Parenting and Blending Families

Blending familyBLENDING OUR FAMILY

I am flying to New Zealand this week to watch my daughter Chloé graduate.  She’s worked hard, and I’m very proud of her double major in Psychology and Education from the University of Auckland.  There is something about seeing your kid graduate that makes you let out an internal sigh of relief.  We finished our duty of forced education, and the result has been good.

All three of our girls are my stepdaughters. I don’t like the term “step.” It makes me cringe on the inside. It seems to verbally create a separation that we have worked hard to eliminate. Even the term “blended family” can sound violent. It works okay if you think of it less like an electric blender and more like an artist’s soft blending brush. These terms are harsh, but creating a new family has actually been a very satisfying journey for me.

To celebrate Chloé’s success this week, I want to share some of the things John and I have done to parent our girls.  All three of them are gorgeous, sweet, and strong.  They are easy to love.  Like all kids, they have had their share of struggles and mistakes, but they have navigated life quite well.

Before John and I got married, he ran a household of fun.  The Ping-Pong table enjoyed a permanent setup in the living room, roller skates were perfectly acceptable indoors, and the pantry was stocked with an array of sugar-packed junk food.  Bedtimes were non-existent, and church youth leaders came through at all hours.

As a single woman, I had a quiet, ordered and neat condo, where every kitchen bowl and fork had an assigned location and my closets were organized by color and type of garment.  When the two of us married, we had to meet in the middle, starting with the double mountain of laundry: clean vs. dirty.  The girls had no choice but to adapt to the compromises John and I made.

GETTING MY HEAD AROUND ITArtist brushes with a half finished painted canvas

John and I read several books on blended families before we got married, but one in particular had really practical advice and struck us as great sense.  Ron Deal wrote the book, The Smart Step Family, which I highly recommend that anyone parenting a blended family read.  The major points of the book have stuck with me over the last nine years.  They really helped us be successful.

The first piece of advice was to chill out, and lower your expectations.  It takes a long time for a kid to see their stepparent as a parental figure.  Mr. Deal says to view the relationship as a crockpot, not a microwave.  Use low heat over a long time.  It’s pretty much the opposite of the passionate love affair you have with that child’s parent.  The experts say if your stepchild child is seven when you marry, they will not likely see you as a full parent for another seven years.  You can’t rush it.  Just like any leadership relationship, it takes years to get close.  Connecting to a child takes even longer because you have very little in common.  Calm patience that stretches over years is required.  The demands of cultivation and such slow germination mean that the relationship becomes incredibly precious when it finally flowers.

The second bit of advice we followed was to allow the biological parent to be the disciplinarian and to lay down the rules.  We determined together what the rules were, but when it came to the hard conversations, John took the lead.  When discipline was needed, we discussed it, but John handled its dispensation.

I had to mentally prepare myself to financially take on children who were too young to appreciate the sacrifices I was suddenly making for them.  When I was single, I spend my money on what I wanted or needed.  As a stepparent, you don’t have the hormonal instincts to put your kids first.  Instead of being a biological imperative, it’s a decision to love.  In this respect, step parenting was one of the most unselfish things I have done.  I had to love them way God does, giving with no expectation back.  This was not easy, and I certainly didn’t do it perfectly, but it deepened my character in important ways.  Parenting made me less self-centered.  For so many, this requirement of step parenting comes as a surprise that may take out their marriage.

PUTTING OUR MARRIAGE FIRST

John and I have been able to communicate really well about our thoughts and feelings.  We had a deal between us that I would never put him in the position where he had to choose between his girls and me, and in exchange, he would prioritize my needs first.  He is an amazing father and husband.  He worked hard to include me in his parenting rather than make decisions about his girls in isolation.  I have tried to be aware of my emotions and as honest with him as possible about my feelings and what the real issues are.

I have heard some real blended family horror stories.  These girls are just as responsible for our successful blend as John and me.  They wanted me in their family, and that has made all the difference.  When John and I started dating, the girls were away.  Sharayah was fifteen at the time.  She told me last year that when she came back home, her dad was happier than she had ever seen him.  Before she ever met me, she told herself that whatever was making him this happy had to stay.  She was determined that we would work, for the sake of her father’s happiness.  That’s one remarkably selfless fifteen year-old! Chloé and Brooke have been just as open and welcoming. None of the girls have ever pushed me out or been defiant.

