Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I have been dating a guy for the past few months and things are really going well. I like him, respect him, and think he is a really good person. I am also attracted to him. I know that he feels for me, too.
Our backgrounds are similar, but there is a key difference – he is divorced with three children, and I have never been married.
At age 40, although I am what some might call an “older single,” I am very young emotionally and in every other respect. My life is very carefree and focused on “me.” I do not have any responsibilities to others. I do what I want, when I want.
He is very serious about me and I am also serious about him. But every now and again I experience a bit of a “crisis,” usually triggered by him telling me about family things he does which sound so “grown up” and so outside my frame of reference – e.g. PTA meeting, family vacations. At these “crisis” junctures, I wonder whether I can take on someone whose life is not just him, but the children and everything that comes with it (ex-wife, etc.). At the same time I so much respect and value that he is such a good daddy.
What should I do when these “crises” hit?
The small "crises" you write about – moments when you wonder if marrying a man who has children from a prior marriage will be more than you can handle – are shared by many people in your situation. When they began to date for marriage, they expected that as newlyweds, they and their spouse will focus exclusively on each other and their relationship. Children from an earlier marriage are not part of this idealized picture.
It is therefore a big step to go out with someone who has children, because it involves reworking old expectations into something more complex. You’re not just fitting another person into your life; you'll be acquiring an instant family. It's only natural to worry if you will be able to handle all these dramatic changes.
So, although you describe yourself as emotionally young and self-focused, the doubts you are experiencing are not signs of immaturity and selfishness. On the contrary, it takes a degree of maturity, honesty and self-knowledge to admit that the idea of marrying someone with children is a bit scary, and you wonder if you can handle it.
By definition, singles don't have a significant other to be responsible for.
Before we discuss different ways to address that fear, we'd like you to discard the labels you've used to describe yourself and take a good look at who you really are. You told us you're an "older single" who's never really had responsibility for anyone other than herself, has gone and come as she pleased, and who need not consider anyone else's needs or wishes. That's pretty much what being single in the 21st century is about. Most singles are ego-centric, because by definition they don't have a significant other in their life to be responsible for. In generations past, the majority of adults moved beyond this phase of life by their mid-to-late-20s. Because contemporary culture seems to idealize and encourage a me-oriented lifestyle (they don’t call it the iPhone and iPad for nothing), many adults have prolonged this phase of their life into their 30s, and beyond.
It sounds like you're a bit upset with yourself for not yet having "outgrown" this phase of life. But instead of regretting the path you've followed, realize that most people don't begin to broaden their focus until they're ready to marry and include someone else in their life.
It seems like this is exactly what you're now doing. Until now, you may not have been emotionally ready to stretch yourself for someone else, but you now seem to want that. In addition, you observe how the man you're dating makes room in his heart for you and for his children, and you admire that. We sense a tone in your letter that you long to be able to do that, too.
In addition, we do not detect any selfish or bitter undertone in your letter – no "I'm going to have to share him with someone else" – that is sometimes part of the process of adjusting to marrying someone with children. It sounds more as if you're saying, "Car-pools, helping with homework, and becoming a step-parent are all such 'grown up' responsibilities – and I wonder if I can take them on."
Your Caring History
We’d like to present another perspective to help you become more comfortable with your ability to assume this new role in life. For the moment, set aside your comments that you've been able to come and go as you please and make choices without having to worry if someone else is depending on you. (Remember, that's part of being single.) Now think about the various ways that you have fit other people into your life, and the times you've thought about others and been helpful to them.
Have you sat up late at night with a friend who needed a listening ear? Heard an appeal for charity and made a donation? When a close friend or family member had an important birthday or event coming up, did you ever help plan a party and make an effort to buy them a special gift? Have you ever accompanied a friend or relative to a movie or event that was important to them, even though you would have preferred to be anywhere else? How about bringing medicine or chicken soup to someone who was sick? Keeping quiet so a roommate could study or sleep? All these demonstrate thoughtfulness and consideration for others, not selfishness.
Similarly, even though you don't have responsibilities to others on a daily basis, you can probably find many examples of “handling responsibility.” At work, do you do what's expected of you, and – even more – sometimes devote extra effort? Do you pay your own bills, arrange your own medical appointments, and make your own major decisions? Self-sufficiency is an important element of responsibility.
Have you ever participated in a community service project?
Beyond this – do you own up to your mistakes and learn from them, instead of blaming others? Do you avoid potentially dangerous activities like driving over the speed limit? Do you recycle? Avoid a lot of consumer debt? Have a savings plan at work? Give charity? Have you ever looked after a friend's pet, checked on an ailing neighbor, or participated in a community service project? All of these show responsibility to yourself and to others.
We're guessing that you already do many of these things. It’s also possible that the good-hearted man you are dating sees these same qualities in you. If you'd like to further develop your sense of caring and responsibility for others, think of ways you can show extra kindness and consideration to people who are close to you, as well as participating in a community service project.
After having answered these questions about yourself, are you able to acknowledge that you have been and can be generous, thoughtful, unselfish, and responsible in a number of situations? Think about this the next time you begin to worry about your ability to make the transition from self-focused single to married woman with a ready-made family. Sure, you are scared how all this will be a big stretch for you. But you can also remind yourself that you have a good heart and can be responsible for others. These are the foundations you can build upon.
Beyond this, there are a number of things you can do to help succeed in changing from single to spouse, and from non-parent to step-parent. Here are some recommendations:
(1) Read books that define realistic expectations of marriage and what the adjustments to married life entail. We suggest Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski's The First Year of Marriage (Shaar Press) and our book, In The Beginning (Targum Press).
(2) If you and the man you're dating decide to marry, schedule a session with a therapist who specializes in helping couples transition into married life. Use the meeting as an opportunity to discuss your respective expectations and concerns about the marriage and blending your family, and to identify any areas that the two of you might want to work at this early point in your lives together.
(3) Look into the availability of marriage education workshops in your community, such as those run by the Shalom Task Force or Prepare and Enrich. These are invaluable resources to help all engaged or newly-married couples hone the relationship skills that can optimize their transition from single to married.
(4) Your fiancé learned how to be a father to his children gradually, while you'll want to learn about them and what makes them tick relatively quickly. Have a long talk with your fiancé about his children. Learn as much as you can about each of their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, interests, friends, schedules, ways of dealing with frustration, and relationship with their siblings and with each parent.
(5) Do some reading to help prepare for your new role as step-mom. Many people like Wonderful Ways to be a Step Parent (Judy Ford and Anna Chase, Conari Press 2009).
(6) Family therapists are an extremely helpful resource when one or both of the future spouses have children. A family therapist can help the two of you address the many unanticipated issues that arise when you blend a family. Try to schedule a first meeting early in your engagement. Depending on the children's ages, the therapist may suggest that you all meet together for at least one session to discuss each child's hopes, expectations, and concerns. It's important for children to feel that their parents want to know their concerns and that they will be working together as a family. In addition, it is reassuring to have a family therapist "in the wings" to help if they can't work through a difficult issue by themselves.
(7) Finally, if your fiance is on relatively good terms with his ex, try to be on good terms with her, too. If they don't get along, you can empathize with your fiance's frustration, but stay out of their battles. Be as cordial as you can to her – your step-kids will appreciate the respect and cooperation you display to their mother.
We know that this is an exciting, happy, and also slightly scary period in your life. We hope that our suggestions will minimize the anxiety you sometimes feel so that you can move more confidently into the future.
Rosie & Sherry