Dianne Rehm is the recently retired host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” a talk show from Washington, DC. John Hagedorn is a retired Lutheran minister. The Washington Post dubbed their Washington Cathedral wedding on October 14, 2017 ”a sign of hope.”
The gorgeous, adoring couple exchanged traditional vows surrounded by friends. What drew attention was the ages of the bride and groom. She’s 81, he’s 78. The Rev. Canon Jerry Anderson said they are the oldest couple he has married in 49 years.
The news made me smile. In many respects, their story is my story. Last April I married an old friend, Jim Le Gette. A few months after the wedding, we both turned eighty.
Like Dianne and John, Jim and I knew each other for many years (thirty in their case, fifty in ours). Like them, we’d lost mates after long, happy marriages. Like theirs, our friends were delighted but surprised.
It’s not unusual for older people to get together, even to live together. But it is rare for them to marry. Why? One reason may be more about their children than themselves.
In a “Tough Conversations” workshop with parents and their adult kids, my co-mediator Sig Cohen and I once took an informal poll. We asked the children, “What is your biggest worry about your parents, something you’re afraid to discuss with them?”
“Driving” came in first. To be expected. But we were surprised by this: “I’m afraid my Mother will marry again.”
Let me be clear: Jim’s children and my own supported our marriage. Jim’s daughter chose the wedding cake and hosted the rehearsal dinner. One of my daughters chose the flowers and helped me choose my dress. As in the Rehm-Hagedorn wedding, our kids stood up with us. They did readings, gave toasts.
But in deciding to wed we did try to allay reservations we thought our kids might entertain.
At one level an older parent’s remarriage seems positive. Mom and Dad will have companionship, healthier meals and self-care, and less burden on their offspring. A happy marriage would give added meaning to their lives, a spring in their step.
So what’s the problem? Here are at least three possible reasons kids might be wary of a parent’s late-life marriage, and three ways parents who want to marry might reassure them.
1. Children might worry that Mom’s boyfriend is a scam artist or Dad’s new companion has hidden motives. This may be a legitimate worry. As a court-connected mediator I heard of a case where a Capitol Hill doyen* developed a crush on a 40-something “physical therapist” (no license) who came to her home several times a week to “help her feel better.” Her son discovered she’d written a number of large checks to her new friend. When Son objected, Mom threatened to cancel his power of attorney. He sought a competency hearing in court to try to stop her. Served with a summons, the therapist skipped town — with Mom’s sports car, antiques, art, and cash. No forwarding address.
In another case a father with dementia died at 95. When they filed his will the children learned that, one week before his death, Dad had married his much younger immigrant health aide. She had wheeled him dying into the courthouse for a wedding. It was too late for the children to raise incapacity as a ground for annulment, since Dad was dead. Under state law the wife got fifty percent of everything.
A tip-off that something is amiss may be a wide discrepancy in age, social status, wealth, or signs of a parent’s dementia.
Kids don’t usually have to worry if the parents have known each other for a long time or been introduced by trusted friends. Parents who want to marry should also get to know each other’s children and create opportunities for their kids to know each other (parties, holiday dinners, grandchildren’s school events) so trust can build.
2. Even if the suitor has honest motives, children may worry their inheritance will be reduced.
A prenuptial agreement, shared with the kids, can clear the air. Transparency about wills and/or trusts will help. If parents don’t feel comfortable sharing the details of their finances, they can at least reveal in general terms what the documents provide and where to find them. (“Transparency” does not mean the parents relinquish their right and responsibility to decide.)
3. Children may react emotionally to the thought of anyone replacing a lost parent. Everyone grieves at their own pace and in their own way. Even if years have passed, grief may linger.
A step-parent needs to understand a child’s grief is not a rejection of them. One child may embrace the step-parent while another may be polite but distant. Parents should keep open hearts but drop unrealistic expectations and allow relationships in the new blended family to deepen at their own pace.
The addition of any new family member, like the birth of a new child, does change a family dynamic. Time and attention formerly devoted to existing family members will be drawn away. They may feel cut off or shut out. Parents should be aware of this, understand that it’s normal, and be patient with the process. It’s a good idea for each parent to regularly spend some quality time with their own children without the step-parent – going to lunch or going fishing – just to let them know they still have a special place in your heart. As they do.
With mutual good will, blended adult families can be a source of love and hope to one another and to the world, regardless of age.
*Identifying details changed to protect privacy.