After three years of marriage, I found myself in a therapist’s office on a Saturday morning holding hands with my wife and stepson. We were crying because our problems had turned our family interactions into tumultuous encounters. Beneath my tears lay the greatest frustration of my adult life: Marriage and stepparenting, to which I had wholeheartedly subscribed, were kicking my ass, and I didn’t know how to handle the situation. I had come home at 8:00 A.M. on the morning of our therapy session, having told myself that hanging out once a week enabled me to handle our problems. But the tension it created in our home only exacerbated our conflict. My wife questioned the future of our relationship and worried about the impact my behavior was having on my stepson. I knew I had to take responsibility for what I was doing, and somehow I had to change and cope more effectively, but I wasn’t sure of what to do. I had totally misjudged the reality of becoming a stepparent. Like my own stepfather, I thought that because I am a man, and men have the power to do all things, I could enter the lives of my wife and stepson and easily make whatever changes were necessary to ensure our happiness. Instead I saw how unprepared I was.

I sat my stepson down one afternoon to talk about my hanging out and told him that my actions were poor examples of how to cope. He said he understood, and as we talked he shared with me his frustrations over the absolute authority his mother and I retained over everything in our home. I admitted that I did sometimes assume a dictatorial posture and agreed that I needed to be more understanding and sympathetic toward him. I felt uncomfortable admitting this, and I confided these feelings to my son. He was pleased by my willingness to discuss my insecurities with him openly.

Soon after this conversation I had to pick up my stepson from the police station, where he was being held for painting graffiti on a subway car. I was apprehensive, but when I saw how dejected and helpless he looked, I knew he needed my support. His acceptance of my insecurities and mistakes enabled me to be far less judgmental and more understanding of his. In fact, this was the beginning of my understanding of how much attention he needed and the extent to which he would go to get it.

The biggest hurdle that our family had to overcome was my stepson’s attitude toward school. He hated it and refused to go. After several years of fighting with him, trying to get him to do something he absolutely did not want to do, we let him make his own decision. He signed himself out, got a job and later earned his G.E.D. Now he’s college sophomore.

There were times over the years when I was so angry I could have beaten him up. I felt he had to do what I said, as had been the case with me and my stepfather. But my wife made it clear that hitting him would satisfy my own frustrations but change nothing. I could not deal with that kind of impotence.

Eventually I found a Black male support group run by a therapist. The members of the group were my age, married and with similar family difficulties. After many sessions I had to come to terms with my own contributions to my family’s problems. I learned to let go a little and allow my son to be who he needed to be. I had to accept that my not knowing how to “fix” the problem did not make me less a man. In fact, I found out it provided me with greater avenues and opportunities for personal growth.

The group helped me see that I had not made a full commitment to our marriage and to fathering our son. My disappearing acts had created insecurity and fear in my household. This insight forced me to come to terms with the commitment I needed to make and ultimately made to our family.

My relationship with both my wife and my son improved after I joined the group, and I’ve stopped hanging out. I have become more of a friend to both my wife and son, and a better husband and father.

We have not overcome all of the difficulties we encounter as a family. I do, however, realize that I can only do the best I can with what I have.

Hector V. Lino, Jr., is a teacher and screenwriter who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

COPYRIGHT 1990 Essence Communications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group