Winning as a Stepmother With a Father’s Help
About the Guest
Could you use some help with your step mothering? Maybe help is closer than you think! Stepmother Laura Petherbridge and Christian counselor Ron Deal tell fathers how their loyalty and support toward their wives can make a world of difference in a blended family.
A father’s loyalty and support toward their wives can make a world of difference in a blended family.
Winning as a Stepmother With a Father’s Help
Bob: For a stepmom, the relationship with her stepchildren can be a challenge—so can the relationship with those children’s biological mother. Here’s Laura Petherbridge.
Laura: How you relate as a stepmom to the biological mom really depends on how the biological mom responds to you, how she responds to your husband, how she responds to your family. The goal should always be to try to get along with the biological mom as well as you possibly can. That may mean taking the higher road. That may mean overlooking some cruel or nasty comments, sometimes; but for the sake of the children, you do what is best for them and brings the most peace into their life.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, May 8th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. There are a lot of challenges that come with the assignment of being a stepmom. Relating to your stepchildren’s biological mother may be one of the most significant. We’re going to talk about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We have tackled some tough subjects on this program in the years that we’ve been doing it.
Dennis: We have.
Bob: The subject we’re talking about this week is one of those difficult subjects. It’s difficult to unpack. There are so many different dynamics—so many different ways of trying to get your arms around this subject of stepfamilies and step-parenting—that it’s hard to really zero in on the common counsel you want to give to folks.
Dennis: Yes, that’s right. Stepfamilies face an enormous number of emotional issues—issues around authority; issues around their marriage and around a previous marriage, perhaps; the death of a spouse.
Bob: Well, and it might be that you came into a stepfamily because a previous spouse was deceased. It might be that there was a divorce. It might be that both the husband and the wife are bringing children into a marriage. Eventually, there may be children that are biological children of the new husband and wife. I mean, again, there’s so many different dynamics at work here.
Dennis: Yes; in fact, you’re raising an issue that I want to ask our guests today. Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge join us on FamilyLife Today. Laura, Ron—welcome back.
Laura: Thank you.
Ron: Thank you.
Dennis: You all have written a book called The Smart Stepmom. You both have ministered in this area of stepfamilies for a number of years. You collaborated to really produce a very healthy book—wholesome book—but at the same time, an honest book.
Let’s talk about having biological children of your own—in other words, having a child that you biologically create—and then, rear together, as a couple. That’s going to create additional issues for stepfamilies. Where should a couple start—who are in a stepfamily—who maybe have hers, and his, or just his?
Bob: Or just hers. But now, they’re stopping to think—
Ron: “Should we have an ‘ours’?”
Ron: First of all, let me say that the research is really unclear—that we don’t have an awful lot of really good research. I can tell you, anecdotally, what we believe is the best advice for people in general; but honestly, every couple is going to have to decide for themselves whether they want to move towards having a child together.
I do think, that in general, an “ours baby”—as we sometimes refer to it and talk about in the book—exacerbates or continues what was. So, if there is family health—if the stepfamily is doing well—if the family is molding together and feel pretty good about the relationships—having an “ours baby” oftentimes even solidifies that even more. Sometimes, we kind of jokingly refer to it as the concrete child because it helps solidify everything that’s going on in the family.
Dennis: It’s not going to create something that doesn’t exist.
Ron: That’s right. On the other hand, if things are stressful, don’t have an “ours baby” because it tends to add stress.
Dennis: In all this, I want to go back to the Bible, which says, “Children are a blessing.” Anybody who has had a child realizes that a child will redeem you from your selfishness. Now, in a stepfamily, you’ve already experienced plenty of redemption, at that point, because you’ve had to face some of your selfishness.
What I want to encourage couples, who are in blended families, to consider as they think about this is: “God really encourages us to have children. If we’re followers of Christ, let’s create a godly legacy here. God’s power has always worked through broken situations. It’s a part of what life is. But a couple really needs to be in agreement around this decision to have a biological child.”
Bob: Laura, was an “ours baby” even an option for you guys when you became a stepmom?
