Blended Family Blunders
About the Guest
What's the biggest mistake couples make when trying to blend a family? That's the question we posed to our guests, stepmoms Laura Petherbridge, Heather Hetchler and Gayla Grace, and they weren't shy about answering. Hear their perspective on this question and more.
Gayla GraceGayla Grace serves on staff with FamilyLife Blended, a division of FamilyLife, and is passionate about equipping blended families as a writer and a speaker. She is author of Stepparenting with Grace: A Devotional for Blended Families and co-author of Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. Gayla holds a master’s degree in Psychology and Counseling. She and her husband, Randy, have been married since 1995 in a “his, hers, and ours” family. She is the mom to three and stepmom t...more
Heather HetchlerHeather Hetchler, M.A. is an author, speaker, and positive thinker! She is the mom of four and the full-time stepmom of two living in the trenches with all six at home. She is a life coach for stepmothers and co-founder of the ministry Sisterhood of Stepmoms. Heather has a passion to help stepmoms define their own positive path to success and focus on a peace filled heart rather than a perfect home. Heather brings faith based resources, encouragement and support to stepmoms while also speakin...more
Laura PetherbridgeLaura Petherbridge serves couples and single adults with topics on women’s issues, relationships, stepfamilies, co-parenting, single parenting, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is an international speaker and author of four books including, When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t”—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, and The Smart Stepmom, co-authored with stepfamily expert Ron Deal and endorsed by Gary Chapman (Five Love Languages...more
What’s the biggest mistake couples make when trying to blend a family? Stepmoms Laura Petherbridge, Heather Hetchler and Gayla Grace, share their perspective on this question and more.
Blended Family Blunders
Bob: If you are a stepmom, what ought to be your top priority for your family? Heather Hetchler is a stepmom, and she says the answer to that is simple.
Heather: What stepmoms need to remember is the reason you are a stepmom is because you are married to the man you love. Your first priority is that marriage first, and it’s not at the detriment of the children—it’s for their benefit. You want to create a strong godly marriage these kids can look up to. This needs to be the last marriage you’re in. This needs to be a strong foundation. So, we need to work as a team—and when we’re butting heads, it’s just not happening.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, September 16th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Saying that your marriage ought to be the priority in a stepfamily may sound simple, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. We’re going to talk with some stepmoms about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know I’ve had the experience to talk to couples, who are thinking about getting married. There are some things that they haven’t talked about that they are going to be facing in their marriage—in fact, a lot of things they haven’t talked about—but—
Dennis: You think?
Bob: —they are always assuming that the things they haven’t talked about—they will agree on those things. There is just—it’s like, in the back of their minds, they just figure, “We haven’t talked about that yet, but I’m sure”—
Bob: —“I’m sure he would think this / she would think that.” Well, you take that kind of presupposition, and you bring into a stepfamily / a blended family—I think it’s even intensified in that because, not only are we sure you’re going to think like us, but we have some years of marriage to back up our thinking; right?
Dennis: And it’s a setup. It’s a setup to miss each other and to start out your marriage on a couple of islands that are drifting apart.
And we’ve got three ladies, who are all stepmoms, who are joining us, here in the studio. We have Heather, Gayla, and Laura joining us. Ladies, welcome to the broadcast.
Ladies: Thank you.
Dennis: Heather Hetchler is a writer, a speaker, a stepmom coach, and she is the founder of—I want to make sure I get this right—CafeSmom.com.
Heather: CafeSmom—that’s right.
Dennis: CafeSmom—I want to make sure the “S” is in there so they get it.
Dennis: And she has coauthored a book called Unwrapping the Gift of Stepfamily Peace, along with Gayla Grace, who also joins us. Welcome to the broadcast.
Gayla: Thank you.
Dennis: And Laura Petherbridge joins us, who has been on our broadcast before. She is the author of a new book called 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom.
Okay, the first question, out of the shoot, ladies, is: “What is the biggest mistake couples make—not couples— moms / stepmoms make as they enter this blended family about their husbands and the father of these children?—
—the biggest mistake.”
