Statistics show that "approximately one-third of all weddings in America today form stepfamilies."1
A look at different types of stepfamilies can highlight the unique challenges each stepfamily may encounter.
Dads who remarry often expect their new brides to assume a similar role to their former wife. The new wife, on the contrary, steps into the marriage ready for romance and quality time together as a couple. Instantly filling the role of wife is challenge enough; being interim Mom is often overwhelming. Wives in this situation often feel frustration and disillusionment when they are handed someone else's kids to care for (and the kids don't like it, either!).
In this scenario, Dad must step up to the plate and handle the disciplining of his children to avoid conflict with his new wife. He should also teach the kids to treat their stepmom with respect and talk through (or even write down) household duties with his new wife until a fair arrangement is reached.
Entering this marriage, Mom's relief at having a new partner in life might result in her handing off too many responsibilities to her new husband. The kids, then, usually will rebel. They have a dad (or had one); they don't think they need a new one. Tread lightly with any stepparent administering discipline. Biological parents are the ones who should handle rules and punishments, at least initially.
This couple needs to bond and show solidarity to the children. The wife must be careful not to shut out her new husband in favor of her children. Avoid inside jokes with the kids and subtle put-downs that would cause the kids to disregard their new stepfather altogether. There is a fine line between handling the discipline and devaluing the husband's position in the home. Require children to show the same respect for their stepdad that they would any teacher, law enforcement officer, or other adult in authority. Don't try to force love.
This type of stepfamily may seem to come with the most hurdles to overcome initially, but has potential to be the most successful makeup because Mom and Dad are motivated to pull together for the kids. Kids, however, experience the most loss when their parent marries someone with children. Access to their biological parent must now be shared by not just the new spouse but also by other children. Their physical space is shared with a stepparent and stepsiblings. New cities, new home, new school and new roommate are also common changes when families join. And, some children must face the end of their dream of their parents reuniting.
The first two years in any stepfamily, but especially this type, are crucial. Expect conflict and extend grace — lots of it. There will be different relationships between members of this type of stepfamily, different levels of intimacy, connection, and love between stepsiblings and between children and stepparents. Don't worry; that's normal.
When a family experiences the loss of a beloved spouse and parent, the new spouse/stepparent will inevitably confront the “ghosts of family past.” On some level, grieving continues for years after the death of a spouse.
This stepfamily needs to make sure it is taking steps to heal from their grief in order for the new family to unite. Rather than trying to assume a parental role, the successful stepparent in this situation will step into the role of friend and mentor. Family members can honor their loved one with photographs and memories, but erecting a shrine and idolizing their past prevents intimacy with the new spouse and stepparent. Establishing common ground and moving forward together is difficult but possible.
Even if the children have left the nest, remarried couples with children still qualify as stepfamilies. Due to a lack of daily interactions, bonding and connecting may be more difficult. Many relationships will be strained for years or may never achieve any level of intimacy. Stepparents and stepchildren can make an effort to connect through cards, letters, phone calls, emails and family get-togethers.
Unique issues to this stepfamily may include establishing healthy grandparenting relationships and inheritance tension. Family fears can be alleviated by communication and a welcoming love. Distributing family keepsakes ahead of time or deciding how you will distribute your property can ease some of the tensions related to inheritance.
No matter what type of stepfamily yours may fall under, with the right resources and the help of God, family, and friends, your stepfamily can find encouragement and hope.
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"We're in love and we're ready to get married," they said. "Terrific," I responded. "Are your children ready for you to get married?" It was the first session of pre-remarital counseling and already Angie and Mike were caught off-guard. "What do you mean?" Angie asked. "I'm sure our kids will have some adjustments to make, but that shouldn't take long. Besides, my kids are really enjoying Mike at this point — what's to be concerned about?" I could tell already that this couple was like most: They grossly underestimated the transition that remarriage has on the single-parent home. We had a lot of work to do.
