by Helen Elliott Wheeler, M.Ed.
(Originally published in Single-Parent Family magazine, September, 2002. Used with permission.)
"I don’t see why I should have to change anything! After all, he’s moving into our house." This statement came from the same daughter who had joyfully helped me select the pale pink satin for the wedding dress I’d be wearing in a few weeks. With words and attitude, I felt like she’d thrown down the gauntlet.
When I mentioned her comments to my soon-to-be husband who had never had children of his own, he said, "That’s okay. I’ve been working with youth groups for the last 29 years. I’ve handled small groups, large groups, and one-to-one counseling sessions and studies. Surely one teenager shouldn’t be that big of a problem." Was he in for a surprise!
Although my daughter willingly participated in the wedding and other festivities, that afternoon was the beginning of a difficult transition. I had followed the wisdom that said that once your children were out of the house you are safe to remarry with few complications. Although my daughter still lived with me, she was beginning her senior year of high school. I thought it was close enough.
Her brother, who was two and a half years older, had been away at college and didn’t seem to care one way or the other. Little did I expect that within two months of my wedding, he too would be back home. My husband and I simply underestimated the enormous challenges that would face us for the next several years.
My husband and I often joked about what we had become: a "blended family." But we had been married only a short time when I felt as if we had been thrown, not into a nice little milk shake blender, but into one of those grinder-slicer-dicer-chopper things.
As a school teacher and mental health counselor, I thought I understood how children of single-parent families felt about their lives and the issues that surrounded divorce and remarriage. I knew it would be hard as we tried to adjust to a new family identity. I wish it had been only as simple as knowing it would be hard.
We have now come through most of the trials, but it has been a seven year struggle for my children, my husband, me—and our marriage.
Many single parents assume that the difficulties they face in parenting and their personal lives would be easier if they remarried. This fallacy is accepted by many churches, and the pressure on single parents to remarry increases.
The problem with this philosophy is that it fails to consider the needs of children of divorce. With very few exceptions, the children hold on to the fantasy that Mom and Dad will reunite, and the fantasy doesn’t vanish with the remarriage of either or both parents. The children’s goal remains to get their parents back together and that makes blending tough.
Does that mean that single parents can never remarry happily? It is possible with preparation, patience and prayer. I will use the letters S-T-E-P to help you understand how you might proceed.
SLOOWWW down. Do not rush your children into to trying to like someone. A person you’re dating should not even be introduced to your children unless you are sure he or she is a "keeper." Your children won’t understand the concept of "we’re just friends," so they will see every date as a potential replacement for Mom or Dad.
TALK to someone. Talk to a professional Christian counselor, your clergyman or a wise Christian friend. Although Solomon was not writing about stepfamilies in Proverbs 19:20, his advice is still applicable: "Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise."
EXPECT difficulties. Understand that your children have the fantasy of reuniting their original family. They have to grieve their losses. Surprisingly, older children need even more time to grieve than younger children. Remember that they must grieve the loss of a dream—which is often harder than grieving loss by death.
Just as it takes time to heal, it also takes time to build and rebuild relationships. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, "He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time." Although you’d expect that most readjustments would need to be made by the stepparent, the biological parent has adjustments of his or her own, including issues of authority within the new household as well as communication challenges with the other parent.
PROCEED with caution. Although it is not impossible to have a happy and satisfying stepfamily, know that, should you make that decision, there will be some arduous days ahead. Proceed with caution and prayer. Keep in mind Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:6, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God."
Helen Elliott Wheeler, M.Ed., LPC, LPC/SIT, NCC received her degree in Clinical Counseling from the Citadel. She is also a doctoral student and is a co-founder of Changing Families for single-parents and their children. She has a private practice and 20 years of experience as a public school teacher. She has three published articles in Focus on the Family magazine (Single-Parent edition), and is a frequent presenter for counseling, education, and church organizations.