Re-married with children
Communication is key when introducing new stepparents
My stepmother, Mary Ann, was 37 when her first husband died in a freak plane crash, leaving her to raise their 11-year-old son alone. A year and a half later, while taking dance lessons at a country-western club, she met my dad, a charming divorcee with a mean two-step and four teenage daughters.
“I didn’t feel any guilt when I started dating again,” Mary Ann, now passing the 12-year mark with my still-blissfully-smitten father, told me via e-mail. “My dad was young when my mom died, and I saw how lonely he was. I wanted to have a fulfilling life and whether that meant being married or single, I didn’t care. I just knew I wanted people in my life so I could have fun, feel needed and be loved. Sound crazy?”
Not according to Father Dino Pappademos of St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church in Elk Grove, and Pastor Kathi McShane of Midtown’s First United Methodist Church.
“Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead,'” quoted Father Dino. “'I’m a God of the living.'”
This translates to, “You gotta live your life.”
But what about the kids involved, who may not be so keen on their widowed mom or dad moving on to a new partner?
Over hearty Stonegrill grub, our guests offered both observational and personal insights on the transition from mourning to re-mating.
My wife passed away a year and a half ago, and I’m beginning to date again. My two teenage daughters are not happy about this. They’re rude to every woman I bring home, and they’ve started spending more time with their friends instead of with me. How do I get them to understand that I’m moving on while still honoring their mother’s memory?
“This is a very common experience,” said Father Dino, a friendly, golly-gee kinda guy who helped start St. Katherine from scratch in 1988. Now putting the finishing touches on a festival area, dance floor, biblical garden and Greek bell tower, the church has come a long way from the 20 families and $5,000 it began with.
“In Greece, if your husband dies, you’re in mourning the rest of your life,” he said. “So you see all these women walking around who have been wearing black for 50 years. In other words, it’s never time to start another relationship. In the U.S., that doesn’t apply. For everyone, it’s a different process of grieving, of healing, and feeling comfortable going out. The biggest conflict comes up when people start thinking, ‘What will other people think of me?’ And usually I tell them, ‘You think of what you want, what you need, what’s good for you, and forget everybody else. If you feel comfortable inside, if you feel you have honored the memory of your lost one, and you’re ready to continue living your life, you’re the best judge of that.’”
In the Orthodox church, Dino explained, there’s a 40-day memorial for loved ones who have passed away, and another memorial service held at the first anniversary of the death. These prayers and ceremonies are designed to help heal the grieving family.
Kathi McShane went through a grieving process of a different sort when, at 39, her husband’s death “threw [her] life upside-down.”
After spending the majority of her adult life unhappily practicing law, McShane parlayed her grief into a life change: She closed up the law firm she had shared with her husband and went to seminary with the idea that she would teach legal ethics.
“I realized I really wanted to preach to those lawyers,” she recalled, laughing, “and they didn’t want to hear it.”
McShane grew up in the Armenian Orthodox church but left organized religion altogether shortly after graduating law school. She “thought it was a place where all the answers were all too easy—and I wanted to wrestle around in the questions for a while.”
She joined First United Methodist Church after the birth of her daughter, and found that after her husband’s death “the church really held me in my grief.” Following her ordination and a transition career in seminary administration, McShane came to the old J Street church in summer 2006, and now sees FUMC’s task as “opening our eyes to the ways the city, Midtown in particular, has changed, and how we can be relevant to the people who live here now.”
McShane’s emotional response to her husband’s death was that she would never remarry. “I was sure I had had the love of my life, and I was done,” she told us. “I didn’t date for more than two years after he died … and I was surprised to fall in love again. I think that what happens to people in a good marriage is they learn the value of love; how much deeper and more meaningful life can be when you’re partnered. All of us need partnering, I think, in some way. And that’s what you find in a good marriage, so it’s hard to say, ‘I don’t need that anymore.’”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that kids are going to see it that way.
“Their resistance must be about fear of what’s going to happen in their relationship with their father,” McShane surmised. “'Will I be loved? Will I have any space in your life? In your family? In your love? Who will this other person be to me if you marry her?’ And I think that my advice to this man would be, talk to them. Somehow you need to convince these daughters that there is plenty of room in your life for them, too. … And, as Father Dino said, I think it might be just doing what you want to do, even if you’re the only one who knows that’s the right thing.
“I think often when you see someone, usually a man, dating so soon after a loss, it’s often about need,” she went on. “They’re used to having someone there. And there might be three people in the bed, but some people can live with that. I think every couple has their own bargain.”
Even in cases where kids may be justified in their concerns, McShane contends that “the bond between parent and child is almost always so strong that nothing can come between them, even a new spouse.”
Father Dino almost got to test this theory firsthand when, after his father died at 62 years old, his mother began “keeping company” with, in Dino’s words, “a creep.”
“Sure enough, it came out that he was involved in pornography and this stuff—and she was thinking of marrying this idiot,” Dino said vehemently.
Hard-pressed to let his mother commit to such an unsavory character, Dino finally said to her, “You know, Mom, you just have to ask yourself, ‘Who are you going to be once you marry this guy? Are you comfortable with all this pornography garbage, with his obnoxious personality? Do you really think this is something you want to live the rest of your life with, or is it going to change who you are?’
“Thank God she never married him,” Dino concluded, visibly relieved.
The lesson here is that sometimes kids have clearer radar than their parents, especially when loneliness renders a person gullible.
“Kids can become good safety valves on their parents’ relationships,” Dino said.
“You asked [your mother] exactly the right question,” said McShane. “That’s such a great question to ask anybody thinking about marrying: ‘Who will you be? What will it bring out of you? What will it call forth in you?’ Because I really do believe marriage is supposed to make us all something bigger and better than what we can be alone. But I think most children can’t ask a question as selfless as the one you asked. ‘How will you take care of me?’ That’s where I think most children would be.”