Stepping up as a Father

As Father’s Day approaches, Marty Leist of the Australian Men’s Shed Association shares his somewhat complicated experience of family life. 

I have always wanted to be a father/dad. There is a difference that I will outline later. Some of my earliest memories are being out with Mum and Dad and watching parents interact with their children. With Mum a teacher, and the family business a pre-school, kids have always been a big part of my life.

I never planned to be a step-dad. That thought never entertained my mind, as I was firmly convinced I would never divorce. I would marry, have 2.5 children and live happily ever after. Now at 42, I realise that there are not two but three certainties in life: death, taxes and nothing-will-go-as-planned!

I became a step-dad before I became a biological father. In fact, my partner’s daughter played a major part in my relationship with my partner. It was a package deal and I loved the package. I came into her life when she was about four and her mother and I had two more children together.

Now, 15-plus years later, I am in my second marriage (speaking of things not going as planned), with five stepchildren and two biological children. I have often thought that if I was ever to write a book it would be on the trials and tribulations of being a step-dad as this has been the single most character-building experience I never could have imagined. Being a step-dad is the biggest part of my life. The book would be more about ‘what not to do’ rather than ‘how to’, because I have made some big mistakes. But I guess many of us would do things a little differently if we knew then what we know now…

And there lies the comparison that plagues the ‘step’ and biological parenting dynamic.

Being a step-dad is something we are even less prepared for than being a biological parent – and that’s daunting enough! Step-parenting is a very different ball game, presenting an array of challenges and dynamics that you need to analyse constantly, almost like a mathematical equation:

AGE (age of child/ren when you came into their life/lives) + RELATIONSHIP (your relationship with your new spouse and your parenting ideals) – BIOLOGICAL FATHER (how much time they spend with him, his relationship with their mother and how he feels about you) x SIBLINGS (stepbrothers and/or sisters and how they all get along) = ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY! If only it were that simple!

I spend one week on, one week off with my biological children but have my stepchildren almost all the time. At most, they might see their father every second weekend which seems the norm. So I’m actually playing the role of step-dad more than I am just Dad! Are we all confused yet? Welcome to my world!

With all these factors in play, the way I raise my children does not necessarily reflect the way I am able to raise, or at least influence, my stepchildren. Nor do I experience many of the same rewards that may come from raising biological children. Hold that thought...

Unconditional love. Noun. Affection with no limits or conditions; complete love. No matter a test score, a life-changing decision, an argument, or a strong belief, the love that underscores this bond is seen as unchanging and unconditional.

As a stepfather, you do not have the benefit of unconditional love. Some might see this as a negative, but I have learned that it can also be a positive. There are men who just don’t deserve it, and some who do not appreciate its enormity, nor do they fulfil the duty that it involves. But when you don’t have it, you learn quickly what a privilege it is.

I have three children who call me Dad (two biological and my step-daughter from my first marriage). This was not forced on her but, admittedly, was encouraged to make us all feel like a family unit. Her biological father moved away, began a new life and didn’t have a great deal to do with her. (However he always maintained contact.) But this is something I am embarrassed by, now that she is an adult and her mother and I have separated. Do I deserve that title?

A gift she once gave me was a fridge magnet that read, “Anyone can be a Father, but it takes someone special to be a Dad.” However, she has now moved away and grown closer to her father, for many reasons, and we have unfortunately grown apart. As much as I used to fear it, I am fine with that now and that’s as much about my maturing as it is anything.

This is just one lesson I have learned, and it’s made me appreciate more any love I do receive from any of my children, ‘bio’ or ‘step’. It’s just one of many experiences that has helped me to reach a stage where I am comfortable with the way I treat, love and care for all the children in my family.

What else have I learned?

  • Be patient and calm, assess everything before you act or react, make a decision or take a stance. Constantly ask, “Would I react this way with my biological child?” Proclaiming “It’s my way or the highway” could actually result in a child threatening to move to his/her father’s or at least causing unnecessary friction. I’ve learnt to let things go, control what I can control and trust that God or the universe will let things play out as they’re meant to.
  • Be humble, be unselfish and don’t expect immediate (any) reward for your efforts. After all, I didn’t fully appreciate everything my own parents did for me until I was much older and a parent myself. You may be the one who drives them to training or dancing twice a week, packs their lunches, spends countless hours helping with homework and assignments, teaches them to ride a bike or drive a car. Nevertheless, you won’t necessarily be greeted with a hug every day, receive the biggest gift on Father’s Day, walk them down the aisle on their wedding day, or get the first call when their first child is born…and that’s OK.

This brings me back to unconditional love. Sometimes the experience of having to work and earn love and respect is as difficult and confronting as it is rewarding. So when you do receive that recognition, whether a small gesture of thanks, a hug, a kiss or an “I love you”, it can be just as good, and in some ways even more satisfying, than from a child of your own, because you earned it.  

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