Step families are not the same as nuclear families. They’re just not.
Sometimes we expect them to be the same…which usually leads to frustration and disappointment.
Every family has its own unique dynamics. In a nuclear family, children born into the marriage are raised from infancy in the environment of that nuclear family. They accept their parent’s behavior, attitudes, priorities, traditions, beliefs and parenting styles as normal. No matter how abnormal the family may be relative to society, children raised in the nuclear family accept it as normal. And that common shared acceptance of normal combined with common shared experiences, shared genetics, and blood ties creates a unique bond within the nuclear family that is not shared with anyone outside the family.
Step families are a bit different. Step parents coming into the family are usually older with more life experiences. Each parent has traveled a different path to arrive at this common point in life. Each has a different history, different traditions, different values and priorities, different prejudices and concerns, different parenting styles and different perspectives.
They also each have a unique bond to the children they bring into the step family…the bond of shared experiences, values, priorities, traditions and concerns…the bond of nuclear family. This bond is beautiful but is not shared equally with everyone in the step family. That doesn’t mean others in the step family are loved less…it simply means they have less in common.
Children coming into the step family also have traveled different paths to arrive at this common point. They carry their own perspectives, values and concerns. And they each bring their own individual perspectives to the step family dynamics.
I have parented both in a nuclear family and in a step family. While both are challenging, based on my experience, step parenting is the more difficult role.
In a nuclear family, roles are generally well-defined and everyone knows the roles. As a step father I often find myself struggling to define my role…to learn what it means to be a good step father…what it means to be a good husband to the mother of my step children…what it means to be a good father to my biological children in a step family setting. And just when I think I’m making progress, it changes…because step family dynamics often dictate role changes based on circumstances. Some circumstances allow a step parent to be very involved in mentoring a child, while other circumstances call for the closer bond the child has with their biological parent.
On top of all the other challenges of step parenting, our unrealistic expectations often get in the way, leading to unnecessary frustrations and added tension. We tend to hold the nuclear family up as the ideal and expect the dynamics of the step family to follow the same model.
Our Christian church culture often reinforces this unrealistic perspective. Sermons are preached exalting the nuclear family as God’s ideal and quoting troubling (and often misleading) statistics of risk for children outside of a nuclear family. Many churches (falsely) teach that anyone who has divorced and remarried is living in sin. And individuals who have divorced are often excluded from leadership roles in the church.
It’s easy for step families to start feeling like second-class Christians. And it’s easy for parents in a step family to try forcing family dynamics to conform to the nuclear family ideal.
But what does God say about His ideal family?
In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:5-6 NASB)
Did you catch that? To what purpose did God, in His love, predestine us? To adoption!
God’s family is a step family!
The blood that unites us is not the blood of shared genetics, but rather the blood of covenant. The bonds are not bonds of shared experiences, but rather bonds of love rooted in faith and hope.
We each have traveled different paths to arrive at a common point in life. As in every step family, we each bring our own history of experiences, traditions, expectations, values, priorities and concerns. Like every step family, the dynamics sometimes become intense, and in times of stress we tend to migrate towards those to whom we feel the closest bond.
And we work past the difficulties by trusting in God’s love, God’s providence, and God’s grace.
God’s ideal family for which He has predestined us is a step family. And that step family environment, with all its crazy dynamics, is a beautiful place to be…a place of ministry and growth…a place of learning patience and flexibility…a place of evolving roles…often a place of frustration…always a place filled with love and grace.
I am so thankful to be a part of this wonderful step family!