22: The Clutter-Free Home, the Clutter-Free Family
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Kathi LippKathi Lipp loves gives real help and how-tos to move people forward in every area of their lives. With humor and wisdom, Kathi offers hope paired with practical steps to live with meaning. Kathi is the bestselling author of 17 books including Clutter Free, The Get Yourself Organized Project, The Husband Project, and Overwhelmed. She is the host of Clutter Free Academy the Podcast, runs the Facebook group Clutter Free Academy where 8,000 women (and a few brave men) learn to l...more
Combining families can create chaos as each person brings baggage. Who decides what goes and what stays? Author and speaker, Kathi Lipp, helps people de-clutter their homes. She and Ron Deal discuss how we all need to delete baggage from our lives.
22: The Clutter-Free Home, the Clutter-Free Family
Kathi: I had this poverty mentality, “If I buy this once, I never have to buy it again so I’m going to keep it for the rest of my life.” The problem was, I couldn’t find that thing when I needed it so there may have been seven can openers in my house at one time. The more stuff you bring in, it lowers the chances of you ever being able to find it and actually use it.
What really started to change things for me was actually when we became a blended family. We could go one way or another. We could either just give up all control and live in chaos, or we could start to make decisions.
Ron: From the FamilyLife® Podcast Network this is FamilyLife Blended®. I’m Ron Deal.
This podcast brings together timeless wisdom and practical help and hope to blended families and those who love them.
You know, I think it’s time for a road trip. If you live anywhere near Houston, Texas. I hope you’re going to join me and best-selling author, Dr. Gary Chapman, for FamilyLife’s next Blended and Blessed® One-Day Event. It’s Saturday, April 25th, 2020. Start making plans right now. Put it on your calendar.
By the way, if you don’t live near Houston, we’ll bring the livestream to you. You can just stay wherever it is that you are. I’ll tell you a little more about this later but you can always go to BlendedandBlessed.com to learn more about it.
Have you ever felt like your home has just too much stuff? Maybe you merged two families and now realize you don’t have enough room for everybody and started fighting over what needs to go.
Well, my guest today is well known for helping people declutter their homes. Since homes are often a metaphor for family life, we’re going to talk today about physically decluttering your home and relationally decluttering your home.
Kathi Lipp is the author or co-author of 17 books including Clutter Free, The Get Yourself Organized Project, The Husband Project, and Overwhelmed. She is the host of the Clutter Free Academy podcast and speaks at conferences across the U.S. She also runs the Facebook group, Clutter-Free Academy, where thousands of women and a few brave guys support each other in living clutter free.
I should also mention that Kathi is a stepmom and has written a book for stepmoms. Kathi and her husband Roger are the parents of four young adults. They live in California. You can learn more about her and what she does at KathiLipp.com. That’s Kathi with an “I” and Lipp with two “P”s, KathiLipp.com.
Now here’s my conversation with Kathi Lipp:
Kathi in your book The Clutter-Free Home you say that your home should be beautiful because you live in it, not because someone else might see it. I thought, “That is so practical and direct and helpful.” But let’s unpack that for a minute. What’s behind that?
Kathi: Well, I think that for many of us, and I know I lived this way for years and years, is that my house got really cute when I knew somebody was coming. I wanted people to feel comfortable in my home but I realized I wasn’t making myself or my family necessarily a priority in our own home. It was always about if somebody else is coming.
Let’s just talk about when the in-laws were coming that’s when the stash and dash happened, right? [Laughter] We went from a clutter castle to home beautiful in an hour and a half. The problem was you had to live with the aftermath of that. What a burden to put on your family. What a burden to put on yourself.
Ron: And it kind of sends a message to the family too, like, “You’re not worth cleanliness.” I don’t know, something like that.
Kathi: Right, right. You know everybody has a certain amount of chaos in their house and if you, you know, especially if you’re a blended family can we just all get an extra little pass? When you’re trying to blend two different family styles and trying to blend all these people who are not necessarily always having a kum-ba-yah moment. Let’s just say, you know when you pull in a blended family that’s going to cause even more chaos.
But I also know is the more intentional we are about not having a perfect house but having a house that functions and serves the people who are living there, it makes all the difference in setting the tone for the family and how they operate.
Ron: Now I like that part that you just said, “…serves the people living there.” How are we serving them by decluttering?
Kathi: I was just speaking at a big conference a week ago. When I ask people, “What is the heart reason behind decluttering?” I spoke several different sessions. At each session one woman said “I have a child who struggles…” with either they are on the spectrum or they have some kind of emotional need or physical challenge. By decluttering the home they’re able to make life just a little less chaotic, just a little bit more purposeful for that child who just needs a little bit more order in their lives.
The other thing is let’s not discount what we as parents need. When we come home at the end of a long day or we’ve been in our homes for a long day to be able to put our eyes on some peace or a clear spot, it makes all the difference in the world.
Ron: Okay, with all of those great reasons why decluttering is helpful, let’s back up a step.
Ron: Why do we clutter ourselves? What’s that about?
