FamilyLife Blended® Podcast

16: The Childless Stepmom

with Laura Petherbridge | October 7, 2019
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Ron Deal talks with Laura Petherbridge, The Smart Stepmom, has over twenty years of experience, as a childless stepmom who has helped countless women redefine what it means to mother and love children who don't share their DNA.
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Ron Deal talks with Laura Petherbridge, The Smart Stepmom, has over twenty years of experience, as a childless stepmom who has helped countless women redefine what it means to mother and love children who don’t share their DNA.

16: The Childless Stepmom

With Laura Petherbridge
|
October 07, 2019
| Download Transcript PDF

Laura: I'm just the laundry maid. If I'm not going to be any kind of a parent and I'm not going to have any say then -- so you can get angry about that and just have very deep resentment that you have no control over his kids in your home.

Or you can go in the other direction, which I finally had to learn to do, and say, “You know what? This is between my husband and his God. How he parents is between him and God. These are not my children. I can only do what the parent allows in their life. I cannot parent this child more than the parent.”

Ron: From the FamilyLife Podcast Network this is FamilyLife Blended®. I’m Ron Deal.

This podcast brings together timeless wisdom, practical help and hope to blended families, and those who love them.

Before we jump into my conversation with Laura Petherbridge, I wanted to let you know that we've just released the 10th book in the Start Stepfamily Series it's called The Smart Stepfamily Guide To Financial Planning. It's the only book of its kind addressing the intersection of merging family relationships and family finances.

I'll tell you more about that at the end of the Podcast and how you can join us for the Summit on Stepfamily ministry, October 23 to 25, 2019, in Chesapeake Virginia.

If you're considering becoming a stepmom, if you are a stepmom or perhaps are married to one, this is an important podcast for you. You're going to be hearing from author and stepmom, Laura Petherbridge, about the challenges of being a stepmom, the unique aspects of being a childless stepmom, and how a stepmom's husband can be her best advocate in the family.

My guest today is Laura Petherbridge. Laura is a good friend. For over a decade she and I have been working together in the field of family ministry and stepfamilies. We've been doing interviews together. It all started when I approached her about co-authoring a book together, The Smart Stepmom, and she did. But that was just the beginning for Laura. She went on to write 101 Tips for The Smart Stepmom and she co-authored Quiet Moments for The Stepmom's Soul.

She's been a catalyst for stepmother events around the country and as you can tell she has a real heart for the stepmother journey. Laura's been featured on national broadcasts like FamilyLife Today® and Focus on the Family. She's written articles for a number of websites and magazines and she speaks regularly at our Summit on Stepfamily ministry, and for churches around the country on a variety of topics.

She and Steve, her husband of 31 years, live in Florida. She has two stepsons and two grandchildren.

Years ago Professor Nancy Russo talked about what she called the Motherhood Mandate. It's the societal expectation that women will define themselves in light of their family relationships, and their ability to care for those in their family.

In our book, The Smart Stepmom, Laura and I discussed how this is a set up for stepmoms because it creates expectations that she can't quite meet and she can't meet on behalf of others, so she ends up disappointed. Her children get disappointed. Her husband gets disappointed.

Laura: It really is complicated because she's filling a motherhood role. When the children are in her home she is a mom, she's the mom figure. She's doing the mom things, but she is not the mother. So if the child is in both homes, has a full-time mom or a mom that's in their life, it's confusing because she doesn't want to overstep her bounds and go someplace where she shouldn't where the mom is going to be angry with her.

Most stepmoms are respectful of that but yet she's living this life of being in the mother role. So it's such a fine line of knowing when you're overstepping or when you're doing what your husband wants. Many husbands want her to be a real mom for the kids when the children are in her home.

So it's just -- it's almost like a split personality. You have to be two at one time.

[Both laugh]

Ron: Yes, exactly. So definitions of what her role is, what it should be, can vary from person to person. So she has some thoughts about what role she wants to play and how she wants to go about doing that. Her husband has some thoughts about the role he would like for her to play as it relates to his kids. The children have some expectation of the role she will play in their life and in their family, and that can vary from child to child.

Yes, you said a split personality. When you start doing the math that way it's almost like there might be 4, 5, 6, 7 split-personality opinions about who is she supposed to be.

Laura: Exactly.

Ron: That adds to that sense of struggle, like, “How do I do this and be successful? If I don't know what the end goal is; if I don't know the definition of my role is, I'm going to be frustrated.”

Laura: Yes and disappointed in myself in maybe what I thought my role was going to be. That’s why when I do life coaching with people I always ask them, “What do you view as your role?” because I need to know what they're interpreting that as. “I need to be the caregiver.” “I need to be the disciplinarian.” What do you view as your role?

Then I ask the husband, “What do you view as her role?” [Laughs] Of course that can start some fireworks.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: It's so important to discuss that, preferably before you get married.

Ron: Yes. It occurs to me as you were saying that that her goodwill/her best intentions on behalf of the children/her eagerness to care for her stepchildren can easily backfire as a result of this lack of role definition. Good intentions do not a good relationship make.

Laura: Yes.

Ron: That's a hard reality but it's -- what we're doing here is we're trying to help a stepmom and her husband understand what the struggle is about some of the nature of it. I think we really have to start with this Motherhood Mandate. Good intentions do not a good relationship make. That's part of the experience that she has.

Laura: It is so true and they could, like you said, they could change per child. It can change per season of that child's life. If they are experiencing a new trauma or a new dilemma or each season of their life her role in that child's life could change.

So it's totally different than a biological mother. Yes, parenting is always hard, but the mom’s role normally doesn't vacillate. It doesn't flow from one thing to the other. That's why being a stepmom is so difficult.

Ron: Okay, so everything we're talking about so far brings us to some struggles that you say are pretty common for stepmoms to articulate. It comes out like this: somebody says, “I'm an outsider. I can't find my way in.” Can you talk around that a little bit? That experience of what it is to feel like you're an outsider?

Laura: Yes. It's very common whether the kids are two or three years old or 23 years old or 53 years old. So that's the first thing to make note of. It’s because the dad and his children had a history together before she entered the picture, whether that was for a short amount of time or a long amount of time, there already was a bond formed with dad and his kids. Hopefully during their divorce or after the death of Mom they made a really good bond.

