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'It's Her Wedding'

It's Her Wedding But I'll Cry If I Want To: A Survival Guide for the Mother of the Bride

by Leslie Milk

There Goes My Baby

Oh, my God, she's engaged!"
You shouldn't really be shocked by the news. She may not live at home or even in her hometown, but you've seen the signs.

First his name started cropping up in conversations. Then she was starting sentences with "Tim thinks" or "Josh and I."

After a suitable interval, you met the guy. Assuming your daughter is over the age of consent, you realized what this "meeting" meant. This guy was a contender. If he walked upright, his eyes focused, and he wasn't on a day pass from a nearby correctional facility, he was a serious contender.
You tried hard not to turn that initial encounter into a job interview. You only asked subtle questions like "Have you always lived with your mother?" Or "I've always wondered about the earning potential of periodontists. Will dental floss hurt your business in the long run?" You kicked your husband under the table before he could ask to see the guy's last three tax returns.
Then you waited to see if the guy moved up through the ranks:

  • A great guy
  • A guy I'm seeing
  • The guy I'm seeing
  • You called your daughter and he answered.
  • You called your daughter and left a message on her answering machine although you knew she was spending weekends at his place and she knew that you knew, but neither of you was ready to acknowledge the knowledge.
    They broke up and made up several times. She was invited to his sister's wedding. His mother bought her a birthday present. Still, you knew better than to get too excited. The average girl discovers boys at age 13. The average first-time bride is 25. That's more than a decade of possibles, impossibles, interims, and also-rans.
    Then, one evening she called, and "Oh my God, she's engaged."

    Your daughter will ask, "Are you happy?" This is a test. It is not multiple choice. You are ecstatic, overjoyed. Any tears you shed are tears of joy. The marriage may not last, but your daughter's memory of your response will live in infamy. And she's bound to tell the fiancé what you said!
    Of course, you want to be happy for your daughter. But don't be surprised if you have mixed feelings. Her intended is a terrific guy . . . but he may not be the terrific guy you hoped for. When you pictured your daughter walking down the aisle, you probably expected her to marry someone close to home who shared your cultural and religious roots. You may even have unconsciously created a resume for the man of her dreams.

    "I always thought she'd marry a doctor or a lawyer," one mother of the bride admitted. When it was pointed out to her that nobody in the bride's family was a doctor or a lawyer, she sighed, "I know that. But I always thought she'd marry up."

    Even if the fiancé is everything you would wish for, this is as much a rite of passage for you as it is for her. I know how I felt when my daughter, Meredith, called with the news that she was engaged on Valentine's Day 2002. I really was ecstatic, overjoyed, weeping tears of joy. But after I hung up the phone, I suddenly felt . . . old.

    Mother of the bride—the phrase conjures up a vision of a middle-aged woman with the kind of hairdo that doesn't move in a high wind. The mother of the bride wears a pastel jacket dress to hide her flabby upper arms and matching shoes with arch supports. She carries a purse big enough for her reading glasses. She asks the caterer for decaf. Nobody ever refers to the mother of the bride as "such a pretty girl."

    I didn't want to see myself that way, but if the arch supports fit . . .
    Like many other mothers of brides—and grooms—the first thing I asked was when the happy couple wanted to get married. The question had nothing to do with planning the ceremony, hiring the caterer, booking the hall, and so on. I needed to know how much time I had to get in shape for the wedding pictures. How much time I had would determine how many chins I would be wearing on the big day.

    Would the engagement last long enough for a diet and rigorous workouts, or was I heading straight for Lycra, liposuction, and the "instant face-lift" with rubber bands and tape advertised on a late-night infomercial? How many hairdos and hair colors could I try before settling on the camera-ready coiffure?

    Then I did something really dangerous—I pulled out my wedding album.
    It is only natural to harken back to your own wedding or weddings when you think about your daughter as a bride. Hopefully, all your memories are happy ones. But if the glorious celebration was followed by a less-than-glorious marriage, if your blood pressure rises when you think of your young, innocent self walking down the aisle toward that idiotic, lowlife, no-good, cheating son of a fishwife, your recollections of the wedding itself may be colored by subsequent events.

