Family

The Guilt That Comes With Having a Stepdad

After graduating college last year, I left to teach English abroad for three and a half months. When I decided the experience was no longer for me, I came back to the states and moved in with my mom and stepdad.

They were very welcoming and gracious about it, not expecting me to be back on my feet immediately. They didn’t ask for a monthly stipend for rent, didn’t set a curfew. They simply wanted to provide a space for me to save some money and figure out my next move.

If I had been in a real pinch, I could’ve moved in with my dad and grandma. At the time, my dad had moved in with her when he was struggling and needed help getting back on his feet. Even if moving in with them had been an option, I would’ve tried to figure out some other arrangement. My dad and I didn’t always have a rocky relationship, but after he and my mom divorced (when I was 15), I got the feeling he put a little blame on me because, once upon a time, I actually told him I wanted them to divorce. The resentment and unhappiness he felt from a failed marriage and/or family projected onto our father-daughter relationship. We fought a lot. Things are better now, but I didn’t want to jeopardize our progress by living together again when I returned stateside.

Despite the arguments and fights, he was my dad. I tried my best to make it a smooth outing every time we got together for a movie, a hike, or a milkshake. Things were the same as they’d always been, but there was a shift in the air between us. He was still the same dad who handmade a dollhouse for me, helped me learn to ride a bike, and showed up to all my basketball games. Now he was there for me when I was having difficulty adjusting to my mom remarrying. I felt uncomfortable talking to him about this other man trying to be a father figure, but I also didn’t want to give the impression I was getting along just fine. And as angry as I was with him a lot of the time, I felt I owed him effort to make a broken parent-child relationship work. Plus, I felt guilty that my stepdad was helping me in a lot of ways he hadn’t and/or couldn’t. In turn, I accepted a lot of anger directed toward me. Each time my dad did something that hurt me, I forgave him and lessened my standards and expectations of him.

When my mom started dating my stepdad, I was upset to say the least. I was 18, it was my senior year of high school, and I felt abandoned. Instead of helping me prepare for graduation and celebrating my senior year with me, she spent the weekends with him in a city an hour away, was constantly on the phone with him, and when she wasn’t doing either, she was at work from 8 to 5 each day. It was lonely. I lashed out with food. I would lose myself in a carton of Heath ice cream and before I knew it, I had gained at least 40 extra pounds.

Shortly after graduation, my mom and I moved, but to separate places. I stayed in town and moved into an apartment found on Craigslist that smelled of old Chinese food with a roommate who barely spoke any English. My mom moved that hour away in with her new fiancé. They transported my things over, but didn’t help me move in. I was literally left, with all of my furniture and boxes, in the courtyard of the apartment complex. It was one of the most depressing times in my life.

My mom knew how angry and alone I felt, but she had a different point of view and felt confident things would change. I went to their wedding and after that drove up to spend an occasional Saturday with them, but I missed it just being me and my mom. My stepdad brought his own upbringing into the equation and as a result, didn’t understand where I was coming from when I repeatedly told my mom just how hurt I was. He and I also clashed on what seemed to be too many topics. I didn’t like feeling like I had to “share” my mom with him.

Over time, he was usually careful to not be too hard on me and seemed to become more aware of how hard the transition of him being my stepdad was for me. When I spent time with them, it was usually laid back. He took the time to check my car to be sure it was running smoothly, discussed with me at length the problems I was having in other areas of my life, and took the time to share cooking tips. He even convinced my mom to lend me some money when I was struggling. While I was really appreciative, there was always an internal debate with myself: why hadn’t my own dad thought to check the safety of my car? Why hadn’t he offered to help me out financially? For every question I had about my dad, I gave myself an equal excuse on his behalf. It wasn’t fair to compare the two, but in my mind, I couldn’t help it.

My mom and stepdad have been married for six years now and I still cringe whenever I casually mention my stepdad in conversation with my dad or grandma. For a long time, and sometimes even now, I feel like my dad might see my getting along with my stepdad as betrayal. One time I actually noticed I’d been only mentioning the times I wasn’t getting along with my stepdad instead of the times I was. It was as if I was letting him know he wasn’t the only one miserable; I was still struggling with the divorce aftermath just like he was.

Over the seven years this has taken place, I used to think I would never overcome the guilt; the struggle of being caught in the middle ground of Dad and Stepdad. Comparing oneself to others is usually a dangerous thing, but when I think about all the people in the world who might be having the same issue as me, and are working through it, it gives me confidence that it won’t always be like this. What makes my situation different is the fact that I’m having to live with it, literally. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put a red “Resolved and Closed” stamp on this. My hope is that with enough personal and verbal acknowledgement of the issue, it’ll fade to black and no longer pop up like one of those signs you shoot down in arcade games. Eventually those signs will stay down for good.

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