Q: I am an alman with five children. My oldest three children are married. I have one daughter in seminary in Eretz Yisrael and one son living at home who attends an in-town mesivta.
Although my wife passed away two years ago, I have only recently felt ready to begin thinking about possibly getting remarried. I have many questions about how to handle all of this regarding my children. A friend of mine suggested that I write to you. For example, at what point should I be letting my children know that I am “listening to shidduchim”? Should I be telling them when I am meeting someone? And if I am ready to get engaged, how should I go about telling my children?
A: Your letter demonstrates the timeless wisdom of Chazal, who taught, “Knei lecha chaver” (Pirkei Avos 1:6). On this Mishnah, Rabbeinu Yonah explains that one of the three reasons a friend is so important is because one can “receive good advice from him.” And your friend certainly offered you a helpful recommendation.
The first thing you need to do is to consider what this means to your children. In spite of the fact that all of your children appear to be living independent lives, they will greet news of your seeking to remarry with a mixture of discomfort, displeasure and disapproval. Let me explain why.
Two years ago, they lost their mother. Since then, they have adjusted to this enormous loss by treating you as both mother and father. Because they lost one parent, therefore, their surviving parent plays a greater role in their lives. And whenever a surviving parent remarries, children almost always see that event as a second loss. More specifically, a prospective step-parent is viewed as a rival, competing with them for their parent’s attention and affection.
One married child, for example, was told by her father that he was about to become engaged. Her response was: “First Mommy was niftar. And now this!” Then she burst into tears. Another alman became engaged and was shocked to see his otherwise independent teenage daughter suddenly become clinging and dependent, insisting on more time and attention than ever before. In short, once children learn of their surviving parent’s engagement, they are not happy campers, at best, and may even attempt to thwart the remarriage, at worst.
Understanding this, it should be clear to you why you should not inform your children now that you are looking to remarry. It will only cause them unnecessary worry and anxiety. In addition, they will pester you with many questions that you may not want to answer. Children are simply not entitled to know everything their parents are doing and where they are going at all times. If you are meeting someone, they do not have to know who that person is or why you are getting together with him/her. Children may not keep secrets from parents. Parents may keep secrets from children.
When you are ready to get engaged, you should inform your children before it becomes official. They are entitled to the courtesy of being told ahead of anyone else. You should tell them that you have met someone about whom you are serious. And then you should ask them how they feel about it.
Be prepared for an avalanche of negativity and a deluge of questions. Do not be defensive. You have done nothing wrong and you are not harming your children. Accept their feelings. And do not expect them to be happy for you. Your friends will fill that role. Instead, help them to deal with their feelings by asking them to be specific in describing their worst-case scenarios. What are they worried or concerned about? Only after they have voiced their anxieties should you attempt to reassure them.
As stated above, most children fear that they will lose the time and attention they enjoyed with their parent before the engagement. If they do not articulate that issue, you must do so for them. And once they acknowledge that apprehension, you can and should try to calm them with concrete commitments. The message they need to hear from you is that you will still be there for them as you have been previously.
Finally, understand that this is a process, not an event. Yes, they can come to appreciate, respect and even like your new wife, their stepmother. Unfortunately, that will not take place right away. Your family will have to endure a period of adjustment. This cannot be rushed. If you are patient, however, and realize that the reactions you receive now are not what will remain forever, then you can eventually get to a place of comfort where your entire family feels whole once again.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.