When Hina married a man with four children from his first marriage, she was aware of the potential responsibilities that she would face and had accepted that she would support her husband and his children with her commitment towards them. It was decided that the children would spend equal amounts of time with their father and mother, alternating between their parents’ respective homes. The issues that commonly surface on remarriage vary in their complexity, and every experience of divorce and remarriage will be an individual one, but for effective parenting, especially when raising step-children and the likelihood of different or contradictory parenting styles and attitudes to reconcile, there must be successful communication between each party. As Hina explains to me, “‘I love the children and with the youngest still in nappies, I am also physically looking after them which I am happy to do but often if I speak to my husband regarding the kids and any difficult behaviour, it can be seen as negative and can cause unnecessary arguments between us. Sometimes, my feelings [in this role] are not being taken into account.”
She is also very aware that as a step-mother, there is the constant negotiation of invisible boundaries that may or may not be crossed, which makes this an ongoing, stressful situation for her.
Raising children can be both physically and mentally challenging and with children often spending time with both their mother and new step-mother, differences in attitudes to discipline may mean that children have one rule for one house and a different rule in another. Whilst it is realistically impossible to find fully harmonious solutions to every new parenting issue, particularly with constantly evolving problems as children grow, there is clearly a need to reach well-defined and acceptable levels of behaviour between step-children and their step-mother to help prevent mutual aggravation.
In addition, the emotional upheaval must also be acknowledged for the mother of the children who suddenly has to share her children with, effectively, a stranger who has unwittingly added an unknown and quite probably unwanted dimension to the equation. There may be unresolved issues and anger left from the divorce that spill over into tension between a husband and his ex-wife, and they may both be guilty of letting these emotions adversely affect the way they deal with successful parenting. Bad mouthing an ex or explaining complicated reasons for divorce to young children so as to lay blame on one party causes only unnecessary distress and anxiety to often already traumatised children.
Hina says that she has seen negative changes with one of her step-children who has now stayed with her on a regular basis; this has manifested itself in bad behaviour at school and sometimes a lack of respect for adults and authority. Whilst some of these changes may be attributed to the normal challenges faced by parents, she feels that a bad example is also being set by “parents putting children in the middle and using them as a messaging service.”
Though these issues affect remarriage regardless of culture and religion, there is an apparent lack of support for Muslim women to turn to when this communication is not working or has even become hostile. The tensions arising from this may negatively affect the relationship between a couple, and Hina talks about the need for better understanding of the difficult issues that Muslim women can face when remarrying and gaining step-children.
She feels that this understanding needs to translate into practical advice that can be made available through community leaders on family issues who women can turn to if they should so need. “The mosques are concerned with aqeeda (the belief system) which is of course good, but other subjects are not talked about.” She says that she has approached her local mosque for advice but “all I get told is to be patient.”
There appears to be a need for a more holistic approach amongst Muslim leaders to support crucial family-related matters. Although there are marriage guidance services that already exist in the UK, Muslims going through marital difficulties are often looking for Islamic guidance through the mosque but fail to find counsellors who can knowledgeably refer them back to the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Whilst there are logistical questions regarding how such a service would be funded and directed, the possibility of this provision is something that Akeela, who also has step-children, strongly agrees with. She speaks to me about the need for Islamically-orientated counselling services to be put in place so that neutral, independent and professionally trained advisors can help people facing such problems.
“There needs to be open debate, acknowledging the issues that may be faced on all aspects [of family life] so that support is available when needed. It may also be beneficial for advice to be given before remarriage so that people are better prepared for it. As a step-mother, there are times when decisions made by my husband and his ex-wife regarding the children impact upon me, and I need to adapt to such changes accordingly – it is then that expressing my feelings can be difficult because at times, I am technically like a co-parent but don’t have a say in the children’s welfare.” Akeela admits that this situation has put a strain on her marriage; she says that whilst she was always aware that the mother of her husband’s children would remain in the picture and recognises that this is how it should be, there is the difficulty of “getting her views put across and for them to count.” within such a dynamic.
Adults need to remember that children are vulnerable to any instability around them. When children have already faced some of the inevitable emotional disruption caused by divorce in their lives, it is the adults who must take responsibility to ensure that the transition of any further changes occurs as smoothly as possible and that they must minimise any potentially damaging types of behaviour. All parties need to remind themselves that, however difficult, they should conduct themselves in a responsible and positive way. They must realise that their children will be looking to them for guidance and that as parents, they are their children’s main role models.
The key to successful future communities is raising children who grow up in a nurturing and positive environment. Whilst divorce and remarriage are far from ideal, they are a reality, and the often accompanying trauma can be minimised if handled appropriately and with the right support.
An investment in the provision of Islamic counselling services and guidance in how to move forward successfully following remarriage is crucial. This may not only alleviate the underestimated stress that arises when becoming a step-parent or save another marriage from ending in divorce but may also lay the reinforced foundations for the next generation.
Khurshid Khatib is a writer and campaigner with interests in human rights, hunger, poverty and peace. She has previously worked as a Pharmaceutical Scientist and Broadcast Assistant.