Shelby Abbott: Growing up in a Blender
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Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Shelby AbbottShelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
Sometimes in stepfamilies, we take things out on each other that really are about someone or something from the past. Listen to Ron Deal talk with Shelby Abbott on how to keep unresolved issues of the past from damaging relationships in the present.
Shelby Abbott: Growing up in a Blender
Shelby: My father was interested in me until he wasn’t; so that shapes you, obviously, in a number of different ways. I ran across a baby picture of me—before my sister was even born—my mom and my dad. I’m like, “I wonder what he was like then”; they seemed happy in the picture. I wonder what it was like then: if he was responsible; if he was doing what it took to be a great father, to be a great husband, and to care well for his family.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Hey, so one of my favorite episodes of recording was when Ron Deal came into the studio.
Dave: You mean when you surprised me with Ron Deal coming in the studio. You guys didn’t tell me it was “Counsel Dave day.”
Ann: It was therapy day.
Dave: I was laying on the couch—no; I mean, we didn’t end up there—but Ron did such a good job, walking me back through my life in a stepfamily.
Ann: It was powerful. I think I was crying half the time, because I don’t know if I’ve always realized how difficult that can be.
Dave: Yes; he pulled out some things in me that—you know, Ron has a gift of doing this—
Ann: He really does.
Dave: —and he’s back with us today in the studio. Thankfully, it’s not to investigate my life. Ron, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Ron: It’s always a joy to be with you guys. Thanks for having me.
Dave: Yes, it wasn’t a surprise today either; we knew you were coming in. You’re going to be talking to Shelby Abbott. We get to listen to your FamilyLife Blended® podcast, where you sat down with Shelby. Tell us a little bit about Shelby and what you guys are going to talk about.
Ron: Yes, I’m excited. Shelby is on staff with us, here, at FamilyLife. He is an author. Campus ministry is something he is very passionate about. He’s a conference speaker. He’s written a number of books: Pressure Points, Doubtless; he wrote a book on cohabitation called What’s the Point? And he’s starting a new podcast on the FamilyLife Podcast network called Real Life Loading…
But we had to interview him about his family, growing up. He too, like you, grew up in a blended family. On one of our episodes, I sat down with him and talked about his life, growing up. I have to tell you: it’s a beautiful story.
Ann: Well, Ron, this episode of your podcast is part of a series called Growing Up in a Blender. Talk about: “What is that series about?”
Ron: So really, we do a deep dive into the childhood experience of somebody, looking back at their life, growing up in a blended family. Here’s how it serves the listeners today: if you are in a blended family—maybe you’re parenting a child or stepparenting a child, or you’re a grandparent and your step grandchildren—you’re trying to figure out relationship with them. Listen for the nuances of what it is to be a child, and what they need, and what you can learn from this in your own family.
But maybe you’re not a part of a blended family. Still, you could be listening, reflecting on your own childhood journey: the things you learned; the things you want to do away with, now that you’re an adult; or the things you want to keep.
[FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Ron: Looking back over your life, what did your parents’ divorce teach you about you?
Shelby: My parents’ divorce taught me about me. It took a long time to probably discover more layers of that because, God in His grace, has been able to help me see that, even though there were mistakes that were made, sin happened on both sides—even on my own—that things were not a mistake.
Reading specifically in Jonah, you realize that Jonah is disobedient; yet God uses his disobedience, for example, to bring the pagan sailors to Himself. That was a direct result of Jonah’s rebellion/his sin, yet it was something that God still orchestrated and worked out in the process of the messiness of rebellion. That’s been a little bit of a picture of how I’ve been able to learn and understand who I am, in light of the mistakes that were made from the past—both by my father/my mom, both my stepparents, myself, my siblings—and things like that.
So the divorce, and the subsequent remarriage that happened, shaped who I am in a number of different ways. I found that out, even more recently, too, through counseling, of just realizing that it starts with a lot of just anger when I was in my car. I was road raging—when people would cut me off, or people wouldn’t use their blinker, or they’d cut in or whatever—and I would get so mad. I was asking my wife, Rachel, “Why do you think I get so mad in the car?” She goes, “I don’t know.”
That started to manifest itself in other different ways; so I went to a counselor eventually, and just said, ”I’m just angry, and it’s really coming out in my car a lot.” He was able to link some stuff, over time, to help me discover that the divorce that happened when I was three and a half, I believe, was when my folks got divorced; and then my mom remarried my stepdad, [whom] I call my dad, when I was six.
Just discovering that my kids, at the time, were around my age [at the time of the divorce and remarriage] when I was struggling with this anger. I’m like, “Oh, my kids are like three, four, five right now.” That’s what was kind of triggering some stuff for me: just knowing that there was abandonment there, there was some hurt and anger, some wounding that happened at that particular time in my life. I was seeing that, kind of in my children at the time, just because of their age. Their age was close in proximity to where I was at the time.
