By Debby Shulman
I am traveling with my family for the holiday break and for the first time, we have brought our eldest son’s girlfriend with us. He is in college, and they have been together for five years, and while we have extended invitations in the past, this has been our first trip together.
She is a part of our family and we love and respect her very much; they have a relationship that has matured into a serious one, and value each other a great deal. They have both played a huge role in each other’s lives by supporting and offering guidance and love during both exciting and challenging times. They travel to see each other (they are at separate schools, which is a good thing) and have begun to plan their graduate school experiences with the hopes of being in the same city… something that is truly hard to believe.
But what is surprising about this, is how both families have maintained the SAME laissez-faire attitude throughout the years, expressing concern about such a serious relationship at such a young age and being open to discussion about the pros and cons of such.
We love our son’s “extended” family but have chosen to keep that relationship spacious. There did not seem to ever be a reason to rush or initiate anything more serious between the two families because it would have put pressure on both of our children that we didn’t want. It was clear that her family loved and adored our son and that they were just as grateful for the healthy friendship. Close ties with siblings and support for each have evolved – the younger ones pass through the hallways of high school with warm hello’s and inside jokes. They are very friendly, but not close friends … and this is a comfortable place for them. It has always seemed to be preemptive to assume anything else.
I have learned so much from watching this lovely romance. While both sets of parents have remained reserved, we involved ourselves when it was important. Answering questions about sex, providing emotional guidance and assisting in important decisions such as college and out-of-town jobs were subjects that we helped our son with. I know that they did the same and kept the same attitude that we did; there was no need to make this any more serious than it had to be.
We recognized and occasionally discussed the fact that they were young, they had a great deal of life ahead of them and should not be influenced by anything other than what they wanted to do.
An issue that has always been tremendously hard was our son’s decision to continue being a counselor at overnight camp. The 10 weeks of summer vacation would have been an ideal time for the two of them to be together. We encouraged our son to take advantage of his youth and his passion for camp – that if this was to be, it would survive his summers up north and there would always be an appreciation of following his love of camp even though it meant that they would be apart. They found a way to work it out and I believe it taught them both a great lesson.
They have not forfeited any part of their youth for each other, something that we felt very strongly about. Live your life … no concessions because this is the time to pursue what you love while being able to do it.
We all hear stories of parents who go a bit overboard with the families of their young teen’s significant others. Family gatherings, fostering relationships that are somewhat forced because the kids are so young and the pressure placed on the children is unnecessary. It appeared that if a break-up should occur, it would affect more than just the couple, and this seemed wrong. The premature excitement about a serious relationship would offer more pressure than what was necessary.
Traveling the road of teenage love has so many roadblocks; worrying about how your parents will handle your break-up was not anything we were interested in doing. I have no regrets.
We do not see our son’s girlfriend’s family at all unless there was a school performance, a chance meeting in a restaurant or a grocery store run-in. But, we adore each other. These are incredibly wonderful people who have served as great role models to our son over the last 5 years. I know they have offered great advice when he felt he couldn’t talk to us and I hope their daughter feels the same way. The latitude we have given each other to do what each feels is right is what has made our current friendship and possible future relationship so nice. No pressure, just respect and admiration.
I am discovering, like many of my friends with older college-age children, we are embarking upon a new chapter of parenting. Helping our young adults to make wise decisions about post-undergraduate work is challenging. More importantly, listening carefully to what they think they want to do and helping them do that successfully takes time. I am in no rush. This is important stuff. But having the side issue of a child in a serious relationship that impacts these decisions presents a component to the equation we have to consider. I look back on how my family has chosen to handle this relationship.
I feel that we did what was right for our son and his girlfriend by staying supportive but silent.
I think her parents felt exactly the same way, and the consistency provided the confidence they needed to do what was right for them. They have done a really good job. I look forward to this new chapter in their lives, with (secret) excitement about the prospect of having them both in Chicago, or at least close to it, pursuing what they love but finally doing it in the same place. The time is right.
Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois. She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois.