In a perfect world, marriages last forever and couples live happily ever after. But the reality is far from perfect. In reality, uneventful situations like divorce or untimely death do take place, resulting in the partners getting separated or one of them being left alone. With the Indian society getting progressive every day, a lot of women are opening up to the idea of giving marriage a second chance. However, with children in the equation, it becomes a challenging situation for everyone involved. Emotional issues can arise pretty quickly and hence must be dealt with sensitively, beforehand.
IN ABSENCE OF A FATHER
“In a divorce, the other parent is still around, but may be cut off from daily contact with the children due to custodial issues. This sense of loss makes children grieve deeply,” says Pune-based psychologist, psychotherapist, and counsellor, Niloufer Ebrahim. In such a situation, when the mother marries again, it makes the kids less accepting of a new father figure in their lives. However, in cases when a parent has passed away and gone forever, children need help and support with closure and acceptance first.
A lot depends on how the mother handled the divorce or death and how the child’s fears were handled at the time? “If the fears have not been handled sensitively, the child is already a mess within and starts acting out behaviourally (e.g., feeling withdrawn/seeking attention /becoming a bully and/or a manipulator). And then, when a new person gets introduced as a new partner for the mother, the child finds it difficult to cope with. ‘Who is this guy? Why is he taking my dad’s place? Why does mom behave differently now? Why should I call him dad?’ These are some of the issues that plague the child,” mentions Niloufer.
THE EFFECT ON CHILDREN
Neha walked away from an unhappy marriage with a three-year-old daughter Ankita, for whom the father had remained an absent figure. “For a long time, it was just the two of us. So when I decided to marry again, Ankita’s first reaction was ‘NO!’ followed by bouts of crying. Hence, I talked to her at length about her concerns and addressed each one of them. Counselling helped immensely in opening up her mind to the idea that love will be now multiplied by two, not divided by two. Today, there may be ups and downs, but the former outnumber the latter,” says Neha.
According to Niloufer, there’s no special age at which the huge change in family dynamics is going to be ‘easier’. When a mother has been a single parent for a while, irrespective of age, she and the child develop a close bond. At such times, a new partner may be seen as an intruder, someone who may divert her attention. This may be thinking in black and white but then that’s what children do. A very small baby or a toddler knows no different. However, preschoolers, pre-teens, and teens are completely aware of their environment. Often teens get sent away to boarding schools as it’s seen as an easier option. But this leads to further suffering because they cannot ‘see’ what is happening. They tend to develop fear, stress and even childhood depression. Besides this, the pre-teens and teens also have the usual hormonal woes to add to their other troubles.
WHEN THINGS GET WORSE
A lot of mothers expect both the stepfather and the child to accept each other soon after marriage. This unrealistic expectation can result in resentment, anger, and sometimes even violence. For instance, if the new partner is immature, he may resent the mother’s extra attention towards her child, be critical of her disciplinary methods, see the child as a constant reminder of his ‘ex-rival’ or find the child’s adaptation needs difficult to handle.
It was a tough call for Deepika, whose husband had passed away leaving behind a 10-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter. “Being a single parent, it got difficult for me to cope with the situation. Eventually, I got married within two years of my husband’s death,” she states. While Deepika’s little daughter was wary about this new father figure in their midst, her son, being older, was plain angry. “I should have prepared them better,” rues Deepika. “Now we’re all in counselling. Of course, it’s helping us immensely. Slowly but surely, my kids and husband are building a positive relationship.” While Deepika has been lucky, not everyone is so fortunate in such situations. “At times, there’s too much resentment, anger and outright hostility in some partners. And when these traits get transferred to the child, directly or by osmosis as it were, it leads to some horrific scenarios. There is also the very real possibility of sexual molestation or abuse by the new partner; it doesn’t matter if the child is a boy or a girl,” warns Niloufer.
DEALING WITH THE MATTER
Helping your child cope up with your second marriage is an important and sensible matter. An amicable divorce between parents helps them take joint decisions regarding their children. In fact, if the respective parents marry again, they can then act as two happier sets of parents. Besides, there must be a clear understanding that the biological parents will be involved for their short and long-term benefits. In such cases, kids can walk safely between the two homes and may grow up as balanced and confident individuals. Enlisting the help of an objective third-party, like a counsellor, goes a long way in helping children accept the situation rather than trying to force acceptance and affection for a new partner. “It would be highhanded and insensitive to force a situation on a child and expect the child to accept it without a murmur, or that the transition will happen automatically without any fallout whatsoever,” Niloufer believes.
“One needs to understand that the role of a stepson/stepdaughter is new to the child and not the one they volunteered for. Also, any change takes time to accept. Allow kids to heal and ease into the new relationship; let a caring bond form in a natural, spontaneous manner. Like all other relationships, this takes time, patience and a lot of effort but is worth every minute in the end!” she concludes.
SIMPLE SUGGESTIONS FOR PARENTS
1. Ensure that the stepfather tries to do things individually with the children—like dropping a child to school or taking them to a mall/ movie/restaurant. A little time together helps build relationships and fosters a sense of belonging.
2. Accept that the missing parent is very important to the children. Let them grieve, support them, even if it’s been a while since the divorce or death.
3. Don’t insist the children address the stepfather as ‘Dad’. Let them decide what they want to call him.
4. Work as a couple to establish rules and don’t change them drastically. In the beginning, you can be the disciplinarian and your new partner should only reinforce rules when required. Over time, kids will accept the stepfather as an authority figure.