FamilyLife Blended® Podcast

140 A Home Built From Love & Loss

with Sabrina Beasley McDonald | June 17, 2024
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After losing her husband in a tragic accident, Sabrina McDonald looked forward to her young kids having a dad again. But she wasn't prepared for the challenges that followed. Her kids felt threatened by her new spouse and competed for her attention. Her dream of being part of a family again didn't happen quickly. And stepparenting felt awkward and unfamiliar in the beginning.

In this episode, Sabrina shares her lessons of love and loss with Ron Deal and how God met her in the wilderness, showed her that brokenness didn't mean ugliness, and encouraged her to keep going despite her fears and uncertainty about the future. Today, she rejoices to have found familyness again after remarriage.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Ron Deal

    Ron L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series of books including the bestselling Building Love Together in Blended Families: The 5 Love Languages® and Becoming Stepfamily Smart (with Dr. Gary Chapman), The Smart Stepfamily: 7 Steps to a Healthy Family, and Preparing to Blend. Ron is a licensed marriage and family therapist, popular conference speaker, and host of the FamilyLife Blended podcast. He and his wife, Nan, have three sons and live in Little Rock, Arkansas. Learn more at FamilyLife.com/blended.

After losing her husband in a tragic accident, Sabrina McDonald looked forward to her young kids having a dad again. But remarriage came with hardship. She shares her lessons of loss and love with Ron Deal and how God met her in the wilderness.

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140 A Home Built From Love & Loss

With Sabrina Beasley McDonald
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June 17, 2024
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FamilyLife Blended Podcast
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Season 6, Episode 140: A Home Built from Love & Loss

Guest: Sabrina McDonald
Air Date: June 17, 2024

Sabrina: When you create a stepfamily, not only is the child missing the parent that's not in the home, what we don't realize is that kids also lose the parent in the home to the new spouse. My kids had me full time and when I married Robbie, now I want to spend my time with him. And they were, especially Benjamin who was five, he was very threatened by that. I had no idea that the alpha male had already risen up in him as a five-year-old and that he was competing with Robbie over me.

Ron: Welcome to the FamilyLife Blended podcast. I'm Ron Deal. We help blended families, and those who love them, pursue the relationships that matter most. Both the vertical relationship with God and the horizontal relationship that matter most here on earth, that's what we're targeting. And there's no more important relationships than those in our very own homes.

Sabrina McDonald returns to the FamilyLife Blended podcast. So good to have you back with me.

Sabrina: Good to be here.

Ron: I appreciate you coming and being with me today. She's joining me here in the studio in Little Rock, which doesn't get to happen very often, so I always love it when I get a guest who's sitting right here beside me.

Sabrina: It's fun.

Ron: Yes.

Sabrina: Yes.

Ron: And you live here in Little Rock with your family—

Sabrina: That's right.

Ron: —so it's good to have you. You have written so much for FamilyLife® in the past and lots of other ministry outlets, and now you got a new book, A Home Built from Love and Loss: Coming Together as a Blended Family. It's published by Focus on the Family.
I'm sure that was a great collaboration for you.

Sabrina: Oh, yes, it's a great experience working with them. Everything is so well done and professional. I'm very grateful that they took my manuscript and made it into something that people can read and enjoy.

Ron: Well, let me just remind our viewers who might not be familiar with you.
You've written, like I said, prolifically in the past, articles about a variety of things related to marriage, family, relationships, loss—you've been through a bunch of that—speak at various events around the country. You've spoken for us in the past. You married Robbie and formed your blended family and now have this book out.

Now, one other thing I'll mention. You've been on our podcast before, and you and I, back in the day, did a number of podcasts together for FamilyLife Today, that radio show, and it's now a podcast. And so, one of the things I've learned about you is you are more than willing to be very revealing about your life. As I read your book, and I endorsed the book, by the way. It's really well done.

Sabrina: Thank you for that.

Ron: You're welcome. You lay it out there. You just put a lot of your life out there for people. Why do you do that? And what's it like to do that? And what's your goal?

Sabrina: [Laughter] It's funny. The other day, my friend was reading the book and she said, “It's kind of blowing my mind because I was in these places, you know, and seeing it from your perspective.” I said, “Yes, you are kind of reading my diary right now.”

Ron: Yes, that’s right.

Sabrina: I just wanted people to know that they're not alone, to know that they can have a successful blended family, but not in a—when I say the word successful, I don't mean perfect. I mean that you will make lots of mistakes, and that's okay, and that's life. We can keep on living, and we can keep on picking ourselves up and we can learn from those things and continue on.

Because what's most important, in any family really, but particularly in a blended family, is that time matters. If you will just keep going, then you will get to a place where you finally feel like, “This is my family.” But at first, on those first few years, it's so easy to give up and just say, “Forget it; this is too hard.” You know, “We made a mistake.”

