The Childless Stepmom
Motherhood and stepmotherhood, while both rewarding, also come with their own unique challenges. And for a woman with no biological children, stepping into the role of stepmom can be a bewildering labyrinth of complexities. Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge discuss how to navigate this winding path.
About the Guest
- Listen to episode 16: The Childless Stepmom from the FamilyLife Blended® Podcast with Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge. (1 hr. 14 min. podcast) https://www.familylife.com/podcast/familylife-blended-podcast/16-the-childless-stepmom/
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For a woman with no biological children, stepping into the role of stepmom can be a bewildering labyrinth of complexities. Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge discuss how to navigate this winding path.
The Childless Stepmom
Bob: When you fall in love with and choose to marry somebody, who already has kids, what’s the proper expectation about your relationship with those children? That’s the issue Laura Petherbridge had to deal with when she became an instant stepmom to brothers, who were 11 and 13 years old.
Laura: I don’t want somebody to hear it’s okay to be mean to them, or cruel, or never love them, or hate them, or anything like that. It just means you love them differently. I didn’t fall love with them the moment I laid eyes on them. I chose to love my two stepsons. I had to pray about loving them.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, November 1st. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll hear today from Laura Petherbridge and Ron Deal about the challenges parents face when they become instant stepparents. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Friday edition. I want to get you guys caught up with what has been going on with Season Two of Ron Deal’s podcast, FamilyLife Blended. I don’t know if you guys subscribe to this, but Season Two has been out for a while now. It’s really encouraging for us to be getting the feedback we’re getting from listeners, who are regularly saying: “This is the lifeline we have been looking for,” “This is what we need.”
I think we lose sight of the fact that folks, who are in step and blended marriages—they face unique pressures; and they’re looking for somebody, who says: “I understand what you’re going through,” and “We want to be here to help.”
Dave: I would say, “Thank God for Ron Deal and that ministry,” because there are very few people talkingto the complicated issues of step/blended family. He is on the pulse and speaking that language.
Ann: I have recommended his podcast to so many people. They were unaware there was any help for them, and they were so encouraged.
Bob: In Episode 16 of the podcast, Ron talked with a co-author of his, Laura Petherbridge. Together, they wrote the book, The Smart Stepmom. They had a conversation; in fact, we’re going to let our listeners hear some excerpts from this podcast today; because so many of our listeners are dealing with these issues. They had a conversation about stepmoms, who have never experienced giving birth themselves—they don’t have any biological kids or any adopted kids that they bring into a marriage. All of a sudden, they are in a step-marriage; and they are moms, instantly, to somebody else’s kids. There are unique challenges that come with that—practically/emotionally.
Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge had an extended conversation about that. They started at one point in the conversation, talking about the difference between a mom, who comes into a step relationship as a childless mom, and the couple who may be child-free for any particular reason.
Dave: And you just got me all confused, so we’re going to find out exactly the difference between the two. [Laughter]
Bob: Hopefully they can clarify this.
Laura: A childless stepmom is a woman who would like to have a child or would have wanted to have a child but cannot.
Laura: The child-free stepmom is someone who chose not to have children.
Laura: Large reason for that may be because they don't want their child being raised in a stepfamily. They just don't want the child to have to deal with siblings that are in two homes, and they feel that's too confusing. She's choosing not to have a baby; it's not a big ache in her heart that she doesn't have a child.
Ron: Alright, so let’s zero in on the childless stepmom for a minute. In one of your blogs, you share some quotes from childless stepmoms and what they're feeling is about it. Let me read a few and have you react to them.
One said, “I'll never experience the bond my husband has experienced with his first wife by having a child together." Right; that’s something that is a spiritual bond, so she's missing out on that.
Another woman said: “I feel cheated. I must live the mommy life, but I don't get to fully embrace them as my children. They keep me at arm's length, and they don't want a deeper relationship because they already have a mom.” Yes; so she's definitely feeling the lack of that.
Then this third one—I'd love for you to comment on this one: “My husband simply doesn't get it. He can't understand why his kids aren't enough to fill the hole in my heart and the emptiness of my womb. I crave a baby of my own. He gets mad at me and he says, ‘Why aren't my kids enough for you?’ and then I feel guilty on top of the grief.”
