Wise Advice for Stepmoms
About the Guest
Being a stepmom is hard. Why not learn from those who have gone before you? Stepmoms Laura Petherbridge, Gayle Grace and Heather Hetchler offer their very best advice for becoming the best stepmom you can be.
Being a stepmom is hard. Stepmoms Laura Petherbridge, Gayle Grace and Heather Hetchler offer their very best advice for becoming the best stepmom you can be.
Bob: Conflict is normal in marriage. It’s no fun, but it is normal. Gayla Grace says, “If you’re in a blended marriage / if you’re in a stepfamily, you can expect that relationships are going to be strained, from time to time.”
Gayla: Recognize that disharmony is part of step-family life. I know that may be hard to hear; but particularly, in the early years, it’s more than likely a part of step-family life. Be okay with days where you don’t get along in relationships—be okay with that—but know that, just because that’s where you are today, it doesn’t mean that’s where you’re going to be five years from now or ten years from now.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, September 17th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. There are some strategies that stepmoms and stepdads can employ to have a stronger, healthier step-family.
We’re going to talk with three stepmoms about those strategies today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You got your travel all lined up for Washington, DC?
Dennis: I’m ready to go to I Still Do™ and so is Barbara. We’re expecting several thousand couples there at the Verizon Center. We’re going to celebrate marriage.
Bob: This is our third I Still Do event.
Dennis: It is.
Bob: We had the one in Chicago and then Portland. Now, October 4th, we’re going to be at the Verizon Center for I Still Do. But you’re going up early; right?
Dennis: I am. We’re going to be at the summit for blended families.
Bob: And I think all of our guests are going to be coming up early as well. We have Laura Petherbridge, and Gayla Grace, and Heather Hetchler in the studio with us today. Ladies, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Laura: Thank you.
Gayla: Thank you.
Bob: Are you all coming to the summit for blended families? You have to say, “Yes!”
Laura: Ron would disown us if we didn’t! [Laughter]
Bob: Ron Deal, who gives leadership to the FamilyLife blended ministry here is convening this second annual event, where we’re going to be getting together with people from churches, and local communities, and counselors, and just people who have a heart for blended couples—couples in a step-marriage / step-family—the challenges those couples face. Sometimes, those challenges seem like they’re insurmountable.
But, as you ladies have been sharing with us this week, there is a way to have joy, and peace, and fulfillment—
Dennis: And survive it.
Bob: Yes, and love it—to be in a blended family and really love it.
Dennis: And I just want to ask you—all three of you were at the first summit, back in Dallas; right?
Dennis: Share with our listeners, just quickly, what hit you as you gathered together there with 150 folks at this first-ever gathering of blended family leaders.
Heather: Well, I was taken aback. I was so joyful to see the hunger that everyone had for more resources and for more support. It was just really a blessing to see all of the people there who were bringing it back to their churches—bringing it back because step-families need support. They need the support of the church to help their family and help their marriage.
Dennis: And they need people who are passionate about it—
Dennis: —and they’re not always on the church staff. Sometimes, it’s people, within the church, who step up to give leadership to it. Gayla, what about you?
Gayla: I loved the camaraderie among the step-family leaders and getting to know others who were also doing step-family ministry in their church—and just knowing that I could contact them later if I wanted to—I had a question about how they were doing ministry in their church—it was just a great way to meet with like-minded people.
Laura: After 25 years in Divorce Recovery and step-family ministry, I do believe it was the first time I’ve ever been around a group of people that were so passionate and had this same commonality of goal in building a better step-family foundation so that we could lean on each other—give each other resources / encourage each other—because we often, in the church, feel isolated and alone.
Bob: Well, if folks want more information about what’s coming up in Washington, DC, on Thursday and Friday, October 2nd and 3rd, they can go to FamilyLifeToday.com. There’s a link there that will give them all the information. We hope to have double the number—do you remember me saying that last year?
Bob: I said, “Let’s have double next year!” So we’re hoping we’ll have 300 or more showing up this year.
Dennis: I think we’ll easily surpass that. That’s how bullish I am on this.
Let’s give our listeners a taste of what they’ll receive there. Let’s talk about the impact of the ex--spouse on the blended family.
Bob: Can that be a challenge for a blended family? [Laughter]
Dennis: There are heads nodding, like they’re all on puppet strings in here! What’s the best piece of advice you would give someone as they begin to relate to an ex-- out of their blended family?
Laura: Well, my encouragement would be to say that the ex--wife-in-law is there to stay, even if she’s dead. Let me repeat that.
Bob: Yes, she’s still there, in other words.
