“The tears you may see running down the cheeks of your children during the marriage service probably are not tears of joy for your happiness.”
– Elaine Fantle Shimberg (1999, p. 1)
When you’re marrying for a second or third time and children are involved, it requires a little extra preparation. You can’t just jump into it with reckless abandon and hope that everything turns out alright. This information will walk you through the process of marrying with children, providing helpful advice to ensure your new marriage has the best possible odds of success.
Preparing children for your remarriage
Here are some ways you can prepare children for what’s to come in the weeks and months leading up to your wedding:
- Play an ongoing game with them where they can earn a small treat or reward for every advantage/disadvantage they can think of that might come with living in a stepfamily. For example, “We may go out for pizza because mom’s too tired to cook” (advantage) or “I’ll have more brothers and sisters to play with” (advantage) or “it’s going to be a lot more crowded” (disadvantage) or “harder to share the bathrooms” (disadvantage). This typically works best when you set up a point system, awarding kids one point for every disadvantage they think of and two points for every positive thing they come up with, and then provide a reward based on points at the end. You can do this informally in everyday discussion (keep a paper in your pocket and then score a child every time they give you a legitimate answer), or have kids keep their own lists that they then turn in to you at some point. This activity serves a couple of purposes: First, it encourages children to think about what changes might be coming and provides opportunities for you to discuss these issues. Secondly, it encourages them to come up with positive aspects to this situation (something they might not do on their own) which can get them into a more positive mindset going forward.
- Consider counseling, especially if the kids are showing any signs of adjustment problems. (See our info on stepfamily counseling.) Around half of all stepfamilies will eventually need it, yet less than 1% of respondents sought any type of premarital counseling to help their children prepare for the adjustments they would need to make. (Artlip et al., 1993, p. 65) It may be prudent to get a head start on this and not wait until the problems grow serious before seeking professional help.
Planning a wedding with children
Here are some suggestions for the wedding itself when marrying with children:
Think about your ceremony
Don’t feel a need to marry in the ‘traditional’ way. Some couples find that after going through a wedding ceremony once, tying the knot in a quiet way without a whole lot of fanfare the second time around is more suitable to their interests.
Others, however, DO want the full ceremony with all its bells and whistles. For many, the occasion is a symbol of hope and renewal after enduring a painful divorce. There is no right or wrong answer to this, though if one person wants a ceremony and his or her spouse doesn’t, you should go with the ceremony. A person who feels robbed of this experience is going to feel more bitter and cheated going forward than someone who merely could have gone without and wanted to save a little money.
Involve children in the preparations
If you’re planning a traditional wedding, involve the kids in the preparations. Many parents, anxious about their big day, withdraw in their quest to try and plan the perfect wedding. Big mistake! This makes children feel as though they’ve been shoved to the periphery before the new family even begins. There are a number of things you can do to involve children in the planning process:
- Have your son or daughter help you pick out a ring.
- Involve them in the process of selecting a cake or designing one.
- Picking out napkins or other little items.
- Have them help you send out wedding announcements or even draw pictures on the cards or envelopes.
- Bring a daughter (or stepdaughter) along when you pick out a dress.
- Bring a child along to help you pick out a suit, and then go for ice-cream afterwards or do something fun.
- Have them help you think up jokes or funny gags for the wedding day.
- Don’t refer to it as your wedding; refer to it as ‘our’ wedding day, meaning the whole family.
The more they feel involved in what is taking place, the less negativity they’ll have over the situation.
Involve children in the wedding ceremony
Forget the traditional wedding template. You’re allowed to rewrite a formula that feels right for you and your situation. This should include finding ways to involve kids in the wedding. As Judith Martin (aka Ms. Manners) writes, “If anyone is to be given a role in the ceremony it should be they…the most destructive etiquette rule there ever was barred children from their parents’ subsequent weddings. …Such a wedding is, after all, the beginning of a new life for them, as well as for the bride and bridegroom.” (1982, pp. 572-78) Here are some suggestions:
- Have your children serve as best man, bridesmaids, flower girls or ring bearers.
