The process of raising two young girls in the 1990s exposed my parents to the heyday of the Disney Princess, and all of its accompanying notions of romance and love.
Our house nearly burst at the seams with princess-related toys. Before the top of my head reached my petite mother’s hip, I was well-versed in the fairy-tale narrative. Having accepted my role as princess of the quiet Philadelphia suburb we lived in, I knew that when I grew older, a prince would materialize, practically out of thin air, clutching flowers for me in his fist. That was what was supposed to happen. That is what always did.
My mom and dad’s relationship was another narrative altogether, and it didn’t resemble a traditional love story. It would be a god-awful movie.
In a marriage that has spanned twenty-seven years, my parents have never held hands nor kissed in front of anyone. They have not taken a true romantic getaway since their honeymoon; they have not renewed their vows (“Over your dad’s dead body,” my mother says). They watch TV and eat takeout in sweatpants. Sometimes they argue. Sometimes my dad emails my mom while they are still in the same house. Theirs is not the stuff of rom-coms; it is far quieter than that.
Twenty-seven years ago, in the year after they were married, adult life happened too quickly to my mom and dad. They bought a fixer-upper of a house, they moved out of their respective parents’ homes for the first time ever, and they learned they were expecting a child. Then, my mother’s oldest brother withered away from cancer, and they learned to juggle the care of their first baby with the palliative care of a man who was in the prime of his life just six months ago.
When no one else could, for the sheer mass of their grief, my father planned my uncle’s funeral and tied up the loose ends always left by an untimely death. Late at night, my mother would hear my father crying to himself as he organized my uncle’s wallet, trying not to let his own heartbreak show to his young wife who had lost so much.
“I could not have lived through that time without your dad,” my mother would say to me while recounting the story. “I can’t ever thank him or repay him for what he was to all of us then.” She still cries when she talks about it.
Years later, she would repay him, standing as a pillar when his job became almost unbearably stressful, and when he lost both of his parents, and when they became Empty Nesters.
My father does not regularly buy my mother flowers, but he does take her car and fill her gas tank while she is busy. My mother does not sing songs about her prince, but cooks his favorite meals, and feigns interest in the Philadelphia Phillies for him.
And it is not simply a utilitarian partnership, as some decades-long marriages can be.
“I still like him, after all these years,” my mother said over the phone, giving me a report of how Empty Nesthood is going. “I knew I always loved him, and I knew he always loved me, but it is nice to see that we still like each other so much.”
Now twenty-five years old, I see my parents’ relationship for what it is: a quiet, unconditional love, hardly of Disney proportions. Their marriage shaped my life and my perception of what real love is. It’s a decision, a commitment, a choice, filled with fair arguments, real conversations, and the courage to prioritize someone else over myself for decades and decades.
It’s not happily-ever-after with them, although they are happy. It’s steadily-ever-after, and that’s what I’m looking for.