Every Stepfather Has His Day

People say your life changes when you become a dad. Mine changed when I met my wife's son

Illustration by Benoit Tardif

Family Day: the store-brand cola of holidays. How easy it would have been to ignore it. You don’t even work ­Mondays. But here’s everyone—the woman you’ll marry, her son, and you—on this day of legislated fun, snowshoeing on Cypress Mountain.

Throughout that afternoon, snowball fights end with Joe calling a truce—then breaking it. You’re cool with it. You’re always cool.

You’ve signed another armistice agreement at the end of the trail. You’re checking your email on your phone when another snowball from Joe wings your head. It gets under your glasses. You see only slush. You’re fed up. You bring a bowling ball of crusty snow up to shoulder height.

“New truce?” you ask.

Of course he nods. Joe is nine, heading out of the age when kids ­delight adults with their big eyes and mispronunciations (“CAP-a-city” for “capacity”) and into the one when they become electronics-­obsessed golems.

You drop the snowball on him. You don’t throw it too hard. You don’t think you do. But then the boy’s expression shifts. His eyes crinkle. Is he laughing? Tears run out. The snowball has winded him. His ­mother, who rushes toward him, tells him to breathe. Slowly he begins to gasp between his sobs. Step-patricide fills his eyes. You’ve turned him into a preteen Hamlet.

You want to scoff at those tears. He had it coming. That’s what your own father would say. The way the boy’s feelings run hot—like his mother’s—makes you feel like a Vulcan. Or an Asian.

You end up letting him take a freebie shot to your face.

You know from the start that Holly has a child. At what point do you consider being a step-parent?

In the early days courting Holly, it’s only the two of you. On what you will retrospectively deem to have been your first date, you go to the racetrack. For the last race, Holly places a two-dollar bet on every horse in the field to guarantee a winning ticket; a long shot wins, so she finishes ahead.

Holly wants you to see her as a love ­object, not someone’s mother. The two of you go for cocktails. Later on, you enjoy unhurried breakfasts and extended coffee breaks. You take overnight trips. This is the life you already know, the one where, if you sleep in, or leave the house late enough in the evening, everyone you run into is ­another childless adult.

It feels dishonest now. Holly was never a carefree single gal. Nor were you ever the kind of bachelor who swung nimbly from dazzling social engagements to new ­romantic interests. You ate at your desk at home. You brought laundry back to your mom.

The first time you meet Joe is on the beach. You take your parents’ old Labrador retriever along with you. You show Joe, then seven, the catapult you use to play fetch. If you launch a ball into the water, the dog will charge after it. Except that the dog is old and the water’s cold. Both of you watch the ball float into the ocean until it’s a Day-Glo orange speck.

In the coming months, you become a tertiary character in the life of a boy still ­aching for his parents to reunite. You bring over a new iPad loaded with video games, and Greek custard pudding for dessert. Then, one day when Holly has a late meeting scheduled, you pick him up from school and conjure chicken piccata for the second time in your life.

Holly compares that moment to a challenge on a reality-TV show. Instead of a rose or a box of steaks, you receive a tangle of new obligations: meals to be cooked, school pickups, and drop-offs at karate.

You will marry after four years of dating Holly, but you become a stepdad sometime earlier. As a literary construct, the stepfather is narrative shorthand for villain: Humbert Humbert in Lolita; Robert Mitchum’s ­character in Night of the Hunter; Dwight from This Boy’s Life. Murderers, pederasts, ­bullies. Oedipus is his own stepfather.

And who are the good stepdads? Liam Neeson’s character in Love, Actually. Good stepdad, shitty movie. And a creampuff alongside his counterpart in Taken—a ­biological dad, of course.

To avoid bickering, you find the perfect friction point of step-parent housework: more than you think you ought to do, but not enough that you feel like a martyr.

You chafe in your role as an authority figure. Your default mode as a substitute parent has been benign non-intervention. Try not to let him see you being a jerk. Do no harm. Let Holly handle it.

You don’t want to discipline Joe. And he doesn’t want you in that role. But then there come times like when Joe, upset about a frustrating math quiz that he and his mom are practising at home, throws a pencil at his mother.

When you call him out, he snaps back (using one of his preternaturally adult sentence constructions): “You have no place in this.”

You insist that you do.

To love a woman with a child, you have to assimilate into an already established family unit. You adhere to the habits of their pre-existing household. You play board games. You come to understand that hot-tempered outbursts blow away quickly. You get teary yourself now. You need to ask before you take the last pork chop if anyone else wants it. In your own family, you just took it.

One summer day, the three of you ­arrange to meet a friend of Joe’s at the park. Joe’s friend is joined by his mother, his three younger brothers—triplets—and their stepfather. You watch the stepdad slather sunscreen across the cheeks of one of the fair-skinned triplets. A nose nuzzle would be no less physically intimate. By contrast, you need an air-traffic controller to guide the half-hugs you give Joe. It’s like this other stepdad has leapt across a chasm, while you stand on the other side, clinging to the cliff face.

