When you use words like stepparent, stepson, or stepdaughter, what do you mean by the “step-” part? These are common terms but their origin is different from how we use them today. These words come to us from Old English when the prefix bore the meaning of “bereaved” or “deprived” and they were only used to refer to a child whose parent had died.
Originally then, you were a “stepchild” as soon as one of your parents died. Over time, the associations were extended so that people could refer to stepparents and not only stepchildren. Then the growing numbers of marriages ending in divorce meant that children could be “deprived” of a parent or gain a new parent without the occurrence of death.
This bit of linguistic history is worth pointing out because I suspect that what we often understand by “step-” is something like “a step down from.” When we say that someone is a stepdad we can mean that they are an “almost-but-not-quite-dad” or a “something-less-than-a-full-dad.”
We need specific words to differentiate and describe the variety within families. I am not going to argue that we stop using these terms or exchange them for something else. My point is that we need to be aware of what we mean and what is understood when we use them. It is now common to talk about “blended families” but reference to the individual members continues to use these “step-” words and we need to show love to the people whose reality we describe when using them.
Culturally, we are not well served with positive examples and from Dickens to Disney, and these illustrations can give an expectant stepmom a complex. In the church, we struggle further because of the stigma of divorce. Whatever our position on divorce and remarriage, we can be left with some awkwardness when confronted by a step-family.
If the question for the church is how we are called to serve stepfamilies within the reality of the gospel, testing our language and implicit understandings would be a good start. The points that follow here have application beyond this particular family structure (for example, adoptive or foster families face similar issues) but it is to stepfamilies in particular that this article is aimed.
A Stepfamily Is A Family
The ordinary way for a family to be formed is for a marriage to be followed by the biological conception and birth of children. But is a family which comes into being outside this pattern necessarily a step away from being a true family?
The way that adoption has been championed in the last number of years tells us that the answer to that question must be “no.” Perhaps this is more complicated to answer for some when a stepfamily is formed following a divorce but that does not change the fact that there is more than one way to enter and become a family.
Stepfamilies are families. Something has gone wrong earlier for them to form now (either the end of a marriage or a life) but that does not negate the genuineness of their establishment or leave them deficient in status. Stepfamilies are not sub-families or sort-of-families. Let me say this again: stepfamilies are families.
There is a necessary balancing act in describing stepfamilies because it is true that stepfamilies are different. The experience of stepfamily life is distinct from that of other families. It is also true that there are some things within ordinary biologically formed families that are not available within stepfamily relationships. A parent-child relationship which begins when the child is twelve is not going to be the same as one that started at birth.
The crucial thing to realize is that it does not need to be the same because there is a vast amount of room for beauty to take shape in either case. And just as we acknowledge that there are profound things available to a relationship that has been broken and healed by grace (things into which angels long to look…) we can also acknowledge that there are things available to stepfamilies that are not available otherwise.
A Stepfamily Faces Serious Challenges
Marriage and children are difficult things in and of themselves but stepfamilies have layers of difficulty and complication piled on top. From the reading my family has done, we are now expecting the transition period for our family to become its own entity to take at least five years and we are even a stepfamily of a less complex variety.
There is no divorce, no living between two sets of parents, and no stepsiblings in our situation. Let me give you just a few selected examples of where we have noticed the complications.
I was surprised at the difficulty of knowing how best to refer to the kids to their stepmom. They had known her for a few years by her first name but because the roles were shifting, they needed to start the process of growing into calling her “mom.”
But it is also important that they come to this in a time frame that is appropriate for them and without them being pressured. So how do I best fill in the blank when I say: “listen to your _________”? Is it putting unhealthy pressure on their relationships for me to insert “mom” there? Should it be “your stepmom” or “your new mom,” or maybe even “mom the sequel?”
A major pressure for the stepparent is the inheriting of values without the opportunity of negotiation. Usually, there are years available for negotiating through the cherished values and practices that each spouse brings into a family. These can be things as simple as whether we use white or coloured lights on the Christmas tree and as complex as how the system of discipline is defined and enacted for the children.
When we were married in June, my wife jumped into a fully formed set of family values that she has had no input into whatsoever. But we are a new family now and need to be structured anew.
