It’s Father’s Day, a day when we appreciate the men from whose loins we sprung and from whom (most of us) get our names, if not also our insecurities. Amid all of the celebration of biological lineage, however, the stepfather often gets lost.
Just as we tend to shuffle the childless to the side on days like this, the men who help raise the children of the divorced or widowed rarely get their due. Unlike the wicked stepmothers of fairy tales and Disney movies, they aren’t even on our mind enough to be regularly demonized. But men have been raising “other people’s” children as their own for millennia, and a recent study suggests that as many as one in twenty-five fathers may not be the biological parent of the child their believe is their genetic offspring. All of which means, for the biologically fixated, that step-parenting is much more common than you would think.
For the majority of recorded history we have been obsessed with paternity. But it is only in the past 50 years and with the advent of DNA testing that men have been able to prove that the children they are raising are their own. Anxieties about biological offspring are encoded in laws that secured the passage of inheritance from male to male and in cultural norms that pressured women to abstain from sexual intercourse before marriage.
But even though all of these legal and social practices exist to protect inheritance, for much of human history a much broader and amorphous notion of family has been at play. The high stakes issues of birthrights and royal titles aside, family units were large and amorphous in the ancient Mediterranean. To be sure, men frequently had multiple wives and used slaves as concubines to ensure the passage of their line, but they often served as patriarchs to other children—to orphaned relatives, to nephews and nieces, and to servants.
In the Bible, tensions emerge not along the lines of biology, but rather in instances when inheritance was at stake. Take for example the very strange Biblical story of Tamar. According to the book of Genesis, she was widowed without offspring and, in keeping with tradition, forced to marry her brother-in-law, Onan. According to Deuteronomy, any offspring that Onan produced with Tamar would legally be the offspring of (and inherit the property of) her deceased husband. Onan’s solution was to make sure that Tamar could not become pregnant by “spilling his seed” on the ground whenever they had sex. His concerns weren’t with what we would call biology (as any offspring would have been his), but with the potential loss of inheritance that he would suffer. The point being that legal rights were more important than biological ones. Biological offspring are a little useless if they aren’t also legitimate (something Henry VIII would find out much later). If it makes you feel better, God kills Onan for his behavior.
The New Testament gives us history’s most famous stepfather – Joseph. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, like most men, one expects, was disturbed to learn that his fiancée Mary was pregnant with the child of another. But even if God gave Jesus his genetics, it was Joseph who was left with the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for Jesus. According to a second century non-canonical Christian text known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus turns out to be pretty monstrous. When he kills one of his playmates it’s left to Joseph to provide the ethical correction and criticism. In a scene painfully reminiscent of modern parenting, Jesus tells Joseph that the odd kid started it. In a moment that would land you in court today, Joseph grabs Jesus by the ear and pulls hard. I’m not endorsing corporal punishment, but you have to admire Joseph’s courage. Not only can Jesus tell on him to his “real Dad,” both Jesus and God the Father can strike him dead. Later Christian writers would emphasize that it was Mary who taught Jesus who he really was and essentially raised him, but to earlier generations of Christians writers Joseph helped make Jesus the Savior he would later become.
Not only was Joseph tasked with the hard tasks of parenting, to the writers of the New Testament he was of critical importance: it was through Joseph that Jesus could claim to be a descendant of King David. The genealogy that begins the Gospel of Matthew and connects Abraham to David and Jesus runs through Joseph, not Mary. It might seem as if the Bible is having it both ways, but Joseph’s role as legal and practical parent cannot be swept away. The Holy Family is a blended one.
The slightly strange set of affairs we find with Jesus was not unique in the ancient world. Roman emperors often chose to adopt their successors from more distant branches of the family. As Michael Peppard has written in his book The Son of God in the Roman World, this practice was fairly widespread among high status Roman elites, who, because of high infant mortality rates, often found themselves beyond childbearing age and lacking an heir. But the adoption of heirs wasn’t just about necessity: Julius Caesar preferred to adopt Octavius (later Caesar Augustus) as his son and legal heir even though he had a biological son with Cleopatra.