    That trip down memory lane is a voyage best taken alone. It is unfair to burden the bride with your romantic baggage. And if that idiotic, lowlife, no-good cheating son of a fishwife also happens to be the bride's father, you'll have to bite your tongue a lot in the months ahead. Nothing ruins a wedding faster than acrimonious exes using the event as an excuse to snipe at each other.

    Happily married mothers face a different challenge. You may be tempted to re-create the magic. Depending on when you were wed and where your head was at the time, you probably had either a strictly traditional wedding, a love-in, a ceremony that didn't compromise your feminist principles, an earth-friendly affair with invitations on recycled paper, or some combination of all four.

    A traditional wedding meant a white wedding gown with enough fabric to cover all of your admirable assets, a veil over your face, bridesmaids in matching pastel dresses, a white wedding cake, "Here Comes the Bride," and a vow to "love, honor, and obey."

    The alternative wedding had readings from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, a Mexican wedding dress, a barefoot-on-a-hillside ceremony, somebody playing the guitar, and a promise "to make love, not war." There was no wedding cake and nobody asked what was in the brownies.

    Your feminist wedding may have skipped all mentions of bride and groom. You read from the gospel according to Gloria Steinem, you pledged to be equal partners, and neither of you changed your name.

    Your "friends of the earth'' wedding meant an unbleached cotton wedding dress, organic vegetables, and recycling bins at the reception.

    Forget it!
    Your daughter doesn't want the wedding you had. She has never read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. She would no more promise to "obey" than she would promise to churn butter. On the other hand, she may be more traditional than you were at her age, eager to embrace all of the rituals you thought were sexist and archaic.

    As a young bride, you wouldn't have dreamed of marrying far from home. Today's engaged couples are likely to be from different geographic areas. Now that women marry later and venture farther, "home" for the bride and groom may be in another city. The couple may want to marry in another location altogether—a dream destination on an island, atop a mountain, in an amusement park, or in the adult version of an amusement park, Las Vegas.
    As a bride, you wanted the best wedding your father's money could buy. Your daughter may want no part of an expensive shindig. Her style may be more funky than formal. As long as they don't pose a serious risk to life, limb, or bank balance, be prepared to honor the bride's choices.

    In my case, this was not a problem. I wouldn't wish my one and only wedding on any other unsuspecting bride, let alone my darling daughter.
    My husband, Benjamin, and I were married at the Plaza Hotel in New York on March 24, 1968. We are still married. I attribute some of our marital longevity to the fact that our wedding was such a disaster that the marriage had nowhere to go but up.

    What went wrong? The hotel was not ravaged by flood or fire. The kitchen did not explode. My dress arrived on time and intact. We suffered none of the misfortunes that make great stories or are now covered by wedding insurance. Our problems were all human error: in-laws turning into outlaws, guests and hosts behaving badly, and the bride taking umbrage when she should have been taking valium.

  • My father-in-law hijacked the wedding. We were supposed to be married at a lovely little New York hotel overlooking Central Park. My father-in-law took it upon himself to inspect the site and announced that no son of his would be married there. He hated the men's room. He did not feel the need to list his specific complaints. He just turned purple at the mere mention of the place. (Let me hasten to point out that his other son had been married a few months earlier at a wedding mill famous for such special effects as having the bride appear on an elevated platform above the congregation amid a flock of doves and singing angels.)

    Every time my future father-in-law turned aubergine, my mother-in-law took to her bed. After a month of this, we moved the wedding to the Plaza Hotel, which had well-appointed men's rooms that met my future father-in-law's standards.

