Promised Land Stories: Hope for the Journey
Ron L. Deal
This is a deleted chapter from The Smart Stepfamily Revised and Expanded Edition by Ron L. Deal (Bethany House Publishers, 2014). Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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This chapter shares the stories of a few who, to one degree or another, are tasting the fruits of the Promised Land. Some are written from a stepfamily member’s point of view; others are shared by me. You’ll notice that experiencing Promised Land Payoffs does not mean the end of hard work; family life presents challenges from the cradle to the grave no matter what kind of family one has. Yet you’ll also notice in these accounts that attaining some measure of stepfamily integration does create a spirit of togetherness and love that makes dealing with life’s challenges much easier. I offer these stories to inspire and encourage you. These are not perfect people, just fellow travelers.
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"Not Exactly What I Planned, But Life Has Been Good"
My life didn’t exactly go as planned. I never intended to be a public schoolteacher, and I never intended to be a stepparent. Both of those things have happened, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the whole world. I prayed for years about one day having the right kind of wife, and God most graciously answered that prayer in a way that exceeded my hopes. I married Lisa seventeen years ago (at age thirty-four) for all the right reasons. We had become the best of friends and that relationship blossomed into the kind of love that makes for a strong marriage. Our commitment to each other was based completely on our commitment to God. Our plan, from the very beginning, was to put him first.
Lisa had two children: Kevin, thirteen, and Haley, five. Lisa had been divorced for about three years, and, as expected, Kevin was not entirely thrilled with the “dude” Mom was going to marry. Haley was excited and told me a day before the wedding that she would be calling me Dad. I felt more than a little uncomfortable with that, since her real dad lived about twenty miles away.
We thought it was a brilliant idea to involve both kids in the wedding—Kevin as best man and Haley as flower girl. It worked out quite well, but I’m not entirely sure that it was good for Kevin. It was clear that he was fond of me, but his feeling of being disloyal to his dad was also obvious.
Maybe our situation is unique, but the kids’ father seemed to relinquish “dadship” to me over the next few years. He did pay the required child support (with occasional prodding) but lost touch with the kids more and more as time passed. Kevin spent several weekends with him at first, but Haley really spent very little time with him at all. The frequency of those visits decreased; he eventually moved away. It has been quite difficult, at times, to keep my opinions to myself, but I think both Lisa and I have been pretty successful at avoiding criticizing the kids’ father and thus increasing their feelings of disloyalty. While his actions made my role simpler, I have always felt sorry for him in that he missed getting to know two wonderful people.
It would have been helpful if I had had some kind of training in the art of stepparenting. Like most, I was shooting from the hip. It seemed reasonable that I could not immediately become a real parent. It was evident that we could easily have problems if I tried to be the primary disciplinarian of the family, especially with Kevin. Lisa filled that role very well until the kids and I had a good working relationship. I’m not really sure how long that took, although it was certainly longer with Kevin than with Haley. I think it may have been four or five years before he was very comfortable with me.
Life with a stepfamily has hardly been problem-free. Name almost any kind of bad decision a teenager can make and our kids have made it. The heartaches caused by these decisions can truly test a parent’s faith and emotional stability. I suspect the pain is about the same for a stepparent as for a biological one. It is easy to see how that pressure can strain even a good marriage. Lisa and I leaned on each other and our faith to get us through. There were times when some outside advice would have been good. However, I didn’t know about any stepparent support groups, and our church didn’t have one then. Most of our friends couldn’t relate to stepfamily problems and their innate complexity, because theirs were traditional nuclear families. We depended upon the power of prayer to survive (sometimes it seems like survival).
Our family has survived so far; perhaps we can say prevailed rather than survived. Both Kevin and Haley (now thirty and twenty-two) have indeed grown up. Kevin is married with two fine sons; he is ready to face parenthood. Haley is now an unwed mom with an infant daughter. We know that hers will be an uphill struggle as a single mother, but we believe that she has matured greatly in the past year, and she has turned in the right direction for help.
Getting kids past age twenty-one is not the end of parenthood. Problems and heartaches are still present. I’m not really sure if either Kevin or Haley has made any kind of resolution about their biological father. He does keep in touch to a degree, but both harbor a great deal of anger and resentment. Lisa and I wish we could help, but we have no idea how to do it.
Even with all the problems, being a stepparent has been a faith-building experience. Both Lisa and I realize that we could not have survived without direct help from God. Knowing that the Lord helps you in very practical, everyday ways does wonders for your faith.
