S. Courtney Nathan, LCSW, is a clinical social worker and co-author of the book, When a Parent Is Seriously Ill, Practical Tips for Helping Parents and Children. Formerly coordinator of the Outreach to Intermarrieds program at Jewish Family Service, she is currently taking time off to raise her children.
When Our Kids Get Married
June 27, 2006
From the moment our children are born we spend the rest of our lives trying to protect them and make them happy. We try to teach them good values and give them skills to make healthy and wise decisions for their lives. We hope that when they become adults, we will send them out into the world prepared to take on anything. So why then is it so hard for some parents to let their children make decisions about something as wonderful as a wedding?
Most of us cannot choose a partner for our children much as we may want to. We must abide by their own selections and hope that they have given careful consideration to the matter of marriage. There are many things that parents worry about when their children decide to marry: Will he be happy? Will she be good to him? Will their differences cause trouble? Will the marriage last? How will they raise the children? We know that certain things are predictors of a happy marriage: similar background in education and socio-economic status, religion and parent's marital status. Yet none of these predictors can ensure a good marriage. What parents should hope for are kids who take relationships seriously, who value communication, honesty and trust and who love their partners.
Esther Perel once said, "Marriage is a public separation from family." This could not be more true. Many couples view the marriage ceremony as a way to assert their independence, to forge their own path. It is often the first time they have made religious compromises and choices as a unit. That can be a very positive learning experience for them. For parents, this can be a difficult time, one of letting go, grieving for their own youth and giving up their control in the family. No matter how excited a parent may be for his child finding a partner and making a new life, the transition involves inevitable loss as well.
The parental role is changed once children marry; not only do you have a son-in-law or daughter-in-law to consider, but his or her family as well. There may be competition for time spent with the couple, especially holiday time and particularly once grandchildren arrive.
Some parents are surprised at the sadness they feel when their children embark on true adulthood. Isn't this what they've worked so hard to accomplish? But any change involves loss, and when a child marries, life changes. It is the end of one chapter in life and the beginning of a new chapter. Many parents feel afraid of the changes that may take place in their relationships with their children. Will they see them as often? Will they talk to them as frequently? Will the new spouse always be around or will they get some private time together?
Some parents feel scared of what that future holds. They may feel worried about aging and their health. They may also feel insecure about their own marital relationship once the attention to children is gone. Focusing on our children can protect us from seeing other things in our life that may be unsatisfying, and when the child focus is lessened, other issues can crop up. This is an important time for reflection and communication between parents. It can also be a wonderful opportunity to develop adult relationships with our grown children and to welcome new family and new traditions into our lives
In addition to the normal feelings of loss and joy, when an intermarriage occurs, parents may have other feelings as well. Most parents are worried about how they will fit into their children's future. They have likely envisioned their child growing up and marrying someone of a similar background and raising children in a family much like their own. When a child intermarries, it throws a big monkey wrench into those plans. Suddenly they may find themselves wondering how to act, what to do, and what the future holds.
Parents of intermarried couples often fear that their own family traditions will be lost or replaced with new customs they are not familiar with. They fear that if their grandchildren are raised in a religion that is not their own, they will not be as close to them or will not be able to participate in their lives as fully. While this may be true, often it is a fear more than a reality. For our children, we will always be their parents. No matter how old we are and even if we are deceased, we will be a tremendous presence in their emotional lives.
Misunderstanding and miscommunication are often the root of problems with parents and children. When a marriage is taking place, sometimes the biggest struggles happen because parents and children don't talk openly or honestly with one another. In order to avoid miscommunication and hurt, I recommend that parents talk to their children, let them know that you want to be involved in their lives. Ask them what their plans are, and ask to be included and informed. I also suggest that parents let their children know what they want in regards to the marriage ceremony and the future as it relates to religion in the home and the upbringing of children, always understanding that their wishes may not be fulfilled. Nevertheless, many parents would be surprised to learn how much their children value their opinions and wishes.
It is impossible to please everyone, so parents should be respectful of their children's choices and understand that they must please themselves first and foremost. They must create a wedding ceremony that represents them and what they want for their future. Of course, consideration for family members is thoughtful and kind, and many couples work tirelessly to be inclusive and not to be insensitive or hurtful.
Parents should also think long and hard about their own feelings about their child's marriage and consider why they may be invested in certain things. Sometimes greater worries are masked by concern about the wedding ceremony. It may be easier for a Jewish parent to insist on a chuppah at the wedding when the real issue is whether or not the adult child will raise Jewish children.
If an adult child decides to raise children in a different religion, parents will likely feel a host of emotions including hurt, anger, sadness and worry. It is okay to talk about your feelings with your child as long as you understand that it will not necessarily make them change their minds. It is also important to acknowledge the decision that has been made and to be clear that you will love them and respect their decision, even if you don't like it. Express your concerns through questions, such as, "How will you celebrate holidays? Will you still observe our holidays? Will we still be included in your family occasions? Will the children learn about our heritage?" And more.
As hard as it is to let go, parents must loosen the reigns when their children marry. Staying connected is the most important thing and the way to do that is to be open and respectful and mindful that your child is all grown up and needs to make his or her own decisions, good and bad, and to know that you will always love and support him.