The mixed emotions of marrying off a child and how we can maintain our equilibrium through it all
Marrying off a child can cause a cacophony of conflicting emotions, from joy and excitement to frustration and overwhelm. Here, mothers, kallah teachers, and therapists unpack why we feel this way and show us how we can maintain our equilibrium through it all
a sunny summer afternoon, on a quiet street in Brooklyn, Naomi sat in her car, buried her face in her hands, and cried. She’d spent months shopping with her daughter in preparation for her wedding. Naomi had always enjoyed a close relationship with her daughter, and the engagement drew them even closer. And now, weeks after the wedding, she felt her daughter’s absence keenly. She felt as if she had a hole in her heart.
It was different for Chedva, whose daughter had married a couple of months ago. Chedva just couldn’t wait for the whole thing to be over. When people told her to enjoy every second of shopping because, “I’s so much fun,” she felt like there was something wrong with her. The shopping had been such a source of acrimony between them.
While the experiences of Naomi and Chedva seem diametrically opposed, both experiences are common for women during a child’s engagement, and after their marriage. In fact, a whole slew of unexpected feelings may arise, ranging across the entire spectrum of emotions — none uncommon or unusual. Yet many moms are taken by surprise. They expect positive feelings exclusively — gratitude and happiness — and when those are accompanied by unexpected and unpleasant ones, many feel guilty and ashamed, not realizing that they aren’t alone.
“Anyone who thinks a child’s engagement is all happiness, excitement, and relief is going to be in for a wild ride,” says Rivky, who has married off four children. “It’s definitely exciting in the beginning,” she says, “but then many underlying emotions come up. There’s happiness, of course, but it’s mixed with worry, sometimes anxiety, and stress. No one warned me that I was going to have this crazy mix of feelings and be all over the place. I was caught off guard.”
All life transitions are stressful, including positive ones. And wedding planning can bring up significant stress, anxiety, relationship, and family strain for many.
Nobody really warns you how hard it can be, says Jodie Touboul, an LCSW from Lakewood. “It’s a very mixed emotional process. It’s very sweet in many ways, but when it comes down to it, it really cuts to the core. I don’t think you can really prepare for it until you’re in it,” she says.
Rochel Goldbaum is an international speaker who has taught in the Jewish community for over 20 years. She is also a kallah teacher who trains kallah teachers, as well as a dating and relationships coach and mentor. She says there are many feelings that come up for a mom during her child’s engagement — a lot of them conflicting — and that’s normal. “We call this concept ‘both/and.’ It’s not either I’m excited or I’m afraid. It’s: I’m both excited and afraid. And that’s so normal,” she says. “Women shouldn’t feel guilty for both of those feelings because it doesn’t mean you’re not grateful. Any feeling that comes up for a mother during her child’s engagement is okay, and we should embrace it.”
This approach worked for Sarah, who has married off three children and says she aims for a healthy mindset when her children get married. “I don’t mean that I was just positive and just overwhelmed with gratitude,” she says. “I gave myself permission to feel whatever feelings came up and not dwell on the negative ones.”
Rivky said her emotional experiences were different with each child. She also said that the ages of her other children made a difference to the experience, as well. When marrying off her first two children, she still had young ones at home. There was a feeling of being divided, and not knowing where to put herself. Her younger children needed her, but so did the chassan.
Penina, who recently married off her youngest child, notes that feeling overwhelmed and divided never goes away. “Once you have several married children and you’re trying to concentrate on the chassan or the kallah — whoever is yours — you’re also trying to figure out the babysitters for your grandchildren and plan an aufruf, wedding, and sheva brachos. You have no more headspace.”
Sarah says that with each of her three children’s engagements she was a different person, in a different place in her life. During one child’s engagement, her father had just had a double knee replacement. A lot of her energies were focused on making sure the wedding venue was wheelchair accessible. Other times, she was balancing her time between her husband, her children, and her engaged child. “With all three children I was juggling different things,” she says. “There were factors in my life that were more stressful or less stressful each time. There wasn’t a set way that I was when I married off my children.”
But she said that each child’s engagement taught her things that made her more experienced for the next time around.
For many, the financial pressure of making a wedding dominates the entire experience.
“Sometimes, because finances are tight, that makes for a stressful situation with your husband,” Rivky says.
