Once upon a time, I dreamed of living happily ever after with Prince Charming in a castle filled with love and romance. As I fantasized about finding Mr. Right during my 20-something years, I still managed to maintain a spirit of adventure–focusing on my career as a woman in ministry, going back to school for my Master of Divinity, traveling the world on mission and educational trips, and waiting (sometimes patiently, sometimes not so patiently) for a husband that would partner with me in ministry.
Single life was pretty good most of the time. There was no one or nothing to hold me back from pursuing my dreams. My future fairy tale may or may not have included children—it was something I could’ve lived with or without. I wasn’t really sure being a mom was for me, but if Prince Charming wanted children, his wish was my command.
In early 2010, I was swept off my feet by a man named David, a single father of two children: 12 year old Walker and 4 year old Hope. As soon as I met David, I knew he was the man I would marry, and his handsome character and desire to serve God enchanted me from the beginning. All good fairy tales must have some kind of conflict, and mine was within. I really wasn’t sure that I wanted children anyway; what would it be like to raise someone else’s? What would it be like to shuffle them back and forth from mom’s house to dad’s house? Would they like me? Would they love me? Would they hate me? (You know stepmothers always get a bad rap in the fairy tales!) What would it be like to have an instant family?
If the questions in my mind weren’t already enough, they began to get more complicated as time went by. During our year of courtship, a custody battle for the children reared its ugly head as their mom’s downward spiral continued. Run-ins with social services, drugs, mental illness, incarcerations, relationships with men of criminally-recurrent behavior . . . then her phone calls and supervised visits became less and less.
About three months before I married their dad, Hope and Walker lost all contact with their mom and David received primary custody of both children, much to our relief. Not only was I going to deal with being a stepmom, but I was going to have to learn to be the “real” mom to these two kids. They felt rejected and abandoned by the very woman who gave them life. Would I be up for the challenge? Should I be up for the challenge? Did I even stand a chance of making a difference in their lives? After all, in the usual fairy tales the stepmother was always villainous and wicked.
And villainous and wicked I am at times. Why? Because I insist on home cooked family meals around the dinner table without the television being on. Because I help their dad enforce a regular bed time. Because I allow no video games or play time until all homework was finished. The setting of all these boundaries that children need to understand that they are loved and encouraged occasionally transforms me into the evil stepmother. I have been resented for having high expectations and standards in place that had never been before. I have been tested to see if my loyalty would remain or if I would just walk away when things got difficult. Sometimes, I am even intentionally pushed away for fear of getting TOO close, because they knew that if they didn’t love me too much, then it wouldn’t hurt as bad if I left.
One major challenge of being a stepmom is the search for identity. Professionally, I am identified as a minister. Personally, I am not completely mother, but I am not completely childless either. I am expected to act as a mother, but I have never known what it is like to have a child of my own. I never got to experience all the “firsts” of the children I love: their first word, first step, or their first Christmas; and I wasn’t the first woman to have a child with the man I love. It is tempting to be bitter because I didn’t get to experience the full joy of motherhood—bitter toward my husband, my children, and God—and some days I do give in to the grief of knowing I’m not really their mother. How does one even begin to come to terms with the ambiguity of being a mothering-stepmother, or to comprehend the identity of being a childless-mother-minister? . . .
Having searched for an example of a stepparent in the scriptures, the best I can come up with is Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. He was essentially asked to be a stepparent, but we really don’t know much about his early years as a father. What was his attachment to Jesus like? I am sure he had feelings of inadequacy, just like any first-time parent would, but was there ever a “wall” there to be a constant reminder that Joseph wasn’t a biological father to Jesus?
When Jesus was “lost” in the temple in Jerusalem, being about his Father’s business in his Father’s house, how did that make Joseph feel? Wasn’t he the father, too? And the father who was worried sick about the whereabouts of his son while he searched for three long days, no less! What was he–chopped liver? Joseph had sacrificed his reputation and better judgment to do what God asked of him, only to be treated as less-of-a-father by Jesus.
I imagine the conversation after the temporary temple crisis could’ve gone one of two ways: “Mary, you’d better handle your son! Who does he think he is, saying he was in his father’s house? Nonsense! Does he have no respect for me? I am the one who feeds and clothes him, and look what he does to remind me that I am not his real father. ”
In the midst of his frustration, did Joseph resent God for making him a parent with no real authority over God’s son? Or perhaps at this moment he truly understood the responsibility that was his: to nurture this God-given child who wasn’t his own, to provide for his earthly needs, to accept the calling God gave to him in a dream; and instead he would’ve said, “We were foolish to worry, of course God would take care of his own son!” (It would be at moments like these I must admit, I would’ve been the evil stepmother that would’ve punished the child for being disrespectful and disobedient, without even thinking what message God would have for me.)
How did Joseph come to terms with being the parent of another’s child? We don’t read much about Jesus’ early years or of Joseph’s parenting years in the scriptures. In the moments of frustration, when he didn’t understand what God was doing, did he cry out and wonder what in the world he had gotten himself into? Did he wonder if God had made a mistake by choosing him to care for Jesus’ earthly needs? Did he even secretly wonder if he should’ve gone ahead and divorced Mary quietly so that his life would have been free of those complications? There are definitely more questions than answers when it comes to Joseph’s stepparenting, so we are left to speculation.
I’m actually a little jealous of him, because Joseph had it fairly easy for a stepparent. After all, he was parenting the sinless Son of God so how hard could it be? And he also got to raise Jesus from the time he was a newborn baby—an innocent, spotless Lamb of God. What about those of us who get a broken hearted, smart-mouthed, angry teenager for a stepchild? At least Joseph had some time to learn patience and to grow in love while he parented the perfect One. I never had that luxury, because I jumped headfirst into a situation so different from what I had ever known and had to learn to be a wife, mother to a teenager, and mother to a preschooler all at the same time.
As a stepparent, it’s important to remember what Joseph likely had to learn: “This is God’s child.” We are but instruments of God’s love and care to God’s child, and God has entrusted us with great responsibility. Not only are we parents asked to nurture and care for the physical and mental needs of the child, but we are more importantly asked to care for their spiritual and emotional needs.
In my situation and so many others, the stepparent is asked to be a healing balm to a troubled child’s heart. Divorce, death, or absence—in every situation that creates the opportunity for a stepparent—a child is left grieving what they’ve lost or what they’ve never known, and a godly stepparent could be the one that steps in and ministers to a hurting, broken family. The other three people who live in my home have been broken and bruised, abandoned and rejected; yet I am called to be the presence of Christ to them through mothering and homemaking.
I am a stepmom. A broken, sinful, clueless, wannabe mother. Yet I am called to point my children on the road from brokenness to wholeness, to trade in ashes of despair for a crown of beauty . . . God can use a stepmother (even if she’s a fairytale-like evil one at times) to intend it all for good.
The above was adapted from Kerrie Clayton Jordan’s essay “Once Upon a Time: The Tale of a Not-So-Wicked Stepmother,” in A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood. (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishers, Inc., 2013), available from http://www.helwys.com.
Kerrie Clayton Jordan, originally from Belhaven, NC, is a graduate of East Carolina University and Campbell University Divinity School. She served First Baptist Church in Smithfield, NC, as their Minister of Music and Senior Adults. Her journey as a not-so-wicked stepmother includes her husband David, teenage son, Walker and an imaginative daughter, Hope. Together, they enjoy outdoor activities, movies and all things musical.