Ron: Okay, so what's going on there for her? What do you think is going on for him? Why would he put that sort of expectation or pressure on her?
Laura: I was actually pretty surprised when I got into stepfamily ministry at how many husbands think that his kids are going to fill her mother desire. I think, because he views her as a loving mother—you know, these children sometimes will love her; they’ll call her mom. He wants his new wife to fill that mommy gap for his children so badly; because he is not happy with his ex-wife—either because he thinks she's a bad mom or it's not his wife anymore. Because he desires for his new wife to be the “mom” to his kids so badly, he assumed she was going to feel the same way—that it was going to fill that gap for him.
I think this is purely a male versus female thing. I think it is purely that a man cannot understand the hole in a woman's heart when she craves a baby and cannot have one. I'm not saying they don't hurt. I'm just saying that I don't think he gets it—I don't think that's his fault—and it often makes her feel worse when he says that.
Laura: Because she then feels like she's disappointing him.
Ron: Right; so, now, it's another disappointment added on top of that.
Laura: Absolutely; and I know very few stepmoms who view their stepchildren in exactly the same way they do their own. I know many stepmoms, who love their step kids—view them as family, love them, would do anything for them—but when you ask, “Do you have the same emotions toward your biological children as you do your stepchildren?” they will say: “No; it's a different type of love,” “It's a different type of bond,” “It's different.”
Ron: Let's camp out there for just a second, because that just shocked somebody listening right now.
Laura: Yes, it did.
Ron: They just heard, “Whoa; it's not the same,” and “I always thought it should be the same,” or “…would be the same, either of myself or of”—if it's a dad—“of my wife.” You just implied that that's normal for that difference to be experienced in a woman, who's both a mother and a stepmother.
I think you're right; I think it is different. It does not mean that they don't love one another. Just like parents, who adopt a child, love them. If they have biological children, they also know the unique difference that comes with that automatic form of love that, just because they share DNA—like it's really an indescribable experience—but it is qualitatively different.
Again, you can act in love; choose to love; have strong, strong feelings for one another; be all-in in terms of that relationship; and yet, there's some sort of visceral difference in how you experience that love with a stepchild versus a biological child.
By the way, this goes two ways: stepchildren can have incredible love and passion for their stepparents and, yet, they have a visceral unexplained difference in how they feel, and the level of commitment that they experience, and the desire and passion that they have for a relationship with their biological parent. It's a two-way street.
Laura: Yes; absolutely. I call it a hard-wired bond.
Laura: It's there the moment they took a breath—even before the child comes out of the womb—there's this bond with that child.
You mentioned adoption. See, the difference in adoption is that the husband and wife went, together, and saw this baby for the first time, together, as a couple. This was a common thread between them: “We’re both adopting this baby together.” Where, in a stepfamily: “This is a child my husband had with another woman.”
Laura: When we place the label on stepmoms that they should love their stepchildren exactly the same way they do their own, that is terribly unrealistic.I chose to love my two stepsons. I had to pray about loving them. I had to pray past anything they do that reminds me of their mother. There's always going to be that little bit of jealousy factor/a little bit of competitive factor that you don't have with a biological child, even an adopted child.
When I say that “Stepmoms love their stepchildren differently,” that doesn't mean it's not a love. As you and I talk about in the book, it's a chosen love. I had to work to love my stepkids.
So, yes, I don't want somebody to hear that it's okay to be mean to them, or cruel, or never love them, or hate them, or anything like that. It just means you love them differently.
Ron: Right; right. So to just put a little wrap on this conversation for maybe a biological dad, who's listening, what would you say to him if his wife is childless and he’s beginning to understand her pain just a little bit better, based on what we've been talking about. What would you encourage him to do in terms of how he loves her?
Laura: First, I would recommend that he ask God to give him the eyes of her heart. Second of all, recognize that, as much as she loves your children, these are children you had with another woman. I really think he needs to focus and hear her. That's all she wants you to do is—hear her. Hear her heart, hear her empty womb, and stop trying to make your children be enough for her. Let her grieve that empty womb.
Ron: Join her in the grieving process.
