29: When A Parent Goes M.I.A.
About the Guest
- Learn more about Andy and Heather's ministry Learn2Step. https://www.learning2step.com/
- Read the Where's Mom article. https://www.familylife.com/articles/topics/blended-family/stepparents/multiple-home-realities/wheres-mom/
- Article Helping Children Cope With Loss: Practical Emotional Coaching. https://www.smartstepfamilies.com/view/emotional-coaching
- Learn more about the Blended & Blessed® livestream. https://www.blendedandblessed.com
- Learn about FamilyLife's other podcasts. https://www.familylife.com/podcast
- Visit FamilyLife Blended® online for articles, videos, and resources for blended families. https://www.familylife.com/blended
Andy and Heather Hetchler were surprised by how hard it was to bring their families together when one former spouse was an MIA parent. Hear their conversation with Ron Deal about their experience and how they began sharing what they learned with others.
29: When A Parent Goes M.I.A.
Ron: Hey this is Ron Deal. Just real quick before we jump into the podcast, I wanted to let you know that some of the things you’re going to hear regarding Blended and Blessed may be a little bit outdated. We recorded this podcast some time ago and obviously the Corona Virus has changed some things for all of us.
But the good news is Blended and Blessed will go on. Those of you in the Houston area that were planning to join us and be part of the live audience, you can be converted to a livestream audience and you could still participate in this event.
It occurs to me that this is an opportunity for all of us. Tell a friend about Blended and Blessed. Everybody’s cooped up in their homes right now and they need some encouragement, maybe something that’s going to offer them some hope and some energy for their family, and this could very well be it.
Blended and Blessed, Saturday, April 25th. We hope that you’ll join us as a part of our livestream audience, safe and secure from your home. To stay up to date with the latest details go to BlendedandBlessed.com. Be sure to follow us on Facebook at FamilyLife Blended or on Instagram at FamilyLife Blended.
Now, on with the podcast.
Heather: I loved being a mother. I knew from a young age that being a mom was something that I always wanted to be. When I met Andy, I fell in love with his girls and they fell in love with me. Our kids got along great, until we, “I do.” Then the permanence of having me around, it changed everything.
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.
Now if you're listening to this podcast within days of release, it’s not too late. Our annual global livestream event for blended-family couples is this Saturday, Saturday, April 25th. Dr. Gary Chapman, Laura Petherbridge, Bill Butterworth and others will be there speaking, sharing their heart themes from our new book Building Love Together in Blended Families. Because it’s a livestream, it’s not too late.
You can still register and participate. It’s very, very easy to do so. Just got to BlendedandBlessed.com and it will walk you through it.
When a parent dies, it’s really devastating to a child and the other parent has to carry the load of parenting. But what if one parent is still there, sort of, but really not there. That kind of ambiguity is confusing for everyone, the parent in charge, the children, as well. But how does that impact a blended family, the kids, the parent, the stepparent, who have to pick up the pieces?
Heather and Andy Hetchler, who by the way during this podcast happen to be in two different places while we talked, are a married couple, blended family, have six children between the two of them, ages 21 down to 16. Despite their good faith and good intentions, they say, they were blown away by how hard it was to bring their two families together. Eventually they made some headway and began sharing what they learned with others.
Heather has worked with stepmoms and stepmom retreats. Andy and Heather have launched Learning2Step.com. That’s “learning”, the number “2”, “step”, dot com, which is an online portal that offers training and support to stepfamilies. I suggest you check that out.
Many people think life would be easier if the other parent was missing in action. It’s not.
Here’s my conversation with Andy and Heather Hetchler:
A lot of people find the relationship with former spouses awkward, sometimes challenging, trying to work out co-parenting relationship and how do we help kids move between homes and different styles and those sorts of things. Every once in a while, I run across somebody who says, “You know, it’d just be a whole lot easier if we just didn't even have to deal with them at all.”
Well, I think maybe you guys have a different perspective about that. You do have a co-parent relationship, Heather, with your former spouse but I think maybe you guys wish you had more of a co-parent relationship with Andy’s former spouse. Tell me about that.
Andy: Yes, I would say, Ron, that we definitely have The Tale of Two Cities, so to speak, with all that. In Heather’s situation, her ex-spouse was able to buy a house in our subdivision and live just two blocks down the street. In that situation, we have a pretty good co-parenting relationship with the three of us and that the kids feel pretty, I’ll say, okay. It’s never a great situation but an okay situation for them to move pretty seamlessly between two homes. We’re all very flexible in that situation.
My ex side of things, she has not been involved in my two daughter’s lives for over a ten-year period of time. That has led to a lot of challenges and compare, contrasting that ends up happening in all of that. There’s been some, I’ll say, heartache in my children, the two that I brought into the relationship because of that.
Ron: From the outside, it appears as if you’ve got it easier because she’s really not involved in the kids’ lives. That’s not really the case, is it?
Heather: No, I would say that we don't have it easier, we have it different. Because I believe that the other parent, she lives and breathes in her daughters. Even though she’s not physically present, she is inside of them; she is a part of them. Like you say, whatever happens in the other home ends up in your home. When there’s nothing happening in the other home, we don’t know where mom is, that ends up in your home, too, and her absence creates a huge hole.
I think for me I loved being a mother. I knew from a young age that being a mom was something that I always wanted to be. When I met Andy, I fell in love with his girls and they fell in love with me. Our kids got along great until we said, “I do.” Then the permanence of having me around, it changed everything.
