When you remarry in middle age, the chances are good that you’ll be enlarging your family by more than one person. Between us, John and I now have three sons. (Before remarrying, my boy was the only child of an only child—me.) At the time of our wedding, the three boys were, in fact, not boys at all but young men: my Matthew was 29; John’s Patrick was 23, and Colin had just turned 18. And that is the last time I shall refer to them in an individual, proprietary way; they are ours now. Guys, I know you’re reading this. We love you.
Much has been written about blended families, or bonded families, or whatever euphemism you wish to use. But I find myself coming back to Wendy Swallow’s book, The Triumph of Love Over Experience; she writes with great sensitivity on the challenges inherent in merging two families when the children are adolescents or younger:
“We hardly thought of the boys as baggage, but there they were nonetheless, hulking young men with their own perfectly appropriate teenage issues and growing suspicions about the intimacy between us. Whether they liked it or not, they were passengers on this journey …”
Passengers on a journey…what a wonderful metaphor! I’ll have a question or two about the stepchild aspect of remarriage when I interview Wendy for this blog. But for now, and to paraphrase Tolstoy, I can’t help observing that every original family is alike; every blended family is blended in its own way.
In John’s and my case, we’ve had scant time or opportunity to engage as a cohesive family unit since our marriage. We relocated from Ohio to Virginia when John was offered a job here. Matthew, already graduated from college, has his own established life in Ohio; Patrick is busy attending graduate school in Illinois; Colin, also in Ohio, is in his first year of college. Varied schedules and the vagaries of geography have kept us apart more than they have brought us together, and John and I knew it would be thus. Aside from one major holiday, our wedding was the only time our three sons have been together with us. When we were planning our wedding, then, the question of how to encourage each young man to feel a part of something new, vital, loving, and familial was paramount. What roles could they perform in the wedding to secure our mutual bonds? And what—if anything—should we do with respect to ceremonial vows?
An Australian blogger here on WordPress, “Stepmum of the Year,” posed the question with more than a little trepidation. She has no children; her partner, known on her blog as “The Lovely Man,” has three boys, all pre-adolescent or close to it. Stepmum and Lovely Man are getting married; he has asked that his sons be included somehow in the ceremony, suggesting that perhaps they even write vows to them. Given her life experience and the ages of the children, she is understandably cautious, and in this terrific list, she exhibits sage wisdom:
I’m absolutely not going to say anything that doesn’t feel true.
I’m not ready to promise the kids anything that isn’t entirely in my power to deliver, or shouldn’t be solely my responsibility…
And I refuse to say anything that might tighten the choke hold of their loyalty binds – no “Yay, new family, love everyone, take you to be my children, yay!” kinds of things. Honestly, I Googled “stepfamily wedding vows” and there was so much schmaltz that I entered a whole new emotional state – kind of a cross between nauseated and despairing.
So? What’s a soon-to-be “stepmum” to do?
Given the differences in our circumstances, the approach that John and I took might not work for the Aussies; those concerns, however, inspired me to share this part of our story on the blog. And I should tell you that it is only with the permission of my husband and all three of our sons that I am doing so; if even one of them had a moment’s hesitation, you’d be reading something else right now.
To begin with, John and I felt that it was important for the boys to actively participate in the ceremony itself.
My mother walked me down the aisle at my first wedding; my father had died when I was 13. Now, with my second wedding at hand, who was the logical choice? My mother had passed away in 2000.
There was no doubt: it should be Matthew. In no way, however, was he “giving me away.” Aside from being a rather archaic expression, the phrase was packed with meanings I didn’t want him to carry: I am, and always will be, his mom. He doesn’t “give me away” to anybody. Instead, he “presented me” to John, as in: “Mister Groom, may I present Ms. Bride?”
Patrick was John’s Best Man, and he and Colin ushered guests to their seats and lit the candles prior to the ceremony. All three of our sons gave beautiful readings during the ceremony. These were clearly age-appropriate roles. Engaged couples with small children might not find them to be the best candidates for candle lighting; perhaps they could guide guests to their seats instead? Or serve as junior members of the wedding party?
At the end of the day, though, this is all just logistics. John and I still wanted to publicly acknowledge our love for our guys, yet we didn’t want to detract from our own vows to each other. And here is where I should add that we opted for the steeped-in-tradition vows from the Book of Common Prayer: This is what John said to me after taking my right hand in his:
“In the Name of God, I, John, take you, Marci, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”
My vows to John were the same. We loved the simplicity of these words, rich with meaning. At this stage in our lives, it just didn’t make sense to tamper with tradition. Although timeworn (not unlike us!), these vows perfectly expressed what we were, and are, acutely aware of: our union truly is “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.”
As for vows to our children, the “Marriage Missions International” website was of considerable help. We would, however, articulate these vows in our own special staging. Allow me to explain with a brief bit of back story.
On our first date, June 14, 2009, John and I met outside the Allen Memorial Art Museum on the campus of Oberlin College, where I worked. Slightly to the south of the museum sits an ancient European Weeping Beech Tree and an arbor. In June, this tree was in full foliage; we sat beneath its branches, talking and getting to know one another. And laughing! We both laughed so hard and so happily that a couple, peering through the foliage, said:
“There are people here. We couldn’t see anyone; we thought this was a laughing tree.”
And so it was that one year and two months—to the day—after we first met, following the formal ceremony in Fairchild Chapel, John and I led our guests in a brief procession around part of Tappan Square until we reached the Bacon Arbor and our Laughing Tree. It looked like the Sicilian Wedding scene in The Godfather, Part I.
When all were assembled beneath the arbor, John began:
“Matthew, I want you to know that I dearly love your mother. She and I met beneath this tree, and this spot is hallowed ground to us. We have become very good friends over this past year and we have learned to love each other. As you have so graciously shared this wonderful woman with me, so will I share the love I feel for her with you. Together, we will learn much more about each other.
At this place that means so much to your mother and me, I promise also to be fair and to be honest, to be available for you as I am for your mom, and in due time, to earn your love, respect, and true friendship. I will not attempt to replace anyone, but to make a place in your heart that is for me alone. I will be father and friend, and I will cherish my life with you. On this day, when I marry your mom, I marry you, and I promise to love and support you as my own.”
“Patrick and Colin, I want you to know that I dearly love your father. He and I met beneath this tree, and this spot is hallowed ground to us. We have become very good friends over this past year and we have learned to love each other. As you have so graciously shared this wonderful man with me, so will I share the love I feel for him with both of you. Together, we will learn much more about each other.
At this place that means so much to your father and me, I promise also to be fair and to be honest, to be available for you as I am for your dad, and in due time, to earn your love, respect, and true friendship. I will not attempt to replace anyone, but to make a place in your heart that is for me alone. I will be mother and friend, and I will cherish my life with you. On this day, when I marry your dad, I marry you, and I promise to love and support you as my own.”
John and I also wanted to say a few words to the boys we each raised, especially since we would be, within two short weeks, moving so very far away:
Patrick and Colin, my sons, thank you for the generosity with which you have welcomed Marci—and Matthew—into your lives. Thank you for being such an important part of our wedding ceremony. And thank you for being such wonderful and fine young men. I love you both forever, and Marci and I will always be there for you, no matter how many miles separate us.”
“Matthew, my son, thank you for the generosity with which you have welcomed John—and Patrick and Colin—into your life. Thank you for being such an important part of our wedding ceremony. And thank you for being such a wonderful and fine young man. I love you forever, and John and I will always be there for you, no matter how many miles separate us.”
Our Laughing Tree