09/01/2019 08:50 EDT

I Was A 'Real Dad' Before I Had A Baby Of My Own. I Am A Stepdad.

Stepfathers have as much right to the title of "dad" as biological parents.

I started dating a single mother about five years ago. I had always wanted to start a family, but I hadn’t imagined this would be the way it would come about. My role as a stepfather to her daughter evolved quickly from piggybacks and lullabies, to hair brushing and school drop-offs. I took pride in it all right from the start. Each bit of responsibility and care felt significant to me.

I never had a stepfather, and grew up with the impression that no one in movies or TV was happy with theirs. Stepfathers were portrayed as two-dimensional figures on a narrow spectrum ranging from well-meaning dolts to looming threats. They were unwanted additions to otherwise happy families, semi-committed men who begrudged the parenting baggage that came with their adult relationships.

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These were unfair clichés, of course, but while time may have helped us to see stepfathers as a normal part of life, I don’t think we’ve welcomed them as “real” parents yet. Despite our cultural acceptance that family is a much more malleable idea than it was in the past, stepfathers remain parents with an asterisk.

I rarely thought about any of this before I also became a biological dad. It was only when meeting new people that I felt obligated to explain my semi-parent status. I kicked myself for seeming apologetic, and I saw the awkwardness I created by feeling compelled to explain anything at all. Still, I respected what it meant to be a parent — I witnessed my girlfriend doing a whole lot of it — and didn’t want to take credit for what I hadn’t earned yet. The problem was that there is no threshold of commitment stepfathers are expected to meet before earning their place amongst other parents. We just go on doing what we do, and in my case, that meant making ordinary social interactions weird.

“You’re a real father now,” multiple people told me after my son was born.

After we learned we had a little boy on the way, my family commitments evolved overnight. There were now birthing classes and midwife appointments, plus ongoing check-ins with my stepdaughter to ensure she was fully involved in the entire process. As it was when I joined the family, we didn’t want anyone to feel like an outsider while going through a big change in our lives.

I was really excited for our baby to arrive. And I was also a little relieved that I would soon be earning my new-parent stripes by experiencing the sleep loss, the constant diaper changes and all of the “firsts” that constituted my notions of what it means to be a parent. I would no longer have that asterisk attached to my self-image.

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“You’re a real father now,” multiple people told me after my son was born. In the spirit of celebration, I loved hearing that. I had finally arrived as a dad, the way I’d always envisioned. And yet, however well-meaning, these comments teased out feelings that I wasn’t a whole parent before. I had just played at being “real.”

I think this unintended criticism comes from the assumption that a stepfather’s efforts are inconsequential, or that they’re checked out on the issues that really matter. My partner has always done the heavy lifting in my stepdaughter’s life. She’s an incredible parent and I aspire to take on more of her instincts. The bond she has with her daughter is something I could never replicate, but I also know they both need me to be who I am.

It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t there from day one. My stepdaughter feels valued by me, and I her. Even while many were congratulating my “first” Father’s Day after my son was born, my stepdaughter and I were well aware of the previous years she’d given me cards or flowers.

“Parent” can and should be the name we give to the act of parenting, not just to biological fact.

Stepfathers should be seen as real parents because this also honours each child’s commitment to these relationships. While they don’t choose the adults in their lives, they do decide whether to be invested in the emotional bonds that support them. “Parent” can and should be the name we give to the act of parenting, not just to biological fact. Stepfathers are not the same as birth fathers, but they can offer the same formative potential to a child’s life. 

Having a baby has only strengthened my identity as a stepfather. There’s a 10-year age gap between our kids, and that means each day requires very different skills between the two of them. A baby’s needs are relatively simple. They teach you how to respond to their demands, and they make them as often as they can.

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Being a good stepfather to an older child is a more subtle art that requires delving into your own latent instincts from how you were raised, while also respecting the established parenting style of your partner. Sometimes you have to challenge both in order to find the right place for yourself in a step-family.

There are some stepfather clichés from the movies and sitcoms of my youth that still ring true to me. We do make sudden, awkward appearances into a family’s life and our early efforts at earning a child’s trust will inevitably be goofy. But commitment is everything when it comes to parenting. Kids are sponges, and being a positive influence can only help them become better people. That’s a crucial role. It’s as “real” as anyone could hope to be.

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