Empathy is all too often misunderstood as a polite version of sympathy and brushed aside as something nice, but not really needed between family and friends. Because people we are close to should always understand. Sadly this is just not the case.
Empathy for me is something very real, precious and important to the closeness of our family life. We are not so different from so many other families. The family unit consists of me and my wife and our three children. Being a stepfather to our eldest children could have been a problem, but never has been. There has always been the ghost of the children’s biological father forever in the background, waiting to appear like Marley’s ghost to confuse any Christmas present. The term biological father sounds such a sterile, clinical word, but natural has even worse implications suggesting perhaps that a step-parent is less somehow.
To be a good parent is the same regardless of biology, but there will always be issues where step-parenting is concerned. It is too easy to blame the absent parent for any parenting problems, but this is nothing short of a cop-out. In order to be a real parent you must be able to put yourself in the place of not just your child, but that of the parent who may no longer be on the scene, but whose shadow will always loom high in the life of the child. I don’t just have to think of my feelings, or my wife’s and children’s feelings. No I have to think their father who is still living within the family in spirit, if not in physicality.
Being thoughtful of all feelings concerned effectively stops such outbursts as “You’re not my real dad.” I have never told my children that I am their new dad. No I sat them down many years ago and told them that I hoped we could be good friends in time. This worked like magic and the result is that within a few short years, they both began calling me Daddy. They even both asked if they could.
Growing up neither me, nor my wife were ever told we were loved, or shown affection in the form of a hug, or kiss. Our parents were of the opinion that children should be grateful to have a roof over their heads and food on their plate. Many children subjected to such treatment grow into adults with difficulty in family communication and affection. And yet again begins another turn of that particular wheel. We chose not to follow our parental examples. In our family we hug many times a day, not just to say goodnight, but as we pass each other. We kiss goodnight and we tell each other “I love you.” Often. The result is an atmosphere of a real home, you know, the kind that you see in old movies, or read about in books and say “If only I had grown up in a family like that!” Well our children are doing just that, growing up in a loving, nurturing environment. We’re a family who play together and look after each other. We go on picnics and walks.
Another aspect of step-family life can be the sibling who is in fact the only child who shares both parents biology. Often this child will have an unbalanced relationship with their siblings and this can lead to power struggles within the family. It is a delicate matter to skate the thin ice which is being caring and diplomatic, but also sensitive to all the children’s feelings. We have never had an issue in our family with sibling rivalry and in fact forget far more often than we remember that our children are the result of three different parent’s contribution. We tell our older two that they are in fact very lucky to have a mother and two fathers who love them so much.
There will always be moments in any family where feelings are strained, but with love, care, attention to the small details and a lot of genuine sincere empathy new paths of understand can be found and trodden in harmony.