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Unsung Heroism of Stepfathers

There is a section of responsible men in our country who occupy the seat of stepfathers that are unjustly covered in the same blanket of animalistic behaviour we’ve witnessed this week in Verulam, Durban. Too many of us would have never turned out the way we are today, had it not been for the love, guidance, protection, good influence and positive role modelling our stepfathers helped raise us with. They became the adults we yearned for, and provided the security and trust we so needed in our lives. And our silence in the face of the loud noise around those that ill-treat their stepchildren is doing their legacy a great deal of harm.

Unlike fathers who become fathers at times by accident, a stepfather makes the deliberate choice to walk into emotional fields and accepts a role vacated, for whatever reason, by another man. He chooses to have children he never played part in their conception to be part of his life. And while not every day will he be greeted with a time formally set aside to thank him, we choose this Father’s Day to acknowledge him in this column.

Stepfathers who stay the course, despite the obstacles and frustration, out of dedication and a sense of duty, are among the world’s most frequently overlooked and unsung heroes. They are often very mysterious, and are time and again thought of as intruders who often compete with children for the attention of the mother.

Often they are invisible. And we find this interesting given the enormity of parental separations and the varieties of new family forms in our country.

Over half the children in South Africa are growing up without the active participation of their biological fathers. That means about every second unmarried person you walk pass in the street, has at least one child. Of course, the facts differ according to race. Moreover, only three weeks ago did Statistics SA report that the divorce rate in South Africa has gone up with four in 10 couples divorcing before their 10th wedding anniversary. Lots of these divorces leave children as casualties, as their parents seek to pursue other relationships.

Why aren’t good stepfathers on the media radar? We checked “stepfather” on Google and Amazon. There are lots of ‘how-to’ material about being a good stepfather but, disturbingly, many titles are about stepfathers as sexual predators or killers.

Adults often find ways to acknowledge and appreciate their stepfathers after feeling forced to live with them as teens, a complicated time of life for both the teen and the stepfather. Some children get a stepfather at a much earlier age, and of course, they generally have an easier entrance into family life when children are younger.

But spare a thought for the man who steps in as a father figure to teenagers. Often, many have to contend with untold disrespect, the nasty “you’re not my father” snide, and even the unfair comparisons with the biological father that’s passed away in some cases. They have to sometimes contend with serious tests to their ego as they grapple with the disrespect of the child, and decisions they have no control over made by the biological father.

Furthermore, they never quite know when to speak up or discipline the stepchild. This can be very hard because the stepchild may view obedience to the stepfather as disloyalty to the biological father. Stepfathers may feel like they need to parent with a strict posture in order to gain compliance and therefore be a successful stepfather. Typically, this strict posture backfires either by non-compliance or by the stepchild building resentment over time.

Another challenge for stepfathers is knowing how to balance the emotional or relational distance with their stepchildren. How close can I get? How close should I get? How “mine” are my stepchildren? And then there are comparisons between how he treats his own biological children against the stepchildren.

Of course, these are matters of communication between parents, but what if the biological father is alive and disagrees with how this “new” man does things?

Often, healthy communication and maturity tends to get out the window in blended families. And because the stepfather is present, he usually bears the brunt of anger and disappointment of the children left by their father.

Then the stepfather has to deal with the effects in his relationship caused by what the biological father does or doesn’t do. Oh, add to that the possibility of being blamed for the separation of the biological parents.

Sure they make many mistakes along the way too. But who doesn’t? Step-parenting is a lot tougher than it is for biological parents.

But no matter how much of a jerk he sometimes may be, he didn’t just marry the mother, he agreed to love and care for her children as well. And that should mean something. Stepfathers are instruments of hope and healing to fatherless homes, and they deserve praise for their willingness to step in and bring structure and security in unconducive circumstances.

All power to the strong, unflinching, resilient rock of steady men whose reassuring presence in both the mother and her children restores trust, security and hope for the healthy family. In France, the term for a stepfather is beau-pere, translated, “beautiful father”. There are lots of beau-peres in South Africa. Let’s make them more visible.

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