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Stepfather Role Grows on a Person

May 07, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

It was at a friend's wedding last year that Steve spotted her: the woman of his dreams. Everything about Sally seemed perfect. She was smart, pretty and different from most of the other women he had met.

"She was stable; she wasn't interested in going out and partying all the time," he says. Barely an hour after his friend bit into that first slice of wedding cake, Steve was already musing about saying "I do" himself.

But when he found out that Sally had a 9-month-old daughter from a previous relationship, Steve started reconsidering. "Sure, I had some apprehensions," says Steve, 27, who lives in Huntington Beach. "I'd never even gone out with a woman who had a kid before. But I really liked Sally a lot, so I decided to keep pursuing her."

A few weeks ago, they walked down the aisle, Sally with her daughter, now 18 months old, beside her, and Steve became both a husband and a stepfather.

"It's kind of nice having a little family situation," Steve says. "I didn't really know what to expect--I'd never even been around kids much before. But it's not as hard to have a baby around as I thought it would be. You don't get as much sleep, but. . . .

"She's just started calling me Dad. That feels really neat."

This week our attention turns from stepmothers to stepfathers. But attention is something many stepfathers aren't accustomed to. Too often, the guy who married Mom just gets overlooked.

Children, even adult children, tend to eye stepfathers cautiously when they arrive on the scene. And if he tries to get too close, too fast, he risks hearing the classic stepchild's rebuff: "You're not my real dad!"

"At first, Page accepted me," Steve recalls. "But she didn't know I'd be around for a while. After a couple of months when I didn't go away, she went through a stage where she'd cry every time she saw me. She wanted to have Mommy to herself. I still get that sometimes, but it's getting better."

Page has never seen her real father; he was out of the picture before she was born. And Steve says he would rather not be "only a stepfather."

"I'm going to adopt her," he says. "She needs a dad, and that's what I want to be." He says he knows firsthand that while the distinction won't matter to his stepdaughter now, it will be meaningful later.

"The same thing happened to me when I was a small child. My dad left, and when my mom married again, my stepdad adopted me. It really didn't make any difference to me then but now it does. It feels really nice that someone wanted to do that for me."

Nick, who lives in Yorba Linda, also adopted his two stepchildren. But he--and they--still consider him a stepfather. And although their "real" father gave up his role legally, he still has a good relationship with his children.

"They've never called me Dad," he says. "They call me Nick. When we go to functions, they introduce me as their dad, unless their real father's there, too, and then they say, 'This is my dad, and this is my stepdad.'

"I don't feel I'm in competition with him. I am the one, and I'm pretty sure they realize it, who has provided for them since they were very small."

When Nick's daughter/stepdaughter got married a few years ago, she asked her father to walk her halfway down the aisle. Then Nick took her arm and walked with her the rest of the way. "It was symbolic, you know; he started her off, I finished her off," he says.

And when that same daughter had her first child, she named the baby Nicole, after Nick. "That's kind of the ultimate honor," he says.

Remember Sharon, the ex-stepmother in last week's column whose stepfamily didn't measure up to "The Brady Bunch"? A Saddleback Valley couple--both therapists and both stepparents--say hers was a familiar theme.

"The Brady Bunch syndrome has done more damage to stepfamilies than anything else," says Nancy Noel Kempler, a marriage, family and child counselor, who, with her husband Walt, a psychiatrist, is active in the Orange County chapter of the Stepfamily Assn. of America. "The goal is so unrealistic, it sets people up for automatic failure."

"Most families try to do it too quickly," Walt Kempler says. "There's a tendency to want everything today. But a stepparent has to win the position of parent, and that takes time. I've heard so many kids in their teens tell a stepparent, 'You haven't earned the right to do that.' "

How much time? Usually about seven years, say the Kemplers.

"The research shows that the first year is the honeymoon period. Everyone's trying not to rock the boat," Noel Kempler says. "The second year, things are a little more tense. The third year is the crisis period, when all the stuff that's been shoved underneath the carpet causes an explosion. The family divides along biological lines: my kids, your kids, my brothers and sisters. Usually after the crisis, if the family stays together--most divorces occur in the first three years--they can start dealing with the real issues and form the foundation for a new family."

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