Heather: I think it’s that you are going to have equal authority in the home because, as the stepmom, I had the responsibility of the mother in the house, but the reality is I do not have full authority of those children. So, if my husband and I disagree on how to discipline or how to handle a situation, I have to defer to him if we are not in agreement. That was very difficult in the beginning.
I remember, when we were dating, we talked about what we wanted for our kids. We both wanted to raise honest, compassionate, God-fearing children.
Dennis: Back to what Bob was talking about—before—you thought you were in agreement; right?
Heather: But we never talked about how we thought we could get there. [Laughter] So, my way of raising an honest, compassionate, God-fearing child was very different than how my husband wanted to raise an honest, God-fearing, compassionate child.
And we found, very early on, that even though we did have house rules and house consequences for basic things—
—when something you don’t expect came up, we were often at odds. I kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing for him to see my view because I think I was looking at the girls more through the eyes of responsibility; and he was looking at his daughters through the eyes of love. He had a lot more grace and compassion for them.
I came to the point where I realized I was hurting my marriage. I was hurting my marriage by pushing him to do the things I thought he should do to parent the way I thought he should parent.
Bob: Laura, I want to ask you about what Heather just said because, when you started off in marriage, you didn’t bring kids into the marriage. So, she is saying you’ve got no authority over anybody in your situation; right? [Laughter] You’ve got responsibility—
Laura: That’s right.
Bob: —but these aren’t your kids. How did that work out for you, practically?
Laura: Well, it’s so interesting that you’re—because I was just thinking the same thing. And the point that is so clear in that—because it didn’t happen with me—is that they are his children. They are not my children.
So often, we, women, become so nurturing and so mom-like over these children that are not ours that we become offended when we think we shouldn’t have that role of authority—especially if the biological mother is still in the picture.
I had to get to the place of where I realized: “If this is not important to my husband and it is not important to their biological mother, why am I trying to make this a hill to die on? These are their children. I need to take several steps back.” It became a point of “Do I want to have peace?” or “Do I want to be right?” It was a hard thing to learn.
And one of the things, as Heather commented, that it brought to my mind was that so many stepmoms contact me and say: “When my husband won’t stand beside me in these issues of discipline and with his children, it makes me feel unloved. I feel like he doesn’t love me.
“I feel like he doesn’t respect me. I’m nothing more than a maid to his children because he will not respect or hear my opinion about how to raise these children.” So, they’re—so, it’s so multifaceted and complicated.
Dennis: It’s a challenge.
Dennis: Gayla, you’re a mom and a stepmom to five—currently, ages 13 to 29—go figure. I mean—that is a spread. What about you? How have you balanced this out with your husband?
Gayla: Well, I’d say we tried to talk about: “Exactly what responsibilities did each of us have?” and—because both of us are a stepparent and a biological parent. It helped us have a little more compassion for some of the hard times that a stepparent goes through. We just tried hard to have open communication about our feelings / about what was happening in the home.
But another dynamic that I think doesn’t even involve the kids—
—that I often see in marriages is “Have the ghosts of marriage-past been dealt with?”—the issues from that first marriage. Maybe there was an affair / maybe there was a huge addiction problem—but you are bringing some baggage into this second marriage. If those issues have not been dealt with, then, they’re stuck right in the middle. In addition to the kid issues, you’ve got the marriage issues now also.
I think there just needs to be recognition, with your spouse, of what kind of baggage is coming into play here that is also affecting our marriage.
Bob: Was there a ghost of marriage-past in your—
Bob: —blending? What was it?
Gayla: Yes. Well, for me, it was addiction. My first husband struggled mightily with addiction.
Bob: So, how did that influence your relationship with your clean and sober new husband?
Gayla: When I would see him go to the medicine cabinet to take Advil®, I began questioning: “What are you taking? What do you need that for?” There was no reason for me to question that; but from his viewpoint, then, he felt that I was micro-managing him.
Dennis: Or didn’t trust him.
Gayla: Exactly; exactly!
Dennis: And the reality was you had been hurt deeply—
Dennis: —by someone you tried to trust, repeatedly—
Dennis: —and now, you’re back in an intimate relationship where trust is absolutely ground zero. You’ve got to have it from the very beginning.