Laura: She’s still there. The ex--wife—the former spouse—is there in your marriage, even if she is deceased. Whether it’s a divorce or a death, there are issues with the in-laws or with the other family if she’s deceased. But if she’s divorced, this person is part of your family
So many step-families think, “When my kids turn 18 and they go off to college, we won’t be dealing with the other home.” This person is in your life for the rest of your married life.
Dennis: For better / for worse.
Laura: That’s right. And some ex--spouses are wonderful to deal with—
—some of them are very good parents—they love their kids and want to co-parent well. Other ex--spouses are miserable—they’re toxic. They’ll do anything to try to destroy your marriage to their former spouse.
Bob: So, if you’re talking to somebody—Gayla—who is wondering about: “How do I handle this—especially since my ex--spouse and I don’t see, eye to eye, on parenting issues, or values issues, or what we should be doing with the kids—what do I do?”
Gayla: Well, one thing I would say, for sure, is that the one who has the ex-- needs to be the one to deal with the ex--. If both of you have an ex--, you need to deal with your ex-- and you need to let your husband deal with their ex--. Sometimes- I see some of this mixing going on; and it is just going to create a bigger problem.
The other thing I would say is boundaries are very important in regards to ex--spouses—what you expect in regard to the ex-- in your own home.
For instance, we had problems with allowing the ex-- to come into our home. It felt invasive. So, we had to set some boundaries in place in regards to what was going to be allowed when the ex-- came to pick up the kids.
Bob: How about for you, Heather?—advice that you would give regarding how you navigate this relationship with an ex--spouse.
Heather: I would say that anything that happens in that ex--spouse’s house is probably going to end up in your home. You can’t control what they’re doing, but you can control your response to it. You have to focus on what you can say. I would suggest that you never, ever bad-mouth the ex-- in front of the children. The children need to respect both their mother and their father—you need to encourage that relationship.
I would also say that, you know, oftentimes, as stepmoms, we see—we battle maybe perhaps with our husband on something—and then we see them work very well with their ex--spouse. That can cause a stepmom to get really upset because: “How can you argue with me / how can you fight me on things but you seem to give in to your ex-- all of the time?”
Well, oftentimes, your husband isn’t necessarily viewing it as giving in to her. He’s viewing it as keeping the peace in the home. He knows, if he angers or upsets his ex--spouse, she has the power to really wreak havoc on his marriage and his home.
Bob: So you’re saying there can be jealousy issues that emerge if your spouse and his ex-- are—seem to be getting along, and smiling, and laughing? You can be going: “Wait, wait, wait! What about me?”
Laura: In particular, with the dad and his ex--wife. Men tend to me a little bit more of the “Keep the peace. Let’s not ruffle the feathers,” because they’re terrified that their former spouse is going to start withholding the children from them or there’s going to be more financial issues—she’ll drag him back into court. He already fears that maybe his children don’t know that he loves them or that he wants to spend time with them, so he’s often very terrified that he’s going to lose his children.
So he placates her—the ex--spouse—to keep the peace so that he doesn’t lose his kids. But his wife / the step-mom views this as giving in. She views it as him being spineless with his former spouse: “Maybe you still care about her since you’re not standing up to her. Why do you let her walk all over us?” This is a very common topic!
Dennis: Let’s talk about another extreme—that’s when maybe the ex- is just not that good of a person. Let’s just say they’re poisoning the stream as these kids go back to spend time with them. What have you learned about keeping your mouth shut, with the children blended into your family, about the former ex-? I would think it would be very easy to just begin to whittle away, using your tongue at the ex-—Gayla?
Gayla: Well, you have to recognize that, if you do that, all you’re doing is hurting your kids because that parent is a part of them. You are simply destroying part of their self-esteem. So, you do have to get very intentional that you will not speak badly of the ex- in front of the kids. You will do all you can to work with the ex- in regards to visitation. Whatever comes up, it has to be an intentional choice. It’s not going to just happen automatically.
Bob: But, Gayla, what if your kids are—I’m trying to take this out of your specific situation—let’s say there’s a mom and her kids are going every other weekend to be with their dad. They’re coming home; and they’re going, “Dad is the greatest! He’s…this and he is that!” Mom is there, going: “I know the truth about Dad. I’m concerned that my kids are getting this picture of Dad as the hero. They just don’t know what’s really going on. Someday, they’re going to be really hurt, or disappointed, or disillusioned.”
Does she need to start, you know, getting them ready for reality and saying; “Now, look. There are some things about Dad here that you don’t know”?
Gayla: No; because the reality is that, when those kids reach their teenage years, they will form their own opinions. It will only hurt you and your relationship with them if you try to give them the reality now. As kids grow up and begin to think on their own, they will begin to form their own opinions.
