The first post in my Guest Writer series is from Joel Schwartzberg. His article was originally published the The Good Men Project. When I read this, I was filled with emotions about my own father and stepfather. My father abused me in every sense of the word, but he’s still my father. My stepfather came into my life at an impressionable age and helped raise me. He’s also my father. I am estranged from my father, but not because of the presence of a stepdad. Joel’s words hit home – fathers are fathers, their crown of fatherhood sitting firmly over their brow, unless they themselves choose to remove it.

About the Other Man Parenting My Kids

by Joel Schwartzberg

There’s a man who spends more time parenting my three children than I do—way more time.

My kids—Charlie, 16; Cindy, 13; and Miranda, also 13—spend one full day and night each week with me, and the other six with him.

He regularly picks them up, drops them off, wakes them up, helps with their homework, travels with them, eats with them, swims with them, vacations with them, and raises his voice to them.

He’s their stepfather.

This man was in the audience the day Charlie took 10th place in a statewide spelling bee. I was at work.

This man pushed Miranda’s bicycle until her little feet matched the rhythm of the road. I was at a conference.

This man watched Cindy co-emcee her elementary school talent show. I’d sworn off elementary school talent shows years earlier, and if you’ve ever attended one, you understand why.

This situation might beg the question: Who is the real father?

But here’s the thing: Kids are brought into this world by only one dad. That puts a certain crown on his head that never comes off… unless he removes it himself. It’s not a crown he can physically see—it sits on his own head after all—but the kids see it clearly, and instinctively respond to it.

And while the connection between fathers and their kids can certainly be strained, abused, neglected, ignored, denied, and defiled, it’s virtually un-severable so long as a dad is known and alive. And even those aren’t always mandatory conditions.

I say all this with ample respect for stepfathers, adoptive fathers, grandfathers, coaches, uncles, and all other responsible and active father figures. I appreciate my kids’ stepfather, though he’s nothing like me. He runs in marathons; I roam shopping malls. He likes public radio; I like Radiohead. He’s 10 years older than me; I’m 10 pounds heavier than him.

My children sometimes call him “Bub”—I’m not sure why, but they don’t call him Dad and are not encouraged or inclined to do so. I don’t know their motivations for avoiding that term of endearment, but it works for me… because they already have a dad.

Bub and I share only necessary words when I pick up the kids, and there’s been just one heated exchange – when I entered the house at my son’s invitation and not his. Afterward, Bub walked out to my car in full harrumph and told me tersely, “Please only come inside the house when you’re invited.”

Come to think of it, he may not have said “please.” I suddenly understood that I was probably a topic of conversation in that house more often than I’d realized.

I sometimes check out Bub’s Facebook page or his blog, on which I’ve seen photos of my children. But I mostly resist because—this essay notwithstanding—I don’t think that often about him. Like an in-law, uncle, friend, teacher, or neighbor, he is another welcome contributor to my kids’ welfare. But my fatherhood is no more threatened by him than my manhood is threatened by Channing Tatum. (Though my wife still watches Magic Mike by herself.)

I share these ideas with other divorced and remarried dads whenever I can. I tell them,

“No matter what you do with your kids, if you commit to it regularly and responsibility, you’re the dad.”

At first, it’s a hard sell. These fathers tell me they feel threatened, robbed, and marginalized—pushed to the farthest corners of their kids’ lives.

I remind them that having limited contact is not a problem exclusive to divorced dads. Some full-time soldiers don’t see their kids for years. Countless business executives leave the house too early and come home too late to see their children much more often than I see mine.

Do we question the fatherhood of these men? Do they question their fatherhood?

At a divorce-themed conference, a separated father lamented that when he goes mountain biking with his son, they rarely say a word to each other.

“You go mountain biking with your son?” I asked him.

“Yes.”

“Every time you see him?”

“Yes.”

I don’t go mountain biking with my kids. I don’t even go biking with my kids. My kids and I have scampered up icy hills in mall parking lots, tiptoed carefully across streams behind playgrounds, and exploded bottles of seltzer in the driveway—dangerous stuff. But mountain biking? No sir.

I tell the man the truest thing in my head: that I envy him. I envy the muddy, rocky adventures he shares with his son—the rich scenery, the punishing uphill, the exhilarating downhill, the pumping adrenaline, and backbreaking exhaustion that binds their experiences. What words between them could compare with all that intimacy happening around them?

Where do I get my faith in the enduring connection between fathers and kids? First answer: Intervention. I’m talking about the TV show. If you’ve seen only three episodes, you know this much: No matter how long ago these dads left home, how cold they are, or how much they cruelly neglected or criminally controlled their children, they’re typically just one “I’m sorry” away from absolute redemption.

I’m not saying that terrible dads always—or even often—deserve the sudden love they so easily trigger, but it demonstrates how bulletproof the father-child bond is. Breaking it would be like trying to chew your way through steel.

It’s also something I learned from observing my kids, though it’s not obvious. Like many kids, my children don’t offer up earnest pronouncements of adoration like the young Huxtables and Keatons did all the time on The Cosby Show and Family Ties. Nor have they ever presented me with “#1 Greatest Dad” trophies, T-shirts, or cards. I rarely get Father’s Day or birthday gifts.

Instead, I see their emotional attachment in the most banal of interactions: the comfortable and joyful way they leap into my car when I pick them up, and how they respond to my jokes, drink my coffee, beg for quarters, text me willingly, and actively participate in whatever we do.

Through these telling clues—and with a minor leap of faith on my part—I realized that our unique bond is permanent and largely invulnerable.

We dads are smart like Dre Johnson and dumb like Ray Barone. We’re mature like Atticus Finch and childish like Homer Simpson. We’re doting like President Obama and cold like Captain Von Trapp. But we’re all dads—largely impervious to all challenges except innocent requests from our kids, the Super Bowl, Lynda Carter, and (speaking solely for myself) cats.

Frankly, I like that there’s another man in my kids’ lives. There can never be too many grownups loving and protecting them. But even if Bub and I have a few things in common, true fatherhood of these three is not among them. 

Bub doesn’t have to see it that way. You don’t either. But it’s imperative that I do.

A communications executive, Joel Schwartzberg is the author of “Get to the Point!” and the essay collections “The 40-Year-old Version” and “Small Things Considered.”

Originally published on The Good Men Project