Now she is entering into that circle. It would be like me coming to your house, Ron, for Thanksgiving dinner. All your friends and family and your close circle are there and I come in. I don't know anybody. I don't know your history. I don't know your family stories. When you start telling them, sure, as a guest I'm going to sit there and listen.

Now it's totally different when you're the new wife because these are stories your husband had with another woman. So you feel like, “Okay he had this whole life before me and I didn't get to participate in any of that. I didn't see his children come into the world.

A lot of stepmoms struggle with not experiencing those “firsts” when the child takes their first step. The first day of kindergarten. The first-all of that stuff. So that causes her to feel on the outside. I wasn't there for all these memories and it makes me feel like I don't belong.

Ron: Yes, yes. That just adds to that sense of, “What am I doing here?” Then somebody says, “Yes would you help cook dinner or do some laundry?”

Children are notorious sometimes for asking a stepparent to do parental things but not be parental. Do the tasks for me that I need you to do as my parents: take me to my soccer practice and drop me off, and give me money, and feed me, and do my laundry, and wash my underwear. But don't try to act parental. Don't be my mom. Don't tell me “no,” don't set boundaries that's not your role.”

So you add to this sense of, “I'm an outsider and I'm trying to figure out how to get in,” but yet you expect me to do certain things that can really be antagonistic, I think, for some stepmoms, right?

 

Laura: Absolutely. It drives them into feeling like, “I am nothing more than a maid and a chauffeur. A lot of stepmoms are saying to me, “The kid goes in their bedroom for the whole day. They come out just to get food and to ask me to drive them somewhere.”

Ron: [Laughs]

 

Laura: And to do their laundry like you just said. So it's this whole, of course again, with the biological mom you've built that relationship since you were a little child, where you run to your mom and you have a bond with that person. Now this woman is entering the picture as a total stranger.

So it really is unrealistic to expect that the child is going to embrace all of this right away. Why would they? Why would they want to?

Ron: Yes.

Laura: So although I know this pain of being the stepmom and that feeling of being an outsider, I also understand why the child resists it. They don't feel that closeness with her at least on that gut level deep.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: So it's understandable from each perspective.

Ron: So let me just remind our listener what we’re doing here is we are putting words on the common struggles that stepmom's articulate that they experience. We're doing this for a couple of reasons: One, we just want to let the stepmoms listening going yes you’re not alone. You’re not crazy. And here’s what's going on behind the scenes with some of these dynamics.

There may be some biological dads-I hope there are some bio dads listening, and maybe some stepchildren, and extended family members—we’re giving you some perspective of what it is that she's trying to articulate and how it impacts her so you can have some empathy for what her experience is.

All right so that is what we're doing. So let's keep going putting words on these experiences.

One of the other things you hear from stepmoms is as a result of some of what we’ve talked about they feel like they have very little influence-or control would be another word-but influence is I think a better word to just say parental influence.

Like how do I get things done in my home if I'm an outsider, if my role definition is unclear? How do I affect what happens in the home? There’s dirty dishes, I'd rather that not be the case. There certain schedules like I'd love to be able to speak into our family life but sometimes I just feel like I don't even have the ability to do that

Laura: Yes, and it's horrible, it really is. Any time we feel out of control or we feel that we have no say in something, it makes us feel more lonely or more rejected. I-don't-even-know-what-I'm-doing-here kind of feeling.

The only fix for that really truly the only fix for that is for Dad to get involved and Stepmom and Dad to sit down and discuss: “What is my role? What isn't my role? What do you want me to take on? What don't you want me to take on?” Again preferably before the marriage discuss all of that. Not that there won't be surprises, but it's so much better if you discuss it beforehand.

I just had a stepmom contact me recently who said, “My husband will not set any boundaries with his kids-like zero boundaries—and when he has them he wants to entertain them from the moment they get up to the moment they go to bed.” She said, “it's exhausting.”

The extended family: his mom, his sisters all say to her, “We know he is too lenient with his kids. We're hoping you’re going to straighten that out.

Ron: Oh man! That too is an expectation she cannot fulfill. Oh goodness!

Laura: So she contacted me so frustrated because she said, “He’s already—Dad's already told me I am not to have any discipline with his children and yet even his own mother and sisters recognized he’s too lenient but they’re expecting me to fix it.”

Ron: Yes. You've just walked down this road that we've got to get to and that is because of all these dynamics we've been talking about that she’s powerless in this situation of her parenting.

Laura: Yes.

Ron: She may have the best of intentions for his kids, want to step in/move in/build character in their hearts and lives, but that's irrelevant when it comes down to it. In this situation she is powerless.

Laura: Yes, she really is, and there's the rub because we women number one do not like being powerless. That makes us feel very--

Ron: That's universal. Us men, too.

Laura: That’s right.

Ron: Okay.

Laura: Yes. We don't like our home, which is our nest, our safe place, it's where we--it’s a soft place to fall. We do not like the feeling that I cannot control what is supposed to be my safe place. That drives women either into depression or anger. This is why she get so frustrated is because she really can't figure out how to fix this.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: She really is powerless to do it. Until she lays that down and says, “This is not my job. I am not capable of changing this scenario. I mean I can be either sweet or I could be miserable in it,” that she can control, but the continuous conversation has to be with her husband.

“You married me and you know that I was going to be entering this home we need to set some new boundaries, some new dynamics,” and often that comes at a very, very difficult conversation and frustration. So she ends up feeling powerless.

Ron: Yes, so tell me what you think of this. I think in that situation what often happens is that statement by her to her husband is going to elicit whatever concern or fear that he has in his heart as it relates to his kids. That's when that bubbles up. Now he might not understand his own concern/his own worry but it will get the best of him and he will come out and just say, “No! That's not going to happen,” and there will be conflict.

But if she can go beneath that and say, “I'm wondering what you're worried about. I'm wondering what your concern here is for you/for your children?” If she can softly enter that hard space and get him talking about whatever it is, do you find that that somehow helps her and him come together around this?

As long as it's her against him then things are going from bad to worse, but if she can join him in this space of -- and maybe the fear is “I'm going to lose my kids to their biological mom.” “I'm going to do something wrong” or, “You’re parenting style is different than mine and I'd rather parent them the way that I want to parent them. I really don't want you in the picture.” “I am concerned about money,” and whatever.

Whatever those fears or concerns are in him they need to come out so that he doesn't have to be controlled by them.