Laura: It wasn’t. It wasn’t an option, for physical reasons—and just because, I think, partially—I didn’t realize this at the time—but my dad, with his first wife, had an “ours baby”. I think that had somewhat of a negative effect, even though I was a teenager already. I didn’t have any resentment towards my half brother—it wasn’t that type of thing. As a matter of fact, I thought he was cute and great. But I do think, for me, it was one more sense of: “Oh, so now he has a new wife, he has her children, and now they have their own baby. He really doesn’t need us anymore.”
Dennis: You felt excluded?
Laura: I did. You know, I don’t think I realized it until I became an adult and started pondering all the family dynamics; but I really feel that it caused even more of a distance in my relationship with my dad and his wife when they had another child.
Bob: You know, we’ve talked already, this week, about the fact that you have a couple of chapters in your book, The Smart Stepmom, that are written for dads. I was just sitting here thinking, “I wonder why you didn’t write The Smart Stepdad at the same time you wrote The Smart Stepmom.” Both of them need to be smart. It’s probably the stepmom who will go buy a book and try to get some help—more than a dad doing it; right?
Ron: Actually, I think it’s harder to be a stepmother than it is to be a stepfather. That’s an overgeneralization, I realize—and there are always exceptions to that—but the role of stepmother is a very, very difficult role—and oftentimes, a very lonely role. We really felt like that was the first person we needed to reach out to.
Laura: Kids seem to accept a stepdad more easily than they do a stepmom. We found that in a lot of our research and a lot of what we did in writing this. We don’t really have the psychology behind that—not that every stepdad is accepted—but they do seem to accept a stepdad better than they do a stepmom.
Dennis: You say in your book there are several things a stepfather needs to consider as he provides love and leadership for his family. Share a few of those with our audience.
Ron: First and foremost, he has to declare his loyalty to his wife before his children and before any extended family, for example. Everybody just needs to know that Dad and his wife are lifers.
Bob: Does he sit down with the kids and say, “Kids, let me just tell you, you have just moved to the backseat. Mom’s in the front seat.” Does he say that to them? [Laughter]
Ron: Well, I think he can articulate, yes, with words, his dedication to her—his promise to her. “Forsaking all others”, in his vows, also now includes them. Now, please understand—all things in balance. This does not mean he’s neglecting his children or he’s leaving them behind. He’s going to love them and care for them.
Just like a couple in a first-family—you know, we talk about this—we take it for granted. A couple in a first-marriage—in a first-family—they spend time nurturing their marriage relationship, and giving lots of time and energy to their kids, during those child-rearing years. There’s a balance there. Well, this dad’s going to do the same thing; but he’s also going to be very intentional to let them know that his relationship to his wife is going to last forever, and he’s in.
Bob: I’ll never forget hearing Pastor Tommy Nelson speaking at a conference we were doing, where he said, “I used to tell my boys—‘If we were ever out in a rowboat, in the middle of a lake, and a storm came up, and the boat tipped over,’ he said, ‘I want you to know what I would do.’ He said, ‘I would get that boat flipped around. I would go get your Mom. I would get her in the boat. I would dry her off. I would see if she needed some lemonade. I would make sure she was okay.’” [Laughter]
“He said: ‘Then, I’d look back in the water. If you were still flailing, I’d come in after you.’” You know, it can sound almost like he was being cruel to his sons, but there was a sense of security that came with those kids knowing Dad and Mom are sticking together. With step-kids, it’s a little different dynamic, though; isn’t it?
Ron: That’s right, but the kids need to know where Dad’s dedication is so that it settles the issue—so that they don’t think there’s room to divide and conquer.
Dennis: You know—I hate to keep beating this point here—but those children need to hear that, they need to see that, they need to know that—and then, what they are going to do after they’ve heard that—they’re going test that.
Ron: That’s right.
Dennis: They’re going to test their dad to see if he really means it. Then, he has to demonstrate it through his actions.
What’s another one of the things dads need to do?
