Q: As you recently have written about families of divorce, maybe you can also focus on the topic of stepfamilies. I hope to soon remarry (after the death of my wife three years ago) and whatever helpful insights you can share would be appreciated.
A: Becoming a blended family is an all-encompassing task. For both sets of children (as for all of us), there is no true replacement for a natural parent. Thus, any thoughts of a parent’s remarriage can bring on a sense of sadness in one’s children. No stepparent has the blood tie or shared past that one’s natural parent possesses. In a sense, the more a child accepts a “new parent,” the more the child may feel guilty for “betraying” the natural parent, be the parent alive or deceased.
A similar sentiment can be felt on the part of a stepparent. If one’s natural children are living with an ex-spouse, the stepparent can feel guilty (or less loyal) if he gives more time to his new family — as if he is not giving enough to his natural children, who are living elsewhere.
The child of a deceased parent can have somewhat irrational thoughts, such as: “If you really loved mommy, how can you marry someone else?” One could answer to the effect that: “Mommy wouldn’t have wanted me to live alone, because she always wanted what’s best for me.”
Children see stepparents as a relief or a threat, depending on their position in the family. For some “parentified children” (those who temporarily made Kiddush for the family or cooked many of the family meals), there is a definite change in status and another person in an authoritative position to deal with. For other children, there is discomfort in having a “stranger in the house.” Yet others move into the homes of their stepsiblings, having to usurp territory and create new roles for themselves in a pre-existing family.
Children who took on more parental responsibilities in recent years need to rediscover their original roles as children, with two parents working together. It is quite natural to have mixed feelings when so much transition is in the making.
Creating blended families is a fragile process. In more common situations, at least nine months must pass between the time one takes on the role of spouse until one assumes the role of parent. When creating a blended family, adults become spouses and parents simultaneously. The old parent-child relationships precede the new marital relationship, so that the past ties have different weight and meaning in the family. Not only this, but each child enters this family unit suffering from a loss. People may have learned well (or not) how to deal with disappointment. How comfortably one acclimates to this change is dependent on how one’s coping mechanisms function.
The initial step one needs to take is that of solidifying one’s marital relationship at the onset of the marriage. If this does not occur, a woman can become merely a housekeeper and mother, not necessarily a wife. She may come to feel resentful, and could actually emerge somewhat like the mythical “stepmother.”
The myth of an instant relationship is equally faulty. One needs time to develop relationships, including making set times to get to really know one’s stepchildren (instead of merely meeting over the breakfast table). Both parents need to work as a unit in relation to their children. Although in the past, one parent and his or her children comprised a unit, restructuring of roles in the family needs to occur in order to include and validate a new parent. By doing this, one can strengthen the relationship with one’s stepchildren and help solidify both parents’ authority in the family.
Putting together the experiences of two different families is quite a challenge and requires work to weave the tapestries of life together. Yet many have succeeded in enriching their lives by remarriage. Everyone’s experiences can be growth-producing when shared in a constructive and positive manner.