Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Being “The Other Man”

Being “The Other Man”

Usually when we hear the term “the other man” we think of a person with whom someone is cheating on her husband or boyfriend. It stirs up feelings of jealousy, anger, confused loyalties, and disappointment at reality falling short of the ideal. I am also the “other man.” I have a stepson and so he has a biological father… and me. The situation of a child having a biological father and a stepfather unfortunately provides the child with the emotional parallels of a love triangle.

With 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce and the growing ranks of children in foster care, I think that my experience with my son is one that, regrettably, many can identify with. My wife and I are not his biological parents, but she has been his caretaker and the only mother he has known since an infant. I married his mother when he was 5. His biological father has regular contact through visitations every other weekend and some holidays. So that is the situation out of which I am sharing.

One of the things that is difficult to let go of as a man is the desire to be The father. As men, we do not like to share our roles with other men. And when it comes to our families we are especially jealous of our roles as both husband and father. The idea our role being usurped by another is bitter. But as a step-father I must accept that I am not the only father my son has. To be plain, it is painful at times. My son is nine years old. At that age a boy worships his biological father, whoever that person may be and however good of a father that person is or however badly that person falls short. While he regards me as his father, he will regularly in casual conversation refer his biological father his “real” dad. I know that he does not understand semantics and does not understand the pain that causes me but that doesn’t make it easier. I also know that my son loves me, enjoys the time we spend together, looks up to me, and relishes every positive word I say to him, and is pained by every negative word. In order to be a better father, I have had to let go of my desire to be his only father and be willing to be a father without the affirmation of being regarded by my son at every moment as “Dad.” I don’t like it, and I still have not totally let go of that desire. Humility is hard won and, for me, I doubt will ever be fully won.

The great evil of divided families is the havoc it plays on the hearts and minds of the children caught in the middle. My son feels a constant confusion. His biological father is jealous of his son’s affections and reminds him that I am not his “real” father, that he is, and asserts that there can be only one. To be honest, if I let myself, I would tell him the same thing (said conversely). Because of this confusion of loyalties, my son feels like he is betraying his biological father when he thinks of me as dad and also feels that he is betraying me when he thinks of his biological father as dad (especially if he is home with us). I go through great pains to let him know that he is free to love his biological father. My wife and I take care to only speak positively of the biological father and to encourage our son in his visits and sporadic phone calls. He does not have to choose as far as I am concerned. But for my son, the challenge of loving two fathers and the feeling of committing treason against both for loving both is source of stress and nightmares.

When I am honest with myself, I must admit that I sometimes doubt my own standing to rightfully be a father to this boy. I find myself believing the lies. Sometimes I’m scared that I will just screw things up one too many times or too badly and he will heed those lies. If you are a stepparent you know the lies: “You aren’t his real dad.” “He’s not your real son.” “Why should you keep letting yourself get hurt or worrying about this child who is not really yours to worry about?” But like I said, they are lies. And this is not really a love triangle. There is no betrayal here. The sad state of affairs is that my son has two fathers because we live in a world where families are broken. Both he and I are learning to live in the world we find ourselves. I am trying to advance the kingdom of God into this difficult situation. I love him. I care for him. I’m there for him when he needs me. I set limits on his behavior and activities because I love him and want him to grow up to be a better man. I help him with his homework even though he frustrates me to the point I just surrender and get my wife to do it. I have him help me do things even though I could do them faster and better without him. I give him chores to teach him responsibility and work ethic. I know that one day he will say to me in anger when I ground him for missing curfew, “You’re not even my real father!” I also know that I’ll keep loving him and he will keep loving me because I’m his father even though I’m the other man.

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