My husband and I were recently speaking with my bonus daughter. We've been doing a lot of that lately as she is preparing for the birth of her son, our first grandchild. Any day now Jonathan and I will be upgraded to grandparent status and we are excited about it.
As we were chatting, Briana exclaimed, "My mother said, 'Cheryl and I are friends!'" Then she asked me, "Are you friends?" It took me a minute to answer:
Me: "I have never had anything against your Mom."
Bri: "I know you didn't have a problem but she did."
Me: "Well, I just decided to be consistently myself and I figured she would come
around one day, or she would not. She came around."
14 years after Jonathan and I said, "I do," we are at a stage of co-parenting that doesn't feel awkward for me, threatening for bio-mom, contentious for the children, or stressful for the man-in-the-middle. That's not to say we won't ever experience those things but we are good more often than we are not. The road from there to here wasn't easy. To be honest, I am still sensitive about some of the things that were said about me, or actions that were taken. (Those tiny pings I get when I recall remind to forgive again.) It was a challenge to pray about things I wanted to scream about. I quite often found myself battling frustration as I strove to trust that God's ways would yield a peaceful, if not perfect, result. Forward was the only direction I knew to go, yet ground was gained one step of faith, one act of obedience, one breathy prayer at a time.
My quick answer, in an otherwise long conversation, did not pay proper respect to the struggle. Nor, to the victory. I've sat with the real answer for the last few days and decided to share it with you; my stepmom sisters who currently, did, or, at some point, will, fight hard to remain consistent in a family with people who are bound and determined to misjudge you at every turn.
Before I share the truths that helped me, I want to remind you that everything begins with a choice. We are not passive recipients of God's grace. We are undeserving recipients of God's grace, yes, but we are not uninvolved. God extends an offer, we respond with obedience, or not. Consistency is fueled by choice. Any steadfastness on my part was obtained because I first made a decision to obey God, no matter what the personal cost to me; to live for His, "Well done!" If consistency feels like an insurmountable challenge, perhaps your “want to” is being eclipsed by the instability. It's hard to stay the course on ground that refuses to stay still, I know. Maybe what I learned will help you. Here we go:
Success is determined by the stakeholders: Every family is different. What is success for your family is intolerable to another. The first time we could sit together at a kid's event, and enjoy it, was a good day in my book. When a parent tells a kid, "I don't want to sit next to them," and the only two seats left are the ones next to that parent, you know God is at work. Sitting together might be a low-bar in your family, for us it was a win.
"Forward" comes by miles and inches: Things change when they do. Waiting ends when it does. Some issues will resolve quickly, never to arise again. Some will take years to improve even a little bit. Get rid of your timetable and prepare for the long-haul. Nothing outside of your control can be timed. Hint: anything YOU are not saying, doing, or thinking, is outside of your control.
Empathy is your secret weapon: Let me paint a picture for you. Say you and I are enjoying an outdoor lunch at the local cafe. Suddenly, I jump up, grab our plates, and say, "Let's get inside now!" You look at me like I'm crazy. From my vantage point, the swirling clouds and blackened sky indicate a violent storm is blowing in. From your vantage point the cloudless sky is bursting with sunshine and the trees sway in a slight breeze. We’re sitting in the same space yet experiencing completely different circumstances. In order to see what I'm seeing you have to come to my side of the table. Empathy is the ability to understand what someone is feeling from their frame of reference. It's sitting on their side of the table. The last chapter of the book of Hebrews contains this verse: "Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body" (Hebrews 13:3). Moving from my side of the table to get a handle on my family member’s perspective helped keep my heart softened towards them, even when they were hurtful towards me.
Grace is your superpower: There came a moment in my marriage when I was over the whole blended-family madness. It felt like I had been swimming in a whirlpool. I loved my husband but desperately wanted out of the vortex. With godly counsel, I was able to put things in perspective. Through raw, unfiltered prayer, I unburdened my heart. The Holy Spirit enabled me to persevere. Paul wrote to Timothy, I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. (1 Timothy 1:12). And he prays in Colossians, “…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,…” (Colossians 1:11). We have been called to service in our families… to love, to point to Christ, to know and be known. However, the battlefield of blended family dynamics wears thin. Even the most gung-ho soldiers get battle-fatigue. But, we are not without reinforcement. God has committed Himself to our victory. He makes available a ceaseless supply of His power and ability that enables us to stay steady in our families. God massages our hearts with desire to accomplish His will and He imparts competence into our doing (Philippians 2:13). What a generous Father we have! His grace, His presence at work in us to do what we cannot on our own, empowers and encourages us to keep going.