I think it was hard for them to have me when they wanted their mother. It was very hard for my biological children to share me. Something that really surprised me, that I did not realize going into it was, I really struggled with the fact that I physically spent more time with my stepchildren than my biological children.
Ron: Yes, because they were with you all the time. They were not going to their mom’s house because she was disengaged from their life, right?
Ron: So you’re with your stepchildren practically 24/7?
Ron: Yes, your kids have to share you with them. I imagine that was even challenging. At some point, your kids may have picked up that Andy’s kids weren’t necessarily happy about having you in their life. Here your kids are having to share you with people who are not thrilled about you being in the picture.
That put some guilt on your heart and some challenge into your kids’ heart. I imagine that just went in a lot of different negative directions.
Heather: It was something that I don’t think either Andy and I were prepared for. I don’t think the kids were prepared for. I think we dealt with a lot of grief before we got married. We grieved the loss of our first marriages. We worked through things.
I don‘t think we realized that there is new grief that happens when you blend two families—the grieving of not being with my kids and being with my stepdaughters, who it wasn’t necessarily me that I realized they didn’t want around. It was the idea that, “If she’s here, my mom’s not here”
It caused some division between the kids because, you’re right, they saw sometimes some outbursts or some mistreatment from their perspective and they were protective of their mother.
Heather: Six children who played together in youth group at church, six kids who played in the backyard and did all these fun things that once we were married and living together, kind of went to separate corners.
I think for Andy and I that was hard for us to witness. Do you force them to spend time together? Do you give them space? I mean when we married they were nine down to three. They’re in a six-year gap.
Ron: Yes, that was a lot. Okay, I just want to comment to the listener, notice that it’s the absence of that biological mom in the kid’s lives that’s rippled into your home, that’s caused more loss, new loss. It’s antagonized—if I could use that word—it’s antagonized that developing new relationships between the stepsiblings, between you as a stepmom and your stepchildren.
Andy, you’re watching all this and I know this is tugging at your heart to see your girls missing their mother. Where did that leave you in all this mix of everybody trying to figure out the new territory?
Andy: You have this allegiance to your children. You’re trying to be a parent to all the children. Then you’re watching your wife go through difficult challenges, too, how to navigate all of this. If I’m like most other guys, we like things a little more simple than complicated, especially when it comes to family life. When you’re coming home from work and you’re walking in the door and you feel like—you can just feel the tension in all of that.
We want to fix it. How do you fix it? Some of these things are not fixable, in that you can help to navigate, you can help to listen, you can come up with new ideas of things to try.
One example that we saw with holidays, for example, that would tend to bring out a lot of this. You’d have the day-to-day going back and forth—kids would see kids moving back and forth between two homes. That would bring out loss or sadness.
Certainly the holiday season would kick a lot of this off to a much higher degree. One of the things was Mother’s Day, for example. How do you handle Mother’s Day in the house? We had to get creative in how we wanted to help navigate it. We never fixed it. We never solved it.
But one of the things we did try and do for our house was to create “Daughter's Day.” Really to put the attention on all the women in the house and to try and point the thinking in a different direction was one of the things that we tried to do.
Ron: Was that helpful? That’s kind of an elephant in the room. We’re going to find a different way of doing this. Take the focus off mother and Mother’s Day and put it on daughters and Daughter’s Day. It’s a little bit of a redirect. I'm sure that gained you something but maybe didn’t solve everything. Yes?
Andy: No, there was still very much that underlying sadness, I would say, in all of that. Then to a certain degree, as much as you don’t want to see that in any of your children, that little bit of competitiveness that can sometimes start to form because, “Okay, that's really my mom and that’s really not your mom.”
Certainly when you do this at a much younger age, like we did, those were just some natural tendencies of younger children anyway. Certainly those lines started to come through and some of those conversations and trying to help kids navigate through that was challenging.
Ron: Yes, I want to come back to—a little bit later we’ll come back to this idea of what do you do as a parent in this situation when there is a biological parent who is essentially “MIA” and what are some of the things you can do?
I do think though it’s creative what you guys tried to do with Mother’s Day, you’re finding a way around it. That’s helpful. We’ll come back to that. I promise the listener we’ll get really practical here in just a minute.
Before we do that, I wanted to just make a quick comment. You were talking, Andy, about fixing and how do you do that. Let’s just say the obvious right up front. The ultimate fix is for the “MIA” biological parent to come back into the picture, to re-engage with their children.
Now if you happen to be listening right now and you’re going, “That’s me,” no condemnation. But it’s time for you to come back into the story and pick up your role. I do think sometimes people think, “Well, I’ve been away so long it would just make it worse if I came back.” Heather, I see you shaking your head no. You would love for her to come back into the picture.
Heather: Ron, I pray every night for her. That has kept my heart soft. I pray that those girls will have a relationship someday with their mother. If I can speak to any parent out there who’s maybe thinking, “I’ve been away too long,” or “I left and they’ll never forgive me.” I think that I would be speaking 100 percent correctly right now if I said, if she walked through the door, my daughters would open their arms and welcome her home.
Heather: I know that and that doesn’t take away from anything I’ve done or poured into them. I want my girls to have a relationship with their mother. I want them to have a healthy relationship. That’s something that’s important to me because I care about them.