Bob: Well, and you’re just flinching. I mean, this is just kind of a natural flinch for you because it’s bringing back, like you said, memories. It’s not about your husband. It’s just you remember what the medicine cabinet stood for last time in the marriage.
Laura, was there a ghost of marriage-past for you?
Laura: There was. There was a trust issue. There was adultery in my first marriage; but you know, I have to say, even more than that, was that, as I’ve matured in the Lord, I learned that my daddy-wound from my childhood actually was affecting my marriage, and my ability to love my stepchildren, and to truly love my husband—almost more. Yes, my first marriage—yes—but I had—the Lord forced me to go even deeper than that.
And because I was so deeply wounded, as a child, myself—when I would get that hurt feeling towards Steve’s kids, or think, “You’re not making them behave,” and “Why aren’t you being a dad?”—all of a sudden, I would see Steve’s children through God’s eyes and through the eyes of a child because I knew what it felt like to be from a divorced home. That gave me such tremendous compassion for his two sons.
That’s how God taught me how to love those two boys, regardless if they were ever going to love me back or not. I learned to love them, even if they were never going to love me, because I was loving them for Christ—not to get something in return.
Dennis: And what I want to make sure our listeners understand about you is you’ve been in a blended family—how long?
Laura: Twenty-eight years.
Dennis: That’s the wisdom of 28 years. That didn’t come easily; did it?
Laura: It did not. And it was a choice.
It was a point where I had to say: “I have stood before God and made a vow to this man.” When I made a vow to him, I made a vow to love his kids. On my own strength, I have no ability to do that because my gut feeling is I want to run. I want to run from this as fast as I can because: “It’s so much more complicated than I thought it was going to be. I don’t deserve this, and I don’t need this.”
But I remembered my vow; and I thought: “I will not bail out of this, and God will teach me. The Holy Spirit lives within me, and He will teach me how to love these porcupine kids.” [Laughter] And He did!
Heather: Well, in my first marriage, I was lied to and manipulated. I had vowed that I would never be in another relationship where that happened. When I met my husband, he was the most /and is the most godly man I’ve ever met. However, his daughter started to lie and manipulate me.
Even though I had forgiven my ex-husband, I realized that she was bringing up all those memories.
So, while it wasn’t my husband and I—it was my stepchild. She was bringing back a lot of pain that I had felt with my first husband. God really stretched me to be able to work through that and to cover her with the love that God calls me to love her with, but I think a lot of moms struggle with that too—when a child brings it up—because you are the adult—you should be older, and bigger, and stronger than those feelings—but sometimes, when you have been wounded and hurt over and over again—whether it’s your spouse or your stepchild that brings that hurt up—it can be very painful to deal with.
Laura: Yes. And I deal with a lot of stepmoms, who contact me, who say: “Parenting this stepchild is stirring up my own childhood pain. It stirs up my own child,”—because it pricks you. It hurts you. It rejects you. It stabs you. It brings up all these emotions.
It reminds you of many things that happened, long ago, that you’d thought you’d gotten over. And so, it can often—and many stepmoms stir up—yes, maybe a former marriage, but even more so, childhood pain.
Dennis: I’m thinking of Matthew, Chapter 7, and Jesus comparing two houses—one built on sand / one built on a rock. And certainly, a blended family starts out—it doesn’t even start out on a sunny day.
Dennis: It starts out with a weather forecast of immediate storms. Comment, if you would, just about the importance of a stepmom having a relationship with Christ and, as Jesus said, digging down deep so that they respond rightly as God would have them respond; Gayla?
Gayla: I would say one of the verses that I relied on was Galatians 6:9: “Do not grow weary of doing good for at the proper time you will reap a harvest.”
I think that became something that was engrained in me because I have reaped a harvest now. I’ve been a stepmom for 18 years. Our relationships are in such a different place than they were even 10 years ago.
Yet, there were times I also wanted to quit. I’m so thankful today, though, that we have these relationships. It is all a matter of just persevering through some of those hard times, and digging into Scripture, and relying on a walk with the Lord to get you through the times when you want to quit.
Dennis: Did any of you take a drive and have a conversation with God at a very difficult moment?
Gayla: My husband spent a night in a hotel room within the first, probably, couple of months—and called me from the hotel and said, “I’m not coming home tonight, Gayla; and I’m not sure I’m coming home again.”
