When my wedding photo was published in the Forward in 2002, it accompanied an article about creative Jewish rituals found online, including a blessing for children at the time of their parent’s remarriage. I remember thinking, as I looked at the photo, what’s so unusual about this?
Oh, right. Most people don’t have their five children at their wedding.
I didn’t immediately see what was obvious, because our configuration had become so familiar to me that it seemed ordinary. For the six years that we dated, Jake and I worked to integrate his three children and my two into this second marriage in a way that made our family truly — if imperfectly — blended.
With the high divorce rate and subsequent remarriages, more and more couples do have weddings that include their children. Before the relationship gets that far, every single-parent couple approaches dating in their own way. I have friends who introduce their children to their dates right away — guy after guy after guy — and others who go to great lengths to keep their relationships secret for as long as they can.
We chose a middle course. We decided to think carefully about when to tell them that we were a couple and when to start introducing them to the other’s children.
I got some guidance from a psychologist who told me that although she understood the dissolution of my marriage to my sons’ father had been a necessary one, if my boys became attached to Jake and the relationship broke up, it would be devastating to them. This meant that I had to be certain ours was an enduring relationship before allowing the boys to become emotionally involved with Jake.
I took the advice to heart. It amazed me that the boys didn’t hate Jake. For years, the only time they saw him was when he’d show up to take me away for the weekend. But they were hungry for a steady father figure in their lives, as their father had moved back to New York from Philadelphia and saw them only monthly. About three years into our relationship, Jake started giving the children piggyback rides to bed; they fell in love with him.
If we had any doubt that we were bringing our pasts into this marriage, it was dissolved the night Jake proposed to me. He had been thinking about this decision for many months, because he wanted to be fully committed to raising my rambunctious sons, who were then 8 and 10. Frequently he would run into the woods near his house and then sit on a particular park bench for 20 minutes and think.
He intended to propose on that same bench. But it was pouring rain that night, so he chose the bench under his carport. As he gave me a rose and began to sing me a song (what a romantic!), bright lights shone into his driveway. His ex-wife drove up in her van and waited while their daughter popped out to get a book she’d left behind. I quickly and unaccountably hid the rose behind my back. His ex waved. The proposal resumed when she pulled away five minutes later.
Because Jake’s children were older, their parents’ divorce, which came pretty much out of the blue for them, was difficult. In that wedding photograph, we are all smiling for the camera, but I knew they were still in mourning for the lost life that seemed perfect. Their father’s remarriage meant they would move out of the house in which they grew up and into a new one in a new neighborhood. Jake’s older children were in college, but the youngest was still in high school, which was now 20 minutes away instead of five.
After the wedding, we were all together in our new house for the first time. It was not pretty. I silently fumed while his kids slouched on the couch and watched TV while I walked back and forth getting dinner ready. They weren’t lifting a finger to help. I complained to Jake. He sat them down and spoke with them. Their position was, they didn’t ask for this. They didn’t ask to live in a different house (and, although they didn’t say it, with their Dad’s different wife).
Jake’s older daughter was virtually non-communicative for the first few years. She never looked me in the eye, and she seemed intent on ignoring my existence. Jake’s son, always easygoing, appeared to take things in stride. The younger daughter enjoyed it when I took her shopping.
The turning point with Jake’s older daughter occurred a few years into the marriage, when I invited her to attend the closing session of a workshop I’d taken. “This may help you with the divorce,” I said. She looked up from her lap, startled. I’d said the word: divorce. She not only took the first part of the workshop, she completed all three parts. Later she told me it helped her create a breakthrough in her life. She also confessed that she’d never looked anyone in the eye before. (So it wasn’t just me.) We became friends.
And that, it’s been said, is exactly what a stepmother’s role should be: a friend to her stepchildren, or, at the most, a caring aunt. My best moments have occurred when I’ve remembered this. My worst have occurred when I’ve forgotten this and tried to be more. The tricky part is distinguishing when I can be helpful and when I’m going too far.
At times, I go back to the blessing that my cousin, Sheila, gave us at our wedding. I worked it into a blessing for children of remarriage and posted it on RitualWell.org, a Jewish Web site that features blessings for life passages.
Sheila invited the children to join us under the hupah, and said:
“It will take time to grow into this new family: new people to get used to, new routines, new habits, new relationships…. We understand that you will always belong to your original parents. That will not change with this wedding ceremony. May you open your hearts to include the new members of your expanded family, and may you accumulate wisdom and appreciation for what your new family members have to offer you and what you will bring to them in the years to come.”
Linda Kriger lives and writes in Philadelphia. She was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal.