Step-Mothers Know Best
About the Guest
Seeking advice for your blended family? Then you've come to the right place! Stepmothers Laura Petherbridge, Heather Hetchler and Gayla Grace talk about the challenges they've faced blending a family and becoming effective stepmothers.
Stepmothers Laura Petherbridge, Heather Hetchler and Gayla Grace talk about the challenges they’ve faced blending a family and becoming effective stepmothers.
Bob: Have you ever been on a windy highway—where there are all kinds of signs that tell you to slow down here, and to watch out for this curb, and that there’s a steep grade ahead—things like that? Laura Petherbridge believes that forming a blended family is a little like driving on one of those windy roads. You’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing if you want to get where you’re going. She says the other passengers—the kids who are along for the ride—they understand what’s going on.
Laura: How come the kids were fine with this stepmom or this stepdad before the wedding— and the day of the wedding—the child was wailing—they were crying so hard? They get it—that the moment that “I do” occurs—that the vow is made—that they have moved from the front seat to the backseat in their parent’s life.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, September 15th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We have a lot of suggestions today for moms who want to be smart stepmoms. We’ve got a panel of seasoned experts joining us. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Do you remember the last time we saw these three ladies?
Dennis: At the summit?
Bob: Yes! We were all together in Dallas, Texas. It was back in the fall of 2013—the very first summit for blended family ministry. Ron Deal, who heads up FamilyLife Blended™, had convened this meeting of about 150 people.
Dennis: Yes, we sold it out.
Bob: All three of these ladies were with us, and we were talking about the needs of blended families. We’re getting ready to have the second summit—it’s going to be taking place in Washington, DC, October 2nd and 3rd. Folks who have a heart for blended families or who have an interest in blended family ministry can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and get more information about what’s coming up in Washington, DC, on October 2nd and 3rd.
Dennis: We are joined by Laura Petherbridge. Welcome back, Laura.
Laura: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Dennis: Glad to have you back with us. She’s just finished a book called 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom. This book is chock-full of great advice. You’ve been a stepmom for how long?
Laura: Twenty-eight years.
Laura: And everybody’s still alive.
Dennis: There ought to be at least four tips a year that you would crank out of—[Laughter]
Dennis: —at least! [Laughter]
Also with us is Gayla Grace who, along with Heather Hetchler, has co-authored a book called Unwrapping the Gift of Stepfamily Peace. Welcome, ladies, to the broadcast.
Gayla: Thank you.
Heather: Thank you.
Gayla and Heather: It’s good to be here.
Dennis: I’ve got a tough question for all three of you; alright? Now, I want you to be honest. This is a two-part question. When you were dating and thinking about forming a stepfamily—on a scale of 1-10—how difficult did you think it would be?—1 being falling off a log / easy—10 being incredibly difficult.
Bob: “Not sure I can survive it.”
Dennis: Exactly; that kind of thing. On a 1-10-point basis—now there are two scores on this. What did you think it was going to be, prior to marriage, as you dated and, then, fast forward—let’s say five years into the relationship—what number would you have given it, five years into the relationship?
Bob: It might have just taken a couple of weeks. You might not have to go five years to get to that number! [Laughter]
Dennis: It might not have! Laura, since you’re the veteran in here, we’ll let you go first.
Dennis: What did you think it was going to be?
Laura: I thought it would be about a “3” because I grew up in a stepfamily. I had two stepmoms, growing up, so I thought I knew this stepfamily thing—“It would be easy.”
Bob: “There would be a couple of challenges, but—
Dennis: “A couple of notches above falling off a log.”
Laura: “Not too complicated.”
Dennis: Alright; all the way around the horn here—Gayla?
Gayla: I thought it would be about a “5.” My husband and I were both bringing two kids into the marriage. So, I knew there would be some complications from both sides.
Dennis: So, you had more of a realistic opinion of this. Okay, Heather?
Heather: I’m going to be completely honest and give it a “2.” I have four children of my own, and I loved being a mom. I was marrying a man, with two daughters, who was a full-time dad—so, I didn’t have the ex-wife in the picture. I thought: “This is going to be easy. I love being a mom, and I have two more kids to love on.” I just did not foresee any of it happening, especially because all six of our kids are within six years of each other.
Bob: Okay; okay—so a “3,” “5,” and “2.” These sound like very achievable numbers here. How long before you started to grade it up a little bit?
Dennis: Well, let’s start with the “2.”
Bob: Okay, yes. How long did it take for your “2” to be a “3,” or a “4,” or a “5”?
Heather: Well, it went from a “2” to “20” in about two weeks. [Laughter]
Bob: In two weeks?!
Dennis: To a “20”?!