Kathi: Okay, I have finally figured out exactly what clutter is. Clutter is just decisions. We are so tired, at the end of the day especially, about making one more decision. Let’s think about all of the decisions we have to make during a day. If you’re a blended family you are doubling those decisions and not all of the people you’re making decisions for are rising up and calling you blessed all the time.
And so if we can—
Ron: I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Are you suggesting they might rise up and call you something else? [Laughing]
Kathi: I can imagine that I’ve been called a name or two—
Ron: You can imagine?
Kathi: —in my day. I can imagine, possibly.
Ron: Maybe, just maybe, possibly that’s happened.
Kathi: I’m sure it hasn’t happened to any of the other families listening but in my particular—
Ron: [Laughing] So it’s decisions like maybe you’re tired, your exhausted, whatever it is, you have to make a decision about this thing and you get stuck. I know in your book you pointed out, you said “Fear, guilt and shame are—
Ron: How does that get in the way of decisions?
Kathi: Okay, fear is the idea of, “What if I need it someday? I’m going to keep it just in case.” We have a house that’s filled with things for a potential life that we’re not living. I probably hung onto my scrapbooking stuff for ten years longer than I needed to when I made the decision, I’m not scrapbooking anymore. That’s just not who my family is. Fear is “just in case” or “what if I need it someday.” The paralysis of “I can’t spend money on it again” will keep us spending thousands of dollars in storage units and storage boxes to store things that we don’t even care about. That’s fear.
Guilt is “So-and-so gave it to me.” Because my kid made something for me in third grade, I’ve got to keep it for the rest of my life to prove my love. Which is ridiculous!
Ron: You do know that kid’s going to grow up when they’re 35 and they’re going to ask you if you have that thing they made for you in third grade, right? Because all of our kids, we all—I did that to my—Wait, I never did that to my parents.
Kathi: —never did that, never did that. You know what, our kids, our adult kids, don’t want stuff.
Kathi: When you carefully curated their lives into little folders and you kept the handprint and you kept the “A” that they got on that test they really studied for and when they move out of the house they say, “I have all your things.” They’re like, “Yeah, I don’t want that.” You’re thinking, “Somebody has to take it,” so you keep it. But if they don’t care enough about it to take it, why do you care more than they do about their own lives?
Then finally, there’s fear, there’s guilt, and then there’s shame. “I spent so much money on it.” We think that—I don’t know—by keeping that pair of shoes that is killing our feet every time we wear them, so we’ve worn them exactly once—we think by keeping them somehow we’re earning back the value. Whereas, I would much rather see those be donated to somebody who doesn’t feel like they’re being tortured every time they wear those shoes and can actually enjoy them.
Ron: Okay, I’ve got to jump in here. I was debating whether I was going to do this, but sure enough I am.
Kathi: Bring it.
Ron: My dad I think has all three.
Ron: Kathi, let me just tell you. My mom passed away a few years ago.
Kathi: I’m sorry.
Ron: My three siblings and I have been—we’re scattered around the Midwest. We’ve been systematically, over the last six months after putting our dad into an assisted care living facility, we’ve been systematically trying to get the house ready to sell because he’s going to need that for his ongoing care. I’m quite certain that my dad has all three of these, fear, guilt and shame.
Ron: Because we have spent endless hours. I stopped counting at 70 trash bags of stuff we’re throwing away, I stopped counting.
Ron: Now some of that is stuff he’s had in files, it’s not trash.
Ron: It’s just clutter.
Ron: Right. He’s not living in filth. It wasn’t that at all, right? And he had space in his home. Things were filled and lots of it and lots of files and lots of this, lots of books, lots of memories. I’ve been finding stuff that I made for him in third grade. I found a paper he wrote when he was in seventh grade around 1945 or ‘46 or something. He’s kept all of it.
One of the things we keep saying to each other, my siblings and I and our spouses, who are really annoyed by all of this, is don’t do this to other people that you love because some day somebody you love is going to have to clean up, is going to have to declutter your clutter.
Kathi: Ron, first of all, let me just say as much as I hurt for you and for your siblings, because this robs you of time—
Ron: It does.
Kathi: —that you could be with your families, energy. It also puts a barrier to a certain extent with the relationship with that parent. Because we can give our kids a gift by saying, “This is important. This isn’t. Do what you need to do.”
But our parents, most of them, didn’t think that way. It was very interesting. My dad passed away about five years ago. He passed away early in the morning and the very first thing my mom did was get some garbage bags and start putting stuff in.
That sounds cold. But can I tell you, my mom lived with this for 49 years where my dad was so paralyzed to make a decision. Also not really forced to make a decision, whereas we are living in smaller spaces than our parents for the most part. We’re more mobile than our parents for the most part, so we are having to make these decisions.
But this is one of the best gifts you can give to your kids and to your siblings and to the people that you love is exactly what you said, for you to make the decisions. Because here’s the other part that goes with it, when our kids have to make the decisions for us, there’s a level of guilt that goes with it. Because it’s like, “What if I’m getting rid of something for Dad that was really precious?”
