Stepfamily Life: Divorce and Remarriage
I know more than a thing or two about divorce and stepfamily life.
I was an adult stepchild in four different stepfamilies. Each had its own distinct culture, traditions, and level of investment in stepfamily life.
In two of them, I was a most unhappy adult stepchild. Maybe even, at times, a difficult one.
For the most part, however, I prided myself on remaining somewhat aloof while maintaining my equilibrium.
So, here’s the skinny on my stepfamily life. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
My Parent’s Divorce
My parents separated and initiated divorce proceedings just as I was turning 16. My younger brothers were turning 14 and 11.
It came as an utter shock. Although my bedroom was next to there’s, I had never heard or seen them quarrel, much less fight.
How could this be happening to me, to us?
I worried and fretted over what was to become of me, of our home, my friends, my school, our family. My entire life as I knew it was turned upside down overnight. I was too embarrassed to even tell my best friend.
As my father promised, there were no drastic changes in our lifestyle. We lived full time with my mother in our suburban home. He moved 45 minutes away, closer to his business. He supported all of us, including my mother, “in the style to which we had become accustomed.” He never faltered in that regard.
We had no visitation schedule. We never once slept at his house, although we visited occasionally. We generally saw him once a week.
That’s because we gathered most Thursday evenings for dinner at my grandparent’s nearby home. And that was the extent of our “visitation.”
In all fairness, as an active teenager pursing my very busy social life, I had no objections. Although I loved both my parents, I had no desire to spend much time with either of them. Those Thursday evening dinners, which often included my mother, were more than enough for me to satisfy my need for family togetherness.
The Bachelor Pad
By all appearances, he was living the life of a playboy.
Now single and officially on the prowl, my father built quite the modern bachelor pad. Cantilevered over a lazy river in deep woods, it was strategically designed to jig and jog around the many trees crowding the river banks. One large tree, with a set of lover’s initials carved into the trunk, was protected by a glass surround, right in the middle of the master bathroom. We thought that was pretty cool.
A large, black, shiny jetted spa tub, big enough to seat several adults, dominated the master bath. Large mirrored panels attached to the ceiling above his round king-sized bed were positioned to reflect his escapades. I found that detail quite embarrassing. Until I didn’t, when years later, I partied there with my college friends while he was out of town.
Stepfamily #1: Really, Dad?
When I was still in college, my father married stepmother #1. She brought a pre-schooler into the family. She was 11 years older than I, remote and unfriendly. She didn’t hide her resentment of my “easy” college life compared to her own scrappy childhood and teen years.
She groused that my father was too financially generous and lenient with us. Even though he provided a private school education and a University degree from Cornell for her son, all expenses paid, her resentments persisted.
Polite disinterest is how I would describe my approach to her and her young son. But what really rubbed me the wrong way was how she wormed her way into my father’s real estate development business.
In my mind, I was preparing to join him and my grandfather after completing a management training program in real estate lending at the largest commercial bank in my state. I was more than a little miffed that she usurped what I had always assumed would be my place in the family business.
My father’s decision to “stray” and carelessly leave the evidence where she would find it initiated its demise. They divorced after a 17 year marriage. All ties were severed with her and her son.
Suddenly these people who dominated my father’s world and, therefore, our world for almost half my life, were out of the picture for good.
I was very happy that episode was over. There was no love lost.
Stepfamily #2: Okay, Mom, if it makes you happy.
Several months after my parent’s separated, my 36 year old mother booked herself on a winter cruise to South America to lift her flagging spirits. A charming, energetic young man, exactly her age, sidled up to her at the bar one evening and welcomed her aboard.
Thus began their ten-year long distance courtship.
Never married, he still lived in his large childhood home in New England with his widowed mother.
My mother feared scaring him off with her three teenage children, behaving as teenagers do, so she happily maintained their long distance relationship as we grew up.
The year before I married, they married in the living room of his Nantucket home.
Although they remained in a relatively happy, stable, satisfying marriage, which included exciting world-wide travels, his strident political views where often difficult for me to handle. Rush Limbaugh was his guru. Need I say more?
The last few years of his life, in precarious health, they moved near me on the east coast. I was grateful that I could help my mother care for him as she coped with his deteriorating health. He became mildly confused, docile, even a gentle soul. Gone was the feisty tiger of his youth. Gone were the days of bombastic pontificating and jeering condemnation of anything he perceived as progressive or liberal threat.
Visiting him in the nursing home where he spent the last few months of his life, I felt nothing but compassion for him. In the end, he yearned for little more than my mother to cuddle beside him in his hospital bed.
When he passed, I arranged the details of his funeral, including a military bugler’s send-off in honor of his WWII service.
Stepfamily #3: Thank you, Dad.
Stepmother #2 was a widow with four adult children, all married with children of their own. My family size exploded overnight.
