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Conquering Stepdad Mountain

It's a long, hard climb, and you need to be prepared.
Conquering Stepdad Mountain

Joe, stepdad of two teenage boys, recounts:

"How tall is it?" I ignorantly asked a Kenyan missionary.
"Mount Kilimanjaro is over 19,000 feet tall," he smiled. "It's big!"
No kidding, I thought. I could see the outline of the tallest mountain in Africa from my third-floor Nairobi apartment 130 miles away. "It might take a while to climb, huh?"
Boy, is that an understatement. On average it takes an expedition four to seven days to climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro. And why do people climb it? Because it's there, right? Just conquering the challenge is one reason people take on this massive testimony to God's creativity. And then there's the view from the top. On a clear day you can see for hundreds of miles in a 360-degree panoramic view. Oh, yes, there's plenty of reward for those who conquer the mountain. But it often doesn't feel worth it until you reach the top.
(P. C. Glick, "Remarried families, stepfamilies, and stepchildren: A brief demographic profile," Family Relations, 38 (1989): 24-27.)

Conquering Stepdad Mountain might not be as rugged as climbing one of the world's tallest peaks, but it will probably take longer than you expect. And you're not just climbing because it's there. You're climbing because it matters. Yes, there is reward for you at the top, but there's also reward for your family and stepchildren. How you live, love, and/or lead your stepchildren (and biological children) will create a legacy and heritage that long outlives you. It's important that you climb well.

A good climber knows where he is and where he's been. You have to properly assess your situation.

Early Climb Best Practices

1. If still dating, slow down. A quick or sudden courtship slows your progression up the mountain later on. Children and extended family often resent their mom's (or dad's) decision to marry quickly, beginning the family journey with animosity. Not a good way to start. The problem, though, is how adults and children define "quick." What seems too soon for children is often not soon enough for adults. Here's a good rule of thumb from my friends and stepfamily educators Jeff and Judi Parziale: When you are ready to marry, the kids are about a year behind you. So slow the pace of your dating. Spend lots of time studying the mountain and planning your climbing strategy. It will save a lot of headaches later on.

2. Pace with the kids. Pursue the kids, but moderate your attempts to bond based on how open or closed they are. John commented, "The primary thing that has helped me was a lesson I learned from your book The Smart Stepfamily: Allow the stepchild to set the pace of your relationship. So far, that has been super advice that allows me to enjoy a healthy and fun relationship with my stepchildren."

3. Be a smart stepdad before becoming a good father. I know that sounds strange, but a stepdad can actually become a good father too quickly. James Bray, a stepfamily researcher whose seminal studies on stepfamilies are among the most referenced, discovered that within the first couple years, stepdads who assume an active, engaging fatherly role with stepchildren often found that it backfired on the entire family. Even when stepdads had their wives' encouragement, well-intentioned stepdads who tried to declare rules and expectations for the home and took initiative to offer children guidance and direction—all with the expectation of building intimacy with their stepchildren—sometimes found that it caused conflict in the home. This "Good Father Syndrome," as Bray called it, often left mothers and stepfathers baffled and hurt. Relax. Go with the flow, don't try to be an instant hero. Becoming a good stepfather is a matter of time.

4. Pursue kids with common sense. Find common ground on which to interact. Pray for them, listen (hold your tongue in the beginning), and give them the benefit of the doubt. "We tried to do many family functions together," said Richard. "I did not force myself on the kids (ages 13 and 10) but always included them and tried to get involved in what they enjoyed. One was in band, the other soccer; I went to all the concerts and games. At first I gave hugs to all the kids but it was a bit uncomfortable. I backed off until they were more open to that."

5. Be patient. A stepfamily is no place for an impatient person. Being pushy and angry only fosters conflict and resentment, usually toward you. In the beginning, Darrell was hard-nosed and threatening. "I had the mentality that it's my house and my rules—either live by it or get out," he confessed. "That not only put a strain on my marriage but it made my stepson feel expendable." By lowering his expectations and becoming more patient, Darrell was able to keep his family together.

