When You Marry Again, Are You Expecting A Replacement Parent For Your Children?

Posted at 02:57am on 13th June 2009
Continuing the series of excerpts from Mel’s book on Successful Step Parenting, we come now to the sensitive issue of wedding plans, and what to call the new person in mummy’s or daddy’s life.

Many of the practical details of converting two families into one stepfamily will, necessarily, have been thrashed out prior to the wedding. Based on those discussions, a number of decisions may well have been put into operation. Some of them, such as what type of wedding service you hope for, may be dictated by the facilities available.

MARRYING AGAIN: THE WEDDING

For instance, as a general rule the policy of the Church of England, whilst offering a blessing after the event, does not allow for a full marriage service to those who have previously been divorced. However, don’t let that put you off if you have set your heart on a church wedding - particularly if you are a regular communicant. Individual incumbents may well be prevailed upon to conduct a Solemnisation of Marriage, and it’s certainly worth asking around.

It’s worth remembering too, that whether we choose to be married with all the ceremony of a church service or something simpler at the Registry Office, a marriage is rarely a private affair limited to the two people being wed. By its very nature it is a public declaration of intent. But more than that, it is the merger of two families - not only of the immediate members who will make up the stepfamily - but also in the broadest sense.

With this in mind, some brides-to-be ask members of their fiancé’s family to attend them as bridesmaids. This is another area where we need to show great sensitivity towards the feelings of the offspring of bride and groom. Whilst some couples might feel justified in choosing a lavish celebration of their nuptials, it is possible that their children (or stepchildren) may view the proceedings with a good deal of embarrassment.

It may appear to them that they are being asked to ‘flaunt’ their allegiance to their newly-wed parent. In this case, it would be a kindness to play down the ceremony. And if being ‘in attendance’ in some official capacity at one parent’s wedding is going to make a child feel as if he or she is cocking a snook at the other, then it may be wiser to drop the idea altogether.

  • Children in step families should never be put in the position of feeling that they’re having to ‘take sides’ - however unintentional that may be on the part of the parent.

WHAT’S IN A NAME: DON’T EXPECT TO PRODUCE A REPLACEMENT PARENT

On that note, it should be stressed that we should never put our children in the position of feeling that they’re being coerced into having to accept the new step-parent as a ‘replacement’ of their natural parent. What to call mum’s new husband, or dad’s new wife may raise spectres in a child’s mind that seem out of all proportion to an adult. But that’s no excuse for us to ride roughshod over their inhibitions.

Feelings in this respect will vary from family to family. Some youngsters will find it embarrassing even to raise the matter at all. They may go to great lengths to avoid using any form of address. Others may find the idea of using ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ for someone other than their biological parent highly offensive and disloyal. For such children this may actually reinforce the pain and anguish that they experienced at the death or departure of their natural parent.

On the other hand, there will be some - perhaps, particularly, young children - who welcome the idea of conforming to what they see as the ‘norm’. They may actually be longing for the familiarity and security of being able to address the two people with whom they live as ‘mummy and daddy’. If this is so, then in the best interests of the child, it may be politic to discuss the subject with the absent parent, in order to eliminate any ill-feeling.

  • Whatever the situation, our part as adults is to provide a sympathetic listening ear
  • an acceptance of whatever makes the child comfortable
  • and an assurance that no pressure will ever be brought to bear when it comes to forms of address.

“I was always ‘Dad’ to Maggie’s girls” said Bob, “but my eldest son always called Maggie by her Christian name.”

Maggie admitted that she had accepted her stepson’s form of address when she’d married his father, because, at the time, he had seemed very grown-up to her compared to her own little girls. Only with hindsight did she realise that he was actually not very big, himself. Years later when his sister wished to follow suit, Maggie found that her thinking had shifted.

“When Sonia was thirteen and wanted to call me by my Christian name, I objected and wouldn’t allow her.”

But gradually it became apparent that Maggie’s stepdaughter, though grappling with feelings of disloyalty to her natural mother, actually felt excluded every time she heard Maggie’s two girls calling their mother ‘Mummy’. Only through the intervention of one of Maggie’s friends was the matter ultimately resolved. Maggie realised that her stepdaughter had been side-stepping the issue.

“She’d never really called me anything. Eventually, a friend asked her what she would really like to call me and she said: ‘Mummy’. I think she felt left out being the only one of the three girls not to do so’.”

Isobel’s little girls, who, throughout Terry’s long courtship of their mother had always addressed him by his Christian name, couldn’t wait to call him ‘Daddy’ when they knew that a wedding was to take place. Permission to do so was granted by their natural father. But even so, initially, they found the switch to ‘Daddy’ caused them much embarrassment and mirth. Once accomplished, however, it appeared to be the most natural thing in the world. Now adult, neither stepdaughter has encountered any problem in having used the same form of address for both father and stepfather all these years and both ‘Daddies’ have coped with equanimity.

Steve’s children, both very young at the time of their father’s remarriage, responded similarly.

“Kevin’s wedding present to me was to call me ‘Mum’,” Ruth explained. “I started as ‘Ruth’, then ‘Mummy Ruth’. But when we got married he asked what he should call me, and I said: ‘Anything you like - as long as it’s not nasty.’ ‘I’ll call you Mum then,’ he said. And his real mother has been very good about it.”

That’s not always the case, of course. Nor is the vexed issue of what to call a step-parent necessarily only the dilemma of the child. There are step-parents themselves who are not very enamoured at the thought of being addressed as ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ - as Alan confided when taking on three teenaged stepdaughters.

“I was seventeen when my mother died, and nearly twenty when my father remarried. But my brother and I were very definitely expected to call my new stepmother ‘Mum’. It never came naturally.

“Frankly, remembering how awkward I felt, and having been a bachelor for years before marrying and becoming a stepfather, I would have found it very daunting being addressed as ‘Dad’ by my stepdaughters.”

Quarter of a century later, still ‘Alan’ to his stepdaughters (though they refer to him and their mother collectively as their ‘parents’) he is more than happy to be ‘Grandpa’ to his seven grandchildren-by-marriage - whilst their real grandfather, whom they saw infrequently, was addressed more formally as ‘Grandfather’. Since toddlers have no concept of how many grandparents they should have, the children’s parents felt that until they started asking questions, this would probably cause them the least confusion.

Dealing with the loss of a parent, whether through death or divorce, is going to be difficult enough for a child. For children in step families, the transition to the concept of replacement parent may be more than they can initially handle. But with understanding and sensitivity, there may be huge gains all round. As I said on the BBC Radio 5 Live Richard Bacon show last year, there’s nothing to prevent a step family from becoming as strong and harmonious as a biological family.

ALL PROCEEDS FROM MEL'S LATEST NOVEL, A Painful Post Mortem, ARE FOR CHARITIES BENEFITING CHILDREN WORLDWIDE. PLEASE BUY A COPY AND HELP RAISE CASH FOR PROJECTS LIKE THIS OVERSEAS OR THIS IN UK

Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.

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