As my stepfather neared the end of his long battle with pancreatic cancer, his 10 children flocked to his side. As people expressed sympathy about our dying father, I always felt compelled to correct them: stepfather.
The biologically correct term didn’t matter in the end. He was the glue that held fast the fabric of our blended family. I remind myself on Father’s Day that when my stepfather died — my father died.
I’m in a group of the one in three Americans who are part of a stepfamily. That sounds high but almost one in two marriages fail, and 75 percent of divorced people will remarry, two-thirds bringing children into the new union.
Our familial union was like a real-life episode of Modern Family, with enough emotional baggage to weigh down an airplane. The only difference between us and the highly rated television show is we rarely saw the humor in the tumult until long after the moment had passed.
Separately, my stepfather and mother were two people whose response to the twin burdens of poverty and early parenting was a whirlwind life of partying and drinking, activities that left little time or initiative for family.
But something changed when they met each other. They got sober, bought a house in the suburbs and spent untold amounts of money and time on lawyers and courtrooms to collect the remaining members of their broods. Alas, those wonderful changes came after I was on my own, but my outsider’s perspective gave a clear view of the positive power each one, acting as the stepparent, had on my young siblings and step-siblings.
I saw my mother come home from a day’s work and cook for four hungry boys and not complain (much) when they added friends to the dinner table.
Washington is one of 20 states with a statute imposing a financial responsibility on stepparents while the stepchild is living in the household. But my stepfather didn’t need a law to tell him what was right. He worked for the federal government during the day and, to ease the financial pressures of his new family, worked the full-time overnight shift at a hospital lab. He arrived home from his first job at 5 in the evening, ate dinner, was asleep by 6:30 and up and out by 9 p.m. Still, he was known to my younger siblings as the chauffeur for school dances and the one to call in the middle of the night.
When we met, my stepfather understood immediately that his and my time for a father-daughter relationship had passed. Instead he became a friend and cheerleader, poring over every word I’d ever written. Every setback I have had, he marveled at my perseverance to get back on the horse.
“Nothing can break your spirit,” he would say. I doubted those words, but I always stood a little taller hearing them, as though my stiffened resolve would give them a fighting chance of being true.
My mother was fiercely loyal to him and, after he died, to his memory. “He was Pops when your own father couldn’t be bothered,” she told us more than once.
So when he lay dying, the six girls and four boys whose lives he affected deeply came calling. Two daughters ferried him to weekly chemotherapy treatments. A third slept on a cot next to his bed. An estranged son kept abreast daily of his prognosis but shied away from a face-to-face visit. My stepfather dictated a letter letting him know he loved him anyway. Another son called from his home in a tiny hamlet on the North Carolina-Virginia border.
My familial anecdote is meant to push back against the lack of attention and appreciation paid to stepdads. It seems they barely get noticed unless they’re doing the perp walk in front of a courthouse. Yet, a society fractured by high divorce rates and, in many communities, generation after generation of absentee biological fathers, rightly counts on stepfathers to rebuild broken families.
I know how it works.