Stoney Stamper: 'You're not my dad' (and other issues) -- My approach to the delicate art of step-parenting

If you’re reading this, then there’s a pretty good chance you are a parent, were at one time a parent, or you’d love to be one someday. That being said, there’s also a pretty good chance you are a stepparent. According to the Stepfamily Foundation and the U.S. Bu­reau of Census, there are at least 30 million children in the United States alone living with one biological and one nonbiological parent.

That’s a lot of families — and a lot of confused little kids — having to learn to live with, and trust, someone who is not their "real" mom or dad. It also makes for, at least in my case, some very confused stepparents.

First off, if you are a stepparent, let me tip my hat to you and say "Thank you." You deserve it. Knowing there are millions of others out there, losing their minds, struggling with some of the same “you’re not my dad” issues I was going through daily, gave me a cer­tain amount of confidence. It’s an “if they can do it, I can do it” kind of thing. I don’t think I am any better than anyone else, but I don’t think I am necessarily any worse, either.

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I have two beautiful “step” daughters. That’s what the law calls them. I just call them my daughters. My girls. They are no less my daughters than my biological daughter, Gracee. I love them, and I would do anything for either one of them.

However, it’s been a long, screwy ride to get where we are today. April still laughs at how un­comfortably I acted the first day I met Abby and Emma. I am a fairly capable person. I can generally handle myself adequately, and with confidence, in nearly any situation. Very few things can make me shake in my boots. But that day. That day I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I couldn’t sit still. I was up and down, walking around. A jittery mess. I was terrified. The grav­ity of the situation, to me, was crushing. Afterward, I realized I was nervous on many different levels.

If I could only give you one solid piece of advice, here it is: The most important thing you can do, by far, is show them you really love their mother (or father).

First, apparently, this awesome, beautiful woman that I really liked a lot liked me so much she wanted me to meet her kids. That, in itself, made me get a little shaky. Oh, and she had never intro­duced a man to her kids before. To me, that screamed commitment, which made me feel like there was a cable clamp around my esopha­gus. But then I began to think about other things. Like, Okay, I really like her. Love her, even. (Gulp.) But what if her kids don’t like me? Will she still want to date me? That’s heavy. Talk about pressure!

I’d had a hard enough time trying to get one woman to like me for any extended period of time, much less three! And what if I didn’t like them?! I know that sounds a little harsh, because they were just little girls, but let’s be honest: some people are kid people and some aren’t. I never had been. Ever. So the thought of really liking April, and the possibility of these kids jacking everything up, was a pretty legitimate fear. And even though others may not admit it, I know I am not the only one who has felt that way.

Abby and Emma are quite different from each other. In fact, they couldn’t be more opposite. First, we’ve got Emma — a blonde with bright blue eyes. She is spirited and wild. The next thing that will come out of her mouth? Well, your guess is just as good as mine.

She’s very outgoing, very loving, and very easy to get to know. She’ll talk to anyone and will tell you all about herself in the first ten minutes you meet her. Not long after we met, she would sit on my lap, give me a hug when I would leave, and when she first told me she loved me, I thought I might pass completely out. As far as making me feel comfortable, Emma did great.

Then we’ve got Abby — a brunette with hazel eyes. And defi­nitely a tougher nut to crack. She has an excellent, very dry sense of humor. She is quiet, calm, and mature for her age, and extremely laid back.

Now, don’t get me wrong. She is completely capable of going off the rails of the crazy train, but she is also very cautious. She and her mom have quite the unique relationship, and when I first came along, Abby was scared I was going to somehow affect that. She wasn’t necessarily mean to me, but she was totally and completely indifferent to my existence. She would act like I wasn’t in the room. She refused to look at me and would only speak to me in muted, one-syllable words, and then only if her mother made her. She made me so nervous.

It became my mission in life to make her like me. I mean, c’mon, everyone likes me. Well, almost. So surely I could make this little girl, 10-years-old at the time, like me. I was determined to make this happen.

I tried being sweet. Nope. Not even close.

I tried being funny. Nope. She’d go out of her way not to laugh.

I tried buying her things, to which she would say “Thank you,” because she has good manners, but nothing seemed to crack through her shell.

For months I tried and tried, and I didn’t seem to make any progress whatsoever. It began to really upset me, although I did my best to not let Abby know it. April did try to make me feel better about it, but I was at a loss. She said, "Just ignore her. She’ll come around eventually." But that was impossible. I couldn’t make myself ignore her. So I just kept trying.

And then one day she came and sat down by me on the couch, and she told me a story of something funny that happened at school.

She laughed about it and said, “Isn’t that funny?”

And then one night, she asked me if I’d take her to Sonic to get her some ice cream.

What I am getting at is that she finally began to trust me, a little at a time. She realized I wasn’t there to steal her mother away from her. Or to steal her things or kill her dog. She realized I just genuinely loved her mom but that I also genuinely loved her. She realized my attitude toward her wasn’t an act but it was who I really was and how I really felt. I was there because I wanted to be. Not because I had to be. And finally, it worked!

So if you’ve been lucky enough, as I was, to inherit some chil­dren from a previous relationship, and you’re slamming your head into a wall or something, just hang in there. Just keep showing them that you are there for the long haul. Be nice to them; try not to be too awkward or uncomfortable like I was, because that probably ain’t gonna help a whole lot.

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But if I could only give you one solid piece of advice, here it is: The most important thing you can do, by far, is show them you really love their mother (or father). Once they see that and believe it, I promise you those kids will fall in line. I truly believe that. Now, I know some of you will have a harder time with this than others, but perseverance is the key. The King James Bible calls it longsuffering. But yes, perseverance sounds a little more upbeat.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we are still very much a work in prog­ress. We continue to have our days when we all want to clobber each other. But that’s how family goes. And perseverance is the key.

Excerpted from "My First Rodeo: How Three Daughters, One Wife, and a Herd of Others Are Making Me a Better Dad," by Stoney Stamper. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.