting is all about.
The shelves heaved with titles on parenting — meaning, when you’re the biological parent — but almost none on step-parenting. Even the ones that did, though, tended to focus on everything that can go wrong in step-parenting.
And while yes, it was helpful to read them, they also left me with a bitter sense that being a stepparent is nothing but a long, hard, difficult slog, a years-long struggle you’ll be lucky to even get through.
To put it mildly, those weren’t the answers I was looking for.
I wanted not just to know what could go wrong and what to do to fix it; I wanted to know, what does this thing look like when things go right? What does a healthy step-parent and -child relationship look like? Where are some examples I could model ours after, people whom I could look at and see, “okay, that’s how you do this.”
Sad to say, I had a difficult time finding any. Especially anything in our popular culture — it was almost impossible to find anything but negative stereotypes around stepparents when I looked at culture sources like movies and television.
In answer to that, you might say of course, well that’s no great crime, is it? It isn’t, but role models matter, I think. There’s a reason the “hero’s journey” story arc is so popular; it’s meaningful in deep ways, and we get to imagine ourselves in those roles when we watch the movies or read the novels that feature it. But when there are no stories in the culture to guide you, it makes what already can be an isolating experience even more so.
For the longest time, I felt this state of affairs wasn’t just unfair, it was really problematic — especially considering that some 40 percent of American families are stepfamilies.
And then, last summer, I saw Top Gun: Maverick.
Now, I know what you’re gonna say: it’s just a popcorn action movie. (A point I don’t disagree with — and that’s part of why I loved it!) What could a Tom Cruise movie possibly have to say about who we are, deep down?
My answer is, give it another look. Try seeing it through the eyes of someone who’s in a stepparent role. Because when I saw it last summer, I thought, “someone understands.” What it’s like to care deeply about someone, to be in a parent-like role as Cruise was to Miles Teller’s Rooster — and yet have to hold back, to not try to replace the original parent.
To care deeply and to look out for a child, to have to pick up where the original parent left off because they’re not around anymore. And yet to try to walk the tightrope of not taking anything away from the original parent, but still trying to love the child the best way you can.
As I watched the movie, it wasn’t the situations in the plot that reminded me so much of what it’s like to be a stepparent as it was Cruise’s reactions — the emotions behind his facial expressions — that really moved me.
Everything from Maverick choosing Rooster for the movie’s final mission, and how choked up both of them became in the scene, to later, when both are shot down by enemy missiles and find each other in the snow-covered forest. (“What were you thinking?” Cruise yells. “You told me not to think!” Teller exclaims back.)
All of those little tiny moments, all the frustrations and the triumphs they experienced together, made the movie magical for me. It was the first time I can remember, in the decade-plus now that I’ve been a stepdad, that I’ve encountered a portrayal of what my own experience is like, that gets to the heart of all the tangled emotions of what this is all about.
For the longest time, I felt like the world didn’t notice stepparents — that it celebrates “regular” parents, but was content never to acknowledge what stepparents do. We celebrate all kinds of milestone events — baby showers, births, graduations, etc. — but we don’t have the same for people in other care-giving roles, who still are really important.
Until this movie came along and shined a light on them, even if it was only for just a moment.
And for that, I’m thankful — and wondering, what’s your experience? Are you a stepparent, or did you have one? Do you know one in your life? What are your thoughts?
As always, I love hearing what’s going on with your running and life — keep in touch!