life lessons

7 Things My Mother Taught Me About Marriage

Photo: Courtesy of Riverhead

My mom and dad married in November of 1969 after dating for about six months — an unremarkable courtship period, at the time. The wedding took place at a small brick chapel in the suburbs of Chicago, a ceremony followed by some gift-opening and a family dinner. But despite their very long-term, very conventionally sanctioned union, my mom has never pushed the issue of marriage on me, never nagged me to just “settle down with a nice man and make some grandbabies.” Probably she knows that it wouldn’t go well if she did. But also, having been married at the age of 19 and divorced before she met my father, she knows that marriage isn’t the answer to everything; it’s not the one end-goal of a happy life.

Recently I wrote a memoir, which involved talking to my mom about her thoughts on love and marriage. In our series of interviews, she shared the following nuggets of mom-wisdom about her own marriage — now going on 45 years — and about marriage in general.

1. Ask your parents about their marriage. My mom only wished she’d been able to do the same with her parents: “There were stories I would have liked to know from my family, but unless you ask, you don’t know them,” she told me. Getting her to share tales of how her romance with my dad began, what came next, and why they decided to wed was not only a bonding experience, it was eye-opening for both of us — and revealed much more than I expected about my own romantic desires as well as how cultural marital norms have changed over the years. The ways we think about marriage are different than they used to be; but inevitably, your parents’ relationship and their beliefs about love and family will pertain in some way to you.

2. Just because everybody’s doing it doesn’t mean you have to. In a twist on that jumping-off-a-cliff metaphor worried parents use to discuss bad high-school influences, my mom says, “You should do what you want to do. If you don’t want to get married, don’t get married. If you don’t want kids, you should never feel like you have to have them!” She speaks from experience: She didn’t have the same options that women have today. “You were meant to be a housewife,” she told me. At the time, “it was just like, girls always get married or they end up being some spinster or they live at home with their parents and take care of them.”

3. Talk about what you want. My mom was married for five years before her divorce from her first husband, and though she was still clinging to her newfound freedom and single life by the point that she met my dad, she wasn’t ready to give up on the right guy. She thought my dad was the one — not because of what he looked like or his bank account, but because they talked. “He seemed to be a steady person who had a lot of good values, and we spent some time talking about what we wanted out of life,” she says. “I met his mother, even though it was a short period of time. I got to know him better than I’d known my ex.” My mom also shared her own stories. She’d not been able to get pregnant in her last marriage, and was concerned that would be an issue again. “I told him if he wanted children, he shouldn’t marry me.” He said, “We’ll have children.”

4. Marriage has unexpected benefits. My mom was especially eloquent talking about how marriage begets a shared history. “The only thing I would say about not getting married,” she said when I asked her if she thought I’d miss anything important if I didn’t, “is you lose out on a lot of history with each other. If the marriage is bad, that’s no good, but Dad and I can sit down and talk about things we did 20 or 30 years ago, talk about our old friends and laugh about it. You don’t have that history or connection or the memory if you’re just meeting and dating and meeting and dating.” And, she added, when times get hard, you have the memories of the good to help get you through the rough spots.

5. Your roles in the marriage will change. Earlier in their life together, especially when my brother and I were kids, my dad filled the breadwinner role while my stay-at-home mom took care of us — a pretty conventional arrangement. Now, however, my retired dad is around “almost too much of the time!” my mom says. “That’s another phase, retirement. The husbands quit working, now they’re home rearranging all the dishes.” When asked about the overall balance of housework and child care in their marriage, she notes that in the beginning, when they both worked, more responsibilities were shared. Later, “as dad’s career progressed, he was busier and busier,” and there was strain over how much time he wasn’t there to spend with the family. How to balance careers, child care, and housework in an egalitarian way is a conversation we’re still having as a culture — and within individual partnerships.

6. But you don’t have to stay in a marriage that’s not working. I teased my mother mercilessly about her divorce as a child: I was always bringing up stats about first divorces leading to more divorces, which I’d probably picked up in school. But knowing she’d had a first marriage that didn’t work — and that she’d found another that did — changed how I think about my own relationships and independence today. My mom taught me to never feel stuck, or like there weren’t other options, in love, in jobs, or in life. It was a harder-won lesson for her, though: “I came from a family where my parents fought like hell and stayed married,” she said. “I thought you had to accept things as they are.” When her first husband persisted in asking for a divorce, she finally agreed, upon the condition that she get the car, house, and much of their shared property. Another great lesson from Mom: Don’t just accept things. Fight for what you need.

7. Have fun being single. Once the divorce went through, my mom told me, “I was on my own, and I was having a great time. I worked. I had a car, my house. Nothing was so bad [about divorcing]. I wondered why I’d been questioning it.” She met my dad and started dating him. Though he started talking about marriage fairly quickly, she wasn’t ready to “ruin things” with that. She went on a trip to Hawaii with her sister, met members of the Kingston Trio, lost a contact lens that someone found on her butt. (I imagine these were wild times.) When she returned from her trip, my dad thought she’d be ready to get married. And eventually — luckily for me — she agreed.

Jen Doll’s memoir, Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest, is out now from Riverhead.

7 Things My Mother Taught Me About Marriage