Somewhere in the Middle

If you are somewhere in the middle of your climb, you are likely a little tired and may have become discouraged. Perhaps it would be helpful to look back to see how far you've come. "Becoming a stepdad is a process," he wrote. "At first my stepchildren were just 'part of the package.' But being involved in their lives—investing my time, effort, and energy in their success—has developed a bond of love. I can't pray for, root for, support, encourage, cry about, and provide for someone without having love grow as a result. My wife and I will be married five years this November, and I've been doing some reflecting on my relationship with the boys. Looking back I can see how it has changed. It has evolved into their not just being her sons—they are now my sons."

Notice Joe's climb. At first they were "part of the package." (Sounds a little uncaring, I know, but Joe is just being honest.) But over time, he and his stepsons ventured to a new level in their relationship that is very personal. Likewise, if you are in the middle of your climb, notice how far you've come and give yourself and your family credit for the progress achieved (even if it doesn't feel very far). And trust that continued effort will take you even further. Some sections of the climb may focus more on one person in your family or another. Other sections will include everyone and show more progress. The point is to keep climbing.

It's also important to be willing to make adjustments when needed. One of the strengths of mature stepdads (and for that matter, healthy stepfamilies) is flexibility. The ability to adapt to the mountain's demands and change your course when necessary is a vital skill.

1. Trust God to lead. Probably the one universal negative experience of stepdads is the feeling of uncertainty. If you find yourself wondering what to do and how to go about it, you're in good company. From a spiritual standpoint, uncertainty is an invitation to faith. God always uses our "I don't know what to do's" to invite us to trust him more—and we should. Don't anguish because you don't know what to do. Ask God to show you. Don't panic in your uncertainty and give up on your family. Seek a word from the Spirit. Don't assume you are alone. Find comfort and direction in his Word. Then you can climb Stepdad Mountain one step at a time.

2. Know your place. Understand that there is an inherent dilemma to his task: How can you be Dad when you're not dad? Obviously, you can't. Even if the biological dad is deceased, you will never replace him, so don't try. Playing "who's your daddy" only causes stress in your home.

3. Understand the limits of your role. It's not your responsibility to undo the past. Years of poor parenting from your wife or her ex-husband, the negative consequences of divorce, or the pain children experience when a father dies is not yours to resolve. Come alongside children in these situations and try to offer a positive influence over time, but don't try to be the white knight in shining armor. Just love them.

4. Move in with tact. Don't be a bull in a china shop. Respect children's loyalties. "I became a stepfather when my stepdaughter was eight. Her father was very involved in her life and a good dad. There just wasn't room for me in her heart; therefore, we had a very strained relationship. We were never able to build anything. Now that she is a grown woman, I sense she is becoming a little less competitive … but I think the best way to describe our relationship even now is 'uneasy toleration.' " Anthony's climb was and is steep. Thank goodness he respected this reality or things might have become worse.

5. Round off your rough edges. According to research, being stubborn, critical, controlling, moody, jealous, and having a temper predicted with over 92 percent accuracy whether couples were healthy and strong or fragile and unhappy. I've long said that the same applies to relationships with stepchildren. If your personality is naturally angry, critical, aggressive, controlling, or stubborn, don't expect them to warm up to you—and don't expect your wife to entrust her children to you. To make any progress you must change this part of yourself.

6. Partner with your wife. She needs to believe that you are committed to and care about her, her children, and their past experiences before you will receive her trust. Therefore, do a lot of listening before injecting your opinion; demonstrate an authentic appreciation for all she has done to provide for her children before trying to make suggestions. When you do make suggestions, especially early in your climb, be sure to reveal your heart's intentions first. Consider the contrast between harshly saying, "Your son is a lazy boy. When are you going to make him get up in the morning and get to school on time?" and saying, "I have come to really care about David. I'm hoping to offer some guidance to him and better prepare him for life. I've noticed he's struggling to manage his time and responsibilities with school. Can we talk about how we might encourage more responsibility in him?"

