Martis Davis doesn't have biological children, yet last summer he held a father's place of honor at his adored stepdaughter Chelsea King Garza's wedding, dancing with the bride to the Temptations' oldie My Girl. (He also had the distinctly parental honor of footing the bill for the wedding gown.) Strictly speaking, Chelsea isn't a stepdaughter--after Martis and his former wife Joy Ficket split in 1982, Joy's two kids from her first marriage were no longer tied to him. But Davis didn't want to let Chelsea, then 8, and her brother Gabren, 10, pass out of his life, so he maintained an active relationship with them, attending school events, taking an interest in their friends and sports activities and showing them the sights of New York City during weekend visits from their suburban New Jersey home. With their biological father living in California throughout their childhood, the kids accepted Davis as their "weekend dad."
Staying involved with his stepkids after his marriage ended was a priority, says Davis, 58, now director of media relations for the American Association of Retired Persons in Washington. "Even though Joy and I were no longer married, I'd been in the kids' lives since they were little, and I felt we all needed to stay close. Walking away from these children was unthinkable. I couldn't stand the thought that they might be disappointed in me," he explains. Says ex-wife Ficket: "From the beginning of our relationship, Martis embraced and helped raise these children as his own, and he has so much to offer them, I didn't want to deprive any of them of that bond." That he is African American and his stepchildren are white makes no difference either; instead, it "just increases the fun and confusion," Davis says with a smile.
Closeness of the kind Davis describes can be difficult enough to maintain when biological parents split. But when stepparents divorce, the ties that bind stepparents and stepchildren often stretch to the breaking point. According to a 1998 study by researchers at the University of Virginia, 75% of divorced men and 66% of divorced women remarry, but these remarriages have a notoriously high casualty rate, especially when children are brought into the mix. Remarriages with children at home are half again as likely to fail as those with no stepkids. This multiple-married and redivorced demographic means that many Americans are forced to invent new connections across unconventional family ties.