I always knew, growing up, that my parents had a bad marriage. I wasn’t stupid. Some dads didn’t live in the basement. Some moms came in the door without screaming at everything in the house. I could see that my friends didn’t spend their days tense, worried that at any moment there might be an explosion. At my friends’ places (or, more often, on TV shows) parents touched one another in loving ways—gently moving a strand of hair or placing a head on a shoulder. I watched these relationships with an envy I couldn’t have actually admitted to. This is all to say: when my parents told my little brother and me that they were getting divorced, the first thing I felt was relief. It was finally over.
What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the flip side of divorce: remarriage. Aka stepparents.
My mom never remarried, but my dad is on marriage number three. Phew. Going through a divorce is shitty (and expensive). Finding the heart, strength, and resources to go through the process again is impressive. But one of the things my dad seemed to forget (at least at first) is that if you have kids, they are also going through all of this with you. So, through personal experience (and the trial and errors of my fantastically patient father) I’ve gathered up my best advice on how to make the transition easy on your teenager or young adult. Author’s note: for ease, wife #2 is K and wife #3 is S.
Don’t spring it on them: How did my brother and I find out about our father’s impending second nuptials? With tickets to LA to meet our new family, after which we would fly to Hawaii for a family vacation. I had a new sister and stepmother coming (whom I’d never met and barely heard of) and now we were going to spend ten days together in close quarters. At first I was excited because I’d always wanted a sister, but it totally backfired because it turns out that only-children are sometimes ill equipped to handle the bickering of siblings. It was tough feeling judged twenty-four seven. I don’t really remember anything about the trip, or meeting K, other than crying on the beach multiple times and turning down a helicopter ride to sit alone and read. Family isn’t built through a sink-or-swim guilt-funded vacation.
Do take it slow: The second time around, my dad was older and wiser. He let my brother and me know about his interest in his third wife-to-be on the fifth date. We could ask questions like, “She’s a family friend, so how does that work?” or “Where would you live?” or “Do you love her?” The basics. That gave us some time to wrap our brains around how things were about to shift.
Don’t lose the moral high ground (if You can help it): My dad kind of met his second wife, K, while he was still with my mom. Which means I overheard many shrill phone calls warning my father not to “bring that woman” around to things. I could read between the lines. For about a year, when it came time for him to (rightfully) enforce my curfew or ground me, I would become an absolute nightmare of a child. After all, what right did my cheating father have to tell me when I should come home?
Do build trust: During his third engagement, my dad called me and told me his fiancé insisted they come up to New York for the Pride parade, and show their support. I was shocked. I hadn’t had a lot of personal interactions with S, but the fact that she was already inspiring my dad to be a kinder, more open-minded person? That was impressive. It was just a quick day-trip, but it won S many a conspiratorial wink over rounds of margaritas.
Don’t take away home comforts: K valued neatness, which meant there was a sudden schism in our home when she moved in. My father and I are somewhat forgetful humans who are comfortable with a low level of clutter, but all of a sudden, the house was under strict rules. You got dirty looks if you forgot to push your chair in, lectures if you left books on the table. My brother and I couldn’t help but feel we were intruding in our own home. Also, K was Christian (we were raised Muslim)—which meant we started celebrating Christmas and I was punished for “taking the lord’s name in vain.” It got to the point where I dreaded stepping foot in that house if K were home. I’m not saying the house should be a mess all the time, or that I should swear like a sailor, but it’s stressful when a switch gets flipped overnight.
Do show you respect their traditions: My dad and S were far more careful. They made sure the wedding was a safe space for my partner and me. When they were house searching they’d send pictures to get our opinions. S learned my favorite dish and would make it when I came home. Sure, she and I don’t see eye to eye on everything—for example, she was raised in a tight-knit family that keeps in touch all the time and can’t understand why I don’t call more often, and she isn’t into the idea of using flippant sarcasm to your elders—but I try to be mindful of her needs when I’m around S because she’s already proven that she cares about mine.
Don’t put your kids in the middle: Don’t tell your kid secrets they have to keep from the other parent. Which means, once you have a wedding date: tell your ex. If you’re not speaking, send a letter, email, or carrier pigeon. Do not let your kid become the messenge
r. It’s not fun to be in the position of processing your parents reaction to their ex getting married. Actually, it’s less than not fun, it’s heartbreaking.
Do let them know your priorities: My father and I almost lost our relationship over K. She and I were in a cold war of sorts, partially because we just didn’t mesh as people, but also because of the resentment that built up over the mishandling of the relationship. Finally, my dad took me out to lunch one day and over crepes, looked me in the eye and told me, “If you can’t find a way to get along with K, it’s over. I’ll leave her. You and your brother are the most important part of my life and I can’t keep going the way things are.” After that, I extended an olive branch to K, because I didn’t want my dad to give up something that made him happy. Eventually, the marriage ended of natural causes (hence, the third wedding to S) but I can’t over-emphasize the importance of that talk. Telling your kid that nothing is changing between you two, that you are always their parent first, and really meaning it? That’ll get you through anything.