Shelly's opening question was much different from Angie and Mike's. It had been five years since her divorce and she had made a concerted effort to work toward healing and create a stable home for her kids. As a result her home and children were functioning pretty well, despite some financial pressures. She met John about six months prior to our meeting and according to her it started out well.
"I finally met a friend I could trust and confide in, not to mention someone who made me feel cared for. I had been craving that for some time. But now things are starting to progress and I'm afraid to remarry — not because I'm afraid to commit again — but because I know stepfamily life is very difficult and I don't want my children to suffer any more. What should I do?"
Shelly was keenly aware that most stepfamilies end in divorce and she didn't want to become another statistic or put her children through more heartache. She needed some answers.
As I conduct stepfamily seminars around the country, the two most consistent questions I hear from single-parents are:
I never tell couples whether they should remarry, but I do admonish them to step away from their remarriage fantasies and consider the realities of stepfamily life. In order to make a step in the right direction for you and your children, you first must understand the challenges of stepfamily living and then make an informed choice about remarriage.
Stepfamilies, sometimes called blended families, are unique in many ways. Unfortunately, the "Brady Bunch" disguised most of those differences and gave America an artificial security about stepfamily life. If you watched that show you probably assume stepfamilies are just like biological families. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are just a few factors for single parents to consider before stepping into a stepfamily.
Don't begin the journey unless you've done your homework, counted the cost and are willing to persevere until you reach the ‘Promised Land. In the Old Testament of the Bible, when the Israelites realized they were trapped between Pharaoh's army and the Red Sea, they cried out in fear and anger to Moses wishing they had stayed in Egypt. Nearly every stepfamily, shortly after remarriage, experiences a painful pinch between the losses and hurts of their past and the sea of opposition that stands in their future. Children are often heard crying, "Mom, why did you marry this guy? We were so much better off when it was just us." Truly, the journey to the Promised Land for most is not an easy one. But if you trust God and persevere, He will lead you through to better days.
Make sure you're not still haunted by the ghost of marriage past. Emotional and spiritual healing from divorce or the death of a spouse takes time; in fact, the average person requires three to five years before they can be discerning about a new relationship. Don't let the rebound-bug bite you where it hurts. After his wife died of cancer Gary found himself lonely and feeling inadequate to care for his daughter. "I guess I needed a partner and I wanted a mother for my child," he said. This emptiness led him to rush into a new marriage that ended after just one year. Remember, time is your best friend, so slow down the dating process.
Realize that a parent's relationship with his children will be an intimacy barrier to the new marriage. As I'm writing this article, a stepmother came to see me hoping I could help diminish the jealousy she feels toward her stepson. Five years into the marriage and she still plays second fiddle. Yet the solution is not as simple as telling the biological parent, "just put your spouse first." Biological parents can't just switch their loyalties; it feels like they're betraying their children. "After all," said one mother, "my kids have suffered enough and I don't want them to lose me, too." Despite this struggle, the couple must learn to nurture their relationship and not get lost in the stepfamily shuffle.
Understand that cooking a stepfamily takes time. Every stepfamily has an assumed blending style (whether they know it or not) that drives how they treat one another. For example, a food processor mentality results in parents demanding that stepchildren call their stepparent "Dad" or "Mom" right away. In effect, the noncustodial biological parent gets chopped up in the process. A pressure cooker mentality is used when new family members are forced into spending time together. Usually the lid blows off the pot. And finally, the blender mentality assumes that everyone will love everyone else to the same degree. Not only does this set people up for conflict it usually results in someone being creamed. Instead, develop a Crock-Pot mentality that allows for time (the average stepfamily requires seven years to combine) and low heat to bring the various members of the family into relationship. For example, instead of forcing the family together, Brad and Julie spent Saturday afternoons each with their own children. Only after nearly two years did they begin to combine leisure activities. This low-heat approach didn't threaten the children's relationship with their parents and made space for new relationships to develop.
