The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Stepfatherhood

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“Happy Stepfather’s Day!” said no one, ever. That’s an exaggeration—but not by much.

I haven’t been the world’s most grateful stepdaughter. Nor has my son been the most emotionally demonstrative stepson to my husband James.

But I hadn’t realized how maligned stepfathers were until I watched Boyhood with James last year. “What a shame the Evil Stepfather showed up again,” he said. “Whenever there’s a stepfather in the story, he’s always the bad guy.”

That couldn’t be true. Weren’t stepmothers the ones who were ugly and homicidal in practically every Disney movie and Grimm’s fairy tale?

I did a little research and discovered that, as usual, my husband was right. The Stepfather Villain was one of the most prevalent stereotypes around.

Does it matter? What harm do stereotypes do, besides dampening our aesthetic pleasure by denying us freshness and surprise? As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

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On the first vacation with my now-husband and my son, Jonah plopped down in one of the two bedrooms in our rental and said, “This is for us boys.”

“And that’s yours, Mom,” he told me, nodding toward the room with the one double bed.

A year earlier, when I first met James, he’d said, “Dating a woman with a child could be complicated, as I’m sure you know.” If I didn’t then, I did now.

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According to the Step Family Foundation, 1,300 new stepfamilies form every day, and half of children under 13 in the United States live with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner. Stepfathers are everywhere.

And still no family member is more vilified in the media, including in one of my favorite recent films. Boyhood, shot over a period of twelve years with the same actors, shows, visually and narratively, how we stay the same people yet change, too.

Like Olivia, I married an immature, irresponsible yet charming and artsy man and became a mother in my twenties, then divorced and struggled to balance working and single parenting full time. The film does such an admirable job portraying people in this position, it could have been called Single Motherhood.

We meet Bill (stepfather #1), teaching a college psychology class. Mason (the boy in “boyhood”) listens to the lecture with his mother, a student in Bill’s class. Bill is clean cut, a suit and tie man. He has canned corny jokes at the ready. “This is your son? I thought he was a boy genius taking my class.” His hand brushes Olivia’s shoulder, and she is flattered by the attention, though Mason grimaces.

In the next scene, Bill has officially become The Stepfather. Bill oozes an artificial charm, overacting in a game of charades.

Bill’s façade starts to crack when he teaches the boys to play golf and misses a hole himself. He swears, then pours a tumbler of vodka from a bottle he’s hidden behind the laundry detergent.

Soon Bill graduates from jerk to abuser. The children arrive home from school and find Olivia in the garage, face down on the floor, sobbing. Bill says, “Your mother had a little accident,” in a tone that makes clear he is responsible. Then comes the climax. He empties a bottle of liquor and says, “I’m having a drink with my dinner. Anybody else have a problem with that?” He throws his glass at Mason and stomps out as everyone bristles in terror.

“We’re leaving you,” Olivia says in Bill’s last scene. He barricades the door with his body, but Olivia breaks through it. Mother and children flee to safety.

Stepfather #2 is an Iraq War veteran studying psychology. This time, instead of marrying her professor, Olivia marries her student, but the pattern continues anyway. This stepfather starts out charming and dwindles into a grumpy drunk. He curses out Mason for returning home late one night, and in the next scene stepfather #2 is gone. He’s been taken out, like the garbage.

Mason’s biological father marries again and has a baby with his new wife. He has matured enough to be a good father to his first and second batch of children.

The message is clear: Stepfathers are bad. They may seem good at first, but they spiral into either spectacular evil or annoying jerkiness. Biological fathers may start out flawed, but they can be redeemed.

If all we see in movies are stepfathers smashing people’s heads against walls, then that becomes the one story about stepfathers. In our collective imagination, these men are guilty until proven innocent. And being a stepfather is difficult enough without that burden.

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Paradoxically, one of my favorite memoirs is an Evil Stepfather story. In This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff delivers a stepfather that fits the charmer-turned-abuser pattern. While courting Toby’s mother, Dwight is a model of manners. He seems to offer the kind of middle class stability that has eluded them.this-boys-life Once he is officially a stepfather, however, Dwight becomes a tyrant. He makes young Toby rise at dawn and deliver newspapers, then steals his earnings. Dwight refuses to buy Toby sneakers, forcing him to wear too-small dress shoes to gym class. In the movie version, Robert DeNiro embodies the Nefarious Not-Dad so fully that when I think of the word “stepfather,” I see him.

I don’t doubt that Tobias Wolff’s stepfather was a monster. Nor do I believe Richard Linklater meant to slander stepfathers in Boyhood. I heard him tell comedian Marc Maron in an interview that the movie is loosely based on his own life. And some of the accusations against Woody Allen are probably true, though I didn’t want to read them, even as my Facebook feed filled with links to articles about one of my favorite directors marrying the girl who (in practical if not legal terms) was his stepdaughter.

Perhaps the most famous stepfather is Humbert Humbert, the English professor who becomes obsessed with a twelve-year-old girl he nicknames Lolita. He uses his courtly manners and erudite airs to seduce, flatter, and marry the mother, then kills her and makes the murder look like an accident. Finally, as the girl’s stepfather and legal guardian, he can do whatever he wants with her. And does. Nabokov is such a master stylist and the novel has become so important in the literary canon (and the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation is such a brilliant work of art, too) that now, when we think “stepfather,” the next word that comes to mind may likely be “predator.”

