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Stepdad Lessons

Last year, I transformed myself from bachelor to husband. As if that wasn't a jarring enough transition, I also became a stepfather. This was supremely unfamiliar territory, and I liken the past year to what a pygmy from the Congolese interior might undergo upon being transplanted to Times Square. But despite my recent arrival to the Land of Girl, I've managed to glean many new insights about its natives. For instance:

Fear not naked Barbie
Despite a wardrobe a fashion model would envy  -- one that can accommodate any activity, from scuba to skiing to clubbing  -- Barbie spends most of her life naked, perfect breasts rising into the air, long legs stretched out on the floor. This alarmed me. And when Ken began showing up and indulging in frequent skinny-dipping excursions in the bathtub, I feared depravity. But to my stepdaughter and her friends, Barbie without clothing is as sexless as a piece of chalk. Undressed, she's a human canvas on which to place clothes. I, on the other hand, feel an odd mix of horror and envy as I look upon the frozen-faced, emasculated Ken lounging languorously on the floor with his harem.

Women are born that way
Sexist, I know, but how else to explain her description of the boy who sits next to her in class as "just such an obnoxious little man"? Or her insistence on carrying two bags for an overnight trip, one for clothes and the other for such necessities as CDs, glitter lipstick, art supplies, and Barbie's shoes? Or the way she asks for fashion reviews of ensembles that include pink Keds, yellow shorts, and a blue top with a red heart applique when I know full well she doesn't want an honest answer?

Teddy bears are our friends
At first I was humiliated by Scruffy. I carried him onto an airplane and shrank before the chuckles of my fellow passengers. But I've learned to lug him joyfully into motels, the homes of friends, and through a jungle in Central America because Scruffy and I have reached a rapprochement: I agree to tolerate his presence at all times; he agrees to serve as best friend, playmate, husband during endless games of house (which often include marriage to several female teddy bears, a stuffed dog, and a plastic horse), and, best of all, as a bottomless reservoir for shed tears.

Avoid bedtime stories in which the doggie hero dies
I once chose as her goodnight book the tale of America's first Seeing Eye dog, a pooch named Buddy, which also happens to be the name of my stepdog. As the story wound down and the sleepy girl was drifting off, the book ended with Buddy passing into doggie heaven. Her eyes snapped open and sobbing ensued, sparking a panicked examination of canine life spans and fervent oaths attesting to our very own Buddy's vigor and annoyingly good health.

Ketchup contains no tomatoes
Likewise spaghetti sauce and salsa, which explains why they're ideal edibles even though actual tomatoes (and many other vegetables) are vile poison. Indeed, most any food can be rendered nonvegetable with some minor adulteration, the most effective technique being inclusion on pizza, preferably under the cheese.

Parenting is a job for experts
This was driven home when I walked by the television just as a character made reference to horse semen. Aha! I thought when she asked me what that was. My chance to parent! I waded bravely into the science of mammalian biology, but the conversation soon degenerated into a bog of discomfiting questions. My wife stood by, amused, for seven agonizing minutes before rescuing me with a well-timed invitation for some rocky-road ice cream. Any questions I once had about whether I'd let my children watch Friends have now been answered.

Fathers suspect their little male brethren Though I am fresh out of the dating wars, I changed sides nanoseconds after my marriage. Recently my stepdaughter revealed that she had been lured into a relationship by a fellow third-grader, whose skill at kickball she found irresistible. She insists she's now his girlfriend, a state she defines as "having to talk to him sometimes." I immediately initiated an in-depth background check into the weasel's grades, hobbies, parents, and any possible gang affiliations. I have also floated the idea of a convent school in Austria  -- though not even nuns and thick stone walls seemed to offer much protection to Julie Andrews.

I will never be her dad
I am the guy my stepdaughter dates while waiting for her true love. I have courted her, shown her my best side, and fallen for her  -- hard. But her heart stays with another based upon his title: father. I sometimes resent the spent money, the bleary-eyed 3 A.M. explanations about how nighttime house noises are unrelated to burglary, the drills on the location of Asia, because I know that no matter how well I perform as stepfather, I'm still not her dad.

On the other hand, I get to dry her tears, teach her to swim, feel her hugs. And that, I've found, more than compensates for the rest, which is my biggest insight of all.

Brian Roberts covers family issues for numerous magazines

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