Spreading the Flame

New lessons in love the second time around.

by Marcia Alice Mitchell

“You’ll never be able to handle three more kids — especially a strong-willed child.”

Mary, a woman at church I greatly admired, said this after taking care of my future kids in the nursery. One of them, Joe, had just shown her a bit of his strong will by kicking her in the shins. Having delivered her warning, Mary tried talk me out of marrying Lee.

Did I really want to marry again and take on three more children? Yes, but I was nervous. What about the problems we would face in combining two families into one? Could I share my love for my own son with children I didn’t know very well?

Initial meeting

After I’d raised one son alone for almost twelve years, God brought Lee, a widower, into our lives. His twins, Sherri and Joe, were three and Bill was six years old when we married. My pastor’s wife and Lee’s baby sitter had conspired to get us together. Lee and I talked on the phone for six weeks before we met at the Los Angeles Zoo.

My twelve-year-old, Bruce, and I stood on the bridge at the zoo and watched as Lee walked up with two-year old twins and a boy who was five. I watched Sherri look me up and down and then, to show her approval, reach for my hand.

I fell in love with her immediately. As I got to know her better, I could see the delightful personality that came with her blond hair and blue eyes. Sherri was anxious to please me, and I soon discovered she was the daughter I’d always wanted. I knew we would be not just mother and daughter but friends as well.

Joe, however, presented a challenge. He gave me a sample of his strong will at the zoo the day we met. At Lee’s request, I took Joe into the rest room with me. He proceeded to crawl out under the door and run down the hill before it was safe for me to run after him. I was frantic.

Bill was quiet that day. He seemed to neither approve nor care as long as his dad was around; he clung to Lee. I wondered what kind of personality I’d be dealing with.

A clash of wills

Shortly thereafter, I cooked a meal for the combined families. For about a year after their birth mother died, Lee did not want to pressure the kids, so they ate what they wanted: cereal or fast-food hamburgers. Since they hadn’t had the chance to try anything else, Joe demanded cereal that night and refused to eat a regular meal. “You’ve got to eat something besides cereal,” I told him.

After I cut his meat into small bites, Joe let me put a piece into his mouth, but he refused to chew and wouldn’t swallow.

The two of us sat at the table for a couple of hours after everyone else had finished. I was determined that if I was to become Joe’s mother, he would have to know that he was not the one in control.

The only reason Joe won that night was that he was falling asleep with the food in his mouth, and I was afraid he’d choke. It took about a month before he would try food that wasn’t in a bowl with milk or between two buns.

Sweet side

Joe and I had many battles over the years because of his stubbornness, but I could see a sweet disposition hiding under his controlling one. Surprisingly, this side of Joe showed up most when he was sick. I always knew when he felt better: He’d become stubborn again and try to control me.

Apparently, Joe liked that part of our relationship. Years later after he’d moved out of the house, he called me to say he was sick. “Mom, what should I do?” he asked when he called me three days in a row. On the fourth day, he got on his motorcycle and rode over 100 miles home because he wanted me to take care of him. It touched me to realize he needed me.

Struggling to love

However, I struggled the first few months to love Bill. He feared losing another family member so much (he was four when his birth mother died) that he would scream whenever anyone left him. He was convinced he’d never see that person again. Before I came along, his dad had caved in and either took Bill with him wherever he was going or gave Bill whatever he wanted to stop the screaming. It didn’t take long for the boy to become spoiled.

Whenever Joe did something he wasn’t supposed to do, he didn’t care who knew it. But Bill would blame someone else and act so innocent that the other child was punished for what he’d done. It took me awhile to figure this out.

One time some money disappeared from my wallet. Bill told me he’d seen one of the other kids in my purse. Though that child denied it, I believed Bill. Later I discovered Bill spending money that was more than his allowance and knew I’d punished the wrong child.

Seeing through God’s eyes

Finally, I did what I should have done first: I asked God to show me a verse in the Bible that would help me understand why I couldn’t love Bill. God led me to 1 Peter 5:8: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (NIV).

As I read this, I understood that the Devil was trying to destroy our home by keeping me from loving Bill.

The only way I could keep this from happening was to ask God to give me His love for Bill. Gradually I saw a tenderness in this child, along with other good qualities, and came to love him despite his many problems.

Valuable lesson

Years after we blended our families, Lee and I adopted two more children. As I adjusted to the different personalities, I applied what I had learned earlier to these children as well.

I also learned a valuable lesson about loving children other than my own child. When Lee’s kids claimed that I loved Bruce more than I loved them, I answered, “That’s not true. I love each of you just as much.”

To help them understand, Lee and I lit one candle to represent each of us and had each child hold a candle to the flame from our candle. The children saw that the original candle still had the same amount of flame even after all the others had been lit. Through this, each child learned that love, like a flame, spreads as far as it is needed.

And Mary, who tried to talk me out of adding to my family? One Mother’s Day she had me named Mother of the Year in our church.