(Guest post by Philip Crocco, Kristina’s husband.)
I still remember the day I met her. I still remember how beautiful she was and how the whole room seemed to stop when she walked in. I remember the time leading up to us dating and the energy she was so full of all the time. I could never have imagined then how much she would change my life and teach me about love and growth and make me laugh. I remember the day she first introduced me to her daughter. I could never have imagined on that day that this little, precious child would one day call me dad and that it would be all I needed to have a great day. I remember when her little boy walked up to me and asked if I was going to marry his mommy, and all I could think about was how lucky I would be if that were to happen. I could never have imagined on that day that this little guy would one day be coming to me with his most personal problems, searching for an answer, and that I would never feel more important or proud if he walked away feeling better. The three of them transformed my world and opened my eyes. I can’t think of what my days were like before them and how empty they must have been, not filled with little kisses and little hugs and tender care from someone who truly puts you first.
And now I’m a step-dad. The word elicits so many thoughts, feelings, stereotypes and expectations. Being a step-dad is such a wonderful blessing, but it is sort of a loaded word. I honestly still feel a little weird saying it to people. It feels like somehow I am almost a dad, but just not quite. Like I’ve passed all the tests, but I missed a few credits of P.E. and I didn’t get my diploma. Sometimes I feel like a kicker in football. Sure I was on an NFL team, and yeah we won the Super Bowl, but… And no offense to any kickers out there, I have the utmost respect for your ability to perform under such amazing stress and pressure. I guess in some ways it’s not so different. Most of the time I defer to the kids’ father, but there are those pressure packed moments when the game is on the line and I have to perform as if I had been out there the whole time. And it needs to be seamless for the benefit of the kids having a sense of stability. That’s really what it’s all about though, isn’t it? The kids. I told Kristina before we got married that I felt like I was marrying three people, and that wasn’t me just being cheesy. It was the truth and I am so thankful I was able to see that ahead of time.
That would have to be my first and biggest piece of advice to all you men out there who are considering marrying a woman with children. Certainly every situation is different depending on the status of the father and the ages of the children and all, but you ARE marrying a family, not just a woman. They may or may not be “your kids” but they are your family, and you need to do everything you possibly can to convey that to them so they feel the same way about you. The biggest challenge for me has been being their “dad” for every minute I am with them, right up until their father walks in the door and then being able to take a step back. I love, more than anything, being their dad and it is such a central part of how I define myself. And so, it is such a fine line to walk and takes an awful lot of patience and self-restraint to take off that hat at any given moment. I am nowhere close to perfect in this, but I always come back to thinking about the kids and that stability thing. They need to know that I have them safe and taken care of in every way and that I am their fearless leader and love them with all of my heart, but that there isn’t a power struggle between their father and me, that he and I are on the same team and I am in no way replacing or trying to get ahead of him. If you want to make sure the kids aren’t playing you against each other, then show them at all times that you are working together. Clearly this doesn’t work when the father is someone who should not be a role model to the kids, is abusive to them, or has serious issues. I have no experience in that regard, thankfully, and wish you all the strength in the world if that is your situation.
We are so often set up to fail. You are likely walking into a history and you have so many relationships to juggle and understand. We aren’t all psychologists who can recognize the deep underlying fears and neuroses someone may have from the way he or she responds to our request to pass the salt. The best you can hope for is to build trust and show love and strength. And this includes the way you interact with the father. You have to show him that you have his children first on your priority list, ahead of any ego issues we all suffer. I helped Kristina’s ex-husband move a dishwasher a few weeks after I first met him. He hadn’t asked, but I overheard them discussing it and I offered. Was it a little awkward, sure (maybe even more for him than me), but I wanted to set the tone from the beginning that I was there to help him in any way that I could because we would be in this together for a very long time, assuming I could convince that cute, curly-haired Croatian girl to stick around. I needed her to know that I was willing to do anything to make our relationship work because I knew we had something really good. I also invited her ex-husband over the first time the kids watched Star Wars. I was so excited for them to see it, but I also felt like he should be there for such a big moment in their lives, and they should have their dad there as well. I mean, it’s Star Wars! So, we watched, one kid next to him on one couch and the other next to me. And they switched a number of times throughout the movie. I never felt like I had less because he was there and I know they felt like they got more. It’s that type of thing that makes me truly happy. I continue to go out of my way for him. He, in turn, has been so good about including me in things and helping me out whenever he can so the kids see us as a team. Sure, we have had many bizarre conversations and situations arise, but I keep telling myself, this is bigger than me.
So, I push my pride aside, I swallow a few weird situations and the kids think it’s all totally normal. They have no idea about all the drama and mess this whole step-dad thing is “supposed” to cause. Maybe we can redefine what normal is, especially if the current normal sucks so badly. Our normal, after a few years of both their dad and I going out of our way and pushing our egos aside, now includes spending the holidays together, having him over for dinner, attending the same church, and most importantly, never making anyone feel excluded. I’ll tell you one thing, I have always given the kids the choice to call me Philip or Dad and when they choose to call me Dad, it makes my heart melt. They go through phases and I never take it for granted. But I also correct them any time they call their father by his first name. He is always “dad.” He gets that honor, I have to earn it. And that is something I really like about being a step-dad. They get to choose how they feel about me. Thankfully, my two munchkins choose to love me and that makes being “not quite a dad” pretty fantastic.
Being a kicker probably isn’t so bad. If you hit that last second field goal to win the Super Bowl, the fans will remember you forever. But your only chance of making it comes from how you practice every day of the season when no one seems to be paying you any attention.