Laura: Absolutely. I did this wrong in the beginning, Ron, I was raised in a very strict home. Children are seen and not heard. You eat with on your plate. You didn't mess with my mother.

So I was raised in a single-parent home, so this was very hard for me in the beginning because I was used to children doing what they're told. I didn't understand what was happening with him letting kids rule.

So what it did is it made me angry, yes, made me combative, but it also caused me to disrespect my husband. Because when he was not setting those boundaries for his children, it made me feel like he was being wimpy, like, “Step up and be a dad.”

I didn't know any other way. I just didn't know how to speak to my husband about that because I had never seen or experienced it before.

Fortunately I went to God with it and he taught me a gentler-what you're describing-a gentler, kinder way to sit down and look at why my husband was doing that. Why he was, in my opinion, letting his kids walk all over him, it was fear.

Once I knew that fear was his driving force, I was able to be more gentle with the subject. I was able to communicate better about it because I could say, “I know you're afraid that your kids won't love you if you do this or that. That must be a horrible feeling to have that your children aren't going to love you. And I know that that's constantly on your mind.”

So once I was able to grasp, just what you're saying, the root reason why Steve was not being strict or disciplining it was much easier to progress with a kinder attitude.

Ron: Yes and I think that is huge. You're balancing there respect of your husband, your own emotions and feelings of being an outsider and powerless, and that's challenging, and then your desire to try to join with your husband in parenting his kids and bringing a blessing to them and I think sometimes that's the piece that gets lost.

To use your example, when you got combative your husband Steve was not at that point in time hearing you go but I care for your kids and I want to help you raise them to be good people.

Laura: That's for sure.

Ron: That message gets completely lost in the conflict. That to me is a shame because if you can come alongside him and make that clear, “Hey, I'm here to be an asset. I'm here to join you in this process. That's my heart and desire for your kids. Now help me understand what's going on.”

That softness might open him up/might help you and his heart eventually move toward one another which at the end of the day now you have a little bit of power and influence. You may not have a lot but you have a little bit. You have more than you used to.

Perhaps with time you'll get even more and even more, and he’s beginning to hear you and your frustrations and your sense of powerlessness and you’re being heard. He’s being heard, you’re being heard.

There really are two sides to this coin.

Laura: Yes absolutely. Even if he doesn't agree, and there were many times he didn't agree/there were many times he still wanted to be lenient/there were many times that he just continuously gave in, he no longer viewed it as, “You hate my kids,” or, “You think my kids are bad,” or, “You think I'm a bad dad.”

What that communication was able to do was, “Okay, I've shared this with you that I do have a heart for your children/that I do love them/I do want what's best for them should you choose to continue to be lenient with them, I can't fix that.”

I can't -- this is where I've had to tell stepmoms, “You need to step back and let Dad parent his children and the consequences are then his. You're not doing that to be mean or controlling or like, ‘I hope you suffer for this,’ it’s you have to accept what you cannot control. Step back and if the child does not benefit from how he’s parenting or the Mom’s parenting that responsibility is not on you.”

Ron: Now what you just said I know is controversial for some listeners right now. They are going, “Wait a minute!” By the way I'm in total agreement with you, I want the listener to know that.

You and I actually in our book, The Smart Stepmom, actually say as a last strategy if you cannot -- you've approached your husband softly, you've come to him in respect, you have done everything you know how to do to give opportunity for the two of you to come together, and he still refuses to let you in/to open up/to even meet you in the middle, you may have to we called it “politely resign.”

Resign from responsibilities that people expect you to do that the dynamic will not allow you to do. Like you cannot be a parental mother figure on any level if you're constantly vetoed or pushed out or kept as an outsider, you can't do it.

The trick here is politely.

Laura: Yes, that's right.

Ron: Not in anger. Not with hostility. Politely just stop doing those things. But even that notion, resigning, if you will, feels like giving up, I think, to some stepmoms. Speak to that for a minute.

Laura: Yes it does. Well there's two sides to that coin. It feels like giving up and for some women that means, well then that means, I have no control in my own home. I'm just the laundry maid. If I'm not going to be any kind of a parent and I'm not going to have any say then -- so you can get angry about that, and just have very deep resentment that you have no control over his kids in your home.

Or you can go in the other direction which I finally had to learn to do and say, “You know what, this is between my husband and his God. How he parents is between him and God. These are not my children. I can only do what the parent allows in their life. I cannot parent this child more than the parent.”

That's very hard to do. I am not saying it's easy. Within that, I will add, that there are some boundaries for what I am saying when I say that. For example, I would not allow a child in my home to call me the “B” word, to steal from me, to hit me; that's beyond what we're talking about here.

That's not resigning that's abuse. That's not what we're talking about. Or do dope in the house. I have all kinds of -- no that's not resigning those are deal breakers. That's what I call “the hill to die on.” We’re not talking about that.

We're talking about the child just not having you as their disciplining parent. So, you can either get really angry and resentful and furious and throw a fit about that, or you can step back and go, “God, I'm giving this to You. I'm giving this stepchild and my husband and their parenting relationship to You. It is out of my control, but it’s not out of Yours.”

Ron: Yes, let's be very clear to our listener, this is a last-resort strategy. This is not where you start. But what we're talking about here “politely resigning” are simple things like somebody expects you to be a short-order cook for the children or the kids expect that of you, so you resign.

Here’s the balance you still cook dinner but you cook something for everyone and if the kids push away from it and complain about it and you say, “Well that's what we're having for dinner tonight.” If your husband wants them to have something else, he can make it for them. Right?

Laura: That's right.

Ron: You do what's reasonable and helpful and loving but you don't allow yourself to be pushed into a corner where you’re forced into doing things that are, I would say, unloving. It's not helpful to a child to be a short order cook for them.

That's what we're talking about resigning from. Essentially what this does is it leaves a gap, “Well who's going to feed the child?” “Well love you but it's not going to be me.” So the husband who is the one who is in effect blocking you from having any role or life with the kids then has to be responsible for that. At the end of the day that's part of what we're going for here is if that's what he wants then that's what he gets.

All of a sudden the responsibility shifts to him. That's where it needs to be. Who knows? He might reevaluate his posture toward his wife at that point in time.

