When I announced on my blog that I didn’t believe in marriage, I expected the typical reactions: Don’t you want a ring and proposal? (No.) Will you ever trust your partner’s commitment to you? (Yes.) What about children? (What about them?)
I got those questions, along with some comments in support of my views. But what I didn’t quite anticipate was that a random commenter would insinuate my beliefs were “f**ked up” because of the way I was raised.
CNN published a piece last spring suggesting that single mothers are teaching their daughters to embrace independence by staying single, but I wonder just how true that is. My mother, who was in an unhappy marriage for nearly 20 years, has always wanted me to be in the kind of relationship she didn’t have. A fiercely independent woman herself, she recognizes that self-sufficiency is important, but it doesn’t mean that one has to do without love.
My parents grew up in poverty and married in China with the understanding that my father would first seek his fortune in America before coming back to take my mother with him. I know that their marriage was not without love, but I also know that my mother‘s understanding of it is different from mine.
Throughout college, I dated with reckless abandon, looking not for stability but for a partner who “got me.” My mother never did understand what I expected from my relationships. For my parents, love was a luxury that they could not even begin to comprehend after a childhood without potable water or meat. Marriage meant stability, but it didn’t mean passion. After they immigrated to America, they slowly began to make a living and a life together.
They first had me, then my sister, and soon it became clear — to just about everyone in my family — that they were incompatible as life partners. Yet both sets of grandparents were insistent that my parents stay together for the sake of tradition and family honor. For a time, my parents did stay together because of financial considerations. Their impoverishment a lifetime ago was still too recent a memory. But eventually, as family finances became more stable and the living situation untenable, my mother initiated divorce proceedings. In doing so, she took control of both her happiness and my father’s. Nobody but the children knew until the ink was dry.
Today, my parents are more content without having to live together, their respective families have more or less come to terms with their separation, and they are perhaps the most cordial divorced couple I’ve heard of. Had my mother not acted sooner, I have no doubt that our family life would have deteriorated to the kind of “f**ked up” dynamics the disgruntled commenter referred to. When they both attended my graduation from college last May, I worried about many things, such as how to conceal my sex toys. What I didn’t worry about was whether my parents would get pissed at each other and embarrass me in some grand fashion. Now that they don’t have to live together, my parents actually like each other. It’s as functional as family dysfunction gets.
My mother, despite being divorced, still believes in life partnerships and entertains many romantic ambitions for her two daughters. She’s happy that I’ve found someone with whom I can co-exist for lengthy periods of time. She has also come to accept, despite her deeply conservative upbringing, that it’s OK if I don’t want to get married; marriage, as she learned firsthand herself, is not necessarily all that it’s cracked up to be. We both recognize from personal experience that many marriages don’t work out, that simply getting married doesn’t imbue relationships with special meaning, and that loving freely is a privilege I have today only because of the sacrifices that my parents made to their personal happiness years ago.
Lena Chen is a freelance writer who reports on sex, feminism and food. The New York Times once called her “a small Asian woman”; she was not amused. Lena’s blogging career started during her sophomore year at Harvard University, when she started the infamous Sex and the Ivy blog. For the full story, check out her blog, The Ch!cktionary.