Ron: Is it fair to say, sometimes people in the beginning say, “This is not my family.” It doesn't feel like family”?

Sabrina: Oh yes. Well, it's kind of not, in a way. [Laughter]

Ron: Yes, right. At least, it is, and it isn't in some ways, really, for everybody—stepparents especially, and children, it is, and it isn't, and they're still trying to find their way into that sense of familyness—

Sabrina: That's exactly right.

Ron: —in a greater degree.

Sabrina: I mean you're putting two things together, and that doesn't happen instantly.
It has to grow together. In the book, I talk about it like the TV show Survivor. You know, you take one group of people and another group of people, and you put them on an island. They're total strangers and you're saying, “Live together. Oh, by the way, you're supposed to all love each other.”

Ron: Yes. [Laughter]

Sabrina: You know, we call you family.

Ron: And cooperate, collaborate, and be successful in the tasks we give you.

Sabrina: [Laughter] That’s right, and I mean, how do you do that with a total stranger? And when you're going into it, for some reason, we believe that. For some reason, we think, we really do think when we all get in the same house together, we will just automatically love each other, and yes, we might have a couple of fights or disagreements, but no, really in general, we'll just all have this warm fuzzy feeling. I don't know why we think that, but we do. Maybe God blinds us. [Laughter]

We'll, actually, get in there and do it because I think if we really knew what we were getting into, a lot of people would be more standoffish: “I don't know if this is what I want to do.” But once we get in there, you know, reality sits in, and you begin to realize, “This is a lot harder than I thought.”

Ron: Well, I’m so glad you said that because I've made that observation about a lot of things in life; that if we really knew what we were getting into, we might not have jumped in. I just want to put parenting at the top of that list.

Sabrina: [Laughter] Right.

Ron: God help us. If we really thought through, we're responsible for a human being and we got to feed them and care for them, and that's the easy part. We've got to grow them up emotionally. We've got to teach and train them. We've got to instill values in them, and we're going to be fighting the world and all of its influences for 18 and beyond, 20, 25, 30, 40 years.

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: And it's like if we really thought what's required of us, we would never do it, you know? [Laughter] And yet it's the most beautiful thing in the world. It's a precious, precious honor to raise and influence a child, but man, is it a massive task.

Sabrina: Yes, it is. Yes.

Ron: Okay, so all of this has reminded me of a quote in your book. But first, before I read you, you—

Sabrina: Okay.

Ron: [Laughter] Don’t you love it when people do that. I'm going to do that too.

Let me read to you something else. We got some feedback about this podcast from somebody. Pastor Brian shared on Apple podcast. He says, “I thought that remarriage and the integration of my family would be so easy.” Sounds familiar, doesn't it? “Why is it so hard?” he says. “Why didn't anyone tell me all the potential pitfalls? Well, here is an amazing and invaluable resource for stepfamilies,” talking about this podcast.

Now, here's your quote in your book that was so just ringing true of Pastor Brian. You say this, “Almost all blended families follow the same basic journey. We start out brimming with hope, but then reality sets in. We realize that remarriage didn't fix everything. Indeed, some things got much worse. That leads to questions and doubts and, eventually, to the crossroads where all remarried must decide: hang on and keep going, or give up and quit. Those of us who keep going eventually reap the rewards, but not without our scars.”

Okay, now that first part you talked about just a minute ago. You got to keep going, and you get the rewards. But now, I want you to talk about that second part, scars. You got a few scars? What are they?

Sabrina: Oh yes. [Laughter]

Ron: Take a deep breath.

Sabrina: There’re so many scars. Well, you know, I mean, there's so many things that you don't realize are going to happen. Jealousy of the first spouse, even in our case where the spouse is deceased. You know that that person loved that first spouse, and you know, you can feel, you understand that this person doesn't love you the way that they loved their first spouse. They can't. They were married to that person so much longer. They have many memories together. They have children together, and you begin to wonder, “Will I ever find a place in that person's heart?” So there's those kinds of questions.

There's the question of the stepparenting situation where you're having discord in your home or you're disagreeing with your spouse over the way the children should be raised, or you think your spouse doesn't love your child. So there's all of those kinds of questions.

And then there's battles that take place, you know, as you go through those things. And not only battles with your spouse, battles with your children, battles with your stepchildren, battles with yourself. You begin to question things in your own heart and wonder, you know, “Did I make the right choice?” “Did I do the wrong thing?” You start to hear the warnings of people from your past, like, “Oh, I shouldn't have gotten into this relationship.”

So all of those kinds of questions go on and that's where the scarring comes from. You have wounds. You just do. And what I tell people is that—you know, one of the other things in that quote is that people think they come into a relationship to solve their problems. You know, “My kids don't have a dad. They need a dad.” Or “I'm lonely. I need a spouse,” whatever the case may be. But what they don't realize is that the blended family itself creates problems. It creates grief. It creates sorrows.