I think that I’ve always told myself that I wanted her to be healthy and to come back. I’m prepared for that. I know that it wouldn’t take anything away from the relationship that I’ve built with my stepdaughters. I think that, if there is a parent that’s been away for a while, it’s important that they come back in a healthy way.
There were some questions that I would get from my stepdaughters along the way that would say, “I don't think my mom loves me because she doesn't see me.”
I would always say to them, “I believe your mom loves you. She’s not showing it to you in the way that you want her to show it to you.” I would continue to feed and build into them in terms of them keeping their bridge open with their mother.
There was a time recently actually when my oldest stepdaughter graduated high school and she came home and there was a package on the doorstep. She noticed the return address and it was from her mom. She hadn’t seen or spoken to her mom in over ten years.
Heather: She asked me if I would sit with her and I would open it with her. I sat there and she read the letter to me. She opened and her mom sent her a necklace. I just smiled because I had bought her a similar necklace for graduation. I had decided in that moment that I wasn’t going to give her that gift because I never wanted there to be competition between the two of us.
When she opened the necklace from her mom, I could see some hesitation. Later she came to me and she said, “Will it hurt your feelings if I wear this necklace?”
I said, “Not at all.” I said, “I think that’s very sweet that you’re even asking but you wear that necklace.” As I thought of that, that was one thing she had had in ten years.
When I took her to college two months later, when I walked out the door, I put that necklace on her pillow with a letter about how I love her and that I encourage her and that there will never be any kind of competition between me and her mother.
She sent me a picture two days later, a selfie on the first day of school and she was wearing both necklaces.
I can only imagine what a child is thinking sometimes, trying to wrestle with those things about, “If I love my mom, will I hurt my stepmom? If I love my stepmom, will I hurt my mom?” I just wanted her to know that I would encourage a healthy relationship with her mom.
Ron: That’s a beautiful picture of grace. Of what love and sacrificial love for you really looks like. For your daughter, it’s giving her the freedom to be connected to each in whatever way that is. Now this is a beautiful picture, her wearing both necklaces, to me, of it’s a metaphor of what children are experiencing. Whether real or imagined they have a relationship with this missing parent.
That person is still in their heart in their life, sort of, but at the same time, she’s got a real relationship with you. She literally carries, or in this case wears, each of you in your own unique way in her heart, in her life.
It’s never healthy to fan that into a competition. For you to say, “There’s no competition. Your relationship with your mother is as it should be, meaning you can be drawn to her and hope for her and that’s not a threat to me.” That’s very, very significant in the life of a child.
But I want us to just for a minute, Andy and Heather, go into what is the impact emotionally, psychologically, relationally of a child who is wrestling with this sort of ambiguity all along? When I say ambiguity, let me just explain.
My father is 86 years old and he is declining emotionally and mentally and is now in an assisted care facility. Every time I see him or talk to him I get a sense he’s losing more and more memory. He’s not connecting to things. Sometimes he’s there. Sometimes he's not there. At the end of the day, a lot of us can relate to that. We have our aging parent but we don’t have our aging parent. That’s what we call ambiguous loss.
Same thing happens in this sort of a situation where, Andy, your children have a relationship with their mother, sort of. It’s an ambiguous loss. They have her, but they don’t have her. Physically she still exists, but relationally and from a dependability standpoint, they cannot rely on her. It’s have and not have all at the same time, which means you don’t really know what you have, right?
It leaves you in this place of not knowing. Every time there’s a hope for a connection or there’s a promise that is not fulfilled, there's just more loss and more sadness and more dealing with reality. It is difficult.
How do you talk with your—I’m curious, from both of you. Andy, let’s start with you. How have you spoken with your girls through the years about this experience, try to put words on it? What have the conversations been?
Andy: Yes, a couple of things come to mind around those points. As you’re further along into this, you’ve got to rewind the tape and think through some of those moments. One that jumped out for me is again, going back to this Tale of Two Cities, the dynamic between the two homes and the way that kids move seamlessly between two homes. My two biological kids saw that their dad bought a house in the subdivision.
Ironically, about a year later after that, the house very next to us went up for sale. The sign goes in the front yard and kids were younger then. But my youngest daughter at the time specifically said, “I can’t wait until my mom buys that house.” The ironic thing was—is it had been a couple of years since she had even heard from Mom in all of that.
I think the other piece, when you start talking about ambiguity in the context of all this, especially when children are young—my youngest was three when Mom decided to leave the family—not only are you dealing with the reality of that but you’re also dealing with, to a certain degree, children will, where there’s a gap, start to fill in their own story line on what Mom was like and all of those types of things.
There almost becomes some level of fantasy in all that with younger children, as well. You’re having to navigate those things. In the case of the house going for sale, you’ve got to walk through and say, “Yes, that might be a really great idea but I’m not exactly sure how all of that would work.” You’re trying to gently let the child down from their idea but not still get this really deep expectation forming.
Ron: Walking that line is so delicate. I’m glad you brought that up because what does the Scripture say, Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,”
Ron: “But a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” How do you deal with hope and desire in a child’s heart when you have an adult perspective about what’s realistic? It’s a delicate line to sometimes say the truth, but at the same time, not be critical of that parent because you hope that they’ll come back and you want the child to have an open relationship with them.
Heather, you were telling a story a minute ago. You said to one of the girls, “I think your mom does love you, she just isn’t showing it right now,” That’s an adult perspective. You may be absolutely right about that.