The practice of selecting one’s child wasn’t just for the biologically childless. When children were born in Roman households the midwife would lay the child at the feet of the putative father. If the father picked the child up, he was formally recognizing it as his legitimate offspring, but if he walked away that (presumably biological) child was illegitimate. For the Romans, as for adoptive and stepparents today, families were made through law and the acceptance of duty.
Because so much of the language and culture surrounding fatherhood is about legal inheritance and cold hard cash, stepfathers have often been seen as a threat to a family’s assets. As a result, as Lyndan Warner has written for History Compass, legislation in medieval and early modern France and the Low Countries tried to protect the children of first marriages from interloping stepfathers. The French Edict of Second Marriage (1560) targeted remarrying mothers who might not realize that they were being pursued because of their wealth. In many parts of Europe (Castile, Valencia, Spain, and Florence), widows could continue to live in the marital home and maintain custody of her children only so long as she did not remarry. According to legislation passed in 17th-century Sweden, stepfathers could not become guardians of their stepchildren, and court-appointed paternal relatives would oversee the affairs of the children. But there were some exceptions: in Venice, Antwerp, Paris and London, stepfathers were permitted to help raise a widow’s children.
In the colonial United States we run across stories of incest and the exploitation of financial assets. But the New World also provides examples of excellent stepfathers. George Washington, the Father of the Nation, parented wife Martha’s two children from her first marriage. In 1781, he also assumed care of (step)son John Parke Curtis’s youngest two children when John was killed during the Yorktown campaign. He also took responsibility for a number of nieces and nephews as well. Washington struggled with the fact that he never fathered his own biological children and is known to have been a staunch disciplinarian with the children in his household, but he also counseled his step-granddaughter on her love life.
Practically speaking, though, children were financially and emotionally vulnerable in this time. In her work on French families, Sylvie Perrier has pointed to the ways in which children were “mobile” in the early modern period. Parents could move children to convents, apprenticeships, marriages, and universities as a means of cleaning out the household for a new stepparent, usually a stepmother.
All of this might suggest that there’s a low bar for modern stepparents: if you’re not giving the kid a poison apple, you’re doing just fine. But the sensitivities of modern parenting make the situation increasingly difficult. Until recently, stepparents filled a vacuum left by a deceased parent, but the affectionate modern stepfather has to balance his feelings with the divided loyalties of often oblivious and ungrateful children. (Full disclosure: it took decades before I realized the personal and professional sacrifices made for me by my nearly full-time superman-like stepfather). It’s not as simple as be nice and love the children. It’s hard to raise and love a child, and yet never be called Dad. The tightrope of potential hurt feelings is made slick by gender expectations. Swallowing one’s words, playing second fiddle, and deferring to (the parental rights of) others, while uncomfortable, is something women have been socialized to do. It’s difficult to be an alpha male and a responsible stepfather at the same time. Cinematic stepparents like Mike Brady or Liam Neeson’s widower in Love Actually excel in their roles precisely because there’s no competition for the role of father; Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man” and Will Ferrell in “Daddy’s Home” have a much tougher time.
Modern stepfathers, who feel sidelined and alienated by biology, can take comfort in knowing that they are not alone. The lone story of Jesus’ childhood found in the Bible involves a group trip that the family took to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve. After the festival Mary and Joseph started to travel back to Nazareth and went a full day before they realized that Jesus was not with relatives in the convoy. (I admit, by modern standards, this is some pretty negligent free-range parenting.) They rushed back to the city and spent three days looking for Jesus before they found him in the Temple. When Mary said to Jesus “your father (i.e., Joseph) and I have been worried” Jesus somewhat insolently replied, “Did you not know I would be in my Father’s house?” Even tween Jesus, having run off to his (somewhat absentee) Dad’s house without telling anyone, used the “you’re not my real Dad” excuse.