Ron: I have felt that. I have felt that very thing. I’ve asked myself, I don’t know how to preserve this. There’s no more use for it anymore and yet do I have to? It’s almost like you get caught up into their anxiety.
Ron: His anxiety becomes mine. “Do I have to preserve this for him just in case he ever needs it?” That’s what he’s been thinking for 30 years.
Ron: “Do I have to now hang on to it for the very same reason?” It’s hard to break from that same line of thinking.
Kathi: The way I can help myself in this line of thinking is, “Okay, do I keep it for my dad or do I force my children to deal with it later?” Those are the decisions. I choose not to leave that legacy for my kids.
Ron: Okay, let me ask you another question about that. It’s kind of a two parter. Have you always been a clutter-free person, and if not, how did you start making the decisions you needed to make in order to become a clutter-free person?
Kathi: My dad was really and truly a hoarder. He was controlled by my mom, but his mom was very creative and kept everything. He never learned how to make those decisions. I’ll never say I was as bad as my dad. But when I started my own family, a lot of those fear things that he had were passed down to me. Because I’d never thought of another way to live, I embraced them.
I had this poverty mentality. “If I buy this once, I never have to buy it again so I’m going to keep it for the rest of my life. The problem was, I couldn’t find that thing when I needed it. So there may have been seven can openers in my house at one time. There may have been six hole punches in my house at one time.
The more stuff you bring in, it lowers the chances of you ever being able to find it and actually use it. What really started to change things for me was actually when we became a blended family. We could go one way or another. We could either just give up all control and live in chaos, or we could start to make decisions. We’re putting two step brothers in the same room. Decisions had to be made. We were putting two stepsisters in the same room. My husband and I were combining lives.
I would love to say it all rained down on me, I got a revelation and everything was great from there. But really it was a process of years of saying, “I’m going to ask myself why am I holding on to this when there’s not a rational reason to do it?”
When I could figure out, “Okay, I’m afraid that we are not going to have money again and I can never buy this item again,” or, “I’m afraid that my mom’s going to come and see that I didn’t put out this knick knack that she gave me,” or, “We spent money on this when we are struggling to save money. I have to keep it for the rest of my life.” When I could start to identify them, I could start to see my own faulty thinking and not only help myself make decisions, but help my kids and my husband make decisions.
Ron: That’s really insightful. Again, I’m hearing anxiety. It’s anxiety over what will happen, what might happen, what could happen. All those scenarios basically add up to, “I’ve got to keep it. Now I’m stuck with it and everybody around me is stuck with it.”
I’m curious since kind of becoming a blended family was, if I’m hearing you right, the impetus for you to begin to rethink some of that. It wasn’t practical anymore. You had lots of people to consider. I’m wondering if there was also—were other people irritated by it, like your stepchildren? Were they not as forgiving about mom’s habit there?
Kathi: Let’s just be clear. They were irritated by everything I did. My mere existence was an irritation to them. [Laughter] But here’s what I will say, we lived in Silicon Valley. We’re in San Jose, California. When we blended this family, Roger had his two kids, I had my two kids. We’re moving to San Jose and we’re looking for a house and we can’t afford anything. We’re grateful that Roger has this 1400 square foot house but now it goes from three to six.
Ron: Yes, right.
Kathi: That is testing in every single way you can imagine. Yes, we had to get rid of some stuff. I got rid of a ton of stuff when I went through my divorce. We were almost starting from scratch but not quite. But to move into the house, we had to do a major, major decluttering.
Yes, there were arguments, there were tears but eventually we understood, at least the adults understood, this is what had to happen. We had kids move out of the house and go live with their parent for a little while and come back. We had to shake it out but we made the house work for us.
Like the kids’ computers. Our living room was not a showcase for a long time because we had this bank of computers so that the kids could be on their computers where we could see them, but that was our living room for a while. You make those compromises because of the priorities in your family.
Ron: Right, right. I’ve got to commend you right there because I think a take away for our listener right now is you go in with a set of dreams and hopes for your family. Then real life and the parameters, let’s call it your house, the parameters of your family, your relationships, in this case your house, are going to dictate some of the things you have to change in yourself and in your circumstances. I’ve long said, blended families are no place for people who are inflexible and rigid. You have to be willing to adapt.
Kathi: Brilliant, brilliant. Yes, absolutely. We have an opportunity to teach our kids to be like that, to say, “What do you really want?” Our goal was to have a family that wanted to be together, could function, and could meet the needs of each person in the family, individually and collectively. In order to do that, sacrifices have to be made. But we’ve been married for almost 15 years now. We have kids who like each other and want to hang out together. We have a strong marriage.
If you had asked me if that was going to be possible the first six months we were married, I would’ve given us 50-50 odds, really. But to be able to make those sacrifices—my kids are now people who will sleep on the couch for six months to be able to save up for a car. They’re the kind of people who will do the hard things to get the outcome that they want. That makes me incredibly proud as a mom and a stepmom.
Ron: Absolutely. It shows the process you’ve been through and how that’s rippled into their lives in a really positive way. Okay, so I want to wrap back around to decisions just for a minute. Let’s dial down. One of the things you say in The Clutter-Free Home is that you need to ask yourself three questions about your stuff, “Do you love it? Do you use it? Would you buy it again?” Does that help you make a decision about whether you get rid of something?
