Mothers and Letting Go: Why Weddings Bring Up Such Complicated Feelings
Weddings are celebratory events – but what if you feel differently than you expected?
Especially for mothers of brides and grooms, the wedding can represent a symbolic 'letting go'
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There is going to be a wedding in the family! How exciting, how lovely! Well, what if it is not that straight forward? What if, as a mother, you don’t necessarily like your new son-in-law or daughter-in-law? What if the other family seem to be running the show? What if your daughter takes a bit of a turn in the bridezilla direction? Or even if everything is fine and you still find yourself rather stressed or upset about seemingly small things? As the mother of the bride or groom you maybe a little bit worried, very busy, stressed, confused, or anxious. Most likely you will feel something that you may not have necessarily expected and you may be surprised by the strength of your feeling. You may even wonder whether you are the only one who has these mixed feelings.
What is it about weddings that gets to us so much, what is it about them that creates such big feelings and can make people react so strongly to seemingly innocuous details , that can rekindle old family conflicts, can lead to power battles between families and parents and children?
As a mother of a daughter who got married a couple of years ago I began to be interested in weddings and families’ reactions to them. As a psychotherapist and psychologist I felt well equipped to explore this further and I set out to interview mothers of sons and daughters about the wedding of their child.
The results were fascinating. It seems whilst there are of course easy and not so easy weddings, they all seem to have certain emotional challenges in common. If you have mixed feelings, you are certainly not alone.
Why do weddings make us emotional?
A wedding marks an important transition not just for the new couple but also for their families. It makes visible the point in a family’s life when the parents have to step back, relinquishing their central position in their child’s life, symbolised by the father walking his daughter down the aisle – a ritual that has its equivalent in all cultures. As mothers we may support and welcome this change, we may in fact have been used to it for while. However, the wedding ritual symbolises it and rituals are, after all, designed to provoke strong feelings. What is stressful about wedding preparations may have relatively little to do with the practicalities of preparing a big party, but more with the feelings in the background, and these feelings have essentially to do with separation and loss.
This is made more complicated by the fact that just at that moment when mothers have to step back and may indeed be perfectly happy to do so, there is another family stepping forward. A wedding is a family celebration that is shared with another family: your family will from now on have to incorporate another member, the future son-in-law or daughter-in-law and at the same time your own child is joining another family. As a parent you have not chosen this new person and you certainly have not chosen the other family. You may not even like them, but either way you have no choice: you have to somehow get on with each other, because the parents too are in this “for better, for worse”. The fact that from now on mothers will have to share their child with this other family introduces without exception an element of competition. Mothers may ask themselves where they are going to figure in this newly formed larger family and anxieties rise.
What mothers may feel at any point during the build up to the wedding seems to be focusing on aspects of the wedding preparations and details of the day, but deep down it is about so much more. Does it really matter who is going to be invited to the wedding, who is mentioned on the invitation, who is going to sit where, who is involved in choosing the bride’s dress, who has a say in details of the day? Clearly it does and this is not necessarily a question of mothers-of-the bride wanting to be in charge and control of the day, as it is so often portrayed. Both mothers of bride and groom are often anxious and upset about those details of the preparations and the wedding day itself, because they instinctively feel that these details predict the direction of travel for their child and themselves. How much am I included? How much does my child make an effort to consider what I am feeling? How important am I for my child? These are questions that point into the future well beyond the wedding day.
Mothers are often acutely aware that there is the possibility of getting something wrong, of being seen as interfering and difficult on the one hand or as not supportive enough on the other hand. The emphasis for them is often on caution and trying to hold back. It seems the stakes are unusually high. It is as if a much bigger anxiety is looming in the background: If I get this wrong, I might actually lose my child and it is the other family whose claim to the new couple will become stronger. As one mother in my interviews put it: “Will we become the boxing day family?”
Weddings are family celebrations and as such can be enormously joyful occasions. There is however a bit of a taboo on more complicated and difficult feelings. This can leave mothers feeling isolated, wondering whether their feelings indicate that something has gone wrong. It seems to me that not expecting the perfect day or indeed the perfect feelings, but rather giving yourself permission to have mixed feelings is the best and most helpful way forward.