Once when my wife, my 5-year-old stepson, and I took a late-afternoon walk, we paused to enjoy how long our giant shadows were. That’s when my stepson stepped into the middle of my shadow and began jumping up and down—right on the spot of my crotch-al area. “What a precocious appreciation for symbolism little Oedipus has,” I thought. And though my wife and I both thought this was funny, I knew it revealed a very real, albeit shadowy, truth. As my good friend Sigmund Freud warned me, my relationship with little Oedipus was going to be “complex.”
Years later, I heard a memoir excerpt by a woman who happened to be a stepmother. She said in her research she had encountered a book project calling for essays about stepparenting successes. Then she told us the idea had to be abandoned for lack of submissions.
I freely confess that I, too, can offer little to advance the cause of such a project. Though my 31-year-old stepson and I are now on excellent terms and though we had a lot of fun and good times while under the same roof, being his stepfather was the hardest long-term challenge I’ve faced in my life. A thirteen-year-long tug-of-war, and I didn’t want to end up in the mud pit.
My stepson and I are both highly competitive and strong-willed. We competed all the time, most often over place or over the woman in both our lives, his mother. When I married his mother, he was five, and we did carefully include him in the wedding. After the exchange of rings, my stepson scooted around step by tiny step front and center to receive his own token of love and unity, a family medallion on a bright red ribbon. That night we all went to bed at the same time, and after a few minutes our pint-sized Oedipus called out sternly and loudly from his bedroom, “No kissing!”
I was king and he was prince. He was the heir apparent to the throne, and with just a little regicide . . .
He frequently tried to literally displace me by sitting in my chair at the supper table or in my seat in the car. I took the high road in this childish game of musical chairs by trying to hip-thrust and elbow him out of the way at all costs. Now I realize how petty it was of me to fight about where I rested my buttocks, and if I had it to do over—I know I’d do exactly the same thing.
Literature and folklore have cast stepparents as villains: wicked stepmothers and ogreish stepfathers. In my experience this characterization is absolutely accurate. The role of villain is what you signed up for. In fact, it’s inescapable because of the inherent Catch-22 absurdity of stepparenting. I once gave my stepson a necktie that he loved. A clear success, right? Then he wore it in front of his father, who made fun of it. When I failed, I failed—and when I succeeded, I also failed since succeeding made the biological father jealous, led to father-son conflict, and made me guilty of “alienation of affection.” What kind of monster would come between a father and son and would compete with the child for the time and attention of his mother? An ogre would. Or a stepfather. Bwahahahahaaa.
When I see photos of my young stepson, I can’t believe how tiny he looks. His forceful personality and prodigy-level intelligence made him seem much, much bigger than his actual physical presence. He towered in my imagination. He loomed large in my life. He was a colossus.
In one photo that my wife put in a booklet about our life together, I’m lying on the floor, and my age-5 stepson—wearing cowboy hat, boots, and black leather gloves—is sort of kneeling on my chest and gripping my face in his gloved hands. My wife’s caption for this photo indicates that “a few minor details” had to be “worked out.” My stepson in a speech bubble commands, “Say ‘Uncle,'” and in my speech bubble I reply, “No.” That, in a nutshell, was our relationship.
Often I was out of step with my little charge. At times I may have overstepped my role. But sometimes you just have to step up to the plate, and when you strike out, you have to wait till next time and then step up your game.
Who knows what I could have done differently? Who knows what lurked in the heart of little Oedipus all those years ago as he pranced on my package, jumped on my junk, ground down on my groin, danced on my — ?
Thank goodness it was only my shadow.