At the same time it’s like, we don’t really know. That is such delicate territory to maybe keep hope alive in a young child’s heart or even an adult—they’re now adults—to keep hope alive in their heart. But at the same time, what are your thoughts about speaking the truth?
Heather: Ron, you’re right about that. It’s very delicate. I think one thing that's important is that the couple is on the same page, too. There were times when the girls would come and want to talk to me and I wanted to make sure that I was sharing something that my husband would support. Either I would talk to him first or, if it was one of those organic conversations, I would follow up with him later and then say, “If you don’t agree, Andy, do you want me to go back and talk to the girls or do you want me to share?”
I think something, too, that’s important to point out is, each of the two girls had different experiences. My oldest and I bonded quickly and she seemed on the outside to kind of be better with everything.
My younger stepdaughter, it depended, I used to say, on the day, but it was really more on the hour. You talk about the crockpot approach. She’s our little jalapeno pepper because she would just fluctuate on how she felt about me.
Talking to them, being honest because you don’t want to get their hopes up. Like when Andy was pointing out, I think for our youngest especially, she had a real fantasy of what her life would be like if her mom was in the picture.
While he and I did not agree that that’s what would happen, sharing that with someone who’s four, five, and six, you can’t have the same type of conversations that we could have now.
Actually now when they want to talk about it, Andy’s able to share more details or talk more in depth with them. I think that they've made more of a peace looking back than they walked through when we were living it, especially in the early years.
Ron: Andy, what was it like for you to try to walk that line of speaking truth, but at the same time, not setting them up for disappointment?
Andy: Yes, not an easy thing. I won’t ever pretend that I got it right every time in all of that. As long as you’re trying to take a true approach and, I think, what Heather said, too, making sure that you’re being appropriate and age appropriate. I don’t think she said those words but really trying to understand, where is the kid in their age appropriateness and maturity with information?
There are a lot of things that I chose not to say until my daughters were getting to that 16, 17, 18. Then some of the questions came back on that that I really was very reserved in how much I told them about the reality of things and really waited to share a lot of that information about what really happened and what really went on. To help them to say, look you may not know and you may not understand, but to be also very careful not to throw the other parent under the bus—
Andy: —in all of that, so to speak. It is amazing that the amount of loyalty a kid will have, even with a parent who’s not there, that will turn against whoever is going and saying things, even if it’s true in some regards for that. Being very, very careful. It’s not an easy thing to do.
Ron: Yes. I think one of the traps, for example, that parents should really watch for is finding yourself trying to change the child’s mind about the missing parent. I think that’s a dangerous trap. Sometimes you do have to speak some truth.
Imagine a situation where a child—not just your kids, but you guys have talked with lots of other parents who are in similar circumstances so let’s just talk around this for a minute—you can imagine a child defending the missing parent. “No, you don't understand. She wants to be around,” or “He, Dad, wants to be around but something’s preventing them. Last time Dad told me that he couldn't come see us because you did something.” Right?
Blame shifting onto your household. You’re going, “That is so not right.” I think it’s okay to walk that line and talk all the way around both sides. I think it’s okay to say, “Well, I’m not sure why your dad said that but here’s our side of that. We were there. We didn’t say this. We didn’t communicate that. I’m not sure why he said that.” See, the tone of voice, leaves open the possibility there for the child's relationship.
What you don’t want to do is say, “Nope. I need to set you straight about your father.” Because now it’s created this dynamic where you say, “Yes, he did,” and the child says, “No he didn’t.” Now you and the child are against one another about that person. Think about how much power, ironically, that gives to the missing parent, right.
It’s delicate. I think maybe the response is to talk on both sides. I’m so glad you're hopeful about seeing your dad this weekend. Dad calls and says, “I’m going to come see you.”
As the adult you’re going, “That’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen.” “I’m so glad you’re hopeful about seeing him this weekend. I sure hope that happens for you.”
“I’m curious—,” then you might follow up and say, “I’m curious if he doesn’t show up, have you thought about what you might do with your time?” Again, you’re not trying to sway them or deflect or convince them. I think you’re just trying to help them deal with some of the realities of that. What’s your reaction to that?
Andy: Yes, I would agree definitely with that. The other thing that popped in my head as you were talking there, Ron, is I don’t think you ever want to teach your children to disrespect a parent. That will also work against you at some point.
Ron: Yes, absolutely.
Heather: Ron, I think something that was important to Andy and is creating space where our kids felt safe to share anything. We wanted to listen to them. Even if we knew what they were saying wasn’t going to happen or wasn’t necessarily true, we wanted them to be able to express to us that maybe they wish they were with their mom or they wish things were different.
Even in the case with my kids talking about things with their dad, I always wanted them to feel that this was a safe place for them to share their feelings and to help them work through it.
I think that that has helped build relationships for all of us in a place where they know there’s no right or wrong way to feel and that they can come and share what they're walking through. We’re going to listen and then we may direct.
There was a time, too, I remember when my youngest stepdaughter was upset with me and she said, “I think you're the reason my mom’s not here.” Well, I met Andy long after they were divorced. I never met their mom. I listened to her. I actually held her that night while she was crying.
I said, “I hear what you’re saying, but I want you to know that this is when I met your dad.” I didn't go on and on, I just gave her a few facts. But I listened to her. I think she was desperately trying to find a reason why her mom wasn’t there.
