Q: I read your column about when a father should broach the topic of his remarriage to his children. I am writing from the point of view of the child.
I lost my mother when I was in my mid-teens. A year and a half later, my father remarried. When my father first started thinking about remarriage, he called the whole family together and discussed it with us. When he felt he had met the right person, he told us. And then we met her.
This approach, I feel, is better than, as you suggested, the father only telling the children, even if they are older already, when he wants them to meet his prospective wife. There may well be resentment, at first, but, at least there won’t be a rejection.
It is a huge change… To have more warning that it may occur, gives you more time to digest, and therefore come to terms with the change, when it does come. On the other hand… every person is different. And for some this approach could be detrimental…
A: Yes, every person is different. And general guidelines cannot apply to all people at all times. Your father, for example, knowing his family, decided to inform you and your siblings that he was planning to remarry before he even met your stepmother. This gave you ample time to get used to the idea of his remarrying well before it happened. Looking back now, you are grateful to him for giving you the opportunity to gradually adjust to that dramatic change in your life.
Unfortunately, it does not always work out as well as it did for your family. The process of remarriage may take longer. And it may not even happen at all. If a surviving parent informs his or her children of his or her plans to remarry, that can and will trigger resentment, at best, and heightened anxiety, at worst. Children who have already lost a parent, therefore, do not have to suffer the additional insecurity of knowing their surviving parent is looking to remarry.
Once that someone special has been met, however, then I do believe children should be informed. And, as I recommended in my earlier column, this should be well before the official engagement. That is important because it allows time for the future stepparent to be accepted by the children. What is critical here, as you pointed out, is that ample time be allotted for proper adjustment.
There are two parenting principles that can be applied here. The first is that it is not beneficial for children to be informed of all possible future adversity. Some parents mistakenly believe, however, that the advance warning improves their children’s ability to cope with unpleasant circumstances. They say, for example, “Zeidy has a terminal illness. The doctors believe he has only six months left to live.” Or, they say, “The Bais Yaakov is having serious financial troubles. If the emergency campaign is not successful, it may be forced to close and we will have to find another school for you.” Such announcements, however well intentioned, usually have the opposite effect. They elevate children’s anxiety to unmanageable levels. Instead of helping children to prepare for these unwelcome events in their lives, these warnings sap the children’s energy and weaken their ability to cope. Parents would do much better by withholding the bad news until the children really need to know. And regarding a surviving parent’s remarriage, children do not need to know until the parent has actually met someone (s)he seriously considers marrying.
This principle can be compared to the Halachah of inui ha’din (Sanhedrin 35a). Whenever beis din imposed the death penalty, R”l, the sentence had to be carried out the same day as the judgment was rendered. To delay the execution even until the next day was considered excessive suffering for the condemned man. Similarly, therefore, when children are informed that their surviving parent is actively seeking to remarry, the time between that announcement and the actual engagement may constitute a form of inui ha’din for the children.
The second parenting principle that is relevant here is that parents do not need to inform their children about their whereabouts and activities at all times. Parents are allowed to keep some things private from their children. It never ceases to amaze me, for example, how shocked some parents are when I inform them that they can and should have a lock on their bedroom door. Of course, children can be allowed into their parents’ bedroom. This is a privilege, however, and not a right. Similarly, therefore, a single parent may meet shidduchim for the purpose of possible remarriage without having to inform his or her children before and after each meeting.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.