The rude awakening came about two weeks into our newborn marriage. And by rude awakening, I mean just that. It was not long after dawn on a Saturday morning. Curled up next to my new husband, I was deliciously asleep.

CRUNCH. A four-year-old knee connected with my nose. Giggles and yells as two boys pounced on their dad, ready for their wake-up wrestle, my face collateral damage.

I was not giggling. I slunk away to burst into tears on the living room couch. My nose was throbbing. And my feelings were hurt too. Doesn’t anyone care that I’m injured? Barbaric screams of glee continued from our bedroom. Hmph. I guess not.

My new life was not going to be all about me. I had known this in theory. But I hadn’t expected the reality to punch me in the nose quite so literally.

Imagine you’ve been single for years. Now think of two little kids you know: your friends’ children, maybe, or your nephews. You like them. Maybe you’re even quite fond of them. Now imagine you’ve just agreed to babysit them every single weekend, all weekend, for the next ten years. For free.

I was beginning to realize what I’d signed up for. Complete with vows and rings and an audience of family and friends and God.

Like bouncy-balls, my stepsons bounded into the living room.

“Can we go down to the beach? What’s for breakfast? Stephanie, will you play Lego with me? Look at me… I’m a kitty cat, see?”

“Love your neighbour as yourself.” In my head, quiet and insistent, I could hear the words of Jesus.

Except that my neighbours were no longer my colleagues, or my church, or the family next door. Now my neighbours were the family sleeping in the bunk-beds across the hall. Now two little boys looked at me all expectant and eager.

It wasn’t even 7 AM yet and I was exhausted.

I was also scared. When I looked inside myself for this sacrificial love that was supposed to be there, I came up empty. Just about the last thing I wanted to be doing right then was working on a Lego gizmo with a hyper six-year-old. I wanted coffee, my bed, and a lazy weekend with my new husband.

How was I going to do this? Not just right now, but all day today and tomorrow, and then next weekend, and the weekend after that?

“Love is an action, not a feeling.” This is something wise people like to say, and it’s an important point. How we act towards people can’t depend on our fickle emotions. And Jesus challenged his followers to love even strangers and enemies, which means love must be possible apart from warm fuzzy affection.

Good thing, because warm fuzzy affection? It’s not in overwhelming supply in stepfamily relationships. At least, not at the beginning. This is one of the strangest things about being a stepmom. All other close family relationships begin on a strong tide of loving feelings, awash in joy and hope. There’s the beautifully silly love of a brand-new couple: the goofy grins, the intense attraction, the simple joy in doing whatever, as long as you’re together. There’s the almost scary ocean of love you feel for your new baby: the deep need to do whatever it takes to keep this tiny helpless person fed, cozy, safe.

But the love of a stepparent starts at zero, and grows from there. Love, for a stepmom, is all action at the beginning.

I didn’t expect warm fuzzy affection – love, the feeling. What I did expect from myself was to feel better about loving. To sacrifice less grimly, with more generosity and joy.

How often we beat ourselves up for not feeling happy as we do our best to love. I do it daily.

My six-month-old wants to be nursed at 3 AM, and I stumble out of bed annoyed, and then berate myself: “Other moms would cherish these quiet moments in the dark with their baby.”

My husband has the opportunity to pursue a dream. It will mean I am alone with the kids for several suppertimes and bedtimes. And I do it, yes, but I do it with difficulty, because that is the WORST time of the day for him not to be home. Then I scold myself: “Why can’t you give to your husband with a glad heart?”

“Play trains with me, Momma,” my three-year-old begs. And I sit on the floor and push a wooden train around a track all the while wishing, for his sake, that I could love saying “Choo! Choo!” far more than I do.

In a perfect world, our insides would match our outsides. We wouldn’t have to distinguish between love (the verb) and love (the emotion) and love (the good attitude). We’d love from the inside out, with gusto.

But the world is not perfect. We are not perfect. So when I hear the words of Jesus, right before he is about to die, I feel completely inadequate:

“Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  (John 15:12-13 NLT)

Lay down my life? I have a hard time laying down my smartphone.

Then I remember that right after he says this, Jesus goes out into the garden, and falls down and weeps and prays, because he doesn’t want to lay down his life. Because even for the perfect Son of God, love doesn’t always feel good, or come easily.

Since that first Saturday morning, I’ve lived through a lot of wrestling matches. The ones with pile-ups of barbaric Jantzen boys and the ones inside myself. In one corner my own desires, in the other the call to love my two stepsons the way Jesus loves me. And always the spectator of my own disappointed self, shaking her head in dismay: “Shame on you for struggling so.”

I’ve learned to tell that spectator to just shut up.

I’ve learned to look at Jesus and remember that love – to be true love – does not need to feel good, or come easily and cheerfully.

I’ve learned to remember how deeply I am loved, by someone who laid down his own life for me.

I’ve learned that if I need to take a moment – to go in my room and shut the door and pray, pray hard, for the grace to love my family in spite of myself – that it’s OK.

I’ve learned to trust and wait, as the Spirit slowly grows Jesus-love inside me.

And every now and then, I get a glimpse of heaven, and what my love will be like there.

Because I will be busy doing my own thing, and a boy will say to me, “Stephanie, will you play Lego with me?” (Only these days, it’s more likely to be Uno, or Settlers of Cataan.)

And I say, “Yes, I would love to play with you.” And I mean it.

Read Caramel’s story: Blended Family: Caring for the Wounded.

Read more from Stephanie on being a Stepmom

Photo Credit: Don Harder