In Their Shoes
About the Guest
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Have you wondered what’s going on inside a child of divorce? Ron Deal and Lauren Reitsema address common questions parents and stepparents ask about kids.
In Their Shoes
Bob: The relationship between stepparents and stepchildren is a complex one; it’s tricky to navigate. Lauren Reitsema—became a stepdaughter as a young woman—understands that complexity.
Lauren: So many stepparents that I have sat across the table from—drinking coffee, just trying to help understand—have just felt deflated: “I don't know what else to do! This kid is just incorrigible. They're just not ever going to love me.” My response is always: “It's not about you; it's not about you. This is about the position that you play in the family, not the person that you are. If you can separate the position from the person, I think you're freeing your heart to actually feel less of the pain.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 27th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. Sometimes it can help you, as a stepparent, to hear what it’s like to be a stepdaughter or a stepson. We’ll hear a conversation about that today with Lauren Reitsema. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I have to think some of our listeners are really excited about what’s coming up this week—maybe family getting together; you know, getting everybody back together—some people are probably—
Dave: —going to watch the Detroit Lions. [Laughter] That’s what they’re going to do.
Ann: —and some people are worried.
Bob: Yes, that’s what I’m thinking. They’re dreading it; and maybe they’re dreading it because they’ve got to watch the Detroit Lions. [Laughter]
Dave: Do you know how many years, Bob, I stood on that sideline?
Bob: —every Thanksgiving.
Dave: —every Thanksgiving, and then we’d have our meal after.
Ann: But I think people are excited in some ways for Thanksgiving; but other times, there’s an anticipation and a little fear of: “Ooh, how are we going to get along as a family?”
Bob: Yes, and: “What conversations are off limits as we head into the holidays?” This is the complexity of bringing a family together and knowing how to navigate those things. If your family is a blended family—whatever your level of complexity is in a first family—a blended family is like squared, or tripled, or something. It’s much more significant.
Ron Deal addresses these issues blended families face in a podcast that FamilyLife® is producing called FamilyLife Blended. We have been thrilled by the response of listeners—both listeners in first families and in blended families—who are tuning in to gain an appreciation of the challenges that come with being a part of a blended family.
Ron sat down, recently, to talk with somebody you guys met back at the Blended & Blessed® event last spring—Lauren Reitsema; right?
Dave: Yes; and she was tremendous, and she was there with her mom. They were very honest about the complexity of blending their family, and it’s going to be great to hear from her.
Bob: Lauren’s mom and dad got divorced when Lauren was in high school. Here she is, as a young woman, headed off to college with all of this confusion about: “What does it mean? Where do I fit? Where do I belong?” And then mom gets remarried, and dad gets remarried; and now, “Who’s family am I in?”
She is able to process, as a child of divorce and a child in a blended family, some of the issues that kids face around the holidays, or for that matter, any time. Ron, as he talked with Lauren, had a whole series of questions to probe. We’re going to kind of dive in and listen to some of the questions and answers related to the challenges kids in blended families face.
Ron: What’s the experience of a child, when something happens for the first time in a blended family, but it's not the first time for somebody else in the family?
Lauren: I think there's a jealousy. You feel as if the right to your celebration or the right to your story have been robbed from you—and not by your choice—but just simply because of the timeline in which a stepsibling may have been born or a stepparent may have entered the picture in marriage.
Ron: So for you, it was: you were an adult; you were married, and you’re having your first child. But for your stepdad, it wasn’t his first grandchild. The celebration or the response you got there was different than what you had hoped or what you wanted it to be for your side of the family. This is even, as an adult, who’s married and starting her life—you’re feeling a stolen first.
Lauren: Exactly, and I would say it wasn’t a lack of celebration that was missing. My stepfather was incredibly gracious in celebrating the birth of this child, but it was the number—the number. This was going to be number five. He already had four grandchildren, and I was the first in my family to have a baby.
I thought: “Wait! How are there already four grandchildren in this family?” That was more of the emotional response rather than the lack of celebration. I don’t think it really resonated what was going on until I was in that space and I had to grieve that in that moment.
