By Nancy Hoag
I was a single mother waiting tables, delivering newspapers, raising my little girl, and attending college when I met a bachelor cowboy who, within days, was taking me and my 10-year-old fishing and horseback riding. Not long after we met, he also voluntarily drove my daughter to school when my schedule made it difficult for me to keep my wits about me.
We three had spent a great deal of time together when this man who’d become my best friend proposed. We were surprised when one of my daughter’s teachers greeted my fiancé with, “You must be Scotty!” and then another shared how Lisa had burst into her classroom and said, “Me and Mom are getting married!” I suddenly realized this wasn’t simply my western romance: we three would be walking the flower-strewn aisle and emerging as a family.
Defining Our Roles
We’d been married only a few months when I also realized we’d be incurring more than one thorny problem. For beginners, Scotty would discover how expensive it could be when a daughter wanted ballet, gymnastics, pets, modeling lessons, a car—and eventually a university closer to her biological father. Because second marriages often mean we make it up as we go, Scotty would also be learning to accept the words, “You’re not my dad.” It was a difficult reality to swallow, but he’d made the decision early on to nurture “our” daughter with love and a belief that God had placed him in this role, even if Lisa saw him as only her mother’s second husband. “She has a right to own her own feelings,” he frequently reminded me.
Ron Deal wrote, “The cardinal rule for stepparent bonding is to let the children set the pace for their relationship with you.” He also suggested, “Recognize the losses of your stepchildren”—which meant we needed to understand what Lisa lost when her biological father remarried and her siblings opted to live with him and his second wife. For me there was a lovely new life to be lived, but I needed to recognize and accept that my daughter had become a victim with hidden hurts and anger.
Scotty—raised on a ranch with brothers—vowed he’d make a concerted effort to understand as much as he could about little girls. It wasn’t easy, however. Dr. Phil, author and television personality, noted, “There’s no doubt that being a stepparent is one of the most difficult roles any adult will ever assume.”
While Scotty is naturally even-tempered, with a daughter who sometimes pushed the envelope or insisted she absolutely “needed” a pricey haircut or outfit that would stretch our budget, he tried his best to be firm. Unfortunately he also often backed down because he worried this child would leave and break my heart. If I could do it over again, I would relieve him of that worry. “The transition is much easier if the parents are in accord,” advised Colleen Oakley.
We hadn’t been married long before my daughter’s wants and “must haves” began to come between us—and we held our first family meeting. Lisa’s eye roll made it clear the meeting was boring. Still we held several more and made it clear that Scotty and I would be working together. “The biological parent in stepfamilies . . . must position the stepparent as his or her teammate,” Ron Deal also advised. So, no matter what, we would remember that we had to work together. Did we do a great job? Not always. But we tried.
Practicing Unconditional Love
Even though there were occasional clashes, our daughter was a delightful, talented child who did more than just well in school. She also made wise choices when it came to selecting her friends. And whether she voiced it or not, we felt her love. We understood that our child had, without a doubt, tucked in her heart a sadness she might never completely express. Meanwhile, we learned not to take it personally when she made it clear Scotty was odd man out—while her biological father, however absent, would always be the true hero in her life story.
Recently a friend suggested that Scotty would be “glad when your daughter’s eyes are opened and she sees Scotty is her real father”—but was that what he really desired? Dr. Phil wrote, “The role of ally and supporter is in no way to be construed as an attempt to replace the biological parent.”
We have the ultimate example in Christ. He loved us before we loved him. Thus two vitally important words when parenting and stepparenting are: unconditional love.
Now reflecting, what would I have changed? I would have staunchly supported my husband when a father’s discipline or a gentle no was necessary. I regret those times when I made him feel like he walked on eggs. A couple must make their marriage a priority which, in the long run, will prove to be the best for the child. A stepchild may have already lived with an unhappy, even abusive, marriage and home. So if I’ve learned anything at all? It’s: happy marriage, happy child, happy home.
And another regret: With my daughter now married and raising her own children, she recently mentioned that she still remembers me asking her to call her father about the child support that had stopped coming. I didn’t want to believe I’d done that. Even before we married, Scotty had made it clear he wanted to be responsible for Lisa’s financial support. However, if I really did ask my daughter to make that call, I am appalled. I say to other mothers, “Do not put your child in the middle, not even out of fear or for financial reasons.”
I have thought long and hard regarding my daughter’s feelings about what was or was not said or how unfair some of her growing up had been. Parents need to realize some of the thornier questions may never be resolved. Furthermore, some of that unfairness may have been based on the child’s mistaken perception.
Striking a Balance
Even after 39 years, it has become increasingly important that we are realistic—which hasn’t always been as easy for me as it has been for my husband. I may forever long to see my daughter embrace her stepfather as her “real” dad, a longing no doubt based on my own past unhappy history. Meanwhile, my daughter’s stepfather handles his role without regrets. He recently said he would again, if necessary, pay for ballet, gymnastics, dentists, pets, a first car, college, and a wedding. Because while he was, from the beginning, only the stepfather, frequently taking a backseat, he long ago happily stepped in to raise and love our daughter. “Because it’s the right thing to do,” he frequently says.
While we both understand it’s important to Lisa that she have her biological father’s approval, we also take joy in recalling those times when she sought her stepfather’s help with her homework and when her roof needed to be patched. We also recall the afternoon Lisa asked Scotty—though he was “only” the stepfather—to walk her down the aisle in her dazzling white gown and into the future she had chosen.
Nancy Hoag is a freelance writer from Bozeman, Montana.