Ron: Yes, I have to imagine that you, as a dad, wanted to protect your children, seeing them at that age—seeing them as vulnerable as they are at that age—and then going, “Huh, that was me. Who was looking after me?”
Shelby: Exactly; and that’s what the counselor was able to help draw out of me and help me to see.
There are all these personality tests that people do, but Enneagram has gotten more popular. So for better or worse, whatever that is, one of the things about my Enneagram personality is I’m an 8; and therefore, I’m a protector. I will confront people as well, in the spirit of protection, which usually—according to the tests—kind of links back to childhood trauma.
I discovered that, over time, that I’m very fiercely protective of my kids. I think seeing—you’re exactly right—seeing them in this moment, wanting to protect them, and knowing the injury that did happen to me, as a result of my parents getting divorced and the subsequent popping around. My mom had custody of me and my sister. We would have summer visitation with my dad/my father. That caused a number of different key issues in my life that shaped me into who I am today.
Of course, again, that didn’t come out until I was in my late 30s/early 40s, where I discovered, “Oh, this anger that’s been here—it’s been here for a long time—as a result, going back all the way to when I was three or four years old.
Ron: Right; you only saw the vulnerability of yourself when you were finally looking at your own children.
Ron: I’m so glad to hear you say—and I believe it’s true—the right understanding of God helps us cope with things that have happened to us in our life. On our journey to getting that right understanding of God, we often feel lost and confused and don’t know how to cope with some of the things that have happened to us.
You wrote at one point: “In a very real sense, my stepdad has been my dad ever since I was six. I praise God that he’s been a stable presence in my life from such a young age. As I think back, however, I can’t help but wonder what would be altered today if things had gone differently: if my father had never cheated and my parents had never divorced.”
Let’s talk about that part of you that can’t help but wonder what life would have been like had none of that ever happened.
Shelby: [Sighing] Yes, it’s a deep question/it’s a hard question, because I don’t really know my father. My father was interested in me until he wasn’t. He’s shown some more recent interest in me, again, after I went to that [his father’s mother] funeral; and that’s been difficult for me. From the time I was about 15 onward until my early 40s, he just hasn’t really been interested in me. So that shapes you, obviously, in a number of different ways.
It’s difficult for me to look back and go: “What if my father…”
- “…if he wouldn’t have cheated on my Mom?”
- “…if he wouldn’t have been selfish?”
- “…if he wouldn’t have been a child, in many ways, as an adult?” It’s difficult for me to even process that, because that person doesn’t exist in my mind/in my heart.
I’m sure there were times when he was great, looking back on that, when I was a baby. I ran across a baby picture of me—before my sister was even born—and my mom and my dad. I’m like, “I wonder what he was like then”; they seemed happy in the picture. I wonder what it was like then: if he was responsible; if he was doing what it took to be a great father, to be a great husband, and to care well for his family. Unfortunately, that’s just never been a part of my memory that incorporates my dad. So I wonder back: “Does your sin define you?” Well, when you’re in Jesus, no, it doesn’t define you. But in many ways, the sinful decisions that my father made shaped who he is as a person; and I wouldn’t want that guy as my everyday dad.
I’m thankful for the gift of grace that God gave me in my stepdad, who, again, I call my dad: he’s the one who taught me table manners; he’s the one who taught me how to drive a stick shift; he’s the one who made fun of me when I liked girls; he was the one who would drop me off—I hated this—but sophomore year, he would drop my sister and I off at school. Every single time, in front of the school, he would honk the horn and went: “Bye, kids. Have a great day. I love you.” [Laughter] I was like, “Ugh, I hate this so much!” But looking back on it, I love that; I love that he did that.
He, in many ways, has been the gift of the stability that I needed, not only with me and my sister, but with my mom. He loves my mom, and he always has loved my mom. I praise God for who he is in my life. He shaped, not just my relationship with him, but my relationship with my mom, with my sister. Those have been gifts of goodness/of grace.
Ron: Yes; absolutely. It seems to me we should ask the same question I started with when I asked, “What did your parents’ divorce teach you about you in terms of your identity and your belonging, and how much you mattered to people?” I think we should ask it about your stepdad, too, because it seems like his involvement has been a gift of grace. What has his involvement in your life taught you about you? How has that helped shape your identity today?
Shelby: Well, that I have value. I think that he never, ever, ever treated me like a stepson—you know, that typical, what you hear/that negative connotation of a stepchild—he never treated me like that. I never felt like I was this second-rate child to his biological children. I never felt like that. He always cared for me well, loved me, taught me responsibility, disciplined me where I needed to be disciplined.