Well that's just a progressive way of responding to a very serious blockage, you might say, when a biological dad just won't allow her to move into the kids’ lives. Again that is a last resort. Start with approaching him softly, being respectful, trying to hear and understand his concerns, his pain, his fears as it relates to his children and see if you can't come together around that.

Laura, there's one other thing that you hear from struggling stepmoms and its denigration or all-out alienations from the biological mother.

Laura: Right.

Ron: Her saying negative things, poisoning the kids against her. Just real quickly I want to remind our listener that we did an entire podcast episode on this: Challenging Co-parenting Situations and Parent Alienation and what you can do about it.

Look that up. Helen Wheeler, Rodney and Lisa Webb, April of 2019. If that's your situation I want to encourage you to go and listen to that. We spent an entire hour or more talking specifically about this kind of situation.

But just in general what's a stepmom to do if the biological mom is saying really bad things about her?

Laura: I found the best thing, and I didn't even know all the negative things my ex-wife-in-law was saying. She is deceased now but I didn't even know all the things she was telling the kids about me until way later, years, years later. I mean I knew some but I didn't know at all.

Of course that's going to influence their view of you, you know, as a woman/as a person/as a __. I just had to keep my eyes on Christ and do what He wanted me to do. That was hard to do because there were days when I wanted to, “I really wish you’d move away.” I know that sounds like a terrible thing to say but I'm being honest. “My life would be so much easier if you weren't in it.”

It didn't mean I hated them; it didn't mean I wished harm on them; it didn't mean any of those things because I actually loved them very much. But it just was this thorn in your side all the time and often it comes from the mom saying negative things about the stepmom.

So I found out that the more I just was me. I just was Laura—because I had lost Laura along away, trying to be what I thought they needed and wanted whether it's the mom guilt or any of that stuff—when I just started to focus on, “Laura be who God created you to be. You have lots of friends that think you are fun. Don't try to be something else.”

So when the boys would somehow let it slip, “My mom said this,” or, “My mom said that,”-- they didn't do that very often but occasionally, I would say, “You know I grew up in a divorced home myself. I had divorced parents and I had to go from home to home and my stepmom and my mother really didn't like each other. I know how hard that is, and I'm so sorry that you’re living that.”

I have found that having empathy with their pain and speaking to that pain helped them to see, “You know what? Laura understands. Laura --” Now granted not everybody is going to be from a divorced family. I was able to use that in my favor—if you can say that—but any time you empathize with someone or you show that you see their pain that is going to draw the person closer to you.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: So I really did feel badly that they were living that life because I had lived it. I knew how horrible it was and I hated that for them. So I would constantly go back to that, “I'm so sorry your mom told you that. I'm so sorry your mom said that about me that probably makes it very hard for you to draw close to me.”

Ron: I've got to stop you right there because that is so key what you just did there. “I am so sorry you heard this, that is your pain.” What you're not saying is, “I'm so sorry your mom said this she's a blank blank blank blank--”

Laura: Right.

Ron: “--and that's not true and I'm better than that, and what you need to know --” You're not defending yourself, you're focused on the child's pain.

Laura: Exactly.

Ron: That's a huge shift that as you say draws the child to you because they see that you really care.

Laura: It is not easy to do. In the beginning I had to, like it’s that whole “walk it until you're feeling it.” I didn't want to do that. I wanted to tell them how horrible their mother was. “Did you know that your mother did this to your father? Did you know that she’s the one?”

Ron: Set the record straight.

Laura: “Yes, let’s make sure you know the truth!” I get that all the time from stepmoms, “Well these kids need to know the truth.” No, not that kind of truth. They are not going to number one accept it and they don't need to hear it, especially when they're young.

So I learned through my own life to speak to their pain, “I'm so sorry that that is hurting you/confusing you/whatever and I just wish that you didn't have to deal with that. Those are adult issues; I wish you didn't have to deal with those issues, and I'm sorry you're being put in the middle like that.”

Or anything from that vein and I always turned the conversation back around to their emotions. If there's one thing I could say to stepmoms about this: I highly encourage you to read some resources on kids and divorce, or kids and trauma. When you start to read that or participate in a divorce care for kids class I will tell you it will soften your heart towards the child and the pain they’re experiencing.

It won't be about you and what they're doing to you nearly as much as, “This kid is in so much pain.” They become little brats when they're in pain.

Ron: Right. Right.

Laura: It was hard to do, Ron, I don't want to make it sound like I’m Mother Teresa and I flipped a switch and all of a sudden I was sweet and loving, but I did not want their vision of me and their - and my legacy in their life to be, “She bad-mouthed my mom. She always put my mother down.” I wanted it to be, “She understood my pain. She might not have always done the right thing but she understood my pain and I appreciated that.”

Ron: You mentioned a couple of resources there: Divorce Care for Kids is one of them. I'll just add to that the innovator of that, Linda Ransom Jacobs; we've had her on this podcast as well. Our listeners can look her up she talks about understanding kids after divorce and how that can make a difference in your parenting. Also a podcast In Their Shoes with Lauren Reitsema.

We believe in this here at FamilyLife Blended; we believe in helping adults—both biological parents and stepparents—understand the experience of children, not because we want you to feel sorry for them but because we want you to have compassion for them, we want you to empathize with what's going on, and be informed about what’s happening in their heart so that you can make better choices in how you parent.

Back to struggling stepmoms. One of the unique things that you talk about, Laura, is the childless stepmom and the child-free stepmom. I want us to talk a little bit about both of those experiences because that can add to the struggle for certain women. To my knowledge very little--you’ve written a little about this in your 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom book. You've written blogs on this but not many people are addressing it.

You've done a workshop or I think a retreat for childless stepmoms in the past. I want us to focus on this for a little bit because I think it is a unique challenge. So let’s just start here: let's define what we're talking about. What's the difference between being “childless” as a stepmom and being “child free?”

Laura: Yes. It really is a little you have to stop and think for a minute but a childless stepmom is a woman who would like to have a child or would have wanted to have a child but cannot.

Ron: Okay

Laura: Physically cannot either because of her age her husband's had a vasectomy or there are reasons why they cannot have another “ours’ baby. They cannot bring a child into the new union. The child-free stepmom is someone who chose not to have children.

Ron: Okay.