Ron: Yes, listening was what gave you the right to say, “But let me just tell you some facts,” and come around the other side of it. It’s validating, hearing, sitting with, holding, hugging that hurt, that's what earned you the right, I think, to come around the other side.
By the way, I want to point our listener to a couple of articles in the show notes that we’ve got for you. One’s called “Where’s Mom?” It’s about when a parent is missing in action.
Another article that you two, Andy and Heather, have been demonstrating well for our listeners as we’ve been going along, and it’s on emotional coaching. What do you do when a child has a hurt or a loss and how do you help them with it?
The sitting and listening and holding and validating their emotions and letting them know that that’s not a threat to you, the fact that they have some thoughts or feelings about this; helping them put words on those emotions. Those are some things, that article on emotional coaching, that I think would be really helpful.
But hugging the hurt, I want to camp out on that for just a second. Andy, how do you hug the hurt in your girls over the years? How have you gone about trying to do that?
Andy: Well, I think trying to listen. I’ve had to probably slow myself down a little bit at times, too, because I tend to want to solve problems and not watch my children in pain and all of that. So, “Oh well, here’s what we can do,” or “Have you thought about this or that,” type of thing. I think as a natural problem solver-type personality, being more patient in all of that.
I think the other thing that I’ve learned, too, is those moments where you can do those things come very unexpectedly. You might just be driving in a car, for example, and you might be pulling into the driveway, and all of a sudden, this conversation starts. I might have a natural tendency to say, “Okay, let’s go into the house right away and we’ll finish this conversation.” Maybe just camping out in the driveway for five minutes is the next right best thing to do in that particular moment.
Ron: Sometimes when you’re tired [Laughter] as a parent, as an adult, you’ve worked all day, you’re spent and then that conversation happens in the car, it really takes prayer like, “Lord, give me the energy to suck it up and join in this moment and let it last, rather than cutting it off.” Amen?
Andy and Heather: Amen.
Ron: Those are hard, hard moments for us. We knew it would be awkward and challenging to begin with. Then you just add, you’re completely depleted. But when kids begin to speak, man, that’s something I’ve certainly learned with my children is, when they start talking, boy, I need to let them.
I need to find a way to gear up and get in that space because I can’t make them talk when I want them to. I don't know why they don’t just do it for good old Dad, [Laughter] but they won’t. But once they start talking, I’ve got to jump into that space.
Let me make a quick little observation. I’m curious, Heather and Andy, what you guys have seen in your household and others. I think one of the things that happens for children when there’s a parent that’s missing in their life is the way it gets internalized, to some degree, they don’t feel loved.
Heather, you told the story about one of the girls saying, “I’m not sure my mom loves me.” Along with that comes this loss of identity and a sense of worthiness like, “Am I worthy of love?”
I think sometimes the way we internalize those moments in our world for all of us is shame or blame. We either get mad at somebody and blame others or we feel badly about ourselves.
There’s another side to it. That’s when a parent is missing, you lose structure and safety in your world. You don't know what to depend on and who’s reliable and who’s not. “Now I have this reliable stepmom,” in your case. “That’s great, but that's not exactly what I want, so I’m a little conflicted internally about all that.”
It seems to be that sometimes what people move toward out of that loss of safety is, either they move into chaos in their world and they get angry and act out. Kids will do that, turn towards other things or other people to try and fix their life or they go into control mode, where they try to make things happen and they try to manage all the relationships in their family.
Have you guys seen that, that shame, blame continuum, that chaos, control sort of continuum? Have you seen that in your family or others?
Heather: If I can share, Ron, we have seen that in our family and we’ve also seen it in many of the families we’ve worked with and couples that we’ve talked to. I think for our youngest there was that sense of “Who am I if my own…” I remember her telling me specifically, “I don't want you to love me, Heather, if my own mom doesn’t.”
Now that wasn’t necessarily true but that’s how she was feeling.
Ron: By the way, that’s a shame comment, “I don’t want you to love me if my own mom won’t.” She’s telling you about her own personal sense of shame. “I’m unworthy of that.” Yes, keep going.
Heather: Absolutely. I came to understand that by listening to her. I remember when we got married, I wanted to treat all the kids the same. I love to make a big deal about everyone’s birthday and holidays so I would do everything for my stepdaughters that I would do for my biological kids, make a big cake, wrap their presents, have everything set up with balloons in the morning and no “thank you,” no nothing.
One time she told me, “If my own mom can’t bake my birthday cake, I don’t want one from you.” Here I was thinking, “I’ve done all this for you and you're not grateful. You don't care.” But it was like God put that on my heart. This isn’t about you, Heather, this is about her pain. You cannot take it personally.
Ron: That is so very hard. I’m so appreciative of you sharing that. For all of us as parents, when we put forth effort, it’s just nice to get a “thank you.” Stepparents really don't get that. It adds to your sense of rejection. It’s so hard to deflect that away from yourself and turn and say, “But what is this telling me about her?”
Heather: It is hard. I did not always do it right. I sometimes would push harder into her to prove to her that I loved her, to prove to her that I was worthy of her trust. In many ways that backfired and she pulled further from me.
Ron: Of course, you would try that. You want to try to convince her you do love her and the way she's thinking about you is not correct. But this is so good because that’s not the problem. It’s not about how she’s thinking about you, it’s how she’s thinking about herself.
