When I was 30, I met the woman who would later become my wife. After we’d been dating for a while, she introduced me to her kids — an 8-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy.
I was nervous about meeting them. No matter which way you slice it, meeting your girlfriend’s kids is awkward. But to my surprise, we all hit it off pretty well. My girlfriend must have thought so, too, since we got married shortly afterward.
Like a good parent, I wanted to bond with my stepkids. This was a challenge with my stepson, however. He has sensory processing issues and other learning and thinking differences, as well as autism.
His issues can cause trouble with flexible thinking, and that made bonding difficult.
Even when I first met my stepson, when he was 2, it was clear he loved routines. Small changes in his schedule would escalate to meltdowns.
My presence was something different in his routine, and different wasn’t something he liked. When I was first dating his mom, he’d sometimes spend my entire visit attached to her hip.
He also has very intense interests. This created obstacles to bonding, too.
For instance, he was absolutely obsessed with trains, especially Thomas the Tank Engine. He had a ton of the die-cast trains and knew the names of all of them.
He liked to communicate with other people through the trains. If he wanted to eat, he’d imitate the narrator of the Thomas television show and explain that his train’s coal hopper was empty and needed more coal. Sometimes he said his train needed to rest in the shed, which was his code for feeling sleepy.
Even when he wasn’t using trains to communicate, his interest in them made getting to know him difficult. He’d shy away from questions about things he liked to do or favorite foods. Instead he’d steer all conversation into steam-engine territory. When I tried to redirect conversation, his typical response was: “Okay, let’s not talk about trains. Let’s talk about stations now.”
As he grew older, I gradually broke through to him and we became very close. I remember when he was 3 or 4, we were at a crowded public event, and he became overwhelmed. He wanted to go home, but my wife and stepdaughter wanted to stay. So I took him home by myself.
To everyone’s surprise (including mine), he was totally comfortable with me. We ended up heading to the local playground and having a lot of fun. It was a big moment for him — and for me.
Eventually, he saw me as a parent and caretaker, and he couldn’t remember a time when I was not a part of his life. But as I connected with my stepson, my relationship with my stepdaughter got complicated.
My stepson needed a lot of attention from my wife and me every day. All that focus bothered my stepdaughter, who doesn’t have learning and thinking differences. We never deprived her, and we always tried to give her extra time and attention. But to her, it was unfair that her brother got so much one-on-one time.
She resented us for it. And somehow, I ended up taking a lot of the blame.
Today, my stepson is a teen and has developed more skills to cope with his learning and thinking differences. In many ways, he’s an ordinary teen, complete with the attitude and need for independence.
He still struggles sometimes, though. And even though we’re close, sometimes he has a difficult time figuring out how I fit in. He still sees his biological father, and I think his inflexible thinking can make it hard for him to process having three parents in his life.
Sometimes he still sees me as another person who must defer to his mom, who he views as the authority figure of the household.
On top of that, I’m not his legal guardian, so his school and doctor won’t accept my decisions without my wife’s okay. That’s a tough pill to swallow, since I’ve raised my stepson practically his whole life, and I’m one of the people who know him best. Thankfully, my wife makes sure I have a say in important decisions about the kids.
We’ve been through a lot as a family over the years, and we really are that — a family. Despite all the bumps in the road, I know who I am to my kids. I love them with all my heart. I wouldn’t trade our family for anything. And I know they feel the same.