Being mindful of step-children

When a good friend got engaged, her fiancé’s five-year-old son turned and asked his father, “Will you still be my dad when you get married? Where will you live? Will that be my home?”

This provided his father and future stepmother with a mile-wide opportunity to reassure him and bear his fears in mind as they began to plan their future, and as the building blocks of the boy’s little life began to shift around him. Most children, especially if they are older, will not be so up-front about their anxieties, though their worries may be exactly the same.

I have watched friends marry divorcees while stepchildren look on nervously, wondering where the colossal promises their parent is making leave them. While children may want – and feel they ought – to be happy for their parent, there may also be an enormous amount of fear and insecurity. And their parent, caught up in furious wedding planning, may miss these signs and not realise the profound value of stating the (hopefully) obvious.

I write as a layperson and adult stepchild, who wants to see stepchildren helped to experience a parent’s remarriage as positively as possible. It’s actually an opportunity for the church to show God’s concern for those who are vulnerable. Anxieties may be most keenly felt when the child is still materially dependent on his or her parents, but experience shows that people of any age tend to find the remarriage of a parent destabilising. So when I refer to ‘children’, I am not assuming they are all under 18.

This is where I believe the Church can step in, in a way that acknowledges vows made at first marriages and makes sense of its desire to both nurture children and help adults find grace in a new relationship. That relationship may be a remarriage of a widow or widower, or a remarriage after divorce, in a church which is open to that.

The Order for Prayer and Dedication After Civil Marriage includes confession and absolution, prayers for families as well as for the gift of children. However, the wedding liturgy does not – it makes no explicit distinction between whether a marriage is a first or a subsequent, or whether children from either or both partners already exist.

It is more than 20 years since the Church approved remarrying divorcees (in appropriate circumstances), and some step-families arise from bereavement or abandonment, yet provision for (step)children remains inconsistent. But whilst there may not be any specific prayers for children, there is space in the intercessions to create and develop prayers that reflect the particular circumstances of any given wedding.

Simple steps can be taken that will put children at ease on the big day and potentially help them and the whole new family in the longer term. It is vital that children do not feel ostracised from proceedings; they may (secretly) not wish their parent to be remarrying; they may still have raw feelings about the circumstances in which their parents’ relationship ended.

So their experience of church needs to be one where they and their mixed feelings are welcome. The (step)children can be considered during marriage preparation, and the couple be invited to discuss with them the changes that are about to happen. We stepchildren can come across as difficult, but patient support, not rejection, will help us to better manage our bewildering array of feelings. Care for the Family’s Every Step Counts (Lion, 2007) contains practical tips and case studies that may be of help here.

As for the wedding day, Every Step Counts states: “The focus of the day should be on lifelong commitment to each other and to the children that one or both partners already have” (italics my own).

During the service, children can be given a role and mentioned in the prayers as a source of thanksgiving, in a way that is sensitive to the other parent if he or she is still alive. For example, “Lord, we thank you for N and the joy they give. May they always know they are welcome and loved in the home of [X and Y].” They can be invited forward to receive a blessing when their parent and step-parent are invited to do so.

The natural parent can be encouraged to articulate “additional vows” to their child, publicly or privately along the lines of: “I will always be your [dad/mum], I will always love you and be there for you; even though things will be different, I am not leaving you.” The step-parent could pledge something appropriate too, for example: “I promise to show you love and welcome; I respect your need for time with your [dad/mum].”

One way to help the marrying parties concerns the question of integrating the past relationship with the present. It is not always a case of “the old is gone, the new has come”; a divorcee or widow(er) might rationalise “moving on” from a lost partner but cannot, and must not do so, from the children he/she has had with them. Divorcees with children usually have to remain in touch with their ex and it does children no favours if this relationship is acrimonious. As much as it depends on the remarrying parent, keeping this relationship functional and civil, if that is at all possible, is a way he or she can honour his or her original marriage vows and both parties’ responsibility to their children.

Although the liturgy currently does not help a remarrying parent place his or her child “on the map” of a future marriage, the celebrant can – through simple gestures during the wedding and pastoral care before, and ideally, after it too.

Weddings are celebrations of love, which present golden opportunities for churches to help couples reassure their step-children that they are included in that love.