“Just make sure of two things: Under 40. And no kids.”
This was what I said to the well-meaning people who thought I was getting too old to be single and wanted to play matchmaker for me. Not long after I made that statement, I walked down the aisle toward a 44-year-old groom who happened to be the dad of two sons.
I never imagined myself as a stepmom. The “no kids” criterion was not out of a disdain toward children. It’s just that I always thought it would be a difficult role to step into.
As it turns out, I was right. Being a stepmom is the hardest thing I have ever done. But I didn’t expect that this call to live beyond myself would reap blessings and growth.
Called to Love
Becoming a stepmom stretched me in more ways than I imagined. Modern life is already complicated, and the plot thickens when stepfamily dynamics are thrown into the mix.
Where a blended family is concerned, simply making holiday plans and birthday celebrations can cause added stress; there are outside factors, like other biological parents and grandparents who have a say in the children’s schedule.
More than that, the most difficult thing most stepmoms face is the lack of loyalty. As my friend Laura Petherbridge, a blended family expert, explains:
She has all of the hard work associated with the mother role—helping with homework, cooking, carpooling, financial strain—but doesn’t have the “perks,” like love, loyalty, and devotion that come along with being a biological mom.
For this reason, my role as a stepmom has been the most difficult, heart-wrenching part of my life. And the natural tendency is to crave validation from others for your work, your sacrifices, and your love.
Yes, there are times I receive earthly satisfaction from my stepsons. I know they love me, and my husband is faithful in expressing his appreciation for my investment in their lives.
While this challenge brings heartache, I also see this as the single-most sanctifying aspect of my life. For those unfamiliar with this term, “sanctification” refers to the process of becoming more like Christ.
Choosing to love and serve my stepsons—even though I don’t know whether I will “earn” their loyalty—has helped me identify with Christ in a unique way. The experience of learning to love someone else’s child as my own is something I would never trade for a lifetime of comfort.
Specific Challenges for the Kids
It goes without saying that the children of blended families face unique challenges and need special care. When there is a divorce (versus a death) in the background, it’s difficult to weekly adapt to two different households, with different rules and discipline styles.
If I had the power to fix one thing for my stepsons, it would be their church community experience. When a child is in a blended family, he or she isn't likely around for each youth group event, summer camp experience, small group, or Sunday school. This creates difficulty in establishing roots and deepening friendships within the church. Relationships require consistency, and children in blended families—by no choice of their own—do not bring this to the table.
My boys are 19 and 17. Sadly, they have no lifelong relationships formed within the church. Thankfully, they have those friendships through the Christian school they attended, but as I look back on their childhood and earlier teen years, it occurs to me this could’ve been different had ministry leaders and other families with children their age been aware of the need to reach out to them, even in the “off weeks.”
Just a little awareness—and effort—can make all the difference.
Blended Families and the Church
All this said, the church need not be afraid of blended families. If you haven’t had experience with blended families within your church community, I promise you will, eventually.
Here are some tips for engaging those families:
1. Acknowledge Our Roles
This can vary from church to church, but I’ve found there are people afraid of saying “stepmom” or “stepdad.” They just don’t know what to do with us. But we live in a fallen world where people divorce and people die. Don’t be afraid to use honest language, as long as it doesn’t tear down or destroy.
Also, please understand you may get a complicated answer when you ask, “How many kids do you have?” When I get that question, my answer is, “I have two stepsons.” Most stepmoms don’t have an answer that tidy, as many of them brought children of their own into the marriage. And some have had additional children with their current spouse.
In acknowledging their roles, there must be understanding as you learn about the stepfamilies in your church. There are no simple answers, because—again—there is nothing simple about stepfamily dynamics.
2. Sympathize with Our Struggles
As you grow to understand the stepfamilies in your church, you can minister by sympathizing with their struggles.
Stepfamilies have unique challenges. Holidays, for example, are often the most stressful times in the life of a stepfamily. For biological parents, this is especially difficult since they are often without their kids. And if the blended family couple doesn’t have other family in their lives, or nearby, these times can prove especially lonely.
By getting to know the stepfamilies in your church, you have a window into such struggles. And in doing so, the opportunity to minister presents itself. Perhaps there’s a lonely blended family couple in your church without their kids at the holidays who could benefit from an invitation to your home.
3. Include Us; Don’t Single Us Out
Stepparents who are in Christ possess spiritual gifts just like married couples do in a traditional family.
The tendency is to segregate according to life stage. When it comes to church life, I’ve observed that stepparents get similar treatment as singles. Though often relegated to their own exclusive singles’ ministry, they have so much to bring to the table when it comes to serving alongside married adults, children, students, and seniors.
While there should be targeted ministry to stepfamilies within the church, we shouldn’t be singled out when it comes to serving. We are members of the body of Christ, and we have a vital role to play too.
Along the way, we will probably stumble upon someone else struggling with stepfamily life. Through our experiences we can “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:4).
Most stepmoms don’t grow up dreaming of marrying into a ready-made family. But this is a choice we make; not only a choice to marry a man with children, but a choice to love children not our own. And these are often the hard choices—those that involve choosing life. Whether it’s the unborn life, an elderly life, an orphan’s life, or a stepchild’s life, the choosers of life make choices to love.
Yet even more, the children of blended families need support, affirmation, and love, as they never made the choice to be in a blended family. Oh, to see the church step up and go the extra mile for these children!
Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from Women on Life: A Call to Love the Unborn, Unloved, and Neglected, edited by Trillia Newbell, 2016. Used by permission of Leland House Press and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, 901 Commerce Street, Suite 550, Nashville, Tennessee 37203.