Over 50% of U.S. families are remarried or re-coupled, according to the Census Bureau, and 1300 new stepfamilies are formed daily.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger, author and talk radio host, described what it means to be a stepparent.
“A stepparent doesn’t just marry a spouse: they marry their spouse’s entire situation. They have to find a balance between supporting and defending without overstepping visible and invisible boundaries.”
But when those boundaries aren’t communicated or the stepparent doesn’t feel like they are fully accepted in the role of parenting things can quickly fall apart.
Dual military couple, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Gerald Thomas and his wife, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Wanda Thomas, have experienced the depth of struggle that happens when this balance isn’t struck. By the time they realized how far they were from being a functioning family unit, it was almost too late.
They open up about their experiences through the years and the single most difficult decision that helped restore their family back to health.
In the beginning
When the Thomases got married, Tony, their son, was six years old and his biological father wasn’t very active in his life.
“He would call every now and then and most of our dialogue was about how he should be doing more,” Wanda Thomas recalls.
Gerald Thomas admits that it was scary taking on a wife and son at the same time, but he had a strong desire to give Tony a better experience than he had growing up.
The downward shift
The family’s first PCS move together was in the summer of 2011.
“That summer, Tony spent the longest span of time with his biological dad than he ever had before. It was all fun and play, and that became his idea of what life would be like with him. This was the beginning of him comparing both dads,” Wanda Thomas said.
For Tony, who was nine, the PCS move overseas hit hard.
“We didn’t foresee what would happen because everything was so well. Then it became the polar opposite. Tony didn’t understand why we had to move, leaving friends, a new environment, and we could tell that he felt if his biological father ware here that he wouldn’t have to move,” Gerald Thomas explained.
By the time Tony became a pre-teen, the Thomas family expanded to include two younger daughters. While he was a great older brother, Tony started to compare the responsibility he had at their age with what was expected of his sisters. Wanda Thomas describes him as being manipulative and says he played the couple against each other.
“Gerald and I weren’t in a good place, and Tony used it to his advantage. But we also could have done a better job to prepare ourselves and him for his younger siblings,” Wanda Thomas said.
They both agree they had a communication problem and Wanda saw it as neither of them wanting to concede or be vulnerable. She says, “We had walls built for some reason and a lot of things weren’t discussed or addressed. When Gerald and I were at odds it was easy for me to be sympathetic to Tony, which created problems for our marriage.”
For many stepparents who are filling the role of an absent biological parent, problems generally arise when they have to discipline the child. For Gerald Thomas, being a parent is more than just enjoying the great times. It’s also tackling the challenges of being a disciplinarian, but he says it wasn’t always received well.
“I tried to be the best parent I could be, but when met with resistance I stepped back and shut down. That was the lowest point for me. Parenting was our biggest wedge,” Gerald Thomas admitted.
Wanda Thomas wanted to respect and support her husband, but also had an instinct to protect her son — though she knew Gerald would never harm him. No matter what she did, she felt she couldn’t win.
Family counseling helped them see they needed to be on one accord, and approach conversations together but Wanda Thomas says, “The root of our problem had so many branches and other things kept attaching to it. Everything was falling apart.”
The couple started discussing divorce.
A pivotal decision
One day it all came to a head. Tony and his stepfather were yelling so loudly at each other that it created a ripple effect in the home. Wanda Thomas mediated but realized that Tony was intentionally disrespectful and not receptive to guidance or discipline, even when it came from her.
“How can you live with someone who won’t try no matter what you’re saying?” Wanda Thomas questioned.
After sleepless nights, praying and crying, she made a difficult decision. She received a phone call from Tony’s biological dad asking for his son to live with him, and she agreed.
“God gave me a reassurance that it was the best decision at that time,” she said.
Tony was different when he came back to visit. He saw that life wasn’t greener on the other side, which humbled him. It took separation and reunion for healing to occur.
Tony was also infatuated with what he believed father and son should be because of the fun he always had with his biological dad. Now that his father was forced to deal with the everyday frustrations of parenting, Tony now saw that his stepfather was only doing what he had to do.
Grateful that they made it to the other side of their tumultuous experience, the couple advises parents of blended families to:
- Get counseling on how to properly blend a family,
- Have all parental figures come together to establish expectations, and
- Communicate as a team.
“If we would have done those things there wouldn’t have been such a great divide under the same roof,” Gerald Thomas added.Read comments