- Consider having your minister rework the vows to add: “I now unite you as a family rather than “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “do you promise to take her children as your own and love them with all your heart until death do you part.” Work with the minister to work in whatever is appropriate. As Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman write, “Converting the nuptials from ‘your’ wedding to ‘our’ wedding in the minds of the children can be a tremendous help in gaining acceptance for the new stepparent.” (1993, p. 53)
- Conduct a ceremony where you light candles atop the wedding cake, one for each person, to symbolize the coming together as a family. Have children join parents in making a pledge to do all they can to make the new family work.
- Have kids walk their parent down the aisle or give their parent away as opposed to the father.
- Let the kids feed you or shove cake in your face.
- Do the whole ceremony together as a family, with kids standing alongside each parent for the vows and then coming together for a group hug at the end while you two kiss.
- In addition to wedding gifts, invite people to bring a small gift or two for the kids, so that they don’t feel left out. Things that kids can share as a family work best, such as board games, video games, etc.
These are just some of the possibilities. Give it some thought and I’m sure you can find ways of your own to involve children in the ceremony.
Marriage rituals involving the children
Here are some good rituals to work in with your wedding:
Marrying the children
Have each parent buy rings for each one of their new stepchildren (birth stone rings work well), and add a little ceremony either during the wedding or afterwards when you present these rings as symbols of your commitment to each other. This works especially well in combination with the stepchild vows outlined below.
Just as each of you accept vows to one another, sit down and write a set of vows for your stepchildren, and make a time to read these vows to your stepchildren either during the ceremony or in the festivities afterwards. These vows can be all serious, though it sometimes helps to mix in a little bit of humor to lighten the mood. Spend some time on them and personalize your vows to each child based on your own unique situation. Here are some samples of things you might consider:
- I promise to love you like my own.
- I vow to put in the work it takes to gain your respect, in the hopes that one day I can earn the right to be called your parent.
- I’ll do my best to nurture and cherish the unique person you are.
- I know I’m not just marrying a man/woman, but an entire family.
- You’re like the bonus prizes that came with my new wife.
- I know there will be tough times ahead, but I also know there will be good times, and that’s what I’m looking forward to most.
- Talk about why you love their parent, and how you can see some of those same traits in them.
- Tell a favorite story or memory involving them.
- I’m starting to get the whole wicked stepmother role down pat.
- I have no doubt we’ll get along well, but just in case, we found a witch deep in the woods living in a house made of candy who said she’d adopt you.
- I promise to let you out of the dungeon when it’s time to go to the ball with your prince.
It’s best to run these vows by the other parent beforehand, just so they can flag anything that might be taken the wrong way by a stepchild. You’ll also need to customize these vows to each stepchild. But it can be a great way to get this stepparenting thing started on the right track.
Plan a kid-friendly wedding
Normally, weddings are about as much fun for kids as a trip to the post office. Sure, there’s cake and a little dancing, but otherwise it’s a bore. More like church than a festival. But remember, a wedding is whatever you want it to be. Throwing out the script and opting for a non-traditional, kid-friendly wedding can have a number of benefits. First of all, it vastly reduces the likelihood of kid problems during the ceremony, which can ruin the wedding and start the new family on a sour note. Secondly, it’s a way to truly make the wedding a family wedding. When you create a wedding and celebration of the new family that’s actually fun for the kids, good things are likely to come of it. Here are some ideas:
- Ask the kids to help you rethink the wedding. Explain to them what normally happens, and then ask them to tell you what they think would make a perfectly fun and good wedding. Try to work in some of these ideas.
- Rather than spending thousands of dollars on flowers and fancy silverware or catering for a day, rent a magician, some clowns, games, or a bouncy house, and then have your wedding in a park next to a playground. Combine the traditional ceremony with a fun family day. Remember: it’s your wedding.
- Nothing is written in stone that says you need a tux and a gazillion dollar dress. Get married in your swimsuits if you want to.
- Encourage the kids to invite their friends. Not only will it make the experience more entertaining, but there’s a powerful psychological benefit to this: If you truly do make it a fun and enjoyable experience and invite a child’s friends along, then they’ll have fun and develop admiration for your “fun” family. “You’re so lucky,” their friends will tell them. “I wish I could be in a stepfamily like you. “They may talk about the occasion for weeks to come. Suddenly the child who may have been antagonistic towards the idea of remarriage is much more on board with the situation. Never underestimate the power that friends’ opinions have to mold a child’s psychology.