In this episode of the VulnerABILITY Podcast, host Marisa Donnelly welcomes Franco Zavala, self-proclaimed ‘Profesional Stepdad’ and father of five to, discuss stepparenting and learning to lead with love. They discuss changing the narrative around stepparenting, the challenges they both face as ‘bonus’ figures, and how they’re navigating uncharted waters as first-time, ‘step-in’ and ‘step-up’ parents.

Highlights From The Episode:

[3:00] “I think one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with over the last eight years… is overcoming the social narrative of what it means to be a ‘stepdad.'”

[5:00] “I wasn’t prepared, as a man, to find out where I was going to be tested and how I was going to be tested… I wasn’t prepared, as a man, to be scrutinized…as if waiting for me to make a mistake.”

[6:10] “If you were to look at the outside in, you would look at my family and say, man, they are excited, they are happy, they are together, they are one – and I’m proud of that.”

[8:20] “Love is literally the driving force behind every decision, idea, win, and loss that’s happened in my life for the last ten years. It’s the pure love I have for my wife. I consider her my best friend… That in itself has helped us move past everybody else, all the others — we are a team.”

[9:00] “If I lead with love, then that’s what matters… I may not get it right, but if [my boyfriend’s son] knows I love him, then that’s what matters.”

[10:30] “Sometimes I feel imposter syndrome in my own version of motherhood. Like, am I really a mom?

[11:00] “Something that will make you a strong person is your ability to accept who you are, and be okay with your flaws, and understand that you’re not going to get it right because it just doesn’t work that way. But to know that your heart is in it… and when your heart is in it, it’s easier to make those decisions along the way.”

[15:00] “I know I’ll never be your real dad, but damn it, I’m going to try my hardest to show you that you mean something to me.”

[16:30] “I wanted the affirmation… from everybody… that I was doing a good job… The hardest part of my journey, in the beginning, was realizing that I’m not going to get those affirmations from people… I can’t use those affirmations to define or to be proud of my identity.”

[18:00] “I’m not going to get those affirmations, so how can I give them to myself and just be at peace knowing that I’m doing a really good job. And maybe it will be recognized later, or maybe it won’t, and that’s okay because I know I’m doing this because I love this boy.”

[20:00] “All the hours, all the time, all the effort, pain, energy, tears, long nights, early mornings that I put in with my oldest daughter to make that connection… all that came together… and it paid off.”

[21:20] “Listen, I know it’s going to suck for the first few years. You may be in year one, or year five, or year seven, or year eight. But listen, it works. It pays off. Everything comes around. You just have to stay patient.”

[22:00] “Whether you get the accolades or not, whether you get the ‘atta boys’ or not, whether you get ‘you’re doing a great job’ or not — you need to know that for some reason, in your life, for where you are in this current time, you’re going through what you’re going through for a reason.”

[23:00] “Listen, if you can just develop patience and you can understand that everything you’re putting [in], everything you’re implementing on a very macro scale, is going to pay off. Even though in the micro it doesn’t feel like it [is].”

[27:00] “If I was going to be the very best stepdad, if I was going to be the leader, if I was going to be the emotional stability within the home, whether it’s killing a spider or ‘Hey, I heard a knock outside my window at three in the morning can you please go look’ type scenario… I knew that in order for me to get to that type of dad, I first needed to understand me. I needed to understand why I reacted [in] certain ways, why I handled things certain ways.”

[27:50] “I had to get to know me fully first because if I didn’t, I’d never be able to fully connect with the next part, which is the ‘us’ — the teamwork, connection with your partner.”

[28:45] “We put so much time, energy, and effort into trying to make our stepkids feel loved and wanted that we fail to keep the connection with our partner — the reason we’re there in the first place.

[31:30] “If I’m working on my [self-care] in that way, then everything becomes easier. And you can focus that outward attention on healing, rather than making it perfect.”

[34:30] “You have to stop trying to be perfect. They don’t care that you’re perfect. They don’t want you to be great. They just want you to be there.”

[34:50] “I was so focused on trying to be the best dad and provide the most for my family, and implement these routines and schedules and all this stuff, that I was failing to do the little things.”

[38:10] “There’s so much pressure put on stepparents, bonus parents, but if we can find ways to… lead with love and be really open to the fact that we’re not going to have it perfect, we’re not going to have it right… But if we just keep showing up and we just keep doing those little things, and really being there, then that will shape our kids lives. And it will.”

[39:20] “For every first-time stepparent—every one of us—day one of our first day, we’re like, ‘It’s going to be too hard.’ The difference between the ones who make it and the ones who don’t is the ones who are able to accept that feeling, use it as power, and turn that power into positivity.”

Recommended Resources:

Inspired by this conversation, Marisa and Franco stayed connected and decided to launch a campaign and resources for other stepparents navigating this (often difficult) terrain. They started Step By Step Parents to begin a community centered on the idea of support and learning to lead with love in all circumstances.

You can check out the Facebook Page, Facebook Group, and Instagram to get connected and join.

Thanks for listening! To hear more episodes of the VulnerABILITY Podcast, click here.

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