How do we navigate this? How do we protect the growing relationships between the kids and their stepmom when it is obvious that the new changes they do not like are all “her fault”? How do we decide which changes are most important and most appropriate for right now? How can I best bridge between kids who did not invite these new things and a wife who must daily face realities that are not the way they would be if she had been part of this from day one?
The church would do well to take note of pressures that stepfamilies live with daily. We are doing a better job at giving understanding and encouragement to families which foster and adopt but we need to extend this to stepparents as well. They too have chosen to take on children who are not “their own” and the same courage and grace are operative here.
A Step-Family Is An Arena For The Lavish Grace of God
The difficulties that a stepfamily faces can never outstrip the resources of God-given grace to meet them. The pressures arise from the circumstance but the heart of the issue will always be our responses to them and we are promised wisdom for and a way of escape in every temptation (James 1:3-8; 1 Corinthians 10:13).
Stepfamilies provide unique opportunities to be made strong in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:10) and to humble ourselves and look to the interests of others (Philippians 2:1-11). Stepfamily stresses put us in places where we will be found as the “eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chronicles 16:7).
Stepfamilies need to know that Christ is enough but the church needs to remember not just the extent but also the fact of grace for these families. If our position on divorce and remarriage necessitates that we push families formed after divorce outside the camp we are getting it wrong. Are we in position to prescribe limits and say to the grace of God, “thus far shall you come and no further”?
Perhaps we should be less worried about what people might think if we kill the fatted calf for a family formed after a divorce than we are about mirroring the lavish grace of a prodigal God. None of this is to deny that there are important considerations to navigate here but it is to call us to be certain that the limits we live by were set by the God we answer to.
A stepfamily is a family that has formed after something has gone wrong but it is also a family where God is active and is giving good things. The ending of my parents’ marriage was not a good thing in and of itself but I have no hesitation to say that the entry into my life of my stepmom and stepsister was a gift and something that God has used mightily for good. God delights to take the tears we have sowed and bring them up as a harvest of joy (Psalm 126).
Here are two practical points for churches to help stepfamilies. First, give room. These transitions are a long-term project and your involvement must match that actuality. There is no book that can be read and no nine-step program that will magically transform stepfamily struggle into serenity.
This process is about relationships and this means the only way to progress is to go through the gritty cycle of repentance and forgiveness over and over again.
Part of this is recognizing that you need to be ready for things to not be going all that well. When your own happiness at the good we have gained bursts upon our kids in the foyer with a well-intentioned “you must be so happy to have a mom again,” you might not get the answer you are hoping for.
It is a big deal for all of us to make these transitions and you leave the kids in an awkward position when they are expected to express a happiness that they may not be currently feeling. Question first if your relationship with the family makes it appropriate to ask a question that may be very difficult to answer and do your best to not corner us between social grace and the ninth commandment.
The same dynamic is at work when you say to a new stepmom, “you must be so enjoying being a mom now.” Step-parenting is tough and involves giving effort that comes less naturally with the expectation of mixed returns from kids who are also learning how to do this. Expect that a new stepparent is going to need time to learn and work into their new roles and that the main weight will continue to fall on the biological parent.
Set your expectations for the stepfamily in such a way that you envisage supporting them as they take a few years to grow. Please continue to approach the stepfamilies in your foyer, but remember that it will be better for all parties if you come to ask an honest question rather than to have your hopeful expectations confirmed. “What has this been like for you?” is better than “You must be so happy to…”.
Second, pray. There is nothing facing a stepfamily that falls outside the sovereign concern of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Pray your way through all the relationships. For the husband and wife for whom the daily demands of parenting dissolve the possibly of the typical honeymoon phase.
For the new parent who is forming a distinct relationship with each child when the child already has or has had someone else in that role. For each child learning to accept and respect a new parent and as the relationship they had their biological parent shifts. For the biological parent who must learn to let someone new parent their children with them.
Pray for the salt of the gospel to leave this family well-seasoned and to be a living depiction of the gospel. God delights to work along with what His people pray and it is an invigorating thought that God may be moving you to pray now for a stepfamily because He has grand intentions for them that your prayers will be a part of fulfilling.