The classic American family is no longer “a mother, a father, two kids, and a dog” as the divorce rates skyrocket in recent years. According to the Bureau of Census, one out of every marriage ends in divorce, with the average American marriage lasting for only seven years. Out of all of these separated couples, 75% remarry, making about 20 million children under the age of 13 live with one biological parent and their current partner.
Any child who had to watch their parents go through a divorce knows how devastating the experience can be. Parents are a mark of stability in a child’s life, and when they break apart it’s like the child’s world is breaking apart.
The Effects of Divorce on Children
Psychologist Judith Wallerstein wrote two books on this subject, Second Chances and The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, which documented a 25-year Landmark Study that followed 93 adults and the effects of their parents’ divorce. The researchers found that only 45% of the children “do well” after the divorce.
The experience tends to leave parents with less time and sensitivity for their children since they are struggling with their own trauma from the divorce. In many cases, this led to a parent unhealthily relying on the child for emotional support, and a diminished and/or disorganized parenting style.
“Most [children] felt the lack of a template, a working model, for a loving relationship between a man and a woman,” reported Wallerstein. 
The Love of a Stepfather
Surprisingly, families that consist of a father, his biological children, and a stepmother are only 15% of all stepfamilies. On the other hand, 85% are a mother with her biological children and a stepfather.
Potential stepdads enter the scene when the divorced mother is ready to pursue a new romantic partner, and many of these men are met with anger and resistance from the children, and the bitter words, “You’re not my father!”
Yet so many seem to stick around, determined to make these children their own.
To name a few examples, Matt Damon is a stepfather to Alexia, and although she is the only stepchild out of his four children, he only refers to her as “his daughter.” Even Alexia’s biological father noted that Damon “treats Alexia like she is his own flesh and blood.”
Blake Shelton became a stepfather to the children of Gwen Stefani and was enthralled with his new role. “It’s definitely an instinct that kind of kicks in,” he said. “It’s easy to fall in love with those kids. They’re pretty special.”
On Yahoo news, writer Eden Strong reports being fiercely protective after suffering through an abusive marriage. She couldn’t imagine someone loving her children as much as she did. Then that someone did come along. Whenever their daughter is sick, he sleeps on the floor next to her bed. He cheers at their son’s karate meets and didn’t hesitate to whip out his credit card to pay for the son’s expensive treatment for epilepsy. “We need to take care of our kids,” he said.
When he and Strong were expecting their first baby together, she asked if a biological child would change how he feels about her two kids.
“Not one bit,” he said without hesitation. After a pause, he added, “Well, actually, yeah, it has. It’s made me realize that I was always meant to be a dad to all three of them because I couldn’t possibly love any of them more for being mine, or less because they didn’t start out that way. I love them all like my own, just as I always have, and I always will. They are all mine.” 
The Challenge and Opportunity
Annie Reneau was a toddler with her father left. He wasn’t abusive; he just slipped away. Her stepfather is who she considers being her real dad, the man who entered her life when she was four and chose to raise two children. He attended their parent-teacher meetings, cheered at their school plays, took the kids out for surprise ice cream trips, and taught them skills like changing tires.
As a parent, Reneau now understands how difficult his role must have been. 
For one, the dynamics of a stepfather is unlike a biological father. The stepchildren didn’t pick their stepdad and have no history with them. Combine this with feelings of confusion around their biological father, and the children often disregard a new stepdad or consider him secondary.
A stepfather has to develop and earn the children’s trust without treading over the relationship the children have with their biological father, whether he is present in their lives or not. However, a stepfather can change the children’s life significantly for the better, as so many of them have.
Family counselor and researcher Joshua Gold describes the experience of becoming a stepfather “a challenge and an opportunity.”
“The challenge comes in rejecting previously held beliefs about what it means to be a father,” Gold wrote. “Stepfathers — and I count myself as one — must avoid outmoded notions of compensating for the absent biological father or paternal dominance.“
“The opportunity comes in devising a parenting role that expresses the best and fullest aspects of being a man and a father figure. Done consciously and deliberately, the role and function of the stepfather can be tremendously fulfilling for all, and a source of lifelong joy and pride.” 
Here’s to stepfathers everywhere, the heroes who redefine what is means to be a “real father.” A real father is there when his children need him, is devoted to their happiness, and deserves to be celebrated. The real dads show up, whether they were there from the beginning or chose to step in later.
- The Step Family Foundation. Stepfamily Statistics. https://www.stepfamily.org/stepfamily-statistics.html
- Eden Strong. ‘There are no stepdads in our family — only a dad that has stepped up.’ Yahoo Lifestyle. https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/no-stepdads-family-dad-stepped-191008374.html June 14, 201
- Annie Reneau. Here’s to the stepdads who step in and step up to fatherhood. Happy Father’s Day to all the stellar stepdads. Upworthy. https://www.upworthy.com/best-family-movies-christmas-holidays June 15, 2019
- Joshua Gold. Navigating the tricky waters of being a stepdad. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/navigating-the-tricky-waters-of-being-a-stepdad-77293 June 16, 2017