Phil’s Father’s Day card to me came a little early this year. He signed it, “Thank you for being a great Dad! Love, Phil.” Those are some of the sweetest words in the English language, from my younger step-son, not long before his thirtieth birthday.
We don’t have, to my knowledge, a Stepfather’s Day. If we had one, my eldest stepson, Ted, might send me a card to commemorate it. It likely would be friendly, signed “With warm regards, Ted.” Fair enough, we do care about each other.
The differences in the two cards would reflect the tale of two stepsons. Neither the best of relationships nor the worst, but two very different histories.
I had fallen in love with Tina Han Su at Cornell in 1963. Our story is told in my newly published book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion (Outskirts Press, Parker, CO, 2011). A mix of parental pressure and parental persuasion kept us from marrying in the mid-1960’s. Asian-Caucasian interracial marriages were much less common then than they are now. A mixed-race child was viewed as neither Asian nor Caucasian and could find it hard being in this “marginal” status. Then, too, we were young, and our futures were bright but uncertain. When I graduated in 1964, we parted sadly.
Almost exactly twenty years later, we married. Our wedding rings are inscribed, “A dream come true.” Each came from a first marriage that had failed. Each was still very much in love with the other. Two shadows made the occasion more somber than it would have otherwise been: Tina was slowly becoming disabled due to multiple sclerosis (MS), and her two sons from her first marriage had been separated, the elder, Ted, ten years old, staying with his father, and the younger, Phil, three years old, coming with his mother. Tina’s father graciously toasted us, “Love conquers all.” When Tina’s good friend, Judy, asked about Ted, Tina burst into tears. Despite that, Tina and I were ecstatic about being “together forever.”
As I describe in Ting and I:
When Phil left Chicago with Tina, I was “Doug,” not “Dad,” to appease Tina’s husband, who was “Baba,” Chinese for “Papa.” In my heart I was Dad, and years later we changed to that. I was determined to be a loving father to Phil and to have whatever relationship would be allowed with Ted. For years Ted was estranged from us, and I am still “Doug” to him, but “Dad” to Phil. Ted and I are, at least, good friends.
Phil has his parents’ genes, with brains, good looks, a strong, tall body. People have commented that his gestures and speech resemble mine, which makes me happy to hear. I say that he has my smile. Tina and her ex-husband are both very serious people. Ted is quiet and somber. Phil is outgoing and cheerful. He has had our love and encouragement, but not the pushing that some parents exert.
When Tina was a young girl in a suburb of Rochester, she and a few friends had a tree house, where they would get together as the “Gloom Club.” Play and poetry were somehow part of this, but I don’t know the mix. She was a very quiet and serious child. We have a picture of her at about five years of age, neatly dressed in a jumper over a sweater over a blouse. She is refusing to smile for the camera. She is adorable. It’s on my dresser, “To Doug, Love, Ting.” Close by is her engagement picture, a large version of the one that ran in the New York Times, in May 1967: beautiful, though still serious…. Next to that is one of Tina and Phil (age 6), and me, all smiling radiantly. History summed up in three photographs: gloom to glee.
Guidelines for successful interracial stepparenting are, in my opinion, much the same as those for “routine” stepparenting, though cultural differences between the parents can increase the likelihood of misunderstandings or disagreements. Dr. Phil McGraw, in his book, Family First, has listed seven steps to successful stepparenting, steps we had taken before we knew of his work:
1. Unless the stepparent starts with a very young stepchild, keep involvement with disciplining to a minimum. When Tina’s elder son visited, I stepped back. For Phil, I was much more involved, but he was so good that little disciplining was needed. Praise worked better than criticism to guide him.
2. The parents should support each other’s decisions. We did.
3. The stepparent should be an ally, a supporter of the child, though not in opposition to the biological parent. I helped coach soccer, encouraged sports and studies, cheered and congratulated Phil. Ted was out of reach.
4. The expectations of the stepparent concerning closeness of the relationships with the children should be reasonable. I hoped to be, ultimately was, as close to Phil as I could be to any child. I knew Ted blamed me for “taking his mother away,” and I did not expect him to want to be close. His adoption of a serious Christianity led to his reconciliation with his mother and me, much more than we expected.
5. The stepparent should support the relationship of the children with the absent parent. We did what we could to facilitate visits both ways and did not criticize the absent father in front of either child.
6. A situation with children from both first marriages and / or from the current marriage is fraught with complexities. Ours was simpler: I had no children, and Tina and I decided not to have “a child of our own.” Both boys were “ours.”
7. Each member of the couple should make clear what is desired of each other as parents. We did.
Being an interracial stepparent answers one question immediately: am I the biological father? Clearly not. A second question might come up in the case where a real or perceived racial slight occurs: Whose side am I on? Ours. A third question might be, “Will you let your son marry a …?” Depends on who she is, not what race she is. A fourth question might be whether you and your spouse and stepchildren can see beyond race to love each other. We have.
You might say our twenty-seven-year-long marriage has had three strikes against it: interracial, step parenting, multiple sclerosis. MS proved the hardest: ten years of symptoms that were slowly getting worse, ten years of paraplegia after a severe MS exacerbation, and the past seven years of quadriplegia, with Tina on a ventilator and receiving her food and medications through a gastric tube. Phil lived with us through the first sixteen years, learning to help take care of himself, learning what real problems look like. Near the top of his high school class and Senior Class President, earning a B.S. in Business from Boston College, followed by four years of successful employment, then an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, he has done very well indeed. Ted has had a tougher time emotionally but is making his way as a computer systems engineer, with a B.S. from M.I.T and an M.S. from Columbia University. They’ve got talent.
Phil’s Father’s Day card to me this year credits a father’s strength, integrity, and love with building and maintaining a nurturing home: “A feeling of security, a steady growing confidence, the knowledge of what is good and right—they all began with you.”
Thank you, Hallmark. Thank you, dear Phil.
Douglas Winslow Cooper has degrees in physics from Cornell and Penn State and a doctorate in engineering from Harvard University. He served as Associate Professor of Environmental Physics at the Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston, MA and as Research Staff Member at IBM’s T.J. Watson Laboratory, Yorktown Heights, NY. His memoir is available through Outskirts Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or through the web site, www.tingandi.com.