I heard the sadness in my friend’s voice as soon as I picked up the phone. I hadn’t talked to Lori since the pandemic started and wondered how she was doing. She and her husband had navigated some blended family stress over the past decade and were finally in a better place. But the uncharted territory of COVID-19 had sent them back to troubled waters.
After catching up a bit about her family, she began to describe the tension in her home.
“Honestly, I’m having more issues with my own kids than my stepkids in the midst of this,” she said. “Some days I blame my ex for the way things are going, but the truth is, my kids are making bad choices—my teenage son, in particular. He continues to hang out with friends and disregard the safety precautions. He doesn’t seem to care about the risk he’s creating for the rest of his family. My ex’s reaction to it is maddening as he supports our son’s behavior and says I’m blowing things out of proportion.”
I wanted to reach through the phone and give her a hug. She wasn’t the first mom I’d heard from that week complaining about her teens’ lack of regard for social distancing. But I could empathize with Lori’s frustration of managing the issue while contending with another home.
Co-parenting during a pandemic
Co-parenting is a complicated dynamic after divorce. Between-home struggles are not uncommon for stepfamilies. But in the midst of a pandemic that drags on endlessly, blended family couples have to cope with mounting stress and uncertainty on how to manage the back-and-forth routine with kids.
Lori has reason for concern. As a cancer survivor who recently underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, she worries about her compromised immune system.
When concerns mounted regarding COVID-19, she and her husband agreed on some house rules for their three teenagers and two college students currently living at home. Everyone seemed to be on board when they asked for help with staying safe. At least, in the beginning, that is. But as the pandemic marched on, the kids became restless. Their own needs suddenly became more important than others.
“They’re teenagers, right?” Lori said, trying to remain sympathetic to the challenges of social distancing. “But I don’t want to sacrifice my own health and the other family members in our home because my child is making poor choices. My son saw my tears when I said to him, ‘Since you’re choosing to hang out with friends without any regard for social distancing, then you’re choosing to remain at your dad’s house for the next two weeks.’ It was so hard for my momma’s heart.”
I didn’t know what to say. With a teenage son myself, I imagined the angst of a decision like that. Healthy and necessary boundary setting—but my mind wondered whether I would have the courage to make such a hard choice. I suddenly had a newfound respect for my friend.
“I know that must have been hard,” I said.
Between-home struggles and blended family stress
My heart grieves as I hear other friends describe between-home dilemmas and blended family stress in the midst of COVID-19.
Lisa, a new stepmom and public school teacher, agonizes over the lack of attentiveness in the other home regarding her elementary-aged stepchildren’s schoolwork.
“My husband has tried to express his concern about it,” she said, “but nothing changes. We do the best we can to help when they’re in our home, but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.”
The situation is far from ideal. Most schools will not go back to a regular setting this semester. And many parents are juggling their jobs at home while overseeing a homeschooling role they didn’t ask for and may not feel equipped to handle. Lisa would love the chance to help with her stepkids’ homework but isn’t given that opportunity.
The frustration of between-home struggles feels too much to manage some days, doesn’t it?
And what about the tension with our spouse when opinions differ?
When spouses don’t agree
When my husband Randy and I wed, we each brought two kids and an ex-spouse to our marriage. Although our kids are grown now, I remember well the blended family stress of the back-and-forth schedule.
Randy and I didn’t always agree on how to manage the kids’ routine or what to do about contentious behavior in the other home. Too often, I wanted to meddle in conversations between him and his ex. Or I tried to control his actions instead of allowing him to make decisions as a parent to his two kids.
Stress and pressure in our marriage mounted until I took a hard look at my insecurities and considered how I needed to change. Sometimes, even now, I wonder how we would fare with the extra stress created by the coronavirus if we still had kids moving back and forth.
No easy answers for blended family stress
We won’t find quick fixes to our challenges right now. Blended family stress is compounded and marriages naturally strained with the additional pressure created by COVID-19. We likely underestimate the toll uncertainty and out-of-control variables take on our emotions.
It’s OK, though, if we don’t have all the answers in the midst of a hard season. We can choose to ride the wave of uncertainty and cling to God’s promises. He hears our prayers for these unprecedented times. We can trust Him for smoother days ahead.
“The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped” (Psalm 28:7).
Copyright © 2020 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Gayla Grace serves on staff with FamilyLife Blended and is passionate about equipping blended families as a writer and a speaker. She is the author of Stepparenting with Grace: A Devotional for Blended Families and co-author of Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul.
Gayla holds a master’s degree in Psychology and Counseling. She and her husband, Randy, will celebrate 25 years of marriage this year with their “his, hers, and ours” family. She is the mom of three and stepmom of two, ages 19-35.