Accept the fact that remarriage is a gain for the adults and a loss for the kids. What they really want is for Mom and Dad to reunite, so for them the remarriage is a loss. When you add that to the list of hundreds of other losses they've already experienced you can see why children have mixed feelings about the new family. Furthermore, loss always brings the fear of more loss. When persons start protecting themselves from more loss, walls are built. "I'm afraid my kids and new husband will turn against each other. It would be just another failure," said one mom. Her teenage son echoed her fear, "I'm afraid of getting close to anyone. With all I've had to live through I keep waiting for it to happen all over again."
Dating is important but true stepfamily relationships start with the wedding. Children are sometimes tolerant, even encouraging of their parent's new romance, but they frequently change their tune when real stepfamily life begins. Mike called me the day after he and Carrie married. After dating for two years, they spent three months in pre-remarital counseling with me trying to work through issues from the past and anticipating the needs of her children. Even though much had been accomplished, on the day of the wedding, Carrie's 16- and 19-year-old daughters began badgering their mother. They had appeared supportive of her decision, but now that Mike was really moving in, they berated Carrie over her decision to divorce their father and remarry. Carrie spent her wedding night in tears.
Discuss and develop a plan for your parenting roles. For the first couple of years after remarriage, it's generally best for the biological parent to remain the main source of nurturance, affection and discipline. The stepparents role may evolve from a "babysitter" role (where they borrow power from the biological parent and enforce "their" rules), to an "uncle or aunt" (where the children consider the stepparent extended family, but not a parent), to a "parental role model" with a considerable measure of authority. This gradual progression gives the stepparent and stepchildren time and space to develop a relationship before power battles come into play.
Develop a working relationship with your ex-spouse. Susie thought her negative relationship with her ex-husband could never change. She learned, however, that seeking to forgive him and avoiding pushing his hot buttons helped to diminish their negative interaction. Gradually their co-parenting relationship improved and their children became more cooperative in each household. This in turn opened the door for Susie's new husband to interact with her kids and gradually build a relationship.
Loyalties, left unattended, will divide and conquer a stepfamily. Allow children to love both biological parents and don't force a relationship with the stepparent(s). Let children set the pace for their new step-relationships and don't worry if they aren't "warming up" as quickly as you'd like. Dave worked very hard to win the heart of his 12-year-old stepdaughter. But after only four months he gave up because she didn't seem to be returning any of the effort. With a Crock-Pot mentality Dave would have understood that relationship building takes years, not months.
Consider the potential for sexual pressures within the home. The incidence of stepfamily incest is eight times greater than in biological families. Stepsiblings in particular are often confronted with sexual thoughts that lead to shame or inappropriate behavior. Darrell and his wife of 10 years approached me at a recent seminar after her 13-year-old son admitted to sneaking into his 14-year-old stepsister's room to fondle her. They had been living in the same house for 10 years, yet the lack of blood relations left the door open for abuse. Sexual indiscretions in stepfamilies are real and must be guarded against.
Because stepfamily life presents these and other challenges, it's important to invest in pre-remarital counseling. Be sure to find a Christian therapist or minister who understands stepfamily peculiarities. Unfortunately, this can be very difficult as clergy are just now beginning to wake up to the needs of stepfamilies, and most counselors don't have much stepfamily training either. If a qualified counselor is not available in your area, purchase a book or attend a seminar for stepfamilies. Make sure you look in every direction before you leap, otherwise you might spend a lot of time wandering around the wilderness.
Stepfamily life is not impossible. Indeed there is a ‘Promised Land' of marital fulfillment, family stability and shared spirituality. But for most stepfamilies finding these rewards requires intentional effort and a keen understanding of how stepfamilies work best.
After a lot of exploration, Angie and Mike decided that remarriage was workable for their two families. And they were willing to accept the risks. Four years into the marriage the couple reports managing their initial adjustments fairly well. Recently, however, Mike's 15-year-old son unexpectedly decided to come live with them. New challenges are now confronting them, but they are seeking help from a local support group.
