My first marriage didn’t really stand a chance. Long story short, I met my husband’s kids in the middle of the rehearsal. Flown in from California, out of foster care, in the middle of a terrible legal battle, they showed up in a flurry. I knew I was in trouble.
The week after the honeymoon, I was a mom. At 23, I found myself dealing with a new marriage, an 8 and 10-year-old out of a meth house, and all the legalities and personalities that come with that kind of trauma. See what I mean? Not a chance. We were like a test tube experiment gone wrong; a war-zone with walking wounded.
Nope, my first marriage was doomed…..
Amazingly, and only through the grace of God (and I mean that sincerely), we’re still married. We really like each other. Our first two kids are raised and we are bonded by the scars of the wounds we suffered through. My point? Here’s a few things I learned:
1. S – U – B – M – I – T
Ugh, right? I’m a child of the 70’s. A woman of liberty and self-sufficiency – we bow before no man! Clearly, this was a painful lesson for me. Ephesians 5:22-24 says: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
Directly following this slightly inflammatory section of Scripture is a passage detailing the man’s responsibility to his wife. After a lot of thought, I’ve decided I have the better end of the deal. I just have to be nice.
I learned that respect is essential in marriage. Especially as a non-biological (you may prefer the term “step”) parent, there has to be submission to the parenting of the biological parent. Don’t believe me? Think you can do better than God’s plan for marriage? Try it out. I did. It was ugly.
2. It’s Not About ME.
I’ve heard it said that God’s plan for marriage might not be to make us happy. Maybe His plan is to make us holy. It was quite a shock to learn that my life is not about me. Again, this was a hard-fought lesson.
I’ll spare you the gory details. However, in the midst of our test-tube experiment gone awry, it occurred to me that there were two small broken hearts involved in the deal. I also came to understand the impact a wife has on a husband. Today, looking back, I can see the generational impact that marriage and parenting have.
My actions don’t just impact me. I don’t just wound or love my husband, or our kids. The decisions my husband and I make will impact generations of Cooleys. In fact, they already have. For the first time in memorable history, four kids in my husband’s blood-line have been raised with a father.
3. Expect Little, Give Lots
Marriage is not a 50/50 proposition. In fact, I’m not sure it’s a 100% contribution we make; there were times when I felt like I was giving 200%. It took more than everything I had to get up and face the day. I’d look over at my husband and be sure he was giving 300%.
How did we get so much to give? We turned to Christ. We weren’t graceful. We didn’t do it well. I made some terrible mistakes. But I quickly abandoned the idea that this was going to be an “equal”, split-down-the-middle union. “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)
4. ‘Til Death Do Us Part
I made a deal with myself early on: I could leave our marriage, but I would forever be married. That’s a long time to be alone. For me, that was enough to keep me there.
Now, I have to note that there are some really biblical reasons for divorce. My husband and I were faithful and both believers, so those reasons never applied to us. (That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms that I’ll leave for some other writer.)
1. The First 5 Years are VITAL
Parents, those foundational years are SO important. Do whatever you can to pour your lives into your kids in their first 5 years. You never get that time back. Those are the years our character is formed. They are the years our kids learn right from wrong, learn to trust, to love and to live.
We decided two things about our next “set” of kids: they would know we love them, and they would know Christ. If we mess up anything else, those are the two issues we must communicate.
2. Media Matters
Nothing drives home the point of media like parenting two lives that have been exposed to everything. Our kids are made in the image of the Creator. He has given them personalities, skills and bents. He has a plan for their lives. We can support that plan and point them to Him, or we can indoctrinate them in the world.
The world is a very broken place. I learned that little minds are no match against carefully designed messages; messages contrary to the message of the cross.
3. Kids are Worth Protecting
This lesson brings tears to my eyes, even all these years later. Our children are worthy of our protection and care. They can not defend themselves. Our job is to oversee their safety – physically and emotionally – until they are old enough for us to gradually entrust their safety to God’s care.
Do I think we can protect them from everything? No. Am I advocating completely sheltering them? No. Our boys know about pain and suffering. They’ve served in shelters, spoken to the homeless. We’ve read the Bible to them. Try reading the Bible and not explaining rape, incest, murder and abortion. They know about danger and the ugly human condition.
I’m saying we need to protect our children – for as long as possible – from living the evil we hear about. It is our job to know where our kids are, to investigate the people watching them, to oversee their safety.
4. Pick Your Battles
As I stated above, my husband and I have agreed that our kids (all of them) will leave this house knowing we love them, and knowing who Christ is. Everything else is negotiable.
How can I say that? Easy. I raised two kids, from the ages of 8 and 10, who couldn’t read, hadn’t gone to school, and had never been introduced to basic hygiene. Everything was a fight. We learned quickly to pick only the battles that were most important, and to be sure we won the battles we picked. Again, this was a hard-fought lesson. I didn’t get to raise our first two kids the way I wanted (but some days I sure tried!).
I’ve found that even with our from-scratch-kids, this is important to remember. We don’t want to exasperate our kids. We want to train them up in the ways of the Lord. That means we have to let some things go. If there is anything I regret, it is the times I’ve exasperated our children.
For Both Marriage and Kids:
Forgive, forgive, forgive. Colossians 3:13 says: “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.”
That sums it up. If I’m not going to live in a state of grace, life is going to be miserable – for me and for those I “love”.
Well, there you have it. The lessons from my first marriage. Well, from this marriage. My one and only husband and our four kids. They’ve been some painful lessons. Perhaps you’re one of those wonderfully wise people who learns from others. I hope so. I sure wish I had been.
Image: After the Reception, 1887, Douglas Volk (1856-1935), Public Domain
~ Danika Cooley
Danika Cooley is the author of When Lightning Struck! The Story of Martin Luther (Fortress Press, 2015), Wonderfully Made (CF4K, 2016), and Bible Road Trip. Her work has been featured in internationally-recognized children's magazines over 150 times.