Heather: I had to come to a point where I am going to do these things for her because I love my husband, because she is his daughter. That completely changed how I felt. It’s interesting how that impacted my feelings. Before I was doing it to earn her trust, to earn her love, to prove to her that I was a great mother.
When I shifted my thoughts to saying, “My identity as a stepmom isn’t dependent on whether she thanks me. I’m going to love her because I love my husband and because I made a vow before God.”
Ron: That’s a great shift. I would just add, that may not be where you end up but that is the first step to how you deal with that difficult situation. It’s a way to keep your motivation alive while you’re hoping for more eventually down the road.
Andy, were you going to say something?
Andy: Yes, I think what I’ve heard said in the past, and I think you've used this example in the past, too, Ron, is how do you learn how to hug a porcupine? [Laughter]
Ron: Veeery carefully.
Guys, I want you to comment on parenting when there’s a missing biological parent in the other home. From each of your points of view.
Andy as the biological parent, what are the temptations, to go easy with the girls when they’re with you? You know they’ve got it rough. Is that a temptation that you had to wrestle with? I’m wondering what you would say about that.
And, Heather, I’m wondering for you, what happened to your authority as a stepmom? How did you being the only person there and the girls liking you but then not necessarily wanting to move toward you completely because they really want their mom in their life, how did that affect how you get things done around the house and your authority as a parent?
Andy, why don’t you go first?
Andy: Sure, a couple of things that are jumping out at me, right. In our case where I have full custody full time and other kids were moving back and forth, here’s an interesting dynamic that would happen.
If the kids would move over to their dad’s house and they go out and go to a movie or what have you and come back and talk about that experience, there’d be a switch that would sometimes go off in my head and I’d go, “Should I have taken the two girls to a movie on my end? Should I only do that when I’ve got all six kids as part of our troop and go out and do that?”
I had to sometimes catch myself about trying to make things overly fair in all of that. That was a dynamic that I had to wrestle in myself and try and find a right balance in some of those things. I would say, you always want to try and find this balance where you can spend quality time with your kids but maybe don’t always get into this trying to do everything even type approach.
Ron: Yes, I can see how that would be a temptation. You don’t want your kids missing out.
Ron: Yes, Heather, how about you? How did it affect your role as a stepmom?
Heather: For me, Ron, I think what surprised me the most was I felt as if I had all the responsibility of being the mother but not all the authority. I understand that that’s part of the step parenting role. But that was difficult for me sometimes. I didn’t have that inherent trust.
With my biological kids, I would set expectations. They had a different level of respect and trust of me which wasn’t the same with my stepkids, which makes sense. But because I stepped into that role really wanting to love on the girls and make all the kids feel as if we were one family, to get the pushback was very difficult.
It also leaked into our marriage because there were times where I wanted certain things that I think just weren’t possible at the early stages.
One thing that Andy and I did, we had a lot of closed-door conversations. We ended up setting up some kind of family contract. We had expectations about chores, treatment, lying, things like that. Then we put consequences.
If he was at work, if he was traveling for a week, and let’s say one of my stepdaughters broke a family rule, it wasn’t like, “Oh, Heather's so mean. She’s making me do this,” or “Heather’s so this,” It’s “Oh, we all agreed that this is the consequence for not doing a chore,” or “this is the consequence.”
Ron: At that point, you’re standing in for Dad. You’re an extension of Dad but you’re not having to stand on your own two feet which was fragile at that time with the girls.
Heather: Absolutely. I think one of the things—I hope that we both have learned and blessed each other a lot through this—but I remember a moment where my younger stepdaughter was saying some words to me and Andy was in the kitchen. I was extremely hurt with the way she was talking to me. He stopped and said, “That is my wife. You will not talk to her that way.”
Ron: What did that do for you in that moment?
Heather: It made me feel so completely supported and understood that he recognized the dynamic that was going on. It wasn’t like, “She’s your stepmom you better love her or treat her well.” It was like, “We’re taking the “step” out of it. I’m having you look at her. This is my wife. This is my partner. I want you to be respectful towards her.”
Ron: It was empowering and it affirmed you as his wife. You were not alone in that moment.
Heather: Exactly, I think that’s one of the dangers or consequences—I don’t know if I’m using the right word—that can happen in a marriage with a step couple is that if you don’t sometimes think that you’re on the same page or maybe you want your spouse to step in and do something, you can start to believe that they don’t care or that they’re not protecting you. But that’s not really necessarily their job—that there’s just inherent challenges when you become a stepparent.
Ron: Yes. Okay, Andy, I’ve got to turn to you. In that moment did you have to find some courage to make that statement?
Andy: Oh, absolutely. But I felt like that was the right call in the moment. Again trying to figure out how you de-escalate quickly some of these situations where you can see the storm brewing and trying to make it better for everybody.
That’s the real challenge in a lot of this, too, is just this whole thing about where does loyalty happen? Kids look at it from, “How is my dad,” versus that—it’s a tricky landscape when this whole concept of loyalty really starts to kick in.
Ron: I’ve got to comment for the listener. I think one of the things that was brilliant about that statement in that moment is you didn’t make a statement about what they should feel, what your daughter should feel. You made a statement about what you feel.
In other words, “Hey, this is my wife and you’re going to love her.” That’s a totally different statement than, “This is my wife and you're not going to treat her that way.”
