May 13, 2024

Some thoughts on being a sort-of-Stepfather

New Beginnings

The way I met my girlfriend is a funny story. We went to a techno festival outside Berlin, as part of a group of mutual friends. We had never met, although I've been told we were at a party together once. I sat next to her on the train and she told me about her life, her break up, her four year old son. I enjoyed speaking to her, the sun was out, and I was excited and a little nervous about the festival to come. It was my first techno festival, and I was unsure about exactly what my relationship to this cult-like musical genre was. I'm still unsure, to be honest.

Once we arrived, we were all setting up our tents, when the girl I’d sat next to asked me how much space I had in mine. It’s a tent for two, I said, conscious of what was coming next. “Mind if I share yours then? I didn’t bring one.” Who goes to a festival and doesn’t bring a tent? Her, apparently. I couldn’t decide. I was nervous about my recent spate of insomnia, especially since we were next to one of the main stages. I was nervous about sharing my personal space, when my relationship with festivals has often been mixed in the past. But, after a couple of deep breaths, and realising that it was either mine or someone else’s, I took the plunge and said yes.

The first night, the music kept up until about 6am. We both attempted sleep, and probably got some, but woke around when the music stopped. Suddenly there was silence, and our bodies wanted to know what was up. We turned to each other and agreed we needed a walk. Stepping out into a sea of tents felt like that scene in Harry Potter when the death eaters attack the Quidditch World Cup - things strewn about, the detritus of people strewn about in tents in front of us. We walked around in the half light, careful not to trip on any holding strings or skewer our feet on tent pegs. There was something ethereal about the early morning mist, the sunshine finding its way through and hitting whatever dew that had managed to form in the July heat. We made our way to the toilets and talked. I don’t remember about what, but it was enough that we both now agree that that walk was the moment we knew there was something there. We held hands as we fell asleep.

About four months after this, and plenty of confirmation that there definitely was something there, I met her son. I will always remember the first moment. We went to his Kindergarten, after he’d spent the weekend with his dad. I remember being incredibly nervous - how will he judge my German, what will we do together? How are we going to get on? Oh my God my girlfriend has a child. What happens if he doesn’t like me? What happens if he can see inside my soul and find all the ways that I don’t like myself?

When he emerged, I remember a Sonic The Hedgehog-like blur of blond hair and tiny limbs. He’s very small, in my memory, and very very cute. He jumped into her arms and hugged her tight. After a moment, she introduced me. I didn’t shake his hand, as my dad eventually would when he met him. When my dad met him, he had run into my arms, in much the same way as he did to his mum on that first October day in Zürich.

We went home and I suddenly heard a stream of intense Swiss German-accented excitement. She instructed him, as she has hundreds of times since, to speak in High (regular) German. And so our experience began, for the three of us. Without properly understanding it, we were embarking on an improvised experiment that millions (billions?) of people have done before: creating a non-biological family system.

In the time since, I’ve reflected on this journey, which has been far from simple, and has involved quite a significant amount of growth (usually a synonym, rather than an antonym, for challenge). Did I mention myself and my girlfriend have been long-distance this entire time? Yep.

One thing I have to say that I probably don’t say to her enough is that it is a marvel watching your partner parent their child when they’re good at it, and she certainly is. She has found a way to be this gentle, firm, loving, and occasionally pretty zen mum who has come to understand that a lot of the time, when a child is angry, they don’t need a mirror, but an empathetic teaser. Sometimes he tells me “We can only play this for another twenty minutes because mama told me.” As if Mama is our boss, and we’re two kids just larking about until she calls us inside. Of course, I’ve also spoken to her rather a lot about all this, probably not to much effect., although a strange by-productive is a re-connection to my own parents. The process of child rearing, as any parent will tell you, is a binding and empathetic one to how you were brought up. I would say I would be close to my parents anyway, but I’m definitely more respectful of them for doing all this with three kids and little family support. As much as I was critical in my teens and early twenties, I’m admiring now.

The Inner Child vs The Child

I’ve had the same therapist throughout my entire time in this relationship. Strangely enough, when I met my girlfriend shortly after beginning with this therapist, who I’ll call Tania. It as Tania who helped me to relax into the idea that I could have a relationship, and that relaxing into the reality of being with someone who allowed you to relax into yourself was a beautiful thing, not some harbinger of the loss of self. She also, very wisely, pointed out that being around children can trigger, activate, or bring out your inner child. This can be in a good way, like sitting on the floor and colouring or playing lego for hours. Or it can be in a more difficult way, like having an angry child erupting into a tantrum in your vicinity, disrupting or disabling any plans, thoughts, or peace and calm you might have had. This little being who has his own schedules, demands, wants, and needs, and although you do love watching your movies, going out to nice dinners, or taking leisurely strolls along the river stirring the wellspring of your mind, that’s not necessarily their idea of fun. Your inner child must reckon with this, and it’s also the job of the two parental-figures, adults who of course are also grappling with their own “stuff”, to help one another deal with both the child, and one another in the family system. It can be simple, and it can be complex.

I will say, as a long-distance, far from bilingual step-parent, my “stuff” has been brought out and roiled around much more than it was in my previous life as a perennial bachelor-savant, content to allow my days to roll out in front of me in a stream of things that just felt right.

At some point I went on /r/stepparenting on reddit. That was a mistake. I suppose whenever you give people an opportunity to complain, anonymously, they will, in droves, using the familiar mumsnet abbreviations of DH (Dear Husband) or DSS (Darling Step Son). The stories I read mostly presented me with my worst inner monologue about my girlfriend’s son, but strung out over years of resentments instead of mere moments of occasional frustration. It allowed me, like some tormented prophetic seeing stone, to view a future of mine filled with difficulties, arguments, and compromises.

At times, I felt horribly guilty about my negative thoughts. How could I be mad, or annoyed with this child who’s experienced the breakup of his parents, and the difficulties both of them have experiences individuality since, who’s only doing what he does best as a child: play, experience, learn, need things, want things, and verbally express when those things aren’t given or provided for him? I must be some kind of monster. How could I feel sad myself when he expressed things in this other language, and I wasn’t able to experience them? This is his country, his language, all he’s ever known.

But, returning to what Tania told me, my inner child was active. In these situations it can be the inner child in conversation with the child, and the problem, if there is one, is the adult self attempting to create some decorum: “What a good, well-brought up adult does in this situation is ____”, even though the inner child might be saying, or screaming “I’m tired right now and I need a break.”

Or sometimes, it’s a mix of the adult and the inner child: “I don’t want him here because I just want to be with my girlfriend, and I don’t want to share my girlfriend with anyone right now because I’m not feeling as close to her as I’d like to.” As an introvert, too, it can be a struggle to work out where your limit is with somebody that is geared to push boundaries out of, again, the deep internal will to exert his needs onto his parent.

Step by Step

I’m in the middle of this, so I don’t currently have any perfect conclusion to what others might do in this situation, and I don’t think giving myself advice in hindsight would be particularly helpful. But what I’m trying to do, moving forward, is be more open with myself, with him, and with my girlfriend, in what is good, what might be tough but I can try, and what is too much. Allowing space to feel things out, trying to come not as some perfectly formed adult - we do enough of that in our daily lives as it is - but as a human that he loves to interact with, and wants to experience things with. And what is essential is to remember that that’s what I want and love too: connection and fun and cheekiness and laughter, and occasionally sharing life’s difficulties with one another.

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