Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ten things to tell an engaged daughter

It's almost wedding time, and so today, I'm re-posting "Ten things to tell an engaged daughter," the most highly viewed thing I ever wrote anywhere at any time. 

From September 19, 2013:

People think your soul mate is your perfect fit. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.
 -- Elizabeth Gilbert.

Very soon, our daughter will be married. In my life, I have attended only a handful of weddings where I was certain it would last. This will be one of them.

And yet, since we reached the halfway point in the planning, I've found myself wishing to offer some parting gift of wisdom. Not the birds and bees talk of yesteryear, of course. 

More of a nests and hives talk.
An argument has evolved between my mother self which wants to share wisdom the minute I earn it, and my better judgment, which knows that unsolicited advice is tolerated more than it is followed. People in love blaze their own path, thank you very much.

And, adds my better judgment:

We customize our marriages. We rise and fall and stumble and glide through them, trading our coins of love and promise to create a new whole that won't leave anyone's unique self out. 

After nearly three decades, we've had our wins and fails and I could offer as many don'ts as do's. Maybe more, unless you ask my husband, who claims not to remember the "don'ts" because he is very good at marriage. 

And, in a discussion of "what marriage is and isn't",  is it better to caution against the things that are sure to damage a marriage? Or share the discoveries which made you understand that marriage is not just something you have in common with your spouse, but a place where you feel more honored, accepted, understood and loved than anyplace else?

And, as I consider offering any advice at all,  should I consider how much difference do's and don'ts advice made in my own life, which was none?

And, yet, says my mother self:

In three days, I will watch my daughter walk into the arms of her man. Knowledge is for offering, like fine food that you've prepared with your own hands. You put it out there, and whoever is hungry can eat. And so, from the turned down pages of my own manual I offer the ten things about marriage I consider most Worth Mentioning. 

Be who you are. You came to the relationship as whole people, with identities and a purpose in life. Feel complete in your relationship, share your happiness, look forward to everything you'll do together, feel better about everything when he walks in the room, miss him when he's gone. But honor your individuality. He loves things about you that you're not even aware of.

Know your marriage. As you know yourself, know your marriage - why you love each other, what you need, what you have learned to give and take - and realize that very, very little of this is visible to others. When people tell you when to buy a house, or when to have children, or why your marriage should be like theirs, remember how much information they are really working with, which is practically none.

We love differently. People can love each other equally and show it very differently. Women of words can be married to men of action if each knows they are loved the best way possible by the other and wish to stay that way.

Talk. Tiny amounts of honest communication - all the time - even when you're not together will keep you in sight of each other. Absent or lazy communication - all the time - even when you're in close proximity to each other is worse than silence.  

Listen. Learn to listen as much as you wish to be heard. You do this now, but life will get noisy. There will be distractions. Listening is not just making eye contact and waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can tend to something else. That's just hearing. 

Show your belly. There are plenty of times when you should play your cards right, not give yourself away, not expose your belly. But in a marriage is not where to do that.  Show who you are. If it's hard to do that sometimes, you're doing it right. 

Bring it up. Even if you are sure what is in his heart, never think you know what's in his mind. Don't let something go just to avoid "clashing." Give each other a chance to be understanding and allow yourself to be surprised.

Use Humor. When stuff  seizes your attention  that won't matter in a year from now, do your best to treat it with humor. Humor heals, humor binds, humor relieves everything in the world and makes life easier. It also improves your facial expression.

Ask. When you do get upset with each other, start conversations with these words:  "I'm having trouble with something but I think you can help." It's amazing how responsive people can be when they are invited to help you, rather than defend themselves.


The most important thing, what will keep you attuned, what will assure you live within the hearts of each other, as well as in the same house, is this:

If it's happy, if it's loving, if you mean it...

Say it.

You make me happy.
I appreciate you.
I love you.
I'm glad I married you.

And in almost three decades, when you are about to watch your daughter walk into the arms of her love, do what I plan to.

Turn to your husband and say:

I would do it again.

Originally posted: 9/19/2013

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Conversations with your college freshmen that matter before they leave, and long after they've gone.

Me, with my unexpected pleasure of parenting
A while back, I was asked by Grown and Flown, a highly regarded parenting blog, to take part in a slideshow by expressing an unexpected pleasure of parenting. Mine was this:

I have loved and accepted my children every day of their lives. But who they have become on their own are four people I would love if I met them today.

