We all know that being a stepparent is certain to be a difficult task. After all, raising children isn’t easy at the best of times – and it’s certain to be even tougher for a stepfather or stepmother. I speak from experience, though not as a stepparent myself; rather I and several of those people closest to me have benefited immensely from the presence of a stepparent. Having also worked with people that have been going through divorces for more than a decade now, I’ve encountered multiple clients whose children have benefited immensely from the presence of their parent’s new partners too.
My stepfather has been an ever-present feature of my life since I was just four-years-old and, with me and my biological father becoming estranged, he provided me with the love, care and attention I needed. I struggled with learning to read, so he sat and read with me daily; he took me to sports practice when I decided I wanted to be like other children my age, before comforting me when it became clear I possessed little to no athletic ability and was left disheartened.
Our relationship reflected those shared between biological fathers and their sons in less positive ways too. There were arguments over curfews, household chores and, of course, my teenage attitude (it left a lot to be desired). As you’d expect, we didn’t often see eye-to-eye on these matters and this led to disagreements and exchanges of a deeply unpleasant nature, the cruellest of which was the cliched but still cutting: “you’re not my father.” In spite of how painful he clearly found this (I can still remember his face to this day), he continued to do things like help me with my homework, drive me to my friends and give me advice on relationships. Like any good parent he tolerated my faults and forgave my indiscretions, even those that were clearly designed to do little more than scar him emotionally.
Of course, it was also necessary for him to exercise discipline such as the time when, at the age of 15, I became too drunk to walk and my friends had no option but to call my parents so they could come and collect me. I was grounded for one month as a result, much to my chagrin. On reflection this was clearly required, but I certainly didn’t see it that way at the time. Indeed, throughout my teenage years I assumed I received less favourable treatment than my sisters (both of whom were born to my mother and stepfather) simply because I was a stepson and not a son. On reflection, this was simply not correct. My sisters and I were always treated equally but I would need to witness how they were treated – and indeed disciplined – during their teenage years before I’d come to see this. Due to the eight-year age gap present between me and my sister, this didn’t happen until I was 22-years-old.
Following me having reached adulthood, I informed my stepfather of both the fact that I’d believed he was more lenient with my sisters than with me and that, since I’d grown up, I’d come to realise that this was not the case. In return, he informed me that he believed that I didn’t really like him which left him greatly upset. This revelation greatly affected me as, firstly, I genuinely love my stepdad and, secondly, it made me think of how much harder this must have made it for him to do all the things he did. Things like visiting my school for parents’ evenings and various events, preparing meals, trying to talk to me and provide advice when I felt down (a regular occurrence during my teenage years) and ensuring that he was always accessible and present.
I think, sadly, that it’s inevitable that stepparents and stepchildren will both experience similar feelings to those I’ve discussed above at times. I’ve learnt, though, that whilst confidence in biological relationships often seems less fragile and that doubt often rears its head when a stepparent and child clash, these relationships are – particularly when a stepparent is serving as one of a child’s two main caregivers – significantly more robust than most people would expect – even stronger, perhaps, than the bond between biological parent and child. I know this because I feel a sense of gratitude that stems from the knowledge that my stepfather would not have felt obligated to care for me in the way most biological parents do for their children. To put it another way, I know that my stepdad did everything that he did for me because he wanted to do it.
Having become a parent myself just over two years ago, it’s my stepfather who I’ve looked to, not just for advice, but as an example of how to be a good parent. I always do my utmost to remain calm and to be patient when my daughter is annoyed or frustrated, just as my stepdad was with me. When she’s older and feeling disappointed, sad or hurt, I know I will tell her about all of the things that I love about her and why I am proud of her because, when I was younger and found myself feeling this way, it was of great comfort when my stepdad did this for me. Finally – and I’d say this is the most important thing my stepdad did for me and therefore also the most important lesson he taught me – I will guarantee that my daughter knows that she can talk to me about absolutely anything without any fear of judgement, that I will always be there for her when she needs me and that nothing will ever change this.
Jay Williams works for Quickie Divorce, one of the largest providers of uncontested divorce solutions in the United Kingdom. He lives in Cardiff, Wales with his wife and two-year-old daughter Eirys.