The Stepfather Savior Complex

By Top Contributor James Prenatt

The Stepfather Savior Complex

(Image: iStock)

My family has a history of stepfathers. My dad was a stepfather to my oldest sister, my grandfather was a stepfather to my mother, and my grandmother’s father was a stepfather. In two of the above cases, this was because of parental abandonment. Their biological fathers left them at an age too young to remember. Fortunately, this was not the case with my own stepson. Part of knowing that I would be a part of his life meant accepting that hopefully, so would his biological father.

My wife had never let a partner meet her son for just that reason, that she could come to terms with a breakup, but to put the same grief upon a child was unforgivable. Luckily, we had decided that even if we weren’t in a relationship, we would always be in each other’s lives. Not to mention, at this point I hadn’t said it, but I knew she was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

It’s a lot of pressure to have put on you and you should only go through with marrying someone with a child if you want both of them to be a permanent part of your lives. 

Problem is, whether we’re first time parents or already have kids of our own, we may be very different from our partner. You might disagree on a number of things. They might be strict where you aren’t, etc. Point is, she’s got her way and you’ve got yours. But you’re king, right? You’re He-Man and your word is law. This feeling, among others is a problem I call The Stepfather Savior Complex. I’m going to speak in hetero-normative terms as this is coming from my own experience, but I think it applies to all genders.

Here are some signs that you are suffering from the Stepfather Savior Complex:

1. You Think You Can Discipline Their Child Better Than Their Mother Can

When stepping into a familial situation, outsiders tend to think they can raise a child better than the parent. It always seems easier, doesn’t it? These are the kinds of people that blame the mother for the baby crying in the grocery store or the toddler throwing a tantrum. Just slap the brat and get on with it! we say to ourselves. These people, much like grandparents think they can interject and undermine the parent’s wishes.

Often times, men are harder on boys and women are harder on girls, therefore, they get caught up in trying to correct every single thing they can. I’ve heard of stepfathers with the mother about not being strict enough. Instead of helping, they hinder the situation by beating their chests at young men. If you start doing things like this, chances are you need to take a step back and think about your insecurities. Leave your machismo at the door. This harbors disdain, not respect.

I think the real problem here is that we have trouble accepting that kids are kids. We once cried because we couldn’t have a second cookie and threw a tantrum because we didn’t want to go to bed. You can use your booming manly-man voice all you want. That kid is going to cry in the middle of the night because he wants to be tucked in and refuse to listen to his mother for no particular reason. Eventually, he’ll start saying no to you, too.

I blame this on toxic masculinity. Maybe you were told to “man up” or that “boys don’t cry.” Don’t continue the cycle. You can be the better man.

How to fix:

Take a step back. Leave the room if it bothers you that much. Let her handle the situation. She knows her kid better than you and it is your job to lead by example, not butt in and scare the child into behaving.

2. You Feel That You’re In Competition With The Biological Father

NEWS FLASH: you’re not. It’s okay that they love their dad. Of course they do, he’s their dad! You may feel like you have to be better than him for some reason, but you don’t. You can be just as strong of a figure as him, but it won’t happen over night. The competitive stepfather thinks he has to buy bigger toys, be stricter, be more fun so he can compare to “the real dad.” Truth is, once that biological father realizes another man is in his kid’s life, chances are, he’s feeling the same way you do.

The mother split up with the father for some reason or another and knowing that reason may make you angry. It could be he wasn’t up to par with her parental standards, abuse, or maybe it was simple irreconcilable differences. Use this knowledge so that you don’t repeat his mistakes, but don’t take it too far.

How to fix: be just as excited as he is about seeing his father. Chances are, you don’t like this guy, but you don’t want your stepchild to see that. “Did you have fun at daddy’s? Great!” things along those lines that let your stepchild know that they are loved.

3. You View Your Stepson As A Threat

I’m going to get a little Freudian with this one, but I think our pipe-smoking phallic obsessed friend was onto something with this Oedipus Complex thing. If you’re not familiar with this concept, in a nutshell, Freud suggests that boys feel a love for their mother that is threatened by the father. I believe that the inverse can be true.

Hopefully you love that boy’s mother more than you love breathing air, but eventually something hits you in the head like Chuck Lidell: that boy is her world and no matter how much she loves you, it will never compare to the love she feels for him. Unless he’s adopted, he grew inside her for Christ’s sake.

So what do we do? We take it out on him. Maybe he’s bratty at times and doesn’t treat her as kindly as you do so we yell and intercede. Maybe you feel he sucks up too much of her attention, calling to her in the middle of the night. We want to call him “mamma’s boy” and tell him to suck it up when she attends his sickness and wounds.

This may be taking things a bit too far for some people. It may even sound outlandish or outdated, as modern fathering has changed so much over generations. However, in my experience this attitude isn’t uncommon.

When my wife and stepson moved in with me, my temper was terrible. I raised my voice when he wouldn’t listen. I even got physical when he got sidetracked, grabbing him by the arm when he strayed places I told him not to go. I think this was because I wasn’t used to him yet. I didn’t know the things to say to get him to listen and especially in public I got flustered and frustrated.

How to fix: remember that you are his number one example. What him to treat his mother nicely? Treat her nicely. Try your best not to argue in front of him and never, ever undermine her authority in front of him. If we want to breed better men, we need to set a better example for boys and part of that is showing them to respect women.

And guess what? He might feel that you’re a threat as well. After all, you are taking with his mother away from him. While he may be losing time with her, he’s also gaining you and it’s your job to learn how to be someone he wants to spend just as much time with.


James Prenatt lives in Baltimore with his wife, son (monster), a clingy dog, and noisy cat. He studied Literature and Writing at Towson University and has published poetry and articles for magazines such as JMWW, Gay & Lesbian Review, and Severna Park Voice.