Laura: Large reason for that may be because they don't want their child being raised in a stepfamily. They just don't want the child to have to deal with siblings that are in two homes and they feel that's too confusing, or it can be a combination. She may be older and wasn't sure if she wanted to be childless, but she's choosing not to have a baby. It's not a big ache in her heart that she doesn't have a child.

Ron: Okay.

Laura: So that's the difference.

Ron: Alright, so let’s zero in on the childless stepmom for a minute. In one of your blogs you share some quotes from childless stepmoms and what they're feeling is about it. Let me read a few and have you react to them.

One said, “I'll never experience the bond my husband has experienced with his first wife by having a child together." Right, that’s something that is a magical bond, if I can say it that way, a spiritual bond. So she's missing out on that.

Another woman said, “I feel cheated. I must live the mommy life but I don't get to fully embrace them as my children. They keep me at arm's length and they don't want a deeper relationship because they already have a mom.” Yes, so she's definitely feeling the lack of that.

Then this third one, I'd love for you to comment on this one. “My husband simply doesn't get it. He can't understand why his kids aren't enough to fill the hole in my heart and the emptiness of my womb. I crave a baby of my own. He gets mad at me and he says, ‘Why aren't my kids enough for you?’ and then I feel guilty on top of the grief.”

Laura: Yes.

Ron: Okay, so what's going on there for her? What do you think is going on for him? Why would he put that sort of expectation or pressure on her?

Laura: I was actually pretty surprised when I got into stepfamily ministry at how many husbands think that his kids are going to fill her mother desire. I think because he views her as a loving mother. These children sometimes will love her, they’ll call her mom, so he wants his new wife to fill that mommy gap for his children so badly.

Because he is not happy with his ex-wife either because he thinks she's a bad mom or it's not his wife anymore, because he desires for his new wife to be the “mom” to his kids so badly he assumed she was going to feel the same way. That it was going to fill that gap for him so I think this is purely a male versus female thing.

I think it is purely that a man cannot understand the whole in a woman's heart when she craves a baby and cannot have one. I'm not saying they don't hurt. I'm just saying that I don't think he gets it—I don't think that's his fault--and it often makes her feel worse when he says that.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: Because she then feels like she's disappointing him.

Ron: Right so it's another disappointment added on top of that.

Laura: Absolutely, and I know very few stepmoms who view their stepchildren in exactly the same way they do their own. I know many stepmoms who love their stepkids, view them as family, love them, would do anything for them, but when you ask, “Do you have the same emotions toward your biological children as you do your stepchildren?” they will say, “No,” it's a different type of love. It's a different type of bond. It's different.

Ron: Let's camp out there for just a second because that just shocked somebody listening right now.

Laura: Yes, it did.

Ron: They just heard whoa it's not the same and I always thought it should be the same or would be the same either of myself or of if it's a dad of my wife and you just implied that that's normal for that difference to be experienced in a woman who's both a mother and a stepmother.

I think you're right it is different. It does not mean they don't love one another. Just like parents who adopt a child love them. If they have biological children they also know the unique difference that comes with that automatic form of love that just because they share DNA -- it's really an indescribable experience. But it is qualitatively different.

Again you can act it love, choose to love, have strong, strong feelings for one another, be all in in terms of that relationship, and yet there's some sort of visceral difference in how you experience that love with a stepchild versus a biological child.

By the way, this goes two ways. I think you'd agree with me. This goes two ways: stepchildren can have incredible love and passion for their stepparents and yet they have a visceral unexplained difference in how they feel and the level of commitment they experience and the desire and passion that they have for a relationship with their biological parent. It's a two-way street.

Laura: Yes. Absolutely. I call it a hard-wired bond.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: It's there the moment they took a breath even before the child comes out of the womb there's this bond with that child. You mentioned adoption. See the difference in adoption is that the husband and wife went together and saw this baby for the first time together as a couple. This was a common thread between them, we’re both adopting this baby together. Where in a step family this is a child my husband had with another woman. Let's face it he had to have sex with her in order to have this baby.

Ron: Right.

Laura: So there's an intimacy there that causes that distance to some degree.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: So when we place the label on stepmoms that they should love their stepchildren exactly the same way they do their own, that is terribly unrealistic. Even James Dobson, when I was on his show, said, “That's ridiculous.”

[Both laughing]

Ron: Hey if Dr. Dobson said it I believe it.

Laura: [Laughing] I know it. I was kind of surprised actually but it really shows that I chose to love my two stepsons. I had to pray about loving them. I had to pray past anything they do that reminds me of their mother because that was my husband's ex-wife. So there's always going to be that little bit of jealousy factor a little bit of competitive factor that you don't have with a biological child, even an adopted child.

So when I say that stepmoms love their stepchildren differently that doesn't mean it's not a love. As you and I talk about in the book it's a chosen love. I had to work to love my stepkids.

Ron: Right.

Laura: After 33 years I now love them, and their children, very much, but it didn't happen naturally. I didn't fall in love with them the moment I laid eyes on them like I did even when my niece was born. The first time I laid my eyes on her I loved her. I couldn't believe you could love somebody so fast and so quick and so fully but I didn't have that they were 11 and 13. Who's going to expect that to be exactly the same?

So, yes, I don't want somebody to hear that it's okay to be mean to them or cruel or never love them or hate them or anything like that. It just means you love them differently.

Ron: Right so to just put a little wrap on this conversation for maybe a biological dad who's listening, what would you say to him if his wife is childless and he’s beginning to understand her pain just a little bit better based on what we're talking about? What would you encourage him to do in terms of how he loves her?

Laura: First I would recommend that he ask God to give him the eyes of her heart. The eyes of a woman—imagine this was your sister or your cousin who can't have a baby. Have that same empathy and that same compassion that you would have for your own sister or a woman in your life who desperately wants a baby by can't have one.

Second of all recognize that as much as she loves your children these are children you had with another woman. Women have a fierce competitive thing with each other, I don't know why, I don't exactly—I can't give you the anatomy of why that occurs, but women can be much more catty about this thing than men can be.

That’s actually why I think children embrace a stepdad more easily than they do a stepmom because there's more competition there between the women. You don't see competition in the men nearly as much. So I really think he needs to focus and hear her. That's all she wants you to do is hear her. Hear her heart/hear her empty womb and stop trying to make your children be enough for her. Let her grieve that empty womb.

Ron: Join her in the grieving process.