It is most rewarding to know that you can have a good adult relationship with a stepchild. Kevin and I are friends. He lets his boys know that I am “paw-paw.” Earlier I mentioned that Haley started calling me Dad before the wedding day—it overwhelms me that she has kept that commitment even till now. Never one time has she ever said or hinted that I am not her real father.
Life hasn’t been exactly as I planned, but life has been good.
“God Has Taught Us a Lot”
Eleven years ago I entered the doors of this church to attend a divorce recovery seminar. After a year of bouncing back and forth between churches, God led me to make Second Baptist a home for my two boys and me. God used the next five years to teach me about his love and faithfulness, his provision and plan, and most important, his forgiveness and healing.
My husband came to Second Baptist through similar circumstances. After years of living as a single dad, his daughters came to live with him full time. In his search to provide something more for his girls, he made Second Baptist their home as well.
As God designed it, we met at a wedding. We ran into each other again several weeks later at a Wednesday night service. As we spent more and more time together, we found we had a lot in common. We had both been married and divorced for about the same length of time. We both wanted something different for our children and ourselves. We both wanted our children raised in a Christ-centered home. We believed we should set a godly example while we dated. We were both very conscious of trying to do things God’s way. We had been given a second chance, and all the pieces fit.
I have two boys. He has two girls. We weren’t the Brady Bunch, but that must be because we don’t have an Alice. Surrounded by family and friends, we had a wedding in December with our children standing with us. We weren’t marrying only as a couple; we were marrying as a family. We were all active participants in the charges and vows. As we left for a brief honeymoon, we were full of hope and eager to start the journey together.
As we celebrated our first Christmas, a new life, and a new year, the fragile stability of our new family began to crumble. One morning we woke up like Dorothy and Toto to find we weren’t in Kansas anymore. I assumed (a critical error, don’t ever assume anything in a stepfamily) our relationship with each other and with each other’s children would just get better after we said “I do.” But three weeks into the marriage my husband’s older daughter decided to leave our home and move back with her mother.
Nothing had prepared us for the storms that awaited us following that one decision. We knew we were in God’s will, but we were ill equipped to deal with the challenges we would face. Some of our challenges were extreme, but some of them are faced by every stepfamily. We had to cope with weekend visitations, holiday traditions constantly changing, extended family households with different moral values, and broken promises by ex-spouses. We had to face emergency room visits involving old and new extended families, three trips to court to modify custody issues, calls from the school counselor, and family wanting to support us but not having a clue as to what to say or do. We had weeks of feeling discouraged and defeated. We knew about God’s design for the family—but how did that design fit the stepfamily?
We faced unmet expectations. Our husband-wife relationship took a beating every time a new crisis arose. Trying to keep God number one and our relationship number two became a daily struggle. The stresses of defending our children took its toll. Trying to make everything equal and fair was exhausting. I had heard divorce was easier the second time around so I began to consider, “I know I’ll live through another divorce and life will go on. . . .” But we had done marriage differently this time. We made a covenant with God, and divorce was not an option. (Some days that covenant and our foundation in Christ were all we had.)
God has taught us a lot over the last six years. He loves us and wants us to succeed, and he is rewarding our efforts. We haven’t done it alone. We sought godly counsel. We have surrounded ourselves with strong Christian friends who have challenged us to remain faithful no matter how hopeless the situation looks. We have learned to expect the unexpected. We are learning about patience, grace, and forgiveness. Some days we still wonder if we will ever be “blended.” In fact, we still have crises to deal with. Just this year one son had knee surgery, my husband was diagnosed with cancer, and our other son broke his leg. The difference is we are handling these situations as a family and not separate parts of a whole. God has given us both a strong determination to survive the odds. And we both know there is one thing that never changes—our commitment to Christ and knowing our hope is in him and that he has a plan for our lives.
“We’re Having Problems Making This New Family Work”
Kevin and Jamie had been married just seven months when they decided to see their congregation’s family therapist. Their newly formed stepfamily, comprised of themselves and Kevin’s three daughters, seemed to start off well but was taking a predictable turn into frustration. Kevin and Jamie’s initial reason for seeking counseling was to improve the level of trust and communication in their marriage and to help their stepfamily integrate. Despite their amazingly proactive attitude, it didn’t take long for some typical stepfamily problems to surface.
