About a year ago, I stopped by the local pet store after work and realized that an ex-boyfriend from high school was in the checkout line behind me. Before I can say hello, the cashier comes around the counter to scan the larger items in my cart and says loudly, “Two boxes of extreme cat litter in the value size? How many cats do you have?!” In the moment, it didn’t matter that I was happily married with two amazing kiddos, a great job (and as I protested equally loudly) one cat with terrible litter box habits… I wanted to crawl in a hole as my ex and his very pretty wife looked at me with a mixture of sympathy and horror. Some days you’re just the crazy cat lady.
Totally not stepmom-related, but let’s be honest: I think it’s human nature for us to want to believe our exes are a little worse-off without us. (I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying it’s human.) Do you have a high-conflict relationship with your husband’s ex? If so, have you ever considered that she gets a sideline view of the success of your marriage and family? Please hear me: I’m not making excuses for bad behavior. I’m merely reminding us stepmommas (myself included!) that some of us have the luxury of leaving our exes in the past. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to watch your ex become the person you always needed or wanted him to be…with someone else?
Are you open to putting yourself in another woman’s shoes for a moment? A mom friend of mine shared that she was married for fourteen years before divorcing her now-ex husband. There was no abuse, no infidelity, but they weren’t meeting each others needs on a lot of levels, and their unhappiness was beginning to affect the kids. Her ex remarried within a year, and had a new baby – all the while exercising his 50/50 custody! My friend grew more and more bitter with every exchange…it was like her ex was a brand new man: happily married, present in the moment, and making his home life a priority.
The hard truth. The pain and loss after a failed marriage can be a huge wake-up call, and frankly, many people don’t know how to be a healthy parent until they have to be…I call this “trial by fire.” The same goes with marriage: we find that spouses will put the work in for a second marriage, because they understand what’s at stake. I believe that even though God isn’t the author of divorce or broken families, He can make beauty out of the ashes.
Give her some grace. As the ex-wife, I think you might wonder (even if you never said it out loud) whether or not you simply weren’t worth stepping up for…why he changed for his new wife, and not you. The stepmom can become a moving target for the bitterness and resentment that would naturally stem from unanswered questions, and a broken heart, no matter whose “fault” the divorce was. If you’re wondering what grace looks like, start by being kind. She too is a daughter of the Most High God.
Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. – Ephesians 4:29
Set some boundaries. I believe that grace and boundaries go hand-in-hand for relationships to be healthy. One of those boundaries is keeping adult thoughts and emotions where they belong, among the adults. It can be confusing and alienating for kids to hear things like, “Your dad loves his new family more than he does us,” or “Your mom doesn’t have time for you anymore now that she married your stepdad.” Kids deserve to develop their own relationships with each parent, without being fed concepts that their vulnerable hearts and minds simply can’t process. Another important boundary is ex-spouses keeping communication about the kids. By making it clear that personal topics (like the broken marriage) are inappropriate, and redirecting the conversation, the co-parenting relationship can move towards being respectful and protect the stepfamily at the same time.
I often say that being a stepmom isn’t for the faint of heart – but neither is divorce. Have you ever thought about the fact that God, the Healer, can work through us? If He binds up the wounds of the brokenhearted (Psalm 147:3), then couldn’t you and I be the vessel of that healing? Today, I encourage you to let the bitterness of an ex-spouse or boundaries crossed not be a catalyst for conflict, but an opportunity to show graciousness and see God move.