No parent sets out to hurt their children this way. So how does this occur?
I’m not sure this is even an appropriate question, because maybe it’s none of my business, but this situation is killing me. I’m watching my sister destroy her children’s shidduchim prospects.
I was at her house recently and I heard her describe what her daughter is looking for as “a leibedig, fun-loving person with lots of personality.” Her daughter is not looking for that. Yes, my niece has a great personality, but she’s confided in me several times that her mother doesn’t seem to get who she is and what she’s looking for.
My sister did the same thing with her son. She told the shadchan that he needs a put-together girl with a lot of class and presence. I’ve been involved in my nephew’s shidduchim and the two girls he actually liked weren’t like that at all. They were both very sweet and somewhat unsophisticated, certainly not the “projecting presence” type.
I know these qualities are important to my sister, but she’s not the one marrying these people — her children are. My fear is twofold: one, that she’s so off the mark that she’s doing her children a real disservice, and, two, that she’s alienating them in the process.
My sister and I have a warm relationship, but I don’t know if she’ll listen to what I’m saying. She might just brush me off and say I don’t have a good read on the situation. Should I get involved or just mind my own business?
“Just an Aunt”
In some ways being an aunt is the best — all the joy and none of the hassle. We get to enjoy our nieces and nephews without having to overly invest in their development. The flip side is that we don’t always have access to the inner circle even when we have something to say.
It’s painful to see parents imposing their desires on their children. Some parents don’t know where they end and their children begin. They assume that their children share their values, preferences, and desires. Often that blurred boundary is accepted by the children and they never develop their own sense of self. Until one day they do. And woe to the child and their unsuspecting spouse the day that they do.
We often see this with choice of profession or even, l’havdil, with hashkafic outlooks. Many children absorb the values of their home and integrate them as their own, but many carve their own path. A parent who cannot see the child for who she is does her a great disservice and, ultimately, as you aptly point out, can risk alienating the very child she feels so connected to. The child experiences great conflict trying to fit into a skin that doesn’t fit. And if there’s no awareness along the way, and an unmatched marriage occurs, there’s so much collateral damage.
Of course, no parent sets out to hurt their children this way. So how does this occur? Well, first and foremost, each of us thinks our way of doing things is the right way. I mean, seriously, why would we do something the wrong way? So if my way is correct, then it follows that you’d want to do it my way too. In your sister’s case, if she sees girls with “presence” as desirable, then, of course, her son would see it that way too (according to her logic).
A less visible, but just as dangerous reason is that as parents we sometimes try to work out our unresolved issues through our children. If I was shy as a child, and faced painful rejection as a result, I might want all my children and their spouses to be outgoing. If your sister resents her husband because he’s quiet, she may insist her son-in-law be outgoing to compensate. We project our unfinished work onto our child so that they can make some part of us whole. (Spoiler alert: It’s a really bad plan. For so many reasons.)
So what is “just an aunt” to do? You say you and your sister have a warm relationship and there’s no better way to kill that than to offer advice. The fact is that many (most?) people have difficulty being mekabel. Your letter indicates that self-awareness may not be your sister’s strong suit, and she may have a lot of trouble hearing your feedback. It’s possible that a direct confrontation will be ineffective at best, damaging at worst.
So are you to just stand by helplessly as your niece and nephew are misunderstood? Not necessarily. One option is to engage your sister in a general conversation about what her kids are looking for. Tell her that people sometimes ask you and you’re not sure how to summarize them. Use this as a springboard to hear her perspective and perhaps to do some gentle challenging based on your own evidence.
She may surprise you with some insight that didn’t occur to you. She also may be on to you, but that’s okay, your words will have made their mark. You can’t unhear something you’ve heard and you will have planted some seeds of thought.
Alternatively, you can empower your niece and nephew to make their preferences known in the most respectful way. When she describes a shidduch to them, teach your niece and nephew to respectfully assert themselves when the description runs counter to what they want.
And, if all else fails, leave a copy of Family First nonchalantly opened to this page on her kitchen counter the next time you stop by for coffee.
In sum, keep an open mind. Perhaps your sister knows her kids differently than you do. But you and her kids can still gently and kindly encourage conversations that lead everyone to a better understanding of each other and what each one wants.
May you be zocheh to accomplish this with wisdom and shalom.
All the best,
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 705)
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