My parents had a really happy marriage. They met and fell in love in a Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) high school in Los Angeles. Basically good and good-looking, outdoorsy, kids, they rebelled against their church’s strict rules against drinking, smoking, and pre-marital sex. Before they got hitched, at the frighteningly young ages of 21 and 22, they shared sleeping bags while camping out before the Rose Bowl Parade. The early years of their marriage were hard. My father was in medical school and worked 24 hours at a time in the hospital before going on to his part-time jobs at a gas station and a mortuary. He didn’t have time to think, let alone feel. My mother, though, grew lonely and depressed at her secretarial position and afterwards, trying to attend to four year-old me and my much cuter and quieter two year-old brother. Just because we had been running around all day at our grandmother’s house playing with our uncles and cousins didn’t mean we were tired, or that dinner and the dirty house would take care of themselves.
The U.S. Army drafted my father right out of medical school and my parents opted to spend three years in Germany in lieu of two years in Texas. Although it was difficult at first, especially since my father had to train for six months away from the family, the easier work schedule and social life that they found on the base gave my parents the opportunity to turn towards one another again. Both of them enjoyed skiing and traveling and socializing with people from different cultures, ethnic groups, and religions. They explored Europe together, usually with my brother and me, but also alone or with friends.
I remember them laughing, but cannot think of a single time I saw them yelling or arguing at one another. Disagreements usually had to do with money—my father thought my mother spent too much on clothing for herself and the kids, while my mother complained that he spent too much on his sailboats. He generally deferred to her in actually enjoyed spending money on her, because she was beautiful and elegant and looked great in diamonds. She appreciated how hard he worked to pay for luxuries and went along with his enthusiasms, such as sailing, even though she never got as excited about it as he did.
She enjoyed just being in his company, she said, even if he seemed to be ignoring her behind his computer monitor. Both came from musical families that valued classical music. My mother also liked popular songs but deferred to my father’s more intellectual interests in jazz and opera when they sat together in the evenings. My father admired my mother’s taste in decorating, so if he decided what they did together, then my mother determined how the boat or the home they did it in would look and feel. My father liked to jokes and my mother liked to laugh. She laughed at everyone’s jokes.
One of the most important lessons I learned from my mother is that one’s husband should be interesting. “Your father never bores me,” she said. He loved the way she rubbed his neck on long family car journeys. While my mother probably dedicated more cognitive room to my father than he did to her, and was generally less able to discuss his feelings, she was emotionally intelligent enough not to read any irritation or frustration he expressed as an attack on her person.
My father’s temperament was basically sweet, and both of my parents had strong, emotionally involved mothers, so it was easy for him to accept her dominance in the household. She respected his dominance in the business and financial spheres. He wasn’t too keen on her wish for another child in her late thirties, but he went along with it because he loved her. He also accepted very little responsibility for the nurturing of my sister. “Joan, your child is crying,” I can remember him saying.
They accepted stereotypical gendered roles without buying into a philosophy of male dominance. My father had some old-fashioned attitudes, but he respected intelligence and ability in women. Both of them were strongly pro-choice. They pursued different hobbies but generally practiced them together (Mom needle pointed or read while Dad puttered on the boat). Mom never did master the black runs and usually got cold long before Dad, but she was a good sport and headed out with him every day.
Because my father’s job was so demanding, they had to learn how to entertain themselves separately, but they shared the same Southern Californian, SDA roots as well as the same dream of a healthy, happy, family in which parents and children spent a lot of time together outside having fun. They planned a rich, relaxing, athletic retirement together, but that dream never came true. My mother died of colon cancer after a short illness in 1990. She was 54. Dad remarried another woman from the same high school, but she was an altogether different sort of person and did not bring my father much joy. Truly happy marriages are rare and precious.
My parents taught me a great deal about what a good relationship looks like. Partners do well when they admire each other’s interests and respect their different strengths. I also think a man who bores a woman will soon lose her, no matter what else may offer, and that mutual admiration and toleration for one another is vital for long-term happiness. My parents’ good marriage will always inform my interpretations of other relationships. It will also help me, a committed feminist and apprentice psychotherapist, to see that even couples who adopt relatively rigid gender roles can share power equally and effectively.