Ron: He needs to trust his wife’s heart. You know something that will never happen in a two-biological-parent home? You may have a mom and a dad who disagree about parenting; but you won’t have Dennis coming to his wife and saying: “Look Honey, I think grounding the kids for six months is too long. We need to shorten that down a little bit. The reason you grounded our kids for six months is because you don’t love them.” That just doesn’t happen in your household; does it?
Dennis: Right; right.
Ron: You don’t doubt her heart. You may not agree with her parenting move or strategy, but you don’t doubt her heart. But in stepfamilies, there’s a very dangerous line that, oftentimes, a dad can cross with his wife. He calls into question, not only something she did from a parenting strategy, but why she did it. If he looks at her, and he says: “You don’t love my kids. That’s why you did such and such,” now, all of a sudden, she’s being pushed to the outside—and even in terms of her intentions—her desires to be a helpful, loving parent-figure in the life of these kids. That’s a very dangerous place to go.
Laura: A stepmom will often phrase that thinking in this way—she will say: “My husband comes to me, and says: ‘You’re the adult in this. They’re children; you’re the adult,’ or, ‘You’re overreacting,’ or, ‘You’re being too dramatic,’” when she is trying to set some boundaries or do something healthy for the children. When he doesn’t trust her heart, very often, the dad will come out with statements like that—saying she’s being overly dramatic.
Now, the stepmom has to take a step back, and say: “Am I being overly dramatic? Am I being a drama queen? Am I being unrealistic?” It doesn’t mean everything she’s doing is right; but the way that the dad will often phrase that is not, “I don’t trust your heart,” but it comes out in those other sentences.
Dennis: I can see how a stepmom would feel that way or begin to express those things because she can get wounded, and get hurt deeply, and then everything becomes an emotional issue, at that point, with the kids.
Ron: That’s right. She, at that point, is being accused of being wicked, which she knows she’s not. She has the best intentions for these children. That’s why step-parents do what they do. In our experience, step-parents are fabulous people. They love their stepchildren, and they are working for their best interests. So, you just have to try to trust their heart.
A third principle that we want biological dads to remember is that you need to take the primary parenting role with your kids. You were primary, during the single- parent years. After the wedding, you’re still kind of primary—in terms of the affection, in terms of authority, in terms of discipline, and providing direction for the home.
Bob: Does that mean that the mom is the primary parent for her biological children?
Ron: If she has biological children, yes, she is the primary parent for her children. She’s the primary “go-to”—especially, if you’re going to have a bit of a battle on your hands—and you are going to have to say, “No,” or you’re going to disappoint the children. We want biological parents primarily dealing with their kids. The step-parent is gradually moving their role into taking roles with leadership and making decisions on discipline.
Bob: You gradually move into those roles as you see that you have the clout? Is that how you do that?
Laura: Well, part of it, for stepfamilies, is as much as the child will let you in. A point that we haven’t really hit on is, “I can only have as much of a relationship with my stepchildren as they will allow me to.” You know, my husband can be the most wonderful dad, and be the most disciplined, and do a great job with his kids, and do all the things right, standing beside me—as his wife, as his bride—but if the children continue to refuse to let me into their heart, then, as a stepmom, that’s really as far as I can go. If they’re going to stay a porcupine towards me, as the stepmother, I have to just accept that and realize my relationship with my stepchildren goes as far as they will allow.
Now, when they’re younger, it may be, to a certain degree—that as they move into a little bit older, they may let me in a little bit more. They may not. There’s no guarantee that, at some point, when they hit adulthood, that magically they’re going to start letting me into their life. So, really the stepchildren dictate how much of a relationship I’m going to be able to have.
Dennis: Is there a point where a stepmom has to so throttle back that she basically gives up on having an in-depth relationship with a stepchild?
Laura: I think that she does. I think there are definitely stepmoms that have to take a step back and say: “My role is to be as godly of an example in front of them as I can—is to pray for them and is to be a good wife to their father—and that’s it. I may never get more than that.”
Ron: I would add that some life experiences may change the heart of the child and open them to the stepmother. It may be when they have their own children—that, all of a sudden, they’re humbled a little bit. They realize how great their stepmother really is, and now she has an opportunity. So, she may back off of trying. She doesn’t ever entirely give up, but she has to temper that based upon the openness of the child.