It was—that was when we began to recognize these problems were bigger than we realized. We had to figure out how to make it work. Of course, we had already been—both of us had been through divorce, and we didn’t want another divorce.
Bob: So, where did you turn for help? You’d read Ron Deal’s book, The Smart Stepfamily, at that point; right?
Gayla: Well, and we went to a stepfamily class at a local church. This is why I have such a heart for stepfamily ministry in the church because I believe that class saved our marriage. We became acquainted with other stepfamilies, and began to share stories, and went through literature that helped us get tools for how to work in a stepfamily.
Dennis: Isolation is really dangerous—
Dennis: —for a stepfamily.
Laura: It is. And in particular, the stepmom—which is why we’ve formed these stepmom retreats that the three of us do together, along with two other ladies.
Bob: Yes, tell our listeners about this because this just happened in the last year that you’ve started getting together with other stepmoms.
Laura: Yes, we’ve formed a ministry called Sisterhood of Stepmoms. You can find it at SisterhoodofStepmoms.com. We do two retreats a year in different cities. It is a Friday night through Sunday morning. Stepmoms, from all over the place, come to these retreats; and we just love on them.
But mostly, what we do is—we help them to connect with other stepmoms so that isolation—Dennis, that you mentioned—so that there is some connection there. So, they’re feeling: “I’m not alone. I’m not going crazy. All that I’m thinking and experiencing is normal.”
We have a clip where we have the men share how they are thinking and feeling. So, they hear from the husbands via video. That way, they know: “You know what? This is just what stepfamily life is. These are the coping tools I have now to take back home.” We have so many husbands that contact us and go, “I don’t know what you told my wife at that retreat, but she can go every year.” [Laughter]
Bob: Did you ever have a dark night like Dennis described, early in your marriage, where you thought, “I don’t know that this is going to work”?
Laura: I had more than a dark night. There were—in that first year—now, I have to preface that by saying, “I got remarried too quickly.” My first husband had had an affair, and our marriage was over. He did not want to try to work on that, and I remarried within a year of my divorce. So, part of this was I was trying to keep my head above water in my grief, while, at the same time, I’m coping with all of these stepfamily issues. So, part of it was that I had just not properly grieved the death of my first marriage. That is crucial to mention.
But yes, I—within the first year, I really thought: “I love this man, and I know he loves me; but this is not what I bargained for. I am only 30 years old. I am not going to live the rest of my life in this chaos.”
Bob: So, why didn’t it spin out for you? How did you guys hold it together?
Laura: I really had to be the one to take the bull by the horns because the majority of the issues, really, were my own. I, individually, went and started getting some counseling and getting some help. That’s when I started dealing with some of my childhood issues because, again, I was dealing with one more trauma—one more pain—in my life. Those root things really had to be dealt with before we could even deal with the marital issues.
The better I got, emotionally, and more emotionally stable I became, the more I was able to come back to my husband and, then, talk to him in a rational manner rather than a crazy manner about the things he and I needed to work on. Fortunately, my husband was very teachable. He loved me very much, and he did not want the marriage to end. That was the important factor.
Bob: Heather, did you ever think, “I don’t know that this second marriage is going to make it”?
Heather: Absolutely, I can still recall—I remember I used to go upstairs in the bathroom.
That’s where I do a lot of praying and crying out. I remember one night—I was just on my hands and knees. I was crying to the Lord: “God, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this. It hurts too much. I’m trying, and trying, and trying. I’m trying to help these girls get through their pain. I can’t do this anymore.” I felt like God whispered to me: “You can’t Heather, but I can. I can do this for you.”
I just felt like I was putting that—He was like: “I’m calling you to trust Me. I’m calling you to trust Me in this situation.” I just lay there. I was like: “You know what, Heather? You’ve been trying to do this on your own.” Even though I was going to church, and I was praying regularly, and we were having a godly marriage, I was not giving it to God.
Dennis: You’ve got to dig down deep into who Jesus Christ is—make Him your master, find out what He taught, and ask Him to work that out in your own soul in the power of the Holy Spirit, whom you have.
