If you have kids, you’ve probably experienced most of the normal emotions triggered by parenting: joy, pride, frustration, helplessness, adoration, panic, rage... Parenting is an intense experience that provokes the full range of human reactions. But parents usually feel one consistent emotion beneath it all: love.
Love helps parents ride out the tougher times. When a child arrives home late (without remembering to call!), his parents might be enraged. But stronger than the anger is the tremendous relief fueled by passionate parental love. When a child fails to apply himself to her schoolwork, her parents may be frustrated and disappointed. But beneath the negative emotion is concern borne of love.
What happens when you are raising a step-child who isn’t your biological child? Are you still protected by that instinctive, irrational, deeper-than-deep love for the child? Not necessarily.
It is possible for a deep flow of parental love to emanate from a non-biological parent – sometimes. Very tiny humans are almost always loveable – even by perfect strangers. If your new spouse puts one of these little folk in your care, it is very likely that your heart will pump out buckets of unconditional love and your parenting journey with that child will be all the smoother for it.
But raising a child who is not an infant, baby or toddler presents greater challenges to the ability to feel unconditional love. Without the curly locks and saucer eyes, this youngster’s normal childish or adolescent behavior can be more difficult to tolerate, let alone love.
The nature of the child also plays a large role. A polite, cooperate, eager-to-please sweetheart is undeniably more loveable than a disrespectful, defiant, strong-willed young tyrant – at least as far as a non-biological caretaker is concerned. Your spouse may harbor an intense love for his or her emotionally and/or behaviorally challenged child – but what about you? How easy will it be for you to get along with a difficult-to-deal-with child? How will you feel toward such a youngster? And, if you aren’t crazy about the child, how will your new spouse feel about that?
Even if your step-child is just a regular kid – neither angel nor devil – it is normal not to love him or her. After all, think of how long it took you to find your spouse to love. We can’t give our full hearts over to just anyone.
But the Torah tells us that we must “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” This commandment filters down into a series of thoughts and actions that are incumbent upon us. We must not use hurtful words when speaking to people, we must judge them fairly, we must lend a hand when a person needs assistance, we should enquire as to another’s welfare, we should offer rebuke when it is needed but with great sensitivity, we should visit the sick, we should offer encouragement. In other words, we are to act in kind and benevolent ways to all people, emulating the compassionate aspect of God Himself.
Doing actions that demonstrate love is within reach, no matter how you feel about the child.
When raising a stepchild, this mitzvah can be performed all day. While feeling a natural, parental love for the youngster may be presently out of reach, fulfilling the mitzvah of showing love to the child is definitely within reach. A step-parent can act kindly toward a youngster, no matter how he or she feels about the child.
Re-married adults need to take the pressure off of each other to “love” their child or children. Instead, each parent can ask for the other to treat all the kids lovingly – the way each one of us wants to be treated.
Re-organized families present unique challenges. New spouses must free themselves of their past attachments to move forward with each other. Children must learn to live harmoniously with more parents than they may care to have. Kids must also learn to deal with more siblings than they feel they need. And parents must learn how to show love to children they may or may not like.
When new spouses understand the enormity of the task, they can be more compassionate toward themselves and each other.