What you’re saying is I’m in charge of that relationship and I’m setting a tone for her as my wife, for Heather, in this home. I’m not dictating or trying to dictate what you as a child are going to feel about that whole thing. I’m just telling you where the boundaries are about her from my point of view. I think that’s where the power is in that moment.
I want to shift gears just for a minute because unique to your family situation in the midst of all of this dealing with the missing parent and how it ripples into your home and how you're going to try to walk with the kids over time about that, you got a diagnosis, Heather.
Heather: In May of 2018, I went in for a regular mammogram and found that I had Stage I cancer. Then after an MRI, to clear that that’s all I had, found out that I had two more spots of cancer and went through surgery, radiation and I'm very grateful to say that I’m cancer-free now. But starting on a cancer journey is an emotional journey that I had never—I was not prepared for.
It has changed me. It has humbled me. As much as I felt like being a stepparent had drawn me to live every day on prayer and with Jesus, going through cancer, something that you cannot control at all, changed me. It changed a lot of my perspectives. I think it drew Andy and I closer. It takes away a lot of the clutter. I think it’s actually helped me to be a better wife and stepparent.
I was actually just sharing this with Andy. I remember when we would, in the middle of—I would say those couple, first years were probably our roughest. I can remember going on date nights and seeing young couples and saying, “Oh, they’ve got butterflies in their stomachs and I have knots. Ah, young love.”
When I was going through my cancer, I would see older couples and I would be grieving inside and begging God, “Lord, let me grow old with this man. Let me make memories with this man.”
Heather: “Give me more years.” For all the times that sometimes I was frustrated with him or I wanted things a certain way and even though my intentions were good and I just wanted our family to be covered in love and peace, it just really shifted how I looked at him and how I looked at my family in just a much more deeper way.
That was the verse that God laid on my heart at the beginning of my cancer journey was Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Acknowledge Him in all your ways and He will make your paths straight.”
I know my destiny. I know where I'm going to spend eternity. I know where we’re raising our children to believe their eternity is.
God does not promise us a bumpy-free ride. But if we keep our eyes fixed on Him, He will make our paths straight. Whether it’s cancer or with our stepfamily, not to get caught up in all the bumps and the hills and the mountains that arise. But to fix our eyes on Jesus and not trying to fix other people.
Ron: First of all let me just say, I’m so glad you’re cancer-free today.
Heather: Thank you.
Ron: We’re glad to have you around and I appreciate both of you so very much. I’m glad that has ended well. Unfortunately, we’re not going to do this story justice. I wish we could dive in and talk a whole lot more about that but unfortunately we can’t.
You talked about how it made a difference, it shifted some of your perspective toward your husband, toward your family. I want to connect the two parts of this story. What we’ve been talking about the children missing their mother and now having the potential of losing, missing their stepmother. I’m wondering if anything else shifted in the family besides your perspective.
Andy, I’m curious, did anything else shift with you, with your girls, with your stepkids, Heather’s kids?
Andy: I think one of the tie-ins that’s similar about these two stories is, you learn with cancer that there is no straight line. There’s so many left turns, right turns and all that. I think that’s the similarity with stepfamily life. You hope for certain things to happen but the reality starts to kick in and it’s a lot of turns, a lot of unknowns, a lot of waiting for timing to happen on things, test results to come in.
A lot of uncertainty and to a certain degree some level of anxiety that kicks in with all of that. I think that’s how those two stories are somewhat similar in trying to navigate that in wise ways. Really just stopping and pausing and leaning on God is such an important piece to both of those.
Ron: Amen. Absolutely. I kind of wonder if the girls didn’t look at you a little differently going through that.
Andy: Well, I think any type of illness or other type of potential additional pressure on certain situations, it does make you pause and inventory and say, “What would it be if…?”
Hopefully it does kick in a level of appreciation at some point but it also brings a lot of additional emotion into these situations as well. Being cognizant of that and again trying to navigate wisely is the important piece.
Heather: I think for, if I can say, too, I think with my youngest stepdaughter she had a lot of questions about my cancer. For me, I tried to maintain a very normal life. I didn’t want things to change for the kids. I didn’t want things to change. I did everything I normally would do. I tried to keep the schedule the same and really be present because I believed I would be okay and I didn’t want to put that on the kids.
My younger stepdaughter, I think, felt a lot of guilt. She wasn’t responsible for my cancer but she talked to me about how there were times where she didn’t like me, she wanted me to go away and she felt somehow responsible to some degree, if I could use that wording. I think in some ways we have drawn closer through all of this.
As much as that push, pull, right, Ron? As much as she didn’t always want me in her life, the idea of potentially losing me was difficult. Because she has felt great loss, she understands what great loss feels like. My biological children have not lost a parent or a grandparent. They have not undergone that type of loss before. I think for her and I, God used it to bring us closer.
Ron: I know there came a day where she articulated that to you. You mind telling us about that?
Heather: My youngest stepdaughter graduated high school and she moved across country to pursue a full-time job. She’s doing great. She called me about two months in and she told me she wanted to thank me.
She’s like, “I don’t know how you figured out all the things I was doing. I don’t know how you knew all the trouble I was in. I did not like you busting me at the time. I did not like some of your talks. I did not like some of your boundaries. But I don’t think I’d be here today if you and Dad hadn’t held me accountable. I didn’t want your help at the time. I didn’t like you a lot of the times but I appreciate that you never gave up on me.” [Crying]
Heather: I just want to share that for all those step parents out there that are struggling right now that think what they’re doing isn't making a difference, because any time you’re pouring into a child, especially without expectations you are making a difference.
