I remember the day I became a father very well. Not because that was the day I watched my first child being born, but because that was the day I got married. I was an insta-dad (just add ring).
With half of all 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 my wife 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. You will not find much fathering advice here, but I can share with you some of my experiences with becoming a father to a 5 year-old (now 14) and beginning a marriage at the same time. Fatherhood, of the non-biological variety, brings its own set of challenges both during dating and marriage, but many joys as well.
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. 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 can play wars of attrition. 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) person around. I needed to realize the magnitude of this change and find ways to deal with it.
When I married my wife, I joined an already existent family. I was fearful this would pose a challenge to forming a family without becoming an add-on or an outsider. I was paranoid, truthfully, and not very graceful all the time. Good pre-marriage counseling, being aware of this difficulty, time together, and a rather gracious, wise, and loving wife, has made this all easier, but not easy.
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 non-biological son and so he has a biological father… and me. The situation of a child having a biological father and a non-biological father unfortunately provides the child with the emotional parallels of a love triangle.
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 tension- sometimes it is hidden, sometimes it is closer to his conscious thoughts. 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 do our best to speak positively of the biological father and to encourage our son in his visits. 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 I cannot begin to empathize with.
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 non-biological father I must accept that I am not the only father my son has. To be plain, it is painful at times.
A boy worships his biological father, whoever that person may be and whatever type a father that person may be. He will regularly in casual conversation refer his biological father his “real” dad. I know that he does not fully 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 father. 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.
When I am honest with myself, I must admit that I sometimes doubt my own standing to rightfully be a father to him. 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 step-parent or foster parent or other type of non-biological parent, 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?” “What gives you the right to assume that role?” “See, he doesn’t think you should be his father, just give up.” 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 sometimes 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. That tension of lacking a biological link brings pain and difficulty, but 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.
I’d also add that there is much joy as well. 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 father. 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 him as my son. My life is better for having him in it.