I have loved being a stepmother as much as any relationship adventure I’ve succumbed to. And to what do I owe my lack of angst? Mainly having watched the evolution of blended families from the incredible vantage point of local church pastor for almost a decade. Long before plunging into my own saga, I got good long (unforgettable) lessons in what’s healthy and what’s not as stories played out very dramatically (some for months, others years) in my congregation. What can I say? I got my Ph.D. in stepmommying without ever having to get my hands dirty.
The main thing I learned watching was that most step-parents disrespect the parent boundary. Truth be told, no matter how much you love them, feed them, pay for their clothes or whatever, those kids have a mom and dad already and that is that. To have a child is a sacred thing. My parents are by no means perfect, but they will always mean a universe more to me than any other adult who has touched my life.
Think about your parents for a minute. Even if they were drunks in the gutter, there is a great huge sacred, in fact, living bond between you that cannot be broken or replaced. And so it is with all kids… we desperately need our parents in a physiological way that goes deeper than words.
Understanding this truth put me in the right frame of mind to unconditionally love my step-kids without needing something in return or slipping into behavior that would either be in competition with their mom or in some way disparage her; highlighting her weaknesses. As subtle and unintentional as such behavior can be, I found it insidiously rampant and at the heart of most every conflict I witnessed while pastoring. I determined from the onset that with my step-kids I would take every opportunity to build up their mom and that relationship, no matter what.
Early on when my youngest step-daughter, trying to protest a decision I’d made—such as no ice cream today, honey—would tell me I was not her mother and she’d sure rather be with her mother, I never contested it. Although there was a dimension of kid manipulation at play, I’d whole-heartedly agree with her premise. Yes, I’d say, I’m sure not your mother and I’m sure you do wish you could be with her right now. Then I’d go on and say something like, I must admit that if my parents had divorced when I was your age and I had to be separated from my mom, I would have hated it too. And BAM—she’d be calm and connected. The truth sets us free, after all.
Not only does this kind of honesty build trust, it affirms what every child of divorce needs to know: Your mom/dad is still your mom/dad, and your great love and loyalty towards them is good, and definitely not in conflict with me and my relationship with you. Not only that, it sent my step-daughter the message that I don’t need something she cannot give me—a kind of sick loyalty to feed my sense of self worth and loved-ness.
This principle of respecting the mom/dad in the story is also very important when dealing with a mom/dad who is doing (and sometimes involving the kids in) very unhealthy behavior. The temptation is the talk bad of that parent, rebuking what they’re doing to the kids. As tempting as this is, it is inherently devastating to a child. Tear down the parent, tear down the child, goes the old adage. If I have a problem, I’ll talk to the step-mom in my story, but not through or with the kids. In fact, we have a rule in our home that critiquing mom when she’s not present is not acceptable.
As simple as this all may sound, I believe the impact for step-kids is bigger than big. It is a very common and Biblically sound teaching that how husband and wife love their offspring is most profoundly shown in how they love and treat each other. Divorce does not change this reality. Married or not, that child is still from both people, and how those two choose to treat each other—especially when not present, will hugely determine the self-esteem and security of the kids. Sometimes divorce is the only option. When this is the case, it does not mean we no longer treat that other party with respect, kindness or honor. Love is love, no matter the relational landscape. And children, of us all, are most needful of it.
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Clarissa Worley Sproul writes from the Pacific Northwest. All rights reserved © 2010 AnswersForMe.org. Click here for content usage information.