Heather: Yes. Ten really isn’t real. I mean, I went in with unrealistic expectations—and I want to tell you two—I read Ron’s book. We did classes—our church—the church I belong to does have a very strong stepfamily ministry. I thought: “Wow! I feel bad for all of these people. This is not going to happen to me.”
Once I said, “I do,” and we blended our families, things just started to happen. The hurt and the pain that the kids were feeling—because remarriage is really a second chance at love for the adults—but it is a permanent reminder, for those kids, that mom and dad will never, ever be together again.
Heather: So, I was not prepared. The one thing that was good is that I had read and I knew that that stuff was normal—I just didn’t think it would happen to me.
Dennis: Okay; Gayla?
Gayla: We went to a “10” very quickly. In fact, my husband and I were in counseling within less than a year. The counselor said to us, “I don’t normally see married couples quite this soon”; but we were struggling.
Dennis: Sorry to laugh at that—[Laughter] —wow! —and Laura?
Laura: I would say that within a month it was probably up to an “8” or a “9.” I would say, within a month, I was thinking, “I have made a huge mistake.”
Bob: So it escalates, and it escalates quickly.
Bob: All of you gave it a score that went from “2,” “3,” or “5” to “10” or “20.”
Bob: And it didn’t take—I’m just curious, Heather—you said it took two weeks. Was there a turning point, where you saw it heading toward a “20,” and you thought: “Oh, no! I didn’t know we were going over this hill this quick”?
Heather: You know, it just—we blended our families and I thought: “Wow! Eight people in one house—this is going to just be a houseful of love and so much laughter.”
Heather: And I felt like an outsider in my own home. I was not prepared for that. I felt lonely. I just kept thinking: “How can this be? How can I be lonely with seven other people in the house?”
I think what happened, too, was that my two step-daughters, who don’t see their mom—their mom had left before I met their father—they were just missing her even more. Even though they begged me to be their mom and they loved me, I think that was just a reminder: “I wish my mom was washing my clothes. I wish my mom was baking the cookies. I wish my mom was here.”
Dennis: They would say that?
Heather: Well, they would act out. I mean, they would say things like, “You’re not my mom,” or they would do things to me. I remember my youngest step-daughter told my youngest daughter: “Your mom is no longer your mom anymore because she has my last name and not yours.” I remember my child coming to me and asking me that. I was so thankful to the Lord that she shared that with me because I didn’t want her walking around, thinking that, but that’s how children feel.
If you don’t know what your kids are thinking—it was just the pain that they were feeling, and so they were acting out. There began to be some sibling rivalry and jealousy. My four children see their dad—he actually built a house down the street from us. So, my kids come and go; and they see both parents. It’s hard for a child to understand: “Why does my mom choose not to see me?
“My stepsiblings get to see their dad whenever they want.” There was just a lot of reality that came to be so quickly that we just weren’t prepared for.
Dennis: There’s competition in the midst of loss.
Dennis: I mean, these children have experienced loss—either through death / a divorce. They have to process heavy stuff—that even adults don’t do a good job processing.
Dennis: Gayla, what about you? How did you see your kids processing this?
Gayla: Well, I think one thing that I didn’t foresee was something that I struggled with—as both a biological mom and a stepmom—is sharing myself. I went from two kids to four. All of a sudden, there’s less time with my own kids because I’m also trying to be a mom to these two step-kids. So, that part of it was a bit of a surprise for me—then, my children also, in turn, sharing me, now with two other children in the home. Our kids were fairly young—they were three to ten—four kids.
So just that aspect of—overnight, I went from two to four kids. The sharing aspect was difficult for all of us.
Dennis: And it seems to me that the natural outworking of this difficulty of going from “2” to “20” or from “3” to “8” or “5” to “10” is going to impact the marriage.
Dennis: Ultimately, Laura, your marriage is going to suffer because of the angst and the lack of peace in the home.
Dennis: How did it show up in your marriage?
Laura: Well, I think, for me, it was—you know—I was raised by a single-parent mom—very strict—you didn’t even look at my mother the wrong way; you know? We had very strict boundaries and rules. To watch my husband—who I now understand was parenting out of guilt because he felt terrible that his children had gone through a divorce—he never wanted them to experience that.
So, now to be the stepmom in this situation, and watching my husband not stand up to his children—not tell them, “No,”—
—in my opinion / in my little mind—I had him as just being so wimpy, as a parent. It caused me to lose respect for him. I had to really get ahold of myself and really pray about that a lot because I was losing my feelings for him; and I was becoming disrespectful to him because, in my opinion, he wasn’t being a good parent. That was huge! I really had to deal with that, and a lot of it was my own baggage from how I was raised.
Laura: I was expecting him to behave like my mother had behaved—and that was not how he was parenting. That was a really, really big thing for me.
