Like most couples, at the instant we met we were child-free. However, unlike younger couples, we would not be child-free for several years while we cemented our relationship and planned for the future. Three hours, at most, would separate us from school pick-up time and the resumption of parenting duties. As our children unsuspectingly practiced for their Nativity Plays, we sat outside a cafe and talked. It was November, as I recall, and our words came out in puffs of smoke which mingled with the steam from the coffee on the table.
It was a small sliver of time in which to be our independent adult selves, to focus on each other, like any new couple. Yet on this occasion and the many that followed, our conversation focused often on the kids; we found a mutual pleasure in sharing stories about them. There was no ‘me’ without my daughter, no ‘him’ without his son, and no ‘us’ without the both of them. Right from the beginning, there were four of us. As the children meandered through their school day, they didn’t know it and neither did we, but we were beginning to dream a family into existence.
Five years later, we sat down to plan our wedding service. We wanted to acknowledge the importance of the children, without making the entire day about them. After all, they will actually leave home one day, and our union will outlast the family unit we are creating. I flicked around on the internet for ideas about involving children in weddings.
In the US, there is a ‘family medallion’, a patented idea which seems to be fairly popular. It comprises three engraved circles which interlock to symbolize the couple and the children, and is sold with wedding vows for children also patented. We decided that these were too commercialized, and I wasn’t sure about the Venn diagram symbolism. The circles seemed more representative of a couple with a baby, than our shape-shifting family. Rather than three interlocked circles, we feel like planets orbiting one another – moving independently, sometimes out of sight of one another, but always returning to the same point, linked by forces we cannot see like hunger, that undeniable force that brings them to the dinner table every day.
The children are fast getting older and into their teens now, and the creation of their own mini-universe, already beginning to struggle for independence, and so now doesn’t seem the right time to get them to promise commitment to an extra parent. I was even less convinced when I read this heart-rending comment on an internet discussion forum: from someone who had been overjoyed to get the family medallion as a child, only to be disillusioned when the marriage broke down:‘It taught me that promises can be broken,’ she said ‘and I felt responsible for the marriage not working, as if I hadn’t kept my promises.’
This testimony reminded me that promises should not be bandied around like sweets; they are too heavy a burden for a child to carry. Yet, for my Intended and I, who have chosen to make promises on this day, it is important to show that we are committing to one another’s children as well as each other.
I carried on clicking through vows and comments, had a brief laugh at the idea of my daughter promising to obey my Intended, before finding these words:‘I was not there when you took your first steps, but I promise you now that I will love and support you in every step you take in your life.’This seemed to say just enough, but not too much.
There is an acknowledgement that we are not the birth parent, and a simple promise – one that asks nothing in return. I felt that I could keep this promise, regardless of what happened between my Intended and me.
We really liked the dog-tag necklaces we found online, engraved with something short and sweet. Hopefully all will keep them and treasure them, these symbols of how far we have all come since that cold November day, back in the mists of time.