If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.
When Grace was about 10, I began seeing the man who would eventually become Grace and Caroline’s stepdad. My oldest child was out of the house at college, and my second oldest was at the end of her last semester of high school and not home much between school, work, and extracurriculars, so the new relationship did not impact them directly. Because Grace had no relationship with her biological father, I was open to finding that traditional family unit for her.
You might be desensitized to how often a divorced family is referred to as a broken family, or that a single parent home is code for any number of things: dysfunctional, poor, uneducated, undisciplined, depressing. Especially in my newfound attendance at Bible studies in a church that called itself spirit filled, I found that I was really attuned to the desirable marker placed on married families. I believed I was “less than” because I was divorced, and single parenting. I wanted to conform to the ideal as presented there; I wanted to be a good role model for the younger two in their defining years. A good protestant and evangelical Christian family model looks like this: two parents, kids. A less desirable model: Two parents, remarried, kids. The least desirable: divorced, single parent. I’m not saying that this particular church was not welcoming; they were much were. The model that was the pinnacle was not us. I think this probably even bears out today with fosters and adoptions. In hindsight, I can no longer make a blanket statement that a two parent home is best. Sometimes, it’s not. And I am no longer certain that this is the “ideal” that should be posited above all others.
Stepdad had a home in another community where his children were attending school. My home was in a city about 70 miles away, where Grace and her older and younger sisters were attending school. Neither one of us could move due to owning homes and not wanting to uproot children, so we made it work this way for 3 years and 4 months. This meant that when the relationship had gotten serious a year or so later, either he and his children were with us on weekends, or we were in his city, an hour away. It was not a good situation. But, when you are in love, you are saying things like, “I’d rather be with you some of the time than none at all.”
There were some positives about the arrangement, but there were also some negatives for Grace and Caroline in particular, as my older daughter had her own car and schedule with work and such. This meant that M-F, it was me, my oldest daughter, Grace, and Caroline in our established routine we had for 7 years. On weekends, it meant stepdad and kids arrived and things changed – routines, priorities, where my time was spent, sharing the house with four other people. Or it meant we went to his place, and that meant the same sorts of things, and we were then on “their” turf. This translated into obvious differences for the children like having to sleep on a sofa or not having your things around to the less obvious differences like the type of food kept in the house and the mealtimes and routines. He believed he was now the head of both homes, even though he was only at ours about one-third of the time.
Our parenting styles were different; our parenting philosophies were different. As mentioned, my oldest was in college when we met. His oldest was in elementary school. If you have multiple children with several years in between them, think about what a different parent you are for your first child as compared to your last. That gulf in experience was considerable for us. We talked about parenting philosophies only a little when dating. I had been to parenting classes in which counselors talked about the role a stepparent can take, or not take. While there is differing advice to a degree, almost all are in agreement that the biological parent should hand out the discipline, especially early on. He did not agree but rather believed as the male and Christian head of the house that authority came from him and trickled down from there. In retrospect, I think he fully believed that everyone would meld effortlessly into a 1950’s version of what a family was. My experience with child rearing had zero influence with him.
Most Christian couples will say that their marriage involves God in the union. For us, it was specific verses. Ephesians 5:22-24 was also a party in our marriage, and in our relationship. I was trying to live out the Scripture that I had been learning in the previous two or so years, and stepdad seemed to be so much further in his walk than me. He read his Bible daily, had lots of passages highlighted, and participated in a men’s Bible study at the Baptist church he attended. He talked of these specific verses repeatedly in our relationship. He often said that he was waiting for some pastor to talk about that passage, but they were usually too “scared” to do so. The passage reads:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
I know now that you cannot simply isolate this Scripture. I also know now that this Scripture is talked about quite a bit in churches, by both men and women.
Grace liked stepdad initially when we were dating. I think she enjoyed an adult male role model who would be around. He was a little overpowering for her, but she had no dad figure in her life outside of her grandfather. Stepdad rode horses and Grace loved horses; this could have been an obvious point of connection. However, when he raised his voice at her, she shut down. The best analogy I can give relates to a television show called Get Smart. The opening montage has barrier after barrier that the special agent and star of the show had to unlock and pass through. They were all very different secret doors. That was much like Grace when she shut down. You did not know how many more doors there would be to open and you did not know if they even would open. She would draw into herself. Had she been able to turn inside out, I think she would have.
