Let’s Hear It for the Second Parents

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.

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.

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