A Divorced Mom Talks to Her Children About Marriage

12/27/2016 10:36 am ET
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I had an unexpected conversation about marriage with my two boys yesterday. My eight-year-old thought that marriage vows expired every ten years and needed to be renewed. I’m think he got the idea from the 1990’s TV show “Dinosaurs,” which we watch on Amazon Instant Video. I had to admit that I thought it might be preferable to the way marriage works now, and said as much.

“But then you’d be forced to live with someone for ten years before you could leave,” my eleven-year-old objected when I voiced my opinion.

“Well, even now, in some cultures you have to live your entire life with the person you are married to whether you want to or not, until you die or they do,” I retaliated.

“Why do you even need to go to court to get divorced? Just to keep lawyers in business?” My youngest asked.

“You need a license to get married, too. It’s a legal contract, so if you want to end it, you have to go to court.”

“If people got married forever, it might mean more,” my eleven-year-old stated.

And thus my discomfort was complete. My kids know that I have been divorced twice. I’m sure that even having two visits from Santa is not always enough to make up for the fact that their father and I don’t live together. But I don’t want them to grow up thinking they are failures if they get divorced. I don’t want them to think that they even have to get married. And I also don’t want them to think happily ever after is just a pipe dream they can never achieve. This is the kind of important conversation I want to excel at. Unfortunately, it is also the kind of conversation I have historically made a mess of.

“I’m not against marriage,” I told them, which is true. “It’s just harder than most people think it is before they get married.”

That sounded lame, even to me.

“It’s hard to know who you will be in ten years, or twenty years.”

I knew that this thread was stupid, as my youngest hadn’t even been alive for ten years yet. Fortunately or unfortunately, we arrived at their father’s house, and the conversation ended.

This is what I wished I said:

Marriage can be a wonderful and beautiful thing. It can also turn your life into a pit of despair.

(OK, maybe that’s not the best way to broach the subject after all. Maybe I need to think about this a little more before I talk to my children.)

The truth is, I think our society does marriage backwards. I think you should live your life with your beloved, raise children, fight, reconcile, cry and laugh and hug. I think we should go back to the idea of hand-fasting, when the wedding wasn’t completely binding until a year and a day had passed. I think we should reserve elaborate wedding ceremonies for ten- or twenty-year anniversaries, when the couple has actually survived intact and they don’t have to go into hock to pay for the party. We should celebrate the achievement, not the hope.

I do believe in commitment. I just don’t think that it trumps everything else. I never want my children to think that they have to choose between feeling like a failure or being stuck in a life of wretched unhappiness. I want them to know there are other options—that they don’t have to be ashamed to undo a life they thought they wanted but couldn’t fit themselves into, but also that it is entirely possible to live forever with one person. And I want them to know that there is nothing wrong with never marrying anyone at all.

What I want is for my children to define their own lives, not constrain themselves to what they think is expected of them. I want them to find love—absolutely—but also know that they are enough on their own. They can marry a woman or a man or never marry anyone and still be successful in life. I don’t care if I dance with them on their wedding day as long as I get to dance with them somewhere.

I sort of think that our relationships don’t need to be celebrated by other people. I think buying friends and family members anniversary cards is kind of weird. I want my loved ones to be happy, but I have no say in whom they love or how they express it. I think it’s a little odd to make a lifelong declaration of love in front of a roomful of people—it seems too intimate to share with others, like a first kiss.

So says the woman who had two big weddings with bridesmaids and the whole kit and caboodle. I recognize that it is easier to distain that which I already had and rejected. I recognize that other people are entitled to the fairy tale wedding if that is what they want. I concede that public declarations of love have their place in society, and I don’t ever mean to mock those who find meaning in traditional weddings. It is only in retrospect that I feel the way I do now, though I was always flabbergasted by anniversary cards. College degrees and job promotions were achievements to be celebrated. Relationships are between the individuals involved.

Do I want my kids to get married someday? Honestly, I don’t care one way or the other. Or to be more honest, my only hope is that they don’t marry the wrong person, and if they do, I want them to know it’s not the end of the world.

But I don’t want them to lose that hope of happily ever after, no matter how bad at it I have historically been. They have every right to that dream, if they want it, and I will try my best not to be too cynical in front of them.

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