Steps go up and steps go down. Some risers are higher than others. So the metaphor for a second marriage mate, a step-dad can go either way. Up or Down. Here’s what we’ve learned over the past three years.

My kids love their step-dad. I honestly think my husband Bill’s success as an amazing step-dad is instructive for all those second marriages – there are some fundamental elements at play here that just seem to work. Of course the kids, the issues, the environment surrounding Bill’s entry into our family are unique – everyone’s got their own “complicated” situation – but I believe there are a few teachable or shareable elements that could help any new family on their way to blending with success.

Widowed vs. divorced: My sons lost their dad to an accident when they were 16 and 18. I met Bill within that first year. The boys were vulnerable and raw – we all were. Step-parenting when there is no “competing” other Dad in the picture is a unique baseline to work from.

Nevertheless, perhaps there could be some elements from our experience that can be helpful to you as you navigate these unchartered waters.

Lesson 1: Patience and Pacing  

Bill took his time to gain the boys trust (and mine).

Parenting solo, I needed a male perspective to raise my boys. Feeling like I’d had a limb removed the challenge of parenting my teens without their father’s input felt incomplete. I’d just started dating Bill and immediately sought his counsel on parenting the boys.  He took a grandparent’s perspective – stepping back a bit by using positive reinforcement, and encouragement. He remained steady, focused, but most of all – he was a great listener. He would counsel only when asked.  His ability to be totally non-judgmental with the boys earned their trust. And, over time, he has been able to set real parental boundaries — most of them around cleaning up their stuff around the house.

Lesson 2: Commitment and Loyalty

Bill always has the boys’ backs. Coaching them on tough challenges like taking a semester off, changing jobs, negotiations on their apartment rentals — he took a front row and center position.

Bill played the “primary” when I was out of town, taking my boys each to the E.R. on separate occasions.  Just recently when my eldest had an emergency appendicitis, Bill sat with him throughout the night, and saw him off to his surgery in the morning until I could get there.

Lesson 3:  Creating New Traditions

Finding a way to connect with the kids is essential to creating comfort and keeps them coming “home.”  Healthy competition keeps everyone charged. Bill has raised the bar on competitive gaming with the kids. Intense Corn Hole face-offs late into the night are a summer tradition (it’s a bean bag toss game and it’s a blast).

Even though the kids are in their 20’s there’s still plenty he can teach them. Activities are bonding and keep them coming back for more “how to tips.” On the list so far: teaching them to captain a boat, rake for clams, dominate a BBQ and get under the hood of the car.

Needless to say, watching sports together and endless texting on scores are constant rituals.

Lesson 4:  Showing-up

When I married Bill, I came with my posse as did he. My sisters, their families and all the issues that life brings. Ditto for his family.

Bill makes it a policy to show up at absolutely everything. In our three short years of marriage he has been at every major holiday, college graduation, birthday celebration and too many funerals.  Not to mention, generously treating my mother and mother-in-law to evenings out.  The most out-of-the-box move was on a birthday trip to Paris (Bill’s birthday), I asked if we could spend two days with my mother-in-law (from marriage #1; she’s like a mom to me) who was traveling there on her own.  He agreed and treated her to some exceptional meals.  No surprise, she’s a Bill fan.

So what’s happening this Father’s Day:

The boys are showing up for a weekend together. They have cleared their crazy schedules to be with Bill.  I never could have imagined my life would turn out this way.  One of my greatest gifts is knowing (without me having to say or do anything) that my sons will both show up with either a special card or gift for their stepped-up dad.

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