By Amber Roberts
Nearly twelve years ago, I married my husband. I knew the moment I opened my door for our first date that I would marry him, and from that moment forward it felt as if I could exhale for the first time in years. He was then and continues to be an answer to every prayer I had prayed in the years before we dated. I loved him and his children (17 and 8 years old) so much and I couldn’t wait to create a life with them. I knew their history. I knew the pain they had experienced together. But my vision of our future was a very rosey one: full of holidays, celebrations and fond memories much like the childhood I had experienced growing up.
In truth, I was stepping into a situation scarred by trauma, mistrust, and hurt. They were three broken people with hearts that needed much more than I alone could offer them. My idealistic view of our future was quickly given a reality check as we started our lives together. I was stepping into a broken place: one that my best intentions and biggest dreams could have never prepared me to enter.
I want you to know that I write this with the benefit of twelve years of hindsight. In fact, I’ve re-written this a number of times because I don’t want to give you even the slightest impression that I did everything correctly. In truth, it was the absolute opposite. I made mistakes—so many mistakes—and I continue to make them. Sometimes I learned from them, and others it took a bit of life experience to understand what direction to go on this journey. I also write this as someone who is starting the journey of foster parenting, so I need these reminders as much as anyone.
So now that we’ve set aside all illusions of perfection, let’s take a look at what I know now, and what I wish I would have known back then.
1. My biggest plans and best intentions didn’t erase the history that existed before I was in the picture. So many times, we run to the broken and hurting with a savior mentality. We want to help, which is commendable, but our best intentions: our presence, our assistance, and our plans will never erase the past experiences that our loved ones have endured. I learned this the hard way. I went into my new family thinking that by creating a happy home, celebrating all the things, and showing our kids a healthy, happy relationship I would make it better. Whereas my intentions were honorable and had value, they weren’t even a band-aid to the scars and suffering that had happened—and they wouldn’t be able to change the past or the things that would happen in the future. You see, I saw this as the beginning of an exciting new book for all of us. In truth, it was just a continuation of a bigger, more complex story for those of us who had been hurt the most.
The result? Nearly all of my attempts at creating a culture of happiness fell flat. My kids never really had the reaction I wanted. At times they were either unmoved, underwhelmed, or seemed to be actively trying to sabotage my best efforts. I stubbornly dug in and tried harder while my husband tried to force it along with me in an effort to be supportive. Were there glimpses of happiness and contentment? Absolutely, but it was a struggle and the more negative reaction we experienced, the more difficult it
became to take those good times at face value. On the surface was happiness, but just underneath was a feeling of dread—waiting for the other shoe to drop—always anticipating the downfall. It was a disaster. We spent so much time trying to manufacture joy when all our kids really wanted was someone to understand them.
2. Invite and acknowledge discomfort- I am by nature a problem solver. I’m a textbook enneagram six. I wear my ability to troubleshoot and prepare for worst case scenarios like a badge of honor. I constantly evaluate, assess, and correct. It’s just who I am. Ironically, it took me too long to realize that the best way to “fix” the brokenness in my family was not to fix it at all. Instead of correcting course and finding a solution, what I really needed to do was sit in the uncomfortable and leave situations unresolved.
When it seemed to work, my band-aid mentality only served as a short-term fix until the bleeding started again and left us scrambling as a family. Our healing truly began when we stopped searching for solutions and started listening to our kids and seeing the problem itself. This didn’t happen in one conversation. It was days, weeks, months or more of praying, observing, listening, and learning. It meant arranging counseling so that our daughter could work through her trauma with someone who could help her more than we could. It meant acknowledging our own hurt and our needs as parents. It meant waiting…so much waiting…while our kids came to realizations about their needs for themselves and could communicate them and their expectations to us. It meant raw, honest, sometimes hurtful conversations–the kind of conversations that stretch into the early morning hours–and hearing words we never dreamed we would hear our kids say. It meant receiving feedback instead of always being the ones giving it. It meant that people outside of our family would see our imperfections. It meant being ok that the outside world didn’t always understand us.
