Letting My Daughter Go
When my daughter got married at 20, I worried she was too young. But I was the one who wasn’t ready.
Last June, my daughter’s wedding announcement graced the pages of the New York Times. Emily, 20, and Michael, 21, were the youngest couple announced that week, and most likely for the entire year. Confession: I wasn’t thrilled.
This was not the milestone I had envisioned for my first-born during her sophomore year of college. But what do you do when you believe your child is making the wrong life decision? And if parenting is all about “letting go,” what happens when a mother is asked to do this earlier and faster than anticipated?
It’s taken a year, a challenging year, but I’ve finally come to accept the decisions Emily made. Our Jewish journeys have taken us on divergent paths, and I had to let go before I was ready. But now, as we celebrate Emily and Michael’s first anniversary, I think of this past year as just another step in my evolving relationship with my daughter and the beginning of a new stage of what being a mother means to me.
“I think I’m going to start dating, Mom,” Emily told me on the phone from college, when she was 19. “Is that OK with you?”
“Of course!” I said. “Just don’t rush into anything, if you know what I mean.”
What I meant was marriage.
Up until that point, Emily had never been on a date, kissed a boy, or even held hands. This choice reflected her beliefs as an Orthodox girl: Dating happens only when you are marriage-minded. I could see the advantages of this outlook on dating, but I had begun to wonder about its practicality. When it came to college students, I wondered if it was even healthy; I worried that it might unnecessarily push a young couple into early marriage, before they were truly ready. Many of Emily’s friends had started dating, and a few of them were already engaged. I feared that it might be contagious.
“You’re in a different place than a lot of your friends,” I reminded her. “So, don’t follow someone else’s timetable.”
“Have I ever, Mom?”
Emily entered the world with her own life plan. At age 4, she asked me to show her on the calendar when she would be a grown-up. When she was 7, she asked if she could skip being a teenager. At age 10, she drew pictures of her future life, which included writing a best-selling book and having 10 kids. She took the SAT at 12, and at 13 (using her Hebrew name, Leah), launched a national magazine for Jewish girls. She has been on the go ever since.
In Emily’s religious circle, dating meant letting the right people know that she was looking and being specific about what she was looking for. Emily wanted to date men who shared her life views, were ready to commit, and weren’t intimidated by an accomplished and ambitious woman with a mind for business (including the magazine she continued to run). Why, she would ask, waste his time or mine?
I thought back to my own dating experience. When I was 16, my parents allowed me to date only Orthodox boys, and in our tiny Midwestern community that gave me a choice of about five candidates. By the time I entered college in New York City, I was a disgruntled yeshiva graduate—sheltered, immature, and somewhat reckless. I dated indiscriminately, going out with any guy who could make me laugh, which led mainly to heartache and poor decisions (although I did have quite a few adventures). I could see how Emily’s choice to postpone dating thus far had eliminated distraction and romantic drama, allowing for a singular focus on developing her talents and female friendships.
In our family, the ultimate goal was to raise kids who loved being Jewish. My kids went to both public and day schools. They had friends and family members, Jewish and not, from all levels of observance. From an early age, Emily gravitated toward everything Jewish. She loved all the holidays. She loved reading Jewish books and visiting big Jewish communities. Over the years, our family grew in observance. Because our first community was so small, we relied on the services of the local Chabad Center. A few years at Camp Gan Israel proved inspirational for Emily, and she was gradually drawn toward the Chabad lifestyle, a path of Judaism that I, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, was on friendly terms with but did not embrace wholeheartedly.
“You wouldn’t believe how much background checking goes on before the first date,” I explained to a non-Orthodox friend of mine as we talked about Emily’s dating. “It’s like getting security clearance!”
“I guess that’s practical,” my friend replied. “But not very romantic.”
“That comes later,” I said.
“Later” came in just two months, when Emily called saying she had “met someone”—well, she hadn’t actually met him yet, rather, she had received first-hand accounts. Michael seemed to have everything on her checklist. As she filled me in on the details—recommendations, family background, schooling, career goals, religious outlook—I felt a twinge of excitement. I had to admit this pragmatic dating system offered an anxious parent a measure of comfort. I reminded Emily to take it slowly, to try to enjoy herself. No need to rush.
“I know, Mom.”
By the time Emily and Michael had their first date, they had skipped the preliminary, “where-are-you-from-what-do-you-do?” stage. They were ready to get down to business—and the question of chemistry. Emily called me after each date.
“I like him,” she told me after their second date.
“That’s a good start,” I replied.
She shared all the amazing things they had in common, dropping tidbits she’d know I would value, like stellar academic achievement and a happy childhood.
“You talked for five hours?” I asked after hearing about their date in Central Park.
“Well, yeah, what else should we do? Oh, and Mom, I want you to meet him!”
Michael passed the boyfriend test (although that is not what Emily wanted us to call him): He was articulate, polite, warm, and clearly crazy about our daughter. He sat at the kitchen table and graciously submitted to our lengthy interview, which my 17-year-old son would later call an interrogation. My 13-year-old said she’d be surprised if Michael ever came back. Were we really that bad? Not according to Emily’s report: “Michael loves you guys! He said he was so impressed by you both and could see why I turned out the way I did.”
Michael’s parents also seemed too good to be true. How could you not like a man who self-published a book on how to treat your wife like a queen and whose business is conflict-resolution? Michael’s mother was an international speaker and philanthropist. She told me how she had embraced her son’s decision to lead a religious life—he, too, had gravitated toward Orthodoxy in high school through his involvement with Chabad. “I raised my kids to follow their passions,” she said earnestly. “He’s a wonderful, mature, loving boy.”
I felt guilty for not sharing her enthusiasm and positive outlook toward the relationship. “It’s different with a son,” I told my husband. “And Michael is their youngest. They’ve had an empty nest for five years.”
Not long after the boyfriend test, Emily came home for the weekend. She was glowing. “Well,” she said, “Michael and I want to get engaged!”
Enter Steve Martin in Father of the Bride.
“What’s the rush?” her father asked, his ears turning red. “You’ve got college to finish!”
Firgun is the ungrudging pleasure one takes in another’s good fortune, and there’s no English word for it