But uncomfortable situations aren’t limited to between spouses. Rivky says that one of her children has an appreciation for finer things. It was a challenge to find a balance between what he wanted and the way she would have liked to spend the money. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to take away from his happiness,” she says. “I wanted to share his simchah.” She said she had to work through it all and find a way to make everyone happy. She didn’t want her son to leave home with a bitter taste, so she validated his needs, and gave in to some of them even though she didn’t think it was a must.
“It meant walking that fine line so everyone was feeling okay with what was going on,” she said.
An empty nester now, Penina clearly remembers how she felt during her oldest child’s engagement. “I stood in a parking lot and cried after the first day of wedding shopping,” she says. “I was overwhelmed by how much everything cost. We are a duo chinuch family. I didn’t know how we would pay for the wedding, or support the couple either.”
Chedva, whose husband is the rav of a shul in an out-of-town community, also felt the financial stress. When her daughter called her from Target saying she wanted to pick up some wooden spoons, a lemon squeezer, and chopping boards, “I told her, ‘I already bought you those things,’ but she said they weren’t the right ones,” Chedva says. “I told her she was going overboard.”
This interaction with her daughter brought up much resentment for Chedva. “Societal expectations dictate that either you go over what you feel is the top, or be a stingy mom and hurt your daughter’s feelings. So you swipe your credit card, and your resentment grows,” says Chedva. “When I got married, I was expected to swim on my own, but now, I’m expected to swim while supporting a young couple so they don’t get wet.”
Rochel Goldbaum says that we’re different people from our children. We’re going to have different ideas of what we want, and that could create friction and conflict. But it’s important to keep the main thing in mind; the young couple is entering a beautiful new stage in their lives. You want them to establish a home with shalom bayis, and where they’re mekadeish Sheim Shamayim. “I think this is really important,” she says. “Your daughter may think she needs seven new outfits for sheva brachos, and you think she only needs four. Even in the small details of planning a wedding, there could be conflict, and that’s why I suggest to both the mother and the kallah to keep your eye on the goal.”
Rochel advises that when in the midst of decision-making, if you start to have strong feelings about wedding arrangements such as the menu, the venue, the photographers, or the flowers, stop and say, wait a minute.
“What’s the main goal? Let’s keep the main thing the main thing,” she says. “Where will this take us in ten years? No one will remember what they ate at the wedding, but people will remember how they felt about each other. If the main goal is that this couple should start out their lives in the most positive, productive way and have the healthiest relationship, what we serve at the wedding and the type of flowers on the table aren’t going to make a difference. When we place the goal in front of us, then we can measure up all these things in light of the goal. That keeps us grounded and keeps our priorities in order. The goal is the couple and their shalom bayis.”
Yet, it’s still hard for parents who are left with bills after the wedding is over. Says Rochel, “If you’re making a wedding not to show off, and your kavanos are pure — Hashem is Hazan es hakol. Don’t cheshbon too much. Leave room for Hashem.”
A New Dynamic
For Shana, this new era in life left her feeling a loss of control. When her son began dating, she imagined it would take some time for him to find a wife, and she had a mental timeline of when to expect an engagement. However, her son got engaged to the first girl he met. “I wasn’t mentally ready for it to happen so quickly,” she says. “I had a hard time transitioning and a hard time with the finality of it. You dream about who your child will marry, and then when it comes, it’s an actual human girl who, like the rest of us, isn’t perfect. There’s something very final about that.”
Shana says that no matter how much you love your child-in-law, it takes some getting used to. “With your own children, you get to know them slowly as they grow,” Shana says. “When you get a daughter-in-law, she’s a total stranger who you are now meant to love as one of your own.”
It caused some fear for her, Shana says, and some uncertainty. Initially, while the couple dated, she found herself questioning herself: Was this the right person? Does he know what he’s doing? Should I guide him differently?
Then, once they got engaged, the feeling calmed. Shana says now that they’re married, she’s okay.
“I’m happy to see them put each other first,” she says. “I’m happy they’re calling and staying close. I’m happy for him, and I’m happy to step aside and let her be the most important person to him.”
For Penina, a new dynamic introduced a mix of joy and jealousy when her boys married. “They went off into the sunset with a younger version of me,” she says. “It’s a compliment that they appreciated those traits,” she says, “but they did take my sons away. I’m now the mother-in-law who can’t pop in uninvited. There isn’t a response to a question that doesn’t involve the phrase, ‘I have to ask Devorah’ or ‘Racheli prefers not to.’ That’s a little bit of a challenge. I’m proud of them, but sometimes I wish they’d put us first.”
