Loco Parentis: Crossing Borders

I brought my daughter up to believe that everybody’s equal. What was I thinking?

“I know it’s weird,” Marcy says apologetically, regularly, about this anomaly she’s introduced to our lives. But for all of the last school year, she was a hundred miles away at Dicklenburg College, and thus not privy to the daily awkwardness between Mario and me. If I pulled up at the house with a station wagon full of groceries, he appeared — much more quickly than either my husband or Jake — to help me unload them. He wanted to mow my grass for me, assemble my new Adirondack chairs. He’s the son I should have had.

He could end up my son-in-law.

Oh, chances are he and Marcy will outgrow one another and move on. I know this. If Marcy were dating a boy on campus, I don’t think I’d be imagining their future together. Then again, I wouldn’t see him every day.

And I wouldn’t be so unsettled by him.

Her college boyfriend would be well-to-do. He’d have grown up in a New Jersey suburb, not a distant Central American nation. His name would be Matthew or Josh or Andrew, and he’d be on his way to becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

I wonder: Would I like him as much as I like Mario?

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, I saw adulthood as the Promised Land. You set out for it, crossed over into it, and once you did, all your worries were done. My parents seemed to me to be completed, in a state of stasis. They had reached their peak, like wine.

What I now realize is that they purposefully presented themselves that way to my siblings and me. It was as if they believed that for us to be secure and happy, we had to see them as bedrock, an immutable foundation nothing could alter. The nuclear family, in a nuclear age, had a new importance. It could no longer be taken for granted. Hadn’t the mom and dad across the street from us gotten divorced?

I wonder what sort of spouse my mother imagined for me. The same kind I pictured Marcy with, most likely. I remember my daughter asking me wistfully, when she was that hopeless-yearning-middle-school age, what I thought made for a good marriage. I told her successful marriages tend to be between people from similar backgrounds, because such couples have shared values, shared beliefs. Doug’s parents are both teachers; my parents were both teachers. My in-laws are staunch Democrats, pro-union, comfortably middle-class; my parents were, too.

But I remember thinking, even as I told my daughter this, that it was a sort of insidious social shorthand for preserving the status quo. Go out and look for someone just like you — that’s what I was telling her. Find a nice boy at college. He’ll make you happy. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t step outside the lines.

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