Don’t believe it? Go to Amazon and search in the category “books” for “stepfather” (or—please don’t if there’s a child in the room or if you want to keep down your lunch). What appeared in my results were dozens of erotic novels about stepfathers and their stepdaughters. Books with titles like Taboo Steamy Stepfather RomanceCLH1.CA.OF.0114.screening3.O.1 or First Time Forbidden Older Man with headless half-dressed body parts on the covers. That wasn’t all I found. My screen also filled with a series called The Violent Stepfather and The Violent Stepfather and Son. These books were the only ones that appeared in the first few pages of the search. No fiction or memoir with positive portrayals. No parenting books, even. No self-help.

Maybe Amazon was suffering from a Fifty Shades of Grey-copycat problem. Maybe if I turned to the paper of record I’d find more than porn and gristle.

I typed “stepfather” in the search window of the New York Times, asking for articles from the past 20 years. This is the first result that popped up on my screen: The Stepfather. A movie about a mild-mannered man who ingratiates himself into a household then kills them all. There are two sequels. And a made-for-television version.

All but two of the links on the first page were about stepfather-related crimes: stepfathers accused of beating, murdering, impregnating their stepchildren.

Where were the stories Amazon and the Times weren’t telling? As usual, I asked my friends.

Leigh sent me a photo of her stepfather leaning over a page of questions, teaching her, at ten, how to solve for unknowns. “He helped me with my homework every day,” she said. “He was always there.”

He also waited up for her after dates or late field trips, a thermos of caffeine on the coffee table, the rest of the house asleep. They’d stay up and talk, not about the date, but about books and movies and world events. When she was a teenager she argued with him, but not because he wasn’t her “real” dad. She knew he would never stop loving her, so she felt safe to say whatever was on her mind. “He was my real dad,” she says. “I just happened to have two.”

Tia told me her stepfather Marvin taught her things even more valuable than what she learned at school. “Follow their gut, not their eyes.” He was talking about basketball, but the lesson came in handy when she had to summon enough courage and street smarts to travel and settle in South America as a woman on her own.

Even after Marvin and her mother split up and he moved out of town, he remained her father. She would visit and he would call. Once she went to see him when she was in college. “I always thought of you as my daughter,” he said. She knew it was true. Years before, he had taken her to work and a colleague had said she looked like “her dad.” Marvin put his arm around Tia’s shoulder, and she nodded.

Rick met his wife when her daughter was six. He was almost forty and new to kids, but got right into it like it was the one thing in his life he’d been waiting for. Their way of showing affection, both of them being a little gun-shy, was somewhat tangential. He would only kiss her on the top of her head and she would make a face and wipe it off (and at age twenty-nine she still does this). She was the only one who called him “Ricky.” He’d drop her off at school and say, “Have a terrible day,” and they signed their cards and notes with “Like” instead of “Love.” Ironically, of course, these distancing mechanisms became the very things that endeared them to each other.

The problems started as she approached adolescence, for all the usual reasons. Rick says, “The hardest thing was that I didn’t have any real power.” As stepfathers often don’t. But she weathered her stormy adolescence. “I couldn’t be more proud of her,” he concludes. “She has a huge heart and a loud, opinionated voice to match, and I wouldn’t want her to be any other way.”

Jennie’s story is a Brady Bunch-type fairy tale. A widow with two boys marries a widower with two girls. Jennie says, “I never think of Dave as a stepfather or of myself as a stepmother. I don’t know why.” Maybe because the words, through negative media associations, have become so tainted.

The first Christmas that she and Dave were a couple. John, her youngest, broke the walls of his gingerbread house kit, then smashed the roofing and laid the wreckage flat against the corner of his building. He painted frosting letters. “It’s a warehouse,” he said. “The walls are cracked. This is graffiti.”

Jennie was about to tell him to stop ruining Christmas for everyone, but Dave stopped her. He knew John needed to demolish the traditions he had with his father before they could all build new ones. Dave helped John find materials for a burn barrel and flames. It turned out that the warehouse was exactly the kind of art therapy teacher the hospice teacher had been trying to get the boys to do, unsuccessfully, for so long. With Dave’s help, they finally did.

My friends’ stories reminded me of my own. I was twelve when my mother married Al and, like most twelve year olds, I didn’t welcome change. We drove to Texas and looked at new construction in Dallas and Houston, houses I would have moved into, kicking and screaming, moping and sulking, had we decided to buy. Al wanted to leave Detroit for better job options, and who could blame him? I could, back then. Now I’m old enough to see that my hometown was bleeding jobs, and moving was probably the most sensible thing we could have done. But it’s too late to tell him that. I lost track of Al decades ago.

When my mother married Joe, it was hard to think of him as my stepparent because I was already a parent myself. The first time I saw my mother and Joe after they married, we sipped coffee at Ram’s Horn near the Detroit airport. While Joe was in the bathroom, my mother asked, “Can Jonah call him Grandpa Joe?”

