On June 7 of this year, my parents quietly celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary. My mom tells me that at least half of their guests back in 1986 didn’t think they’d make it past two years and if I’d been their friend back then, I probably wouldn’t have either. Their marriage was unorthodox from the beginning — my mom is 13 years older than my dad and they met when he was her student at university — and they’ve continued to forge their own definition of what marriage and parenthood mean over the past three decades. But even with that independent approach, a lot of things about marriage were still unexpected for my mom.
One thing that has consistently stayed clear throughout their marriage, however, is a feminist philosophy that they’ve built their partnership on. Particularly with parenting, my mom was very clear about one thing from the beginning: “Neither of us are doing this 50/50. It’s going to be 100/100.” She knew that in order for their partnership and parenthood to work, they’d both have to be equally committed to the daily act of raising their children.
But I knew all of that; it’s part of the family myth I grew up with. What I wanted to know was what about marriage surprised my mom over the past 30 years. Here are the top seven things she told me.
1. Ideas About Gender And Children Get Shaken
“We talked a lot about gender things,” my mom says. “Those were very important to me. But of course, a lot of that gets blown out of the water when your first born is very much a little girl and your second born is very much a little boy.”
My mom never bought into pink clothes for me and blue clothes for my biological brother and probably would have kept us gender-neutral until we were old enough to buy our own clothing — but then I happened. At five, I threw tantrums when she wouldn’t let me wear dresses in the middle of the Vermont winter, which was less about restricting my choices and more about the fact that my legs might fall off if I wasn’t protected by snow pants. My little brother is two years younger than I am and his favorite things as a small child were, 1) fire and, 2) blowing things up. So yeah, we definitely tested her ideals.
2. Sex Can Be Tricky
My parents have always been really open about their sex life, to the point where my brothers and I all wrinkle up our noses and go “Ewwwww!” but (not so) secretly are glad that they’re still doing it. But they’re also honest about the fact that it hasn’t always been easy, particularly when my mom was going through menopause.
“You have to do it,” my mom says. “You have to do it even if you don’t want to, and then it gets better.”
This one is probably the most surprising for me, as my mother’s daughter. I was raised in the feminist tenent that sex should always be something you do for your pleasure, so when my mom told me that there were points when she was going through menopause where she wasn’t really into it but did it anyway, I was a little taken aback. She explained, though, that sex is an essential part of a healthy marriage, for both partners, and that she was fine with having sex for a while that she wasn’t 100 percent into, for the sake of her marriage. And then, of course, it got better again.
3. Marriage Takes Constant Care And Work
“Especially since I was older when I got married and I had lived with guys before, I didn’t realize the kind of constant care and work that having a good marriage demands from both people,” my mom says.
And that constant care and work has to be involved with every stage of a long-term marriage. My parents reworked it when my biological brother and I were little; they did it in my teens when they took on five more kids; and they’re doing it again now that they’re both retired.
“When you were little, both sets of parents would offer to come up and take you and your brother so we could go away by ourselves,” my mom says. “That was them actively saying, ‘You need to do this.’ And my mom would say, ‘Someday the kids are going to be gone and it’s just going to be you two so you need to pay attention.’”
4. Being A Parent Brings Constant Scrutiny
“People don’t know exactly what your own individual marriage is,” my mom says. “They can make assumptions or they think they do, but for the most part — as long as you’re not screaming and yelling at each other in the street — it’s not as public a scrutiny as being a parent is. Whenever you’re with your children, people are seeing you and looking at you as a parent. And a lot of times judging you, in public. People can watch you as parents — they can’t really watch you as a couple. There’s a lot more leeway in people’s expectations of how you can be as a couple than how you can be as a parent. It’s a much narrower role.”
5. Being Accepted Into My Dad’s Family — And Him Into Hers
My parents' families are very different and my mom is also 13 years older than my dad, two factors that made my mom suspect that blending their families wasn’t going to be so easy. She was pleasantly surprised when she found herself almost immediately accepted into his and him almost immediately accepted into hers.
“Because of our age difference, I expected more resistance in our families,” my mom says. “But it was pretty instant. Not that everyone got along — and that would continue to be a work in progress for our entire marriage.”
6. How Important It Is To Nurture A Relationship With Your In-Laws
“That family piece has always been sort of surprising to me,” my moms says. “But over time I really feel like that bond kept growing and that’s a bond I also have to nurture. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that those relationships would grow.”
7. My Dad’s Relationship With Her Dad, Later In Life
My mom was really close with her own dad, but she was surprised and touched by how my dad’s relationship with him changed as they both got older.
“To watch Dad with Grandpa in the later part of his life was really tender and sweet,” my mom says. “When Grandpa died, even Dad was surprised at how sad he was. The conversations that they had as men — that was surprise. Actually, that was a gift, I would say. Not a surprise.”
Images: Courtesy of Emma McGowan, Joan Watson (7)