Hi, this is pastor Ken with the seventh and final session in our series Parenting 101. Today I want to explore the subtle yet critical differences in parenting in a step or blended family.
I have had the privilege to be a step-dad to three wonderful daughters for the past twenty-two years. They are as much a source of pride and joy in my life as my own two biological children. As I mentioned in a past episode of this series we have been incredibly blessed in the blending of our two families. I mentioned that my view of our family is that it has been so completely blended that we have reached the stage of total homogenization. I often see traits and characteristics traded across bloodlines and it still amazes and pleases me when I recognize it. Our family’s journey has not been without its fair share of difficulties and challenges. Though I believe nearly all couples who begin a stepfamily, desire to begin day one with a blended family, that is not possible. I see them as stages, not synonyms. In my humble opinion, stepfamilies are made in microwaves; blended families are the results of crock-pots. A stepfamily can be formed in short order, but a blended family takes time as a family to finish. One of the most common missteps in stepfamilies is the misguided belief that the children (of any age) are as eager to alter the family structure as the newly formed couple is. Certainly in some situations they will be more receptive than others, but make no mistake, this underlying struggle will surface in some way at some time.
Last week, I mentioned the book, The Smart Step-Family by Ron Deal. This is an excellent source of information and wise counsel when it comes to facilitating the successful creation of a stepfamily that will one day be a beautiful blended one. We have spent much time over the past few weeks speaking of the six roles of parenting; Tending, Mending and Defending and Directing, Correcting, and Projecting. In those sessions I made the case the way God has created us differently as men and women has uniquely suited each of us to do differing parental jobs. I pointed out that the relational thinking mom who needs love to be the primary characteristic of all of her relationships is best equipped to perform the first three of the tasks listed a moment ago. I also showed how a compartmentalized thinking dad who seeks honor and respect above all else is primed for the three jobs of parenting that followed. In stepfamilies, these facts remain, but the step-family structure is not ready for them to be applied, some measure of blending has to occur first. As I mentioned moments ago, the parents in a stepfamily believe they are ready for a blended family, but this is one case where their children are probably wiser than their respective parents. What I mean is that in hindsight, the parents will even recognize they themselves were not ready for all a blended family means if they try to force it too quickly. Stepfamilies are made in microwaves; blended families are finished in a crock-pot.
In light of last week’s podcast on the difficulties of single parenting it is easy to see why parents who are transitioning from one status to the other are anxious for the help. They know and have known for some time they were not equipped for all of the roles a single parent must fill. If they have been relying heavily on God, it has been much easier but it is still their hands and feet that have had to carry it out. If they have not had an understanding of how God desires to stand in the gaps, it has been even more difficult, often to the point of daily physical, emotional…and likely spiritual exhaustion. When they finally meet that new person who desires to take them as they are, children and all…and seems to be eager to do so…they believe the cavalry has just ridden over the hill! Life is finally looking optimistic, and help has announced it is here to stay! With those thoughts and hopes of dreams about to be realized, these parents understandably are ready to hand off to their new spouse those parental tasks that have been difficult for them for so long. It only makes sense, right? This new person in their life has been created to do the very things that are for them so difficult. In a very few select circumstances, this is true. However, for the vast majority of stepfamilies being formed an immediate transference of parental tasks into their gendered positions will dramatically slow down if not halt altogether the blending process.
Parents need to remember a critical distinction. They have decided they love one another so much that they want to spend the entirety of their remaining lives as one. No matter what level of acceptance seems to be evident between the incoming stepparent and the children, that same level of familial commitment isn’t even possible. They will to some level become connected, but they will never be one…they aren’t intended to. Oneness (union of flesh and bone) is only possible parent to child through the miracle of birth (Genesis 1:28, and 4:1-2). Oneness between a husband and wife occurs through the miracle of marriage. (Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:32) The level of connectedness between a stepparent and their stepchildren is something that must develop over time within the framework of a family. It cannot be forced in either direction, and its extent will be determined independently by each of them as time passes. In our family this was evidenced by the fact that each of our five children connected with their respective stepparent to differing levels within differing timeframes. If and when this truth is accepted success in blending, and in fact, homogenization of the two former families will begin.