Of course I said yes. I thought too much time had passed, as if there were an expiration date for making a new family. Joe likes to ride with Jonah shotgun in his SUV, Joe’s nonstop friendly banter slowly washing away Jonah’s quiet self-consciousness.

My son’s grandfather died a decade ago, and my father-in-law died last year. Joe is the only grandfather Jonah has left.

On my first trip with James and Jonah, my then-boyfriend took the training wheels off the fat-tired Schwinn before the day grew hot and crowded. James devoted his beach vacation to teaching biking on the boardwalk. Every day for a week, he made it his mission to show Jonah how to balance and finally how to fly. james and jonah (1)He ran alongside the bike, ready to catch him the moment he risked skinning his knee. Morning and afternoon and evening, he was patient and (unlike me) unshakably calm.

Ten years later, James sat in the passenger seat of the Toyota Corolla he picked out for my son. Our son. James’s solid, reliable, competent presence had a calming influence on our nervous driver-in-training. I had stopped trying to teach Jonah to drive, my reflexive warnings to stop at red lights and check his mirrors making him believe he was going to crash. James logged in the 40 hours (at least 15 after dark) required for a license. He taught Jonah not to fear deer running in front of the car (something that still dogs me). He showed him how to merge and parallel park, to reverse and find his blind spot.

Now Jonah drives to college and back, a ten-hour trip from Virginia to Connecticut, grooving to WTF podcasts and hip hop, wishing the road trip would never stop.

James taught Jonah how to play baseball, how to watch baseball. How to shave. How to parse statistics and politics. Even when Jonah wasn’t listening (even when he was, in his rebellious adolescent phase, pushing him away), James tried to teach him the geometry, trigonometry, and calculus of being a man.

Good stepfathers are rare in books, but I managed to find a few. Harry Crews, in A Childhood, Biography of a Place, writes about a stepfather he calls “Daddy,” a man he unabashedly loves. In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, Dan Needham is John’s stepfather, a young drama teacher who marries John’s mother only a year before she dies. Dan helps raise John as if he were his biological son.

My favorite stepfather story is Only the Strong Will Survive, part of the collection Fires of Our Choosing. Eugene Cross flips the usual stepfather arc on its head. This time, the relationship starts out bad and turns good.

Here’s a scene that illustrates the treatment stepfathers sometimes have to endure: Joey needs a partner for the last part of his brown belt karate test, and his mother Meredith volunteers her boyfriend Ron. The dojo asks Ron to step forward and grab Joey’s wrists. Before he can retreat, he’s “sailing around [Joey’s] body like a ballroom dancer, his hip catapulting [him] through the air.” Ron “lands on [his] back with a hollow thud” and the audience cheers.

Later, Ron tells Joey, “You didn’t have to flip me so hard.”

Meredith dismisses Ron’s pain. “You would think that with you being the closest thing he has to a father figure, you’d be a little more patient with him.”

Alison Bechdel, in her memoir Fun Home, says “Although I’m good at enumerating my father’s flaws, it’s hard for me to sustain much anger at him. I expect this is partly because the bar is lower for fathers than for mothers.” And the bar for stepfathers? How low can you go?

So much of what people are comes from what we expect them to be. What we read in the paper and see on the big screen.

Most of my google searches yielded a string of slasher movie trailers and reviews, with a smattering of crimes. But one link was different from all the others. “The Men in Christ’s Life” reads an article that appears with links to “Is It Biblical for Christians to Get a Tattoo?” and “5 Things Christians Should Stop Saying on Facebook.” The author says that his stepfather reminds him of “another great man of God,” Joseph. The stepfather of Jesus. “I don’t think people really ever think of Joseph in this way,” he continues. “Joseph knew all along that Jesus was not his real son. Yet he loved him and raised him as if he was.”

If I could rewrite Boyhood, I wouldn’t model stepfathers #1 and #2 after St. Joseph, the third member of the Holy Family. I wouldn’t make him like Humbert Humbert, Woody Allen, or The Slasher, either. Most of us fall somewhere in between. And stepfathers are like most of us. That’s the point I want to make: not that stepfathers are perfect, but that they are human. And art and media should portray them as fully rounded characters.

If I could rewrite my childhood, I wouldn’t edit out the stepfathers. But I would give them more prominence in the credits.

sandI’d start by crediting James for his fast thinking on that trip to the ocean years ago. He told Jonah, “I think you and Hedwig should share this room,” then carried the stuffed owl over to the second twin mattress. “Let’s give him his own bed and call this your clubhouse.”

“You don’t mind sharing with Mom?” Jonah asked.

James didn’t. He still doesn’t. And that’s something to celebrate.

Happy Stepfather’s Day. Let me be the first to say it.

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Image credits: Featured image, image 1, image 2, image 3. Images 4, 5, and 6 courtesy of the author.


Sharon Harrigan's work has appeared in many publications, including Virginia Quarterly Review, Narrative, and Pleiades. She teaches at WriterHouse in Charlotttesville, Virginia, and is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Playing with Dynamite: A Daughter's Story. More from this author →