Laura: That's right. You don't understand that grieving process because you didn't have an emptiness in that area you were able to become a dad.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: Remember how exciting that was for you to become a dad or to find out you were going to be a dad for the first time. Focus on that and recognize she has lost that. It is a grief for her.

God, I believe, will give a husband those eyes and that heart if he prays for it. Maybe even read some Bible Scriptures about women who couldn't have the baby in the Scriptures in the Old Testament. How they're lamenting to the point of where somebody thought she was drunk. She's crying so hard in some of the Old Testament Scriptures.

So he’s got to join her in that grief or at least have compassion for it because if not she's going to feel isolated from him.

Ron: It's a little bit different situation but sometimes a stepmom is childless because of infertility struggles. It might be a little different scenario than what we've been talking about especially if husband has been joining her and they've been trying to get pregnant but now they can't. So they are still on the same; side they both desire to have the child but still there's this empty womb experience. Do you have any thoughts around that situation?

Laura: Yes I have to say probably of all the childless or child-free issues that I deal with with stepmoms the one that is the worst and the most dangerous for the marriage is where before the wedding Dad said, “Yes, let's have a baby together. Let's add an our's baby to the relationship. I'll even go have a vasectomy reversal,” because that's a lot of times the reason why they can't have a baby.

Then they get married and his kids are not doing well because of the remarriage or he changes his mind for some reason financial reason/some reason and then he says, “No I have changed my mind, I don't want to have another baby.” That stepmom—I want to tell you, Ron—that stepmom is in a bad place.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: She feels like she's gotten into a bait and switch.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: She feels betrayed by her husband. She feels he lied to her and many of them say to me, “If I had known this, I would never have married him that is a deal breaker for me. I do not want to go my whole life without having a baby.”

Ron: Yes, yes.

Laura: Yes, I'm telling you those marriages are in deep trouble. And it happens way more often than I thought it did. I'm not throwing him under the bus because maybe he didn't know what he didn't know.

Ron: Yes, right.

Laura: Maybe he didn't realize it was going to get so bad with his kids. I'm not saying he’s a manipulator.

Ron: But he needs to understand that this is a significant issue for her and he can't just blow that off. He’s got to come alongside her and be compassionate about it. Yes.

Laura: Well and he made a commitment, you see--

Ron: Yes.

Laura: If they can't get pregnant that's one thing but to make a commitment and then go back on it that’s bad. It’s bad for a marriage.

Ron: Let's talk a little bit about the child-free stepmom. Some just haven't maybe had a chance to have a child maybe she's young, just hasn't been married and hasn't had an opportunity to have a child yet. But there are others who are choosing not to have a child they’ve made a choice to do that. That's been your story, correct?

Laura: Yes that's correct. I had a very painful childhood and that's not uncommon for women that have had a painful childhood that they sometimes they either go in one direction or the other, they either don't want any children or they want lots of children.

So for me I was pretty young when I decided I don't want to bring a child into the world, not because I didn't think I would be a good mother but because to me the world was painful. So I didn't want to do that to somebody I love. Now again I was young. I was in a lot of pain. God hadn’t healed a lot of things in my heart yet.

But then when I married Steve and he had two sons. I knew what it was to be in a step family because my dad had remarried twice after the divorce with my mom. Then the reason I didn't want to have a child was coupled with I don't want to bring a baby into the stepfamily dynamic. It's not because I don't love my husband. It's not because I don't think I would be a good mom. I don't want a child to have to experience siblings/half siblings that come and go.

I knew what it was to have my dad add an “ours” baby in his second marriage. You automatically feel like, “Oh, he’s got a new baby. He probably doesn't love me as much now. How am I going to compete?”

Ron: Yes, jealousy.

Laura: Yes.

Ron: Yes, being pushed out. Yes.

Laura: I loved the baby. It wasn't that I had bad feelings about the baby that they had together that my stepmom and dad had together. I was 18 when they had that child, so it just was very, like, “Okay, this is one more layer of losing my dad to this new family.” So again I'm 18, I'm thinking through an 18-year-old brain.

Ron: Right.

Laura: But to me it felt like one more loss.

Ron: Yes.

Laura: I did not want to do that to Steve’s sons. I didn't want them to compete with a new baby.

Ron: So that is been your journey being a child-free stepmom. Have you faced any social judgment? I mean, people make comments. People see inside like they know exactly what's going on in our worlds. So what kinds of things have you had to deal with?

Laura: Well first of all is the meeting a brand new person and them saying to you, “How many children do you have?”

Ron: Yes. Right.

Laura: “How many kids do you have?”

Ron: Right.

Laura: My first thought always goes to my infertile friends, my girlfriends who can't have a baby, and I'm thinking about how they would be a puddle on the floor immediately if -- that wasn't my scenario but I want to say to that person, “You don't even know me!” That’s such a sensitive question.

[Both laughing]

So maybe I'm a little too preoccupied with that but anyway. I always answer "My husband has two sons from his first marriage.” That's the way I always answer that question and it shuts the conversation down immediately.

Ron: [Laughing] Which is kind of what you're hoping for right?

Laura: Exactly. Stop prying into my business! So I just love to watch their faces when I do that because you can see their eyeballs like, “Okay, what did she just say?” and “O his--”

Ron: They're doing the math: five divided by two, let me see.

[Both laughing]

Laura: Now I do it intentionally to shut them up. I've never called them my sons because A. they have a mother and that makes them uncomfortable. Some stepkids it doesn't, but it would make my stepson's uncomfortable. I've been married 33 years, they still introduce me as their stepmom.

Ron: Yes, and we would say to people you co-create how to introduce one another with your stepchildren. Talk it through together. There is no one right answer.

Laura: That's correct.

Ron: Clearly you have an understanding with your stepsons so that's comfortable. That's good.

Laura: I wondered after their mom died if they would say something different now that she was gone and they weren’t worried about being loyal to her but they’ll either say, “These are my parents,” or, “This is my stepmom, Laura.” So that's perfectly fine with me because that's who I am.

I have had people just look at me strangely like, “Why didn't you have a child of your own?” People automatically assume if you're childless by choice they automatically assume that you are selfish. That you didn't have a baby because you wanted to focus so much on yourself. That is totally untrue. Completely one hundred percent. I did not do this for me.

Ron: Well in your case, based on what you just told me, you didn't want to bring them into a hard experience in life, so that selfless.