Bob: All three of you ladies pointed to children as a catalytic part of taking your expectations to a harder reality.
I’m just wondering: “Do you think, if you had walked into a blended marriage with no kids, would your ‘2’ have been, maybe, a ‘4’” instead of being a ‘20’? Or do you think that kids just accelerate the inevitable?”
Laura: Well, I have no biological children—so I did enter the step-family with no biological children of my own.
Laura: So I am a childless stepmom. But that comes with some angst, too, because there’s this sense of: “your kids.” He had this child with another woman—so “That’s not something you and I share.” I can just speak to that small portion of—being childless—and there are a lot of childless stepmoms out there because a lot of stepmoms get married later in life. They either didn’t meet “Mr. Right” until later on, or they waited to get married—so now they either can’t have children, or they’re in the middle of infertility treatments, or things like that.
So, even coming into it childless can have some really, really strong ramifications.
Bob: Yes, what I heard you describing was a situation where a new family had formed. A lot of times you felt like, “This new family formed, but I’m still a step out.”
Laura: That’s right.
Bob: “We’re here, as a family; but I’m only a part of the family sometimes.”
Laura: “I’m outside the circle.”
Dennis: Well, Heather described it as being lonely in the midst of a family of eight.
Heather: I was very surprised to feel lonely because I came from being a single mom of four kids, where I didn’t feel lonely in my house as a single parent. But once we—you know, when you blend two families—you don’t just blend the people—you blend the history / the culture. I remember—I love to cook —I remember the first meal I made. My two stepdaughters pushed it away: “That’s not how my mom used to make pizza.” That was something that came very unexpectedly to me.
And I thought, too, as being a full-time stepmom, it would be a lot easier. But even though I had all of the responsibility for my stepdaughters, as the mom in the house, I did not have all of the authority. That was very difficult for me to come to terms with.
Dennis: It seems to me that an erroneous assumption would occur that: “He’s got his. I’ve got mine, as a wife, here. We’re coming together, and they’re going to merge—these families are going to merge together. It was working—it seemed to be working when we dated.” Did any of you experience, instead of a merging, a clashing—I mean, that was almost automatic?
Gayla: Well, something that happened to us—that really surprised us—was that we began to function in triangles sometimes. It would be my husband and his two kids and me and my two kids. There’s no unity when you’re functioning in triangles like that; but when the relationships began to get stressed, that is what would happen. We would separate off into two sets of triangles.
Dennis: And kind of bunker up—
Dennis: “Us against them.”
Gayla: Yes, yes. But you will never form and bond relationships in a setting like that. So, we had to figure out how to bring those two triangles together.
Laura: And in saying that, though, I want to be very, very clear that I always encourage the biological parent to make sure they are spending one-on-one time with their children. I’m not contradicting what Gayla said because, you know, you could square off—we’re not saying that. But it is vitally important for the biological parent to have some one-on-one time with their own child, periodically, because that helps with the grief of the child. They feel like they’ve lost the parent to this new marriage. For example, for dad to take his own kids out for pizza occasionally—where it’s just his own biological kids—and dad is very, very important.
Dennis: And it would seem to me that the biological parent ought to be the one who provides the discipline / the correction—the more difficult situations.
Bob: All of these ladies are nodding their heads as you say that. [Laughter]
Dennis: They are! Vigorously!
Bob: Vigorously, yes.
Heather: Well, we had to come up with what we called our “house rules” and our “house consequences” because I’m a stay-at-home mom; and I’m with the kids more than my husband is. What we did was outline all of the things that were acceptable in the house and the things that weren’t. Then we gave pre-assigned consequences to them.
We had a big family meeting so the kids knew—if they lied about something, this is what they would get. So, whether I was home or my husband was home, it wasn’t: “You’re giving that to me because you’re not my mom and you don’t like me!” No, “You broke a house rule and this is the house consequence for breaking that rule.” That helped a lot.
Dennis: You need to be in agreement, period.
Dennis: Because, if you’re not in agreement, these little rascals will divide you.
Dennis: They’ll find a way to build a wedge between you.
Bob: Okay, so I have to ask here—if we were sitting down, right now, with a young mom of two—who’s about to marry a dad of three—they’re a month away from their wedding. We ask this young mom: “What do you expect?—scale of 1-10, how hard is this going to be?”
Laura: “Run, Forrest, run!” [Laughter]
Bob: She says, “I think it’s going to be a ‘2’ or a ‘3’ or a ‘5.’” Would you tell her to run? What would you say?
Laura: I would tell them to make sure they are reading resources, and attending events about stepfamilies, and that they are ready to accept the fact that they are choosing—they are choosing—to step in to a very high-conflict marriage because so many are in denial that that is what it’s going to be.
