While standing in the queue for the Post Office counter at the village shop, the corner of my eye lights on what seems like an open faucet showering gaudy colors. Turning, I see it is a display stand of cards for Father’s Day, gushing the usual sticky, showy sentiments. “Best Father Ever”; “Best Dad in the Universe”. Can it be that time of year again already?
When the day comes, I shall be unashamedly wallowing in those accolades (fully deserved, of course) from my own loving children; but as always – just as I am in the Post Office – I shall be thinking of men who won’t be so sweetly indulged. Countless fathers who won’t be brought their breakfast in bed; won’t be receiving touching presents; won’t be served a lovely lunch; won’t play the traditional game of croquet in the afternoon in which tradition requires both that he is allowed to cheat and is also ganged up on and forced to lose.
Having been – decades ago – forcibly estranged with legal authority from my first-born child for several years, I shall always feel the hole in the heart that Father’s Day mercilessly rips. Every Father’s Day, I Tweet a message for men in that position, saying “Courage Brother: a better day will come. Never, never give up.”
Being a stepfather, I shall also be thinking of those men giving love and support to children who are not their own but who can expect nothing on Father’s Day because, as on every other day, they are entitled to no recognition, no place and no standing. No matter how loving and secure their relationship might be, come Father’s Day, stepfathers and stepchildren are completely clueless as to what they should say to each other or where to put themselves. The same goes, I am sure, for stepmothers – as it presumably does in everything I have to say on this subject.
Without wishing to encourage the greetings card industry to confect yet another anniversary on which to squeeze our hearts and gouge our purses, it would seem they are missing a trick with the lack of a Stepparents’ Day. If anybody deserves a pat on the back, it’s the stepparents among us. Goodness knows they are numerous enough. Any internet search will tell you that one in three adults is now living with children who are not naturally their own. That has certainly been the observable truth at our children’s schools, where approximately half the children who began their school years living with both their natural parents have, at some point, found themselves living with a stepparent.
How many of those adults – who are guilty of nothing more blameworthy than wanting to live with the person with whom they have fallen in love – have had a clue what they are getting into? Maybe not one in 100. It can be a living nightmare. It can come as a shattering surprise to realize that you, of all people, have become the one in a family with responsibility but no power. That’s what you realize the first time you hear those chilling words “I don’t have to take any notice of you: you’re not my father”. It can be similarly troubling to realize that you have become one of those cartoon villains playing the role of leading suspect for cruelty, neglect and sexual abuse in the public subconscious.
With no legal rights at all (and none that could be conceived or enforced), stepparents are the ones who are at risk of being expelled from all connection with children they have supported – even after many years of cultivating the demanding relationship – if the set-up with the natural parent goes wrong. Like crawling across a minefield in the dark, they have to feel their way around the jealousies of the estranged parent and the wounded feelings of grandparents, while negotiating a position as both friend and authority figure for children with whom they have no natural kinship and command no automatic respect. If your own children could try the patience of a saint, somebody else’s might drive you completely crazywhen you have to live with them every day. Ask any teacher – though they, at least, can retreat with a paycheck to their own home at the end of the working day.
Stepparents are likely to be faced, every day, with Himalayan predicaments. They may have to integrate their own children – who probably feel betrayed and abandoned – with stepchildren who welcome their new stepsiblings with even less enthusiasm than they feel towards the stepparent. Where should your priorities lie – with the protection and reassurance of your own flesh and blood or with the advancement of the romantic and sexual relationship for which you may have sacrificed the stability of your own family? How do you deal with the tortured minds of children who would rather see you dead than imagine you enjoying sex with their own parent?
This Psychology Today article notes that many people blunder blindly into this Hindu Kush of conflicts without forethought or preparation. Everybody can see the logical case for a prenuptial agreement over money, even if they would never demand it themselves; but how many couples work out a detailed understanding over their existing children when they enter into a new relationship involving them all? Most expect simply to muddle through, borne along on a tide of love and goodwill, only to find that they are driven onto the rocks by unremitting, irresistible tempests. The strains of coping with stepchildren constitute one of the main reasons the divorce rate following re-marriage is even higher than for first marriages.
The men and women who can manage these trials through a lifelong commitment, contriving to be on good terms for keeps with children who are not their own and also with the natural parents, deserves at least a card expressing sentiment on Step-Parents’ Day. They deserve an annual parade with marching bands.