So, yes, you may be solving some problems, like your loneliness, but you're going to create problems, like jealousy of the first spouse, you know, that you didn't see coming. So there's problems that are created there and that itself is the problem. They think they're solving problems and they come in and they've created a whole new set of problems that they have to deal with.

Ron: Yes, and they didn't anticipate that. By the way, I just want to say to people, okay, so you're maybe waking up to that even now. You're hearing Sabrina say it and you're going, “That's it. Now, what do I do?” Like, what you don't do is sit around and beat yourself up.

Sabrina: Right. [Laughter]

Ron: I mean, you couldn't see what you can't see. We don't know what we don't know. Like, honestly, that's why—another big reason we walk in faith with a God who is a whole lot bigger than us, because He can see what we need, even when we don't.

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: At the end of the day, we're trusting him to help us figure out what that next step is.

Sabrina: Yes.

Ron: But we're going to have to wrestle with that scar and wound and hold on to hope.

Sabrina: That's right, and that really is the key. You know, honoring God and honoring His word and understanding that when you come into a marriage and it's not your first marriage, it's so much easier to give up on that marriage because you say, “Well, I was married once before. I've already ruined that in the eyes of God. Now, what is it if I just ruin this one in the eyes of God too? I'm sort of already scarred. I've already messed up.”

But when you think you've messed up, that's where you're wrong, is that in this marriage, you've created something new. You've created a new covenant. You've created a new relationship with someone. And God wants us to honor that relationship also. He wants us to get in there, even if you've been divorced the first time and that marriage ended. This marriage is something new and you can keep going in this marriage and honor God with this marriage.

So that's really the key is that we want to honor the Lord and we want to create something in this marriage that is a reflection of who He is. Ephesians 5; I know you're familiar with that passage. It's Ephesians 5:22-33. And it talks about marriage being the image of Christ in the church. That's what we want to create there. We want that image for our kids. We want that image in the community. And that's what you're fighting for. Yes, there are going to be problems in this relationship. Yes, there are going to be things that you look and go, “Why didn't I see this coming? I should have known better,” whatever the case may be. But we want to keep fighting for that because this image of Christ in this marriage is what God wants you to fight for.

Ron: You alluded to it a minute ago but let me just back up for those who don't know your story. You've got a chapter in your book called, Two Funerals and a Wedding, which kind of summarizes how you guys became a blended family. You mind backing up and telling us a little bit of that story?

Sabrina: My first husband was killed in a car accident, and my children were three months old and two years old. Robbie's first wife died of cancer, and it was very, very sudden. His children were 12 and 22 when she died. Three years later, we met, got married, and my children were three and five, and his children were fourteen and twenty-four. No, I said that wrong. Actually, it was two years for him and three years for me. Anyway, just to be technically correct.

We met online, and I thought, “He's a lot older than me. He's ten years older than me. I don't know if our families are really a good fit for each other.” It's kind of a, when you've been through the same battle, you know, the same war, you go, “He understands me.
There's something there that he gets about me that other people don't get.” I said, “Okay, I'll go on a date with him,” and then, of course, the rest is history. [Laughter]

It was kind of crazy. I thought, “I don't know if we're suitable.” I had a lot of questions before we got married, not because of him. His character was great. He was a good man, but I didn't know that our situation would work out very well. And I was right. It didn't work out great. It was difficult. There was a lot of hardships there, a lot of misunderstandings—you know, different phases of life we were in and had to figure out how to make all of that work and it was hard.

Ron: Yes. I'll say it again. I've said it before on this podcast. God's little joke on us is that we take our vows at the beginning of our marriage and then life teaches us what we committed ourselves to.

Sabrina: [Laughter] That's right.

Ron: We had no idea what we were going to have to do. That's true of every marriage. It's not just blended family marriage.

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: And that's the important piece. We, “Okay, here I am. Now what?” We figure it out. We walk with God. We trust Him in the next steps.

Speaking of getting married, I read something in your book I didn't know about you.

Sabrina: Ha.

Ron: Maybe I'd heard this somewhere, but I'd lost it. Your wedding was in the same room, same facility as where Robbie's funeral for his first wife was. And now you have his children in the room. You have some of your former in laws as I recall. And David's sister I think was with—

Sabrina: Right; Ed’s brother.

Ron: —so you have extended family from both of those previous relationships right there. And the room itself was a testimony to loss.

Sabrina: Yes.

Ron: You've got loss in the title of your book.

Sabrina: That's right.

Ron: A Home Built from Love; that part people get. And loss? Alright, so a wedding in that room. Looking back, you know, what was going on?

Sabrina: Yes.

Ron: —in that space?

