Can the church get in step with stepfamilies?

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Article Marriage and Family Parish Life

Bette Hausman and Don Storck are in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together. If only it were as easy as scheduling the priest and ordering the cake for the Happily Ever After to begin. Storck prefers to complete his conversion to Catholicism first. The Pennsylvania couple must also wait for Storck's annulment to finalize. While they care for spiritual matters, Hausman's children make room for Storck inside their home. As for scheduling the sacred event, it must occur when Storck's daughter does not have any sports planned and Hausman's children are not visiting her first husband.

Say hello to what is fast becoming a typical American and Catholic family. While exact numbers are unknown, about half of all marriages in the United States represent a remarriage for at least one adult, according to Kay Pasley, professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and chair of the Stepfamilies Association of America's research committee.

At least 30 percent of all U.S. children under 18 are connected to a stepfamily, Pasley says. About 21 percent of them live with a parent and stepparent; the remaining children live with a single parent and his or her partner. Most experts predict the 2000 census will show a significant increase in stepfamilies, possibly to the point where stepfamilies outnumber traditional families.

Catholics make up a huge portion of those stepfamilies. According to a recently published report by Michael Hout, sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, 9 percent of today's 51 million US Catholics have divorced and remarried. Another 16 percent are divorced or separated. Similar to people of other faiths, at least half of all divorced Catholics will eventually remarry.

Like all loving couples, Hausman, 47, and Storck, 46, hope life together will work out beautifully. It may, although they have already experienced some of the challenges families face when blending together. There are the everyday logistics such as deciding who should live where, juggling children between custodial and non-custodial parents, and making a transition from single parents to a married couple with children.

These are minor compared with more serious issues. Certainly a couple may feel their love will conquer all, but it may not win the hearts of children who feel an allegiance to a parent elsewhere. When children reject a parent's new love, it often leads to resentment, hurt feelings, and alienation.

The tendency of some couples to escape reality may also prove detrimental to a blended family's success. A couple may want so much for the marriage to succeed that they pretend heartbreaks prior to their own union never happened. They want to believe that, as long as they love each other, life can be perfect.

The common denominator of blended families is that they are born out of loss. A tragic incident-death or divorce-took place prior to this family's creation. Newfound love does not instantly heal those wounds. Dreams of being a traditional, nuclear family are unrealistic.

The Catholic Church's official policy on remarriage often adds to the many challenges facing blended families. Despite common misperceptions, the church does not excommunicate divorced parishioners, but it does prohibit second marriages without an annulment. The church also forbids remarried Catholics without annulments from receiving Communion.

Secrets to success the second time around
Creating a happy blended union is possible, however. In many cases, family life will be more stable, communicative, and loving the second time around. Like all marriages, however, it takes work, commitment, and a willingness to accept people where they are emotionally.

Eager to start fresh, couples often do not fully consider that blending families means combining households, traditions, discipline methods, and spending habits. Deciding where to live, who lives with whom, and visitation schedules is only the beginning. Before this second marriage, these adults raised their children in their own way. Children in blended families can be thrown into an environment with rules and habits totally alien to them. A family accustomed to shopping at discount stores and forbidding television on school nights, for instance, may find it difficult to mesh with a family that only purchases name brands and does homework on the drive to school.

When Rainbows (see "Step up to the plate" below) founder and president Suzy Yehl Marta married for the second time, her husband Martin's three adolescent children came to live with them. As much as the couple tried to do what was right for the children-respecting their feelings, including them in wedding vows, and not referring to anyone as a "step"-they faced difficulties. Yehl Marta, who had raised her own now-adult children, had definite ideas about raising children. Overnight Martin's children had to deal with chores and a stringent new stepmother who followed through on discipline matters.

Yehl Marta, on the other hand, had to contend with the children's allegiance to their mother, who remained a strong presence in their lives. Yehl Marta may have moved into the family home, but the children's mother still had a key and came in and out as she pleased. Purchasing a new family home did not help. The children immediately gave their mother a new key.

"I told him, 'I married your children. I married your parents. I didn't know I married your ex.' But I did," Yehl Marta says.

Remarried with children
Couples who approach this new love like first love often fail to understand that the union involves others this time.

"There isn't a lot of preparation or information on serial marriages in our culture," says Gary Laumann, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researcher who has worked with separated and divorced families for the past 25 years. His study on how children cope with loss can be found at http://www.rainbows.org/.

"One of the biggest problems with blended families is it's a different kind of animal, and the couple treats it like people in love with no other commitments," Laumann says. "There is a lifelong attachment to the first spouse, even if you don't want to admit it."

Children from first marriages take devotion to their biological parents seriously. They may worry that accepting a new spouse could be interpreted as a betrayal. Even when the biological parent is not around, either because of death or personal decision, children feel strongly attached.

"It's like a train going on a set of tracks with someone in a parachute trying to land on the train in motion while others jump back and forth from that train to another," explains Bill Urbine, family life and marriage administrator for the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania.

June Doncsecz says it took years to feel accepted by her husband's children and extended family. She was in her 20s, Protestant, and divorced with a young son when she met Michael, the oldest in a large Irish Catholic family. He was separated from his first wife and had three young children.

Doncsecz converted to Catholicism before remarrying, making her first Confession the night before her wedding and her first Communion on her wedding day. However, this was seven years after living with Michael. Doncsecz, now 47, says she regrets the prior living arrangement, realizing it did little to help her new family accept her.

