(January 6, 2015 / JNS)
By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
Mazal tov! You’re getting married… again.
Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a certified practitioner in Imago Relationship Therapy and author of “The Marriage Restoration Project: The Five Step Plan to Saving Your Marriage,” notes that around 50 percent of married adults in America get divorced at least once, meaning the likelihood of being a stepparent is becoming increasingly high. It can work—but it takes tremendous commitment and communication, Slatkin tells JNS.org.
Raising someone else’s children poses uncharted challenges and opportunities for couples who must balance their own relationship with the relationships they must form with their stepchildren. It isn’t easy to create a blended and successful family unit. Chayim Lando, who is now on his third marriage and has 19 children and stepchildren between the ages of 5 and 28, has dealt with a number of “step-parenting” issues over the years, such as: What should the children call the step parent? Who is allowed to discipline the step children? How can you ensure that the step children don’t feel like you have usurped their biological parent?
“You have to figure out the appropriate thing for each child,”Lando says.
For example, this time around, Lando has asked that his older children from previous marriages call his new wife by her first name.
“The children are older, and we don’t want them to feel like someone is [swooping in] to be a new parent,” Lando explains. “It’s a message of, ‘You have a father and a mother. I am just here to help out, make your life better.’”
Melinda Greenberg and Keith Michel are handling their second marriage similarly. Each has two children in high school or older. Greenberg says Michel’s kids call her by her first name, and vice versa.
“We are both really respectful of the fact that the biological parents are very much involved in their children’s lives and neither of us wants to do anything to usurp that role,” Greenberg tells JNS.org.
When Greenberg and Michel discussed moving in with each other, they talked about the need for father-children time and mother-children time and about how to be comfortable with the fact that “just because we are all moving in together and living in one house doesn’t mean we have to do everything together,” Greenberg says.
Daniel, Greenberg’s second son, has Asperger syndrome, which can lead to some communication challenges. There are times with Daniel and his stepfather are alone in the house, and Michel wants to correct some behavior. What happens if Daniel is not receptive?
“Keith has prepared himself for Daniel to say, ‘You are not my father,’” Greenberg says, noting that the couple role-played these scenarios. “Keith will respond, ‘I am an adult who cares about you and I see you doing something wrong/a problem and I want to be able to address that with you.’”
Lando says some stepparents make the mistake of saying, “I am the new sheriff in town,” and that it rarely goes over well. Slatkin similarly notes that it’s important not to make too many demands on stepchildren, but rather to recognize that they will need time to transition to this new life and to build trust with their stepparent.
“It is important to discuss how you will co-parent,” Slatkin says.“While you want to run the family together,” he says, you should be cognizant that the children of the other parent might not feel comfortable with a stepparent administering discipline.
One thing to keep in mind is how in-laws deal with stepchildren. Slatkin says he has seen situations in which in-laws favor the biological children or get gifts for those children but not for the stepchildren. He says parents shouldn’t be shy about talking to grandparents about this scenario, to ensure that they don’t play into strained family dynamics.
Blended families also need to work out how to share simchas (happy occasions). Judaism has more holidays and get-togethers than many other religions, so working out a cordial celebration plan can be key.
For United Kingdom-based Rabbi Michael Rosenfeld-Schueler, there were additional items to consider. He won sole custody of his daughter, Shalva, just a few months after he and his second wife, Tracey, were married.
“Were there challenges? Yes, there were most definitely challenges,” Rosenfeld-Schueler tells JNS.org, noting that today the situation is “very positive indeed.”
Rosenfeld-Schueler says he and Tracey worked with professionals and read several books together to help smooth the transition. Among his top picks are “Blessing of a Skinned Knee” by Wendy Mogel and “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. He explains there’s a “massive lacking” of Jewish books on related subjects but that he found the aforementioned works to have universal messages.
Tracey’s approach to being a stepmom was very much led by daughter Shalva and what she wanted. For example, Tracey only offered affection if Shalva initiated it, and then she reciprocated warmly.
“We found this approach built up trust,” says Rabbi Rosenfeld-Schueler.
Shalva’s biological mother chose not to have contact with her daughter soon after the court made the custody decision. Within a year, Shalva started calling Tracey “mum,” “mummy,” or “ima,” which was welcomed by the stepmother—but not ever suggested or requested. From there, the relationship has continued to deepen.
“Day-to-day it is a mother-daughter relationship. That’s what’s happened,” Rabbi Rosenfeld-Schueler says, noting strong and open communication between him and his wife was essential to making the transition work. He also says that keeping in mind what is best for the child is “ultimately the most important thing”that helps the couple make decisions.
Since then, the Rosenfeld-Schuelers have welcomed a new baby to the family and that, too, has been a wonderful gift for their older daughter. Shalva says she is happy “because I got a baby brother and it doesn’t really matter [that he is from another mother]. I call them my family because… they are my family!”
Slatkin says that to make the transition to a second marriage easier, it’s important that when divorced parents are dating, the kids are part of the equation from early on. He says individuals need to remember that when you marry a mother or father, you aren’t just marrying that person, but also his or her children.
According to Slatkin, it’s also important to take trips together and incorporate other bonding activities before and after the marriage, to encourage additional connection between stepchildren and stepparent. Simultaneously, he notes, having children can make it challenging for the parents to prioritize their own relationship and find time for private bonding, which is also essential.
Lando says it’s imperative not to let outside influences, stigmas, or statistics stand in the way of a new healthy relationship. In the Jewish community—and more acutely in the Orthodox community—there remains a tremendous stigma against divorce, Lando points out. Rosenfeld-Schueler says that stigma can be “isolating” at times and emphasizes the importance of looking for a support network of people who have gone through similar situations.
Slatkin tells JNS.org that roughly 70 percent of second marriages end in divorce, but that he has nonetheless witnessed many successes firsthand. Re-married couples may be more motivated to make their union work because they have already seen a failed relationship, he says. Whether it be a first or second marriage, in Slatkin’s estimation, it all depends on “how committed they are to working on the relationship no matter what.”
Is it worth all the work?
“It is always worth it to be in a healthy relationship,” says Lando.