Shelly has decided to focus her energies on her children. She explained to her boyfriend that she'd like to continue seeing him on a casual basis and hopes that some day they can take the relationship further. But for now, not complicating her single-parent family with a remarriage seems best. His willingness to wait remains to be seen.
For more articles and resources by Ron Deal, visit www.smartstepfamilies.com.
We sat on a daybed in the cramped housekeeping unit behind an old motel. "My husband gets out of prison in September, and we want to put our family back together." The woman speaking was the biological mother of our youngest daughter, 13-year-old Rae Lynn. Rae Lynn sat next to her mother with her head down. I could see tears rolling off her cheeks onto her knees.
From my earliest days, I had dreamed of having a perfect family. When we discovered that we were not to have the requisite flesh-of-our-flesh offspring, we watched the Lord piece together a patchwork family. It was at times like these that the traditional "woven of whole cloth" families looked mighty enticing. Especially now, when it seemed we were in for another gut-wrenching upheaval.
Rae Lynn had deeply mourned the loss of her abandoning mother and dreamed of a moment like this for nearly three years. Her imagination had conjured up a hundred ways for her mother to ask forgiveness and beg to take her back. I didn't have to ask if she wanted to live with her mother and her stepfather. No matter how scary the home situation or how much Rae Lynn loved us, she would fight to get home to her mother. Because we have legal guardianship of Rae Lynn, the courts would have the final say.
Of one thing we were sure: We couldn't keep ripping our family apart and stitching it back together again. I resolved to get through this, if we must, and move on. I looked at my husband, Keith, and saw that this was as hard for him as it was for me. Thinking about our other two children, I said to Keith, "Once the courts make the decision, it must be final. We can't continue to put the family through this kind of pain. If Rae Lynn leaves, we cannot take her back again."
Driving home after the visit, I looked in the visor mirror and saw this precious daughter struggling with dual loyalties. The Lord spoke inaudibly, but I heard Him as clearly as if His words were coming from the radio: "And how many times have I taken you back, Wendy? No matter how much pain it costs Me, My door is always open to you, is it not? Can you do less for this little one?"
It reminded me once again what a challenge it is to have a patchwork family. Not patchwork in the sense of the carefully constructed quilting patterns like Jacob's Ladder, Road to Oklahoma and Wedding Ring. We're more like the crazy quilt that was popular in Victorian days. Made of odd-shaped patches of worn velvets, silks, corduroys and wools, the pieces are randomly stitched together, then richly embroidered.
The most intriguing feature of a crazy quilt is the irregular patchwork. Open-door families are like that. Whether the family is blended by marriage, built by adoption or foster parenting, or even created in a group-home setting, the unexpected shapes result in a beautiful pattern. In Matthew 25:34-40 we are called to reach out to those the Lord referred to as "the least of these." It may disrupt the seamless composition of a traditional family, and it may leave us open for heartache, but the blessings can far outweigh the pain.
Running a hand across the variety of textures in the patchwork—nubby corduroy, well-worn wool, slippery silk, plush velvet—exposes the richness of their combination. Because patchwork families don't share genetic traits, sometimes the diversity is striking. All families have differences in temperament and personality, but they're more noticeable in brothers and sisters who weren't raised together from babyhood or who don't share a common childhood. In our family, we not only enjoy these different textures, but our colors add interest as well, from fair-haired and blue-eyed to brown-skinned with black eyes.
The more intricate a pattern, the more it says about the quilt maker. Just as a much-worn patch from an heirloom quilt inspires a memory ("This blue wool was from the dress Grandma wore when she met Grandpa"), our patchwork family is a living reminder of God's love. I look at my oldest daughter and thank God for the miracle that brought her into our life. Seeing our 6-foot-tall, 16-year-old son peering into the refrigerator, I'm reminded of the baby picture—clipped from a magazine and taped to a long-ago refrigerator as a commitment to pray for another child to adopt. And when I look at Rae Lynn, I remember that God sometimes unexpectedly gives us the most wonderful gifts.