Ron: I have to just make an observation here. This is another good example of how the definition of family varies from person to person within blended families. That is so deeply profound. I desperately want and need for parents and stepparents to get that: the definitions of who is even in the family vary, even after years and years.
Okay, let's talk a little bit about loyalty conflicts. What makes liking a stepparent so difficult?
Lauren: Ultimately, I would say it’s the position and not the person. That it is so many stepparents that I have sat across the table from—drinking coffee, just trying to help understand—have just felt deflated and: “I don't know what else to do! This kid is just incorrigible. They're just not ever going to love me.” My response is always: “It's not about you; it's not about you. This is about the position that you play in the family, not the person that you are.”
Ron: Okay; hold on; hold on. You’ve got to distinguish those two things: “What do you mean, ‘position’?” and “What do you mean, ‘person’?”
Lauren: The position being—you now occupy a role, as a stepparent, that was not there prior to your arrival. One of the metaphors that I have used in the past to help people understand this idea is: “If you've worked for a company for 25 years, and all of a sudden, there's a big reorganization; and they hire a new VP; and they come in, and all these new positions are created. You hire great people; but then, those that were originally part of the company, really struggle to find synergy with those new positions.”
A lot of times, what we’ll do is—we’ll internalize that and say, “I don't know what to do with my life with this person in it,” and it becomes very personal. If you can separate the position from the person, I think you're freeing your heart to actually feel less of the pain.
Ron: Yes, and so if you invite that position into your heart, does it sometimes then conflict with other positions that are in your heart?—other persons?
Lauren: Yes; because first of all, this is an energy drain. I watched this with my children and with other children that are trying to have their game face on for every adult that they interact with all day long. Sometimes, they feel like, “Oh I didn’t—my coach yelled at me today,” or “My teachers said I didn't do this; and now, you're telling me I didn't make my bed.” There's this constant: “Am I enough?” going on in that kid's life. There's just not a lot of energy to share your authentic self, and all the things that you have, with multiple people.
When you have stepparents, sometimes, they come with stepsiblings—
Lauren: —and step-aunts and -uncles and step-cousins; you know, that duplicity factor—and therefore, kids are at a loss, sometimes, to know how to give enough to everybody. You are just one person; but to them, you’re one of an army of new people. A lot of times, they simply don't know how to navigate that.
Ron: Right; it's a lot of emotional work, mental work, relational work. You don't want to push out the people that are near and dear to you—that you desperately want more of—so it's kind of like: “How do I expand my heart to allow this new position person in?—but not at the cost of any relationship with a person that I really desperately want to hold on.”
There’s so many things. Just as you were talking through those different layers, you know it's like, “Yes, like there's a lot going on under the surface for children, trying to figure that out, which translates, on the outside, into hot and cold responses—
Ron: —“I love you”; “Go away,”—into you might call it selfish responses towards a parent figure: “Hey, I appreciate you dropping me off at soccer practice,” “I appreciate the fact that you gave me some money to buy lunch today,” “I appreciate the fact you're washing my clothes. But don't tell me to clean my room. Don't be parental. Don't tell me how to live my life.” No wonder stepparenting can be so confusing.
I appreciate what you said: “If parents and stepparents can depersonalize that, and see it for what it is: ‘It's a child trying to navigate all of those layers and figure out what to do with them and where to put them.’” They don't have the clear maturity to manage all of that well. You're bound to see some inappropriate responses and reactions—doesn't mean you let him off the hook for that; you still hold him accountable. Of course, it's not going to show itself necessarily and be pretty all the time.
Bob: Well, we’re going to break in here. We’ve been listening to an excerpt from Ron Deal’s conversation with Lauren Reitsema, who’s the author of a book called In Their Shoes: Helping Parents Better Understand and Connect with Children of Divorce. This is a part of Season Two of the FamilyLife Blended podcast that Ron hosts.
Honestly, until I first sat down with Ron and started talking about blended families, I was clueless at all of the subtle issues that are wrapped up in a blended family, and the complexity that’s there, and the emotion that’s there. Of course, you lived some of this, as a child in a blended family.
Dave: Yes, it was somewhat interesting. The first time my mom met my stepmom was at our wedding.
Dave: You talk about complexity.
