What does Father's Day mean to a stepfather?
I never seriously considered this question, as it seemed as abstract and irrelevant to my life as the GDP of Bulgaria or contract negotiations between professional baseball players and management. Then, last weekend, I married my fiancé and joined the ranks of the millions of stepparents in America. Two years ago I was renting a room in a friend's basement, living in sprawled-out, relaxed splendor. Now I'm a husband and a stepparent to three children under the age of 10, including a pair of precocious identical twins. Where my biggest challenge used to be choosing between rollerblading or bicycling on a languid afternoon, my days are now a blur of morning marches off to school, trips to playgrounds and the game room, keeping tabs on homework assignments, and enforcing sensible bedtimes with brushed teeth and pajamas. Am I complaining? Absolutely not. I've begun speaking less about tradeoffs and more about transformation, as the old life recedes into the past and domestic hustle becomes the new norm.
I approach the topic of Father's Day with some hesitancy. When people tell me "you're a father now" or "they're your kids too," some part of me pauses. It's not a lack of love for the children. I've already decided that they're going to receive every material and emotional boon I'm capable of offering them. It has more to do with entering a family in which the children already have a father who is an active part of their life. When you marry a spouse with children from a pre-existing relationship, you automatically step to one side of a polarity between two adults, no matter where the separation stands on the bellicose-to-amicable spectrum. Regardless of my personal feelings, I remain a staunch advocate for father's rights and instinctively defer the role of Father to their biological father. I prefer not to be called "Dad" by the children because I feel it's a special title that belongs to their father, not me.
I consider the role of a stepparent to be that of a parental figure distinct from the child's biological or adoptive parents. However, within the concept of a parental figure I see many opportunities for goodness, joy and grace. I believe that by being a consistent, loving and caring figure in the children's lives, I can work with their mother to lay the groundwork for a good life ahead. I often feel I've joined a story in media res. I've missed birth, diapers, first steps, first words, and other developmental milestones. I know the children's infancies and toddler years only through photo albums and brief patches of home movies. Yet as time goes on and my sense of connection and appreciation deepens, I know I'll have the opportunity to be a living presence during many of the children's formative experiences in the years ahead.
I neither expect nor need any cards or gestures this Father's Day. I want the children to pass these along to their father. I'm content to step back and simply enjoy being part of their story.
Julian Wise is a contributing writer to The Times.