The real magic of a crazy quilt happens when the quilt maker embroiders the pieces. Over the top of every seam is an intricate design of multi-colored embroidery. I've seen quilts that never repeat the same embroidery stitch, going from delicate feather stitches to blanket stitches to lazy daisy chains. What a miracle to learn that when God stitches a family together, the thread that connects is stronger than shared genetics. It's the thread of love.
A similar crazy quilt construction is evident throughout history as God keeps His door open to His children. From the fall of Adam and Eve through the blending of foreign marriages into the line of David, from the covenant with the Jews to the New Covenant, it's a fascinating patchwork. On those days when I yearn for an uncomplicated family woven of whole cloth, I picture the complexity and beauty of that crazy biblical quilt. Opening the door of our home—and the heart of our family—is kingdom work.
Rae Lynn is still with us. Her mother has not yet acted on her intentions. If Rae Lynn leaves, it will feel as if a hole has been torn in the fabric of our family, but we'll keep the relationship open. As the Lord reminded me that day in the car, we need to be ready to piece her back into this patchwork family if the time comes. The emerging pattern may be uncertain, but we continue to trust the Quilt Maker.
Huddled together, shielding ourselves from the cold winds blowing off Lake Michigan, my daughter passes me a deviled egg. It’s March 20, and come rain, snow, blustery winds or occasional mild temperatures, our family goes on a picnic to celebrate the first day of spring.
We all have family traditions. Some are as simple as making pizza every Saturday night; others are more elaborate, such as an annual Christmas Eve pageant. Whether silly like throwing a birthday party for the dog or solemn such as lighting candles for Advent, traditions define the identity of a family.
Quite a few traditions spring up on their own and weave themselves into the fabric of who we are as a family. Our annual spring picnic, for example, started on an unseasonably warm first day of spring in 1975. Sometimes families don’t remember why or when a tradition started, but still they say, "This is the way we always do it."
These rituals become our link to the past, enjoyment in the present and hope that the specialness of family will go on. Many parents have learned that established ways of doing things simplify life. If the Christmas tree is always chopped down on the day after Thanksgiving, family members can plan well in advance. Ditto with the neighborhood barbecue on Labor Day. From menus to birthdays to annual events, why change if it is working? Plus, as any parent will note, kids enjoy repetition — same story, same video, same game. Kids love traditions for this reason.
The first component of a good tradition is that it needs to be chosen.
The second component of a good tradition is that it needs to be enjoyed, which is not as simple as it sounds. Many of us have endured traditions that we just didn’t like: getting up at 5 a.m. to open Christmas gifts or cramming too many activities into one day.
The last component is that traditions need to be flexible. Some years circumstances will alter even the most enjoyed and carefully chosen traditions. You always go to your brother’s for Easter, but this year your husband has a new job and works Saturdays. Only a few traditions survive the life span of a family. Many of the best traditions peter out over time. No one carves pumpkins anymore at our house, and we haven’t shared a bedtime ritual in years. Circumstances such as college, marriage or death can end traditions. Sometimes age pulls the plug as each child outgrows the activity.
The photographs, the videos, the memories will linger long after the last homemade valentine is designed. No matter how long they last, traditions make us richer from having celebrated together.
Obnoxious. At 8 years old, I didn't know how to spell it, but I sure could recognize it when I saw it in action. Boy, was she loud. And annoying. And she had a big bump on her lip. And big hair. And big feet. And really tight clothes on her big, big body.
"Kids, this is Carla," my dad told us with excitement — and with his arm around her waist. She towered over him. Smiling with her big teeth. Giving him a big squeeze. And then it hit me. Us kids were in big trouble.
Those were a few of the thoughts I couldn't help thinking the day my dad introduced us to his new girlfriend. At the time, I only had one question: "What is he thinking?" That we'd instantly accept her? That we'd be as excited as he was? That we'd be happy for him? What about our feelings? What in the world did he see in her? (I guess I actually had more than one question.)