Don’t measure it by the verbal words or the actions but continue to lift it up in prayer. Continue to pour in and you are blessing that child. You’re blessing your spouse. You’re making a difference.
Ron: We’ve talked about a number of things that parents can practically do to help a child when there’s a parent that is missing. We’ve talked, for example, about not falling into the trap of trying to change their mind about the parent or change their thoughts or feelings.
We’ve talked about giving them permission to stay emotionally connected to that other parent even though they’re really not around and the future is uncertain about the nature of their relationship.
We talked about hugging the hurt in kids and how that doesn't seem to fix it but it really does help when you come alongside.
We’ve talked about other aspects of emotional coaching, where you hear their feelings, you validate that, you do a whole lot of listening, show a lot of compassion. 4Then there’s an opportunity sometimes to share a fact and to point out something that helps them have a little bit more objectivity and perspective about this situation.
We talked about supporting each other. Bio-parent really setting up that stepparent to be able to follow through with rules and be an extension of the parent’s authority, especially when things are fragile with the kids.
We talked about having parental unity and how important that is and talking a lot about what you expect and then working together and supporting each other with the children.
We talked about creative ways of handling holidays and Mother’s Day, in particular. Your story about that.
One thing that we really haven't talked a little bit about is the role of grandparents or step-grandparents in a situation like this. I imagine they can help fill some gaps when that other biological parent is uninvolved. I’m wondering what thoughts you guys might have about them.
You’ve been listening to my conversation with Andy and Heather Hetchler. I'm Ron Deal and this is FamilyLife Blended.
You’ll hear Heather’s response to that question in just a minute.
As I talked with the Hetchlers, you may have noticed a theme about how to best help a child who has an absent parent. It’s managing yourself. In the face of an emotional child that gives blame that you don’t deserve and disrespect and a lack of appreciation for all you do, what is needed most is for you to remain calm. What an upset, anxious child needs is a calm, responsive adult.
Now I’ve completely lost it when dealing with my kids so I know how hard this is. You’ll blow it just like I have. At some point, that’ll happen but what do we do? We get back up. We try again to regulate ourselves, to bring the best of us into the circumstances when our children are upset, when there’s difficulty in their lives.
Here’s what I try to remember: I don’t have to be angry just because my child is angry. I don’t have to be anxious just because they’re anxious or reactive.
The fruit of the Spirit, the one called “self-control”, is really, really helpful when there are circumstances in your child’s life that you can’t control. No, we can’t control the externals, but we can strive to control ourself.
Then you can listen and affirm a child’s emotions. Then you can not take their comments personally. Then you can see beneath their anger to the hurt and sadness that’s underneath. Then you can remain calm and in charge of yourself even when they aren’t.
When you can’t change your child or their circumstances strive for self-control.
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One thing that we really haven't talked a little bit about is the role of grandparents or step-grandparents in a situation like this. I’m wondering what thoughts you guys might have about them.
Heather: Ron, I think with grandparents, we have to recognize, too, that there’s a lot of grieving that they go through when their child goes through a divorce or they lose their partner to death. They want to jump in and help.
I think if I could give grandparents listening any advice is to recognize that your son or daughter, if they married someone with children, those children are now their children.
A way to bless your son or daughter is to treat all of his or her new children the same.
You may not feel the same and you may feel a lot of guilt or stress over maybe what your biological grandchildren have gone through, especially if your biological grandkids are the one who have a parent that’s missing in action.
But to recognize that there are other grandkids in the house and they will notice a difference if there's a different treatment in terms of gift giving or time spent. It’s not about how you feel towards the kids but you can bless your son or daughter by recognizing that they now have additional children and to treat them the same.
Ron: That’s good. That’s good. Andy, do you have any thoughts?
Andy: Yes, I would say as maybe a coachable moment for the grandparents themselves, too, is to recognize that you may try this approach and pour in equally to all the kids and you may get a much more natural response from what might be biological grandchildren versus the step grandchildren. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn't try.
It doesn’t mean that you should be easily disappointed or offended by all of that. There’s just that natural bond that will happen. You’re starting to walk just a small step into a step-parenting role as a grandparent and don’t be surprised or caught off guard with it. Just keep trying.
Ron: That’s good. I’m just going to say a word too. If you’re the grandparent and it's your adult child who is MIA., who is missing in action, I think there's a great temptation that you would want to try to fix it all for your grandchildren, that you would want to try to cover all those bases and you certainly can be involved and you can be involved to a large degree.
Grandparents are supposed to spoil their grandkids. Just don’t do it excessively. Just don’t become boundary-less. Sometimes that temptation is there because you feel guilty for what your child has done to your grandchildren. Nope, just be a regular grandparent and spoil them a little bit.
Next time we’ll hear from author and sex therapist Dr. Juli Slattery about the challenges of sex for couples in subsequent marriages.
Juli: You can be married for decades and not actually have ever experienced true oneness or sexual intimacy. It’s always been about your own fears or even your own pleasure and it’s never become about a shared journey.
Ron: That’s Dr. Juli Slattery, next time on FamilyLife Blended.
I’m Ron Deal. I appreciate you listening. Thanks to our FamilyLife Legacy Partners for donating and making this podcast possible.
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