“You know, you’re not our dad.”
Those words came at the end of a conversation during a family gathering. I was disciplining two of kids, trying to pass on what I’d learned from my father. Those words cut like a knife.
I calmly left a room full of family members, walked upstairs, tears welling in my eyes, and cried for the first time in years.
Perhaps it was the realization that I was never going to be their dad in the sense I wanted to be. Perhaps it hit me that I was never going to be a biological father. Either way, it hurt. Immensely.
Ever the kind, loving soul, my wife knew immediately how much it hurt. “Please give it time. They do love you. Kids say things like this sometimes,” she said.
I knew that. I said some pretty awful things to my parents when I was their age. Still, it hurt.
For years, I dreamed of being a dad. I grew up with an amazing father, and I desperately wanted to pass on all the things I’ve learned, and continue to learn, from him.
As the years passed, I began to wonder if it was going to happen. When my wife and I began dating, I knew the chances of having a baby were slim. We talked about it. I’ll never forget my future wife crying because she didn’t want me to feel like something was missing.
Unbeknownst to just about everybody, we did talk about having a baby together. It was during those conversations that I realized how much my wife cared about me. Even though she wasn’t exactly thrilled about going through another pregnancy, she said we could try if I really wanted to have one.
I thought about it briefly. I’d probably have to pass on graduate school. Writing those books wasn’t going to happen for a long time, if ever. My workout routine was likely history. My mother-in-law might kill me. Literally. Most importantly, this could be a health risk for my wife. It wasn’t a difficult decision. I decided to try to be the best stepfather I could.
Being a stepdad when the biological dad is in the picture is tricky, regardless of his performance in that role. He is always going to be their dad. I’m always going to be their stepdad.
But I’ve never approached that responsibility like I’m a pinch-hitter. I don’t think that’s fair to them. Kids need love, kindness, understanding, stability, wisdom and much more. Somebody has to provide those things.
For a few weeks after the first words written in this blog, I backed off quite a bit. Basically, I pouted. I was annoyed. I felt unappreciated. I felt like a dad!
I realized, of course, that that was wrong. My father never would have acted like that. Within a few weeks, some wonderful things happened. I took one of my sons to lunch and consoled him for hours the day after a girl broke his heart for the first time. My daughter and I spent an evening playing basketball. I bought her a brand new ball for her birthday, and she wanted to learn how to shoot. I taught my other son how to tie a bow tie for his prom.
There have been so many other awesome moments. Teaching the boys how to shave and drive. Delivering a corsage to the daughter before her first big dance. Holding my first grandchild a few weeks ago.
Shortly after our son broke the news to us that he was going to be a father, he and I drove around Overland Park running errands. I had a heart-felt conversation with him about being a dad. How he had examples how to treat his child, and how not to treat his child.
I told him that even though I wasn’t his dad, I’d tried to pass on all the things my dad has taught me through the years. When I was finished, he said, “Ernie, you’ve been more of a dad to me than my real dad.”
I cried later that evening. Tears of joy.