Ann: —complexity. [Laughter]
Dave: We were sort of like, “Couldn’t you guys have done that some other time?” But my situation was my dad was married to my stepmom in Florida. I lived in Ohio, with my mom; and they never met—
Dave: —for almost a decade. That added—just sort of what Lauren is talking about—it just adds a stress and anxiety. Whether it’s Thanksgiving, or a wedding, or coming together on a weekend, there’s complexities that you just don’t even realize are there; and they’re real.
Bob: —and loyalties; and “How do I act toward you?”; and “If I like you, am I being disloyal to my…”—all of those issues; right?
Bob: Yes; well, and one of the other issues that comes up in a blended family situation is how you think about God’s involvement in a blended family. So was your first family God’s best and, now, this is God’s second best? Or did God bring you all together in the blended family? How do you think about that? How do you characterize that?
Ann: How do you communicate that to the kids? That’s really tricky.
Dave: And I’m glad we have somebody that can answer that question, Bob; because that’s a tough one.
Bob: Ron and Lauren talked about this in the blended family podcast. Let’s listen to them dissect this.
Ron: I'm thinking now about parents, who are asking: “Well, how much do we tell the kid about the divorce? How much of the story do we go into in terms of the details?” I’m wondering about the narrative that, sometimes, people give their children, at some point, about even a simple comment like, “We feel like God has really blessed this blended family—that God orchestrated us coming together.” What are the messages that are embedded in that that can be confusing for a child?
Lauren: I’d like to explore that away from a blended family experience, where you take the sovereignty of God and put it into your reasoning or explanation for what's happening, interpersonally. For example, you lose a child prematurely; and somebody says, “Well, you know, God has a plan for this,”—or you get fired at work after years, and years, and years of loyalty; just because the economy is down—and you say, “There's a rainbow after every storm.”
All of those things that are truths—I mean, God is sovereign in redemption stories and He always gives hope—but it totally minimizes the experience that a child needs to feel in that: “Wait a minute; if this is God's plan for my parents to have a blended family, then that must mean that my whole life ahead of this story was not God's plan. What does that mean for me, theologically?”
Ron: Or it means God orchestrated the divorce and the difficulties that arose; and all of that can be confusing, when a child is like: “But I'd love to have my family back together again. You're saying somehow that's not God's plan for my life?” All of those have implications for how a child is making sense of their life and, also, their relationship with God and who God is.
Lauren: Correct, and I would actually advise people not to bring God's sovereignty or handiwork into the story in that kind of language. I can see the goal; but it actually seems to sometimes undo itself in that I want my kids to know that God's in this, and that God is faithful, and that there's goodness for our family.
But by saying that and labeling your family experience as God's plan, it actually—and maybe this is a place, where I should speak for myself, as to not typecast the population here—but for me, it actually would push me away from God's plan, because I had a very concrete and wonderful understanding of God's goodness in my biological family and my nuclear family. To say that that was not His goodness and not His plan is very, very hurtful to a child and can be quite confusing as they try and put together their theological story.
Ron: This is another moment, where to make room for different points of view would be good. I think—as children grow, and mature, and become adults—and as you talk about: “What does sovereignty mean?” and you discuss with your children: “How do we make sense of hard things in life in light of what God—how He feels about us and who He is in the world?” I mean, those are all deep conversations, with practical implication, for our lives.
To come at it from a black-and-white perspective towards your child is dangerous—I think, is the word for listeners today. But to be open to dialoguing and exploring the different experience within that—and then going to Scripture and trying to understand and make sense, from a biblical standpoint, how we understand God and how He works in the world—those are all really helpful conversations. But to come in, black-and-white and just say, “It’s this way; not that way,” you can step on their toes pretty quick.
Ron: One more parent/stepparent question that I hear from people is: “What do we do with old photos, videos, even stuff on our phones that are connected to the nuclear family?—the biological family?— the pre-divorce family?” What are the considerations there as it relates to children and their experience?
Lauren: There's actually a chapter in the book that really explores this idea about missing the mantelpiece and “What do you do with that big family picture that is hanging over the fire?” It doesn't go in the kids’ houses, obviously; because nobody wants that. It can't hang on the wall of your new blended family, because that's very strange. The only other options, really, sometimes are to hide it, or to sell it, or to destroy it.