Kathi: It really, really does, because here’s what I think most of us do. We go through and we start to declutter, but what we don’t do is actually declutter. We just move clutter. We buy a storage box and we put it in there and what it is is just a delayed decision. All storage is, for the most part, is delayed decisions.
If I’m able to go in there and say, “Do I love it?” If I love it, I get to keep it. Here’s the thing. If it’s in a box in your garage, I question your love. I don’t think you probably love it. Maybe it has some sentimental attachment. Great. Take a picture of it and upload that to your computer so you can look at it. But if you don’t love it, if you don’t have it out in your house every single day, then it’s probably not worth keeping.
When my brother and I were little, my parents had got a coffee grinder for a wedding gift. Now my parents didn’t drink coffee. So my brother and I would sneak it off the shelf and we would grind up dry dog food in it, which was fine until my parents had company come over. [Laughter] They got to sit down to some Alpo flavored coffee at one point.
Ron: [Laughing] Oh, no. That has not made it into Starbucks yet.
Kathi: It has not. That has not been a featured flavor. I love that coffee grinder because it reminds me of the best part of my brother where we were kids and we loved to have fun. I love that coffee grinder. There are other things that I have in my house that I use that I don’t love. I think about the technology and stuff like that. I don’t necessarily love my microphone, my headphone, but I use them.
Then, “Would I buy it again?” I think about emergency preparedness supplies, flashlights. Do I love it? No. Do I use it? Not really. But I would buy it again if it wasn’t there because I need to be prepared? Those are the questions I ask. It can sort a lot.
If you ask yourself, “Do I love it? Do I use it? Would I buy it again?” and you’re not answering, “Yes,” but you still can’t get rid of it, there are a couple of thoughts. One, it may be the fear, guilt, or shame that you’re really dealing with, so you have to down a different level.
Or you may just be stuck and need some help. You may need to have a good friend come over. Somebody who is not judgmental. If you’re in a blended family I wouldn’t necessarily have steps involved in this because it can bring up stuff that you don’t really need to bring up with them. Have somebody come lovingly along and help you out.
Ron: Those are all really good suggestions. I’m going to do something dangerous here.
Kathi: Go for it.
Ron: I’m going to ask you a question, I think my wife would ask you if she was talking to you about me. [Laughter]
Kathi: Nice. I love it!
Ron: I think she would say, “Does my husband, Ron, really need to keep all his books from graduate school?”
Kathi: Okay, I have an answer for that.
Ron: Oh, no.
Kathi: And you’re going to think the answer is “no” and that’s not necessarily true.
Kathi: So my best solution for “Do you really need to keep that?” and here’s the thing, I lost my best example, because my husband when he was leading a youth group played guitar. We’d been married for 15 years, I’d never seen that thing come out. Then one day somebody asked, “Whose guitar is that?” I said, “That’s Roger’s.” They said, “Can he play us something?” I rolled my eyes and there he goes. He’s pulling out the John Denver. I’m like, “Okay, fine.” [Laughter] I can never win a clutter argument again.
Here’s what I would say. Is the—what’s your wife’s name?
Kathi: Nan, okay. So I feel like Nan gets a space in your house where you don’t get to comment on any of the crazy she’s keeping.
Ron: That’s fair.
Kathi: Yes. You also get a space. But here’s the thing, it’s not unlimited space. It’s a gorilla rack in the garage or it’s a couple of shelves in a closet that you get to decide on.
If you want to keep all your books from graduate school, go crazy. But if it’s more than that space then you need to start making decisions. If you have graduate school books and you have golf clubs that you’ve never used and you have at-home archery set that has never seen the light of day, and all these things that you’re like, “But maybe someday….” No, it has to be contained to the agreed on space.
Ron: That’s good.
Kathi: But you’re not allowed to comment on Nan’s craziness. We all get a little bit of crazy where we don’t have to justify.
Ron: I love that we give each other grace with the crazy because we’ve all got a little bit of that. Here’s what I want to do now, now we’re going to continue to talk about clutter-free homes but we’re also going to draw some parallels to clutter-free blended families, alright?
Ron: Here’s what I want to do. I’m going to stretch you a little bit.
Ron: We’re going to pull out some of the principles from your book The Clutter Free Home. Then I want us to just wonder out loud together, how might that apply in terms of the relationships going on with a blended family. One of the principles you have in the book, “Ten Principles for a Clutter Free Home”—we don’t have time to go through all of them but let me just hit a couple of them. The first one is, “Make clutter management a daily habit”. Alright, so talk about that one for a second.
Kathi: As it applies to clutter, clutter is not one and done. You don’t spend a weekend decluttering and then you don’t have to do it again for a year. Clutter is a daily habit. In the book, I really suggest Monday through Saturday each day you take one of six areas and you just do 15 minutes of decluttering in it every day. At first it doesn’t look like it’s making a difference. But over time you can start to see where that daily habit is making a huge difference in your home.
