The Emotional Gauntlet

Last summer, my oldest stepson was caught with drugs in Florida and sent to jail. We ended up talking over the phone and had this amazing conversation. Both crying, both asking for forgiveness, with some genuine healing taking place. It’s been quite the journey since I first met him as a toddler.

It was a sunny and brisk February morning in 1999. This beautiful blonde lady and her two dark-haired little boys were entering the foyer of my church. I immediately knew in my spirit that she was the woman I was going to marry.

Caramel and I got married in December of that year. Her boys were 2 and 4 years old at the time. I didn't have any kids of my own yet, but we soon added more children to the mix.

Going into marriage, we were very optimistic. Everything was going to work out. We were in love. I had this conviction that I needed to treat all of the kids equally. To me, we were all one family.

But it wasn’t long before the wounds from her first marriage began to surface. Normal routines could trigger fears of betrayal in her. She recalled how on the days her ex planned to rendezvous with another woman, he’d put on clean clothes, shave, and try to look his best. So when I’d spruce up in the mornings for my government job, painful memories and doubts would at times boil up in her. Could I also betray her?

I really wasn’t prepared for the emotional gauntlet. I was hurt and angered that she’d think me capable of having an affair. I think it affected my step-parenting. Out of my own pain, I was overly harsh at times in my admonition or correction of the boys. I wish I had done a better job of managing my emotions and of opening my heart to understand the pain both she and the boys were going through.

Read my wife's story - Blended Family: Caring for the Wounded

There’d been such a huge loss. A large part of their soul was gutted when their family was ripped apart. My oldest stepson and I would be driving places, and I could tell there was all this stuff beneath the surface - especially a sense of betrayal because of his dad. But as his stepfather, I didn’t think it was my place to help him process that.

I knew I couldn’t replace their dad. I tried to be there and help out the best I could, but I knew I could never fill that void. Even though we laughed together, wrestled, and had fun, it’s not the same as them getting these things from their dad. Now I understand the importance of helping stepkids to also experience these things with their biological father, if at all possible.

There was even a time where it became clear that his dad was coaching him to get into a fight with me.

For the first few years, the boys would go every three weekends to their dad's. I would always do the exchanges. It was hard to pass them off when we couldn’t trust that their well-being was a priority at the other house. I found myself conjecturing and being suspicious about what was going on there. For example, even though the lawyers said not to, he would coach the kids repeatedly to try to get them to live with him.

At one point they phoned to change the exchange location to make it more convenient for them. But after driving more than six hours and being stuck in traffic because of the new route, I arrived late and they had already left. “You didn’t show,” they later said. So I made the six-hour trip again two days later, which they were not expecting. I was determined not to allow them to undermine the living arrangement.

When you come in as a stepdad, you often become a challenge to the biological dad - doing things he thinks he should be doing. They can start to transfer their anger onto you. There was even a time where it became clear that his dad was coaching him to get into a fight with me. It was totally out of character for my stepson. From where I stood, it felt like he was capitalizing on his son’s vulnerability and loyalty.

When the boys finally did move to live with their dad in their late teens, they started to get involved in drugs and other destructive behaviors. I knew their dad was lying to me about some things. I found it really hard not to hold resentment and anger in my heart. The only thing that helped was to let it go through prayer, even praying for their dad. It was hard to hate somebody I prayed for. I wasn’t going to let my anger at him harm my own soul and family.

My stepsons and I are now in a better place. There’s been some significant healing. But there are still times when I’ll be the lightning rod for their pain and anger. I understand that, so I don’t walk around feeling sorry for myself or thinking it will never happen again. It’s going to happen again; I need to accept how their journeys are progressing.

Being negligent would have been much easier, especially emotionally, but my love for the kids wouldn't let me.

I which I could take some days back. I wish I could take some of the attitudes and approaches back. I probably should have tried to relax a bit more and not be so suspicious. But I had this passion and concern for the boys, and I still do. Being negligent would have been much easier, especially emotionally, but my love for the kids wouldn't let me. On the other hand, getting involved meant I sometimes micromanaged and tried to control things too much. I pushed my opinions onto Caramel and the boys more than I should have on some occasions instead of respecting their decisions.

I’ve come to realize how vital it is to take advantage of resources as a family in order to navigate all of the emotions, pain, and confusion. An outside, neutral person can really help to sort things through so you make choices you won’t later regret. If you’re feeling inadequate as a stepfather, know that you are not alone. It’s an incredibly hard job that often feels impossible. If you leave your information below, one of our free and confidential mentors will connect with you soon to offer encouragement and support.

Read my wife's perspective on our blended family.

Photo Credit: Lola Media