Of course, he has his flaws, too; but tracing things, back to that original event, and how it shaped me for all the bad things, there are all the good things that have happened as a result. We are still works in progress; but he, in many ways—I feel more comfortable with him as a parent than even, sometimes, with my mom—he’s a lot more of an easy-going personality, and he’s easy to talk to.
Granted, we have some of the same/similar interests; maybe, that’s a direct result of him:
- I have a deep respect for the military.
- I have a deep respect for a hierarchy of authority, because of who I saw him to be as a very, very hard worker. He graduated from high school and enlisted in the military/in the Air Force, made enough money to be able to pay for his own college, went to college, graduated in two-and-a-half years, and then went back in as an officer, and retired as a full Colonel. He was offered, at the time of retirement, to become a Brigadier General; and he just wanted to get out.
- So he works very, very hard; he’s not lazy at all. I learned my work ethic from him in a lot of ways.
- I learned, like I said, respect for authority.
- He’s helped me to appreciate even fun things, like the NFL a lot more, because he’s way more into the NFL than I am. I’m into the NFL, but he’s really into it; so I love talking football with him. He taught me how to golf when I was real young, when I was 12.
Ron: Sounds like he’s just really been a big influence in your life.
Shelby: He’s been a huge influence in my life; and in many ways I don’t consider him anything other than my dad. He’s not my stepdad—I’ve never called him my stepdad—I never called him “Dave”/by his first name. He was always “Dad” to me.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today. We’re actually listening to a podcast called FamilyLife Blended, where Ron Deal sat down with Shelby and talked about life in his blended family. I’ll tell you what: that just ended so beautifully.
Ann: Wasn’t that so good?
Dave: Yes; it just gives you an idea of what it can look like; right, Ron?
Ron: Yes, it does. You know, for all the grief we give stepparents sometimes, and the grief they take from the negative stereotypes that society lays on them, here’s a picture of a stepdad, who came in and made a difference: stepped up, loved on Shelby.
Grace comes in various forms; right? And sometimes, it comes in a person that you would have never chosen or never expected to come into your life.
Dave: Yes, so let’s go back to the conversation, where you asked Shelby a pretty pointed question; in other words, “Should a parent tell his child about the divorce?” Let’s hear what he had to say.
[FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Ron: Every once in a while, I run across a parent, who says to me, “Okay; my former spouse had an affair. That’s what ended our marriage. My children don’t know; should I tell them?” Do you happen to have an opinion about that?
Shelby: I think it depends on the children’s age. There could be a delicate way of putting that, when they’re younger, but we’ve done an intentional job to talk to our kids. My kids are nine and seven now. We’ve done an intentional job to talk to them about what sex is, why that’s a holy thing/an important thing, and why it’s not to be frivolously thought about or tossed around as you get older.
I think, if you’re talking to your kids about those things, and they understand what they mean and why they’re important within the context of a marriage, and why they’re not to be shared with anyone else, yes, I think you should talk to your kids about that kind of stuff.
Ron: I mean, if your kids said, “Hey, Dad, why is your father living here?” and “Why does Grandma live here?” Would you, at some point, feel the need to tell them, “Yes, this is originally what happened in the beginning...”
Shelby: I think so, if you don’t have an agenda. If you’re willing not to spin things in a way that makes you look better, and makes the other parent look poorer in the eyes of your kids; because I think you have a responsibility to care well for your kids by not demonizing your ex-. Now that’s hard to do, and I don’t pretend to know what those things are like personally; because I have never been divorced, and I don’t know what it’s like.
That’s difficult to do, but we’re asked probably to do that in a way that shows grace to other people and forgiveness, as Christ calls us to do. But at the same time, it’s not just you on the line: you’re talking about your kids; and you’re shaping their opinions, and their thoughts and feelings of their other parent, whether you recognize it or not.
Ron: I was thinking, as you were just talking—no, you don’t know what that’s like, from an adult standpoint—but you kind of know what it’s like from a child’s standpoint. The little comments made, here or there, that your mom dropped; or the things that your dad said do cast a shadow on the other parent, and do shape your heart and mind, even to the point [hypothetically] where you call your mom and say, “Hey, we want to stay and live here with our father.” That obviously grew out of what you felt like dad needed you to do. Somehow, you were drawn into that; that opinion was his. And the same thing is true when mom, in an angry moment, would say, “Well your father…blah, blah, blah,” and essentially blame him for the whole divorce process.
Kids are easily swayed by all that, and they take on the opinions of their parents. “Of course, you agree with your mom,” or “Of course, you agree with your father; that’s your parent, like, ‘Am I supposed to disagree?’” Unless you have reason to sit back and go, “No; somehow, this is your fault,”—which that was happening with your biological father—but still, there’s this desire to keep them close to agree with them about how they see the world; and that, naturally, pits you between the other parents.
