My daughter Katherine is getting married in June.
Lately I find myself reminiscing back to when she was a little girl. One of the signature things about her was that she was always such a huge reader and was completely infatuated with stories and fairytales.
And I remember when she was four years old her favorite Disney character was Ariel from The Little Mermaid movie. She adored that spunky, red-headed mermaid with the heavenly voice.
She would sing along earnestly to the video in her tiny toddler voice. And when I think back now, it was so like her to choose such a problematic fairytale.
Flash forward 20 years and it seems to me that the little fish-girl sort of embodies the predicament of the modern bride.
A young woman choosing to give up her tail and the freedom to swim in the ocean for her one true love. Forced to sacrifice her voice in a massive compromise, a bad deal with a huge trade-off.
I love my marriage and I believe in marriage and yet I have the tendency to feel almost apologetic about it sometimes.
From the outside, it’s sort of a 1950s-era looking kind of thing and obviously that’s not trending at the moment.
What’s trending right now is the Facebook image – the airbrushed perfection where women can have it all.
And it’s a damn fairytale. Because this mess is complicated and like the little mermaid story, it involves huge compromise.
And I think the current generation is confused. On the one hand they see marriage as an idealized magical destination, but then they are equally dubious because they’ve experienced so much divorce in their families. And I can’t blame them – tying the knot seems like a monumental compromise of power and agency.
And it pulls at my heart to watch them struggle to figure it all out – it looks so exhausting.
They agonize over whose career will take precedence, how they will have the job, the baby, the sex/ (“open marriages”, etc.) – and put it into some kind of tidy feminist package.
Thirty years ago when my husband and I recited our vows in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, I heard those words and I thought I understood them.
They were so beautifully poetic and ethereal, but not things to think too hard about.
But what I couldn’t know back then was that those were the most important bits in the ceremony. Those tiny words that involved imperfection and struggle.
And I would learn later, when we came up against them unexpectedly, or plumbed deliberately down to them, that it was then – and only then – that we would uncover the good stuff.
Deep down there, that was where our marriage would grow.
Because when we failed and when we hurt one another, when we couldn’t forgive, couldn’t reach out, couldn’t love – those were the opportunities to get there. To allow ourselves to be something real together.
You know someone should have told us it was a contract that was guaranteed to fail.
That we would fall down and we would break our commitment and we would fall out of love. We would neglect the vows we made to one another.
And that would be our challenge.
But I believe that the challenges are not just something that you weather. The challenges are the weather.
They are not just the bits of gathering cloud and storm, or even the thrill of diamond stars in the sky. They are the whole sky.
They are why you are together. They are who you are as a couple.
The push and pull of intimacy. The times you gently touch one another’s bruises. The moments when you arrive at the painful places, when you think you are ugly, unloveable, crazy.
And the times you lash out, the times you blame.
The times you are so totally disconnected you can’t even see the other’s pain. And the times that you do and yet you ignore it because you’re too afraid.
These are the hard places of opportunity and the places where we can choose to be brave. Brave enough to see and be seen. To be real.
I’m a huge believer in marriage counseling. One of the best things about it for me is that when you’ve been going for a long time, the therapist frequently steps in to remind you where you’ve been, what has happened, what you’ve learned, hell, what you’ve survived.
Because you need to be reminded of how truly hard this commitment is. And when you get to be our age, you become prouder of those rough parts of the story, more so than of anything else.
And obviously there are the sweet rewards – the joyous openings to believe in spite of our cynicism. The Disney moments, the fantastical times we give and accept love so easily, these are all real and extraordinary too.
But the bad news is that the Wedding Machine has arrived. Capitalism and social media and whatever else, have produced a perfect storm on my daughter’s unsuspecting generation.
They are constantly pummeled by the media images of perfection: The Dress, The Photos, The Video, The Ring – everything is orchestrated and photoshopped into idyllic bliss.
But I say love is imperfect.
It is about showing up and opening our stubborn arms even when we aren’t feeling it. It’s about being vulnerable when it is easier to numb out.
And I’m sorry but no, you can’t have it all. You will have different things at different times, but never all at once. Be patient, remember that you can’t predict the storyline, even if you wanted to, because where’s the adventure in that?
But I believe that my daughter knows all of this because not only is she bright, she is wise. I’ve always seen her as tuned in and sensitively aware. Struggle and challenge, pain and joy – to me she’s always been able to make the connections.
And to me that means that she knows how to love.
My advice? Don’t give it.
For me, marriage is hard. Marriage can be a real bitch. It is a nearly impossible venture, and something that’s so easy to become jaded about.
But it’s real. And when we allow ourselves to go there, to feel all of it, that’s when we are in deep.
So in a few months, when Katherine and Jon take their vows, I’ll be so thrilled to share in the sacred moment, to get swept up in the first chapter of their fresh new story that won’t read exactly Once upon a time, but maybe We are gathered here today …
It will be a beautiful day, and I will celebrate their courage. I will stand with them and take a vow to commit myself to their challenge.
And later on, when they inevitably struggle and fail one another, and when one of them calls me in tears in the middle of the night, I will be right here too.
But not to give advice, but just to repeat back what they’ve known and already experienced in their relationship and in their joined hearts: the fact that what is hard is good, like a mantra.