When You Or Your Children Remarry
Adapted from “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family”
Many of us in our fifties, sixties and, yes, even our seventies, are re-marrying or cohabiting after divorce or widowhood. More often than not, we are marrying men who already have families peopled by children, grandchildren, siblings, ex-spouses, and ex-inlaws from a first or second marriage. Because there are suddenly so many more relatives, we have to figure out how we can blend gracefully into a pre-existing family. Most of the time, we all have to improvise our new roles as we go along.
Are we now Moms or Mom-like figures to the children in our partner’s family? Or do we just skip that generation and become terrific grandmothers to their children? Or is even that role too touchy? And will our own biological children accept our new partner?
Tread carefully. It’s best to start off as a friend or interested stranger. Beware of treading on the boundaries occupied by a previous parent. No need to do so, there’s plenty of room for more supportive adults in our lives and the lives of our step-children. We can be a shoulder to cry on, a last-minute babysitter, someone to count on in the crunch. Of course, reality can make good relationships more complicated and more challenging.
Money: The biggest Snag. Frequently, children from a first marriage worry that they will be disinherited once their father or mother re-couples. Sometimes a conversation can avert potential problems. When Florence married Jeffrey, Florence sensed a palpable resistance to their union from Jeffrey’s children. She feared that she was being demonized as a gold digger who would cut into their inheritance. So she gathered Jeffrey’s children and outlined her own financial situation, making it clear to them in a straightforward manner that she was financially self-sufficient and Jeffrey was leaving his inheritance to them.
Of course, not all women (or men) who remarry are financially independent. When Meredith and Frank met each other after ending unhappy marriages in their forties, they were both delighted to find a new soul mate. Meredith, who worked as an office manager, was particularly happy to have access to another income. Frank was an engineer and he was able to support his own four children through high school and higher education (two went to state universities; the other two opted for community colleges). He also had a comfortable pension and, after 15 years of marriage, Meredith, then 59, encouraged Frank, then 62 and near retirement age, to make her the beneficiary of his pension because she had brought him happiness and his parental obligations were over.
While American children have no legal right to their parents’ money, they often expect it. So Meredith, in an effort to ward off unmet expectations, which she feared would result in anger toward her, asked Frank to tell his children before he retired that both he and Meredith had worked hard to give the children a good start in life and they deserved to use his some of his pension to travel and the rest to prepare for their own futures. They tried to avert ill feelings by letting his children know their reasoning, and that there was no malicious intent.
New in-law roles: Even those of us in long-term first marriages don’t escape new in-law roles. In the beginning, many of us gritted our teeth and suffered through our once-a-year visits to our new partner’s parents. Now many of us are on the phone daily as we deal with his parent’s medical issues. We may not have understood when we married that we married a whole family with all its obligations and that our roles with our spouse’s parents would change over time. Hopefully, we are generous enough to forget whatever petty, or not so petty, disagreements we had with them over the years and offer comfort and support.
When your children divorce and remarry: Suddenly your grandchildren have a set of step-grandparents. How does everyone relate? Lest you think the only in-laws you’ll need to contend with are your spouse’s parents, don’t forget that your own children also brought people you didn’t select into your circle when they married; if they divorce and remarry, this results in a third set of in-laws. Don’t roll your eyes in despair. Find one thing to like about the parents of your child’s new spouse. Be curious, be creative, be forgiving, and practice re-framing things into the positive. Call upon your most mature self and remember we are all new to this game of being a step in-law. Expect problems: What family doesn’t have them? Just because there are difficulties doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what each individual has to offer.
Our families are intertwined in more ways than we ever expected. It’s easy to think we can keep in-laws at bay, but the truth is, they are part of our lives now and we would do well to invest some energy into figuring out our roles and how we can mitigate difficulties.
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff has four adult children and is a popular speaker on the topic of parenting adult children and family dynamics. She is a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.