After a recent webinar for stepparents I was struck by the number of participants whose unsolicited feedback went something like this: “Thanks for the information tonight. I feel encouraged—I think I can keep going because I have hope again. “
Comments like this remind me that while parenting is tough, stepparenting is extremely tough. Stepparents face unique challenges when it comes to discipline, the loyalties of children, differences in emotional attachments with children, and how loss impacts a child’s responsiveness to stepparents.
Biological parents have challenges, too. But on a regular basis they also enjoy encouragement—a sweet moment with their children, a thankful “I love you, Mom,” or a shared exciting adventure that brings laughter and smiles all around. Even a teachable moment when a child takes to heart a parent’s wisdom brings great joy to a parent.
Stepparents enjoy these kinds of moments as well, but with much less frequency than biological parents. And as a 25-year-veteran stepparent said to me recently, “even when they do come along, they are intermingled with anxiety and confusion. That can spoil the good moments pretty quickly.”
My point is this: Stepparents need regular doses of encouragement for the long journey they travel.
The joy of the payoff
Hebrews 12:2 tells us that for the joy set before Him, Jesus “endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (NIV). Was their joy in enduring the cross? Immediately, of course not. But from a long-term perspective, Jesus’ joy resulted from the purpose of the cross: Man was reconciled to God. In a similar way, stepparents (and their spouses) must look past the immediate trials and struggles they experience for the joy that will come one day as a result of their work, love, and faithfulness. And for most, the payoff does come.
Laurie sent me an email recently; I could see her smile through the words:
I got a big payoff last weekend. My husband threw me a big 50th birthday party. Jason, my stepson from my first marriage (now 35), came with his two kids; they drove six hours to be there. He was delightful—so sweet and affirming, so willing to let me love on him and his kids. I’m not even married to his dad anymore and he still welcomes me into his life. He texted me twice after he got home and thanked me for the weekend and for being in his life. That kid and I had some turbulent times when he was growing up. I didn’t have a strategy; I just hung in there with him.
But he wasn’t the only stepkid who loved on me that day. I got an incredible call from Katie, Jay’s oldest away at college, who called to say how much she wished she could be there, how much she loved me and was glad that I married her dad. She said she was lucky to have me then said, “Laurie, I was so mean to you when I was about 15. I’m so sorry. What was that about?” We talked light-heartedly about that and ended up having a chuckle. I thank God that he allowed me to taste His goodness through those kids last weekend. To me, it’s a sample of what Heaven is going to be like.
I can’t promise all stepparents that this will happen to you. But I can encourage you to live today as if it will. Press on for the joy set before you.
A circle of encouragement:
A biological parent also has a key role in encouraging their spouse, the stepparent. The following can create a circle of encouragement that provides strength for their journey:
1. Give them a medal…or at least a hug! Your spouse needs a consistent “thank you for putting up with my ex… my fears… few acknowledgements from my kids, etc., etc.” Stepparents deserve a medal of valor about once a month (but if you can’t arrange that, a big hug will suffice) along with a plague recognizing the challenges they meet each and every day. Your compassionate recognition will go a long way to fuel their determination and help your children feel safe in their care.
2. Insist that your kids be considerate and respectful toward the new stepparent. If you don’t create this expectation and follow-up to make it happen, children may slide toward disrespect and disobedience. Elevate the status of your spouse in your children’s eyes and everyone wins.
3. Politely ask extended family to honor your marriage. When grandparents or extended family members disregard your marriage, it discourages a stepparent and makes them feel like an unwanted outsider. Be polite, but insistent: “You may not approve of every aspect of our family story, but for the sake of our children, please acknowledge our marriage and my spouse. We will treat you with respect and kindly request that you do the same toward him/her.”
4. Make sure your marriage is a source of joy. When a stepparent can’t find immediate reward in being a stepparent, they need an island of safety. Your marriage needs to be a respite, a source of comfort and care. If it, too, is strained or stressful, a stepparent can easily fall into despair. For the sake of your family, build a safe haven marriage, no matter what it takes.
Ministry leaders should seek to bring honor to stepparents. Our world is filled with negative stereotypes of the “wicked stepmother” and the “abusive stepfather,” but you can combat that with stories of faithful or “heroic” stepparents. Publically and privately, lift up stepparents and express gratitude for their loving service to their families.