Finding My Place: On The Challenges Of Becoming A Stepfather

I may not be her biological father, but I hope that one day she’ll see me as her dad.

Her mother shares her address with me, her food with me, and her bed with me, but she still firmly refers to Angie as “my daughter.”

She still refers to herself as a “single parent” and thanks me for “watching” Angie or “babysitting” when it’s not a job or a chore or a favor. It’s just what needs to be done as Angie’s father figure and the third vertex of our family triangle. It’s not important if she thanks me or doesn’t thank me for watching Angie, it’s not about her words. I want her to know that I’m part of the team, not just a fan watching the game from the stands.

I get that I’m not the primary caregiver. I do put in long hours at work so I’m not there much during the week and a lot of time I have work to do on the weekends. I give as much as I can when I am present. I did have a period of time when I wasn’t working for a few months when they first moved in, two years ago. I read books to Angie at night and I fixed her breakfast and lunch and dinner and made sure she had her gummy vitamin. I did pretend I was her master and she was my Kung Fu student. I did watch her when she ate to make sure that she didn’t choke on anything, even though I found that to be overkill. I didn’t do these things all the time or even the majority of the time, but I did strongly participate in the caring for Angie and still do as much as I can.

I understand her mother’s reluctance to allow me into their tight-knit, little family. We have no handshake deal or contract written in blood, agreeing that we will always be together. Yet, everyday, I try to be a role model and a teacher and a coach and a friend to a 5-year-old girl that sleeps in the next room over. Angie’s hesitation to look at me like a father is going to continue because of her mother’s hesitation to see me that way. Angie doesn’t have to hear her mother say or not say things. She takes her cues from how her mother acts or feels. She can tell when her mother is scared or happy or in a bad mood or in a good mood and that influences Angie. Her mother doesn’t need to spell it out for her. Her mother thinks she hides her emotions well, when really she wears them on her sleeve.

Angie has a sense that her mother is putting me up on a shelf, just out of her grasp—no different than a sharp pair of scissors that are out of her reach for her protection, not for punishment. Angie doesn’t know how to explain it; she just knows that there is something keeping our father/daughter bond walled off. When Angie and I have a day together or an overnight together, she forgets that her mother has put up the translucent wall between us. We forget that we have different last names.

I feel most that Angie is not my daughter when I try to put in my two cents about parenting when I’m not asked. I do have thoughts on how to raise Angie. I have thoughts about some of the positive things to draw on from my childhood and some of the negative things not to do. Many times when there isn’t a crisis and I give my opinion about raising Angie, I get a “don’t tell me how to raise my daughter” look. Angie’s mother is more likely to give my parenting advice weight when Angie is terrorizing her and she’s been backed into a corner by Angie’s behavior, a time when many parents would not have easy solutions for dealing with an irrational 5-year-old. That’s the time when I’m put on the spot for my thoughts—when the solutions are the most elusive.

It’s understandable why this happens, but my hope is that I will become a larger part of the process of helping Angie form into a well-adjusted young woman and not just part of the process of trying to reel her back in from the edge. I imagine time is going to improve the value of my input when it comes to matters of parenting.

I also understand that it’s a new experience for me and can’t fault how someone can look at me and say “what does he know about taking care of someone?”

Just a handful of years ago, I was an unemployed alcoholic, making just enough money to keep a roof over my head, beer in the fridge, and the power on so I could write. Most of my adult life was virtually consequence free. Sure, there was jail or death, but neither scared me; I’d had just a little taste of both already. I knew my flaws, but I felt that when the time came, I could go cold turkey into Responsibilityland if needed.

The time did arrive, but it wasn’t a girlfriend and a 5-year-old that “forced” me into responsibility. Responsibility found its way to me without any outside factors. I just realized it was time to grow up and focus on being healthy and creative. After a few months of not drinking I was amazed at how clear things were. It was like putting on a pair of prescription glasses after struggling to decipher the blurry world all these years.

Working through my own flaws has helped me understand the little human living with me. I may not know the correct number of hours of sleep that the medical community requires for 5-year-olds or the correct amount of calories that she needs to take in, but I do know when Angie tells me she’s hungry or when she needs some attention. If Angie needs me to wake up to get her breakfast after a late night of work, I just do it and try not to let her know how much I’d rather be in bed. And when she wants me to be the audience at a pretend rock concert she’s putting on by singing and jumping on her bed, I just do it because I enjoy watching her rock out.

Angie’s mother and I are doing fine and if she needs me to continue to keep my distance, I will. If she needs me closer, I’ll be closer. This is more about the situation and the difficulty of coming in to a family that has already been established and trying to find my place in it. It’s about whether or not I should have a larger vertex of that triangle and how hard I should try to adjust the angle. Angie’s mother is just doing her job by protecting Angie, and I know that we’ll never be a perfect Pythagorean triangle family. But that does not diminish the hopes that our triangle will move a little bit more in that direction or that Angie will one day believe that she is my daughter, too.

James Visconti is a writer and computer playback engineer in the film industry. He lives in Los Angeles with Angie and her mother, to whom he is now married.

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