Ten Step Commandments

We spoke quietly, nearly whispering, arms clasped together. Friends and family watched us as the second most important man in her life waited. We took our time, this being a walk to cherish forever, sharing…

We spoke quietly, nearly whispering, arms clasped together. Friends and family watched us as the second most important man in her life waited. We took our time, this being a walk to cherish forever, sharing words of encouragement as we made our way down the aisle. I stood tall and remained steady as we walked, she leaned on me. At the altar, I kissed her cheek. The room became blurry; I didn’t want to let go.

In the blink of an eye she was gone, evolved from my girlfriend’s fiercely independent and aloof 7-year-old into the beautiful daughter that I gave away on her wedding day. A few years later, I did it again, this time with her sister. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy. What began as an uneasy truce with my new friends slowly grew into what I have today; a beautiful, happy “ready-made family.”

I was warned:

“Don’t get involved with a woman with kids!” my friends advised.

“You can’t even take care of yourself!” claimed my parents.

“You’re too young to have a family!” from my subconscious mind.

The smartest thing I did was to ignore their advice. I had found the woman I planned to spend the rest of my life with and haven’t looked back.

When I first met her two girls, I could not picture myself as their father. As my relationship with their mother progressed, my role transformed from somebody they were unsure of and shy around to somebody to be trusted. We started as friends and spent countless hours getting to know each other. As time rolled on, I realized I had fallen in love with all of them. My life changed from a simple pursuit of my own pleasure to that of a proud and protective father. I was shocked to realize I wanted them around as much as possible.

With no idea what I was getting into, I immersed myself fully into their lives, married their mother and marched blindly into fatherhood. Along the way, I learned a great deal. Mistakes were made, but ultimately I found what it takes to raise healthy, successful children, even if they started out as somebody else’s.

There are infinite ways to be a parent. I found these 10 to be the most important for us:

1. Love their mother (or father). It all begins here; without the love, the rest is impossible.

2. Be honest. Kids are perceptive. You don’t have to tell them everything about your life, but what you choose to tell, tell the truth. At times, a colorful story about your past (we all have plenty of those!) doesn’t hurt; kids find it easy to bond with somebody willing to laugh at their previous mistakes. It makes us more human.

3. Be fun. It’s not hard. Remember how it feels to be a kid. Time spent with a child is a gift; there aren’t many second chances. Seize the opportunity, play a game, go for a walk, find something interesting to do that you all enjoy. It doesn’t have to cost anything. Kids are fascinated with anything if a caring adult who is giving them the attention they crave presents it to them.

4. Be fair. They will get over the fact that you made them go to bed at 8:30 p.m. if it happens every night and their siblings get the same treatment. (An occasional breaking of the rules feels all the sweeter when it is an aberration from the norm.)

5. Avoid power struggles. In most cases, let the biological parent rule. Be supportive. Occasionally you have to “put your foot down.” Try not to stomp too hard, they never forget.

6. Know your place. You are the step-parent. They have two biological parents, and you are not one of them. In time, you may become accepted as their parent, but there is no guarantee. My youngest daughter calls me Michael. One day, I overheard a friend ask her why she didn’t call me “Dad.” She answered, “Because to me, Dad and Michael mean the same thing.” That day came 10 years into our relationship when she was 15 years old. I thought she had forgotten I existed. How wrong I was.

7. Be productive. Kids share enormous pride in your accomplishments. Your standing in the community reflects on them. They are embarrassed to be associated with somebody who shows little or no pride in their appearance, home or work. Whatever it is you do, do it well; the kids will benefit.

8. Love them. To love them, you must understand them, be a part of their lives. Love builds trust. It is OK to not unconditionally love your spouse’s children. If the kids are truly obnoxious, rip wings off butterflies, eat ants and are mean to your dog, try to find qualities in them that are worthy of love and build on that. Love must be earned for it to be real. Look for traits you admire and feed off them. Encourage the positive.

9. Listen. It seems simple, but listening is a skill that is sorely lacking. It is hard to hear when you are talking. Actively listen. Show interest and ask questions. Be an ally, not the enemy.

10. Listen! Just in case you weren’t listening.

Families are a challenge under the best circumstances. A stepfamily takes it to another level. I am fortunate. As with most things in life, the bigger the challenge, the greater the reward. I met and married the woman of my dreams. Because she came with two kids, my happiness tripled. I never imagined that what I thought might be a burden would become my greatest joy.

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