“What I thought I was doing by remarrying was going home, back into the warm hearth that is the family and all that American culture enshrines along with its reverence for the family. I thought I was moving back into that sacred circle, that inner sanctum of respectability — that accepted place. People don’t have to worry about you anymore. You are safe, you are home. In actuality, though, remarrying isn’t about going home. It’s about going some place entirely new, almost as if you’ve stepped through a looking glass. Things appear normal, but there are all sorts of strange contortions to life, things that aren’t readily apparent on the surface. In the end, remarriage turned out to be quite different than I imagined — indeed from what most of us would imagine — and that is what this book is about.”
After surviving divorce, Wendy Swallow had given up on love for good. A series of bad dates simply confirmed it — she did not need a man. She could be happy on her own. Then, when she wasn’t looking, Charlie appeared.
In a humorous, reflective voice, Swallow shares with us her honest, emotional journey of remarriage. Navigating the rubble of failed marriages — the blame, the embarrassment, the disrupted parenting — Wendy and Charlie aim to create a union unadulterated by the loss and pain of previous mistakes. But reality is often different than intention. Tracing this surprise terrain, Swallow’s memoir is poignant and engaging.
Featured on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show and in Reader’s Digest and other national magazines, Swallow’s remarriage memoir examines the current research and everyday expectations of remarrying couples. Statistics show that many women remarry for economic security and companionship. Yet the reality of a second marriage, especially one complicated by children, can be daunting. Through conversations with remarried friends and with authorities on stepfamilies, Swallow, and her new husband, embark on a remarkable journey into a place neither of them expected.
(The Triumph of Love Over Experience was published in 2004 by Hyperion.)
Q: Why write a memoir about remarrying? It seems like a very private, very personal decision – why do you think other people will be interested in your story?
A: It is a very private decision; that is true. That’s why I thought a book about a couple making the decision to remarry would be so compelling – because it appears that many people don’t talk about how difficult it can be. Like many divorced people, I had a fairly naïve view of remarriage – that you remarried simply if and when you fell in love again. But when I fell in love with Charlie and started thinking about how we would merge our families, I began to see just how complicated it was going to be. I decided a book that took an honest look at these issues could only help others facing the possibility.
Q: What are some of the issues you examine in your book that may surprise readers?
A: I was surprised to discover how reluctant I was to be a wife again, even though I had very much missed being a wife when I was single. I loved my husband and his boys, and I loved living with someone who could care about and help with my kids. But I was stubborn about relinquishing the autonomy I had as a single parent, and I missed the solitude I enjoyed when my boys were with their father. The minute you commit to a marriage again, you become a partner. And I still struggle with having to consider the partnership all the time. That came as a shock to me.
Q: Your book includes some of the newest research on stepfamily dynamics. Why was that an important element in your story?
A: When Charlie and I announced our engagement, the psychologist who had worked with my boys since my divorce warned me that three out of every four remarriages with children involved don’t make it. They fail, and the family then suffers a second divorce. That number really shook me. I had no idea the statistic was so high, and I started paying attention to the latest research on remarriage to better understand that number. I wanted to know what Charlie and I could do to improve our odds. I had encountered all those depressing statistics about families and kids of divorce when my first marriage broke up, and I realized how this information could corrode morale. In doing the research on remarriage, I was happy to find that Charlie and I had many factors that would work in our favor – our educations, our financial strength – but I also discovered potential potholes. The research really helped me understand what I was taking on. I included the best parts so readers could benefit as well.
Q: You and Charlie have four boys who are now teens or young adults. How are they doing, and what factors made it easier for you when you moved in together?
A: What the research tells us is that kids can make or break a remarriage, if they want to. Fortunately for us, Charlie and I didn’t have angry children. We had boys that were occasionally grumpy, as all kids are who are being dragged through something they might not chose, but each was old enough to recognize how their lives improved through our remarriage and therefore they didn’t have strong reasons to undermine it. They are sweet kids who wanted their parents to be happy, and that carried us a long, long way. I also think it was easier that they were all close in age (four boys ranging from 12-16 when we married), and that they were the same gender. It made for pretty uniform decision-making, although their needs were hardly identical. I also think it helped that Charlie and I remarried slowly and deliberately, letting the kids get used to the idea in advance and to feel supported by our extended families.
Q: How does this marriage differ from your first?
A: Second marriages differ from first marriages in so many ways they don’t even seem to be the same thing. The optimism is very different – more measured, more complex. You hope wildly for some things, while feeling jaded about others. Many things are knottier the second time around, such as finances, relationships with the children, lifestyles, and habits. I wrote an entire chapter in Triumph of Love over Experience on what I called the clash of family cultures – what it feels like to suddenly try to blend very different households. I wrote another chapter on dealing with in-laws and the people I think of as “para-family”: ex-spouses, former in-laws, half-siblings. It’s a lot to deal with, and I think many people go into remarriage with little understanding of the issues they will have to manage.
Q: What is it like to become a stepmother?
A: Being a stepmother is one of the least attractive roles any woman can play. I’ve been lucky, though. My stepsons have an active, loving mom in their lives, and because they were older, they don’t need me to parent them. I get to help them by providing the things that make for a fun, relaxed life together: regular meals, help with laundry and school, a second opinion to balance their dad’s, love and support and celebration for all they do. But it is different than the way I parent my own two boys, and sometimes that makes for conflict.
I discovered in writing Triumph of Love how much stepmoms feel misunderstood by society. Stepmoms often shoulder an enormous amount of child care for stepkids, yet rarely get the credit or appreciation from outside. I’ve talked with a lot of stepparents, and I think society needs to rethink the stereotypes. Stepparents aren’t all perfect, but most people who work hard to help raise other people’s children should be acknowledged for that difficult and often thankless work. There are many kids out there growing up stronger and healthier because of stepparents. I have a much deeper appreciation now of how much dedication it takes.
(This interview was conducted in 2004. Publisher Hyperion Books is now owned by Hachette Book Group.)
Learn more about Wendy Swallow’s memoir about divorce, Breaking Apart.
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