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By the time Hayes was in first grade I was pretty sure I had a little Casanova on my hands. How many boys ask to celebrate turning 7 with a dinner party with three little girls? I served them spaghetti on my good china, poured grape juice into wineglasses, lit the candles, and lurked around to watch. Clustered around Hayes, Katie, Caroline, and Camille chattered and picked at their pasta. With an indulgent expression far beyond his years, Hayes laughed at their jokes and called for more meatballs.
Before long my little playboy had honed his lady-killing techniques. He began sixth grade by getting a girlfriend and changing his instant-messenger name to "gottaloveMissy," but by Christmas it was back to "Haze227" -- apparently to accommodate the fact that you also gotta love Brianna, Ashley, and Michelle.
At the tail end of his freshman year at Susquehannock High School, however, Hayes asked for a ride to the home of one Dana Zalowski. He and Dana were going to do their homework together, he said.
That was 2003, and he and Dana are still doing their homework together -- they are both sophomores in college in the Washington, D.C., area, he at Georgetown and she at Marymount. They survived all the ups and downs of high school, they survived graduation, and now they're surviving the romantic opportunities and temptations of college. By this time Dana -- a blond beauty who goes to school on an athletic scholarship and whom we like to call Soccer Barbie -- is part of my family, appearing in our traditional Fourth of July photo.
People often assume that I worry about Hayes's having gotten so serious about one girl so early in life; when he and Dana engineered attending colleges so close together, I was expected to oppose this idea in particular. When you're young you're supposed to play the field and sow your wild oats. Wasn't it bad for them to get locked in so soon? Wouldn't it give them a narrow perspective and make it likely for those oats to burst out later on?
Well, for one thing, it isn't as though they are married. (I know what you're thinking...yet.) But they are still young, both just turning 20, and anything could happen. Anything can happen at anytime, in fact -- to any couple. I don't think you can predict the success of a relationship by how old you are when it starts or how many people you've been with before. Some of those involvements might not be positive at all -- in fact, they could be traumatic, creating the baggage that makes it hard for future relationships to succeed. Why do you think second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first?
Like the kids, I had a very idyllic first love for a few years in high school. But after that I went on to a series of long, short, and very short affairs. The '70s and '80s were dangerous times for a young woman driven by a passionate nature and doubts about her own lovability. For me "playing the field" was not really play -- if it was, I got a lot of sports injuries.
Perhaps this is partly why I was charmed rather than appalled when, upon moving to rural Pennsylvania 10 years ago, I realized how many people here are married to their childhood sweethearts. Hayes has one friend whose mom still wears a friendship ring his dad gave her in fifth grade. His other closest pal's parents were an item in high school.
My own history or views notwithstanding, it doesn't matter much what I think. Parental opposition to children's love affairs is impotent at best -- and at worst, creates a Romeo and Juliet situation. No way will I play Mama Montague, and Lea Zalowski, who seems to adore Hayes, is no Lady Capulet, though I am Jewish and they are Polish Catholic, and our family backgrounds have little in common.
As it turns out, Hayes and Dana were just the beginning of the "teen marriages" in my house. The same year they got together, my stepdaughter, Emma, a freshman at an arts magnet high school in Baltimore, fell in with a sophomore named Jason. Though they are bohemian artist types compared with Soccer Barbie and Golfer Ken, Emma and Jason stayed together through high school and made it work long-distance when he went off to an art institute in Chicago. She started at New York University the next year, and though they have faced various existential and social challenges to long-term love at their tender age, I've been impressed at all they have learned and become in the process of staying together and being apart.
And then there's Vince, my 17-year-old. Though he initially seemed frustrated by the hassles of having a girlfriend (the text messages! the gossip! the drama!), he settled into a groove with his own tall blond soccer player, Shannon McKenna, more than a year ago, solidifying an on-again, off-again thing that had been going on since middle school. Dana Junior, as we sometimes call her, is a peach of a kid. And though she and Vince will attend colleges far apart in the fall, she's made her appearance in the Fourth of July photo -- this family's gold standard for membership.
In counterpoint to my children's easy, untroubled love lives, and after years of difficulty and conflict, my husband and I separated earlier this year; though we are still trying to feel our way to a rapprochement, we could become one of those divorce statistics. After an ecstatic beginning, years that felt like a fresh start to both of us -- we had each just turned 40 when we got together -- the baggage of past hurts seemed to pop open and spill on our heads. As the children watched us struggle, I felt a sense of shame and failure. This was not what I wanted to show them about how to live with someone you love.
I'm sure that they looked at us as teenagers always look at their bizarre and gnarled elders, thinking, We'll never be like them. God knows, I hope they're right. I hope love stays clear and simple for them, and if it doesn't, I hope what follows is never this hard.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2008.