Bob: We haven’t talked a whole lot about the biological mom in this equation. There are all kinds of different scenarios here. She may have passed away, she may live nearby or out of state, there may be visitation, there may be limited kinds of interactions. What should a stepmom’s role be when it comes to a biological mom? You were one. How did you handle it?
Laura: Well, one of the things that I love about our book is that we really go into the different kinds of biological moms because how you relate as a stepmom to the biological mom—if she is still alive—but even the memory of the biological mom, if she’s gone—really depends on how the biological mom responds to you, how she responds to your husband, how she responds to your family.
So we give different scenarios of the different types of biological moms, and how to cope with, and get along with. The goal should always be to try to get along with the biological mom as well as you possibly can.
Bob: This is where Romans 12:18 comes in, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men;” right?
Laura: That’s right. That may mean taking the higher road. That may mean overlooking some cruel or nasty comments, sometimes. That doesn’t mean you allow that person, the biological mother, to treat you like dirt. It doesn’t mean you’re supposed to just roll over and play dead; but it may mean, that for the sake of the children, you do what is best for them and brings the most peace into their life.
For example, I had a stepmom just recently say to me: “You know, every time I go to my stepson’s baseball game, the biological mom makes it very obvious that she does not want me there— that she doesn’t think I belong there. She storms around the field, you know, and it makes it very uncomfortable for my stepsons.” My advice to her was, “Don’t go to the games, even if your husband wants you to.” She said, “My husband wants me there.” I said: “You know what? You and he need to sit down and talk about this because it’s causing tension for the child—not that you’re doing this for the biological mother—you’re doing it because you can tell this is causing stress for the child.”
Dennis: Would you ask the child—let’s say it’s a 15-, 16-year-old boy or girl—and it’s their game you’re going to--would you ask them what their opinion was at, that point?
Laura: I would. I would probably have the dad and I together—not just the stepmom—but knowing that kids in divorce often do not tell you how they really feel. You have to always remember that—they often won’t tell you exactly what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling. But if possible, to sit down with Joshua and say: “You know, Josh, it appears that your mom is really uncomfortable when I’m at your baseball games. Would it be easier on you if I didn’t attend as your stepmother?”
Dennis: So, you don’t use it to trash--you don’t trash the biological mom?
Laura: Never. Never, never, never, never!
Ron: It will always come back on the stepmother and work against her.
Laura: That’s right. You always want to address the situation—not the woman, not the person.
Bob: You were pretty adamant—“Never, never, never, never.” What if a biological mom is doing stuff that you just feel like you have to address with your stepson or stepdaughter—where you can’t affirm or approve the behavior? You have to speak up, and say, “You know, that’s just not right.”
Laura: You absolutely do. You have to go to them and say: “You know what, Joshua? I’m really sorry that you’re experiencing that—that you’re having that kind of turmoil in your home. That must make it very confusing—to be at your mom’s house and experiencing one thing—and then, when you come in this house, you’re doing something completely different. Let’s talk about how that makes you feel.”
You don’t ever go to—“You know, your mother is a bad mother because she’s allowing you to watch R-rated movies,” or whatever it is that you don’t approve of. You don’t attack the parent. You attack the behavior and the choices.
Dennis: You were quick to say that it works against the stepmom when she says anything negative about the biological mom. What’s behind all that?
Ron: Even if the kids agree with her, it emboldens their loyalty. What that means is—mom’s going to be right—and if you try to step into her role, her place—if you try to criticize her—“I’m going to take up for her and defend her. It’s just what loyalty leads me to do. So, that will put me against you.”
Bob: So, even if mom is an alcoholic; and she is showing up drunk at school functions and embarrassing the child—if the stepmom comes along and starts to talk about, “You know, it’s just not right for your mom to be drinking the way she is,”—you’re saying the biological son or daughter is going to go, “Don’t talk about my mom like that.”
Ron: More often than not. There are always exceptions to that rule, but more often than not. What we would want the stepmom to do is have a spirit of grace about her. I think Laura’s absolutely right. You have to speak to truth with children and realize that sometimes that puts them in the middle. That puts them in a loyalty bind, where they’re trying to decide whose truth they’re going to buy into.
