When my daughter’s longtime boyfriend texted to ask if he could talk to me privately following an upcoming family event, two thoughts immediately came to mind. My daughter has cancer. Or he’s breaking up with her and will need my help to ease her through it.
I stared at the phone. How could I wait to find out which problem we’re facing? But I took a moment and played it cool. I didn’t want to let him know where my mind went. “Should I be worried?” I finally texted back. “Oh, no,” he wrote. He wanted to talk to me about his future with my daughter. It was a marriage proposal, I realized, and replied that of course I would be delighted to speak with him alone.
Having lived through a traumatic divorce from my college sweetheart, I advised my daughter not to marry young.
I’ve thought for a long time that the two of them would one day get married. They met in college and have been together for years and seem to have a sweet, symbiotic relationship. It’s just that I didn’t realize the time had arrived.
Having lived through a traumatic divorce from my college sweetheart, I advised my daughter not to marry young. In fact, I told her to wait until she was ready to have children, which I now consider the only reason for a young woman with an exciting career to tie the knot. At this moment she was 27 and had been telling me she is not thinking about having children any time soon, so I thought marriage was off the table for a few more years.
Conveying What Really Counts
It is very hard to project optimism, but, of course, as the mother of the bride it’s only fair that I do. When her boyfriend did talk to me about his marriage proposal, I wanted to say—shout, really—“Life is long and hard. She could gain 100 pounds, she could get a chronic illness, she could become incapacitated, you might be faced with real physical, financial, or mental hardships, or you might someday feel very frustrated with each other and drift apart. But you are promising you will dig deep, you will stay, you will be there, and you will love her no matter what.”
Thankfully, I called a guy friend and asked for advice on how to respond. I told him what I planned to say, and he nixed it—it was not fair to burden an excited young man with my sourness. “You tell him, ‘Welcome to the family!’” he said. And I did. They are now planning a fairytale wedding.
How My “Fairytale” Unfolded
The thing is, I had the most beautiful wedding. I felt like a princess, and I felt lucky to be starting the rest of my life with a tall, handsome, smart, gregarious man who could always make me laugh. It was such an elegant night, my dress had flower appliques on top and a full tulle skirt, my bouquet was a cascade of orchids, the bridesmaids wore peach strapless gowns with tulle skirts, and the food was so elaborate some guests thought the cocktail hour was the dinner. The band had everyone dancing all night long. So what. What needed to be choreographed better was our communication, our trust, our unending devotion, not a performance of such.
I asked my husband in anger if he wore his wedding ring when he had sex with his assistant.
Scenes from our marriage: I remember sitting on our bed with a breast infection and a fever of 103, holding our hungry newborn in my arms, and my husband saying he needed some exercise and leaving the house. I remember calling my husband at work, in rare desperation, and asking him to come home to help—and he wouldn’t. I remember not having photos of myself with the children because I was always the one with the camera and repeatedly asking for a series of me with the kids for Mother’s Day. I remember that not happening. I remember listening to one of my ex-husband’s grand pronouncements and thinking dismissively, the Great Oz has spoken.
I remember tears and anger and frustration. I remember putting cream on my neck every single day because the tension was getting to me. And I remember being determined to keep my family intact, at least until after the kids were out of the house. I remember a marriage counselor forcing us to sit in chairs facing each other and realizing we had not looked into each other’s eyes in years. I remember finding out that he had a child with his assistant and they had been passing off the baby as her husband’s. I remember being in shock, asking him what kind of person he was, and him offering the defense, “People do this, Lisa,” meaning these situations happen all the time.
After we finally divorced, I wondered if marriage really means anything. If spouses cheat, which many do, then what does it matter if you take a vow and sign a contract? I asked my husband in anger if he wore his wedding ring when he had sex with his assistant. I didn’t expect an answer, but he gave one: He wore it the whole time.
Does Marriage Even Matter Anymore?
I told my last boyfriend I didn’t see myself getting remarried because I was looking for something bigger than marriage. A union that doesn’t need the show, but feels right and loving every day, even through relationship ups and downs. An at-will partnership that is romantic and sweet and kind. Bridal gowns and veils and rings and vows and signed documents don’t guarantee anything.
Bridal gowns and veils and rings and vows and signed documents don’t guarantee anything.
Back to my daughter. She’s basking in the glow of her engagement, and her sweet fiancé seems hellbent on being sure she is happy. I am trying to tamp down my visceral reaction and my momma bear protection. The fights, the lies, the resentments, the loneliness in a failing marriage that is worse than being alone—those nagging 20 years of memories won’t quit. But I have to let my daughter find her own way. She is much stronger than I was when I got married, and I don’t see the red flags in her intended that I overlooked in mine as a young bride.
While my children were processing the divorce, I explained that every married couple goes through a hard time in their relationship, and at some point each one has to make a decision. Will they work on the marriage, will they cheat, or will they leave. No one can control what their partner will do, but I told them that if and when they married, I expected them to stay, remain faithful, and work on it. They were too young to fully understand at the time, but I hope they’ll remember what I said when they need it.
The Divorced Mother of the Bride: Here’s What I’m Hoping For
Can I watch her pledge herself to one person for the rest of her life, for better or for worse? Can I clear my mind to concentrate only on the present and the future? Can I feel only happiness that my daughter found her life partner and that the two may truly forge a bond that lasts forever?
I’m getting there. My daughter chose to leave parents’ names off her wedding invitation because of the stickiness of the situation. My ex did not include me in the food tasting, and we’re still working out who will do what and sit where during the ceremony, but I know the most important thing is what happens after the after-party. What happens in their day-to-day lives. What happens when they add a child or two or three. What happens when they disagree, or when they share their deepest emotions, good or bad. Will they listen to each other, compromise, move closer during hard feelings or hard times?
The wedding will be spectacular. The marriage will write its own story—one, I can only hope, with a happy unending.
A version of this story was originally published in July 2019.