By the time they met and married, I was married myself with young two children and living in Los Angeles. I had a warm relationship with her and her family, although they all lived on the east coast so we didn’t see them often.
The distance was probably a blessing.
I appreciated what a good influence she was on my father. I experienced her as a kind and understanding friend to me. Unlike his former wife, she actually was almost old enough to have been my mother, had she been a teenage bride.
She possessed a modern maternal instinct that respected my independence. Yet, she was always ready to offer insightful guidance and support if I asked.
Financially, they were peers. They signed a pre-nup. We, his kids, felt confident that this was a marriage of equals and she did not have designs on his assets.
They divorced after 10 years of marriage. My father initiated it. She was furious. Blind-sided. Betrayed. She severed her relationship with us to recover from the shock and heal. While this was understandable, I was sad, disappointed, and deeply questioned my father’s emotional maturity and ability to sustain love.
Missing stepmother #2
I mourned the loss of a woman who I believed actually loved my father, respected and enjoyed him. From what I was able to understand, in the beginning of their marriage they tried to compromise as much as possible while juggling thriving businesses and second homes. She was the matriarch of an active, large family who lived locally.
Since her husband’s shocking death in a plane crash, she ran her family’s business with her children and their spouses. My father grew impatient with the demands on her time and energy. Her many children and grandchildren, plus running her family business interfered with his desires to work less and vacation more.
Understanding that he would always be competing for her attention, he grew increasingly disenchanted with their lives together.
In a moment of honest self appraisal, my father confessed, “I do not handle disappointed expectations very well.”
Stepfamily #4: You’ve got to be kidding, Dad!
My father married stepmother #3 when I was already separated and heading toward my own divorce.
This fourth marriage was a complete shocker!
A former Miss Teen USA contestant, she was my age, long divorced, with a teenage daughter. My new “stepsister” was the age of my older daughter. The new Mrs. had been a model. She was still quite beautiful and had the charm of a southern belle, which she was. And, no surprise, she was in financial need and searching for a Mr. with money bags.
By now my father was mostly retired, living large in Aspen, CO. He had a real talent for attracting “gold-diggers.”
My brothers and I easily recognize her motives. We were not happy and suspected that she could invent some dangerous schemes to steal his money.
He obliged her every whim. He remodeled his mountain home to suit her pleasure, even though wife #3 had recently remodeled the home to reflect her design aesthetic. The new Mrs. insisted on merging the two guest rooms to create her own bedroom, bathroom and dressing room suite. With a fireplace and a heated automatic toilet seat.
She loved the gold!
After they divorced, I discovered she had a late night QVC shopping habit. To the tune six figures. But once the boxes arrived, she never even opened them. They just piled high, out of sight in the garage storage space. But, I digress.
He was not only taken with her, he was taken by her. That marriage lasted 5 years, but the financial entanglements, especially those involving her daughter and her years of education in Paris, lasted considerably longer.
My father initiated this divorce too. Thank goodness they had signed a pre-nup. but in reality, it became the jumping off point for her divorce “negotiations.” And her demands for her daughter’s education and living expenses in Paris.
Finally, that disastrous episode was behind us. I was cheering from the roof tops!
Before, after, and in between the marriages, there have been girlfriends galore. Women my age and even younger. All birds with broken wings and drowning in debt. My father indisputably loves the role as the white knight in shining armor, rescuing damsels in distress with a wave of his credit card.
He’s quick to provide as long as the young lady is amenable to doing things his way. If she begins to assert herself and express her wishes or expectations and they collide with his, it’s off with her head and onto the next.
I’ve watched this pattern repeat time after time. Year after year.
It was exhausting to be introduced to one “fiancee” after another. To see my grandmother’s engagement ring fly from one set of well-manicured fingers to another. To be asked to enthusiastically welcome each new conquest into the family fold, as if this woman was “the one”. To smile graciously as he paraded around the latest as the greatest.
Broken wings, drowning in debt, one and all.
Over the decades, these encounters forced me to develop a polite social facade and a talent for superficial banter. I had no “investment” in the outcome of his relationships.
I have learned to allow waves of frustration and disappointment to wash over me without pulling me under.
II was able to step back from the drama and become the watcher. I could calmly watch the waves of frustration and disappointment rolling in with curiosity. And, at times, amusement.
How I think About My Father Today
Today, I am able to think about my father with love. And with a much lighter heart.
As the man who always has shown his love for me to the best of his ability.
As the man whose happy-go-lucky charm makes the best of all situations.
He prefers to see the good in people. I really like that.
At 91, he is still an adventurer. A bon vivant who embraces life with gusto.
He has never been one to curse life’s trials and tribulations, although he’s had his share.
His ability to wake up on the sunny side of the bed each day is one of his traits which I am most grateful to have inherited.
Is something about your stepfamily journey hurting your life today? What do you wish were different or better?
Let me know here.
I can help.