Our wedding photos aren’t exactly what you’d call typical. Scattered among the quintessential pictures of bride and groom are photos of me with four handsome men in tuxedos—my husband and his three boys.
When I married my sweetheart, Matt, I realized I wasn’t just gaining a husband. I was joining a family. On our wedding day we became one of more than 5.3 million stepfamilies in the United States—families in which at least one spouse brings a child or children into the marriage. As any parent can attest, raising a family is challenging. Raising a stepfamily—whether the stepfamily has its origins in the death of a parent, divorce, or a previously unwed parent—is especially challenging because of the complex dynamics involved. We can say thankfully that blessings can come with the challenges.
My purpose in writing this article is not to suggest that my husband and I are perfect parents or that we have all the answers for every situation stepparents may find themselves in. I simply want to share a few things we’ve learned through our experience—supported by the wisdom of Church leaders and family counselors—in the hope that some of it might be helpful to others in similar situations.
Looking back, we realize that the formation of a strong stepfamily begins long before the wedding day. Dating when either person in the relationship has children is very different from typical dating. At every stage of the courtship, the couple must give consideration not only to their own relationship but also to the children.
Based on advice he had received earlier from a divorce counselor, Matt did not introduce me to his boys until we both agreed our relationship was exclusive and likely headed for an eventual engagement. Matt didn’t want his boys to form relationships that would later be broken. He had been counseled that a breakup with someone his children had become attached to could be painful for them and could make them reluctant to form attachments with anyone else he decided to date, including the person who would eventually become his wife—and their stepparent. We waited until the right time, and it worked out that I was Matt’s only dating partner his children ever met. We feel this made it much easier for his boys and me to form a relationship.
For me, it was important to understand and accept that if I decided to marry Matt, I would be committing myself to more than just a marriage. I would be committing to a family—my husband and his children. This was the most difficult part of my decision. Could I simultaneously commit to being a wife and a stepmother of three? Could I accept the corresponding sacrifices? For example, I knew that if I married Matt we would never experience that “newlywed stage” of marriage before children became part of our family. I knew that a major amount of Matt’s time and emotional energy would be devoted to his children. I knew that child support obligations would bring significant financial sacrifices. Committing myself before we were married to accept these sacrifices and to support my spouse through them has given me the foundation I’ve needed to carry on as the challenges of stepparenting have come.
When both of you are certain that your courtship will soon become an engagement, take time to give your children as many opportunities as possible to strengthen their relationship with your future partner. “Remarriage and efforts to create a successful blended family can be frustrated without proper preparation by both parties,”1 says Elder Robert E. Wells, formerly of the Seventy, who grew up in a stepfamily and later raised a stepfamily. Proper preparation includes taking enough time to get to know your intended well and allowing your children that same opportunity. After all, they will be living, at least part-time, with your future spouse, too.
When our relationship was at this stage, Matt invited me to his home for Sunday dinner each weekend he had the children. As a group we’d prepare and share the meal, do the dishes, then have family home evening and play games or make treats. Soon, every Sunday the boys started asking when I was coming over, which made me feel wanted and a part of their family.
Matt and I also started taking the boys with us on many of our dates, to sporting events, arts festivals, family movies—any activity we could all enjoy together. During these “group dates” Matt and I focused our attention on the children, rather than on each other, so they wouldn’t feel threatened or jealous. We wanted the boys to feel they were getting twice as much love and attention—rather than half as much—because I was there.
Rather than detracting from our developing relationship, my directing attention and love to Matt’s boys actually strengthened his love for me. “Love feelings are enhanced when parents see their partners treating their children well,” confirms Brent Scharman, a psychologist with LDS Family Services. Brother Scharman and his wife, Jan, a psychologist and vice president of Student Life at Brigham Young University, have a stepfamily of 10 children and are former board members of the Stepfamily Association of America.
If both dating partners have children, as the Scharmans did, the children from both families also need opportunities and time to form relationships with each other. The more this can be done before the wedding day, the less difficult the adjustment will be afterward, says Sister Scharman. But at the same time, she says, “allow your children to choose not to be a constant companion or best buddy to a stepsibling.”
