Every year, before Father’s Day, I peruse the shelves in shops, packed with dad greeting cards: the golf caddies, the beer and slippers, the toolkits. All pledge cloying sentiments to The Best Dad In The World, Number One Dad, Top Dad. This time of year reminds me that there is no real name for the dad-like person in my life. To his face, I call him Roger (which is his name, so that, at least, is accurate) and always have done. If I introduced him at a party, I would call him my “stepdad”, but he isn’t married to my mum any more. These relationships can be fraught with ambiguity. What do you call these men who loom so large in your lives, yet rarely get acknowledged?
Roger walked into my life and family home when I was eight years old. At first, when mum announced their engagement, I was frosty and resentful. “Where would Dad live?” I demanded, not realising he had moved out six months ago; his long hours at work meant that I had not registered his departure.
Yet my iciness thawed and Roger became a source of stability in my life. There were ructions, of course. It is extremely easy to lob “You’re not my dad” at any request to pick towels up from the bathroom floor.
When my parents divorced in the 1980s, I was the first person in my class to go through it. “You can’t split up,” I said and reeled off a list of friends who had nuclear families; children are nothing if not conservative. A few years later, every one of those children’s parents had divorced. Today, stepparents are far from unusual. According to the Office for National Statistics, about one in 10 dependent children in England and Wales lives in a stepfamily.
It is the stepmother, however, who dominates popular mythology and literature: familiar, ugly villains. In Cinderella, she is the vain, grasping enemy; in Snow White, the Wicked Queen. Stepfathers are far rarer, but they too get a bad rap. In David Copperfield, for example, Edward Murdstone thrashes his stepson, David, before sending him away to Salem House, a boarding school run by Murdstone’s friend, who also torments the young protagonist. At the cinema, there was The Stepfather, the 1987 slasher film about a serial killer who changes his identity in order that he can marry widows and murder their children. You get the idea.
Both dads dutifully turned up to parents evenings, birthday dinners and Christmas lunches, and later to my graduation
Far more benign and, in some ways, truer to my own life was a cheesy 1980s American sitcom, My Two Dads. In the show, two male friends – one relaxed, one uptight – became guardians of a young girl. It resonated with me. My own two dads had complementary personalities and very separate roles. My stepdad is very practical and reserved; my dad was the opposite. It was my dad who recommended novels and talked about politics, my stepdad who taught me how to wire a plug and drive a car.
Before I bought my first flat, my stepdad came to inspect it for damp and subsidence, and ran through the finances with me. My dad turned up after I moved in with a bottle of wine. But both dads dutifully turned up to parents’ evenings, birthday dinners and Christmas lunches, and later to my graduation.
Lisa Doodson, a psychologist and founder of HappySteps.co.uk, a resource for stepfamilies, says: “Stepdads can be one of the most important influences in children's lives and provide a really valuable and often little understood role.” Adrienne Burgess, chief executive of the Fatherhood Institute, agrees. Stepfathers are a “very under-researched topic”, she says. In part, this reflects a lack of appreciation for the role men play caring for children.
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Doodson counsels couples that, despite the perceived negatives of stepparents, there are benefits. “Children have the benefit of learning from Mum and Dad, but also stepparents, who can offer different perspectives and different strengths.” She also believes that children from stepfamilies are also usually much more mature socially and have a greater understanding of relationships, which prepares them far better for life.
Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster, has written that there is less pressure on stepdads to be paternal than on stepmothers to be maternal. “Stepfathers feel less pressure to act just like dads, and stepkids feel less internal conflict about ‘betraying’ Dad.” One friend told me that her own stepdad was “the loveliest of role models without having to be the disciplinarian”.
Another friend describes the contrasts between her two dads. “My dad was born pre-war, came of age in the 50s and wanted a creative life – art, acting, writing. It was a good time for young working-class men with those kind of aspirations, but my dad was not Michael Caine, David Bailey or John Osborne. While he was waiting to make it, he drank and scraped by on shift work.” When he felt intellectually outwitted or emotionally frustrated by my friend’s mother, he used his fists. Later, her mother met the man who went on to become her stepfather, although the pair never married. By contrast, he was a gentle person who gave her an alternative experience of men and of fathers. “Looking back, that was a wonderful gift,” she says.
My stepfather was afraid of rejection. With hindsight, he says, "I would have just given you a cuddle"
When she was 16, her mum and stepdad split up and he got married to someone else. “He called me his ‘daughter’ for the first time when we went to buy his wedding suit together.” However, at the wedding, his new wife refused to let her sit on the family table. “I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to be hurt because was I family anyway?” Almost 30 years later, my friend rarely sees her stepdad. “I’m not sure what place I have in his life now, after so many decades.”
Last night, Roger came over for dinner, after picking up my son – his grandson – from nursery. I asked him what it was like becoming a stepparent, something I have thought about since becoming a stepparent myself (to my nine-year-old stepdaughter). “I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. “And I wasn’t not ready for it.”
If he had his time again, he told me, he would have tried to be more confident and given my brother and I more hugs and kisses. “I was aware that you had a father and didn’t want you to think I would push him out or was trying to make you like me more than him.” But, also, he was afraid of rejection. With hindsight, he says, “I would have just given you a cuddle.”
There have been times in our relationship when I too have been anxious about being rejected. At the age of 26, my mum divorced my stepdad. It sucked me into a vortex of anxiety – biological dads have some kind of obligation to keep in touch with their offspring, I thought; stepparents do not. But it turned out not to change a thing. It was just as well – a few years later, my biological dad died and I no longer had two dads, just one.
Yet there is no formal name for a stepdad once they stop being married to your mum. I have felt regret when friends have referred to him as my ex-stepdad. But what are they, this parent formerly known as stepdad? I asked my own how he would describe me to a stranger. “Stepdaughter,” came the reply. In truth, he says, he prefers not to dwell on labels. “You develop a love for someone over time. Giving people labels is like making them a possession: ‘my son’, ‘my stepdaughter’. I don’t want to think of it like that.”
I am not sure I agree with him. I still have some attachment to labels. This week, I bought Roger a Father’s Day card. To My Dad, it says.