Laura: That's right, but it's very hard to explain that to people because they automatically assume, “Oh you didn't have kids, well you did that because you wanted to be able to buy clothes and go shopping and yes.” So but I don't even go there. I don't even go there because I don't care what they think about that, so you know, yes.

Ron: Yes and I would think the other thing that people would get is, “Well you have two stepchildren, so you do have children.” They put that same expectation that stepchildren equals the same as having your own biological children.

So you're faced with that awkwardness of, “Well I don't really want to explain to you that that's not exactly the case,” because then that sounds like, “I'm being all wicked,” the wicked stepmother. Those are awkward social moments, aren't they?

Laura: They sure are. I do get a lot of women-men almost never ask that question-but women, if I’m in a group of women in particular, they’ll like, “Well you do have kids, you have your two stepsons.”

I always just respond very kindly, “They have a mom. They love their mom. I've never tried to replace their mom. So I've tried to fill an area in their life that neither their mom or their dad was able to fill. So I hope I‘ve been able to do that.”

So I let that go with that. Just, “I’m a special person in their life, but I'm not a mom to them.”

Ron: Couple of quotes that you shared on your blog from child-free stepmoms: “I'm childless by choice and I wonder what my future will look like when I get older and frail. I have no kids of my own to take care of me, and I'm doubtful his kids will help.”

I think that's a very real concern for stepmom-stepparents of all kinds, but stepmoms in particular. Yes, you're childless by choice and yet there some implication for what happens in your future.

Laura: Absolutely and the older you get the more that phrase rings true. I'm 63. My husband is 72. The chance of him dying before me is statistically greater, so it does cross my mind. I do think of those things that any woman would think of, “Who is going to take care of me when my husband dies?” Or, “What will my life be like?”

When I was very young I used to let that paralyze me with fear. I don't do that anymore. God has clearly revealed to me, “I took care of you when you were 21, I'm going to take care of you when you're 81.” So I've had to trust; it's a trust factor with God. It's a very real aspect of a childless woman's life whether it was by choice or not.

Most statistics will show, I've read several financial articles about kids who feel obligated to take care of their parents, most step kids do not feel obligated. They don't feel it's their responsibility.

Ron: At least not to the same degree as their biological parent, it’s true.

Laura: You know what? I’ve had two stepmoms, I totally see where that way of thinking would be accurate. I've got my own mother to take care of I'm not going to be taking care of two mothers or three mothers.

Ron: Yes. Yes.

Laura: So I get that. If I let it that would paralyze me with fear, but I have chosen not to. I have to pray about that when that little bit of fear pops back up. God has been so faithful to me throughout my life that I have that history to look back on and trust Him with it.

I don't expect my stepkids, if they do it great, but I don't have that expectation that they will step up. Now I'm fairly close with my two grandkids. Both of Steve’s sons each have a child. I am close with his kids. I am “Nonna” to them. I am not “Step-Nonna” so it's possible, it is possible that the grandkids will be my extended family when I get older. But again that in God's hands, I can't control that.

Ron: Yes and I think that’s a good word.

There was one other quote I wanted to share. One stepmom said, “Because of a painful childhood I never wanted to have children even though I think I would have been a good mom. I had hoped my stepkids would be a bigger part of my life but they aren't interested. There's a huge disappointment in knowing a relationship is unlikely to occur but I keep praying.”

There's always this hopefulness I think that you hold on to in any situation where expectations are not being met. It's good to hold on to the hope but begin to organize your life around what is reality as best you can see it. I think that sometimes a delicate tightrope to walk but it's what we have to do if we lean too much into hope then we can find ourselves not having any sort of backup plan.

But if we give up hope and just say, “Reality is reality and things are never going to change,” well now you're part of the problem. Your hope will never be realized. Right? You're working against your own hope. So it's a delicate tightrope but you've got to do both.

Laura: It really is true. Because we know that God can change the heart of anybody, if your stepkids have a hard heart toward you right now, that doesn't mean they will for the rest of their lives. I mean who knows?

Ron: Yes.

Laura: I know many many stepkids that have come back to their step parent and said, “I was terrible to you. You were a wonderful stepmom to me. You stepped up to the plate. You did so many things for me my own parents didn't do.” They come back say after they've been in the military or they faced some hard things in life then they go, “You know what, that woman was really amazing for me.”

Ron: Yes. Yes.

Laura: Part of that happens just with age or even when they have their own children. Then all of a sudden they go, “Wow, being a parent is so much harder than I thought it was going to be. She was so patient with me.” That happens all the time. We don't want to give up praying for our stepkids or hope that the relationship will build a bond.

I know many stepmoms that do things that why would their stepkid could want a relationship with them? They are so mean. They are so cruel. They try to keep Dad away from his kids. So you've got to evaluate your own heart what am I doing to extend an olive branch or stay at the line of reconciliation even if I'm guarding my heart and protecting myself that doesn't mean I am growing cold towards them.

Ron: You’ve been listening to my conversation with Laura Petherbridge. I’m Ron Deal and this is FamilyLife Blended.

We’ll hear one more thought from Laura in just a minute, but before we do that, do me a favor right now. Would you rate this podcast? Write a quick review. That helps others find the podcast and benefit the way you have.

What Laura did not talk about in our conversation but what we did write about in our book, The Smart Stepmom, is childless stepmoms live in a blended family but their husband doesn’t.

Let me explain what I mean by that. I can’t tell you how many times through the years a stepmom has poured out her heart to me, her husband's sitting there. She talks about how she feels powerless/an outsider, she’s confused. She feels taken for granted by her stepchildren and her husband chimes in and says something like, “You know honey that’s not right, it’s not that bad.”

Okay here’s what’s going on alright. She’s trying to be heard and get his support but he can’t understand her perspective. In part it’s because I think they have two different relationships with the children. He has a bonded relationship. He’s the biological dad, there’s a history there. They respect him.

Her relationship is fragile, unclear, hot and cold, very little respect. She’s trying to build that up a little bit. So of course he views his kids as being kind and respectful. They’re his kids, right? He doesn’t live in a stepfamily nearly as much as she does. At least in their experience that’s the way it comes out.

