Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Insta-Dad, Just Add Ring

Insta-Dad: Just Add Ring, by Phil Hall, Jonestown

I became a father on September 25th, 2004. It's easy to remember that date
not because it is my son's birthday; it is my wedding day. I am "Insta-Dad:
Just Add Ring." I have been a father for about a year now and will not
pretend to know enough to give much fathering advice as some other writers
of this column have been able to do, but I can share with you some of my
experiences with becoming a father to a 6 year-old and beginning a marriage
at the same time. Fatherhood, of the step variety, brings its own set of
challenges both during dating and marriage, but many joys as well.

One of the more difficult things is that often a step-child has a biological
parent(s) out there somewhere. This throws a lot of curveballs such as
confusion about allegiances in the child (Who should s/he chose? and Should
she have to choose?), confusion about your own role, and legal stuff.
Rebeca is not Felipe's natural mother, but has taken care of him since his
father gave him to her when he was an infant. Felipe's father still shows a
little interest and will show up wanting to take him for visits every few
weekends. So there is tension and resentment that another man is being
called "Daddy" by his son. And, until recently, his father and Rebeca never
had any terms of custody laid out by a court, so now we are going through
emotionally and financially exhausting legal proceedings.

There is no warm-up. No having a baby and slowly learning parenting as the
baby develops to a toddler to a child to a teenager. I just started with a
boy. My training consisted of my own childhood (which was pretty good) and
Bill Cosby (who is a genius with parenting advice). And living with
children is not the same as having them over for a weekend or even a week.
Were you aware that they don't leave? They are there all the time and they
want your attention (at least the younger ones seem to). For a guy who
prized his solitude this was an abrupt departure from what was hitherto my
normal life. I was not only adjusting to being married, but being a father,
and having another (rather needy, as I saw it) smaller person around. I
needed to realize the magnitude of this change and find ways to deal with it
and I still to take time off to recharge by myself or with my friends.

When I married Rebeca, I joined an already existent family. It can be a
challenge to form your family and not be an add-on or an outsider. Good
pre-marriage counseling, being aware of this difficulty, time together, and
a rather gracious, wise, and loving wife, has made this easier.

A child is also a challenge to building a marriage relationship. For many
people who get married, their attentions are undivided for months or years.
Marriage with children involved means that you have to pay attention to a
third person (or more). And sharing. I do not like to share Rebeca. But
we do have this son. And he needs his mommy's attention too. And he
doesn't really like to share mommy either. For these reasons boundaries had
to be drawn to keep a balance so that the two of us can spend needed time
together and the family has time together. All parties involved (especially
my wife and I) needed to understand that there is both a family and a
marriage here and act accordingly so that neither is neglected. Time
together (if you get my drift) is a real challenge with kids in the house.
So we got him to make friends in the neighborhood and have a reasonably
early bedtime (both of which also make happier a kid).

It is important to think ahead before entering a relationship with a parent.
So many children of single parents have series of temporary "fathers" (or
mothers) in their parent's romantic interests who then abandon them (in the
child's eyes) when the relationship ends and the child is left with an
inability to trust and a skewed view of fatherhood, manhood, and God (who
calls himself our Father). From the first date, I resolved not to get to
know her son, Felipe, until I knew that this relationship was going

Once the direction of our relationship became apparent we began to include
Felipe in some of our outings- going to the park, picnics, etc. - so that he
and I could get to know each other. As this progressed Felipe and I began
to do a few things together on our own- fishing, go to the playground, had a
sleepover, etc. When I asked Rebeca to marry me, Felipe and I were already
pretty comfortable with each other, had created our own friendship, and he
was very excited to hear we were getting married. The good relations
between Felipe and I and his happiness about Rebeca's and my marriage were a
great blessing and we avoided a major obstacle many blended families face.

This brings me to the transition from friend to father. Felipe and I had
already bonded pretty well. And while we were friends, I had worked with
adolescents and teenagers before and recognized that adult-child friendships
are not between equals. I am not a child and should not act or try to
relate to a child in a childish way. Kids do need friends they can relate
to in childish ways- these friends are called other children. Children need
friendships with adults in their lives who relate to them as an adult, value
them, love them, and enjoy them, all the while showing them what it means to
be a man or a woman, what it means to be responsible, and demonstrating
godliness. We have a lot of fun together, but Felipe has never been allowed
to act disrespectful towards me. This put us in a better position for that
transition. It began slowly, with little things like me handing out
discipline once in a while and just spending time together in outings and
sleepovers. That was not easy at first both because of my initial
insecurity and Felipe's initial resistance to having to obey me or be
without mommy for extended periods. But with consistency, these things
changed. As I spent more time with Rebeca and Felipe together and with
Felipe one on one, I had the opportunity to take a more fatherly role in his

What really helped was a little baptism by fire. Our wedding was 3 weeks
after school started and we wanted Felipe to go to his first few weeks of
kindergarten at the school he would be attending once we began living
together. So, Felipe moved in with me during the week so he could go to
school. Rebeca would come to visit, but the bulk of the time that he spent
out of school was with me. We ate together. We worked around the house
together. We watched Sesame Street. I got him ready in the morning. I put
him to bed at night. I almost killed him by knocking him down the stairs
when he helped me carry a mattress. And then he would go home with mommy
for the weekend. For 3 weeks. I have a whole new appreciation for single
parents, living on their own with their kid(s) after that. But that time
together really gave Felipe and me the chance to form habits together,
discipline, rituals, having fun, deal with some trauma, and spend time in
each other's company developing our relationship apart from mommy. I think
that these few weeks together were instrumental in our current relationship.

Every decision has repercussions and I want any future stepfathers (and
spouses to future stepparents) to be aware of them. And to current
stepfathers, you aren't the only one. Yes it is a challenge. Yes it cramps
my previous style. Yes it is hard on a beginning marriage. And yes my car
is a mess of school papers, McDonald's toys, and lost socks. But. I have a
wonderful, smart, fun, funny, talented, creative, and
way-too-energetic-for-me son. I would never have known this boy or be
blessed by this boy or be taught so much patience by this boy, if I had not
become his stepfather. My genes could never mix with anybody's genes,
recreate the same life experiences, and produce this extraordinary person
who is now a part of my life. God gives us many things we did not expect or
think we needed or even wanted. But all things work for our good and I
consider myself blessed to have Felipe as my son. My life is better for
having him in it. And I didn't have to change a single diaper.

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