In my 11-plus years at the Gazette, I’ve been asked occasionally to speak with groups about my job.
Last year, Dr. Cynthia Martin of Parenting Matters asked me to speak at an event about my other job: being a parent — and more specifically, being a stepparent.
I call parenting a job because that’s what it feels like most times. Being a parent, I think, is the most difficult, unpaid job ever invented.
I can’t imagine what the job interview would be like:
Can you work nights and weekends? And weekdays? Mornings?
Can you clean up messy diapers? Handle tantrums?
Can you be ready to work at a moment’s notice?
And instead of a paycheck, can you pay us?
If this parenting thing is a job, I believe it is the most important one in the world. No one has more influence as to what children will become than their parents. Not their friends, not celebrities or politicians, not television, not even their favorite teachers.
Taking all applicants
Parents come in all shapes and sizes and definitions. We have foster and adoptive parents, grandparents raising their grandchildren, other relatives raising children, etc.
I hate what our culture tells us about what a stepparent is today. What do we think of when we heard the term “stepmother” or “stepfather”? Stepmoms are catty or evil (think the “wicked stepmother” from Cinderella) and stepdads are creeps. And that is simply not the case. I am not creepy at all — not completely creepy, anyway.
My wife, Patsene, and I have two wonderful daughters: Hallie is 20 and Chelsea is 23. Both attend Eastern Washington University. When they came home for a spell a few weeks ago, it struck me how much having them in my life has changed me. As parents with biological children can attest, one is never the same after becoming a parent.
For many stepparents, particularly those like myself who don’t have biological children, it’s a big adjustment. For me, inheriting two teenage daughters was a shock to the system like none other. I’ve had conversations with my wife and these girls I don’t think I could have possibly fathomed or made up in my weirdest dreams — none of which I am allowed to speak of today. Nor would I want to relive them, anyway.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom here. Being a stepparent has some wonderful moments along with a lot of heartache.
I’ve gone to parent meetings and conferences, soccer games, band concerts and functions (including one that took me to Disneyland and another to an evening on the high school gym floor) and even traveled with them halfway across the world, twice.
I’ve received those awful, middle-of-the-night phone calls no parent wants to get, taken care of our girls’ sick pets and their broken cars, celebrated birthdays and graduations, helped one of them move to college … and back home … and to college … and back home … and back to college.
Get parenting — now
I’ve learned a few things about being a stepparent. Here’s a quick to-do list is for stepparents, particularly for stepfathers, who aren’t perfect and who might not have perfect children:
1. Stepdads, we need to be active. There are plenty of nonparenting parents out there. That old cliché about “just showing up?” Yeah, that’s cute. But it only gets us halfway there. Just “showing up” only tells a child that being a wallflower, a nonparenting parent, is acceptable. It is not. Even if you mess up, mess up in the act of loving and guiding and disciplining and parenting.
2. Sometimes, it’s not you, it’s them. Our children are hurting. In most cases, where there’s a divorce, there are a lot of questions, a lot of anger, a lot of pain. I know. I lived through divorce in my family, so did my wife. I have issues that I didn’t deal with for more than a decade dating back to my parents’ divorce. Keep in mind that when they’re lashing out, it’s not just the normal “I’m a teen and I’m going to see what I can get away with” routine. Many times it’s compounded by a load of unsorted emotions they can’t even put into words. Don’t take it personally. Hang on. Survive.
3. Hang on to your spouse. Your friends may offer good advice, but in the end it’s you two making the rules, setting boundaries, doing the work of parents. If that means setting aside some “me” time to make sure the “we” in the relationship is right, so be it. ESPN can wait.
4. Find some inner peace. Parenting is hard work. One can do a lot worse than seeking a higher power and asking for some guidance or simply using the time to meditate. There’s a prayer, the Serenity Prayer, and it goes something like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
5. Appreciate the good times. They don’t last forever.
6. Find some good reading material about parenting. Dr. Martin has some great resources to help.
7. There are no rules here. No magic formula. No silver bullet. Some kids turn out great despite lousy parents, some are bad apples despite parents doing almost everything by the book. Do your best job as a parent, be proud of that … and pray they don’t move back in. Hopefully you’ll be prepared the second time around. Or the third. Or the fourth ….
For the rest of you, remembers that June 17 is Father’s Day. Give dad/stepdad/granddad/anydad a big hug.
Michael Dashiell is editor of the Sequim Gazette. He counts himself lucky to be a stepfather. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.