So sometimes a biological dad and a stepmom get stuck in this dance. She maximizes the situation. He minimizes the situation. They’re both trying to be heard. By the way, when he minimizes, it’s not that he doesn’t care. He’s actually trying to help her by getting her to think more positively/less negatively about the situation. Guys, if you’re listening that doesn’t help because she just feels invalidated, like you're not hearing anything she has to say.

But really there has to be change on both sides. They both have to learn how to hear the other person's point of view and empathize a little bit and acknowledge that the other person has a different relationship with the kids. You don't necessarily have to see it or experience it the same in order to help each other out that this.

Husbands, here's a suggestion for you: your wife has to figure out her relationship with the kids and you can't rush it, you can't talk her into feeling more positively with them and having a better relationship. That’s something they’ve got to figure out. Also really what she needs is for you to move toward her with some understanding about how difficult this is.

Oh and by the way, every once in a while, she needs you to catch one of your kids being snarky to her and you need to tell them to knock it off. Come to her aid every once in a while. That’ll tell her that you really hear her. Now that's his part.

Ladies/stepmoms, here's your part—and I think it's kind of hard by the way—what I just said your husbands is a bit of a tall order for some guys. But even if he pulls that off/even if he’s able to do it don't believe that he’s going to completely understand your experience in the family. Don’t assume he’s going to automatically understand everything as you see it. He walks in different shoes. You might have to cut him a break and meet him halfway.

Well, my thanks to Laura Petherbridge for being with me if you'd like more information about her you can find it in the show notes or you can check it out online at the FamilyLife Blended page at familylife.com/podcast.

As always, we welcome your feedback. We’d love to hear from you. How can we improve the program? What are some topics you’d love for us to be talking about on this podcast? If you have some nice things to say, please share that. Share it on social media. Who knows? Somebody else might learn about this podcast and they might benefit from it as well.

If you haven't done so already subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast, stitcher, or wherever you download your podcasts. Just search FamilyLife Blended with Ron Deal.

I do want to remind you of Laura’s books, 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom, Quiet Moments for the Stepmom’s Soul, and the book that we wrote together, The Smart Stepmom. Find more information about her and maybe one of her upcoming events at theSmartStepmom.com.

You know we at FamilyLife continue to try to create resources that are helpful to blended families. The Smart Stepfamily DVD series has been completely redone and is available for streaming on RightNow Media or you can buy it through Amazon or FamilyLife.com.

My book The Smart Stepfamily Guide to Financial Planning with coauthors Greg Pettys and David Edwards is now available as well.

This month ministry leaders from around the country are going to be meeting October 23 to 25, 2019, in Chesapeake, Virginia, for the next Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. You can help get your church—maybe even your marriage—on mission to help other blended families.

That’s the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. Learn more at SummitOnStepfamilies.com

Now before we go, I asked Laura, “What would you say to a stepmom who was really struggling right now?”

Laura: Start praying for the mom, the biological mom. I've actually started a 30-day challenge on my Facebook page. Thirty days of praying for the mom because it's very hard to hate someone and pray for them at the same time. That was a turning point in my heart. It didn't change anything for anybody else, it changed it for Laura.

So number one: start praying. If that's a problem in your life is the ex-wife, and it is for a lot of stepmoms. Thirty days, commit 30 days to pray for her every day.

The second would be to have eyes for your stepchild through God's eyes and through eyes of compassion, rather than kids who are intentionally trying to destroy your life.

The third thing is to step back a little bit. Stop trying to be supermom. Stop trying to be everything society says you're supposed to be. Step back a little bit and evaluate.

Then the fourth thing is gather with other stepmoms, good healthy stepmoms, because there is camaraderie in linking arms with people who are experiencing the same pain you are/the same troubles that you are. You know you find this with breast cancer, you find it with—like you Ron—loss of a child.

There is compassion in joining with other people who know your pain. Not to commiserate and whine. I'm not encouraging stepmoms to do that, but we have let the Internet replace people. I find so many stepmoms are so isolated today because they don't know any other stepmoms. Once they hear you feel the same way I do, they go meet for coffee. Sometimes that's worth like 10 counseling sessions.

[Both laughing]

It's just meeting with another stepmom or having a group of stepmoms that you all get together; you pray together; you look to the future together; yes, you explain your sadness or what's disappointing.

I stopped trying to get my stepfamily to fill my needs. I realized I was expecting Steve and his kids to meet needs in me that they were not designed or capable of filling. I was trying to have them do the things that only God could do in my life.

I had to really evaluate, “Laura what do you want? What do you really want in this stepfamily? How are you going to go about getting peace in your stepfamily? What kind of legacy do you want when you die and they look back at who you are?”

I don't mean that as a guilt trip. I mean that more as, what do you want their memory of you to be? Yes you had bad moments. Yes, you were the wicked stepmom sometimes. We laugh about that now but the overall presiding thoughts about you. What will--

We've been together long enough now the kids will say it to me. They’ll say, “We know you love Dad. You're so good to our dad. We know if anything happens to him you'll take care of him.” Okay now I‘ve done something right. If his kids view me as a caregiver/as a good loving wife that may be the only influence I’ve in their life and praise God if it is!

[Both laughing]

So stop trying to be more than God expects you to be and learn how to love your husband. I didn't know how to love a husband. I didn't have a dad in my home. A lot of my stepmom issues were related to my childhood wounds.

I had to get those healed/let God heal those before I could become a smart stepmom because they were so painful they were sticking in my heart so much, I didn't have anything to give because I was so busy trying to put a tourniquet on my bleeding heart.

When that became healed, I was able to look at their pain and love on their pain and pray for that and have compassion over things that made me angry before.

Ron: Next time on FamilyLife Blended we’ll hear from Brian and Diane Fromme about Diane's book Stepparenting the Grieving Child. There is a permanence to a child's loss when a parent dies that stepparents must understand.

Diane: I was okay with them; they were okay with me until the day we got married and that ceremony seals the deal: “My mom's not coming back.”

Ron: That's Brian and Dianne Fromme, next time on FamilyLife Blended.

I’m Ron Deal, thanks for listening. Thanks to our FamilyLife Legacy Partners for making this podcast possible. Our chief audio engineer is Keith Lynch. Bruce Goff, our producer. Our mastering engineer is Justin Adams. And theme music provided by Braden Deal.

FamilyLife Blended is produced by FamilyLife and is a part of the FamilyLife Podcast Network.

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