When Rivky married off her daughter, she says she felt a sense of sadness immediately following the wedding. “The engagement period created a lot of close, intimate feelings between mother and daughter,” she says. “There was a lot of emotional bonding. It’s a time that lends itself to very close conversations, and there’s a connection that comes from all the time you spend together shopping. And then after the wedding, there is a very noticeable separation and disconnect.”
Rivky says that deep down she knew this was right for the couple, and how it should be, but the loss of closeness left her feeling sad.
She was caught off guard with her older daughter, she says, but when her second daughter married, she was prepared for it. When her boys married, she didn’t have this kind of feeling at all.
Jodie says, “You’re not prepared for what it’s like when your 19-year-old daughter isn’t coming back to your house again just as your child. She is coming back as a married lady. And it’s a whole different dynamic.”
During the dating and engagement period, a mother collaborates so closely on the process. She’s involved in the dating and then after, spearheading the wedding plans, and setting up an apartment. So much time is spent bonding — ideally. Then the wedding comes, and the child doesn’t come home. That’s an adjustment. But also, the whole family dynamic shifts. Someone else takes that family role the just-married child vacated, and everyone else is adjusting to the new child-in-law. As the parent, you’re dealing with all of that. There are lots of shifts in the family system.
Sarah agrees there’s a lot of adapting that has to be done when a child marries. “A family has a certain flow, and there’s a certain dynamic that’s happening. Everyone’s relationships are working the way it is,” she says. “Then a new person comes and disrupts it until you accommodate or adapt. The whole choreography of the family changes a bit. All of a sudden, the younger sister is fuming mad at the older sister. They were best friends until yesterday, but now she’s crying that her older sister is ignoring her. You have to explain that of course she isn’t ignoring you. She just got married, and she’s just not sharing everything.”
Rochel Goldbaum says that women don’t always recognize that marrying off a child means entering a new stage of life. There’s a loss of the old and an embracing of the new, and not every woman is aware of that. “I always tell mothers that the morning after the wedding, when you walk into their room and it’s empty, and the closet is empty, there’s a painful feeling in your gut. That’s normal and it doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful. It’s never going to be the exact same relationship again, because now she has a husband. So as much as you’re thrilled and excited and grateful and thankful to Hashem — here’s the both/and — it’s painful.”
Hysterical Is Historical
One of the most difficult aspects of a child’s engagement is that it can serve as a trigger for painful memories for the mother, exacerbating an already stressful time. “It makes sense when your child is going through the stage during which you went through a difficult and traumatic experience,” explains Jodie. “It really touches you in a deep way. If someone went through a difficult challenge when they were engaged, then it makes sense that it could come up, especially around the time their first daughter gets engaged. It’s going to just take them right back there.”
Some women may experience intrusive thoughts or intense emotions, Jodie says, and may not realize it’s connected to her history at that stage of her life. If that’s the case, she may want to check in with a trusted person to help sort it out.
This is what happened to Sarah during the engagement of one of her daughters. When Sarah was a kallah, she received very few gifts from her husband’s family. She knew to expect that because her husband came from a simpler background where kallah gifts weren’t part of the cultural norm. Even so, it was very difficult for her, and a stark contrast to her own cultural background where gifts were expected.
“Then my daughter got engaged to a boy from a balabatish home,” says Sarah, “and I didn’t see the parade of gifts I was expecting. I found myself getting worked up.”
Penina remembers when one of her daughters told her she needed more housewares. They were shopping for appliances at the time, and her daughter picked up a glass bowl from a shelf and asked Penina to buy it for her. At that point, Penina felt she had done enough, and she told her daughter that if she wanted it, she should purchase it herself. “I prepared my children with everything they needed,” she recalls. “When I was engaged, my parents were so unaware. My own wedding was drawing near, and I didn’t even have blankets. My chassan ended up going out with me one Sunday, and he bought them.”
Chedva’s daughter shopping at Target triggered memories for her, as well. “When I got married, I was missing so many basic essentials,” Chedva says. “I moved to a foreign country, and I didn’t even own a set of sharp knives.”
Chedva points out that engagements have a way of exacerbating unhealthy dynamics. “Everything is magnified with all the stress,” she says. “If there were hairline cracks beforehand, the massive pressure just breaks them open. If your relationship with the kallah wasn’t amazing before, it’s not going to get better during the engagement. Now there are thousands of opportunities for disagreements because all you’re doing is shopping and making decisions.”