Sabrina: Now, remember, I got married ten years earlier, so I had done this ten years before. —wasn't that long ago when I'd walked the aisle the first time. I remember that day. It was very bright. It was beautiful. Everyone was cheery and happy. Here I am ten years later. I walk into the door expecting the same kind of reaction and I'm hearing tissues and crying and sniffing. I'm seeing shoulders shaking. I mean, these aren't just glistening tears coming down the cheek. I mean, these are people who are mourning.

Of course, there were happy faces too, you know, not to paint a bleak picture, but even the happy people were crying. It was because my husband was going to the church that we got married in. That's also where his first wife's funeral was two years earlier, so it hadn't been that long, especially for people who are not in the home because they—when you're the person who's lost a spouse, you deal with that reality every single day and it's not a surprise. For people that are outside of the home that can somewhat put that out of their mind—they can sort of compartmentalize and leave that out of their mind—then they'll come to these moments where it becomes reality again. And that was definitely one of those moments for a lot of people.

Whereas my first husband's family had been on the groom's side ten years earlier, now they're on the bride's side. So they're coming as my family into this family. His in laws are there. I know they're all thinking, “Who is this person?” because we got married really quickly. We got married within three months. We met, started dating; three months later, we were engaged. Three months later, we were married, and it all happened really fast because we wanted the children to be in school at the right time.
We're trying to set all that up for our just normal everyday living but for everyone else, it was very, very fast. Of course, for us, it was fast too. We didn't realize that. To us, we felt like this was logical, you know, we’re making decisions based on logic. [Laughter]

Ron: For those of you that cannot see Sabrina's face—if you're watching on YouTube, you just saw it, but for those of you that are listening to the podcast, she was rolling her eyes at herself as she's talking about this.

Sabrina: Yes, this is what we're thinking, you know, “We're so smart. We're making these wise decisions.” But for everyone else, this is lightning fast. They're all warning us going “You're going too fast. You're going too fast.” Robbie and I are going, “No, we're not going too fast for us.” We're not thinking about everyone else. We're not thinking about how much this affects them and their lives as grandparents, as family members.

I remember talking to my mother-in-law and sister-in-law when my first husband died, promising them, they're my family. “No matter what, you'll always be my family.” But we knew that deep down inside, I couldn't really promise that because who was I going to marry? Would he see them as family? Would he accept them into his home and let them be with his kids and come to his holidays and mix with his family.

And so, I know that all this is going through their mind during this ceremony thinking “Is this it for us? Are we going to have to fight to be a part of their lives now?” All of that's going through their heads and praise God, this was a relationship where he was the kind of guy that would allow them into their lives. But no one knew that at first. Those were all questions that everyone had so, you know, it's kind of crazy.

Ron: Yes. Love and loss. I mean, I just think, what a dramatic picture; that wedding, that location, how everybody's feeling. They're coming, as you said, to again experience their sadness over things that have changed for them, losses that they've experienced, and at the same time, trying to figure out how to make space for the new.

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: Wow. And how then did that play itself out over the first six months or so for you, the kids, Robbie?

Sabrina: Well, the first six months, you know, there's a reason they call it the honeymoon period. It's kind of everyone sort of feeling each other out, you know, kind of like, “Where's my place now?” Really, coming into a house with a bunch of strangers. I remember how it felt to live with my teenage stepson, and to think, “This is really awkward.” You know, it's awkward for me, it's awkward for him. We'd only been around each other just a few times. He's almost grown, and here I'm a woman, you know, that he doesn't know.

Ron: Right.

Sabrina: He doesn't know the rules. He doesn't know what gets on my nerves. He doesn't know my personality. So, like, when do you walk on eggshells and when do you not? You know, it's just really strange.

And then for Robbie to be around little kids was very, very hard for him because here he was, Mr. Bachelor, basically. He had two almost grown sons. I remember when we were dating, and I would go to his house and hang out and visit. They're sitting there with their feet up in the chairs and watching a ball game, quiet in the house, dark and I turned to him, and I said, “You do realize this life is over. When you marry me, it’s over.” Because I'm thinking my kids are running around like crazy. There’re blocks all over the place. You're stepping on stuff. There's noise. They're screaming and they think they're going to translate this life into my life. I'm going, “You know, this is over.” “Oh yeah, sure. Yeah, I know it's over.” [Laughter]

For the first six months for him was, “I'm living in a zoo.” [Laughter] I mean, he totally forgot what it's like to have—I mean, we're talking about a three-year-old and a five-year-old, not even in kindergarten yet when we got married. So it was—

Ron: And all of those changes for the children create more questions and losses in and of themselves. You say in your book that not everybody grieves the same. It's a myth to think that everybody is grieving at the same rate or same pace. I'm thinking of, right now, just the illustration you're talking about, blocks on the floor versus quiet watching a baseball game, step siblings trying to figure out how to share the same space. How'd that go for you guys?

