The first call Will and I made to announce our engagement was to my mom, Sally, who lives in Evanston, Illinois, near where I grew up. She let out a loud whistle, then started to cry. I did too. Our next call: to my dad, Ken, in his not-yet-furnished apartment in Jacksonville, Florida. He’d moved there because he and my mom, after 34 years together, were getting divorced.
I felt happy delivering the news, but guilty too. I was just starting my love story while theirs was ending. Since the day my dad sat me and my siblings down and told us their decision a few months ago, I’ve racked my brain for the reasons; sure, they fought about money, they were long-distance a lot, but at family dinners, when the right song came on, they’d dance. So why now? My siblings and I have speculated over late-night bourbons. But before I get married, I want real answers. So I asked each of my parents directly. Dad rescheduled our phoner twice. Mom downed a dirty martini before we talked. Here’s what I learned:
Me: What first attracted you to each other?
Mom: Dad seemed very steady and had dreams he was capable of fulfilling; at 28, that made my head spin. And he held me so tight—I felt so loved.
Dad: Your mom has a great personality. And she’s very pretty. We had great times, especially sailing.
Me: When did things first go bad?
Dad: It was gradual. Your mother was giving her attention to your older sister and not much to me, or it felt that way. Kids are important, but the relationship should be a priority too.
Mom: Dad got caught up in his work. When his company went kerplunk, I think he lost his sense of self. I never saw it as a failure, but I think he did. … Still, I didn’t think then, This marriage is over. I don’t think I ever thought that. Until it was.
Me: [My chest hurts.] Dad, when I was a kid you were away a lot.
Dad: Well, we tried to meet somewhere in the middle for family vacations—Greece, the Canary Islands, the U.K.
Me: Did you two ever do anything alone on those trips?
Dad: [Pause.] Not really, Kate.
Mom: All I wanted was Dad to come home from work and cuddle up and watch silly TV together. I never told him that, though.
Dad: I did what I had to do, or I wouldn’t have had a job.
Mom: At one point Dad did suggest moving to North Carolina. He’d always wanted to teach, but I didn’t want to give up our home and friends. I’ve always wondered what would’ve happened if we’d done that.
Dad: We could’ve started over.
Me: Before separating, you wanted to retire to Florida, and Mom wanted to stay and continue the private psychotherapy practice she’d built.
Dad: That was a big factor in our divorce. Your mother doesn’t like change.
Me: What advice would you give Will and me?
Mom: Take time to listen to each other; once you’re saying, “You’re not listening to me,” it’s too late.
Dad: Give each other space, which you and Will do well. Don’t be jealous or clingy, or try to change each other.
Mom: Don’t sweep things under the carpet to put a good face on. Years go by in a nanosecond. And talk about money! It’s taboo for some people, but it’s important. Dad wasn’t always honest about money, mostly because I think he really wanted to give me everything I wanted.
Me: Is there anything you’d take back?
Mom: I would have asked for help in understanding my husband better. After 34 years I don’t think we ever really understood each other.
Me: Did you stay together for us kids?
Mom: I did love him. I still love him. He’s a good man. But sometimes you can get into this rut where you treat each other in a certain way. Don’t let that happen.
Dad: Sometimes your whole life hinges on one really good decision. You’ve made a good decision to marry Will.
Mom: Are you OK, Kate?
I told her I was fine, and we said our goodbyes, but I wasn’t. I was scared. I believe my parents made a good choice in marrying each other; I know I am in choosing Will. It’s all the decisions after our wedding day that will determine if we struggle—or get even stronger.