PARENTING AS LEADERS

Parenting in a leadership environment can be tricky.  Everyone has an opinion about your kids’ behavior, and most of the time, they are held to a higher standard than normal kids.  We have done our best to talk through these moments as they arose, encouraging the girls to view people through eyes of grace.  We trust that most people mean well, even when they are misguiding or hurtful in their advice or comments.

I have a friend who is a pastor’s kid who remembers being told as a kid to shape up because people were watching.  If we teach our kids to behave because of leadership pressure, chances are they will wind up resenting the church.  I believe a better approach is to teach our kids to make good choices both for their own good future and to please Jesus with their character.

two arms of lovers and young daughterA CULTURE OF TRUST

We have worked to create a culture of trust in our family.  We trust our girls, and honesty is a vital part of maintaining that trust.  Trusting them meant we haven’t violated their privacy by digging through their things or their communications.  When you believe the best about people, they want to live up to your standards.

Kids want to make us proud.  I’ve seen the hurt in our girls’ eyes when they felt like they had disappointed us.  I remember feeling that with my parents.  We create the identities of our children by the way we treat them and speak to them.  If we treat them like hooligans, that’s who they will believe themselves to be.  If we treat them with respect and value, that’s who they will be.  Like all parenting, this is built over a long, long time.

My parents were impressively good.  Now that I’ve had to figure stuff out, I’ve tried to imitate their parenting style.  When I was little, they were very restricting about what I could do or watch or listen to.  As I became a teenager, they let go of many of those rules and focused on consequences instead of rules.  They had conversations with me like this: “The consequence of staying up late is being tired in school the next day.  Exhaustion means you don’t absorb information well.  Lower grades mean you don’t get scholarships for college.  College loans haunt you for decades.”

These conversations helped me understand that small decisions can have significant impact.  I made good decisions most of the time, but I didn’t always.  My parents were never enablers of poor decisions.  I had to fix my own mistakes.  When I got in so deep I couldn’t get myself out, they would help me, and because I wasn’t expecting help, I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

I’ve tried to help our girls see that the little decisions add up to big consequences.  It’s a delicate balance, however, because we try to love a whole lot and lecture very little.

For this week, however, I couldn’t be prouder of the choices Chloé has made.  All three girls make me proud, but this week is for Chloé.

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Balancing the Scales: Ministry and Family

Figuring out how to be both a good mom and a good leader has been a challenging journey for me. I made a calculated change to my lifestyle last spring when I resigned from my staff role at church after twelve-plus years. My husband John and I now travel full-time together with our youngest and the only one left at home, Brooke, who is fourteen. We put her into an online homeschool program so that she could travel with us. She’s at an age when I really have to be tuned in. Lucky for me, she is a total joy. I love the intimacy of our life on the road together as a family.

Brooke told us recently that she is enjoying the fact that she sees me more than once a week now. It took me aback for a minute, because she has never complained about my schedule. The reality was that we did have seasons when our schedules were so divergent that I didn’t see her for days at a time. I think I was subconsciously sort of hoping that she didn’t notice. No such luck. On the other end of the spectrum, when taking time away from ministry for family, I felt the weight of my responsibilities, especially when it meant missing a major event.

One of the most frequently asked questions I get asked by girls in church leadership is, “How do I balance ministry and my family?” I can’t give anyone an easy answer, because the balance is different for everyone, and it varies from season to season. Sometimes the demands of our families or our ministries make us lean a little in one direction. Unfortunately, neither side is going to take the other as a good excuse for my lack of attention if I live out of balance continuously. It’s always going to be a little bit messy, and we just have to be okay with that. Every now and then we may reach that perfect state of Zen where we feel like both are in balance and happy. Enjoy it while it lasts. What works one year may not work the next. It’s a continual adjustment. If we are aware and tuned in to both sides, however, we can teeter-totter on the scale between the two demands as needed.

Where family is concerned, the absolute must-dos have to be customized to the kid. Gary Chapman wrote an important book called, The Five Love Languages. If you aren’t familiar with it, check it out. Gary developed a little online quiz that kids can take so parents can figure out what their child’s love language is. If kids aren’t receiving love in their preferred “language,” they are going to feel disconnected. Moms have to know what is important to their kid and deliver on that.

