Sunday 21 December 2014

In Defence of Evil Stepfathers Everywhere

I rarely like to tackle the thorny subject of step-parenthood, even in conversation, despite it being a fairly massive part of my life and who I am. Because it is a minefield of a subject to get into, thanks to all those fairy stories filled with evil stepmothers, and B-movies filled with rapey stepfathers and the general second-class status we are afforded. I have just accepted my lot and let the actual smug-faced breeders get on with telling me that I can't possibly understand what it's like for them (disclaimer, most of those smug-faced breeders are actually very lovely people, and without them the human race would die out, I am exaggerating for comic effect, please don't get angry). However, I am tired of being taken for a feckless shirker and thus I am here to state my case for all those of us who decided to bring up somebody else's kids instead of just making new ones of our own. After all, nobody tells couples that adopt that they don't understand what it's like to be an actual parent do they? Exactly. And they haven't even got the added problem of living with an actual parent telling them they're doing it wrong all the time.

And we don't get the head-start that those cheating genetic parents get, the immediate, instinctive and unconditional love that you get with your parents. We have to earn any kind of relationship that we get, and are usually greeted with outright hostility from the outset. There's plenty of ways to get round this, you can try to buy them (never works in the long run) you can ignore them and hope they go away (also doesn't work so well) you can be amazingly enthusiastic and interested in every little thing they do (which may well also backfire) or you can cheat, and be the owner of the world's most adorable dog that you take everywhere with you (works like a charm it turns out).

When I first met my wife, I had to give it a lot of thought before I decided to go into a relationship with a single mother. Largely because Jerry Maguire was one of my favourite movies at the time, and you can't go adding more troubles to kids lives than they've already had. I had, at one point, thought that I might have kids myself one day, because that's what people do right? However when it came down to it, I realised I was far too selfish and self absorbed to be any kind of actual parent, and thus figured that at least these children would be grown up and sorted and away by the time I hit 35 (btw, I am 37 now, and still worrying about them, turns out Dad was right when he said it never ends) I intended to endure it rather than embrace it initially. Never quite managed that though, for it turns out that I am not actually made of stone.

I started seeing my wife when her children were 8 and 10 years old, and not long after the youngest turned 10, I had moved in permanently. So no, I wasn't there for all the sticky bits, but equally, I missed out on the bit where they are cute and nice, and don't tell you that you “don't understand” all the time. I have spent the last 13 or so years of my life bringing them up with her. They have cost me no less heartache, worry, or indeed actual money than they would have were they the actual fruit of my trouser garden. And yes, you get pretty close and attached to them whether you want to or not. You can't help it when you live in close proximity to two ever-changing, ever-growing, ever-asking-stupid-fucking-questions creatures. And in a massive coup for nurture over nature, those two have picked up some fairly obvious mannerisms of mine, not the good ones either, just sarcasm, withering looks, and a fondness for heavy drinking mainly.

I didn't expect this either, back when I signed up for this, I entered the relationship because I loved the mother, and was prepared to put up with the kids. but when I decided to move in, it was because of all the stuff I heard about when I spoke to her at night on the phone, amusing kid stuff, I felt I was missing out, and just staying at the weekends wasn't enough. So we became a family, and we're pretty good at it compared to some “traditional” families I know. We stick up for each other, we do things together, and we make snide jokes about other families who aren't as fun as we are. We even invented a new Christmas tradition, family cocktail hour, which lasted for 12 hours last year somehow.

It got weirder, because as they got older I felt more parenty. I was not prepared for my reaction when I met my stepdaughter's first boyfriend, obviously I wanted to punch him in the face, but I relented, and we got on fine. Equally, I was terrified watching the boy taking his first skateboard over the little plastic ramp we bought him for Christmas. Though it may have been fear that he'd ask me to show him how to get over it properly, having not ridden a deck in anger since the late 80s, it was a daunting prospect. But that's what parents do right? Overcome your personal fears to help your kids get on. Luckily he didn't make me have a go, or break his neck, so none of my fears were justified.