Sabrina: Yes. Well, thankfully we were in a house where everyone could have their own room. I really tell people now, when they adopt a child or when they're in a stepfamily, make sure everyone has their own space to go to, even if that's a clubhouse in the backyard, you know, where everyone can have somewhere to go.

Ron: —escape when they need to.

Sabrina: Yes, get out. Don't put your adopted child in with your son, you know, in the bedroom. And if you do, if you have to—I realize sometimes there's not space.
You know, a friend of mine did this, and I said, “Do you have a nook anywhere in your house?” She found a little closet under her staircase where he could just put his things and sit there when he needed to get away from everyone. So thankfully we did have that, especially for the teenager, because I know he was being driven crazy by the little ones because they just thought he was fantastic. They just wanted to hang on his legs and grab him and he's going, “What have you done to me?”

Ron: The littles thought the big was fantastic. The big wasn't so impressed.

Sabrina: No; yes. I mean, you're talking a 14-year-old, you know, with a 3-year-old. It was kind of crazy. All in all, everyone was very kind to each other in those first few months. But you do need to leave that space for everyone to kind of get away. Especially, you know, the teenager really needed that time alone. I remember he would spend a lot of time in his room and then he would just kind of like, emerge when they went to bed. [Laughter] You know, a lot—you just have to leave a lot of room for grace on those things.

Ron: Let's talk about stepparenting. All of a sudden, you're a stepmom to kids older than yours, quite a bit older than yours. And Robbie's a stepdad to kids quite a bit younger than the ones he had at the time. Observations about—looking back, what would you say are your kind of good takeaways?

Sabrina: [Laughter] Well, good takeaways or like lessons I learned?

Ron: Yes, either way.

Sabrina: Yes, the biggest things I learned was that—I think when we became a stepfamily, I wanted us all to be together all the time and making memories together. I thought that these times together would bond us and form us. And that is true. You do need those times. What I didn't realize was that the kids need time with their biological parent. And this was a big one for me.

When you create a stepfamily, not only is the child missing the parent that's not in the home, what we don't realize is that kids also lose the parent in the home to the new spouse. My kids had me full time. They spent all their time with me, especially because I was a stay-at-home mom, and they were not in school yet. When I married Robbie, now I want to spend my time with him, you know, so I'm kind of pushing them out.

Ron: Yes, and on occasion spending time with his kids.

Sabrina: Yes. And they were really, especially Benjamin who was five, he was very threatened by that. I had no idea that the alpha male had already risen up in him as a five-year-old and that he was competing with Robbie over me. And that was very hard for me to watch, very, very hard.

But also, what I didn't think about, even though Seth, my stepson, he was 14 when we got married, I didn't realize that he would grieve the loss of his dad, too. And that he needed time with his dad. And that was the biggest mistake I made, was not letting him spend time alone with his dad. I wish I had done that more.

And I think Robbie was thinking, “Oh good, I have a woman in the house now. She'll take care of the kids for me. I'll go to work.” because his job is very stressful. He's in the military. He kind of thought “That's something I can stop being concerned about,” you know, “worry about my son. He's taken care of.” But I was no substitute for him.

Ron: Right.

Sabrina: I knew I wasn't a substitute for Seth's mom, but I was no substitute for his dad.

Ron: —for Robbie.

Sabrina: Yes, and he needed him. He needed him, and I did not realize how much they needed to spend time together.

Ron: Let's dig into that because the wife part of your heart wants time with your husband, and you want to see your husband interacting with your kids. You know, that's the wife, mom part of your heart. The stepmom part of your heart, I'm hearing you say, didn't realize that Seth needed his dad.

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: And therein lies the competition. Everybody's fighting for time with Robbie.

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: And so, you know, like what, how could you have managed that differently?

Sabrina: Well, I mean, if I had known, if I had realized what was happening, I think what you can do is just create space; create space for it. For example, Robbie and Seth, they kind of had a tradition before I came into the picture of playing golf every Saturday. And I complained about that. I was like, “Oh yes, I see how it is.” You know, I had visions of us all spending time together as a family on the weekends and making these memories that were going to bond us together and create this wonderful family. What I should have done was just said, “Great, while you're having your time together.
I'll just go do something with my kids, and we'll have that time together,” you know.

Ron: Because my kids need that with you.

Sabrina: Because my kids needed it too. So we could have, you know, accomplished that. We were already, Robbie and I had already established a date night every Friday night, which is another thing I really recommend. If you can't do it every week, do it every other week. If you can't afford it, do something that you can afford—

Ron: Right.

Sabrina: —you know but make time. So we really kept that time just for us and did our very, very best not to schedule anything else that would conflict with that. Or even invite friends. Every now and then we'd do a double date, but really it was for that bonding experience. So we already had Friday nights together, and I was thinking that Saturdays would be for family time. You know, like all of us together doing this thing. I should have let them continue doing their thing, and then every now and then say, “Let's all go do something as a family,” you know, or, or take a day off of work or whatever. Like work it in, but I didn't. I had no idea how important that really was and why that would matter.