Doncsecz also struggled for years to forgive herself for mothering Michael's children-who wanted little to do with her-while ignoring her own young son. Fed up, her own son ran away to live with his dad, who had remarried a woman with children.

A few years ago, Doncsecz herself separated from Michael after a nervous breakdown. Franciscan sisters ministered to her and helped her appreciate how precious her marriage and Catholic faith were to her life. She returned to Michael and now, 20 years after first flirting in a nightclub, they are still in love and leading a mission near their home in Danielsville, Pennsylvania.

"It had all the ingredients for a romance novel, but there were chapters filled with tragedy and pain," she says. "We have been so blessed that we've come so far."

Reality check
A second chance at love may sound like a plot from a paperback book. In reality, even the most loving couples cannot forever sugarcoat what is real-that each family has its own history and memories. Couples who refuse to acknowledge that deny their children's feelings, and possibly their own, and likely decrease their chances for survival.

When Elsie Radtke married again last summer, she and her new husband, John, thought the fact that their children were older would simplify matters. After all, the children only came to their Chicago suburban home for meals now and again and for summer visits away from college.

As assistant director for family ministries and coordinator of the Hurting and Healing Ministries for the Archdiocese of Chicago, Radtke understood the challenges of blending families. The honeymooners, however, in their 50s, preferred to be swept away in love. They did not expect their children to reject them as a couple, so their children's reaction to their marriage caused resentment and hurt feelings.

"This man and his children had a whole life before, and we come to them with all our shared experiences. You aren't starting from the ground up," Radtke says.

Remarried couples with children must understand that the first family does and always will exist. To create a healthy blended family, adults must reconcile with their loss and face the fact that this second family only exists because of a tragic loss.

For Catholics, remarrying after divorce can also mean losing a beloved church and parish family. According to Hout's research, 17 to 20 percent of divorced Catholics leave the Catholic Church because of a second marriage.

For children, the loss may evolve from one painful life change to another. Initially the child loses a traditional family life, either through divorce or death. The child is just adjusting to living with a single parent, then that parent starts dating. This time the child loses undivided time and attention. If the parent marries again, the child loses his small family unit, sometimes has to share her family home with step-siblings, or loses his neighborhood and friends if a move is involved.

Annul and void
Adults, fortunately, can move on. They must first have time to grieve, get support, and rebuild their life as single people.

For divorced Catholics, this often means an annulment. This process demands that adults take a long look at themselves, life decisions, family of origin, and how all of it may have contributed to a divorce. Ultimately, an annulment is not meant to punish but to help one heal and move in a positive direction.

Many remarried couples praise the annulment process, saying it helps heal the pain of loss and shows ways to become better partners the second time. Desiree and Tom Marciani, both 56, say they had no intention of enduring such painful introspection.

"I thought if I ever got married again, I'd get married in another church," says Desiree, who lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois. "As I got older I realized how beautiful and cleansing reconciliation was to me."

Some Catholics, however, experience annulment differently, as a painful "penance" for the unforgivable sin-divorce.

The University of California report shows many whole families lost to the Catholic Church forever upon remarriage. When a church rejects a couple, it risks losing the entire family.

A self-proclaimed devout Catholic, Mary Ellen Matheson of Chicago says she tried to annul her first marriage to an abusive alcoholic but gave up because the process was so painful. At age 45, Matheson opted to marry her second husband, George, then 66, who served on the church council with her. Concerned some parishioners might frown upon the remarriage outside the church, the couple approached the pastor about resigning as council members.

They expected the pastor to insist they stay put. Instead, he referred to their marriage as a sticky scandal and asked them to refrain from taking Communion at his church.

"Remarriage outside the church seems to be the only unforgivable sin. You can do a lot of bad things and be forgiven but not remarry... Why do we build that wall for people who remarry outside the church? It seems so unfair," Matheson says.

Her husband left the church; her children resented the pastor and still question Catholic Church teachings. Matheson continues to play the organ at weekly Mass, runs a church-sponsored support group for stepfamilies, and takes Communion when the pastor is not around.

"I didn't walk out. I felt I was doing what God wanted me to do. I was just Irish enough to stay," Matheson says.

Many Catholics who remarry outside the church still attend Mass and raise their children Catholic. Fearing they will be ostracized, they tend to keep a low profile. While most pastors would welcome these families, some people have had their fears validated through negative experiences.

Matheson mentions a boy, for instance, who asked a school nun for more graduation tickets so his stepmother could attend the ceremony. The nun said she refused to have the father parade his second wife around on such a special occasion. The boy spoke to a priest who gave him the extra tickets and reprimanded the nun for being so callous.

These are the families the Catholic Church must attempt to reach.

That is not to say the Catholic Church has sat back and done nothing. Pastors have tried a variety of programs to help remarried Catholics including support groups, second marriage preparation classes, and the Rainbows program for children. Still, far too many blended families, perhaps millions of Catholics, have not been reached.

"It's going to take a concerted campaign by the church if they want to address it," Laumann says. "The challenge is how can the church invite people in these marriages if their official position is that the marriage is wrong."

These families are in serious need of spiritual guidance and some sense of continuity. They need to believe that as they try to regain some order after life-altering losses and pursue love and family happiness, they can count on the church.

Priests, nuns, and lay ministers have to do more than simply open the church doors to remarried Catholics. They have to reach out and pull them inside.

If the Catholic Church indeed wishes not to shun or punish them, it must make that message clear.