But I think we don’t avoid truth, but we present it with a spirit of grace. So, that stepmother, for example, in that situation could say: “I’m sure it troubles you. I can see, on your face, it troubles you when your mom comes; and we want better things for your mother. I pray for her all the time.” You know, that sort of softness—that sort of grace presentation—allows you, then, to have some influence and to minister. I’ll use that word “minister” to the heart of that child—that’s struggling over their mother’s alcoholism.
Dennis: You know, I like what you’re talking about here because it’s not a holier-than-thou judgmental attitude. It’s—
Dennis: It is, and it’s giving a blessing instead of an insult. First Peter 3, verse 8 and 9 really talk about being harmonious, sympathetic, kind. It says: “…not evil for evil, not insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead;” it says, to your point, Ron, “for you were called for this very purpose, that you might inherit a blessing.” In other words, if you give a blessing there is a greater likelihood that you’ll be blessed in return.
Dennis: Well, I know this—you guys have blessed our audience. You’ve helped a bunch of stepmothers know how to carry out their assignment; and, I think, helped them relax a bit in that; and know how to relate. I just appreciate your book, appreciate you guys, and hope you’ll come back and join us again sometime.
Laura: Thank you so much.
Bob: We have already heard from a lot of moms who have gotten in touch with us to get a copy of the book, The Smart Stepmom. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com if you’d like to get a copy, as well. Again, it’s called The Smart Stepmom by Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge.
We also have other resources for stepfamilies; including, Ron’s classic book, The Smart Stepfamily. There is a DVD curriculum that goes along with that. There is a book for stepdads—there is a Smart Stepdad, as well. So, again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click on the link that will give you all of the information for resources we have for stepfamilies. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com. Or, if it’s easier, just call us at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Someone on our team will talk through what’s available and help you determine what’s right for you.
Now, May is a busy month for a lot of folks. In fact, we’re headed to see our son graduate from college this weekend. That’s exciting. We’ve got a lot going on with the family over the next couple of weeks. As things get busy, here in May, and then schedules start to shift during the summer, one of the effects of that, for a ministry like FamilyLife Today,is that we often see a little bit of a decline in donation support from listeners.
And we have some FamilyLife Today friends who are aware of the fact that that often happens to ministries like ours in the summer. They came to us and said: “Why don’t we see if we can head things off at the pass? We’ll put together a fund—a matching fund. Any of your listeners, who will call in or go online to make a donation, during the month of May, we’ll match the donation they make. We’ll see if we can’t put together a little surplus that you guys can have access to if things should dip a little bit during the summer months.”
Obviously, we’re grateful for their support. In fact, the matching gift is $576,000. So, that’s kind of a big “Wow!” for us. But in order for us to take advantage of that money, we need to hear from listeners, like you, who will call in or go online and make a donation of your own. When you make a $20, or a $30, or a $40 donation, that donation is going to be matched with $20, or $30, or $40 from the matching fund—so, we’ll get double benefit from your gift.
Would you consider going to FamilyLifeToday.com right now? Click the button that says, “I CARE”. Make a donation—whatever you can afford—knowing that that donation is going to be doubled, dollar for dollar. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY, and make a donation over the phone. Again, that donation will be doubled, as well. Whatever you can do to help us, we would appreciate it.
And please pray for us. Pray that, during the month of May, we’d be able to take advantage of this matching-gift fund; and pray for us during the summer—that God would continue to supply all of our needs. We trust Him as our major donor to this ministry; and it’s His provision that we depend on, month-in and month-out. But we’re appreciative to you for being part of how He provides for this ministry.
And we hope you can be back with us again tomorrow—when we’re going to have a couple of friends join us. Robert and Bobbie Wolgemuth will be here to talk about the recent battle that Bobbie has been through with cancer, and how God has sustained her over the last year in that fight, and about a new book that they’ve written that looks at married couples in the Bible. I hope you can join us as we talk with the Wolgemuths tomorrow.
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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