Ron: I just got to say to our listener and to our viewer, this is gold. This is worth the price of the podcast, which was nothing by the way. [Laughter] What Sabrina is saying is really, really important and I appreciate you sharing that because the takeaway here is what you have to sacrifice a little bit of is the dream of familyness quickly; that is, ”Alright, Saturday should be a time we are all getting together. We're all taking advantage of the day off.”

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: “And therefore, everybody needs to be in the room together,” whatever.

Ron: Instead saying, no, the pathway to familyness starts by compartmentalizing some of our relationships, by acknowledging that there are some bonds that are really important and preexisted, and kids need the reassurance of time with dad in your case or the time with mom. That that's the pathway to then all family type activity. You got to do a little bit of both in the first couple of years, and over time, you do less and less, perhaps, of the compartmentalization stuff.

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: Wow, so good.

I'm also thinking about you, stepmom. The oldest was 22 when you guys got married?

Sabrina: Twenty-four.

Ron: Twenty-four. We're hearing in our ministry more and more from what we call adult stepparents, you know, who are parenting children that are adults—out of the home oftentimes or at college. At least some of them are in their 30s, you know, and have their own families. And one of the things people are asking is, what do I do when I'm motivated towards bonding a relationship with this 35-year-old for example, but that child isn't? I mean, they're not even a child. They're an adult. They have their own life, their own career, and yes, they kind of want to get to know me but they don't really have the same need to connect with me that I do with them. Got any thoughts about that?

Sabrina: Yes. I think it affects adult children a lot more than people think it will. I think a lot of people are waiting. Sometimes a single parent going “I'll wait till my children are grown and then I'll get married.” They don't realize that a grown child sometimes takes it harder than a child in the home. Again, because you can sometimes compartmentalize. You can sort of like be away from it in your mind and then when you come back to it, you go, “Oh.” It hits you all over again.

So, a hard thing for adult children, I think, is coming home. There's no home for them to come home to. Robbie actually, his dad remarried. His mother died when he was an adult, and he was overseas when it happened. He came home for the funeral, just for a day, and then went back overseas again.

Ron: Goodness.

Sabrina: When he came back a year later, his dad had removed everything out of the home. All of her things were gone, you know, because his dad the whole year is grieving. He's spending the time grieving. He's saying goodbye to things. He meets another woman. He marries her. Robbie was just devastated when he came home. He was, I don't know how old he was, probably in his thirties.

Ron: I can only imagine Robbie emotionally was still, you know, almost two years in the past—Mom and Dad still living. You know, still just even barely touching the reality of mom's passing, let alone dad creating a whole new world.

Sabrina: Exactly. Many times, he's shown me the photograph that was taken before he left with him and his dad and his mom. He said, “I had no idea this was the last time I would ever talk to my mom.” And he gets back from overseas, not only has his dad remarried, but everything in the house that belonged to his mother has disappeared. And he said, “It was like she was erased. That wasn't his dad's fault, you know, to keep living life and to keep moving forward. It wasn't Robbie's fault. It just was what it was, but he had no way to say goodbye to her. You know, everything was gone and that was very difficult for him.

And I don't think we realize that. When we remarry, we create a new life. We bring in new things. We get rid of some things. I remember when we first got married, he still had all of her things in the house. So he just let it be there. Because everyone does grieve differently.

For me, when my spouse died, I had to get rid of his things immediately. I didn't want to see them sitting around me re-reminding me every moment that he was gone. I just wanted to clean it up and face the reality and go, “Okay, I'd do better with this if I just realize it is what it is, and we move forward.”

Ron: Not run away from it.

Sabrina: Right. And he was more like, “No, I just couldn't imagine parting with her things because it would be different.” You know, walk in and everything is different and that reminded him every day.

Ron: I can imagine that needed to change for you when you moved in the house.

Sabrina: Yes. [Laughter] So, that's right. So when we got married, he was going to move into my house because my house was a little bigger. I had the room for everyone to have their own bedrooms. We said, well, we can't have two sets of dishes, two sets of rugs, two sets of everything, plus all her clothing. No one needed that so we had to go through the process of cleaning those things out.

In my case, I had his mother-in-law, his first wife's mother, come and help go through this process. And we still kept tons of her things because even though we went through everything and said, “Do you want this? Do you want this?” everything. Of course, the boys were saying, “No, no, no.” I knew better so I still have many of her things put in boxes. But point being is that when they come to our house—you know, we have since built a house and we've incorporated all of our things. But at first, you know, we're living in “my house” and they felt like they were in my house. They felt the absence of all of their things.

Ron: You're a visitor.