Kids who are involved in our ministry are going to feel far more connected to us. Can they do something to help out? It might be a really simple job like making copies or sorting things, but it will help them feel like they matter. Ministry has some significant benefits. Our kids get access to things that other kids don’t. Don’t be shy about giving them opportunities, access to green rooms, or access to relationships with great people. When our kids are connected to the fun parts of ministry, they are far less inclined to be resentful about our involvement.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t vent about ministry in front of the kids. If we bleed all over our kids, they are going to hate whatever got us hurt. Several years ago, I was rushing some food prep on Christmas Eve. I was under the gun because I had to get to church to play for Christmas Eve services. In my hurry to chop some onions, I sliced my hand open. It bled for over an hour before I grabbed Brooke and went to the emergency room for a quick stitch to make sure I wasn’t going to bleed all over my keyboard. It wasn’t serious and I was more annoyed by the inconvenience than anything. I didn’t realize until later how much of an impact that had on Brooke. She has brought the story up several times over the years and still gets nervous when I handle knives. Seeing me hurt traumatized her. The same is going to be true for ministry. We take bumps and bruises along the way, and if we are healthy leaders, we learn something, heal, and keep moving. We forget all about whatever the issue was once we have moved on. It’s much harder for our kids to move on if we have exposed them to our pain in the moment. For our kids to love the church, they don’t need to see every injury we take on our leadership journey.

If your spouse isn’t involved in church leadership, the same thing applies–don’t vent to him. If the only perspective our family has about ministry is what frustrates or hurts us, they are going to see it as a bad thing. I’ve been very guarded about the conversations I have around our kids, particularly where it concerns our pastors. I don’t want them to ever see pastors as anything but awesome. Pastors are major pipelines, bringing Jesus to our families. If kids feel guarded toward their pastors, they are far less likely to receive from them.

There are two sides to this scale. If we say that family is always priority and drop our ministry responsibilities at the first sight of the school calendar, we will do damage to our leadership. Both sides need consistent attention and energy to flourish. The call of God on our lives is not so narrow to make us choose either/or, but it’s both. We can be good moms and wives and be good leaders at the same time.

There are also a few must-dos on the leadership side of the scale. Consistency is critical for earning people’s respect. If we bite off more than we can successfully execute, we move backward, not forward in our leadership. Before committing, we need to think through our schedules and be realistic about family and job obligations. Commit to what can actually be accomplished well. People trust leaders that they can count on. When we engage our leadership environments or our teams, we have to come prepared. This means be on time and do the homework before arriving. If we come in disorganized, late, or without knowing our stuff, we lose leadership credibility. It’s very hard to respect someone who leads unprepared.

Girls, if we jump in and out of visible leadership roles and fail to consistently presence ourselves in leadership environments like staff meetings or leadership meetings, people will mentally sideline us to the non-essential areas of responsibility. If I don’t create a perception that I am mentally present and involved, people will assume that I don’t want to be. It’s my responsibility to create people’s perception of me. Whatever we commit to do, we have to do it consistently in order to earn respect.

If you have totally disengaged for a season because of an infant or some other reason, the way you reengage matters a great deal. I’ve seen girls who came back from an extended season out and struggled to reestablish their leadership, even when the position was waiting for them. Some came back in with an iron fist, trying to stamp their authority all over their teams. This was met with resentment and resistance. It’s much easier for everyone if we ease our way back in, with low pressure and high affirmation. Team dynamics change continually. It takes a little time to watch and learn what works differently now. Reengaging effectively requires that we relearn our awareness of the team’s morale and level of buy-in. We only learn this by listening and watching. In the early stages of reengaging, we have to ask more questions than we answer.

We don’t have to keep the lines clean between the two sides of the scale. In fact, mixing family with ministry is the best solution. The most effective female leaders I know meet with people around their kids’ schedules. They will do a ministry-based meeting on the sidelines at their kids’ games, at their house while their kids are doing homework, or at the dance studio while their kids are getting a lesson. Others set up rooms at church for their kids to work or play in next to their offices and bring them along. The Bible says a three-strand cord is not easily broken. Ministry life can lend strength to family life, and family life definitely lends strength to ministry. When ministry is our life, not an extra thing we do, it extends into every part of the way we live. Doing ministry with other families then means that we are doing life together, and the lines between family and church get very blurry. I have found this to be the best way for us.

I know that some of you who are reading this are seasoned leaders. Please post any thoughts you might add to the conversation or suggestions for ways you have found to balance the two sides of the scale or to bring them together.