You’ve talked around that a little bit already, but I just want to flesh that out a little bit more for our listeners. Even visitation, moving between homes, what was that like for you in terms of what flowed well? What did your parents do well? What were the things that made that really awkward and difficult for you?
Shelby: It went well, because we operated on a schedule; so people were—
Ron: Both sides agreed to the schedule.
Shelby: —until my father didn’t. [Laughter] But mostly, up until that summer, there was a schedule; we followed the rules there. The visitation that was bad is stuff that I mentioned before. It was just constantly like: “Where do my allegiances lie? Where are my loyalties?”
Looking back on it, as an adult, “Should I have had to ask those questions as a kid?” “No, you shouldn’t have had to ask those questions.” That was more confusing than anything; because my father talked about my mother in a certain way when we were there over the summer; and it was not great language, not positive at all in any way—even like accusatory—of what she used child support for/what she used that money for.
Ron: —little derogatory comments.
Shelby: Yes; which I found out, later on, he wasn’t even paying child support to the degree that he should have been.
And then, for a long time, also—this is one of the things that I had to relearn when I got married—the term, “Abbotts,” which is my last name, was always a negative connotation in my family. The Abbotts were always like the bad part of the family. So when I got married—and my wife Rachel and I were known as the “Abbotts,”—there was some intentional relearning that I had to do about my own last name, plural; because the Abbotts were always the bad element; and they always did the bad things, said the bad things, behaved in a bad way.
Ron: This is such an important story; because we tell our listeners on this podcast, on a regular basis, when you say something negative about your child’s other parent, you are, in effect, saying that to the child; because they know they are 50 percent of that other parent.
Ron: This literally puts it into the last name: “Oh, well, you’re an Abbott; and we all know that’s a bad thing.” So now you, as an adult, have to unlearn that/rethink that. Again, it speaks to identity: “But that is a part of me—that is my last name—that is who I am”; and yet: “I don’t want to be associated with that.” How did you justify that or rectify that in your own mind?
Shelby: Part of it was, there’s not a godly legacy that was left by the Abbott family, no matter how much lip service they would pay to that. So part of me was like: “I want to redeem the Abbott family name and make it a godly home/make it a godly family. I want people, when they hear, ‘the Abbotts,’ to think, ‘godliness.’”
So there was an excitement with that—and wanting to bring renewal—a great opportunity for me, my wife, and my kids. But now, it’s like it’s been redeemed because of Jesus; and “Oh, I’m a part of His story now.” So it’s not about trying to redeem my name, per se. It’s about adding my name to the greater plan of the gospel, and then just being thankful for the grace that God has given me; because if it wasn’t for His grace, I would have no redeemable qualities at all. So yes, it was a kind of reorienting of my priorities.
Ann: We’re listening to FamilyLife Blended with Ron Deal and Shelby Abbott on FamilyLife Today. Man, this is a powerful ending.
Dave: Yes; it’s our story.
Ann: Yes; that’s what I thought.
Dave: It’s identical. I remember Joshua 24:15: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” That became a foundational mantra of the Wilson name as well. So here’s Shelby: I’m hearing the same angst in his soul that’s been in ours.
Man, when God redeems your family name, it’s a beautiful thing; isn’t it, Ron?
Ron: It sure is. Guys, you know this. The meta story of Scripture is not that we finally get perfect and bring our perfection to God for His acceptance and approval; but that, instead, we bring our imperfection; and He lays perfection on it in the form of Jesus Christ and the cross, and our narrative changes.
We say, all the time—our little slogan at FamilyLife Blended/our unofficial slogan is—“You can’t change your past or your story, but you can change the story you tell about your story.” This is the woman at the well. She comes to the well in shame, of her life and relationships; but Jesus enters the picture, changes what it means. Now, all of a sudden, she is an instrument of God, redeemed by Him; and now she’s using her story to tell other people to come meet Jesus.
She couldn’t change her past, but she changed the story she told about her past. It’s a redemptive story, and Shelby’s doing that for his family and the Abbott family name. It’s a beautiful picture of God’s grace.
Dave: What a great reminder for all of us that God/that’s what He does.
You can hear the rest of this conversation on our FamilyLife Blended podcast, which is part of our FamilyLife podcast network. I’m telling you: it’s going to inspire you to allow God to redeem your name.
Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann with Ron Deal on FamilyLife Today. We’ve been listening to clips from Episode 63 of the FamilyLife Blended podcast. You can hear the rest of my conversation with Ron in the full episode. Just search for FamilyLife Blended wherever you get your podcasts, or click the link in today’s show notes at FamilyLifeToday.com
Next week, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be joined by several guests, including Jen Oshman. Jen is going to unpack outward beauty, purpose, meaning, body image and gender. It will not be boring. That’s next week.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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