Caring for the Wounded

“You know mom, blood is thicker than water.” The words bit. They were hard to receive. My 22-year old son was commenting on his upbringing and the undertone was clear: you should have prioritized me above your new husband.

While I believe the best thing I can do for my children’s sense of security is to put my husband first, they are children. Coming into a blended family, they processed and saw things differently. When I married Tom, it was quite natural for my two boys, 2 and 4 years old at the time, to think they were more important and should receive more of my attention. Clearly, eighteen years later, some of those feelings still remained.

When we were planning to get married, we thought we were prepared. We had this naïve, idealistic outlook. Sure, there would be challenges ahead, but we’d done our reading and thought we just needed to apply what we’d learned. But Tom was not prepared for all of the emotions he would face, and I soon learned I hadn’t fully worked through the pain of abandonment and betrayal from my first marriage.

Read Tom’s story of Being a Stepfather.

My wounds started to cause us pain. I had these haunting doubts about Tom’s fidelity. He never gave me a reason to think he would cheat on me, but I still found it hard to fully trust him. When he’d get ready in the mornings, trying to look his best for his government job, I sometimes feared that, like my ex who self-groomed before a rendezvous, he was actually planning to meet “someone.” This affected the kids too. In Tom’s hurt and pain, he was sometimes overly critical of the boys.

There was a lot to sort through. We had the ongoing disagreements between my ex and I, tension arising in our marriage, and we soon had more children born into the mix. Life was never neat and tidy. Even seemingly small things, like planning holidays or Christmas, could escalate into major conflicts.

When I hear someone say that the father of their children is not involved at all, part of me says, “Oh, that would be nice.”

I was the primary custodial parent for most of the growing-up years. Tom would do the exchanges, which at one point required a six-hour drive that really wore him out. I’m really grateful that he was willing to do that. We’ve never had a conciliatory relationship with my ex and his wife. She was the women he cheated on me with and eventually left to marry, so I had little desire to cultivate a relationship with her. Tom did try reaching out to him a few times. Maybe we could have tried harder. I don’t know.

Over the years, my ex would try to convince the boys to come and live with him. He brought us to court repeatedly to try to secure custody. The judge looked at the situation every time and decided that it was in their best interests to remain with me as the primary caregiver. It felt like he was constantly trying to undermine our authority in their lives. At the heart of it, his main motivation seemed to be to get out of paying child support. He wanted to have more resources for his new family.

The court battles were incredibly taxing on all of us. On the one hand, Tom would want to let me take care of it on my own, but he sometimes wanted to get in there and try to control the outcome. The boys would be aware of this, and so it caused a lot of stress for them as well. At the risk of being overly transparent, when I hear someone say that the father of their children is not involved at all, part of me says, “Oh, that would be nice.” I knew my boys need their dad, but it sure got complicated and emotionally draining for everyone.

It eventually came to the point where the boys did want to go live with their dad. As teenagers, they began to talk about the freedoms their dad was promising and how we were too restrictive. “Dad’s house” became the greener grass. It came to a point where I said to Tom, “Let’s just let the boys go.” I was so weary of the battle. Even though I thought it might not be best for them, I hoped they would figure that out and want to come home.

My oldest son said something very revealing to me this past summer: “I didn’t let you know a lot of the pain I was going through.”

My oldest was seventeen when he went to live with his dad. His brother did the same when he was sixteen. Within a year, my oldest spiralled out of control, got into drugs, and was kicked out of that home the day he turned eighteen. Both of them are now in rehab for drug-addiction and receiving counseling. They have since both returned to live with us for different periods.

My oldest son said something very revealing to me this past summer: “I didn’t let you know a lot of the pain I was going through.” I think a lot of stepchildren are good at hiding their emotional wounds. It takes a really wise parent to be aware of what’s going on underneath the surface. I’ve learned that I can’t just wait for those all too rare moments when they’ll pour out their hearts to me. I have to be intentional about making room to really listen. That takes a lot of humility because I’m opening myself to hear things I don’t want to hear. It means being willing to be a lightening rod to shoulder some of their pain because I’m safe — even if it feels toxic.

It’s hard, but we’ve also had to learn to detach ourselves a bit emotionally. We’re there for them. That’s not going to change. But it helps to understand that they are now adults dealing with their own sets of hurts. There’s no set timetable for that process to resolve.

Looking back, I think it would have been wise on our part to find someone - a neutral party - for my oldest to confide in. I wish we had been intentional and gone for counseling as a family to help process some of the issues together. He’s now in a situation, because of his drug addiction, where he is forced to get counseling and uncover the pain he’s been trying to medicate. Maybe he would be in a better place now if we had.

Having a blended family is no easy task. There are layers upon layers of complexity. It’s draining. If you are struggling to see through the fog and pain of it all, I want you to know that you are not alone. We have confidential mentors who will listen and offer support. Just leave your contact info below and you’ll hear back from a member of our team soon.

Read my husband's story of being a stepfather.