Just as internet connectivity redefined authority as a relational experience creating a power crisis for parents, so too the state of families presents new demands for learning how to love and overcome complex and dynamic challenges.
When people express concern for the state of family today, (i.e., more households are headed by single parents or composed of blended families), I am reminded that we should not take for granted biology as being the origin of a love relationship; when in fact, the example of Jesus’ birth is that of a blended family characterized by adoption.
In this regard, my faith informs me that God allows only what He also intends to bless us with a path for restoration. So the structural state of the family for me is less concerning than the cultural state of family (hearts and minds) that nurtures the parent-child bond. We live in a parenting culture focused on housing our children in the physical realm while blaming the cyber realm for children’s issues and unrest, when indeed this power crisis is a wakeup call to strengthen family bonds right where we are.
And forming family bonds cannot be mandated or legislated. It requires free will.
Accordingly, my conversations summarized below with Mike Barnette, offering perspectives about his single and step-parenthood experience, and MiMi Challstrom, an adoptive mother who maintained a relationship with the birth mother, express how the commitment of love transcends challenging circumstances.
Single-parenthood and step-parenthood
Mike Barnett is the Pastor at Foothill Vineyard Church in East Los Angeles County. He raised two daughters and a son as a single dad for 13 years, and established a step family ministry, recognizing that the state of families today is characterized by over 51 percent of marriages experience divorce. Today he is happily married 14 years to Sheila.
“Traditionally the church wants to insist on God’s ideal,” Barnett said. “I started the ministry for step families because we tend to put our hope in what we know to be the natural family, defined by biology. And I know that our God is a redeeming God who provides a way that may not be the same when biological connections are not present or functional for whatever the reason.”
Barnette does not go into great detail about the mother of his children out of respect. But it is clear from what he did share with me that she had issues that could not be resolved in the family setting and there was a separation. He had to proceed with a heart at peace with the things that are out of his control. He retained full custody of his children.
“We get more training on how to give birth, than how to raise children,” Barnette said. “The average person has to navigate child rearing, and God ministered to me as a single parent: do not to try to be both parents. You just have to be the best mom or dad you can be, and bring other people into your child’s life. Don’t worry about the things you cannot do.”
Barnette relied upon friends, teachers other women in their community to help with shopping for things like lingerie. “And then your child will find their own talents to express themselves,” he said. His daughter Mary Lisa astonished him when she was a young child; out of the blue she just started to French braid her own hair. “I realized that they had many abilities that were not dependent upon a parent at home,” he said.
And according to Barnette, the most important thing any parent can do is get interested in your child. “When you are genuinely interested in what peaks your child’s curiosity or interest, then you are helping to build self confidence and worth. Knowing that your parent is in your corner is huge. The message we send our children when we simply express interest is ‘I am for you’,” he said. “And be careful that you are not overly focused on “succeeding” over learning.”
The most important lesson Barnett has learned from single-parenthood and step-parenthood is that the act of parenting is what makes the difference, not your circumstances. It is possible to have both parents at home and miss the mark. The parenting skills are important to help children navigate choices in the world, training to use free will responsibly, and do a good job at what you decide to do.
Think ‘stew’ instead of ‘smoothie’
Barnett’s ministry for single-parent and step families addressed the financial and relationship challenges of dealing with multiple household expenses and the other spouses. “When your step child rejects the things you do to make life better, do not try to be the mom or dad replacement,” he said. “Family dynamics are different with multiple household’s. Think of it more like as stew, not as a smoothie.”
According to Barnette it takes years to transition into a new family dynamic. In his work as a middle school principal he witnessed the impact of divorce on the children. “The foundation of the home is shaken to its very roots. There are emotional adjustments to be made, and we have to learn to love them through it.”
For this reason Barnette encourages parents to not speak badly of their ex-spouse because it only adds to the emotional trauma.
And finally, Barnett relies upon prayer for his children. “For me the power of prayer is so important. I look to God to have His hand upon them so that they may see evil for evil and good for good and not fall into a trap. I believe that God does not owe me anything, but it is out of His goodness that he watches over my family and grants us the wisdom of His word. I believe that God extends to children His grace when parents pray.”
“Refrain your voice from weeping, And your eyes from tears; For your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord, And they shall come back from the land of the enemy. 17 There is hope in your future, says the Lord, That your children shall come back to their own border.” Jeremiah 31:16-17
Adoption as love language
MiMi Challstrom is the Business Manager for St. Joseph Marello Church in Granite Bay, California. She and her husband adopted a son at birth, who was a twin. Today he is finishing his senior year of high school and is looking forward to college and a career in technology.
“It was an open adoption,” Challstrom said. “And many of our friends and family were worried for us that knowing and including the biological mom in the life of our adopted son would pose a problem for us as parents.”
Challstrom’s smile convinced me that she was never worried. She was always confident that her role as the parent had nothing to do with the biological connection. “People don’t always understand that to love someone is work; it takes effort to put the other person first. Accepting responsibility for raising this child was for me a commitment that was not about whether or not I was his birth mom.”
How many biological parents take this for granted?
Her adopted son’s birth mom is Christian, and she raised her other twin son without the biological father who was absent. “She had told us when we first met that she was overwhelmed with choosing adoptive parents for one of her twins because it was a decision she believed belonged to God. And then after looking through many portfolios, she didn’t think she could look at any more, and she picked up our file and knew it was the right one.”
Challstrom and her husband visited the birth mom and her husband last month in Southern California. “We were a little nervous because it was the first time we visited her without our son,” she said. During this visit they learned that their son’s twin sibling was a troubled teen and not doing well in school. “I believe it was a comfort to his birth mom to learn that her other biological son was doing quite well. It gave her hope for the future realizing that the biology was not the determining factor.”
We also discussed how investing in the parent-child bond requires a sacrifice of your own personal expectations.
“When we are living vicariously through our children, it places a burden on them to fit into a mold that is not ours to assign,” Challstrom said. “Then the child becomes frustrated that they can’t accomplish what the parents’ desire or they are able to fit the mold but are unhappy. It is not my business what my son becomes except to build character to be safe and pursue his own path. My son is 18. I have had my say and now I must step back and let him go.”
Challstrom describes the role clarification for the parent this way:
“For my son’s teen years, I have been a sounding board to help him think it through. I tell him I have already been through my teenage years and now it’s your turn.”
Joanna Jullien is an author, educator and speaker on strengthening the parent-child relationship in a cyber powered world. She a mother of two grown sons, the author of The Authority In Me: The Power of Family Life in the Network Culture, produces The Sacramento Cyber Safety Examiner column on Examiner.com, and is the CyberParenting advisor on The Fish 103.9FM. Her new book, A Google World in the Garden of Eden: Five Family-Safe Strategies for Texting and Social Media is now available for PC and all eReader formats including Kindle, Nook, iPad.