Kevin is a talented, hardworking carpenter, and Jamie is a creative graphic artist. Jamie had been married twice before; Kevin once. His three were thirteen, twelve, and nine years old at the time they remarried. The three girls visited their mother twice each month and had a strong loyalty to her. The rules in Mom’s house and Dad’s house were quite different, and the girls frequently voiced their disdain for Jamie’s need for cleanliness. The girls showed a preference for their mom and her ways whenever they could. Jamie took this very personally. It was especially difficult for her because she had always wanted children of her own, but a tubal pregnancy and struggles with infertility had kept her from having children. Coming into the marriage with Kevin, she fantasized about a mother-daughter relationship with his girls. After all, their mother had, in Kevin’s opinion, been a terrible model for the girls. Jamie thought it was a perfect match—girls who needed a Christian mother and a woman who needed a mother’s role. This expectation set up a conflict that would threaten the marriage.
Kevin admittedly was not adept at making decisions and handling conflict with his ex-spouse. Combined with his desire for Jamie and his girls to form a close bond, Kevin began to turn responsibilities regarding the girls over to her. He even let Jamie negotiate with his ex-wife, since arguments and anger were always the result whenever he spoke directly to her. This, however, only set Jamie up for further conflict with the girls, who resented her high structure, expectations, and authority.
Early in therapy Kevin and Jamie began to understand that the process of integration doesn’t happen instantly, and they began grieving the unrealistic expectation that love would occur quickly. They learned to compartmentalize their marital relationship and give Kevin exclusive time with his girls (Jamie spent time with her craft hobby as a deterrent to feeling left out). Kevin stepped up to the plate and started dealing with his girls and ex-wife directly, taking Jamie out of the middle. Jamie learned that trying to force herself into the mother role only brought resistance from her stepdaughters. For example, instead of openly criticizing their mother, she learned to compliment her (and save her criticism for private conversations with Kevin). This freed Jamie from the burden of fighting with the girls and reduced the jealousy between Jamie and Kevin’s ex-wife.
Despite these changes, a pervasive resentment that the family was not “working like a real family” continued for both Kevin and Jamie. Kevin resented Jamie for not “loving my girls the way she should.” Jamie openly criticized the girls when she felt treated like an outsider. The girls responded predictably. “If she calls us slobs, then why not be one?” The stress of distant stepmother-stepdaughter relationships was taking a great toll on the family. With time, Jamie came to understand that her stepdaughters’ loyalty to their mother just wouldn’t make room for her (and her critical attitude wasn’t helping). She needed to lower her expectations and give them her permission to honor their mother. For Jamie, that was a significant but challenging step.
Relationship struggles early in the marriage primarily centered around the relationship triangle of Kevin, Jamie, and her stepdaughters. Once some of those issues began to settle down, other marital struggles became salient. The couple complained of communication problems and had different opinions on how to experience intimacy and fun. Recurring conflicts, such as the division of household chores and how much say Jamie should have in Kevin’s negotiations with his ex-wife, were not handled with much success. Jamie would aggressively pursue the issues, while Kevin would withdraw from what he felt was a no-win situation. The resulting distance only added to their frustration and negativity. But time and effort in therapy allowed the couple to learn how to communicate as a team. Negative cycles of interaction were broken, and the two began to speak to one another with respect. Anger and frustration were channeled and controlled. Kevin learned to listen to Jamie’s frustrations without defending his daughters and gained strength in expressing his feelings. Jamie found ways to accept her outsider position and have compassion on her stepdaughters. For both, tongue-lashing diminished and a sense of partnership increased.
Kevin and Jamie were becoming a smart stepfamily. With much effort they had come to accept their differentness as a stepfamily and applied proven principles to their problems. In the meantime, the Crockpot continued slow cooking, and eventually the family began to experience some rewards. Kevin and Jamie’s marriage grew stronger and more satisfying. Jamie’s relationship with her stepdaughters developed slowly to the point of sharing mutual respect and affection.
But a trip to the Promised Land didn’t mean the end of stress. Kevin still gets frustrated when dealing with his ex-wife; Jamie still feels left out at times (even though she understands why); and the girls’ journey into adolescence has reignited some of the philosophical parenting differences Kevin and Jamie debated early on. Such is life. The journey continues.
Shawn has one daughter, twenty-one. His first wife, Andrea, died of cancer at a young age. At forty-six, Shawn married Arlene, a divorced mother of two: Elisa, fifteen, and Bobbie, eleven. While the stepfamily seemed to have a smooth beginning, it didn’t take long for sides to be taken, and Shawn and Elisa’s relationship became quite conflicted. Elisa’s rejection of Shawn wasn’t entirely personal (very often the rejection of a stepparent has more to do with the past than the present). Nevertheless, Shawn found it difficult not to feel wounded every time she would show her opposition. After much prayer and consideration, Shawn felt it necessary to reach out to Elisa and communicate his wishes and desires for their relationship.
