'There are no stepdads in our family — only a dad that has stepped up'

The author’s husband and two children. (Photo: Rays of Life Photography)

He didn’t know that I could hear them, and I couldn’t tear my attention away from their private conversation.

“Do you know what makes you even more special than the baby in mommy’s tummy?” my new husband asked my 6-year-old son, who was sitting on his lap.

“Because I’m your best buddy!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms around my husband’s neck.

“Yes, you are!” my husband chuckled back. “You are my buddy, and what makes you extra special to me is that your baby brother is being born into our family, but I picked you to be mine. I met you when you were 4, and I took a good long look at everything that makes you who you are, and I said to myself, ‘I want to be his daddy, because that’s how much I love him.’ Forever and ever and ever, you’re mine, because out of all the little boys in the whole wide world, I picked you.”

Six months pregnant with my new husband’s first biological child, I had tears streaming down my face as I listened to him assure my son — his stepson — that even though a biological child was on the way, he would never be a step down. Even though he was a little boy whose own biological father — my now ex-husband — had punched him in the face, and then abandoned him, myself, and my daughter.

My children have never seen him again, and for a long time my fiercely protective heart kept men away. Filling the father role wasn’t something I was seeking to do after so much hurt had been caused by the last one. So instead, I’d send my daughter off to the daddy-daughter dance with the husband of a friend, and cheer alone at my son’s preschool performances. And when my daughter would cry herself to sleep asking why no daddies wanted to love her, I would remind her that I loved her more than all the daddies in the world.

Author Eden Strong with her family. (Photo: Courtesy of Eden Strong)

My children were too special, and too precious, for me to settle for anything less than everything. And I was convinced that “everything” didn’t exist.

How could anyone love my children as much as I, their own flesh and blood, loved them?

But when I least expected it, he came along. And before I knew it, the officiant was pronouncing us not “husband and wife,” but “a family.”

My daughter now wears a necklace engraved with “The Day I Became Your Dad,” and my son can no longer remember a time before my (new) husband was here. When my daughter is sick, he sleeps on the floor next to her bed. When she needs ridiculously expensive gluten-free play dough for school, he is the first to whip out his credit card, despite my protests about the price. In fact, when my son was diagnosed with epilepsy that required tens of thousands of dollars in treatment, he never flinched at the bills coming in; because, as he told me, we take care of our kids. Right now, he’s at karate, cheering on “his son,” because there are no stepdads in this family, there is only a dad that has stepped up.

What we are going through isn’t unusual. The word “stepdad” seems to support the idea that fathers who arrive a bit late aren’t quite on par with biological fathers who were there first. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Photo: Courtesy of Eden Strong

There are plenty of examples of this in popular culture too. Matt Damon, stepfather to his wife’s oldest daughter, Alexia, doesn’t refer to her as anything other than his “daughter,” despite the media being quick to point out the she is the sole stepchild of the couple’s four children. It was even Alexia’s biological father who pointed out that Matt “treats Alexia like she is his own flesh and blood.” And recently, country music star Blake Shelton told People magazine that becoming a stepdad to the children he shares with wife Gwen Stefani had shown him a part of himself that he never knew was there. “It’s definitely an instinct that kind of kicks in,” he explained. “It’s easy to fall in love with those kids. They’re pretty special.”

My husband and I have since given birth to our first shared biological son, who is now 3 months old. And recently I brought up something that had been weighing heavily on my heart since he was born: I asked if having a biological child had made him feel differently about the two children I brought into our marriage.

“Not one bit,” he said without hesitation. Then he paused and 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.”

I know that I am no special snowflake when it comes to stepdads stepping up, and it’s why I cringe every time that I hear someone refer to a stepdad as being not the “real” dad.

What is a real dad, if not a man who steps up to care for children who need him? There’s no DNA test needed to be a dad to a kid who needs one; in fact, there’s no test required to become a dad to any children at all. Which is why this Father’s Day, I’ll be celebrating all dads — but cheering a little bit harder for the stepfathers who have stepped up to be a dad to kids who may not have originally started out as theirs.

Real dads show up; the title’s not important.

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