She was nothing like my mom. My mom had class. She had style. She was beautiful. Maybe that was the point. Maybe he didn't want to try again with anyone like my mom, since that marriage ended in failure. Since she divorced him.
I began to dread our usual Sunday visits with Dad after Carla entered the picture. We only saw him once a week, and it was hard enough sharing his attention with my three siblings. Now we had to share him with this obnoxious woman. It didn't seem fair.
Watching them together was embarrassing. They called each other by their last names — only they added a "y" sound to the end of them. We would just roll our eyes. But we never let her see, of course. We were "good" kids. We weren't going to do or say anything to make her feel bad. We'd just call her "the StepMOMster" in private.
I think what really irritated us about her is that she tried too hard. She was too overbearing. Too eager. Too loud. Boy, was she loud.
She used to attend my swim meets and stand up in the bleachers, yelling her head off, jumping up and down, clapping, screaming and shaking her fists. I'd stand on the starting block and hear her voice above all the others. I'd pray that I'd win the race. And I'd hope that it wouldn't be a close one — that I'd win it by a body length. Not to make her proud of me, but so that she'd have less reason to scream like a wild boar. But that didn't stop her.
My dad liked to give me a high-five after my races. That simple gesture would never have satisfied her. Instead, she liked to hug my soaking wet body while she wiggled and jiggled and jumped up and down, forcing my red face to bob into her chest. Between bobs, I'd catch glimpses of others sitting near her in the bleachers, staring. I guess it was a sight.
And I knew the worst part of her ritual was yet to come. I'd politely say, "Thanks, Carla," and turn to go talk to my coach … and she would pinch my bottom. I'd know the pinch was coming, but somehow I was still shocked every time. It was supposed to be a pinch that said, "Great job, you cute thing, you," or something like that. But it was always a little too hard. Her nails were sharp — and long.
The StepMOMster wasn't as excited about life in the morning. We'd pray that we wouldn't have to interface with her before she had her coffee. She could be pretty grouchy. My dad thought this quality was endearing. I thought it was downright mean. Being irritable is one thing. But it seemed as if she would pick fights with my siblings and me. And it made me sad when my dad would stick up for her over us, his own children.
She definitely had her moments of rudeness — and it wasn't just in the mornings. She was impatient with waitresses, mean to cashiers and pompous to anyone if she was in that sort of mood. For example, she drove an expensive car that had an automatic shut-off light mechanism. It allowed you to park and leave your car, and the lights would shut off automatically after 20 seconds or so. One time, a nice gentleman in the parking lot called after the StepMOMster to tell her that her lights were on. She arrogantly replied, "I know. It's a Cadillac."
Carla didn't have a lot of tact or concern for our feelings at times. My mother called her a "loose cannon." I remember being hit frequently by the cannon balls. One day, I confronted my dad about it, and he defended her. I told him that I felt like he loved her more than he loved us kids. And his response was something I would never forget: He said that he loved me very much, but that in a marriage, you must put your spouse first. And that someday, I would understand this kind of love between a husband and a wife. Well, now that I am a wife, I do understand.
The healthiest families are those with a solid relationship between the mother and father. Where the kids aren't the center of the universe, but where they feel safe and secure because of the commitment between their parents. My dad had the right idea about putting his wife first. It was just hard because my dad's wife did not happen to be my mother.
This is one of the tragedies of divorce. God did not intend for children — or adults — to suffer because of divorce, but it happens. The good news is, He heals hearts.
My dad's commitment to marriage is something I grew to sincerely respect. I've grown to appreciate my stepmother, too. I can't imagine being a stepparent. I can only think that it must be one of the toughest jobs in the world. But Carla has stood the test of time. She has stood by my dad through all the ups and downs. Through four kids who hesitated to accept her. Through 25 years of marriage.
Looking back, I can chuckle and know that she really did love to watch me win a race. She really did want to have fun with me and my siblings. She really did care about us. But the one main reason I grew to accept my stepmother over time is this: She really did love my dad. It's that simple.
I love her because she loves my dad. Big time.