Mom's in Love Again

  • When Alan Taylor's father died six years ago, his mother told her five children she would never remarry. Yet within a few years she got engaged. "It happened very fast, which was hard on us," says Taylor, an assistant professor of child and family studies at Syracuse University who is married with four kids. "We had all these concerns. Was this person marrying my mother because he loved her? Was he marrying her for her cattle ranch? How can our mom bring someone into the family we don't even know?" As pictures of their deceased father were taken down in the family home in Fort Collins, Colo., and phone calls from Mom became less frequent, her kids struggled to adjust. Says Taylor: "Now Mom has someone else she can turn to."

    Discussion about how a parent's remarriage affects children is usually confined to, well, children. But adults can also have trouble coping when a parent takes a new partner, whether it's following death or divorce. "The impact of a parent's remarriage on adult children tends to be overlooked," says Susan Newman, author of the forthcoming Nobody's Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father (Walker & Co.). "The parent-child bond is intensely strong. A parent's remarriage causes a shift in that relationship, and most adult children find it unnerving."

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    More adults are confronting this situation. With life-spans expanding, today's seniors living far from their grown children see remarriage as an attractive alternative to spending the next 30 years alone. According to the Census Bureau, approximately 13% of currently divorced 50-year-old men and 8% of currently divorced 50-year-old women can be expected to remarry at some point. Witnessing a parent's remarriage — though such unions are increasingly common — can feel awkward, even unnatural, to grownup kids. "As a child, you don't understand the courting years of your parent's life," says Amanda Dow, 31, whose father Wayne Gilstrap started dating two months after her mother died in 1997. In their small town, Pickens, S.C., his romance with Cathy, a divorce locals dubbed "the walking lady" for her outdoor exercise regimen, which was carried out in revealing workout attire, became a source of gossip. Dow watched her father's lifestyle do a backflip. He bought a Harley, got a new hairstyle and began traveling every weekend, a far cry from the frugal annual vacations he had shared with Dow's mother. "When my father remarried, I saw him express all these emotions to another woman. I felt like he was cheating on my mother," Dow says. She now accepts Cathy but is still worried that her kids are missing out. "If my mother were alive, my parents would be doing the grandparent thing," Dow says.

    Jealousy and resentment are common in such situations, according to Lauren Solotar, chief psychologist at the May Institute, a counseling service in Norwood, Mass. "Incorporating everyone's demands takes time and energy when children live outside the home," Solotar says. "Figuring out how each person fits into the new blended family causes significant stress."

    Coping with a parent's remarriage requires acknowledging that traditions, boundaries and plans have changed. Certain situations may prove thornier than others. A woman whose father marries a much younger person may find herself competing with the new wife for his love and attention. Another who cherishes her role as a parent's caretaker or close confidant can resent being replaced by a spouse. Other adult children may grow concerned that they'll be shut out of decisions for their aging parent. "Some people feel excluded and abandoned," says Susan Wisdom, author of Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today's Blended Family (Three Rivers Press). "They envisioned themselves caring for their aging parent, and find they're not needed anymore."

    But some people welcome a new stepparent's assumption of responsibilities. For Jay Hill, 41, his mother Sunny's remarriage last summer was a relief and even an inspiration. After his father died in August 2000, Sunny, then 65, showed signs of closing down. "Suddenly, she was nervous to fly because she'd always flown with my dad," Hill recalls. But instead of retreating, Sunny began making romantic overtures to Maury, 68, her new neighbor in Kalamazoo, Mich. In contrast to Hill's father, who had been disabled for nearly a decade before his death, Maury was highly active. He and Sunny took up dancing, skiing and hiking. "I'm thrilled she's found someone who makes her happy," Hill says. "Here's someone who loved her partner for 43 years, and she took a chance to live for the future, not the past."

    Under the best circumstances, a parent's remarriage can enrich the entire family. In 1986, a year after her mother's death, Joan Reckdahl's father remarried at age 74. His daughter was delighted with his new wife Agnes, then 67. "My father was a harsh, demanding man," Reckdahl says. "If he had needed support, it would have been difficult for us to take him in." Following the remarriage, her relationship with her father improved dramatically, a shift she credits to Agnes. When he died in 1994, his estate was divided among his four children, according to the terms of a prenuptial agreement, with Agnes allowed use of the family home. Today Reckdahl, 66, a retired teacher living in Grove City, Minn., is close to her father's widow, who lives nearby. "To me, she's like an aunt," Reckdahl says. "To our grown children, she's their adored Agnes. And to her step-great-grandchildren, she's Grandma."

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