And same as every other parent, when we left the girl at her first university digs there were tears, and some of them were mine. And when I first saw my boy riding a fire engine in his full uniform (it's ok, he is a real fireman, not a stripper). So yeah, I feel parenty things, do not doubt it. My heart is in my mouth every bit as much as my wife's when the phone rings in the middle of the night, and not so long ago I did some fairly long stints of waiting up all night to make sure they had got home safe from wherever they had been. Along with involuntary drives to pick up those who had missed buses, lost bus passes, or just run out of money. The alternatives were not good. I am glad they have their own cars now (although no less worried when they don't get back when they said they would, and still occasionally making those long night time drives to get them, but usually with a can of petrol in the boot now).

It gets more difficult for us though, because we have a real parent there as well, who is even more proprietary and worrisome than we are. So we have to roll it back a bit, if my wife is criticising them, I cannot join in in too strong a manner, as the protective instinct will kick in, and she will defend them to the hilt over me, every time, as she should. And interestingly, I do it as well now, if I have a little moan about them in the pub, and somebody joins in and criticises either of them, I get surprisingly defensive over them. Just another thing I did not expect back when I started on this journey (I certainly didn't expect to ever use the word journey metaphorically, but I can't think of a better one, please forgive me).

When my stepson had just left for his gap year travelling, and we still hadn't had a message from him 3 hours after he should have arrived, it was me who had to keep saying, “I'm sure he's ok, he's probably got no signal” and “he's probably in some greek bar with a load of cheerleaders from California on a backpacking trip and has forgotten all about us” over and over again, while pushing down any fears I may have had about plane crashes, train accidents, abductions, etc. etc. Luckily it turned out that he had just caught the wrong train from the airport, and spent hours going round greece with no phone signal on the trains. But as the step-parent, I had to reassure my wife and act the uncaring, callous git, to keep her calm, while internally panicking and worrying every bit as much as her.

I have given them my last fiver so they can go out, I have frantically searched the town during a busy carnival night in the rain for a teenage boy whose phone has run out of charge, I have picked a screaming girl out of a stinging nettle patch and told awful jokes until she smiled again, I have hunted the entire of Eurodisney for a lost memory card that turned up in a shopping bag later on, hell, I spent 2 whole days IN Eurofuckingdisney, where you cannot get a decent drink for love nor money. I spent hours explaining algebra and various forms of poetry, and am currently enjoying proofreading a rip-roaringly exciting fine art dissertation, and checking a sponsorship contract from some skateboarding company for hidden “we will eat your first born child” clauses. I have screamed, laughed and cried with them for the last decade, and yes, I am proud of who they have become, even if I do moan about them. And I'm pretty sure that's what real parents do, and I'm pretty sure that the key word in step-parent, is parent, not step.

I still don't want to have any children of my own the usual way, because as far as I am concerned, I already have two, and I think I did quite well, and the world has enough mumbling socialist drunken hippies in it already. I don't love the cats I have had from kittens anymore than the two that my wife already had when I met her, nor my Dog who I have had from a puppy anymore than the one I adopted at 7 years old, so I doubt I would feel more strongly about a child I had had from the beginning than I do over those two, even with the genetic crap thrown in. Again, ask any adoptive parent the same question, you'll get the same answer. My dearest and oldest friend was adopted, and he has plenty of mannerisms from his mum and dad, and regards them as his parents, no two ways about it.

I am not saying that all step-parents are wonderful people, or that everyone's experiences are the same. Watch the news, you'll find plenty of evil murderous genetic mothers, and rapey genetic fathers as well. I just wanted to tell my experience of it to someone, because, well, it's Christmas, and I am still a public school educated chap from Guildford, and thus incapable of actually talking about proper feelings and emotions and shit. So I wrote this instead. And if you also happen to be a step-parent who does care, and worries about telling people that, then next time somebody tells you that you don't have kids and you don't understand, tell them that yes you do, and yes you do. I really should myself, but will probably continue to shrug it off, and mumble something incomprehensible back. My kids have four parents, who love them, and I reckon that makes them pretty damn lucky.