When Nancy Ellwanger told her five-year-old son Jeremy that she was going to marry David Scott, the youngster initially seemed pleased. After all, Jeremy had grown quite fond of David, who always found the time to play a game or talk about sports with the rambunctious kindergartner.
"But then Jeremy started asking a lot of strange questions," Nancy recalls. "He wanted to know what a stepdad is supposed to do. He was also troubled that I was going to change my last name. It was clear he was afraid things might be different after we got married."
Nancy and David constantly assured Jeremy -- as well as Nancy's 16-year-old daughter Nicole -- that the children wouldn't become second class members of the family once the couple married. "We wanted the kids to understand that we were doing more than marrying each other; we were forming a family," David says.
The Duboistown, Pa., couple was grappling with a problem experienced by most of the more than one million single parents who remarry in the U.S. each year: What can be done to ease the concerns of young children who feel, on a conscious or unconscious level, that their secure place in the family is threatened by the pending marriage of a parent?
After much research, Nancy found a simple and emotionally satisfying answer to the couple's dilemma in the form of a family-oriented wedding service that gives children a meaningful role in the wedding nuptials. This five-minute ceremony -- known as the Family Medallion service -- can easily be integrated into any religious or civil wedding ceremony. It differs from the traditional wedding in only one respect: after the newlyweds exchange rings, their children join them for a special service focusing on the family nature of remarriage. Each child is given a gold or silver pendant or ring with three interlocking circles, a symbol that represents family love in much the same way the wedding ring signifies conjugal love.
The Scotts say they will never forget the moment during their wedding when Jeremy and Nicole were summoned to their sides to participate in the family wedding service. While the Mayor of Williamsport, a family friend who married the couple, recited the words of the ceremony -- a pledge to love and care for all the children either spouse brings to the marriage -- Nancy and David placed a Family Medallion around the necks of Jeremy and Nicole. Jeremy beamed with pride. Nicole, a typical teen not easily touched by the doings of adults, was overwhelmed with emotion. "Oh, mommy," she sobbed. "This is so wonderful."
The ceremony ended with Jeremy and Nicole enthusiastically hugging Nancy and David. "We were crying, and I remember hearing a lot of sniffling among our guests," Nancy adds. The attention the children received during the wedding carried through to the reception as guests fussed over the youngsters and examined their Family Medallions. Jeremy eagerly displayed his medal and explained to guests the family symbolism behind the three interlocking rings: "This one is mommy, this one is David, and this one is for me and Nicki."
Guests later told Nancy and David that they were awed by the power of the special service for Jeremy and Nicole. "People remarked that they had never witnessed anything so moving before," Nancy says. "I guess that proves our family wedding was a success. Besides vowing to love each other, David and I wanted to stand before God and our guests and make a formal pledge of love to our children."
The family wedding concept is an idea whose time has come now that at least one-third of all new marriages in the U.S. involve divorced or widowed parents with children under 18 living in the home. "The number of marriages affecting children is even larger if you include parents who don't have custody of their kids," says Dr. Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America.
Despite the huge number of weddings involving parents with young children, virtually no religious or civil wedding ceremony acknowledges the existence of youngsters. Nancy Scott learned this fact the hard way. "I was going crazy searching for something significant to do for my children during the wedding," she says. "I couldn't find a family-oriented wedding ceremony. And all the wedding products in stores and bridal magazines were geared toward first-time brides -- not a 36-year-old woman with children."
This void also frustrated Dr. Roger Coleman, Chaplain of Pilgrim Chapel in Kansas City, Mo., who developed the Family Medallion and the family ceremony that goes with it. "I was disappointed that virtually every traditional wedding ceremony focused entirely on the bride and groom," Dr. Coleman explains. "A marriage with pre-existing children is a lot more than simply the union of a man and a woman. It's a merging of two separate families. Every day of my ministry I see how divorce creates a sense of failure and hopelessness in people. The family ceremony is a sign of hope and an important step in rebuilding the devastation of the family."
Today, more than 15,000 couples a year -- primarily in the United States, Canada and Europe -- use the Family Medallion ceremony to help cement the bond between parents, stepparents and children. "It really works," says Williamsport Mayor Steven Cappelli, who officiated at the Ellwanger/Scott wedding. "It is a simple, beautiful ceremony that communicates, both symbolically and verbally, that the parent and stepparent are going to love their children as much as they love each other. The family ceremony is a great way to ease any apprehensions or misconceptions children might be harboring."
Family therapists and marriage counselors say there is a price to be paid when children feel pushed aside rather than embraced by the remarriage of a parent. "When kids aren't included in a meaningful way in the wedding, they feel disenfranchised." explains Father Christopher Vender, director of Catholic Ministries of California in Thousand Oaks, who has used the Family Medallion wedding service on several occasions. Father Vender knows all too well the pain children experience when they are merely observers at the wedding of a parent.
"When I was 11 years old, my mother remarried," he recalls. "I remember watching the nuptials from the second pew of the church. Everybody acted like the wedding was about my mom and her boyfriend; it had nothing to do with me. I felt left out and unloved.
"We clergy have to find ways, before, during and after the wedding, to help both adults and children cope with the changes that a remarriage involving children brings. Ignoring the vital role of children is a setup for a dysfunctional family situation and possibly even a second divorce."
Nancy and David Scott believe their decision to give Jeremy and Nicole a pivotal role in their wedding will permanently strengthen their family bond. "Our family wedding just made the process of becoming a family easier," says David Scott. "The ceremony kind of cemented my relationship with Jeremy and Nicki. It has served as a sound foundation for building a long-term family relationship."
For young Jeremy, now six, the value of his mom and stepdad's family wedding is much less complicated. He points to his Family Medallion. "It means we're a family," he says firmly.
Additional information about the Family Medallion Wedding Service is available at www.familymedallion.com, or by calling (800) 237-1922. Correspondence can be sent to Clergy Services, Inc., P.O. Box 32333, Kansas City, MO 64171.
Courtesy of ARA Content
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