I recall a time Grace and I had gone to a restaurant with him, before we were married, and his three children. We ordered a plate of cheese fries, which Grace loved, for the table. His three children descended upon the plate like vultures. Grace, who had been taught to take some and put them on her plate just sat back and got none. And she said nothing about it. The event is not significant in itself, but it is indicative of how Grace handled things for years and years. She just stuffed emotions and thoughts very far down inside her somewhere. And being around these other children who were very loud, and very different than we were was a challenge.
We married when she was 13, having been engaged for about a year. Stepdad wanted the marriage date kept secret. He was fearful that his ex-wife might thwart the marriage somehow, so he did not want the children told until the very day it was to occur. So, I went with what he believed he needed to do. The children most likely thought it was going to be a long engagement.
Grace found out about the wedding on the actual day that it happened, about 5 hours prior. It was going to be just the children present with us and conducted in the pastor’s office. She had a basketball game that morning and when I told her the news before her game, she was miserable. I had to pick her up early from the game and she cried almost the whole time during the short ceremony. In a small office, with few people, you can imagine how hard this was to overlook. We went to celebrate that afternoon with the whole family, and she perked up only a little. Even using the word “perked” is a little strong.
As is probably evident to you reading this for the first time, and as is evident to me on reflection: What a terrible idea. I do not believe that a child should dictate who you marry or whether you marry, but they certainly deserved to have known in advance.
Grace was a child who did not do well with change at this time. If you told her in advance of an impending change, she would worry. If you told her right before the event, or the change, then less time to worry but less time to adjust. It was hard to know which way to go with her, however stepdad was insistent, and Ephesians 5:22-24. Caroline was an outwardly happy child regardless, and while she was surprised, she was eager for the wedding day adventure.
The marriage seemed to exacerbate the issues with parenting. There was invariably some problem with me having assigned something for Grace or Caroline to do, and when stepdad arrived, he had different chores in mind, and those were the ones we would do. And the way he wanted chores done was different than what I expected and what my children had known for years. On those times I suggested we leave my rules, chores or directives in place for them for whatever was the issue of the moment, I was then putting my children above him. Early on in the relationship, I acquiesced.
One Saturday morning Grace asked if she could make some plans to do something with friends; I told her she could after she weeded the front flower beds. She got to work immediately. I knew stepdad was coming up that day and I knew he had his children that weekend, so they would be coming as well. Stepdad arrives with the children as Grace has just finished with the flower beds. He has his own plans for all the children, including having Grace mow the front and back yard. I told him that I had already set out chores for the day and made agreements with both Grace and Caroline. He said there was nothing wrong with additional chores, and while I do not and did not disagree, I did feel like it undermined what I had already told them. Regardless, I follow his lead.
Grace now has to mow the front and back yard. As she starts the front yard, he and I get into a discussion about her being rude to him and disrespecting him. I wasn’t present for whatever was said when he pulled up and told her to mow, right as she was finishing the flower beds. I told him I had already made arrangements with both girls for chores and plans that day. He again reiterated more chores are not bad, and, Ephesians. At this moment, Grace comes walking back in the house. She is clearly pleased with something that has just happened, and is heading upstairs to her room:
“Grace, what are you doing in the house?” he asked her.
As she continues up the stairs she replies, “The lawnmower broke.”
“And?” continues stepdad for her.
“And . . . I can’t finish mowing because the lawnmower is broken,” she responds with obvious insinuation at what a stupid thing to ask her.
This is already escalating with the anger and suspicion in his voice and her condescending answers.
“Broken how?” he demands.
Grace again responds with irritation, “I don’t know.”
“Get back outside and figure it out,” he says. Grace rolls her eyes, turns and comes back down the stairs and heads outside.
I knew we had a situation that could potentially get worse than it needed to be, so I join Grace to go outside to see if it is something simple. Neither of us know anything at all about lawnmowers beyond pulling the start cord. Stepdad comes over and quickly sees what the problem is.
Stepdad looks at Grace, “Where is the nut?”
Grace has no idea what he is referring to. “What nut?” she asks.
Stepdad’s irritation is only getting worse with each response. “The one that fell off,” he tells her.
“I don’t know,” she says with an equal amount of irritation.
“You better find it,” he demands.
With her first sincere question she asks, “How am I going to find it in the grass?”
I am looking for any way I can insert myself in the conversation to gain control of where it looked to heading.
“Maybe I have one we can use in the garage,” I offer.
Stepdad doesn’t give me eye contact for his reply but says, “No, we need to find the nut that fell off.” Then he looks at Grace and says, “Get down in the grass and look for it until you find it.”
