The Heartbreaking Reality of Being a Stepparent

by Mark Oliver August 03, 2016

There’s always a strange moment that comes up whenever my family meets someone new. “This is my wife,” I’ll tell them, pointing my white hand to my white wife. Then I’ll rest a hand on our half-Chinese child and proudly say, “And this is our son.”

Most people are too polite to ask how we created a Chinese child. They just go wide-eyed, say “Oh.” out loud, and try to hide that they’re thinking: Does he know? Should we say something? Just what has his wife been up to?

There was a time when I’d explain that I was a stepparent, but I rarely do it anymore. I just can’t bring myself to say the word. My family has never viewed me as a second-rate parent a step-removed.

I am his father, and he is my son.

Our son’s biological father died shortly after he was born. While I would never try to write his memory out of my son’s life, I still think of myself every bit as much as his father. My son has called me “Dada” for as long as he’s been able to form memories. He may not share my genetics, but I have fed him, clothed him and taught him his whole life. Every mannerism, from the way he walks to the way he talks, is an imitation of me.

But that’s not always the way the world sees me. Stepparents are seen as fleeting, impermanent things. The hard reality is that, if a stepparent wants to be a part of their children’s lives, there are struggles, fears, and heartbreaks that will have to live with every step along the way.

People don’t see you as a real parent

“Y’know, just because she has a kid doesn’t mean you have to stay with her.”

It was the first piece of advice I received when I met my wife, and it came completely unsolicited. I hadn’t expressed any worries, but people wanted me to know right away: you’re not a real parent. You can leave any time you want.

For men, especially, the start of my family seemed like something terrifying. When they found out I was planning on getting a married to a mother, most made a nervous face and said, “Well, you’re a braver man than I am.”

Because that’s who you are in most people’s eyes – not a lucky, loving parent, but a suffering spouse stuck with an unwanted burden.

The family doesn’t always accept you

I lived with my wife and son for a full year before my father-in-law would call me by my name. In his mind, I was another man who had popped into his daughter’s life who would soon slink away.

When he mentioned me, my name was always “that man." He would ask my son if “that man” was treating him well or, at best, tell my son that he needed to, “listen to that man." It took until our wedding day for him to accept that I was here to stay – but until then, I was always viewed as an outsider in the family, dropping by to play, but soon to be sent packing on my way.

Your spouse will always wonder if your love has a limit

My wife has been incredibly supportive. From the start she knew we would last, and she encouraged her son to think of me as his father. She knew I loved them both, and she knew I would stay with them and take care of them.

In the back of her mind, though, she's always had a fear. It comes up whenever we talk about having a second child. Her face becomes somber and she'll ask, “Will you stop loving him if you have a child of your own?”

I’ve sworn that I won’t, and I’ve loved my son with every part of my soul. My wife knows that – but in a dark part of her mind, there is always the worry.

You'll always wonder if you're missing something

I have days when I am the popular parent, but there are those when I am not. When I work too long and seem too distant, my son’s affections will drift to my wife. I'll offer him hugs, and he'll insist that “Mama hugs” are better. I'll offer to put him to bed, and he'll beg for his mother instead.

When it happens, there’s a fear that ignites inside me. Is it because I’ve been distant? Is it because she’s a woman and I’m a man? Is just being a good father enough? Or is there a chemical in their shared biology that holds them together with a bond that I will never know?

You have to compete with the biological parent

In some ways, my life is easy. It’s something I realized sitting in a barber’s chair. The woman cutting my hair had seen my son and felt an instant bond. “I’m a stepparent too,” she offered the second I sat down, eager to be able to talk about it with someone who understood.

“The worst part,” she told me, the confession nearly bursting out of her as though it’d been threatening to spill out for years, “is going out to play with other kids and hearing all the other kids call their mothers ‘mama’ – and my daughter call me ‘Katie’.”

Most stepparents have to share their children with someone else. For a week at a time, they lose their children. Worse still, they have to live with the idea that they are not really parents – that they are just dad’s wife or mom’s husband, and that it’s not the same thing.

I’ve been lucky – if I can call it that, with such a horrible reason for my fortune. My son doesn’t fully understand who his biological father is. The day will come, though, when he does, and how will he see me then? Will he still love me the same, or will he start to reject me as a stand-in – as nothing more than his mother’s husband?

You can be replaced

This is the hardest truth of all. There is no law anchoring me to my family. It’s not just that the world sees me as replaceable – I really could be gone at any moment.

It flickers in my mind every time my wife and I so much as disagree. What if this goes too far? What would happen if she left? A biological parent could be guaranteed weekends, but if I lost my wife, I would lose my son along with her. And if my wife was hurt, or if we fell apart, as the stepparent, I'd be left in the lurch. I wouldn’t just lose her – I'd lose my whole family.

The best part of each day is waking up with my wife beside me and my son leaping on our bed, calling for us to get up and play. There is no greater pride than watching my son grow up, seeing him be so smart and so handsome, and knowing I played a role in that.

But every moment, there is a fear that all of this could be taken away from me in an instant. The world doesn’t view me as a father – it views me a visitor, glancing in on someone else’s happy life.

When my wife and I got married, I vowed to love and protect more than just her – I promised the same to her too – until death does us part. But I have no idea what the future will bring. In a part of my mind that I work to silence, there's always the fear: Will my son stop loving me? Will my family leave me? Will everyone else be proven right?

Am I really just here for a moment, soon to be sent on my way?

Mark Oliver


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