I first met Alex when they were about eight years old. Back then, their mother—my partner, Michelle—called Alex her son. Shortly after turning 13, Alex informed us that they weren’t a boy. They weren’t a girl either; they came to describe themselves as non-binary.
It’s taken a little while for Michelle, me, and my son—Alex’s stepsibling—to wrap our heads around this change in identity and pronouns, but slowly and steadily, we’re learning what it means to be transgender and non-binary. Alex is teaching us. Alex has taught me a lot of things. Many of the lessons have been difficult ones.
It’s always been easy for me to raise my son, Liko. He and I have moved through our respective stages of development in tandem with each other, riding a two-seat bicycle along the same path. As he has advanced through adolescence, Liko has become more like me, which helps me to see myself. And he differs from me in some important ways, differences I’ve had to learn to respect. In the years ahead, I can see the path splitting in two—and I’m learning to accept his independence.
We always learn from people we take care of, but Alex has challenged me in ways that Liko hasn’t. Stepfathering is a task at which I fail every single week, one way or another. Most of the time, failure looks like me losing my temper. Sometimes, it’s deeper than that.
Seeing my own son’s good intentions is effortless, but there are times when I must fight with myself to see the best in my stepchild. Even though I know that when we lose hope for our children—when we fail to see their ability to grow—we catastrophically betray them. This goes both ways, of course. My child has returned my optimism for him by idealizing me; my stepchild, on the other hand, seems to be constantly on the lookout for evidence of my faithlessness and ineptitude.
To Alex, Michelle’s moments of maternal rage seem to feel like tropical storms, unpleasant but natural—predictable, even. I’ve held Michelle through so many crises of optimism for Alex, yet all of us know that she would never, in the end, forsake her child. Their father’s failures are easily forgotten, because we all train ourselves to live with our parents’ shortcomings (though waking up to them, often in the teenage years, can be a merciless process for all concerned). My mistakes, on the other hand, loom large in Alex’s imagination, as I’ve learned in family therapy sessions.
Over the years, I’ve realized that my failures are not wholly a product of my own individual weaknesses—which are many, to be sure—or of Alex’s individual struggles—which are also many—but rather symptomatic of how freaking hard it is to be a stepparent and a stepchild. It doesn’t matter, I think, how caring or successful or wise or present the stepparent is; the stepchild can love the stepfather with all their heart and still never feel at home with him in the same way they feel at home with their genetic father. Stepparents must meet much higher standards, as perhaps they should, if they want children to feel safe with them.
I have plenty of opportunities to screw up. We have primary custody, which means that I’ve spent a lot of time cooking for Alex and cleaning up after them and monitoring their chores and making sure they brush their teeth before bed. But, come Father’s Day, I don’t get a card from anyone acknowledging my place in Alex’s life; there is never any appreciation or gratitude. How can there be? To honor me, the stepfather, would be to dishonor Alex’s father. This feels normal, even to me.
A surprising amount of research suggests my experience is typical, if not universal. (There are always differences: I expect the age at which a child enters the stepparent’s life is one of the biggest.) As psychologist Joshua Gold writes in The Family Journal, ambiguity and conflict and isolation all mark the experience of stepfathers, according to studies: “Boundary, role, and task confusion are seen as more prevalent in step than original, two-parent families due to the relative lack of formal models of stepfamily functioning.” His language is passive and dry, in a way that belies the emotionally bloody work of forging a stepfamily.
I wasn’t surprised to discover another research finding: stepfathers are often viewed by other family members as being much harder-working than birth-fathers. “Fathers may feel justified in being uninvolved with children as long as they are good providers,” writes Gold. “However, in the case of stepchildren, such a notion does little to create a positive relationship.” I certainly work harder as Alex’s stepfather than I do as Liko’s father. Almost every one of my interactions with Alex requires intention, self-control, questions, communication. With Alex, I risk disaster if I take anything for granted.
What can explain this discrepancy between the acknowledged hard work of stepfathers and the invisibility, and even hostility, they can suffer? Stepparents “are structurally vulnerable to being hated or resented, and there is precious little you can do about it, save endure, and commit to planting seeds of sanity and good spirit in the face of whatever shitstorms may come your way,” writes Maggie Nelson in her splendid 2016 memoir, The Argonauts. “And don’t expect to get any kudos from the culture, either: parents are Hallmark-sacrosanct, but stepparents are interlopers, self-servers, poachers, pollutants, and child molesters.”
