On the playground, grace comes into play
When I met Mark, his first marriage had failed, as had mine, but his love and commitment to his young daughter, Kristen, was unwavering. When we got married, she became a full member of our new family and I became a mother-in-law.
The time and growing closeness that Kristen and I have shared has brought me immense joy. Even so, I often felt uneasy as she came and went on a schedule beyond my control, always returning to the care of a woman whose claim and closeness far outweighed my own. The arrival, the departure, the sharing and, frankly, the jealousy that I felt towards his mother tore my heart. If those feelings turned into resentment, I knew we would all be worse off.
Would being a stepmother make me mean, as the fairy tales suggest? Mothers-in-law have little cultural respect, often no legal standing, and little guidance in navigating the painful residue of divorce and remarriage. In countless families, they are incredibly well placed to do good (or bad) and the vast majority want to do good. But this uncertainty, these feelings!
Becoming a mother-in-law brings an unexpected call to serve one’s closest neighbors in a situation already shaken by loss. We also have love and hope, but will we have enough? How might we embrace this difficult calling wisely and well?
A moment of testing
I remember a moment of trial that became a moment of Grace.
The summer she was 6, Kristen and I were at the playground. She was playing with children while I was chatting with their mothers. Suddenly she ran and grabbed my hand.
“I have a great idea!” she said with joyous excitement. “You and dad could get divorced, and mom and Stephen could get divorced, and mom and dad could get married, and you and Stephen could get married, and I could live with mom and dad and visit you and Stephen every summer and a weekend a month!
I felt a staggering explosion of pain and shame as Kristen’s remark exposed to our neighbors — and to me — the cracks in the foundations of my new family. I also felt immense grief and compassion for Kristen as she boldly declared her understandable desire to be reunited with her parents. Sorrow overwhelmed me.
I felt a staggering explosion of pain and shame as Kristen’s remark exposed to our neighbors — and to me — the cracks in the foundations of my new family.
But somehow, at that time, I also noticed something else.
Even when she imagined fulfilling her dream of living with both parents, Kristen still had room in her imagination for me. She hated her parents’ divorce, but she didn’t hate me. She wanted me to be in her life – in this one, in fact, about as often as I actually was. Her comment showed that she also loved her stepfather, Stephen, which was a good thing for all of us.
Kristen’s “big idea” was not at all what I had hoped to see happen. Despite everything, I glimpsed something precious. Buried somewhere in his devastating commentary was at least some love for me, as well as his father, mother, and stepfather. She even seemed to welcome the prospect of going back and forth for love. It was messy, but it was love. Lots of love. Enough to go around.
Is there enough love for everyone? How deep and rich is the well of love on which my family depends? Is there enough for me to get the love I want and need?
Many people have asked these terrible questions at one time or another. For members of blended families, especially in the beginning, questions can be difficult to avoid. We wonder if we are losing in an imaginary competition for love.
A mother-in-law, her partner, the partner’s child, the child’s other parent: these four, and often other family members as well, are deeply intertwined in each other’s lives. Are the indulgence, mutual understanding, esteem and respect — the love — that flow between them limited in quantity? Can the available amount increase?
How deep and rich is the well of love on which my family depends?
I believe it is possible. The love that overturns zero-sum equations – more for you means less for me – is the great love that lies beneath all of our particular loves. It is the love of God, which comes to us by grace. God’s grace never stops at zero. Instead, it provides a wellspring of compassion and understanding to tap into when we feel deeply stuck in negative territory.
This kind of love, surprisingly, sometimes breaks through the insecurities and resentments that limit me as a mother-in-law. Backed by God’s love, I confess my mistakes and resentments and return to my family ready to try again. Equally important – and this is something many forget – God’s grace emboldens me to risk noticing the signs of new life emerging in our complicated family, even when those signs come in painful commentary. .
Kristen’s “big idea” was not at all what I wanted. I could have taken it as a terrible insult and plunged into negativity – and yes, his remark hurt me. But I also heard a whisper of love. Since I wondered what, or who, fortunately, I opened my ears to hear the notes of grace resound there.
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