We are still several years away from the perils of dating and boyfriends and girlfriends, but an article in today’s Times made me think about all the ways in which parents can undermine their child’s happiness, not the least of which is attempting to dictate who they can and cannot love.
The article points out that even the most liberal of parents can suddenly denounce a significant other as ‘unfit’ or ‘improper’, based on nothing more than race. Korean parents whose children were born and raised in Maryland insisting that their children marry Koreans – in an arranged marriage, if necessary. Black parents opposed to Asian love interests, white parents opposed to black, Japanese or Hispanics, etc. etc. Tolerance for other races does not extend, apparently, to who you can bring home to meet the parents.
Chris Rock has a great line in one of his stand up shows. He is talking about how he doesn’t believe in hating anybody for any reason. Then he says, “Oh you hate Hispanics? I guarantee you your daughter is gonna come home with ‘Livin’ the Vida Loca!’.”
That’s a funny bit, but the reality is often far from amusing. A dear friend of mine from childhood, Elise, fell in love with Aaron, a Jewish boy she met at college. Her family is Christian. His parents were/are both professors of the arts at a university in Indiana. She emailed me several times about how Joshua and I had overcome the cultural and religious differences that come from one being Jewish, the other…well, NOT. She asked me how we were going to raise our kids – I was pregnant with Maya at the time – and I told her about our choices and that the kids of the ‘mixed’ families I knew had no trouble distinguishing Judaism from Christianity, what each religious tradition entailed and the differing beliefs. Kids are a lot more discerning than most people give them credit for. Clearly Elise and Aaron were discussing their future. She told me they were planning marriage, kids; their lives together.
Aaron’s parents, upon learning of his intentions toward Elise, told him he would be disowned if he married her. She wasn’t Jewish and even though they themselves were not observant, they forbade him to marry anyone outside of their ‘faith’. They refused to meet her or have anything to do with her. Aaron, in a move he would later openly regret, gave in to their demands and broke things off with Elise. Devastated does not begin to encompass what Elise felt. But because of the person she was, she did her best to hide it. She internalized the pain and agreed to remain friends with Aaron, even though she confided in me that it broke her heart every time they spoke.
Less than a year later, Elise was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer that usually only effects men over the age of 65 who have been heavy drinkers their entire lives. By the time they found it, after Elise discovered a lump under her breastbone, it had metastasized and spread throughout her body. The doctors gave her six months to live, and that with extensive chemo. Because she was so young and otherwise healthy, they operated, just days after the diagnosis, taking out as much of the cancer as they could get. Elise was doing so well in recovery that they sent her home, and her Mom came to be with her. Two days later she died in her sleep; they think it was a blood clot from the operation that broke loose and went to her brain. This was only two weeks after they found out she had the cancer. She was 32 years old.
At her memorial service, which I missed because it coincided exactly with Maya’s 1st birthday, Aaron declined to speak. Elise’ Mom told me later he was beyond consolation, sitting in the back and weeping throughout the service. He blamed himself, and although I wouldn’t put it quite that way, I do think that it’s possible that had he gone with his heart and married Elise, she would never have gotten sick. She buried the pain of Aaron’s decision so deep that it manifested in a type of cancer women her age just don’t get.
The author of the Times article said that although the admission of parents’ racism and subsequent restrictions was surprising, it was not nearly so surprising as the willingness of the children to abide by them, even when it meant breaking up with a boy or girlfriend. But I am not surprised. Some people feel parents no longer have as much influence in their childrens lives, but that is not true. All I have to do is listen to Maya’s friends talk about any subject – food, politics, health, learning, etc – and what I hear are their parent’s beliefs, re-told. The same is true for my kids, and I am very , very aware of that fact.
Remember how I said I’m always talking about “what do you want for your kids?” Well, I’m doing it again. What is more important – that your child dates and/or marries someone who looks like you and has the same cultural background, or that they marry someone who makes them happy? This should be a no-brainer, in my opinion. What parent in their right mind would say, “Well, I’d rather they are in an unhappy marriage to someone with the same skin color and culture, of course!” But that is what parents are doing when they forbid their kids to marry outside their own race.
The last time I checked, our hearts all look the same.