In tribute to all men, fathers and stepfathers who have played a positive role in the life of a child who wasn’t their biological daughter or son, Parenting Times shares an Ottawa family’s story
It all started with a blind date in November 1985 orchestrated by a mutual friend.
Cathy Harwood-Pope wasn’t looking for a relationship, but for Brian Pope, “it was love at first sight.”
He describes her as “beautiful, caring, exciting. She had a heart of gold and loved animals, and loved life. As a mother, her daughter was her entire life.”
For her part, Harwood-Pope says, “As best as I tried, I couldn’t stop myself from falling in love with him.” They complement each other, with Harwood-Pope describing: “Brian is young at heart and I’m an old soul.
“Dating wasn’t easy,” Harwood-Pope remembers. “We both had pasts and children from our first marriages that were a very big part of our lives.”
Pope, for his part, came to the relationship with three daughters, Wendy, Jennifer and Allison. Harwood-Pope had one daughter, Christine.
“We both talked about our relationship as being a package deal. All our children were part of the package and always have been,” says Harwood-Pope.
Christine Di Loreto has fond memories of her childhood, although there were early struggles. “I had a very happy childhood, despite some circumstances that weren’t ideal. My mother and father divorced when I was 2.” After a time living with her grandparents, her mother decided they needed a place of their own and moved herself and young Christine into a small one-bedroom apartment. The little girl had the bedroom and Harwood-Pope slept in the living room. Says Di Loreto, “I never knew we had less money than most others. [My mother] made sure I had plenty of food and things to play with, even if she had to go without.”
Di Loreto says of Harwood-Pope, now 59: “My mom was always very protective of me, but without coddling me. She was kind but firm, and I think the mix was a great foundation for the woman that I’ve turned into.”
“The best thing that came out of my marriage was Christine,” says Harwood-Pope. “The second thing was living on my own with a small child of two years to raise with little help and learning to rely on myself. The third thing was going back to school and getting my diploma, which made a difference towards being self-sufficient, not only for myself, but also for my daughter.”
Pope came into their lives two years later, but was not intimidated by the thought of being a stepfather.
“Becoming a stepfather was fine for me, as I already had 3 daughters,” says Pope, now 71. “I just wanted to bond all children to one family with Cathy and I. The goal was to raise all four girls equally and blend everything together.”
Pope has an early treasured memory of Di Loreto. As six-year-old Christine sat at the dinner table she questioned her mother as to whether she would marry Brian. Harwood-Pope responded, “I don’t know.” To which the girl questioned that if her mother wasn’t going to marry Brian, could she?
The Ottawa-based couple married in 1990 and have been together ever since.
Di Loreto and Pope both note that Pope was never Di Loreto’s stepfather. Now 37, Di Loreto describes their relationship like this: “I have a very strong relationship with my stepfather. I don’t even call him my stepfather. He’s Dad, or Daddo, as I like to call him. He was there. He showed up. He raised me with my mom and his other daughters, my stepsisters, and as far as I’m concerned, my family was never broken, just extended. He was always there for me, and even at the times when we didn’t see eye to eye, I always knew that I was loved.” She adds, “I can’t say enough how important it was that he’s in my life. Biological or not, I had a dad. I had non-biological siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins. I never felt like anything was missing from my family composition. I felt very blessed. This man, whose blood didn’t flow in my veins, accepted me and treated me as his own. He set the standard for all of my male relationships going forward. He treats my mom and myself, and all his family, blood and extended, so well and with a lot of respect. He’s kind and generous and hilarious… I wouldn’t be who I am today if he hadn’t been a part of my life.”
Pope says, “I always tried to make Christine welcome and feel as important to me as the others.” He adds in jest, “even today she claims, she ‘is the youngest and the favourite.’”
Harwood-Pope has always respected how her husband treats his daughters. “Brian loves his girls,” she says. “He has always taken time to spend one-on-one with them, which is one of the things I admire in him. Family has always been important to me. The fact that Brian was comfortable with Christine and her with him made me feel good. She would go to talk to him about things she may have felt uncomfortable approaching me about throughout her life.”
“For the past 33 years, Christine and I have always treated each other with kindness, love and respect…we are still very close,” shares Pope. He offers this parenting tip for fathers: “Listen to your children and help them in any way you can.”
“I think it’s essential that children have a positive male role model growing up, regardless of the relation,” says Di Loreto, who has a young daughter. “Children learn by watching, by experiencing, and the more positive sources they have to learn from, the better. It’s important for them to see how men treat their mothers, how they treat them, and to know that blood isn’t always thicker than water, not all superheroes wear capes, and that they are loved, always, and unconditionally.”
Harwood-Pope remembers fondly even the smaller things Brian did to show love and kindness to her daughter as a child. “Christine got to see firsthand just how caring Brian was, when he lifted her up on his shoulders at the Santa Claus parade so she could see Santa. One time, he bought her a Barbie because I couldn’t afford to.”
This treasured toy is vividly remembered by Di Loreto. She says, “He gave me my first Barbie doll, Peaches and Cream. She had a lovely peach-coloured gown that I kept and played with until it was in shreds!”
Di Loreto describes Pope as, “a very hard worker. When he came into my life, he also had very little. And over the years, he moved us to a beautiful new house, and made sure we were always provided for. As a parent, he could be very strict. I think that comes from his own upbringing – his father (my grampy) was a veteran. However, he was also very fun, and always had a way of making me laugh when I was having a bad day.”
The father-daughter duo has had lots of fun over the years, like annual skiing trips together. Christine says Pope has taught her, “That manners go a long way, that hard work pays off, and that you can diffuse almost any situation with a well-placed joke!”
As Harwood-Pope shares, “Through thick and thin, we’ve been there for each other, as well as our children, the best we can. We all need good role models in our lives. Be they parents, step-parents, relatives, teachers, etc. … I don’t think it’s all about fathers or mothers. There is a reason why the saying came about, ‘It takes a community to raise a child.’”