Sabrina: That's right. They have no permission, so to speak, you know, to live there. They're, more like you're saying, visiting or in a hotel. That's kind of how it is for adult children. When they come “home” for the holidays, they're not really coming home.
They're really going to someone else's home. And even on Christmas or Thanksgiving, they're seeing faces they don't know—my parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, whomever may be coming. There is no coming home anymore.

Ron: That's right.

Sabrina: And that's a hard thing to do.

Ron: That really gets to identity. It gets all the way down to, “Well, who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” and “What, who are my people?”

Sabrina: Right; right. [Laughter]

Ron: And “I thought I knew who my people were. Now I'm not so sure where I belong.” Again, all of that creates more loss for them. And to your point, that loss for the adult children gets in the way of them maybe being motivated towards moving toward their stepparent or new stepsiblings, if they even call them stepsiblings.

Sabrina: Sure.

Ron: And so that's just part of that reality. I think we're all the way back to, so that stepparent of those adult children just got to be super, super patient,

Sabrina: Right; that's exactly right. And try not to take things too personally. You know, try to see things from the child's perspective. And that's so hard. That's really, really hard.

And then sometimes as a stepparent, you just, you lose it. You get your feelings hurt. You know, we are human. Even though we're supposed to be the adults and the parents, we're human, and that's where you lose it. That so often can just be that one thing that happens that makes the relationship go way back to, not ground zero, but almost. I mean, it's easy for—

Ron: If you only have a little bit of trust built up and you do something that sabotages that, you are kind of starting over.

Sabrina: Right, and it's so, so hard. I mean, there has to be a lot of forgiveness, a lot of grace, you know, just so much grace there. And again, that's where it goes back to relying on God and going, “How much grace does He have on me?”

Ron: Yes, endless.

Sabrina: Yes, and just keep putting yourself in that position of humility and saying, “I did mess up. I was wrong.” And it's really hard because there's such a thing as boundaries too. And you have to set up boundaries. You know, you have to say, “Look, I am the adult figure here. I need respect.” But you know, finding that line is just a dance.

Ron: Yes. You've got a whole chapter on parenting and guilt. Tell us just a little bit about how that maybe played a role in your journey.

Sabrina: It was a defining emotion for many years. Because there's so much question, you know, not only as a stepparent and having those explosive moments, or not understanding and realizing. I mean, especially in a home, in any blended family, you're going to have grief and it's so hard to tell—especially with pre-teens, teenagers—is this a result of them just being a teenager? Or is this a result of them having a grief moment?

Ron: Or some combination of the two.

Sabrina: Yes!

Ron: Yes, it's so difficult to tell.

Sabrina: Yes, and the way you react to them and you're wondering about yourself.
“Am I reacting out of a reasonable reason?” or “Am I being emotional and having my own set of grief at this moment?” you know? [Laughter] So many conflicting emotions.

And then for my children, they would be in a situation with Robbie where he would be yelling, or they would be upset, or trying to pit one parent against the other, or put you in a trap of some kind. And then you have this guilt of, “Did I do the right thing?” “Did I marry the right person?”

Ron: Yes. Okay, let's flesh that out. So if you, as a biological mom, are questioning what's happening between your children and now your husband and you're feeling a little guilty that your decision made this moment happen, don't you naturally lean towards protecting your kids?

Sabrina: Oh yes. I mean, you can. I mean, you really have to fight that urge to blame your spouse for everything. You know, “You shouldn't have done this,” and “You shouldn't have done that.” And forget that your child is not the perfect angel that you wish that they were. [Laughter] That maybe your child might have something to do with the conflict. And that's difficult because you're going, “Well you're an adult and you should know better.” But again, that grief really plays a huge role in a blended family: the losses that you feel, the sadness, the sorrow, “It didn't work out the way I wanted it to.” All those questions of, “Is this the right person?” “Did I make the right decision?”

Ron: You know there is a godly grief that leads to repentance, we're told in the scriptures. But I think this guilt that you're talking about is more of a, an ungodly grief. It's a, “I'm shaming myself.”

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: And doesn't that just make you paralyzed? Doesn't that make you, again, side with your kids indiscriminately about whether or not they're partially at fault or fully at fault or whatever the case is?

Sabrina: Sure.

Ron: So all of a sudden, I think you end up stuck. I can anticipate what that's going to do for the biological parent and the stepparent who see it differently. Now you're stuck apart.

Sabrina: That's exactly right. And you do have to keep coming together. Again, the relationship between husband and wife, that's the relationship that's going to last.

Ron: Right.

Sabrina: I mean, yes, your kids will always be a part of your life, but they won’t always be in your home. And if the husband and the wife are not stable, the whole family falls apart.

Ron: Right. So, you've got to bridge those gaps before it happens.