In what will be the last year of his life, on a boys’ getaway to New Orleans, your father convinces you and your brother to make a stopover in Houston.

It’s only when you’ve left Vancouver that he tells you why you’re going to Houston. “We’re visiting the woman I almost married before I met your mom,” he says.

You arrive in Houston, unhappy to be there. The friend calls your father at the hotel, and he heads down first to meet her. You take your time. When you emerge from the elevator, you see your father and his former fiancée standing ten feet apart. It’s ­only when this woman sees you that a ­flicker of recognition lights across her face. You look more like your young dad than your dad does now.

You all board her husband’s minivan for lunch. This woman is dreamier, more bookish than your mother, who prefers Cantonese soap operas to literary fiction. She tells you she married an American, in part, to leave Hong Kong. It was too crowded for her.

Her Guangdong–born husband is mild-mannered but voluble as a host. As he guides the car down the interstate highway, he tells you about growing up in Texas in the 1960s. Asians could visit the ­doctor through the front door; blacks came through the back.

“Why are you visiting Houston?” she asks your dad.

“The plane stops here from New ­Orleans,” your father explains. “There are no ­direct routes.”

Both of them are being disingenuous. Your father wanted one last glance at his former flame. She knows. Their reunion is innocent, stilted. Your father might have wanted to reminisce but there’s no chance for them to be alone.

“We should probably set you two free,” your father tells his friend at the end of a day spent visiting the Johnson Space Center and eating barbecue.

Later on, you think that hitting the eject button on his visit was an attempt to get a reaction from this woman, to wring some feeling from her. He succeeds. She’s stunned. “Oh,” she says. “We were ­expecting to go for dinner.”

On the elevator ride up, your dad claims to be relieved to be done with his ex. “I can’t believe how much she’s aged,” he says. “Your mother looks much younger.”

Your dad is ridiculous in his last year. He’s a deeply flawed husband. But he’s your dad. He did your taxes for your ­entire life. He loved you enough to remortgage his house so you could get (eyeroll) your MFA. For you he will always be the cocksure voice you hear in your own head. The one that competes against the bitingly ­critical voice of your mother, that fuels your self-loathing—and which keeps your feelings permanently at half-volume.

When that self-hatred grows too strong, you remember riding in a car with him once in Chinatown. Some white guy was in the other lane, screaming at him for some traffic misdeed. You remember your dad with his eyes on the road. You remember the way he stretched out his arm in front of your face and extended his middle finger.

The goldsmith texts to say that he’s completed the engagement ring. You determine that you need to get the ­proposal right, to make a moment for the two of you—and for Joe.

The first time you propose to Holly is in your bedroom, when you’re both in your pajamas and exhausted after hosting a party. You slip the ring on her finger.

Then you ask for it back. The ring’s ­returned to the box. The next day, you tell Joe of your plan to propose. While Holly goes out for a manicure, the two of you get flowers for your surprise.

Joe beams on the walk back from the florist’s. “I’m so excited,” he admits. He ­quickly adds, “I feel like a ­traitor.” You don’t ask him whether he feels as though he’s betraying his father or the family that ­preceded this one, nor do you ­openly ­acknowledge his own ­psychological acuteness.

Holly returns home to the flowers and openly speculates about why you’ve bought them. Joe executes the plan and suggests a board game. Inside the Dominion game box are envelopes addressed to Holly and Joe. “Look behind you,” you’ve written in letters to each. Behind Holly, on the living-­room bookshelf, you’ve hidden the box with her ring in it. Behind Joe, on another shelf, you’ve placed a gift for him, a watch that you purchased that afternoon.

As you did the night before, you propose. But Joe isn’t happy. He wants you to propose again, now for the third time, so he can take a photo. He wants you down on one knee. So you oblige. There are two of you in the photo, but, from the way you both look at the picture-taker, he may as well be in it.

You don’t know beforehand how much you will feel, a year and a half later, on the day your daughter is born. People say your life will change, but it ­already did a few years earlier. ­Eventually, you will take as much pleasure when people compliment her long eyelashes as you do when they laugh at the way she resembles you when she scowls. Sometime soon, this baby will be the root of everything.

But on the day she’s born, you’re tired from getting up so early for the C-section. You’re embarrassed to wear a hairnet in the operating room. You’re rubbing your tongue against the tooth you cracked on a stale granola bar.

Joe arrives at the hospital with your mother. He’s upset that it’s taken you so long to call them. He’s upset at the ­doula who says something he feels is ­patronizing. He holds the sleeping baby in his arms and he’s got this pained look. He seems angry that everyone’s looking at him. He’s upset to be so emotional in front of so many strangers.

You know what a big day it is. But he’s the one who feels it. He already feels the way you should.

This originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue under the headline “Tough Act to Follow.”

Kevin Chong
Kevin Chong is the author of seven books, including the 2023 novel The Double Life of Benson Yu, shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. He lives in Vancouver.
Benoit Tardif
Benoit Tardif has contributed to such publications as the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Avenue, and L'Actualité. He is at work on his third children's book.