Popping the question: Some prospective grooms still ask parents for daughter's hand

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Marry me.

(And by the way, your father says it's OK.)

That's the shorthand version of an elaborate mating ritual most often associated with Jane Austen novels, but one with surprising resilience today: would-be suitors first asking permission of the bride's father before proposing.

Henry Hager, George W. Bush's future son-in-law, did it. So did NASCAR driver Kurt Busch. Even radio shock jock Howard Stern asked his future father-in-law for permission, only to be told yes, with this proviso: "Never call me Dad."

At a time when couples can pick and choose from a range of rituals to define their nuptials, from post-modern to practically prehistoric, about 53 percent of grooms hewed to tradition and asked the father first before popping the question, according to a 2005 Wedding Channel survey.

Statistics on proposals

• 99 percent of grooms do the proposing.

• 15 percent of proposals occur in December.

• The average American engagement lasts 14 months.

• The average diamond engagement ring is $2,000.

Source: about.com

One of them was Lee Saylor, a seminary student in Richmond, Ind., who met his wife while both were students at Juniata College, outside Altoona. On Memorial Day 2005, he approached his prospective father-in-law, Ken Hughes, in the back yard as Mr. Hughes prepared to blow up an air mattress for Mr. Saylor to sleep on during a weekend visit.

"I have been nervous many times in my life," said Mr. Saylor, a native of Roaring Spring, Blair County, "but I honestly don't know how I was able to remain standing during that conversation."

The holiday marriage proposal season is moving into high gear this month and next, according to wedding industry experts, but it's still not clear if asking a father's permission first is a real trend or simply a mannerly relic of the days when a woman was considered a piece of property to be passed from father to husband with a specific price sticker attached.

From ancient Babylonia to the 19th century -- when marriage agreements were hammered out with all the numbers-crunching intensity of a corporate merger -- the bride's father always held the purse strings to the couple's economic future, said Stephanie Coontz, author of ''Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage."

"Parental approval was absolutely vital," said Ms. Coontz. "If a bride and her intended didn't have that, she could be denied her dowry, which was the largest infusion of cash that most middle-class men would ever get, at least until their own father died."

Not surprisingly, today's pre-proposal conversations between father and prospective son-in-law are not about money.

"Asking the father first has changed its meaning," says Marilyn Olivera, senior editor, at TheWeddingChannel.com. "It's now a gesture of respect and good intentions, not about having to get permission."

The practice seems to be more prevalent in certain geographic areas -- in the East and South -- as well as among cultural conservatives and tradition-bound elites, said Marita Wesley-Clough, wedding trends specialist for Hallmark.

Still, Mr. Saylor says he wasn't asking his wife's father for permission, but, rather, for his blessing.

"I said to Ken, 'This is not an issue of property but an issue of respect for her and the family that she comes from.' And while he smiled, I could see in his eyes a little sadness, since she was his first born. I felt like I was floating on air from that point on."

Many of these conversations are similarly sweet and fraught, as Antonio Fratangelo of Plum learned before recently marrying his wife.

Two days before proposing, on a day when he knew his girlfriend would be working the night shift, he went to her father's workplace "and asked if I could stop by because my mother had something she wanted me to drop off." When he walked in that evening, he saw to his dismay that he'd interrupted dinner, but no matter: When he asked them both for permission, "immediately my wife's mother started crying and her father came over to give me a hug."

There was only one problem, though.

"No one really answered my question, so I had to ask it again."

And (phew!) the answer was yes.

But what if the answer is no?

Very few grooms probably even ask if they think the answer will be no, said Chad Eckert of Churchill.

While his fiancee's father's response wouldn't have affected the outcome too much, Mr. Eckert said he realized "that a simple refusal to endorse the marriage would have a strong effect that would echo for a long time. In my mind, his answer reflected how the other man of significance in my fiancee's life viewed me, my direction in life, and my ability to provide, protect and love his daughter. A negative response would have demanded a good deal of time proving how I could fulfill this role."

As it was, Mr. Eckert agonized plenty before asking, which he did at the Pittsburgh International Airport's baggage carousel while waiting with his future father-in-law to pick up his intended.

"I was a mess, jumping from topic to topic in quick succession, answering promptly and without too much thought, my heart still beating with the speed of a quick step piece," he recalled, noting that when he finally blurted out the question, his future father-in-law interrupted to say nothing would please him more.

"The look on my face must have been worth more than a van Gogh original," he laughed, "wet with perspiration from fear of asking, pale white from not being able to even fully ask the question, and mouth gaping because he not only anticipated what I was going to ask, but profusely gave his blessings."

Not every case of asking permission is so poignant.

"We were sitting at my parent's kitchen table when my [future] husband, Bill, said to my father, 'I would like to marry your daughter,' " recalled Mary Rose Proper of Cranberry. "My father looked at him and in all seriousness said, 'Bill, that's your problem.' We still laugh about it 16 years later."

Sometimes it pays to do a little advance work, even at the expense of surprise. Jenna Bush's fiance, Mr. Hager, alerted her and her sister before approaching President Bush to ask permission -- a good thing, "because my dad can be brisk sometimes and not really listen to him," Ms. Bush told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren.

Ms. Bush added that her sister and fiance wouldn't really tell her what the encounter was like, but "I can imagine that my father probably made it uncomfortable just for his own humor. But [Dad] called my mom in, which I thought was really sweet, and as a woman I thought was really great."

Not every woman agrees with that assessment.

"I do not think asking permission is 'sweet.' I don't find it adorable," said Jaclyn Geller, author of "Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique," a feminist critique of the institution of marriage and who views such practices as yet another celebration of patriarchy.

"People say, can't we view these customs as nice and faintly nostalgic? Sure, but they're rooted in some pretty distressing legal precedents dating back to Mesopotamian law codes, when a woman's sexuality and productivity were not her own, but her father's."

But women -- and couples -- today know they have freedoms that their 19th-century counterparts could only dream of, noted Ms. Coontz, and are comfortable playing with traditions that no longer bind them.

"They conduct a whole range of experiments," she said. "They say, I'm going to take this little piece of tradition, or that, without going backward. But also, when they do marry, they want it to last, and they recognize that a purely individual negotiated love match between two equals has less social support than it may have had in the past, so it might be good, without giving up the equality, to mobilize more support systems for the relationship.

"I don't think it in any way represents a turning back on the gains of gender equality," she said.

For those who nonetheless fret about that possibility, there may be some comfort in knowing some parents don't want to be asked -- at least if they're the mom.

"When I heard the rumor that Kevin was going to ask her dad and me for permission to marry her, I freaked," says Patty Bajuszik of Saxonburg, after learning of her now-son-in-law Kevin Doyle's intentions.

"My daughter is an educated professional, a chemical engineer, and we don't look at her as just our little girl," said Ms. Bajuszik, 55, director of Butler County Community College who describes herself as "a feminist -- I guess."

"We have raised [Julie] to be an independent, thoughtful woman and trust her decision on something as critical as choosing her husband," she said, noting that her future son-in-law abstained from asking permission after she gently discouraged him. "I know that Kevin meant for it to be a sign of respect. And we were very pleased that he respected our wishes to not be asked."

"But I just hate the whole idea of it," she added. "If women want to be taken as equals to men this whole permission thing should go away, although I'm sure I'm in the minority."

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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