Stepfamilies: Is This Normal?
Blended families live in a different land than first-families.
I’ve had the privilege of traveling to Africa a few times in my life. The rules of the road and expectations of other drivers are not like those in the U.S.
I’ve had my driver’s license a long time, but driving there is very different than at home. It’s almost as if I really don’t know how to drive at all when I’m there. The same could be said for hundreds of other cultural distinctions: social norms, language, food preparation, family expectations, etc.
Being in a different country is unsettling. Unnerving. Scary. Self-doubt and feeling out of control go along with the unfamiliar territory. We may feel out of control and doubt our own judgment, asking, “Am I doing anything wrong?”
We get those same feelings when we enter unfamiliar spiritual, psychological, or relational territory as well. For example, my middle son, Connor, died February 17, 2009, and I felt like I entered an entirely different world at that point. I shared with an audience recently that I no longer live in “Normal Land” anymore. Now I live in “New Normal Land”—and I don’t like it at all. I feel out of sorts, out of control, and frequently out of hope.
Even further, being there is really an odd experience because I still interact with people who live normal lives; and they assume that I, too, live in a world where everything works mentally and emotionally the way it does for them. But I don’t.
What they see and who they interact with is just a shadow of me. The real me interacts in another world—a world where I face grief and loss on a daily basis, which has become a part of me, and I’m often alone in my own unfamiliar territory.
“But isn’t that isolating?” you may ask.
Yes, it is.
“How do you cope?” you may wonder.
I find others who also live in New Normal Land, and we hang out.
Because we understand each other. What is normal for others who have lost a child is also normal for me, and that commonality brings perspective, comfort, and hope.
Living in Stepfamily Land
In my role as a counselor, conference speaker, ministry consultant, and director of the largest stepfamily ministry in the world (FamilyLife Blended®), I receive lots of questions from people in blended families. The questions vary greatly—some are about the needs of children, others about marriage, stepfamily dynamics, and ex-spouses—but most of them have a common theme.
No matter what the topic, people are basically asking the same thing: “Am I doing anything wrong? Is this normal?”
Jennifer was one of the moms who came to me in distress. She posted a question on our Facebook page (facebook.com/smartstepfamilies). “I have three children from my first marriage,” she began. “They are 7, 8, and 9. I am getting remarried in a few months. I am uncertain of how to discuss with my kids the role of their future stepfather. My youngest is excited to call him dad, while my middle son is refusing to call him dad because, he says, Jerry will ‘never be his real dad.’ My oldest, by the way, wants to call him ‘Jerry or stepdad.’ How do we address this subject without hurting the kids’ feelings or Jerry’s? What is a healthy expectation to how the kids feel? Are we doing anything wrong? Is this normal?”
Similar to my experience with losing my son, blended families live in a different land than first-families. Blended families have crossed over into a new territory—your New Normal Land is Stepfamily Land. Trying to go it alone without spending time with other blended families leaves you and the Jennifers of the world examining your life from the perspective of those in First Family Land—and that makes you feel abnormal.
If you ask one of the people over in First Family Land if your life is normal, they will likely say, “Oh, that’s strange. What’s wrong with you?” So don’t bother asking them.
Who do you ask, then? How do you compare your life to others in order to know what’s normal and what’s not? Look around you. There are lots of people who live in Stepfamily Land and have studied how life goes here. They are ahead of you in the process. Ask them.
That’s where you will find answers, perspective, comfort, and hope. And when you ask, “Is this normal?” They will tell you, in Stepfamily Land, yes, it is.
So, how did I answer Jennifer’s message? I told her, “Jennifer, I have good news. You aren’t doing anything wrong. Everything you’ve described in your question is very normal. In fact, it’s par for the stepfamily course. Still, you need to know what to do about it.”
Then I pointed her toward the resources of FamilyLife Blended, including the book Dating and the Single Parent, so she could begin to understand life in Stepfamily Land. And most importantly, I urged her to find others who also live near her so they can hang out, and together, live in Stepfamily Land.
Life was not made to be lived alone. If you do not have a band of blended family couples that you meet with on a regular basis, then you are walking in unfamiliar territory alone and isolated.
There are many ways to connect with other Christian stepfamilies around you. Here’s an idea: Start a small group comprised of people that you already know who are living in Stepfamily Land. If you don’t know anyone, use social media to gather people together, or coordinate with your church to start a blended family small group.
The people in your group may not be able to provide all the answers, but that’s okay. What you need from your group more than anything is camaraderie—others who can pray for you, walk through struggles with you, and testify from their own experiences that you’re not alone and that there is hope.
And you have the Word of God, which transcends all relationships, no matter how they were formed. With brothers and sisters in Christ and the Word of God to guide you, your New Normal can be a great place to live.