A few years ago we ran two pieces: one on getting married after your mother has died, and one on getting married when you have an emotionally damaging relationship with your mother. Right after we ran the second piece, Nicole wrote me a note that she wanted to write about coping strategies for when you have a parent who is simply emotionally absent. This often happens when you have a parent dealing with illness, as well as for people whose parents are not that interested in planning or are otherwise distant from the wedding planning process. The article Nicole took two years to write is, no surprise, brilliant. But perhaps more surprising, I found it profoundly helpful reading for dealing with a variety of complicated relationships, married or not. This one, with tons of wisdom Nicole figured out in therapy, is pretty much a must-read for everyone.
My mom and I have a challenging relationship, to say the least. Though it has been improving over the years, it probably hit its peak of challenging-ness when I got engaged and began planning my wedding in 2009. I had this fantasy that though we had always butt heads about the most minute and mundane details, we would suddenly plan this wedding in perfect harmony, and it would be the most incredible bonding experience for us. It would lead us to have that mother-daughter relationship I had envied amongst my friends for my entire life. It just took me getting engaged for it to happen!
We all know what comes next.
The first instance of realizing this would not be true was at the very beginning, about five months after my husband proposed. We wanted to get a firm grasp on our budget and guest lists so that we could begin making plans. That two-hour long conversation ended with my feeling flabbergasted and my mother feeling angry. It ended with my mother telling me to do whatever the hell I wanted and she would just write the checks. With her saying that she didn’t want to take control and thus was leaving everything to me to do on my own.
And she was completely true to her word.
My parents paid for the wedding, but my mother was as removed from it as any one person could possibly be. She was completely emotionally absent, and I was completely emotionally drained. I tried and tried to get her involved (Want to go dress shopping? What do you think of these centerpieces? Can you help me make the invitations?) and nothing ever worked. To be fair, she has a load of problems that have nothing to do with me (a chronic illness and her own disappointments with her wedding, just to name a couple), but, even as I write this, I can vividly remember the pain of all those quiet glares and eye rolls and leaving rooms and unanswered questions. My dreams of a wedding bonding experience were never going to be realized. And that’s the case; they were never realized.
But this isn’t necessarily about venting those stories. What I really wanted to write about is what it was like for me to have a parent who was emotionally absent from my wedding process. Especially having a mom who is emotionally absent.
Think about all those perfect wedding images that include parents. The mother and daughter giggling as the daughter is trying on the dress. The mom clasping the pearls around the daughter’s neck right before the she walks down the aisle. The mom and daughter tearfully smiling at each other after the wedding. And when that didn’t happen, when that perfect relationship didn’t exist, all I felt was shame. Absolute shame and fear that there was something deeply wrong with me and that it was completely my fault. At the same time, I had so much anger because I knew, I knew, that this was not my fault. She was making her own choices and that was not my responsibility.
But somehow, that knowledge doesn’t seem to fix it. The knowledge and the emotions don’t fit together. And, because I didn’t have anyone to talk about it with, or anywhere to get help figuring it out, I wanted to share with you some of the things that helped me.
Boundaries. These were so important. I can’t even tell you how important they were for me, even if I failed to utilize them all the time. I had to figure out my boundaries with my mom, and I had to set them with her. So, for example, I learned that asking my mom to help with the invitations was going to be rebuffed every. freaking. time. So I stopped asking.
Rely on others. Because of a whole other set of issues around my wedding, this was really hard for me. But, I had a great maid of honor who stepped up and helped me even if I didn’t really know how I wanted her help. I trusted her, and I used her. I “let” her help me with those invitations. I tried not to shut her out because my absent mom refused to be a part of it all.
50/50. My therapist helped me figure this out about two weeks before my husband and I were heading back to Texas to get married. She pointed out that in my desperation to have the perfect relationship with my mom, I was putting about 95% of myself into it and my mom was only doing about 5%. Continue reading Dealing with an Emotionally Absent Parent