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One day my husband had no children and the next day he was the stepfather of an 11-year old girl. It happened that fast, overnight.

None of us knew what we were doing.

We just lurched. We lurched from getting along well enough to detesting each other and wishing an Annulment Angel would appear and make everything a hazy, long ago memory. My daughter’s eye-rolling matched my own ambivalence, having married a man I’d only known five short months after living as a single person for a very long time. The phrase ‘what was I thinking’ was on perpetual echo in my brain. The two of us, my daughter and I, had made a life. It was occasionally short on cash and clouded by unpredictable and undependable relationships, but otherwise we had our routine. We had our tuna casserole and we were fine.

My daughter also already had a father. And he was a good one. Consistent, caring, incredibly dependable in routine and demeanor, he was (and still is) an exceptional father. So the sudden presence of a new father figure in the mix was disconcerting. I hadn’t thought much about it ahead of time, or thought about much of anything ahead of time, coasting and then skidding down a slippery road on a dare. I loved this guy, this new, completely different character, the one who no one ever would think was right for me. He was right for me. I knew it. Most of the time.

So we fought a lot those first few years. We fought because suddenly there was another adult around who seemed to think he should weigh in on things and we fought about her.

Then he started building. Like the organizer he is, he just started creating his own relationship with my daughter, one that didn’t go through me or need me to function.  He didn’t wait for my permission to do this which was wise because it might have been many years coming. He just started his own stealth campaign to be  – not her father, maybe not even her stepfather – but an important person in her life.

They shared jokes. They teamed up to make fun of me and my moods. He brought home a puppy for her when she was 11, a month after we’d moved into our new house. Eighteen years later we scattered the beloved Davey’s ashes on the sands of Lake Superior, the three of us together as the sun set, drinking wine and eating smoked fish.  That night, I remembered his gift of Davey on that long ago hot summer day as the official start of his campaign to become real in my daughter’s life.

He negotiated her first volunteer job, taught her to drive, bought her first car, waited up at night for her to come home, moved her once, twice and more, fixed things that needed fixing, and stayed the course.

He gave her the nickname she still has today. It’s a name that only we call her.

But it’s also a name she calls herself. She signs her emails and letters with that nickname.

My husband created his own, special relationship with my daughter. And after a while I was wise enough not to get in the way. And after a while, she found a place for him in her life that was important without making him compete with anyone. She opened her heart to love more parents and to let more parents love her.  Her stepfather had made this possible by giving her a way to love him without being disloyal to her father. It was a gift he gave to her and to me that I’ve never thanked him for.

At her wedding, his was the last toast, he had stood back all day. It’s what he knew to do. But when he spoke, it showed. There are a lot of ways to be a father.