The standard is obedience: We cannot afford to use the unstable responses of others as a measure of whether or not we are in the center of God’s will. Obedience is the only standard by which we should judge our actions; and, when we obey Him, He goes to work in the hearts of others. In my book, Waiting to Be Wanted: A Stepmom’s Guide to Loving Before Being Loved, I write about 10 specific strategies the Lord gave me to engage with my family members. Writing about them was much easier than living them. Often, while standing at the fork in the road between submission and defiance, a question would bubble up in my heart: “Will you trust and obey?” The writer of Proverbs jotted down in 16:7, "When a person’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He causes even his enemies to make peace with him." (NASB) In my circumstances, obedience has led to a hesitant bio-mom declaring herself my friend. Will that be the outcome for everyone? Nope! But God promises that obedience leads to peace. I obeyed the Lord not for what I might gain in my family, but simply because I wanted to please Him. Because of this, I had inner peace long before it felt peaceful in my family dynamics. Whether dealing with someone who is openly hostile, mildly manipulative, or oppressively clingy, we can ill-afford to match energy. Whether our actions lead to deep abiding friendship or barely-there civility, the answer to interacting and reacting to people in our families is simply, “whatever pleases the Lord.” Obedience belongs to us…the outcomes belong to the Lord.
"Obedience belongs to us…the outcomes belong to the Lord."
Gather emotional support: We need our tribe. This can be a lonely life if we attempt to live it without people to cheer us on, challenge our thinking, pray for, listen to, and laugh or cry with us. God made us for relationship; with Him and others. Paul wrote the following in his first letter to the Thessalonians: Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11 NIV). God sends us “friends who become family” to augment our faith in Him, encourage our obedience to Him, and champion His will for our lives. Quite often the prayers, advice, and presence of a cherished friend paved the way for me to remain constant. Ask the Lord to send you friends that will perfume your life with joy, godly advice, refreshing companionship, and support. Ask your spouse for help. He is your partner in the life you’re living. Talk to him about your struggles. Enlist the services of a therapist. Get yourself a stepmom bug-out bag. (Read my article on bug-out bags right here.) Join or start a stepmom support group. Call upon the Lord – He is rich in mercy for all who call upon Him. (Romans 10:12) Embrace your need for others. It’s God-given.
Maintain healthy boundaries: Living with consistent, empathetic openness towards others is not synonymous with having porous or non-existent boundaries. Healthy boundaries are not mean… they are necessary. Boundaries are characteristic of a healthy relationship built on respect and humility. Boundaries help us understand where our responsibilities end and those of the other person begins. Healthy boundaries remove our tendency to control, fix, or intervene, allowing people to experience the consequences of their own actions, and keeping us from playing God in the lives of others. Healthy boundaries hold people accountable to do their part to maintain trust and help us act without holding grudges against those who violate boundaries. Healthy boundaries protect what is sacred, like our marriages, and our personhood. Healthy boundaries limit the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual impact of the harmful behaviors of others. Healthy boundaries are biblical. Stay tuned for a post later this year about building healthy boundaries.
Run to your refuge: The psalmist wrote in 46:1-3: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though hits waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah God never promises us a pleasure trip in this life. But He does promise that, because He is with us, we can overcome every challenge. When I am hurting, angry, or empty, all of my attention is focused on relieving emotional turmoil and venting pain. At those times it is easy to believe the emotional heaviness I feel is borne on my shoulders alone. The last thing on my mind is forging ahead. Mostly I just want to sit down for a spell. The heaviness lifts when I respond to the Lord’s invitation to run to Him. He is my refuge in this life. He is my strength to keep going. He is my help when I am in trouble. There is nothing I face on my own, and nothing I have to do in my own strength. The same is true for you. When blended-family life begins closing in and you want to quit, run to your saving place, the Lord, who will strengthen you to take one more step…over and over again.
One of my favorite Old Testament messianic prophecies is found in Isaiah. It reads:
For the Lord God helps Me,
Therefore, I am not disgraced;
Therefore, I have made My face like flint,
And I know that I will not be ashamed.
(Isaiah 50:7 NASB)
Jesus modeled endurance like no one else. When I read the account of Jesus' determined march to Golgotha, I see elements of all the truths listed above. When Peter tried to rebuke Him for saying He would die, He, maintained proper boundaries and rebuked Peter. Only Jesus and the Father determined the success of Jesus' mission (success determined by the stakeholders). He spent three years in ministry, demonstrating His Lordship over all things physical, followed by droves . Then came the tortuous eve of His crucifixion, when all but a few abandoned Him. Followed by the arduous trek down the Via Delarosa (miles and inches). His empathy for us, and love for the Father kept Him focused on taking the next step. As He wrestled in the garden the night before, He made sure to have near His closest disciples. He asked them to pray. He stepped away to a more secluded place to meet alone with His Father, His Refuge. The Father graced Him to endure. He committed to the Father's will over His own. The mission was to die, the outcome was His victorious triumph over sin, death, Hell, and the grave. Guess what?! The same Spirit which helped Christ obediently endure the excruciating task of dying on the cross, and which raised Christ from the dead, is with us now to help us obey Him in our daily lives. Trust Him. You will not be put to shame.
We would love to hear from you. Please let us know how you've overcome your greatest struggle in remaining consistent in your blended-family. If you haven't, we'd love to pray specifically for you. What is your greatest struggle?
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
If you missed Cheryl's interview with Ron Deal, "Waiting to be Wanted in Your Blended Family," click here to take a listen.