  • My mother was so offended by the cavalier attitude of the groom's family, who were not paying for any part of the wedding, that she refused to speak to them or me. (She did deign to address me briefly before the ceremony to ask me to put on her false eyelashes.)
  • The Plaza gave us a "bridal suite" to dress for the wedding and for the wedding night. I was so thrilled—the suite was bigger than our first apartment—that I never asked how I would get from the suite to the wedding ceremony. There I was in my dress and veil, sharing the elevator with a couple from Indiana, a bellhop, and a luggage cart. The wife was very understanding. "Fred, don't step on her dress," she warned her husband. Then she wished me good luck.
  • Many of my relatives had never met the groom. As he and the best man came down the aisle, my father's deaf Aunt Mollie could be heard "whispering," "Is he the fat one or the skinny one?"
  • My husband's cousin Reggie, an entrepreneur who founded the largest transvestite mail-order business in the United States, hadn't been invited to the wedding. He came anyway, representing his mother who had been invited but couldn't make it. Reggie showed up with a date. We were so grateful that he wasn't wearing any of his own wares that we did not object to the extra guest.
  • My cousin Jeanie, dressed in black in deference to her recently failed marriage, displayed so much cleavage that one of the waiters almost set himself on fire with the cherries jubilee.
    I could go on, but . . .
    I had no desire to duplicate my nuptial disaster. I wanted my daughter to have the wedding I never had—a happy one.
    Like most brides today, my daughter was older than I was on my trip down the aisle and less likely to bow to parental pressure. But I did want her to benefit from my mistakes:
  • I forgot that you have to have a wedding with your own relatives. You may crave an elegant affair, but unless you hire the cast of Four Weddings and a Funeral to play your family, it isn't going to happen.
  • Contrary to conventional wisdom, weddings do not bring out the best in people. Rites of passage stir the emotional pot, and old hurts and grievances rise to the surface.
  • I should have let my mother do more of it. I was determined that the wedding should reflect my personality, and the only way to achieve that was to do it all myself. Wrong. My mother had trained her whole life for just such an opportunity. She was used to giving orders. Having survived the Great Depression and my grandmother, she would not have been cowed by my in-laws, my relatives, or the catering director at the Plaza who refused my husband's one request—a chocolate wedding cake.
    Of course, my mother wouldn't have been cowed by me either.
    But my daughter, Meredith, had no such problem.
    And hopefully, neither will yours. Some brides have told me that their mothers were frustrated—their mothers planned their weddings and now they have daughters who want to run their own shows. It can be hard to relinquish control—particularly if you are paying some or all of the bills.

    "She told me that this was her wedding; I could have 'mine' in 20 or 30 years when my daughter gets married," said one bitter newlywed.
    Big mistake! Unless your aim is to permanently alienate your daughter and miss meeting your future grandchildren, you want to work with your daughter, not walk over her.

    In this area, I had a distinct advantage. Some are born with guilt, some achieve guilt, and some have guilt thrust upon them. I qualify on all three counts.

    As a working mother and a charter member of the "We can have it all and do it all" generation, I still feel guilty about mistakes I made trying to juggle work and family. Guilt, coupled with the memories
    of my wedding, were enough motivation
    for me to put my daughter's wishes first.
    My daughter—like yours—is a very independent woman. Couldn't she have pulled the wedding together without my help? Not easily. Contrary to some popular opinion, mothers of the bride are far from obsolete.

    The bride may be finishing school or starting a career. She may live hundreds or thousands of miles from home. She can and should make all of the big decisions—she picked the groom and she should pick the dress, the location, the officiant, and the style of the wedding. But she will happily delegate many of the details. She has no burning need to type lists, lick envelopes, or schlep invitations to the post office.

    Broken, blended, and unconventional families present unimagined challenges
    for your daughter. Planning the ceremony and the seating arrangements can give the bride a headache that will last well into the honeymoon—and create animosities that live on even longer.

    Whether you are her mother or her surrogate mother (stepmom, aunt, etc.) and whether she knows it or not, the bride is going to need you. And you are going to need help.

    This book is your survival guide.

    Reprinted from "It's Her Wedding, But I'll Cry If I Want To: A Survival Guide for the Mother of the Bride" by Leslie Milk. © 2005 by Leslie Milk. Permission granted by Rodale Inc.
    Rodale Books

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