Laura: That's right. You don't understand that grieving process because you didn't have an emptiness in that area; you were able to become a dad.
Laura: Remember how exciting that was for you to become a dad or to find out you were going to be a dad for the first time. Focus on that and recognize she has lost that—it is a grief for her. He’s got to join her in that grief or, at least, have compassion for it; because if not, she's going to feel isolated from him.
Bob: Let me step in here for just a second. We’re listening to an extended portion of one of Ron Deal’s podcasts, the FamilyLife Blended podcast conversation he’s having with author and speaker, Laura Petherbridge, who co-wrote The Smart Stepmom with him.
I think Laura is exactly right. Guys don’t fully understand the loss that a woman can feel if she has not been able to be a mom. I don’t know what it is. For a guy not to be a dad, there can be loss there—I’m not trying to minimize that—but I think there is something profoundly deeper for a woman, who says, “I’m not a mom. I’ve never had kids of my own,”—there’s a grief there.
Ann: I think for a man to be saying: “But you have my kids; they’re are my kids,”—I don’t think that sometimes a man can understand that that is true, and it can be beautiful; but there is a lamenting, and a loss, and a grieving process that takes place in a woman’s heart that can really be hard. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know what men—if they can compartmentalize that—but for us, as women, I think it’s really, really important for a man to grieve with us.
Bob: The verse that comes to mind, for me, as I’m listening to Ron and Laura have this conversation, is 1 Peter 3, where Peter says to husbands, “Live with your wives in an understanding way.” Dave, for us to do that as guys, we have to understand that how you feel about something should not be minimized or dismissed. You shouldn’t say, “That’s not that big a deal.” No; you need to step in and say, “I know this is hard for you.”
Dave: Yes. It’s the “walk a mile in their shoes” type idea. It’s interesting—I just preached this year, on Mother’s Day, on Hannah. I said in that sermon—I’m looking at my notes—I said, “Moms carry a burden that we cannot see.” I can’t tell you the number of moms that came up and said, “Thank you for speaking, out loud, the weight I carry, as a mom,”—some wanting to be a mom and can’t; and yet, it is an unbelievable burden. That’s what we’re addressing today. It’s something we have to speak out and understand.
Bob: I want our listeners to hear another excerpt from the podcast. Again, this is the FamilyLife Blended podcast, Episode 16, Ron Deal talking with Laura Petherbridge. Laura’s story, is an interesting story. She had a very difficult childhood and, as a result, she was child-free—not childless—but child-free. She said that is a different approach/a different way of thinking and needs to be understood differently.
Ron: Let's talk a little bit about the child-free stepmom. Some just haven't maybe had a chance to have a child—maybe she's young, just hasn't been married and hasn't had an opportunity to have a child yet. But there are others, who are choosing not to have a child—they’ve made a choice to do that. That's been your story; correct?
Laura: Yes, that's correct. I grew up—I had a very painful childhood. That's not uncommon for women, that have had a painful childhood, that they sometimes they either go in one direction or the other; they either don't want any children or they want lots of children.
So for me, I was pretty young when I decided, “I don't want to bring a child into the world,”—not because I didn't think I would be a good mother—but because, to me, the world was painful; so I didn't want to do that to somebody I love. Now, again, I was young; I was in a lot of pain. God hadn’t healed a lot of things in my heart yet.
But then, when I married Steve and he had two sons, I knew what it was to be in a stepfamily because my dad had remarried twice after the divorce with my mom. Then the reason I didn't want to have a child was coupled with I don't want to bring a baby into the stepfamily dynamic. It's not because I don't love my husband; it's not because I don't think I would be a good mom. I don't want a child to have to experience siblings/half siblings that come and go.
I knew what it was to have my dad add an “ours” baby in his second marriage. You automatically feel like: “Oh, he’s got a new baby. He probably doesn't love me as much now. How am I going to compete?”
Ron: Yes, jealousy.
Ron: Yes, being pushed out.
Couple of quotes that you shared on your blog from child-free stepmoms: “I'm childless by choice, and I wonder what my future will look like when I get older and frail. I have no kids of my own to take care of me, and I'm doubtful his kids will help.” I think that's a very real concern for stepmom/stepparents of all kinds, but stepmoms in particular. Yes, you're childless by choice and, yet, there is some implication for what happens in your future.
