One For The Stepdads

The shelves are lined with socks and gardening equipment and bottles of real ale and cards with watercolour pictures of golfers on them. This means two things: parental, gender stereotypes are still rife and Father's Day is just around the corner.

For me, Father's Day is less about celebration and more about contemplation. Year after year I have the same internal battles with myself about who to buy for. I get myself in a tizz about a concept that, for most people, is pretty straightforward: go to shop, buy Father's Day card, give Father's Day card to father. Simples. But that's the trouble with these newfangled 'blended families'...nothing is ever simple.

If someone could brief me on the etiquette of celebrating Father's Day when you're no longer with your child's father I'd appreciate it. What's the deal? Does card buying still come under my remit? Or is it a job for his family/girlfriend? I still don't know so just to cover all bases I tend to throw some card and felt tips at Jack and instruct him to 'draw daddy something'. This way I don't actually have to spend any money or pore over lovey dovey cards, but I don't look like a heartless cowbag either.

Even more confusing is the etiquette of buying for stepparents on the big day. In the 20+ years that my own stepfather has been in my life I've never once bought him a Father's Day card. That's not to say I don't value him and everything he has done for me over the years. From giving me endless lifts, to lecturing me about working for a living, to chatting about football with boyfriends I've brought home and bunging me the odd twenty quid here and there - he has done everything a dad should do. And while we haven't always seen eye to eye (in my angsty teenage years there were more than a few Zoe Slater esq 'YOU AIN'T MY FARVA' altercations) I appreciate it all more than he'll ever know. It's just that...he's not my dad. We all know he's not my dad. I've never called him dad. And Father's Day is for dads isn't it? Even now I still don't quite know how to mark the day or show my appreciation. So I do nothing. I'm as clueless at nearly 30 as I was at 13.

Just to add further confusion to the tangled web of mixed genes and different surnames, Jack has a stepdaddy too - my partner Carl. He has been around since Jack was 18 months old and they have a lovely bond. Jack understands that he isn't his father, but he is something else of great value to him: his buddy, his wrestling opponent, his ally when mummy is on the warpath. 'My Carl' is what he calls him and for someone who kind of wrote herself off when she found herself becoming a single mother with a small baby, this makes me very happy. Carl treats Jack with all of the love and generosity of a father and I class us as a family even if we don't share the same DNA. But still, is a Father's Day card appropriate when Jack has a loving dad who is still very much around? Again, I can't answer that question so Carl usually just ends up with a tongue in cheek e-card or meme tweeted in his direction:

Every year I bemoan the lack of 'Happy Stepfather's Day' cards available at this time of year. More to the point, I wonder why there is no Stepfathers/Stepmothers day? Cynics may argue that the concept of mothers/fathers/valentines day is a load of commercial bullshit and we should appreciate those we love on a daily basis, not one dictated to us by Hallmark. Nevertheless, they exist as a time for us to show our gratitude and boy oh boy do stepparents deserve some gratitude.

Because how difficult must it be to play that role? To become an authority figure to a child you have no authority over. To take on all of the harsh realities of parenting - tantrums, sleepless nights, early mornings, trips to soft play, Saturday morning birthday parties, teenage attitude, ultimate self sacrifice - but never truly receive any of the glory. To willingly step up to a parenting position while also knowing that there will be times when you'll have to respectfully stand down because no matter how hard you try, your genes will never match so your input just doesn't count as much. To risk falling in love with a child you'd have no legal rights to if everything went wrong, no matter how much time and effort and love you'd put into forging a relationship with them.

That, to me, is something worth acknowledging too. So this Father's Day I'll be celebrating the men who are there out of choice, not just biological obligation. Probably as quietly and as cluelessly and as awkwardly as every other year. But celebrating nonetheless. Because stepparents rock.

The Blame Game

I nearly didn't write this post. It is such high profile and emotive story at the minute. There'll probably be lots of people who disagree. But I've dipped in and out of a few rage inducing Facebook conversations surrounding it and just felt the need to jot down my thoughts.

I am, of course, talking about the four year old boy who fell into a gorilla enclosure at Cincinnati zoo over the weekend. In order to protect and rescue the boy, zookeepers had no choice but to shoot the gorilla - a decision that has sparked worldwide outrage. And what does the world do when it's outraged about something? Find someone to blame, of course.

Before the dust had settled and the facts were revealed, the vitriol had started. I'd say that about 80% of the blame, the anger and the passive aggressive memes that I've seen via social media have been directed at the parents of the little boy rather than at the zoo who housed a 450lb gorillia in an enclosure that was penetrable to a four year old. At best there have been accusations that the parents were negligent, at worst some pretty sick (hopefully not serious) suggestions that they should have been shot instead of the gorilla. And in between there has been a shit ton of superiority and judgement and 'I would never have let that happen to MY kids' remarks thrown in for good measure.

When horrific accidents happen to children it's OK to be shocked and upset. It's also OK to feel outraged at the senseless death of an innocent and endangered animal who did absolutely nothing wrong. But why do we always feel the need to look for blame? And why does that blame always seem to end up with the parents?

None of us keep our eyes on our children 24/7; it's just not possible, especially when you're supervising more than one. I admit that I've felt that gut dropping, spine tingling sense of fear when I glanced away from my son in a park once - just for a split second - then looked back to find he was out of sight. It happens. My mum works on the customer services desk of a large supermarket and says that you wouldn't believe the amount of children that turn up there having being separated from their parents. Nine times out of ten they'll be quickly reunited and nothing catastrophic will happen. Nobody bats an eyelid. But when something does go horribly wrong do we offer support and empathy to the unlucky ones? No, we hound them, abuse them online and tell them they're shit parents. As if they're not already thinking that themselves.

Parent blaming/shaming bothers me. It takes seconds to write something online that will dent a parents confidence forever. We all know it is the toughest job in the world so why do people seem to take such glee in telling others how bad they are at it? Almost reveling in the knowledge that nothing like this ever happened to THEIR children. Well done. You're a great parent. Let's hope it stays that way.

Eyewitnesses of the incident in Cincinnati say that it happened in the blink of an eye. This doesn't sound like a case of a mother being neglectful. It sounds like an unfortunate accident with tragic consequences. She already has to live with the sickening image of her child being dragged around like a rag doll by a gorilla, not to mention the guilt about what could have happened and what did happen. Does she need to deal with blame and abuse from millions of strangers too? It won't solve anything and it won't bring Harambe the gorilla back. Let's just hope lessons have been learnt so this never happens again.

When genuine accidents happen it's easy to ask why and how. But don't automatically point the finger of blame at the parents. They are responsible for their children, yes. But they aren't superheroes who are exempt from the dangerous unpredictability of the world. Support them. You never know when your split second error of judgement could lead to an accident too.