So, Grace got down in the grass on hands and knees and started looking for this nut. I did not want to get into a discussion with stepdad in front of Grace about why we can’t just use another nut because I knew she would take advantage of the division in us. Instead, I got down in the grass with her and started looking myself. In tears, and on all fours, Grace tells me that there is no way we can find the nut in the entire back yard. Stepdad sees Grace trying to communicate with me and I am trying to be both the good wife and helpful mother. We were on hands and knees for possibly 30 minutes, in the southern summer sun, when I asked to talk to him inside the house. Grace stayed outside in the grass looking for a nut.
I asked him why we couldn’t just use another nut I might have in the garage. He said the issue wasn’t that the nut was hard to replace, but that she had just walked in the house like she was relieved of the chore. I understood that issue entirely – but had no idea that was what the point of this exercise was. I would have explicitly told her she needed to take ownership of the problem since it was her chore, and then helped figure out what a solution was. But in my mind, and in Grace’s, I understood the big problem to be that we had to find this particular nut! He and Grace wound up having to go to the hardware store to get a new nut, came home, put it on, finished mowing. Meanwhile, the other 4 children were at varying stages of playing around and of total incompleteness of their tasks because all attention had now fallen to Grace’s chore. Grace had missed the opportunity to go out with her friends because of the mowing ordeal, so she stayed at home.
This is just one of many instances in which our parenting was not inline, but I share it mainly to illustrate how the household operated. And, Grace was rude. Almost always. Curt answers, did not like when they came over, resisted every attempt, overt and weak ones, to try to draw her out to participate with the new family.
I think many new stepparents fall into this imaginary world of thinking that as soon as they say “I do,” everyone in the house does as well. It takes time. And you don't demand respect. This aspect of the story is entirely too long to go into here but know that this dynamic exacerbated what was going on in the home with Grace.
Earlier, I mentioned the desperation in feeling so alone. It might be a puzzle to understand that since I was married. Here’s how: Because he didn't get it. It wasn't his child. He was invested in telling me what I was doing wrong, and what she was doing wrong. His anger over the disrespect she showed him and me took priority for him so that the pain I felt as a parent and mother when the self-harm and the suicide threat was discovered totally escaped him. And when I tried to assert my parental authority, or question his methods of discipline, if it was not in line with what he wanted to happen, then I would hear Ephesians 5:22. He was furious, not just angry, furious with me at almost every turn when it involved the children or discipline. It was a terrible time. I was drained. I was defeated. The weekends usually consisted of stepdad being angry with me and the kids not getting along nor wanting to be away from their friends in their respective cities.
The counselor we were seeing pointed out to him that his analogy of disciplining Grace the way you would a horse, by applying pressure, was not accurate. Grace was not a horse; he did not see the difference in disciplining however, saying the principles were the same. Despite all of the above, I do believe he wanted to help; he was unable to get beyond the most literal interpretation of Ephesians 5:22-24 and his own arrogance of having all the answers.
One weekday evening in the midst of the self-harm and hospital stay, I ran across a verse that struck me and I got some 11x 14 craft paper out of one of our craft drawers. With a marker, I wrote:
2 Corinthians 4:8-9
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
I took it in my bathroom and taped it to my mirror right above my sink. I saw it when I was putting on my makeup, when I showered, when I brushed my teeth, when I was getting dressed. It became the words that helped me keep going: I was in a fight, but I was not destroyed. And this simple but effective visual reminder helped me get through my days. When your brain is so overworked and you are not grounded and you don’t think about Scripture or about turning to it, having it plastered right in front of my face was helpful.
I started writing out other Scripture for myself on those same 11x 14 pieces of paper. I placed them in my bedroom, put some on index cards in my kitchen, in my home office. And when I was too tired to keep pressing on, to keep up the routine with Grace, to keep trying to meet my husband’s desires or wants, to be at the service of everyone, I would pass by an index card or a Scripture taped to my wall. And it helped in that moment.
To be clear, even though I wrote Scripture on large pieces of paper and taped it up around the house, or had some verses on index cards, I really wasn’t making an effort to be any kind of prayer warrior. That time in my life was just so consumed with Grace and her sick behaviors and navigating stepdad's unhappiness and trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for Caroline, that I didn’t make room for much else in my head. I also had my oldest daughter exploring colleges, and my oldest child finishing up, and I had a fulltime job. But – what writing Scripture on big pieces of paper and hanging it all over the house DID do, was re-enter it into the equation at least. It seems so silly to have written it down and have it all over the house – yet not really dwell on anything I had written! It was literally right in front of my face.