Most of all, it meant seeing our kids as Christ does: Broken but so beautiful with so much potential to be healthy and whole again.
3. Be Teachable – I grew up thinking my parents knew everything. They always seemed to take care of every need before I realized I even had a need. My mom is the ultimate helper—even now loving us and caring for us as adults with grace and selflessness. My dad has always been the ultimate source of calm and reassurance. He is our steady hand and our constant. I never remember seeing them throw their hands up in desperation or distress. Now as a parent, I realize there were likely many of those moments, but I never realized it. So when I stepped into a family of my own, I knew the type of parent I wanted to be. As hard as I tried, I never quite achieved even a fraction of who I wanted to be for my kids.
It took years for me to realize that I needed to work three words into my parenting vernacular: “I don’t know.” Was it a magic sentence? No, but it did wonders for my relationship with my family. My kids were hurting, grieving, confused, and searching for things they couldn’t even accurately identify. They experienced all of this on top of the normal chaos of adolescence, teenage maturity, and figuring out adulthood. They were constantly grasping for something, even when they didn’t realize it. My instinct was to have it all together—be strong for them when they needed me. In reality, that was the last thing they needed or even wanted. They didn’t need to see me as the authority on their problems with all the answers, they needed me to show them vulnerability. They wanted to know that even though I didn’t have first-hand knowledge of their experiences, I was a little lost too.
Sometimes the biggest comfort isn’t in having all the answers, but it’s found in having an ally. When they realized that I was not only learning with them, but I was their partner: walking with them through wherever this journey led them and willing to learn from them and others about their needs, our relationship changed. We often times see our vulnerability as a weakness when in reality it opens the door for us to be strengthened by others. It makes us better, more effective parents and models such an important characteristic that our kids need to be healthy, productive humans.
4. Make Room- You need to come to this realization: Your family is bigger than the people depicted in the pretty photo on your fireplace mantle. In truth, there are so many more people in your home. Sometimes that means exes, biological parents, and influential adults. Other times this means that trauma, hurt, abuse, neglect and grief elbow their way into the picture.
You have a choice: either fight it or welcome it. If you fight it, you are likely setting yourself up for a long, arduous battle which you will probably never win. However, if you welcome it, you are not only acknowledging this part of your family’s history, but you are honoring it as a vital part of the DNA that makes up those who have experienced it and continue to be affected by it.
In truth, we cannot fully love people to the fullest extent if we are not willing to honor everything that makes them who they are. This is the embodiment of Christ’s love. As our Creator, He knows everything about us: faults, failures, secret thoughts, and willful disobedience; and he not only surrounds us with His love, but He forgives us continues to pursue a relationship with us. When we commit to making room for ALL of our people and ALL of the broken that comes with them, we are loving them as Christ does and pointing them to Him. This means loving without caveat, exception, or expectation. This means stepping aside to let the broken things take up space as needed. This means inviting honesty even when it’s not easy to accept. This means taking them by the hand for the long-haul, advocating for them and continuing to do the work with them.
It would be lovely if we learned lessons once and committed them to practice forever, but for me that rarely happens. In fact, I’ve written all of this while reminding myself that I’ll likely have to revisit these principles in the near future. I know that whereas these are a good set of broad guidelines, no situation is exactly the same. With each new friend we welcome into our home, we will encounter a unique set of circumstances that require us to continue learning these principles and how they apply to our home—and even how they affect those who are already members of our family. I’m grateful for the opportunity to start over again and again, for the wisdom that hindsight brings into each situation, and for the opportunity to extend God’s grace and love to others (and ourselves) daily.
To hear more about blended families, check out this week’s episode of the Love Where You Are podcast where Somer speaks with mom of 8, author, speaker, podcast host and founder of The Lucas Project, Jess Ronne.