After your children have formed a relationship of trust with your intended, let them be the first to hear of your engagement. Realize that no matter how much your children may have come to love your fiancé, your announcement might still be quite difficult for them.
After we announced our engagement to Matt’s boys, we were surprised when his youngest son, with whom I had grown particularly close, broke out in tears. When Matt asked him why, he explained that he wanted to always be the “baby” of the family, and now that was probably going to change because Matt and I hoped to have children together.
Encouraging your children to talk about concerns such as this while expressing your understanding and love will help them come to an eventual acceptance. Today this youngest son—and his older brothers—absolutely adore their new little sister.
As you prepare for your wedding, says Brother Scharman, remember that while this may be the happiest time of your life, it can be a difficult time for children whose parents have divorced, because it marks the end of any dreams they may have had of their biological parents getting back together. Rather than expecting your children to be as excited as you are, you will better serve them by acknowledging that this might be a difficult time for them while assuring them you love them and always will.
In all the hustle and bustle of your wedding preparations and wedding day, remember to show extra sensitivity, love, and attention to your children. To help our boys feel included, we explained to them beforehand the significance and meaning of the sealing ceremony. On our wedding day we met them outside the temple immediately following the ceremony. With all our loved ones waiting there to greet us, our boys were the first ones we embraced and expressed our love to. We also let them invite some of their friends to our wedding reception so they would feel the celebration was for them as well as for us.
After the wedding, recognize and respect the fact that, when divorce is involved, children have two immediate families. Make it a point to never say anything derogatory to the children or even in front of the children about their other parents or family. Don’t try to replace your stepchildren’s parent or ask them to call you “mom” or “dad” if they aren’t comfortable with that. “Rather than compete with a relationship between a child and a parent … stepparents need to concentrate on building a new relationship with the child,”2 says Elder Wells.
Establishing family traditions will help build these new relationships. Traditions have a great power to bond, unite, and help new family members feel welcome, all of which are especially needed in stepfamilies. Traditions should include some established customs from both families and some that are new to the entire stepfamily.
“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” provides spiritual principles on which to base family traditions: “Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.”3 In our family, spiritual traditions of family prayer, Church activity, temple attendance (including baptisms for the dead with our children who are old enough), and family home evening have strengthened us. As a stepfamily, we’ve made adjustments where needed so that we can carry on these traditions. For example, because we don’t have the boys in our home on Monday nights, we hold family home evenings on the Sunday evenings they are with us. Traditions of working together, community service, and playing together have also unified us. An annual vacation to the beach with my extended family has become something we all look forward to.
Along with having family activities, Matt and I also spend individual time with each child. This has helped our children to feel secure in their relationship with their dad and to strengthen their new relationship with me. For example, when I’ve felt tension between myself and one of my stepsons, I’ve invited him to choose something fun for the two of us to do together. Invariably, he chooses basketball. Now, I’m really awful at basketball, but I’ve humored him by agreeing to a little one-on-one, in which he always soundly defeats his stepmom. I don’t know if it’s just because he enjoys beating me, but I’ve been amazed afterwards at how much better our relationship feels.
In developing these relationships, “stepparents need to be patient,” says Elder Wells. “Because emotional attachments between stepparents and stepchildren require time, it sometimes may take years to establish a united and harmonious blended family.”4
While it is important to make time for each of your children, it is even more important for stepparents to take time for each other. “View time alone together as a necessity rather than a luxury,” says Brother Scharman. To meet the many challenges of forming a strong stepfamily, the couple must develop an especially strong relationship. For Matt and me, doing things we enjoy together and communicating frequently and openly about family issues have strengthened our resolve and commitment to each other and to our family.
Along with relying on each other, don’t be afraid to seek help when necessary from a professional who has experience in counseling stepfamilies. Such counselors are available through LDS Family Services.
Most important, seek support from Heavenly Father through temple and church attendance, fasting, prayer, and scripture study. At a time when I was struggling and praying over my role as a stepparent, it struck me that I have been entrusted with a sacred role in our boys’ lives. I shed tears of gratitude.
Such are the blessings that can come with raising a stepfamily.