In his wise perspective, one of the ways Ron Deal suggests this process of blending is facilitated is to resist the urge to allow the stepparent to immediately fill their “Original Design” roles. Though it might be tempting for a mother who never found direction and correction to be her strong suits to let her new husband take on these roles with her children, Ron cautions this is not wise. The child has little to no trust level with their “new” parent and will resist, if not overtly, certainly internally, and the exercise will serve to push them farther apart rather than draw them closer. Furthermore, the child has learned to expect parenting roles to be filled by their mom and will distrust the intent behind them from any other source. In simple terms a step-father in this situation will likely be viewed by their step-child as mean, unaccepting and overbearing. These are not the only parental tasks that should not be handed off, each of the six parental roles should be continued to be administered by the natural parent until such time as true blending is recognized. Even as that becomes evident, a total successful hand-off of the baton is not possible. All these years later, though I am often permitted by my children I did not physically help create to offer direction, and counsel on how to self-correct, I have to approach those tasks with incredible care that my motives toward them are always for their blessing. I think it wise to say that if help with parenting is in your top ten reasons for marrying, it would be understandable…but it would not be wise. If it is in the top five, you will have a great deal of difficulty. If it is in the top three, the marriage will likely not survive.
One idea I do not want to promote is that a stepfamily cannot in many ways look and act like any other family. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You and your spouse can promote familial blending several ways. First, treat it like a family. There are many ways to do this without passing to your spouse all the parental tasks you found difficult as a single parent. From the very beginning, though my wife and I understood our new family was not “Original Design”, we did believe it to be “God Ordained”. This belief helped us treat our family like a family. We did not do it perfectly and we made mistakes along the way but to the extent we had the ability to encourage our children adopt that belief we did. For the most part, we worshipped together as a family. Where that did not occur, we now see it to have been a misstep of ours. We went places as a family and encouraged the children where possible in the inter-familial relationships they were developing. Though it was difficult we tried to allow “sibling struggles” to be worked out amongst themselves when possible, always keeping a hand on the wheel so to speak in case we needed to take control of the situation. We did not make room for any of our children to deny the new family construct. There were tense times in the beginning, but we tried to recognize that when they occurred they were indicative of two things…we might be pushing a little too hard, and growing pains. If we determined it to be the former, we tried to back off a little while still keeping the family in focus. If it was the latter, as a couple, we rejoiced together, growing pains can hurt, but they are indicative of growth…and growth in a family is always a good thing.
Another of the things we tried (quite successfully in my opinion) to do was remain a united front. We discussed a lot of things we were deciding together how to handle in our new family. Both of us had to shift some from our decisions as single parents to our new united position as a stepfamily. As a result, we met with some pushback from all of our children at times as they found some of their former expectations were forced to be adjusted. Even in the difficult times, we held fast to our united front and eventually the kids came alongside. Their recognition that our new oneness as a husband and wife was stronger than the connection they enjoyed with each of us was totally uncomfortable for all of us, but they have each told us as adults that one thing, perhaps above all else, indicated to them they were a part of a new family.
Ron Deal uses an analogy that I love because of the truth that it portrays. He likens the development of a stepfamily to the Israelites as they left Egypt and set out for the Promised Land. When they left Egypt, the people thought they were in for a short journey of perhaps a few months. They believed that very soon, they would be kicking back and enjoying all that God had promised would be theirs. In hindsight, we know it took forty years! Many people begin stepfamilies believing that very soon (if not instantaneously) their newly formed family will blend into Shangri la. They think that because they have decided the journey should take place that it will be easy. They may think they have prepared for it and they will meet with success based on their preparedness. Some may even believe that whatever the journey looks like, certainly it will have to be easier than the one they have been traveling. All of these thoughts are set-ups for unmet expectations, which can easily become a source of discouragement, disillusionment, and frustration, which will soon morph into ungratefulness for the journey. As was true for the Israelite people, obedience to God’s direction will shorten the journey, choosing to trust you to know best, will lengthen it.
For the Israelites, the Promised Land came at the end, for stepfamilies that is true as well. For those who endure, for those who persevere through all of the challenges the journey offers, those get to see their stepfamilies become blended families, and finally…homogenized families. As I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, it is a privilege to be a part of a stepfamily, it is a blessing to be part of a blended family, and it is a wondrous feeling to be a part of a homogenized family. There are few things that grab my attention and fill my heart like living in the blessing of our promised land. Though I know I am blessed beyond belief and am living a better life than I deserve, I also know I am not special. If you are a part of a new stepfamily or one in the process of blending…God wants to lead you into your promised land just as much as He enjoys seeing me in mine.
Questions to answer:
If you are part of a stepfamily, what challenges in parenting have you found most difficult?
In what ways do you treat your stepfamily as a family that have worked well for you?
What would be the best single piece of advice you would offer someone beginning a stepfamily?
Do you look at stepfamilies and blended families as the same thing or stages a stepfamily progresses through?
Actions to take:
If you a part of a newer stepfamily, decide what actions you should take to facilitate the blending process.
If you are a blended family, discuss ways you could facilitate a homogenized family.
If you are a part of a step, blended, or homogenized family, thank God for His blessing and ask for His guidance as you continue on your journey to your promised land.
So now, giving God all the thanks for the special family you are a part of whatever it looks like…Go Be Awesome