Having a baby includes a pregnancy, doctor appointments, and classes to get you ready for the birth. When you become a stepparent, you have your wedding night and wake up with a child. No matter how much you prepare for it, instant parenthood can be a shock, especially if you have never been a parent before. Whether you are parenting full-time or half-time, acquiring an older child or one who needs full-time care, becoming a stepparent is like welcoming a new birth—except the child comes without the biology or shared history that normally helps you bond. Some people describe a stepparent as an “intimate stranger,” and that is a good indicator of how you feel when you begin your role. Even if you had relationships with your stepchildren prior to marriage, they are suddenly related to you in a new way. They share your name and your home.
The morning after my husband Jere and I returned from our honeymoon, I was in a haze of delirious bliss, and when I came around the corner and saw his son Jordan standing there, I jumped. You’re still here! I said (thankfully, not out loud). I had briefly forgotten that he had spent the night with us and would be waiting for me to feed him and help him get ready for school. I thought I had prepared myself for this new responsibility, but there is nothing like instant parenthood to remind you that life cannot be rehearsed. You just have to live the scene that is in front of you—and in my case, it was a six-year-old boy who needed breakfast and a ride to school.
Every stepparent faces some form of adjustment, ranging from a low-grade to a high-octane level, and it depends on the circumstances of your situation and the amount of time you are on duty. (“On duty” is code language for the period of time the child is living with you and you are responsible for full-time care.) Jordan’s mom moved to Australia the first year of our marriage, so for me, motherhood suddenly escalated from half-time to full-time. There would be many more mornings getting ready for school, but I will never forget the first because that was when it hit me that for this period of time, this child was depending on me to take care of him. I was suddenly partly responsible for his growth and life. Though the responsibilities as a stepparent vary with the stepchild’s age, if you have custody of any children under eighteen, there will be a moment when you will be faced with the reality of parenting them.
Being a stepparent will often require you to put on your big-girl (or big-boy) pants. Whether you have to extend grace to a child who doesn’t like or respect you, or relate to a biological parent who undermines your role, it takes maturity and intention to temper your emotions. Even in the best stepparenting situations, you will be called to exercise a maturity that your stepchild does not yet have.
The best thing I did when I became a stepparent was to find community to surround me. We all know it takes a village to raise a child (step or not), and having a solid community to parent within not only enriches your stepchild’s life but also helps stabilize your new family. Our church community provided aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters for Jordan to grow up with, and it allowed me to recruit experienced moms to have on call when I didn’t have a clue what to do. Jordan is a different person because of the people around our family who became a part of his life. Suffice to say, the first thing to do as a new stepparent is to get help.
My friend Cheryl gave me some great encouragement. “You’ll get it,” she said. “I believe in you. You have been called to this. You may not feel equipped, but none of us do. You are the one called to come alongside this child and help him become who he’s meant to be.”
Something about her words resonated deep in my soul. “Called” is a word that ignites you, perhaps terrifies you, and yet inspires you to face what is in front of you with a greater purpose. “God help me,” I whimpered, and this became my most frequent prayer throughout my parenting.
When you are called to be a stepparent, your role is grounded in the belief that you were meant to be in your stepchild’s life. This has been the secret sauce of my stepparenting, which has flourished because of my faith. The strength God gives us to undergird our sacrifices has been the reason I’ve been able to make it, and the belief that I am called to stepparenting has given me greater meaning than simply being a placeholder in Jordan’s life. Affirming your calling will do the same for you.
Laurie Polich Short is an author, speaker, preacher, and stepmother. A graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, Laurie has been featured on PBS and Focus on the Family, and her popular teaching videos on RightNow Media minister to people worldwide. Laurie lives in Southern California with her husband, Jere, and stepson, Jordan. www.laurieshort.com
Laurie’s new book Grace-Filled Stepparenting is now avalable everywhere books are sold.