That’s pretty much the problem in a nutshell. If the love between parent and child feels like the most natural and sacred thing in the world, love between stepparent and stepchild can feel unnatural, and even wrong, to many people. So, why do it? Why would anyone ever take on the role of stepfather?
We become stepparents because we love the parent—and in helping raise Alex I’ve gained a deeper, richer relationship with Alex’s mother. Fatherhood didn’t get any easier when I left my ex-wife; my nights with Michelle certainly didn’t become more romantic when we moved in with each other’s children. Our very worst fights have been over parenting. Both our previous marriages ended badly and, like many middle-aged divorced people, we entered our partnership feeling chastised and cautious. We know what breaks a home and we haven’t yet forgotten what it feels like to break. And so, when Michelle and I fight, we fight to understand, not to win. We accuse; we also forgive. We make mistakes; we apologize, too. Every conflict aims at resolution. Our voices rise but our ears and hearts stay open, at least so far.
Through all these twists and turns, I have come to see my mate much more fully than I could have if we’d just stayed lovers and never tried to raise children together. I am witness to her incredible perseverance and her compassion when Alex is difficult. I see her weaknesses, too. In my own weak moments, her flaws can make me impatient. When I’m strong, they instead inspire tenderness in me. When I see her struggling as a mother, I try to struggle beside her. In trying to help her to be stronger, I become stronger myself. None of this is easy, but it’s not about “easy” or “hard.” It’s about taking care of small humans until they get big enough to take care of themselves.
I often draw inspiration from the relationship between Michelle and her father, Jim. She calls him “Dad” and he legally adopted her, but Jim came into Michelle’s life as a prospective stepfather at roughly the same age I came into Alex’s life. Michelle’s birth-father was not a good man. We like to believe that children are always better off with their natural-born parents—but sometimes, the allegedly second-best stepparent is better, something I try to bear in mind when I feel inadequate.
From what I understand, at first, things were pretty tough between Jim and Michelle, especially in her teenage years. But today, they love each other, and they have a great relationship. Michelle is thriving thanks in no small part to Jim, who did so much to help heal the damage caused by childhood abuse.
Which reminds me of what a long run parenthood can be. My interpretation of the facts I know is that Jim succeeded as a stepfather by simply being calm and steady and present. When things get rough with Alex, I try to be like Jim, or Jim as I imagine him to have been. Whatever my mistakes, however much I don’t know, whenever I’m uncertain, I try to keep just showing up, and I try to never give up, and I try to keep learning what Alex has to teach me.
I’ve alluded to my defeats as a stepfather, but there have been triumphs as well, even if they don’t look terribly triumphant from the outside. Many times, I’ve been patient with Alex for just as long as I needed to be, and then pushed them right when they needed that push—and I’ve felt the satisfaction of seeing them grow a little more. There have been moments when Alex has taken my hand as we walked down the sidewalk; I remember each one. I’ve felt pride when Alex designed a beautiful video game or played an original composition on their trumpet.
I felt wonder when I took Alex to the multi-specialty transition center at Kaiser and they faced a roomful of adults—me, a pediatrician, an endocrinologist, and an intern—to methodically explore what is involved with aligning their body with their inner sense of self. That was the moment when I really understood, in a concretely profound way, that Alex’s transition wasn’t “just a phase,” but something they had to go through in order to become themselves. I learned something about Alex—how brave and determined they could be—and I learned quite a lot, on biological and spiritual levels, about our humanity.
It’s through experiences like those that I’ve learned to love my stepchild. Love is inevitable when we nurture a life. However, life comes to us from different directions; that’s why love must take different forms. I was there when my son came into the world, a double-footling breech. His tiny, bloody feet had never touched the Earth; they arrived without history. My stepchild came to me along another path, a stranger walking across the years alongside their mother. I’ve had to earn my place beside them; I have to earn it again every day. Most of the time, that means I just need to show up, however imperfectly, being there to help Alex in the horrendously wonderful hard work of growing up. My life matters more because of Alex. That’s why I don’t expect gratitude on Father’s Day. It’s Alex I thank for creating the opportunity to be their stepfather.