Ron: I could see how that would apply. You make a choice minute to minute in the kitchen with this thing right here right now.
Ron: I make a decision and if I don’t need it, I don’t love it, I’m not going to use it, I’m not going to buy it again then I’m just going to toss it.
Kathi: Right. Every day you are working on it. It becomes a part of your day and you start to feel freedom in that.
Ron: Okay, so I can hear the metaphor already for a blended family and relationships.
Ron: You work on it every day. You don’t just go on one family vacation and you’ve kind of fixed everything going on in life.
Kathi: No, you know one of the things that this really brings up for me is we decide to do a big huge family vacation for my husband’s 50th birthday. We told the kids we’re not just shelling out money for you guys to come. This is something that we’re going to all work towards and save towards together. But we had regular meetings about this vacation which sounds so over-the-top, but some of the things we talked about, we’re saving money for this vacation and we talked about it every day.
They would tell me, “I’m packing my lunch so that I can put more money towards our Disney World vacation.” But then the other thing we said is, “You need to be responsible for whether you have a good time or not. You guys are young adults at this point, you’re teenagers and young adults, and you can decide whether it’s going to be a good day at Disney or you’re going to annoy everybody around you. You may need to take a day off.”
But we have these conversations, not necessarily daily, but several times a week. Can I just tell you? It’s the best family vacation we’ve ever been on because people were invested and they’ve been invested over a long time, daily and weekly, to make this a great time together.
Ron: I think that is wonderful. What a great idea. Conversation, but helping to put them in charge, empowering them to be part of the solution. You don’t just have to sit back. Of course, that has to be age-appropriate for children, developmental considerations there. But the older they are, the more of a voice they need. Teenagers in particular, young adults, they need to be able to have some say and influence over what happens, right?
Kathi: Yes, and this is why we had Excel spreadsheets for our very fun trip to Disney World. They wanted to go to certain places at certain times so we got everybody’s input. The further in advance you can have those conversations, the more leeway you have to really get to a place where not necessarily everybody’s happy but everybody’s heard.
Ron: Okay, another principle you talk about decluttering, “Don’t argue over stuff; negotiate space.” We kind of talked about that a minute ago in terms of, I get my crazy shelves and Nan gets her crazy shelves. Is there another thought there?
Kathi: Yes, so I think part of it is, kids you have your room or your portion of the room and, yes, you get to do with it what you want. But you’re still part of a larger unit, the family, that has to work together. So your stuff needs to be contained to your area. But when we had our kids in the living room with their computers and stuff, I’m like, “Okay, this is not the fantasy room that I wanted. This is not what I wanted it to be but this is what we need right now.”
“This is your space but I still get to say I need to look like humans live here. I need it to look like that we are all working together.” We would have times where they would be working on their individual space but also times where we had to come together as a family and pull together and some of that was common spaces, some of that was big chores and things like that.
Can I just tell you, I’ve made every mistake in the book. I’ve done everything wrong as a stepparent. I love that God gives us grace and sometimes a covering in all of that.
Kathi: Because we have kids who like to work hard and like to have spaces that are neat and pulled together, but they also know how to work with other human beings. That makes me super proud even in all of my failings.
Ron: You know, the word negotiate in all of that is so important. It’s everybody gets a voice. We listen to one another and we try to figure out how to meet in the middle. Sometimes I give a lot. Sometimes I just compromise a little. Over the course of time in a family, we all hopefully do a little of that.
I think with kids negotiating space is really metaphorical. “It’s not just my bedroom. Now I’m sharing a bedroom with another half-sibling or stepsibling. What’s mine? Have I lost control of everything in my life, in my world? I don’t even get a closet or a space or a drawer.”
They need something that is theirs that speaks to their belonging, that they matter, that they haven’t lost control of everything in their world. It’s not just about space. It is about more of that sense of control and belonging.
Kathi: Right, and also if we want to grow responsible kids they need to have something that is theirs to care for. Yes, it’s all of that together and it’s that identity to say that, yes, I’m part of this family that even I don’t understand sometimes but who I am in that matters.
It matters not just to my parent of origin but also to my other person, that in some ways, they can feel like they’ve been forced to live with. But there’s a way to honor that and to say, “Everybody in this matters.” We also work together as a team but we also respect each other as individuals.
Ron: Let’s talk about one more principle you talk about in your book, The Clutter-Free Home. “Things are not relationships.” The idea that we would hold onto something, is that kind of back to that guilt thing you were talking about?
Kathi: Right, right. To say I’m only keeping this because it represents the relationship. Like when my grandmother passed away there were thousands of things that I could have kept. At this point now, she’s been gone quite a while, but I’m kind of narrowed that down to three things where it doesn’t represent her but it represents my memories and my relationship with her. That makes me happy.
But I also know if I lost all of those things, I would still have my grandmother. She is not in those things. I do look at them and they make me happy but I also know that that is not where she is.
When we’re talking about blended families, I know that for years when it came to Christmas and birthdays I was making up for them being in a blended family. We were overbuying, overspending, over-celebrating. I may have had a little competition going on with their mom. It was my own need to be loved and accepted by these very important people in my life who I felt so much rejection from.