So, when I do my life coaching with people, and particularly before they get married, I always say to them: “I want you to be aware that you are choosing to step into this marriage that has got an ex-spouse that’s giving you difficulty. Those things aren’t going to go away. They’re going to get worse.”
Dennis: Yes, but Laura, you know as well as I do—there are stars in the eyes.
Bob: They’re not listening.
Dennis: “There’s going to be two of us now to take on and shoulder the responsibility.” They’re not getting it.
Laura: They don’t listen.
Dennis: They’re not getting it. Here’s what I would say, if they go ahead and get married. One thing I would add to your list—which I thought was excellent—some kind of coach / some kind of mentor—
Dennis: —probably one or two other couples, who are in a blended situation—
Dennis: —who are a lap or two ahead of you in life to coach you through, not just the first 12 months, but maybe the first two or three years of your marriage.
Bob: So, when you dial 911 on the phone—instead of going to the police—it goes to the other couple, and they can help you out; right?
Gayla: I would also ask, “How much time has there been since the ending of this last marriage or since the death of the spouse?”
The time that the children have had to work through their issues is going to have a huge bearing on the coming together of these relationships. I would encourage—time is on your side. Do not rush into it because the quicker it happens, the harder it’s going to be.
Bob: So how much time is enough time?
Gayla: I would say, at least, two years—honestly, from when the marriage has ended or the spouse has died. There needs to be, at least, two years.
Dennis: Maybe longer.
Gayla: Yes, longer is perfect!
Laura: Yes—and that’s if they’ve gone to a grief or a Divorce Recovery support group, where they’ve learned the issues and they’ve learned the grieving process.
Dennis: I know a couple who kind of did all of that—they did it on a fast-track. They fell in love—they got married. They thought they were pulling these two families together. They pulled out of the wedding—and on their way to their honeymoon—there was a cataclysmic atomic meltdown, back at the house, with his and hers joining together.
Dennis: In that situation—
Bob: I think they’ve heard this story before!—the way you ladies responded.
Laura: And do you know why that is, Dennis? Let me explain to you. So many people ask: “How come the kids were fine with this stepmom or this stepdad before the wedding—and the day of the wedding—sometimes, they even write to me, “The child was wailing—they were crying so hard during the wedding ceremony.” This can even be adult step-kids—not just little kids.
Bob: And one who was begging you to get married, a week earlier.
Laura: Exactly. They get it—that the moment that “I do,” occurs—that the vow is made—that they have moved from the front seat to the backseat in their parent’s life. They get it.
Dennis: The competition is on!
Laura: That’s right.
Dennis: “I’ve got to get the attention of my mom/dad.”
Well, I’ve got two applications for today’s broadcast. Number one: if you find yourself in this situation, you really need resources—
—human resources / you need God’s resources—you need books, you need CDs/DVDs, you need to get educated about how you make this thing work.
A second application from this broadcast—and I was thinking about this, again, as I was preparing to interview you ladies—I was thinking, “This broadcast is going to be a great apologetic to, at least, one person listening to this broadcast, who is thinking about getting a divorce.”
Dennis: They think there’s a pot at the end of the rainbow: “If I could just get away from this imperfect person I’m married to.” The reality is—there’s another pot at the end of the rainbow. It’s got a lot more reality than what you’ve got now—you may have no idea what you’re signing on for. Maybe you need to go to a Weekend to Remember®. Maybe you need to go to an I Still Do™ event.
The point is: “Don’t toss the towel in too soon.”
Bob: Do everything you can. Make your marriage a priority. Whether it’s going, as you said, to one of our Weekend to Remember getaways coming up this fall or going to the I Still Do event in Washington, DC, here in a couple of weeks. It may be that your church or a church near you is hosting a simulcast of I Still Do or maybe there’s an Art of Marriage® event for you to host in your church or somebody’s hosting near you.
The point is—whether it’s our resources or somebody else’s—build into your marriage. Don’t wait until things are in the ditch and then try to fix them. Intentionally build into your marriage, from the beginning. Folks can go to our website if they want to—FamilyLifeToday.com—for more information about I Still Do, or about the Weekend to Remember getaways, or to find out about The Art of Marriage. Just go and click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.” You can find out about the resources we have to help strengthen your marriage.
And, of course, you can join us in Washington, DC, for I Still Do. And if you’re involved in or interested in blended family ministry, come a day-and-a-half early and join us for the Blended and Blessed™summit that we’re going to be hosting in Washington, DC. Again, the information for that is on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com as well. Click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” and look for the Blended and Blessed summit.
And we have copies of Laura Petherbridge’s book, 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom. That’s in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Ask about the book, 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation with our stepmoms who are joining us here in the first part of this week. I hope you can tune in as we continue to talk about building strong and healthy stepfamilies.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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