“Will you always be my stepmom?”
Down went the clean laundry I was busy folding. I looked up. My stepson was watching me intently. It was just the two of us, in a rare bit of quiet. I searched for an answer.
“Well, I will be your stepmom as long as your daddy and I are married.” I wanted to be accurate, but also reassuring. “So that means yes, I will always be your stepmom. Because your daddy and I are going to stay married no matter what.”
Eyes wise and sad, he looked back at me.
“Don’t be so sure.” He said it like an old and knowing teacher, trying to help me out of my youthful naïveté. He was six.
In the stunned silence that followed, he scampered back to his Lego while I struggled to absorb what had just happened and what it meant.
That was when I realized just how uncertain the world is for my stepsons. In my stepsons’ world, families fall apart. Moms and dads don’t love each other anymore, and even the most hopeful couples are doomed to break their promises. In their world, you can’t count on grown-ups to follow through.
Such a different world from the one I knew as a child. In my world, Mom and Dad smooched in the kitchen while we kids groaned in mock horror. They took off on romantic weekends and cross-country skied together all winter long. Never once did the possibility of divorce even occur to me. In my world, marriage was forever and it was wonderful.
In my mind, I held the two worlds up side-by-side — one incredibly sad and one incredibly sure. My heart hurt, and I touched the edges of a compassion alarming in its dimensions. They were too young to have lost this much. And none of it was up to them.
Start to finish, the encounter lasted maybe two minutes. But they are minutes that have stuck with me. More precisely, I have stuck to them. I keep going back to them, over and over. I need to, you see.
I need to feel my way back into that moment, hear the devastatingly casual tone of voice, look into the skeptical six-year-old eyes. Don’t be so sure. I need to let that sorrow wash over me again, and then again.
Compassion is a really good cure for resentment.
Resentment is a swamp. On the surface, there’s calm. Underneath you find simmering hurt and anger. Once you’re caught in the muck of it, it’s tough to extract yourself. Resentment clings to you.
When I became a stepmom, I discovered how easy it is to get stuck in resentment. And how difficult it is to find your way back out.
Life in a stepfamily involves a lot of loss. Small losses, big losses — they pile up in a heap.
For years I watched in wistful delight as my newlywed friends took off on cozy romantic weekends and Saturday adventures. At long last, it was my turn to get married. But there were no carefree, kid-free weekends when Michael and I started newlywed life.
My first baby was my husband’s third. First heartbeats, first kicks, first labour and delivery — for me it was miraculous and for Michael it was more of the same. He did his best, but he couldn’t help it that none of this was new to him. At a time when I wanted it to be the two of us heading into the wild unknown of parenthood, I felt alone.
Most difficult of all are the losses that ripple outwards to include our little ones. Already, I see the confusion on my son’s young face as he tries to work out how it is that his brothers have a different mommy and why they must come and go so often. He too is growing up in a world that’s less simple and sure than my own was.
A few months from now, my maternity leave will end. My boys — one of them still a baby — will be in daycare from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., five days a week. How I would love a more sane balance — working three-ish days a week while my kids are still small. But stepfamily finances are the opposite of simple, and so back to work I will go, praying that God will take good care of them.
With every loss, I find myself at the edge of resentment, toes squelching in its mud. I’m tempted to wade in deep, to stew in all the ugly feelings: anger, hurt, envy, self-pity. Now and then I do a cannonball, heedless of how far down I might go. Down far, to a murky place where I am angry with everyone: my husband, my stepkids, myself, God, all the imaginary people whose lives are easier than mine, anyone who ever told me I should get married, the Universe for being unfair.
What I found in the murky dark is that when you dive into resentment, you become a resentful person. As in full of resentment. You begin to carry the swamp around with you. It becomes tough to see the beauty in your own life when you’re oozing muck out onto everything you care about. Joy becomes impossible to find.
If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, I’d live my whole life in the mud.
Jesus said the Spirit is Living Water, a whole rushing river of it, flowing from within (John 7:37-38). Again and again, I find myself eyeball-deep in sludge. Again and again, the Spirit (a gift I can never repay) bubbles up into a torrent pure and strong and washes me head to toe. I’m left blinking in the sunlight, and my life looks all shiny again. The whole time full of bright treasures that I couldn’t/wouldn’t see because I was too busy being mad and sad.
More times than I can count it has happened, this process of loss to resentment to renewal. By now, God is teaching me some shortcuts. Not to deny the loss, no. Because that is never true, and He wants me to live true.
I do these things. I take my eyes off my own loss and I look at my stepsons. I hear those words again — “Will you always be my stepmom?” I find that memory and I let the compassion come. Compassion, I’ve discovered, doesn’t leave much room for resentment.
And I do this. I stand at the edge of the swamp, toes in the mud. Right behind me (there all along) is the Living Water flowing. So I turn instead to the rushing river and give my feelings to Jesus. Each one is like a little paper boat — I fold it up, set it afloat, and watch as the Living Water carries it away. Some days, I fold up the same paper boat a dozen times, and kneel down a dozen times to let it go. The Spirit doesn’t seem to mind.
There is still loss. But this way my eyes stay clear. I see not just the hard things, but also the priceless gifts: love, commitment, family. And I smile through my tears. Thank you.