When I could finally kind of calm down and say, the stuff doesn’t represent our love. It just doesn’t. When I finally had to get to the place of, “This is going to take years. This is not going to happen overnight. This is going to take years.”
Roger and I kept on telling each other “five years”. We’ve heard from other families that five years can really make a difference. We got to a point where my stepson would not participate in our wedding. He refused to. He didn’t want to be there. He wouldn’t come to our wedding unless his mom came. It’s a whole bunch of mess. To the place where he’s called me for advice. To the place where he’s gotten off the phone with his dad to talk to me to find out how I’m doing.
I never thought we would get to that place. I had to calm down with the stuff and just understand that it takes some time to build into that place.
Ron: Well, you have really hit on something I think is huge. It’s something we talk about a lot here at FamilyLife Blended and all of our ministry components. The anxiety that we feel about how fast the family is coming together tends to just make adults try to push for more togetherness and that tends to make children pull back from the togetherness and now we’re working on opposite agendas. We’re clashing and creating conflict.
Relaxing and not letting your anxiety or fear about the family not blending get the best of you, that’s the first step towards saying, “You know, it’s going to take time. I’ve got to rest into this and I’ve just got to do what I can do today and trust that eventually the relationships can progress.
Kathi: It’s so true. I was giving my stepkids way too much control over how my day was going. What they needed from me was safety and stability. That’s what they needed. They needed safety and stability. They had plenty of people who loved them. They had plenty of people to care for them.
They just needed to know that dinner was going to be on the table at six o’clock. They just needed to know that when I said I was going to pick them up from hockey practice that I was going to be there. That’s what they needed from me in those first years. When I could just calm down and not give them the responsibility of how my day was going, things got a lot better.
Ron: Yes, that’s great. I’ve got a couple of other observations that I’ve thought about around this stuff, “things are not relationships”. We do have different points of view, adults versus kids. Sometimes kids want their parent to hold onto something that symbolizes the first family or symbolizes who mom was before she died or symbolizes some element of the family that’s important to the child.
The adult doesn’t always have that same need. They may do away with it, or “I’m married now. I really don’t want all those pictures sitting around like they were.” For the child, boy they take that personally. It’s hard. It’s really bad when the adults try to force that on a child and say, “No, you need to get rid of this special thing that’s symbolic of something to you.” Never, ever, ever do we want adults to do that.
Kathi: Oh, absolutely not. That’s part of what we were talking about early, that personal space and that place of knowing who you are as a child. They’re going through a different process than we are. We need to be able to recognize that and honor that. My parents stayed together for 50 years. They’re both equally important to me. My kids, both of their parents are equally important to them. We need to honor that.
Ron: That’s a great take away for our listener. Ask the kids if it’s important to them. Let them be empowered to have a say about that kind of stuff. Don’t make decisions for them if you can absolutely help it.
Okay, let me turn a corner and ask another question. For you as a stepmom, you were the one who kind of kept the clutter, at least in the beginning of your blended family. What if we’ve got somebody listening right now and they are a stepparent, stepdad or stepmom, and they are the only ones who want the house decluttered. What do they do?
Kathi: Yes, this is really important to understand the distinction. Are you doing that because you want your house to be beautiful or do you want it to be functional? Because beautiful, I think, is a great goal, but that doesn’t always translate to everybody else in your family.
If you can approach it from, “We need to function as a family, and when there’s a lot of chaos, we can’t function as a family.” Simple things that are not going to be forcing your stepchild to get rid of their stuffed animal. Let’s just be clear, none of that am I advocating or okay with.
Things like when I would drive the kids home from school, one of the things I learned to do is I would have a garbage and recycling bag in our minivan. I’d say, “Okay, guys, I want you to unpack your backpacks. If there’s any garbage in there throw it in the garbage bag. If there’s anything that needs to be recycled, put it in the recycling bag. If you need me to sign a permission slip, if you need me to sign a test that didn’t go so well, whatever it is, make me a stack. I’m going to take those things, I’m going to get into the house. I’m going to sign and do what we need to, attach the check” —I don’t even know if people use checks anymore— “We’re going to put it back into your backpack to put it back into play.”
I really believe if you’re the one who’s arguing for being more clutter free, one, you have to set the example. You can’t just be upset with everybody else’s stuff because everybody else’s stuff looks like junk and our stuff looks necessary.
Ron: Oh, now you’ve gone to meddling. [Laughter]
Ron: My stuff is not junk. It is my stuff.
Kathi: Right. Because you know exactly what everything’s for, what you’re going to use it.
Kathi: I totally get it. But also understand there is a certain amount of clutter that just comes with life and especially with kids. Know that this is for a certain time, a certain place. Also, I got to the point, in a small bit, that I said, “I’m not going to have this chaos forever.” You know what, I kind of want to enjoy, while my kids are here, while we get to spend some time together, I want to be able to enjoy this and not be frustrated all the time.
