“I can’t decide who should walk me down the aisle: my biological father or my step-father. I am closer to my Stepdad, but feel bad about not asking my real dad.”
This is an actual question from an advice column-and a question more daughters struggle with than we realize. Being a step-kid can be tough; not knowing who to show your allegiance to. Stepdads can be the best dad a kid has. We can be the man they look up to, but they’ll always have a sense of connection to their bio-dad… even if he’s not a great guy. This is the uphill journey and Stepdads struggle with it daily. Developing a bond with your new kids is harder than juggling porcupines blindfolded. (NOTE: No actual porcupines were hurt during the making of this this analogy… but they sure didn’t like being blindfolded.)
Many kids develop a great love and bond with their Stepdad and still wonder if it’s okay to like him. These confused emotions can even carry into adulthood–as in the quote above. Bad bio-dads don’t have to deal with all that. Their kids love them even if they’re terrible role models and barely help with the cost of raising them. At home with mom and Stepdad the kids have to deal with the rules of the house. Mom and Stepdad can be pretty annoying with their “No boys in our daughter’s room” policy and all the checking up to make sure the kids are where they say they’ll be all the time. Bio-dads don’t bother with setting a bunch of house rules for the kids when they visit. They only see their kid from time to time so there’s no daily grind or need to keep the kids consistent. The kids go visit dad every now and then, and he soaks up the love created by their desperate need for connection with him.
The Bio-dad is the fun parent and a change from the boring life at mom’s house. Mom and Stepdad have all these rules to follow. Not dad. He’s a blast to be with! They get to do fun stuff with him, like stay up late and eat lots of fast food and take-out. Dad doesn’t like to cook. Behind the scenes mom and Stepdad are struggling to make ends meet while deadbeat dad is out doing his own thing and rarely sending child support. He can’t afford to. He needs it to spend on a Disney day when the kids visit. Yeah, mom and Stepdad know that the bio-dad is slowly investing in the full purchase of his kid’s love and devotion while doing the bare minimum. The kids ask mom questions like “Why don’t we ever do fun stuff, like we do at dad’s house?” and “Why don’t you ever take us to the horse tack?” and “Why don’t we get to eat ice cream on a Jet Ski in the living room here?” But you chose the high road and fight the urge to say what you’re really thinking. There’s no need to talk badly about the non-responsive bio-dad.
Your kids are a long-term project. You know if they’re going to turn out right then you need to put in the effort and sometimes give them answers they don’t want to hear. You know that having some consistency is vital to their up-bringing. So you work diligently with their mom to save for college and you put aside money for the things they want for their birthdays. The kids are resistant to having you in charge of their punishments, so you have to become strategic in your communication with mom, to assure you are both on the same page about the kids and how they’re disciplined. It’s work and commitment but sometimes they still resent you. Mom was much more lenient before she married you. It’s a grind. It’s a battle and sometimes you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into.
All this struggle might even make some Stepdads wonder if they got it wrong. Maybe WE should have all had kids and let SOMEONE ELSE raise them. Think how much more relaxed we’d be. Having someone else raise our kids could free up some extra time for jet-skiing and travel. If we were non-responsive bio-dads we could have it all-and freedom too. You don’t have to be there, annoying the kids and making them hate you like a real parent. All you have to do is win them over by spending some of the child support money on them that you haven’t send for months. While you’re at it you can alienate them against their mom and Stepdad to make yourself look like the victim. That will make them love you even more. Once every month or two (or three) you could drop by to see the kids unannounced and make a huge fuss. You can say things like “I want to see my kid.” and “You can’t keep me from him.” –as though the mom’s actually trying to. The kid sees you as a hero because he now he believes the reason he hasn’t seen you is because mom and Stepdad are keeping you away. Of course you know better. You’ve been pretty busy lately. You have a social life, after all. Well played! Now the kid thinks mom and Stepdad are jerks and you’re a rock star! Score one point for dead-beat dad.
One of the best perks about being a non-responsive bio-dad is you’ll hardly ever have to go to any of your kid’s events. It’s awesome! Your ex and her husband have to run the kids to practice and rehearsals and school functions. They have to sit through every game, every play and every event. They have to pay for your daughter’s dance lessons and ballet shoes and cough up cash for your son’s football physical—or is it basketball? Who knows…they deal with all that stuff! What’s most importantly is they pay all the costs–not you! It works out just fine. All you have to do is show up at one event a year and you’re a hero! They’ll run to you, hug you and drag you off to introduce you to all their friends. They’ll say cool stuff like “This is my real dad.” Boy, doesn’t that wipe the smile right off that Stepdad’s face!
When one of them is messing up or getting in trouble it’s no big deal. Yeah, your ex will probably call you to tell you your kid is evil, but heck- it’s her and her new husband’s fault. If you were raising them there wouldn’t be all these problems. You’re a better parent then she is any day of the week! But you know you’ve got it good. They’re going to lay down the punishment but all you need to do is get on the phone with the kid and say, “Hey you need to straighten up so they’ll stop bugging me. “ The kids will listen to you. You’re their “real dad.” Finish the mild scolding by tossing in a “Let’s hang out some time soon. I don’t get to see you enough.” Now you’ve just turned their mom into an evil toad in your kid’s eyes. It’s not as tough as actually raising your kids but it is inconvenient. When they called with all this drama you were working on your suntan!
Being a deadbeat dad does involve some skill -and a serious commitment to not parenting.You’ve got to be stealthy and on your toes. It takes a lot of talent to make your kids despise their home and still manage to avoid any real responsibility yourself. It’s challenging when you’re partying in Vegas and your kid says across the line “can I come live with you dad?” It’s OK… you know how to handle this. You’ll just step away from the Craps table long enough to give him the standard reply. “You need to stay there. I don’t have enough space for another person. I moved my Jet Ski into the spare room.” “It’s OK dad. I’ll sleep on the couch. Please!” the kid whines. “I can’t let my kid sleep on a couch. I care too much about you to let that happen. Besides the living room’s too crowded since I bought that big-screen TV and surround-sound system.” Now you’ve got it almost settled. Just add one more sentence and you can get back to the party. “Just stay there. It will make you stronger having to deal with all that stuff.” …another subtle poke at your ex and her man. This is a game of inches. If you’re gonna win you’ve got to keep on the offense. Don’t forget to say “Let’s hang out sometime soon. I don’t get to see you enough.”
As a non-responsive dad you can play this game for years, but one day you wake up and realize your kid’s are growing up. Soon they’ll be out on their own. It brings a tear to your eye when you realize that eighteen years of occasional child support payments are about to come to a screeching halt. It’s been a lot of tough years (listening your ex’s whining about money) but you hung in there and it’s about to pay off. Your daughter is engaged and wants to know what song you’d like for the father-daughter dance at the reception. You say “Whatever makes you happy, baby.” After all, why should you start making an effort now? You get to give her away at the wedding too. The Stepdad can just sit and watch. You’re a reasonable guy. You know he’s earned his place in the front row- after all he’s paying for the wedding (and rehearsal dinner-and dress…). You just don’t have that kind of money. Your convertible needs a new transmission. But you’ll still be able to get the newlyweds a nice gift. You’ve saved a bunch on child support. Consider it one last payment!