The concept of step parenting and blended families wasn’t a part of my culture. Sure, some people in the neighborhood had nontraditional family structures (being raised by grandparents, an aunt, foster parents, etc). But when it came to presences in a household, you either had a dad around or you didn’t. If it was the latter, then you can became an unofficial ward of the streets.
When I got to high school and began playing on travel teams, I played ball with kids whose fathers were quiet background characters. Eventually after their mother mended a broken heart or detached from the idea of a normal family, she moved on to someone new. The first time I ever heard “that’s just my step-dad”, it was from a kid who was from a different section of Brooklyn than I. In the first few years we’d played together, I observed him have various “uncles”. Those guys were around enough to be seen at the crib at weird hours. But then his mom became vested in one man. The label of “step-dad” signaled something different. It was a title that indicated a more stable relationship with serious responsibilities.
I remember this kid and I having a conversation about it on the way to the courts one day. I wanted to understand what made this man different than the “uncles”. I had so many questions. Did he call him “Dad”? Was his last name going to change? Were they just as tight a man and his biological son would be? As I was talking with the kid (who is now one of my best friends), teenage me weighed the possibility that sometimes being able to pick a parent is an unexpected blessing.
As an adult, I can’t but help to wonder how a man comes to form a bond with another man’s son; especially if that man is never around as a father.
My most recent relationship was with someone who has a son. Adorable kid, very sharp mentally, outgoing personality, well-liked, all of the things a man would want his son to be. I love him because I love her. Independent of that, he reminds me of what I hope my son will be like; more specifically, I think about how much of my son will be me.
Knowing that you’ll be a step-parent is a big enough pressure on its own. If you don’t have children of your own, you’re leaning on your future spouse to help you navigate the difficulties that come raising a child. It’s completely different than parenting a first child together. Instead of being confused together, you’re constantly looking for approval that you’re doing the right thing, saying the right thing, spending enough time from a person who knows exactly what “right” is.
The relationship that develops between a man and his son starts before the child is even physically in this world. I’ve watched a friend of mine buy matching outfits, pairs of baby sneakers, and mini versions of sports gears for his new son. He talked to his wife’s belly daily. He watched Jr. grow via ultrasound for 9 months. When we got a chance to catch up on how his first few weeks of fatherhood were going, he harped on how his son just knows his father’s voice. But being a step-parent to another man’s son, you don’t have that historical connection. No matter how much you love the little boy, it’ll always be different.
Because I’m good with kids, I don’t think I won’t be a good step-dad. I do sort of think about if I’ll be able to always have my children feel loved and doted on, even the one who didn’t share my blood line. I wondered if my natural instinct to gravitate to a child I helped create would ever ostracize the child who’d had my full attention for years. I wondered if I could make another man’s son feel like there was never a void to be felt or explained. It scared me think if my parenting experience would be tainted before it even got a chance to start.
The biggest thing that weighed on me was I struggled with an answer to why a man is okay with being a deadbeat? It doesn’t seem right that a man can know there’s a doper version of himself walking this earth and not give a damn about how he turns out. Part of me used to get angry because I felt like I loved this man’s son more than he did. I knew more about him than his father. He did things to seek my praise the same way a son would want his dad’s attention. My role in his life was bigger than just “uncle” or “Mommy’s friend”. Without asking me for permission, this little boy let me into his heart and I let him into mine. How a man could relinquish those boundaries confounds me to this moment.
At the end of the day, the likelihood of me marrying a woman with a child is pretty high. I’m aware of the responsibilities of being a step-parent. One thing my boy said to me that blew my mind was it’s not about trying to be a father. It’s about understanding that the moment you say “I do” to a child’s mother, you are a parent. Under that roof, it has to be established that your role is to parent with confidence. If you act like a spectator and leave everything up to the parent with the same DNA, that child will always view himself as “someone else’s kid”. A peaceful household that includes blending a family is predicated on the children feeling like they belong. I recognize now the importance of instructing your son on what love looks like and how to give it. You can’t do that with a wall between nature and nurture.
Like most hypotheticals in relationships, it’s tough to know how you’ll do until you’re in it. Hopefully, I’ll figure it out.