There were certain areas, like, I could keep my side of the bed perfect if I wanted to. I could keep my bathroom super tidy if I wanted to. I could have standards for the rest of my family that were aspirational. I would only lose my top about really one thing. When I would find clean folded laundry in the hamper. [Laughter] Let’s just say, yes, it wasn’t pretty.
Ron: It wasn’t pretty.
Kathi: It wasn’t pretty.
Ron: You just skirted around something that I wanted to talk about and that is, let’s talk about decluttering our heart for a second. When you’ve got resentment built up towards somebody in your home. Or maybe a stepmom has a lot of clutter on her heart towards her, what we like to call her ex-wife-in-law, her husband’s former wife.
Ron: That stuff gets in the way of you figuring out how to do life together.
Kathi: Okay, so my toes are crushed. Thank you so much, Ron.
Ron: Hey, you stepped on mine earlier so.
Kathi: Okay, good. We’re good. I will say this. My stepson was just miserable with me. In his brain, his parents were getting back together even though everybody in that equation made it very clear that that was never going to happen. I was the roadblock. I have to say I was really, really frustrated with him for a long time.
One of the things I did, and it’s going to sound bad at first but it actually has led to a great deal of healing, is I have three amazing friends who I just said, “Guys, I need a safe place to process this without gossiping. Knowing that I love my stepson greatly but I really don’t like him right now.” I felt so awful because I was the only blended family person in that whole group. But then they all came out, they’re like, “This one kid is great. They’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. My other kid is making me crazy.”
We called ourselves “The Bad Mom’s Club” because we felt like bad moms but also we were putting guidelines and we were putting boundaries in place. We were learning how to do the mom thing well. You know what. It was great, these people —I said, “You have to hold me to the standard that I’m growing in love for my stepson. Because, if not, none of this is worth it.”
I didn’t always feel that way, let’s be super clear. But they would pray for me they would ask me how things were going, they would hold me accountable when I’d say, “I need to reach out to Jeremy more because right now things are not going well. I need to encourage his dad to go on walks with him. I need to do all the things.” When it came to—what’d you call it? —my husband’s ex-wife is my what?
Ron: Is your ex-wife-in-law.
Kathi: Ex-wife-in-law. I love that so much. I need to write that down.
You know, it was tough and I’m just going to be really honest. At one point we had so much conflict, I told my husband, “I need a year off.” Because she was, for a while, she was very undermining. Now I understand she didn’t know her role when she was over here. She would cut me down to be able to find her position. I know it now. It didn’t help at the time. I was just mad. I took a year off of going to family events with her because I was so hurt and so wounded.
Let’s just be honest. Being a stepmom is one of the most humbling, and how do I want to say this? It makes you question everything good or everything—you know those little evil feelings that you have—it makes you question everything about who you are. That’s a very vulnerable place to be in.
But when I had really done my best, we’re talking after ten years of being a stepfamily, and I finally told my husband, “I need a year off.” He said, “I support that.” He goes, “I will go to the things.” I still spent plenty of time with my stepkids. But I just didn’t show up where she was showing up.
But you can’t take a year off without doing the work on yourself. I went to counseling. I figured out why she was behaving the way she was, why I was so triggered when she was behaving the way she was.
We now have a good relationship. We don’t hang out by ourselves, but when her sister was sick, I was there praying for her and sending messages and doing the best I could to love on her. When things are going on and her kids are frustrated with her, I’m actually defending her in some ways. To get to that place, it was worth taking the year off and saying, “I need to spend some time to figure this out.” It helped tremendously. It helped everybody.
Ron: There are so many takeaways in that. Thank you so much for sharing that. Getting accountable to some friends had to be really good for you. It sounded like you supported each other. We talk about that a lot here at FamilyLife Blended. We want stepfamily couples to be in relationships with other couples. Maybe it’s a small group. Maybe it’s two couples you get together with on occasion and have dinner.
But that sort of rubbing of the hearts builds some accountability, but you also learn something and you feel supported. You don’t feel so isolated and alone.
Kathi: It’s so true. You know, it’s so funny, we just had some friends within the last couple of years get married into a blended family. They wanted to come over for dinner to get some advice. They kept on telling me, “It’s just been so great. God has blessed us so much. There’s no conflict.” I’m like, “That’s amazing, unusual but amazing.” Then three weeks later she’s like, “Yes.” She goes, “I was so glad to hear from you that this is the norm.”
Ron: Yes, exactly. The other thing you did there was you took time to figure it out and you consulted with some people because you needed to. I think taking some space, you know the little one-year vacation, if you want to call it that, what a strategic thing to do, and your husband stepped up. You still had to work together. I mean there are so many great things wrapped up in that story. It obviously paid off.
Kathi: It did pay off.
Ron: And you decluttered your heart. Wow.
Kathi: Like I said, I’ve made more mistakes than I’ve done things right. But as we grow in this, I can honestly see that when my thoughts are, “How can I support my stepkids in their relationships,” whether it’s with their dad, their mom, whomever it is, it’s almost always the right decision for everybody.
Ron: I’ve got one more question for you.
Kathi: Yes, sir.