Bob: So you just bite your lip? You just smile?
Laura: Well, I don’t want to give the impression that you don’t address the issue. For example, said kid comes home and says, “While we’re over at dad’s house, we get to watch R-rated movies or really bad stuff,” or, “We eat nothing but ice cream the whole weekend,” or whatever. Let’s use the movies because that’s a very common one.
Bob: Yes because there’s nothing wrong with the ice cream! [Laughter]
Laura: No! Nothing wrong with the ice cream—I misspoke! [Laughter] Let’s say the movies.
You know, let’s say you’re a good parent; and you don’t want your kids seeing these slasher movies, or nudity, or something like that. The kid comes home saying they saw this movie. You address the issue, not the parent. So, you say something like: “You know what, Joshua? I am really sorry that you saw that movie. You understand that in your dad’s home and in our home, we have different rules—we have different guidelines. I’m sorry that that put you in the middle because that probably confused you—that we have two different sets of rules. Unfortunately, that’s a consequence of divorce; and, as your mom, I am really, really sorry that has put you in that position. Do you want to talk about what you saw?”
Dennis: Now, we’re assuming that you’re speaking to your biological child, at that point?
Laura: Yes; because, if that’s the step-child, that needs to be dad saying that to his child.
Bob: What do you do if, you’re playing by the rules and you’re not saying anything negative about your ex-, but your son or daughter is getting an earful, over at your ex-‘s house, about what a “no good” you are. They come home and say: “Dad told me…this, and this, and this. Why did you do that? Why did you do this?” How do you handle that?
Laura: You have to speak truth to the child. If at all possible, you give them proof. For example, a common thing that happens is that a biological mom will tell the children: “Well, if your father wasn’t remarried to that woman and her children, you kids would be able to go to a private school. You’d be able to have…”—whatever. “We’d be able to go on a nice vacation. If your father was paying his child support, instead of paying for this other family, then we would have more money.”
So, the kid comes home and then saying that to dad—he or she says it to the step-mom—
Laura: —which, of course, sends her through the roof because she knows how much money is going out the door. So, what I encourage is—that is for dad / not step-mom!—for dad to sit down with his kids and say: “You know, I know your mom has been telling you that I don’t pay child support I want you to know that’s not the truth.
“I do pay child support and I’ve got my checkbook right here. I’ve got my bank statement right here,”—again, this has to be in an age-appropriate manner—“I want to be able to show you where I am paying your mom the money that the court has said that I have to pay. I’m sorry that you’re hearing conflicting information between the two homes. That must be very confusing for you; but I want you to know that I do love you, and I do pay the amount I’m supposed to be paying. I don’t want money or an adult issue, such as money, to be something that you’re concerning yourself with because that’s not something that you need to worry about.”
Dennis: You know, we’re talking about ex-‘s. That, obviously, is around divorce. A lot of blended families happen where one of the spouses dies, and there is no living ex-; but, as you’ve talked about here, there can be a “ghost” that occurs. Sabrina has been listening.
Bob: Our one studio-audience member, who is still out in the studio audience.
Dennis: Yes; Sabrina. I’m just wondering, “Do you have a question for our panel of experts here?”
Bob: We should tell our listeners—Sabrina has been in a step-family. She married a man who—his wife died. He brought two kids into the marriage—a 24-year-old and a 14-year-old. Sabrina’s got two young kids. What questions do you have for the ladies here?
Sabrina: Well, I think my biggest question, since I do have a 24-year-old, a 14-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a 3-year-old now, really is the blending situation. I know that, at least, one of you has a wide variety of ages in your home. As moms, we want peace, and we want the nurturing, and we want the congealing in our families.
I guess the question I have is: “How do we go about creating an atmosphere?” I know we can’t force them all to get along and love each other; but what can I do, as a mom / as a step-mom, to create an atmosphere to get them to get along together / to enjoy one another—to have that relationship amongst themselves?
Bob: Who wants to tackle that?
Laura: I would have to say that not forcing the kids to view each other as siblings is very important. I meet many step-families who try to force the kids to view each other as brothers and sisters—and say, “That’s not your step-brother,” / “That’s not your step-sister.” They don’t like that phrase—so they force that on the children. I would highly advise that they not force the children to view each other as siblings. Let them come to that on their own.
Bob: Why is that?
Laura: Because it makes the child resentful: “This is not my sibling—this is not my brother or sister. You’re not going to make me view them as my brother or sister.”
Laura: And sometimes they, eventually, do view them as a sibling—sometimes, they don’t!
Dennis: Gayla? You had quite a spread of step-children here.
Bob: What was your age spread?
