I never expected to be a father. I made it to my mid-40s without having children. I was single and leading a pretty leisurely life. On Father’s Day, I would occasionally think about my dad, now deceased, but otherwise it was a day like any other.
Then I fell in love. Twice.
The first time was to Ramana. We met online, and five months later, we took our first international vacation together. We really fit well with each other, and dating progressed to marriage.
The second time I fell in love was unexpected. That was with Madeline. She is the 8-year old, liberated woman who lives with us. When I moved in with Ramana, I became a stepdad. This year, I am celebrating Stepdad Father’s Day.
I met Madeline for the first time at Mimo’s in Essex. She was 6, and Ramana wanted us to meet at a place Madeline liked and where she felt comfortable. While we waited for our food, Madeline and I played in the small playground by the restaurant. She was cool, but at that time I was just a logical observer. I wasn’t drawn to the role of father figure, but I also wasn’t seeking to avoid it.
It helped that Madeline already had a dad. He is active in her life and provides her all the “dadness” she needs. People would ask me how it felt to be a father and I would say, “Madeline already has a dad.” This took the pressure off because I didn’t have to be her father. I wasn’t representing an entire gender to a little human figuring out the world. I was happy that she would get an opportunity to see that men are varied.
Months and then years passed, and over time my relationship with Madeline has evolved as we’ve become more comfortable with each other. I no longer get stiff hugs goodbye, and on a Saturday morning, I’m happy to sleep on the couch while she watches her shows snuggled next to me. I appreciate that I came into Madeline’s life when she was still young enough not to need to be resistant to the new guy. It was and continues to be a long-term relationship. We have slowly built trust with each other, and her suspicions about my goofy behavior have become endearments. Or at least that is what I tell myself.
One of the things I have definitely learned is that it’s fun having an 8-year old around.
We like to wrestle, which almost always ends in her crying as she escalates the battle, but is still a blast until that point. We like to argue at the dinner table, which provides equal part annoyance and amusement to mom. I put my underwear under her pillow, and she puts fake cockroaches in my shoes. The cockroaches have become a particular amusement that has evolved from hiding them around the house to sealing them in an ice cube to add class to any beverage. We also have the same running jokes. On movie night, I always suggest “Friday the 13th,” or “Halloween.” She always yells no, but when she has movie night with Ramana, Madeline has started suggesting these movies to her mom. Someday, when she is old enough, I will really enjoy introducing her to these movies that terrified me. Perhaps being a stepdad gives me some extra leeway in acceptable behavior.
Currently, Madeline has been very focused on fairness. This provides hours of entertainment. It gives me an opportunity to be the old, cranky purveyor of realism, and I assure her that life isn’t fair. It could be that a kid that still believes in Santa Claus isn’t ready to learn how unjust the world is, but it makes for good arguments and discussions about ethics.
Speaking of crankiness, I never knew how fun it would be to start sentences with… “Back when I was a kid…” Ramana and I tell Madeline all sorts of stories about our childhood, with a fair amount of exaggeration. I suspect Madeline feels we grew up in a sort of primitive age, which by some of our current standards may be true.
When I was Madeline’s age, my father had a comedy album by Steve Martin. I used to play it on my record player even though it was totally not appropriate for me. One of my favorite parts was a bit where Steve talks about how fun it would be to raise someone totally wrong. In hindsight, it explains a lot about my father’s approach to child rearing. I have to remind myself (generally with Ramana’s stern looks to help) that this is not the right parenting approach, but I do have a good time making up stories. Some are funny. Some are scary. Last week, I convinced Madeline that if she ate oysters she would poop out a pearl. It was up to Ramana to convince her not to sort through her poop for the coming week.
Oysters are something else I love about Madeline and being her stepdad. This kid eats raw oysters a dozen at a time. I love the contradictions of a little human who won’t eat pizza with toppings because that is gross but thinks eating raw shellfish is totally natural. Like most adults contemplating kids’ eating habits, I have no idea why she likes some of the things she does, but it is also pretty amazing trying new things with her and seeing her light up when she gets it.
And just like this story, my life is now all over the place. Before becoming Madeline’s stepdad, I had a predictable life. I was largely in control of my surroundings and generally felt pretty smart. Those days are over. All plans involving the home are now dependent on the erratic whims of someone who sincerely believes in mermaids, and who can quickly turn the happiest moments into a well of despair and back again. Many days include some humbling moment where I look at Ramana and say… “I have no idea what we should do!” My Stepdad Father’s Day will be no different.
Don’t worry. This is not a story where I whine over painful growth opportunities and dish out the syrupy lessons learned. If you’re reading this blog, you know that children are terrible, terrible monsters, but life would just not be as lifelike without them.
In closing, I do want to give a shout out to my counterpart… the stepmom. Here with Ramana, I am Madeline’s stepdad. When Madeline is with her dad, she is also with her stepmom. I think we need to acknowledge stepmoms, too, because it’s far easier to be a stepdad than a stepmom. Why is that? Well, first and foremost, everything is easier for men than women. That’s how the world works. Add to it, hundreds of years of literature and art where the stepmom is the depiction of evil, out to harm our young heroines. Hats off to you stepmoms of the world. May your diabolical plots bring you joy and happiness on my Stepdad Father’s Day as well.
Guest Author: Clayton Clark
Clayton Clark was born in New Hampshire, raised in Upstate New York, and averaged out to Vermont. He lives with his soon to be wife Ramana and Ramana’s daughter, Madeline. He is a bureaucrat working for the State of Vermont. He is survived by his mother, Dorothy, who has learned to live with disappointment.