His letter to Elisa illustrates a balanced understanding of stepfamily life at work. Shawn shows great compassion and objectivity, effectively communicating his position in relationship to Elisa. The letter didn’t magically transport Shawn and Elisa to the Promised Land. Rather, the letter represents an intentional effort to keep stepping in the right direction. Observe perseverance at work, listening and understanding being conveyed, and patience winning out over pressure.
We’ve never had the chance to sit down and share how we feel about my becoming a part of your household and vice versa. Since I’m not as good with words as you, this letter will share some of my thoughts and feelings so you will have the chance to understand more of where I am coming from.
First of all, I want you to know that it would have been my desire for your dad and mom to be together and that you and Bobbie grow up in a normal family relationship. That is the way God intended it, and it is the way that human beings were meant to live. But that is not reality; and it is reality that each of us must live with and function in.
I wish my first wife, Andrea, were still here as well and that Janice [Shawn’s daughter] still had her mother to lean on and enjoy. But that is not the case. She is buried at a cemetery in Ohio. What is true is that Janice’s mom would want her to go on with her life and become all she can be. With God’s help, good lives can come from bad situations. God has given Janice many friends and stand-in mothers to help her go forward.
And I am thankful that God has given me a new companion, that your mom has joined my life, and that we have each other to lean on, to enjoy, and to build a new life with. We are stronger together than trying to make it alone on our own. And we can help you grow up to be all you can be better together than if your mom continued to struggle alone. I think you really know that already.
Given the realities that we have, here are some things I want for you.
I want for you to continue to have a loving and caring relationship with your father, Gary. He is your dad, and you should enjoy all that you can with him. He loves you and has done a good job of showing you that love. I know you love him too.
I want for you to continue to have the special relationship I see with your mom. My presence in her life should be one that helps her to love, support, and develop you. I am not here to take her away from you.
I want for the four of us (you, Bobbie, your mom, and me) and Janice (when she is here) to share this nice house and the life we have been given in a way that makes us all we can be—sharing, caring, supporting, and just enjoying life. This is not a combat zone. It is a refuge. There are plenty of other obstacles and enemies out there in the world. I once told a junior high school student that she needed to figure out who her friends were. All of us in this household are friends, and we will stand together against those outside who would tear us down.
I want to be there for you and to help you in whatever ways I am able. At the same time, I cannot allow you to “machine gun” me, and I will not voluntarily stand in the aim of your gun-sights. I really believe your goals are the same as those of your mom and me. If we can get on the same page, we can all get on with God’s plan for our lives.
Most of all, I want for you to find a place to stand in the midst of the chaos, uncertainty, and instability that life has placed you in. I once had the opportunity to spend a weekend with a wise man who had written a book called A Place to Stand. In it he explained that only when we place our lives in God’s hands and follow the path of Jesus can we really stand up to the difficulties that come our way. So I want for you a close relationship with God. I want you to be able to “cast your cares on Him, because he cares for you.” A guy named Peter once wrote that to some folk whose families were being torn apart and whose lives had disintegrated. He promised them that God cares for them and that he would sustain them and guide them through the chaos. I want you to know the same peace that was available to those he was writing to.
Finally, Elisa, I want you to become all that you can be. You have been given health, a very intelligent brain, a wonderful mother, a caring dad, an ability to articulate your thoughts that is well beyond your years, a talent for playing music and participating in the arts, a natural aptitude for cooking, and a tender heart that cares for animals like Aggie and people like your parents and your friends. Your mom has begun the process of polishing some of the rough edges in your life. These include some of the social skills such as your behavior in school and keeping an orderly room. Please try to view these as areas that will help you in the long run, even if they seem harsh or unreasonable at the present.
Elisa, I do not believe that God has presented the challenges you have faced already in life to have you fail. He does not want evil in your life, but he has allowed some difficulties to strengthen you for doing his purpose in the future. I want for you to trust that he is capable, that he does care for you . . . and then I want for you to choose to behave in ways that result in positive growth rather than ways that are destructive to yourself and others.
If you do these things, you will be happier and you will be able to better care for those around you. God has given you the responsibility of extending love, affection, and care to others—beginning with your dad, mom, and brother. I hope you will choose to rise above the pain, to know joy, and to become who you were meant to be. Another wise man has written that our problems are seldom caused by us, but they are ours. And it is in the way we step up to these problems that determines who we are, who we become, and how others view us.
Few of us can handle all of life alone. I can help you, but you must first invite me in. I will be here if and when you choose to do that.