Bob: And I just have to know—what happened differently from then on. I mean, how did you rely on the strength of Christ rather than on your own strength?
Laura: And share that sentence that you said the Holy Spirit shared with you—that you didn’t create the wound—
Heather: Well, I was trying to basically over-love my stepdaughters. They were just in a lot of pain of not having their mom. I felt like God saying: “Heather, you didn’t put that hole in their heart. You can’t fill it. Only I can.” God is a God of redemption and restoration. I remember thinking, too, that: “Even though my marriage felt so unlike the day we said, ‘I do,’ I knew that God could restore anything.”
My husband did not want to see me in pain. That’s what’s difficult for a husband—is when he sees his wife, whom he loves, and his child, whom he loves, against each other / causing conflict in the house—that is so difficult for a man.
And I remember going to my husband—because, even at this darkest time, I was still praying every day. We were praying before bed. I mean, I was doing everything I should do. And when I went to him and we talked—and I remember the next day—he handed me a blue Sharpie® / and he had a black one.
He goes: “Heather, we have to be intentional. Every morning, we have to wake up and say: ‘I do. I give this over to Christ.’” So, we have a wall covered in “I do’s,”—mine are blue, and his are black. [Laughter] We have to be intentional.
And there are times, where I find myself wanting to lose it again. There are times when I do lose it. I have to go in the bathroom and say: “God, where are you? You need to fill me because, right now, I am filling myself with my own thoughts, with my own anger, with my own—and I need You to fill me.” If I am still, and I am quiet, and I allow God to fill me, He will. It just makes a huge difference.
Just kind of a funny story—I remember, one time—you know, we’ve got eight people; right? So, someone had to use our bathroom. They are like, “Mom, there is Sharpie on your wall,” [Laughter] you know, because—
Dennis: “Mom and Dad are writing on the wall.” [Laughter] “This thing is falling off the cliff!”
Heather: And I told—she said: “What is this, ‘I do’? Don’t you remember your vows? Are you guys in trouble?” [Laughter]
“Someday, you guys will get it, but we have to be intentional about loving each other and being Christ-like.” That’s just the truth of it.
Dennis: The psalmist said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.”
Dennis: This thing called marriage, whether it’s blended or more traditional marriage, can’t be done in the power of the flesh—and certainly, a blended family—I mean, the challenges are multiplied in that relationship.
Bob: Well, and we’ve said, over and over again, how important it is to have allies—to have people who you can share all of this with—folks you know / maybe folks who have been through some of what you are going through—who can help provide wisdom and counsel. And then, resources like the book, Laura, that you have written—101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom. It’s a book we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Listeners can go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.”
You can order a copy of Laura’s book, 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom.
You’ll also find information about the upcoming Blended and Blessed™ summit. This is an event we’re hosting in Washington, DC, Thursday night, October 2nd / all day on Friday, October 3rd. This is for people who are—either currently involved in doing ministry to stepfamilies or if you or your church are interested in developing an effective stepfamily ministry—this would be a great event for you to attend. Find out more when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.” The information about the Blended and Blessed summit is available there.
Ron Deal will be leading that. I’ll be there. Dennis, you’re going to be there—a number of other speakers, who are going to be in attendance that day. We hope a lot of folks will come out and join us. It’s the day before the I Still Do™ event in Washington, DC, at the Verizon Center. So, great opportunity for folks to come in and stay with us through the weekend—and come to I Still Do as well.
You know, we talk about the unique challenges that are facing stepfamilies. Our goal here, at FamilyLife, is to see every home be a godly home. We appreciate those of you who share that vision with us. When you make a donation, right now, we’d like to say, “Thank you,” by sending you a calendar for the year 2015. It actually starts in October. So, you can go ahead and get it now and put it up in the kitchen or wherever else you like to hang a calendar. The calendar focuses on the fruit of the Spirit. Our goal is for you to have a Spirit-filled year as we keep pointing you back to how you can live with love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and all that is wrapped up in the fruit of the Spirit through this calendar.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, where it says, “I Care”; and you make an online donation. We’ll send the calendar to you. Or request the calendar when you call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation over the phone.
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Now, when we come back tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation with our panel of stepmoms who are joining us this week. 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 next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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