7. Until you have earned their respect, let your wife handle punishment with her children. Leadership and the ability to offer punishment that shapes character are a function of emotional attachment with a child. Ruling with an iron hand without a foundational relationship sabotages your level of respect and subverts what you are trying to teach. Many stepdads mistakenly assume that not taking the lead is a sign of weakness. Actually, it is an indication of strategic wisdom and strength. So while taking the time to build a solid relationship and gradually moving into discipline, trust your wife to continue being the primary parent to her kids.

8. Be patient with your wife, especially when her past creates emotional baggage that you can't change. Danny shared that his wife's first marriage left a lot of emotional scars on her that he thought he could change. "I didn't have a clue how hard it would be for her to overcome them," he said. "We have been together for nine years and I'm still dealing with her insecurities. It's part of who she is, so I just deal with it and go on." At first, Danny thought he could "love it out of her," but in time he came to see that ultimately this was her mountain to climb. He could choose to love her as best he could, but in the end, she would have to deal with the emotional residue from her first marriage.

9. Be equitable in parenting. Wayde observed, "I've always felt that my wife has supported my authority with her kids as long as it was fair and equal to what I'd use to punish my kids." If you ever want to turn your wife into an angry mother bear protecting her cubs, just show favoritism to your kids and treat hers unfairly. Believe me, you'll awaken the bear.

10. Unless proven otherwise, assume your stepchildren would pick their dad over you. A huge step toward gaining your stepchildren's respect comes from respecting their relationship with their father (even if deceased) and not positioning yourself in competition with him. Doing so just pushes them further away from you and closer to their dad. Tim, a dad of two and stepdad to two, understands this well. "I have always tried to keep in mind what I want my child to hear from my ex or her new husband about me. I then apply the Golden Rule to my stepkids' dad. If, on the other hand, I put the kids in the position of having to choose between me and their dad, I always assume they would choose him. (This is especially difficult at times when I want to selfishly 'one up' him to make myself look better.) This also means that when my wife and stepkids are badmouthing him, I have to keep from being drawn into the discussion. They will turn on me in a heartbeat."

11. Remain engaged. Through the years I've worked with many disengaged stepdads and their families. The reasons for their drift varied: one man had a "these aren't my kids" attitude; another had an extremely introverted personality and he simply didn't know how to engage people in general, let alone his stepchildren. Still others found themselves paralyzed by the guilt of not being around their biological children. "How can I really enjoy my stepkids when I feel like I'm shorting my kids of my time?" one man said. "In some bizarre way I think I'm making it up to my kids when I deny myself time with my stepchildren." Still other stepdads find that once they've disengaged, which may have initially been part of surviving the confusion of their role, they can't find their way back.

If you have been disengaged, you can't stay that way; you hold an important role in your stepkids' lives. When you married their mother, God positioned you as a role model, friend, teacher, and mentor. The specifics of how intimate your role will become cannot be predicted, but you have a responsibility to make the most of the opportunities you are given. You can be a blessing to your stepchildren, but not if you don't engage. To the best of your ability, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). And remember, if you want to have influence with someone, you must be moving toward them emotionally and them toward you. If one of those isn't happening, forget about having influence or authority.

12. Don't go it alone. Surround yourself with a band of brothers. Joe, a stepfather of two, encourages stepdads to be involved in a fellowship with other men where you are open and honest about your life. "You cannot do this alone," he says. "You desperately need other men to walk with you on this journey. Without my band of brothers I never would have come this far. If there are men in your life that have 'meddling' rights, then you can stay on the right path with the right attitude."

No matter what part of Stepdad Mountain you stand on today, be encouraged. There is reward at the top of the climb—and enough grace along the way to make it all worth it.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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