Before I met her, I had a mission.
I wanted to love her, shield her from pre-teen girl hurts, and teach her about healthy relationships with friends, boys and God. I wanted to take her shopping and braid her hair. Her Daddy said she needed me. And I was ready for the challenge. But was there room in her heart for me?
It was a cool, crisp Colorado evening the first time I met her.
I was in the passenger seat of the car with her dad at the wheel. We pulled up to the ice skating rink to wait for the girl I would later call my stepdaughter to come out. The petite sixth grader came cheerily down the cement steps, carrying a heavy figure skating bag with both hands. Her dad jumped out of the car to help her put it in the trunk.
She opened the door to the get into the backseat, where her younger brother already sat. He and I had already been introduced to each other over chocolate chip cookies and apple slices after school.
My heart pounded a little as she stepped into the car, knowing how loyal girls are to their birth mothers at that age.
How would she feel seeing me in their car, I wondered. Did she even want another woman in her life? I questioned my own nervousness, too, as I was entering uncharted territory.
Her warm smile melted that away. “It’s nice to meet you,” she greeted, poised and gracious.
Feeling both a sense of relief and gratitude, my smile relaxed. I handed back a few of the cookies we had saved for her and told her about our plans for a night of bowling and pizza.
As I watched the three of them interact that evening, it made me proud to see the man I had fallen in love with engaging so naturally with his children.
Even so, at times I felt myself tensing up.
I could feel uninviting thoughts of being the fourth wheel and the woman who is not their mom entered my head. I wondered if their hearts were ready to accept me. Or if I was ready to join them.
Between shared giggles and shy smiles as the night progressed, it seemed the kids and I were genuinely at ease with one another. I breathed in deeply, feeling hopeful.
I had never expected to start a family like this. But at least for the time being, I felt like slightly less of an outsider in their little clan.
Yet, time would tell after we got engaged and made plans for a wedding.
The few short months that followed became a whirlwind of preparing for a wedding and preparing ourselves to be a family.
However in the midst of traveling to our wedding location and the excitement of being around loved ones, there was a tension. I sensed that my husband’s daughter, once confident and friendly, was growing more reserved and disengaged.
Inwardly she was shutting down despite being fussed over by all sorts of family members and friends. This must be so hard for her, I thought. Yet, with a forced smile, she insisted she was okay.
So there I was — a bride to be who found myself in a complicated tangle of emotions. Selfishly, I wanted to ignore anything that wasn’t bringing me joy on the day I had dreamed of.
Yet, I knew that simply thinking of my joy surrounding my wedding day was not an option. There were children to consider. After all, I was entering a pre-existing family.
There is nothing natural about a blended family. No matter how easy it starts or how solid the foundation, human emotions run deep.
While trying on my wedding dress at the request of some family and friends before the actual day, I sensed it was all my husband’s daughter could do to keep herself composed.
Pulling her aside, I looked into her eyes and spoke to her.
“Sweetie, I understand this is hard for you to see me in this dress. I am not trying to replace your mom, because I know you love her. This will all take some time getting used to, but please know how much I love your dad, you and your brother. I can’t wait to be your stepmom.”
“I know,” she replied quietly. Her weak smile seemed to show appreciation, but I still wasn’t sure. All I could do was pray she would eventually feel at ease.
Finally, our wedding day arrived.
In the hair salon seat, my future stepdaughter naturally delighted in getting pampered for the occasion, as any 12-year old girl would. As she admired her fancy hair and pretty dress, I recognized the spark in her eye. She finally looked truly happy again.
But just as soon as her glow had come, the shadow threatening to darken her countenance returned.
She was a girl who knew how to hold it together for the sake of peace, I was learning. As much as I wanted to snap her out of her funk, I couldn’t help but be concerned for the feelings she was unable to express in words.
I was torn between wanting to enjoy my wedding day and feeling a burden for the monumental changes my future stepchildren were enduring. After all, while I was anticipating the start of something wonderful, they were mourning the end of an era in their own lives.
The cake reception directly followed our outdoor wedding on that mild, May day.
The breeze that accompanied the ceremony had died down and by now the sun shone brightly, welcoming friendly conversation among the guests.
Off to one side, I noticed my new stepdaughter had pulled my husband in close to tell him something in his ear. He responded to her. Then he gave her a big, comforting hug.
My mind raced.
I was fearful that she was upset, regretful, missing her mom, resentful of me…anything… I had tried so hard to make her feel special. Maybe it wasn’t enough.
But no sooner had I felt those looming thoughts, than she and my husband came toward me. They smiled at me and he looked at her, confirming her consent. I held my breath as she nodded.
“My daughter – our daughter – just shared with me something that she wants you to know:
“She came to me and said, ‘Daddy, are you happy?’ I told her I am beyond happy. Then she said, ‘Will you promise me that I will always be your girl?’ I replied, “Of course; you will always be my girl and I love you.”
She smiled and said, ‘Then I’m happy, and I love you and Heidi.'”
With that simple exchange, God gave me a gift of assurance.
As he finished re-telling this, I pulled my girl in for a hug, overcome with relief and happiness. I told her I loved her, too, and I was glad she had opened her heart to me. Her tense body had finally relaxed as she hugged me back and gave me a genuine smile.
All my stepdaughter had needed was to know she wasn’t being pushed out. She wasn’t being replaced. Her Daddy would still love her, and so would her new stepmom. Her family would look different now, but God had a plan for her; for all of us.
And now that the door to her heart was finally open, I gladly stepped inside.
Raising a pre-teen daughter and a little boy whom I had not given birth to was not something that I expected to be doing with my life. It hadn’t been in my plans, but God’s plan was different, as so often is the case.
Ready as I was for the challenge, I realized I had a lot to learn.
The seeds of a relationship with my stepdaughter had been planted. But just loving her, teaching her about life and hanging out as girls together would only be one part of watching her grow.
There would also be seasons of hurt feelings, confusing relationships, difficult emotions and even times of rejection.
But God has been faithful to walk us through so much together, redeeming brokenness and developing character in both of us.
And that was all part of HIS mission.