Those words—destroy, sell, hide—those carry weight in a child's identity and how, again, that word, “shame,” that we're trying to avoid is sometimes heightened by the lack of physical evidence that you were a healthy family. But even looking at—it's very strange/it's not appropriate for a child to flip through a family album of their biological family in/on the lap of their stepparent without some emotional weight. That's a very—that's a weighty heavy thing. But do you let a kid have pictures on their bulletin board in their room?—absolutely! Don't take those down.
I wish I could be the expert in this, but this is still a topic that carries a lot of emotion and that's kind of difficult to answer. But ultimately, you don't want to attach shame to those older family pictures.
Ron: Yes, yes. No; that's very good. If the message to the child is: “We’re erasing your past,” that's what you want to avoid; because that's still part of their life—that's very much their narrative. Finding ways of being able to, as you say, let them sit on your lap and talk about photos of the family before you showed up is such a gift to a child—that you can make space to let that happen/allow that to happen—to bless that as a part of who they are/as part of their journey. You don't have to erase the past.
Bob: Well, again, that’s Ron Deal talking with Lauren Reitsema about the complexities of a blended family and, particularly, kids growing up in blended families and some of the emotions that they’re processing. Lauren has written about this in her book, which is called In Their Shoes: Helping Parents Better Understand and Connect with Children of Divorce. That’s a book we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center if our listeners are interested in getting a copy of the book.
You know, what comes to mind for me, as I’m listening to them talk, is one of my favorite verses from the Old Testament. It’s where Isaiah tells us that one of the things God does is—He brings beauty from ashes. For us to look at the mistakes of our lives—and all of us have them, whether it’s first family/blended family—whatever it is—the mistakes/the things we wish we had a do-over on; the things we’d do differently if we could—and know that, in the midst of that, God is able to take our biggest messes and turn them into something that can display His glory and make those things beautiful.
I think, as we help our kids understand: ”You know, in life, mom and dad, stepmom, stepdad—we’ve all messed up. You’re going to mess up. You have messed up. But here’s what our God does—He can make beautiful things out of the messes of our lives.”
Ann: I think one of the things that I love about Ron is—he gives us verbiage on being able to talk about those things, because I think it’s really important to talk about it—how God does do that—how He does give us grace/how He does give us hope. I like that he doesn’t just push it all under the rug, because it needs to be talked about.
Dave: And I would add—I’m sitting in the studio today because of what you just said, Bob. God took a broken little boy, from a broken family, and then a blended family, and gave me a heart for marriage and family out of that. I bet you my mom/my single mom never thought this would ever happen out of that family breaking apart—I’d be a part of helping families stay together and helping blended families be able to figure out how to do it God’s way. So yes, He really does bring beauty.
Bob: Well, and our hope, as you head into the Thanksgiving holiday, is that, whatever is ahead for you, that you can navigate it—with grace, and with mercy, and compassion, and with patience, and with kindness, and be an agent of God’s grace with your family members—as you get together over the holidays. Or if it’s not getting together—maybe it’s you alone on this holiday—that God can be your friend and your companion during this holiday season.
I want to encourage you—if you’d like to hear the entire conversation between Ron and Lauren—hear how Lauren describes the way different kids respond differently to becoming stepchildren, and how she went into extreme performance mode in order to try to deal with the changes that were going on in her life—there’s that and a whole lot more—download the FamilyLife Blended podcast, either this episode or you can download the entire season of podcasts. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to find out more about FamilyLife Blended with Ron Deal and about other podcasts that are available as part of the FamilyLife Podcast Network—Kim Anthony’s Unfavorable Odds podcast. You can sign up to get FamilyLife Today delivered to your mobile device as a podcast each day. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on that.
We’ve also got copies of the new book that Lauren has written called In Their Shoes: Helping Parents Better Understand and Connect with Children of Divorce. That book is available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” to get your copy of Lauren’s book, In Their Shoes.
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And we hope you can join us tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day, when we’re going to talk about the biblical command for us to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful. That’s in
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