Laura: Absolutely; and the older you get, the more that phrase rings true. I'm 63; my husband is 72. The chance of him dying before me is statistically greater, so it does cross my mind. I do think of those things that any woman would think of: “Who is going to take care of me when my husband dies?” or “What will my life be like?”
It's a very real aspect of a childless woman’s life. Most statistics will show—I've read several financial articles—about kids, who feel obligated to take care of their parents; most stepkids do not feel obligated. They don't feel it's their responsibility.
Ron: —at least, not to the same degree as to their biological parent; it’s true.
Laura: You know what? I’ve had two stepmoms; I totally see where that way of thinking would be accurate. “I've got my own mother to take care of; I'm not going to be taking care of two mothers or three mothers”; you know?
Ron: Yes; yes.
Laura: So I get that. If I let it, that would paralyze me with fear; but I have chosen not to. I have to pray about that when that little bit of fear pops back up. God has been so faithful to me throughout my life that I have that history to look back on and trust Him with it.
I don't expect my stepkids; if they do it, great; but I don't have that expectation that they will step up. Now, I'm fairly close with my two grandkids. Both of Steve’s sons each have a child. I am close with his kids—I am “Nona” to them; I am not “Step-Nona”—so it's possible/it is possible that the grandkids will be my extended family when I get older. But again, that’s in God's hands; I can't control that.
Bob: Boy, that’s interesting. We’ve been listening to a segment/a second segment from a conversation Ron Deal had with author and speaker, Laura Petherbridge, as a part of the FamilyLife Blended podcast. By the way, there’s a link on our website at FamilyLIfeToday.com if you want to listen to the entire podcast episode. Laura talks about how a stepmom, who is a childless stepmom, can often feel like a maid or a chauffeur and not a real part of the family.
But you stop and think about extended family, and about death, and about “What is the relationship between stepkids and their stepparents, once the bio-mom or dad is gone?” It’s not just a question of: “What’s the right thing to do in that situation?” but there’s the emotional sense of: “Am I a loved person if my stepkids aren’t entering into and engaging in this?”
Dave, I’m looking at you; because—
Dave: Bob, I’m listening to Laura; and I’m that stepson. Yes, I feel different about my bio-mom and my stepmom. It shouldn’t be that way; it’s different; it just is—and that’s what she is addressing.
I love her [Laura’s] perspective: “I’m not going trust in my kids to be my source of peace, really; I’m going to trust God.” That’s true for all of us. It’s not just a stepmom or not—it’s all of us have to, at the end of the day, say, “My life, my happiness, my peace is not going to come from children, or from parents, or from a spouse; it ultimately comes from God.” She’s wise in that.
Bob: We can’t allow our identity—whether it’s as a stepmom or a stepdad—our worth as a human being to be wrapped up in how somebody else decides to relate to us at any point in life. We have to have our identity anchored and rooted in who we are, as a child of God, and in the extended family that all of us are a part of and that’s the family of God.
If your stepkids, now that their bio-mom or dad is gone, if they don’t have as much interaction with you—
Ann: —it doesn’t mean you aren’t dearly loved.
Bob: —and it doesn’t mean that you are without a family. Because, in the family of God, you’ve got brothers and sisters and others who can pour into you.
I hope our listeners will listen to the entire podcast that features Ron and Laura. One of the things they talk about, in the extended version of the podcast, is what a stepmom can do when the biological mom is poisoning the kids against the new stepmom. You can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to find out more about the FamilyLife Blended podcast. Subscribe to the podcast or listen to this particular episode. Again, all the details are available at FamilyIfeToday.com.
We also have copies of the book that Ron and Laura wrote together, called The Smart Stepmom. You can order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is our number.
Ron Deal has also just released a new book on stepfamily financial planning. There are a lot of financial issues that factor into forming a stepfamily. Ron, along with co-authors, Greg Pettys and David Edwards have addressed these issues in The Smart Stepfamily Guide to Financial Planning. We have that book on our FamilyLife Today Resource Center as well.
Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for information on all the resources we have available. Or call if you’d like to order books: 1-800- FL-TODAY is our number—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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