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Let’s Hear It For the Second Parents

Lets Hear It For the Second Parents

You broaden your perspective on the Christian life when you diversify your reading—and perhaps especially when you read a healthy mix of older books to go along with newer ones. You come to realize that some topics and some themes remain constant while others rise for a time and then fade away.

In my reading of older books, I have come across a few family roles that were once lauded but are now seldom mentioned. One of them is the woman who would deliberately remain unmarried so she could care for her aging parents and other family members. In an era before retirement communities and nursing homes, this was regarded as a sacred calling, a life of sacrifice and service. When we hear an antiquated term like spinster we may think of someone who had the opportunity to get married pass her by, the reality may be that she chose a life of singleness so she could be the family carer. Though I have read celebrations of those women and their calling in historical writing, I am hard-pressed to think of an example in contemporary writing.

Another role that was once considered especially noble was the role of the step-parent. While today we tend to associate step-parents with divorce, in previous centuries they were almost exclusively associated with death and with either widow- or widowerhood. In an era in which lifespans were shorter and, therefore, a greater number of parents died while their children were still young, there was a distinct and honored role for these second or substitute parents. Economic and practical necessity often dictated that bereaved husbands and wives remarry very quickly after the death of a spouse. That new spouse would immediately become a substitute mother or father to children who had suffered a great loss.

Abraham Lincoln serves as a well-known example. His mother passed away when he was just 10 and his sister was only 12. The Lincoln home soon began to crumble without the care and influence of a woman. Their father Thomas was able to arrange a marriage of convenience with Sarah Bush Johnston who proved to be a kind and loving mother to her step-children. In so many ways, she shaped Lincoln into the man he would become, and he gladly honored her with the title “mother” and with words of praise and gratitude.

In my recent travels, I have had the privilege to meet several families that are of just this kind. A man or woman has suffered the heartbreaking loss of a spouse and has then rejoiced as God has provided a second husband, a second wife. In almost every case, this second spouse had previously been unmarried and had reluctantly accepted that, though they desired to marry, God had not provided a spouse. They had settled into a life of contented singleness, but then unexpectedly met this widow or widower and his or her family. And they had decided that this was God’s provision and God’s calling.

There are unique challenges that come to these people, to be certain. The woman who marries a man whose first wife has died marries someone who never fell out of love, who continues to love the wife who passed away. She marries someone who did not want to become unmarried, who, if he could have his way, would still be married to the wife of his youth. She marries someone knowing that he may need to be comforted on the day of his first wedding, of another woman’s birthday, of the anniversary of another woman’s death. Yet she refuses to succumb to jealousy or to see the first wife as a kind of threat. She accepts all this without offense and without resentment.

The man who marries a woman whose first husband has passed away marries someone who has children that are not his own, children who are of another father, children who, even if they come to love him and regard him as their dad, still love another man and wish they could know him, love him, and have him in their lives. He marries a woman who is grieving and his parenting begins with children who have had their hearts broken. But he accepts this with grace and understanding. He becomes a husband to the husbandless and a father to the fatherless.

I have had the joy of meeting so many who have joyfully accepted this role, who have embraced it, and who have sought to carry it out well.

The fact is, I don’t know of anyone who, as a young man or woman, dreamed of being a second husband or second wife or of anyone who dreamed of marrying into a family scarred by the death of a spouse and parent. Yet I have had the joy of meeting so many who have joyfully accepted this role, who have embraced it, and who have sought to carry it out well.

Hence, I thought it would be fitting today to draw attention to these second parents and second spouses, these God-given provisions for the needy and broken-hearted. I thought it would be fitting to commend them for joyfully identifying and accepting the role Providence offered to them. And I thought it would be fitting to raise up a cheer and a word of thanks in their honor.

(While the focus of this article was families that have suffered the loss of a spouse/parent, I gladly acknowledge that much of it applies equally to other situations, such as when a woman has been abandoned by her husband or a husband has been betrayed and divorced by his wife.)

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