More recently, I posted a piece about visiting our son at college. The afternoon we arrived, he told us he'd invited a "bunch of guys" over to meet us and suggested we come by at around ten for a few rounds of beer pong, then leave before the actual party started later. Ha ha.

We would use water, he added graciously.  "You don't have to actually drink beer."

It did not cross my mind to be horrified by the prospect of college juniors and seniors drinking beer at a party. It did cross my mind that we were being invited to glimpse the world he lives in now and who he is becoming.

The post was appreciated by many people who have kids in college, but not by everyone. One  reader suggested I might have used the moment as a jumping off point to talk about "drinking responsibly."

Well, that ship has sailed, but point taken. College drinking makes parents nervous, especially those about to launch first freshmen. 

Because I actually take the well being of college students (and their parents) very seriously, I will pass along a few "worked for me" tips in hopes that your own talk about drinking responsibly won't feel like one you're having with yourself.

From my own files of "wish I had," and "glad I did":

Dial down your fear and ASK.
We have launched four children, which means our first teenager, poor thing, got me at the ground floor of the learning curve where the motive for everything was to make sure nothing bad ever happened to our children. Here is where good discussions start with the words, "I just want to tell you a few things" and promptly die.

When our last child was getting ready for college, our conversations were more Q's from me, and A's from him. I had seen him affect his own success and failure in high school and knew he liked driving his own bus. We covered the gamut of college temptations but not without striking a deal: I could ask him anything. He would be honest. I could ask follow-ups. He would explain. I could not "freak out" over anything.
Be real.
Our kids stay on the rails in high school because they have seen more of their choices than they've told us about and have selected carefully.

The temptation to characterize the behavior that will surround our kids at college as foolish or stupid or beneath them is well-intentioned but guilt-producing. Teens – good ones – fall in love and have sex. Teens – good ones – get together at the beach and get drunk. Some become pregnant. Some become substance-addicted. Most do neither. Acknowledging that destructive behaviors are as much a choice of smart people as productive ones is honest. It is not giving them permission to be one of those bad teens at the beach.

Recognize who they already are 
By the time all of our kids left for school our discussions about drugs, birth control, and safety on the street were no longer about dire consequences. They were "if and when" conversations of how our kids might react in difficult situations, in context with who they were.

What might they do with the opportunities to cut loose once they didn't have to face parents in the kitchen the end of the night? What might they do to feel wanted and welcome instead of lonely and unsure? Could we agree on how they would stay safe? Would they tell me if they thought they were in trouble?" 

If early conversations are candid, they'll open the door to honest  dialog about how our kids' lives are really challenging them, so that we are not left searching their tone of voice or laugh for clues.

Do not overlook the bystander talk 
Thomas Vander Ven is the author of "Getting Wasted," which explores not if, but why kids drink to excess in college. In his interview with, he discusses the VERY important  role of "bystander," which  any college student should be prepared to assume.

A discussion with college freshmen about how they must look out for others is as important as those about how they will govern themselves. Not every female who drinks at a party will become a sexual victim. Not every male will become an alcoholic. But every college kid at a party is a bystander, and our kids should know when to intervene, to call 911 if someone is dangerously high, to notice when someone is alone and too drunk at a party. High school kids don't turn in their friends – let the parents deal with that – but in college, "telling" could save a life. 

Say that.

Recognize who they have become.
We know our new freshmen, and they know themselves, in context with a life that will change completely come fall. They will abandon some behaviors, experiment with others, and probably develop a hard-won appreciation for moderation.

As Vander Ven points out, when they're in their careers, and working late all the time, and coming home exhausted, they're probably not going to get together in someone's room to get hammered.

Those who are still on the rails three years after leaving home are there because they've continued to assess their choices in the quiet of their own minds. They have earned their own respect. And self-respect is delicious and habit-forming.

Never turn down an invitation to visit their world.
Accept. If you are lucky enough to have been invited to a water-pong party, go. You may be impressed to discover that your child and his friends have become their own family with assignments for clean-up duty, and house rules about how to host others safely and behave themselves. 

If you are, say so. It means a lot to them, and is the best report card you can hope for.