The New Man
By Sean Cooper (Name Changed)
“I’d like to talk to you. About something personal.”
I knew it would be about the new man on the scene.
Admitted, in the seven years since our separation, to the best of my knowledge, my ex-wife had not been involved with another man.
At least, not seriously enough to pique the interest of my sons, typical seven and ten year olds who, as you know, miss nothing and could hardly keep such a thing secret for very long.
So, when I met the new man in the driveway one day when picking up the boys, not only was it a little surprising, it instantly brought to light the issues that have been laying just under the other issues that have seemed more important.
While neither of us were in relationships post-divorce, the questions surrounding “step-family” dynamics seemed inappropriate and irrelevant. Now, however, appeared to be the right time to begin asking
Every separated dad deals differently with the changes, issues and feelings related to the separation and “access” arrangements. I was paralysed for four years. Separating from my wife was a relief. Being separated from my sons was devastating. For so long I went through the motions.
Even though being with my boys was something I desperately wanted, when I was with them, I knew it would end in a few hours, or at best, a few days.
So, while with them, there remained a distance between us, remnants of which remain today, though I see them much more frequently, and will probably remain, to some degree, throughout our relationship. Such is the legacy of divorce.
The new man brought to life some serious issues for me. Until now, granddad, uncles, family friends and teachers have all played their part wonderfully as male role models for my boys. And, I say a little reservedly, given the circumstances, I haven’t done too bad a job as role model myself.
But recent trends have legitimatised, though perhaps they have not yet specifically defined, the role of “step-father.” By it’s current definition, “step-father” implies that the new man is, by right, given the role of dad, even if at best a pseudo-dad.
And while, ideally, I should embrace the potential new role model in my boys’ life and be glad at the notion that if their mother is happy then life for them will be that little bit happier, in reality those noble notions lasted only two seconds before they were savaged by my own selfish attentions.
My mind seemed hard pressed to focus on anything but two concerns.
The first was for the safety of my children. While fully aware that not all men are paedophiles (and that in fact only a small minority are) the statistics on “step-father” abuse (not only sexual) seem too significant to dismiss without at least asking the questions.
I took for granted that my ex-wife was as concerned about our children’s safety as I was. However, I did not take for granted that we would agree on what processes would assure the boys’ safety, emotional and physical.
Does this man think that ridicule and threats are valid motivational tools? Does he think that the odd punch in the head is a valid form of punishment, or does he think it’s okay to drive drunk and/or without seatbelts?
Even in matters of simple discipline – would he smack my children? And if he did could I get his bony arse thrown in jail?
In the giddy highs of a new love relationship both men and women have been known to compromise on, or even ignore, such matters. From my perspective at the time these sounded like appropriate questions.
The second of my concerns raised only one central question. What if my children like him more than they like me? A selfish question. A silly question. But nonetheless a question that for a time haunted me. And a question that, I suspect, pops up for most, if not all, non-custodial parents facing similar new circumstances.
My response to these two concerns required me to do several things, some of which came very hard. The first was to trust that my ex-wife would not compromise on the things we both agree to be the best for the boys. She is a good mother, and after expressing some of my concerns to her, I felt a little more at ease.
Another thing I had to do was to accept the reality that, if not now, then at some point, my boys will be living with a man who will de facto be a role model and authority figure.
I further have to trust that he will be both a positive role model, and mature and honest enough to recognise the limitations of his authority. These I will have no problem outlining to him.
Yet another was to continue to reinforce for the boys, no more or no less than I have already done, the notions that they have rights, that they are allowed to think for themselves, that no one is allowed to hit them, that they can talk to me about anything, and that I love them very much.
I took heart from the presentation Robin Fleming gave at the recent Social Policy Forum. Evidence suggests that relationships between children and their parents’ new partners rarely supersede in intimacy and commitment the one they have with their parents.
It seems also that “step-parents” rarely feel as responsible for the children of their new partner as they do or would for their own. Children rarely look on the new “step-parent” as an actual parent, and rarely call them “mum” or “dad”.
All of which indicates that perhaps my “will they like him better than me” question was a little misplaced. But me being me, I was able to replace it with a thousand other questions and worst case scenarios.
“The talk” reassured me a little. We were able to communicate maturely and honestly (characteristics sorely lacking on both our parts when we were married) and reach some consensus on the issues for both of us surrounding the new dynamic.