Ron: You talk in the book about putting a sign in each room of your house to kind of communicate a purpose and to claim it for a given reason.
Ron: Let’s talk about—give us some examples, some practical examples in terms of home. But also what are some signs you could put in each room of your heart as it relates to your family?
Kathi: Yes. You know at some point I claimed a verse for each of my stepkids. That verse has changed over the years according to what they need. My stepkids are now grown. My stepdaughter is married. I have an amazing son-in-law that God is knitting together their family and we get to see that.
My stepson, who has some learning challenges and things like that, who has perseverance like no other human being, I’ve met—the signs that I can put on them the Bible verses about perseverance and loving well and God knitting their hearts together, it focuses your relationship. To be able to do that and say, I wish so much for these people that God has entrusted me with in a small way. I’m just a small part of the many people who love my stepkids.
But I also feel like God has given me the most to learn from them and they’ve learned a lot by having a relationship with me. We’ve learned how to navigate some really tricky waters that not everybody has to navigate. My kids are better prepared for that.
When I think about that, you know I put a sign in my kitchen—the one that we’re getting made right now is Julia Child’s “All the best people love to eat”. [Laughter] We want our kitchen table to be a place of connection. I think about that for my stepkids. I think about that for the relationships that are in my life. It’s like, “Okay, what verse can I be praying that I would see all of God’s fruit in this person that I care so deeply about?”
Ron: Man, that is such a neat idea, to imagine as when a child walks in the room that there’s almost like hovering above their head there’s this little verse or a thought or a notion that you hold onto for a period of time to just help you get focused about that person and your relationship with them.
Kathi: And to think about their future because sometimes stepkids are not always super lovable, or even our own kids or our spouses or whomever, they’re not lovable in that place and space and time. But we have a hope that we can pin on them for something better for the future. We have a big God and we have a lot of capacity to give.
If you have stepped into the role of stepparent you are a person who has a great capacity to love. Even if you haven’t been able to demonstrate it recently, I know that it’s there for you.
Ron: You've been listening to my conversation with Kathi Lipp. I'm Ron Deal and this is FamilyLife Blended.
I’ve got two questions for you. First, based on how you’ve been responding to each child in your home lately, what statement or scripture is apparently above their head? In other words, if someone was trying to figure out the message based on how you’ve been treating them, what would they think it is? That’s worth pondering a little bit.
Second question is this, based on how you act, what message is above your head? Yes, I know, now I’ve gone to meddling, right?
It’d be really cool if the message above your head was, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” from Galatians 5:22. But what if the message above your head right now is, “Anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires?” Maybe it’s, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Mark 9:24.
You know when you find yourself in the middle, struggling to believe or trust and act on that trust as much as you would like to, another good message above your head might be, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1.
You know in both our relationship with God and our family relationships it’s good to have hope for the reward to come and to trust that grace will see us through. Specifically applying to your family, that the faith that your family will mature and grow will not disappoint you. Let’s all hang that thought over our heads and try to live it out.
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One person wrote, “I found this podcast after watching the Blended and Blessed Livestream. I’ve been part of a blended family for over two years now and I’m just now learning so much. I wish I could’ve heard this before getting married. Blended families are hard,” this person said, “get all the wisdom you can. Listen to these podcasts.” Well, I certainly appreciate that and I agree with that.
By the way, you have an opportunity to be part of our next Blended and Blessed Livestream Event. It’s different every year. This coming April 25, 2020. Our theme is going to be Building Love Together. It’s based on a new book, Building Love Together in Blended Families that has been written by myself and Dr. Gary Chapman.
Blended and Blessed will be live at Houston’s First in Houston, Texas, and live-streamed around the world via the internet. You can be anywhere and be part of this enrichment event for blended family couples. Your church can host the event for just 99 bucks. It’s all specifically designed for blended families. Look it up, learn more, register today. BlendedandBlessed.com.
You know if you don't know who FamilyLife Blended is, I just want you to know we’re the leading resource ministry for stepfamilies around the world. There’s lots of free stuff online. There’s conference information, books and video resources for churches and more.
Visit us, FamilyLife.com/Blended. You can search our ministry map and maybe find ministries or events in your area or if you have a ministry tell others about what your church is doing for stepfamily couples. Again that’s FamilyLife.com/Blended.
Next time we’ll hear from John and Ginger Oriente about the things we sometimes do that harm a relationship and cause regret.
John: One summer I just get an email from my ex-wife that says they’re not coming for eight weeks, they’re coming for four weeks. That prompted a conversation that went really bad, where I just said, “Look, if they don’t want to come, they don’t have to come at all.” I can go down to the courthouse and I can take my name off the birth certificate. I’ll pay the child support and they can be your children.”
Ron: We’ll hear more about that from John and his wife Ginger and how they later reconciled their marriage and that parent/child relationship next time on FamilyLife Blended.
I’m Ron Deal. Thanks for listening. Thank you to our FamilyLife Legacy Partners for making this podcast possible. Our chief audio engineer is Keith Lynch. Bruce Goff, our producer. Mastering engineer is Justin Adams. Theme music provided by Braden Deal.
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