Sabrina: You have to. Yes, you have to. That has to be the focus. And as much as we do have to make time for the kids, and we do have to make time for making sure that the family comes together, and those kinds of things. Because you don't want to get into a situation where you go, “Okay, you raise your kids; I'll raise my kids; and when they all turn 18, we'll get back together again. You can't do that either. Because then you're building up your lives without one another, and now you're just strangers at the end of that 18 years. So it’s very deliberate. I mean, you have to keep coming together. That's why things like date nights are so important, you know, to keep coming back.

I remember a time when we were in the middle of a terrible fight. I mean, I felt like Robbie was very unfair to my son. I felt like he was too harsh. I felt like his military was coming out and I'm like, “He's five,” you know. I was just about ready just to go “You're not the right guy. I don't know what we're going to do. I can't divorce you. I'm a marriage ministry person, but I'm never talking to you again.” [Laughter] You know, it's like, I'm just, “You're going to live in the basement.” I mean, I was just ready to, I was just like, “This is terrible.”

But we had already—it was a Friday, and the babysitter was already coming. And I'm like, “I have to go out with this guy who I just despise at this moment.” We sat down at the table, and I'm thinking to myself, “How am I even going to sit here with him and act like I'm having a good time?”

And I just looked up at him, and he just had this softness in his face, in his eyes. I literally thought to myself, “There you are. That's the guy I married. There he is.” And it took time just to get out of that environment, you know, back to just us and being together. And I thought, “If we didn't have that babysitter coming already, I would never have gotten into this moment. I would never be here and seeing him. I just would have shut him out of my life.” I don't know how long he would have been shut out; could have been a long time.

Ron: I'm sure you guys had to unpack all that. Eventually, you had to talk through the parenting stuff and try to get some resolution about how you're going to go forward, you know, together.

Sabrina: Right.

Ron: But I got to just commend you for A, going on the date, and B, allowing yourself, even when you looked up and you saw him, you go, “Oh, there's the guy I fell in love with,” allowing yourself to move back toward him, even though there was another part of you that's saying, “Run away.”

Sabrina: Right. [Laughter]

Ron: “Done with this guy.” You know, those are the moments that make, or break, relationships, honestly. When we push ourselves through fear back toward, even in the midst of uncertainty, those are telling moments. It's a micro moment that gives you a chance at then unpacking and finding each other again.

Sabrina: And it all goes back to grace again. I mean, we have to say, “Remember, I'm not perfect either.” It's so easy to get self-righteous in those moments when you go, “Oh, you shouldn't have done this. You shouldn't have done that. Anybody could see that this is the way it should have been done.” And then, but for the grace of God, there go I. I mean, I had moments exactly like that, you know, in my life. So how can you continue to hold that over that person when you know that you're just as guilty and that you need just as much grace and forgiveness as the next person.

And it comes down to that self-awareness and knowing that we need God's grace every single day, and we need grace from people in our lives every single day. How can we not give the grace that we ourselves demand from everyone else?

Ron: Well said. You close your book by saying there can be beautiful from the broken.

Sabrina: Yes.

Ron: Offer a word to somebody listening who's like, “Yes, I don't think so. Not today, doesn't feel like it. [Laughter] What would you say?

Sabrina: Yes, I use this image of a vase, like a pottery vase. And sometimes that vase gets shattered to pieces, really. I mean, it's not just broken like, cracked. It's broken like, that's not ever going to be a vase again.

Ron: —shattered.

Sabrina: Yes. I mean, just sweep it up and put it in the dustpan. That's how a lot of people feel in a blended family. You know, in that moment when I was mad at Robbie and I didn't want to go on a date with him, that’s how I felt. I felt like “This marriage is shattered.” But maybe that vase was never meant to be a vase. Maybe the master artist, the Lord God Almighty, is going to take those pieces and he's going to put them and lay them out and turn them into a beautiful piece of artwork, a beautiful mosaic.

And sometimes when those shattered pieces are laying all over the floor, it doesn't look like a beautiful mosaic. But when the artist gets a hold of those pieces and he starts putting them where they need to go, they turn into something amazingly beautiful that you would never even imagine. Now, it's not a vase. It's not what it was originally intended to be, but maybe that's not what it was meant to be in the end. And when we give our broken pieces to God, that's what He does with our lives. He turns them into something that is beautiful.

There's a quote. I think it was Hemingway that was actually attributed to the quote, even though they say maybe he never really actually said it; but he said, “When something's broken, that's how the light gets through.” I love that imagery of this broken family that God is shining his light through that you can see kind of this beautiful expression of who He is coming through behind and shining through those broken pieces. So brokenness doesn't mean ugliness; brokenness can be beautiful.

Ron: The book is A Home Built from Love and Loss: Coming Together as a Blended Family. Sabrina, thanks for being with me.

Sabrina: Thanks for having me.

Ron: Check out the show notes to learn more about Sabrina and all the work that she is doing.

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