Rochel Goldbaum says it is common for a child’s engagement to bring up for some women their own experiences when they were engaged. She feels it’s important for a woman to address those issues in order to be fully present for her own children during their engagements. “I think if you’re triggered with your own past engagement, you need to work it through with a friend or mentor,” Rochel says. “You can’t be there for someone else until you can move past yourself.
“Getting a mentor, and talking it through is crucial,” she says. “Someone who has been through what you’re going through already and is on the other side.”
It’s especially important to speak to someone if your relationship with your child has been contentious.
“You really want to keep your own stuff in check and not let your inner experience spill out onto your child,” Jodie says. “I would encourage people to seek guidance, whether it’s an experienced friend or a therapist or somebody wise who can help you and give you a space to talk about your emotions. Talk about what’s coming up for you so that that doesn’t inadvertently get taken out on or played out with your child, because that can make things much harder.”
Jodie says to try and keep open communication and foster an atmosphere of goodwill. “If you say something that was taken the wrong way — and it’s inevitable sometimes — you want to be able to apologize or make a repair if you need to.”
It’s important to make a conscious decision to enjoy the time and make memories with your child.
“Tell yourself you will make this quality time that you’re going to fill with happy memories,” Rochel says. “When your ratzon outweighs your fears, you can overcome a lot of these smaller things and really show up for your children.”
With so much going on, Rochel says, it’s hard to remember that often the kallahs feel stress as well. But when two people are stressed, it could create conflict in the relationship. “Your daughter also has these conflicting feelings of excitement and fear,” Rochel says. “She’s leaving her home — what she’s always known, but she’s also excited to be independent and start her own home. So that’s also conflicting feelings for her.”
It is possible to prepare intellectually, says Jodie, and to be aware of the possible themes that could arise when you marry off a child. “You have to be prepared to let go, in a certain sense, of the way that you were parenting them up until now,” she says. “The dynamic must shift now to seeing them as ‘a them,’ as a couple.”
It’s not that you can’t have a relationship with your child, she explains, but you can’t necessarily speak to her the way you might have prior to her being a married woman. Jodie explains that it’s always with our nearest and dearest that we’re going to feel things the most deeply and acutely. “Our children, our closest family is always what’s going to get to us the most,” she says. “That’s what brings up whatever is there that needs to be worked through.”
There is a little bit of a grief process when marrying off a child, says Jodie. It’s hard to fathom because this is what we daven for. We want our children to get married, but the transition can be difficult. Change is hard, even when it’s good. People like their comfort zones.
“It’s one of those necessary losses that we have in life,” says Jodie. “It’s for a good thing. It’s a loss in the sense that it’s not the same way it was, but now it’s going to emerge into something else that is also beautiful and also wonderful.”
One of the most anxiety provoking issues for a parent is when a child second-guesses their choice.
“Broken engagements are not uncommon in our circles because there’s a lot of pressure,” says Jodie. “And so many times things will come up during the engagement period that were not so clear before. It is a time to explore doubts. I think it is fair if there are really red flags or anything that comes up, it’s better to have a broken engagement than a divorce.”
Jodie says to consult with people you trust — rabbanim and therapists. “If there are really areas there for concern — because we’re talking about the biggest, most important decision in your child’s life — who they’re going to marry,” she says. “You really do want to feel relatively confident in the decision. And if you don’t, that’s a problem. You need to explore it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t push it away. Don’t suppress that.”
Rochel Goldbaum says if a kallah is second guessing, send her to an outside person — someone who isn’t related or involved in the shidduch. “Sometimes new information comes to light or the couple didn’t date properly or they didn’t make their decision based on good choices.”
In the case where they didn’t date properly, they may need to “redate,” or as Rochel puts it, “bring the heart into it.”
The dating process begins logically, with the first cluster of dates exploring whether a prospective match makes good logical sense. Dates revolve around the exploration of intellectual intimacy, asking if values and goals match between two people. Then couples move to the heart stage, exploring if they can develop an emotional relationship. They may share more vulnerable aspects of themselves, such as feelings or past experiences they believe led to personal growth. If a young woman makes the decision to get engaged because an idea made sense, but she skipped the heart stage of the engagement, Rochel suggests “dates” with her chassan in which she would share and open up.