Gayla: Well, we have them now from 13 to 29. Now the youngest—the 13-year-old—is the one my husband and I had together. So, the others—two are mine and two are his. I would say, for one, recognize that disharmony is part of step-family life. I know that may be hard to hear; but, particularly in the early years, it’s more than likely a part of step-family life.
Dennis: I hear you saying, “Settle for lower expectations.”
Gayla: Yes! That is exactly right. Be okay with days where relationships—there seems to be—you don’t get along in relationships. Be okay with that—but know that, just because that’s where you are today, doesn’t mean that’s where you’re going to be five years from now or ten years from now.
My thing is—I just really want to offer hope to those who are sitting in situations where it just seems like there’s a lot of tension. If you just keep working at those relationships—eventually, some of that tension is how your family begins to identify—we can look back and laugh at vacations that were just disastrous in our early years. Now—our kids—we come together and we laugh about those things because our kids are grown.
Bob: You weren’t laughing at the time; were you? [Laughter]
Gayla: No! We were crying! I can tell you! [Laughter]
Dennis: Sabrina, do you have another question?
Sabrina: You all have a lot of experience now, as stepmoms. What can you tell me, as a new stepmom? What is it that my stepchildren want me to know that I don’t know yet?
Laura: I think one of the most common things that stepchildren wish their stepmothers knew is that “If I love you, it means I’m dishonoring my mother,”—whether she is deceased or she is still alive but in another home.
It’s possible that they like you / that they want to like you—that they may even want to love you—they may even want to embrace you as a mother-figure in their life—but “To do that means being disloyal to my mother or to my mother’s image / my mother’s memory.”
So, one of the key things they would like their stepmom to know is it’s not really about you—“It’s about being loyal to my mother.”
Dennis: I’m sitting here, listening to you ladies, and just reflecting on what you’ve said here this week. I’m thinking of the need for stepfamilies to major in 1 Corinthians 13, verses 4-7. It’s the love chapter, and it’s not about Hollywood’s love. It’s about what real love is all about. Barbara has created a resource—that, all of a sudden, occurs to me—would be great for a blended family to go through, as a family.
It’s a garland that holds—I think it is 14 hearts.
Dennis: It’s each of the words that are defined in 1 Corinthians 13, where it says: “Love is patient and kind, does not envy or boast, is not arrogant or rude. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” It has all of those on there, and it has stories inside the heart that you can read to your children and discuss.
I think, even in this imperfect situation, where two families are, at points, not blending but colliding, we can teach them how to love. In fact, I think that’s the lesson here. I think we’ve got to love with a love that’s not of this world. It’s the love of God that does forgive and does have grace and mercy.
Laura, I want to thank you for your work. You’ve been so faithful—a great writer. You write for MomLifeToday.com. I just appreciate you. Gayla and Heather—thank you for your work. We’re going to see all three of you “guys” [Laughter]—all three of you guys at the summit for blended families. We just appreciate you being on the broadcast this week.
Laura: Thank you.
Gayla: Thanks for having us.
Bob: I hope some of our listeners will come out and join us as well. It’s the Blended and Blessed™ summit, October 2nd and 3rd. It’s Thursday night, October 2nd and then all day on the 3rd of October. That’s in Washington, DC—actually in Springfield, Virginia—just outside of Washington, DC. It’s the day before we do the I Still Do™one-day event at the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, DC. If listeners would like more information about attending the summit, and learning from people who are involved in ministry to blended or step-families, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.”
You’ll find information about the upcoming Blended and Blessed summit when you do that.
Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link that says, “GO DEEPER.” There’s also information there about Laura Petherbridge’s new book, 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom. You may not be a stepmom yourself, but I bet you know somebody who is. This would be a great gift to give to somebody. In fact, this would be a great gift to give to someone that could open the door for a spiritual conversation that you’ve been wanting to have with a friend. Again, go to FamilyLife.com and look for more information about the Blended and Blessed summit and Laura Petherbridge’s book, 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom. Or, if you have any questions about either the event or the book, call 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329.
One of the things I’m really looking forward to at the I Still Do event in Washington, DC, is the chance to say, “Hi!” to, not only our listeners, but to those of you who listen and support this ministry, either as monthly Legacy Partners or those of you who give occasionally to help support this ministry. We are dependent on listeners, like you, who see the value of what we’re trying to do, here, at FamilyLife Today and who want to partner with us.
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Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, where it says, “I Care.” When you make an online donation, we’ll send you the FamilyLife Spirit-filled Year calendar. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about money. We’re going to talk about finances. We’re going to talk about God as our Provider. Brian Kluth is going to join us. I hope you can tune in for that.
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.
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