“When girls go from head to engagement and they skip the heart, which is the emotional relationship, then they’re very scared because they don’t know him. They didn’t develop a friendship,” she explains.
Other times it can stem from anxiety, and it has nothing to do with the person they chose. “It can be her own fear of emotional intimacy, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of leaving her parents’ house, fear of commitment, fear of decision,” Rochel says.
One of the surest ways a parent can determine whether it’s anxiety versus a real concern is if she’s asking questions versus making statements, says Rochel. “It would be questions that don’t have answers,” she says. “So for example, if a kallah asks how do I know this is the right one for me? What if it turns out that he’s a different type? These types of questions — the how do I know and the what if and the maybe — questions that start like that show fear and anxiety.”
These are questions that aren’t based on fact; it is anxiety based on fear of the unknown. They’re questions that have no real answers, but simply create more anxiety.
That’s a good way to gauge whether it is general anxiety versus something that’s specifically related to her and her chassan, she says.
She also suggests turning the questions into statements, in order not to engage with them. “Questions create more anxiety,” she explains. “Instead, make a forward-moving statement like, I want to be able to enjoy my engagement, or I want to be able to relax into this relationship, or I want to communicate my thoughts to my chassan directly.”
Contrast that to someone who had a concern based on something they saw. “When a kallah is calling me and she’s nervous, if she has something real to tell, and she has information to give me, it’s going to come out in statements and information,” says Rochel. “I take that very seriously.”
Parents do the research. They say yes. They send their daughter or son out on a date. It goes well, and they’re up to date four, five, or six. Their child is excited, and they’re in a good state, but all of a sudden, the parents get nervous, and start saying, “I don’t like this. I don’t like that.”
Rochel Goldbaum says, “If you think your child is ready to get married, then they also have to make their own choice. Beforehand — that’s when you have a say in the research process. And obviously, if new information comes to light, if something serious comes up, the parents have to be involved, 100 percent.”
A serious issue would mean any problem that would affect a person’s ability to be a good spouse.
But if there’s no new information that came to light, and parents are just disappointed because of external factors, Rochel says they shouldn’t say anything. “Sometimes parents are disappointed in how the girl looks, and their son is so happy,” Rochel says. “You must honor your child’s choice. This isn’t a trophy for you to show off to your friends. A marriage is there to become a better self. It’s the person that they’re going to become their best self through.”
She says it’s important for parents to work through those feelings with a mentor so that it doesn’t come across to their child. “Obviously I’m talking about a situation where everything is safe,” she says. “If it’s something that would affect the future spouse’s ability to be a good spouse right now, that’s different.”
Rochel says if a woman calls with concerns, she asks whether this issue will impact or affect his ability to be a good husband. “If the mom says no, it doesn’t, that means that it’s the mother’s thing to work through.”
She also suggests using the flip tool. “It’s my favorite relationship tool,” she says. “It’s v’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha in a nutshell. What you do is imagine that the situation was flipped, that you were the one choosing this person to be with and your mother didn’t like the fact that he doesn’t articulate his words clearly. What would you want your mother to do? You’d want your mother to work it out, and learn to love him and respect him.”
The flip tool can really help the parents realize and recognize the child wants autonomy, independence, and acceptance from them both.
Own your feelings, says Jodie. “You’re human. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel, but definitely go someplace safe where you can process that,” she says. If a woman has negative feelings toward her daughter-in-law, Jodie says to find a way to not let that impact your relationship with your new daughter-in-law.
She suggests you first find a space where you can express your feelings.
“You really do need to have a place where you can say whatever you’re feeling and have somebody validate that,” she says. “If you don’t process those things, and you don’t own it, and you don’t deal with it, unfortunately it can cause a lot of problems.”
She also suggests stepping back to allow your son to bond with his wife. “Adopt a mindset that allows for a new woman in your life who does things differently.”
She says her own mother had six children: five daughters and only one son, who was the youngest. “My mother shared that when my brother was around 18, she mentally started to prepare herself,” Jodie says. “She said, ‘My son is going to get married in a few years, and I have to emotionally create space in order to make the transition. He will get married — that’s healthy and normal and good — and I’ll try to love and embrace his wife.”
It’s also helpful to have other interests, separate from family life.
“Make sure you have something in your life other than your children,” Jodie says. “As a person, you need to find space to develop your own creative talents or intellectual pursuits. Find a hobby or volunteer in order not to become an emotional strain on your children. Come back to yourself, and focus on other things.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 859)
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