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%. This was problematic because it was leaving me drained, and I can’t possibly put that much into a relationship that is giving me nothing back. I can’t do her work in our relationship. I can only do my part, my 50%. She was responsible for the other 50% and if she chose to only put in 5%, well, that was her prerogative. I had the knowledge that I had done my part. This was revolutionary to me and has completely changed the way I try to relate to my mom. Even at the wedding, two weeks from that appointment. My husband kept chanting in my ear, “Your 50, your 50, your 50,” when he would see me becoming despondent because of something she said or did or didn’t say or do.
Be present. Seriously. There was literally nothing that I could do. I had done all that I could. As I said, my mom has her own set of problems, and I cannot do anything about them nor be responsible for them. I decided to be present in my life, at my wedding. I had decided to continue forward even though it is painful. I recognize that pain (see below) but try my best not to dwell on it.
Don’t ignore your emotions. Don’t ignore your logic. One of our biggest problems in society is our tendency to ignore our emotions. My mom being emotionally unavailable for this whole process was awful. It was completely devastating. I was allowed to feel sad and devastated about it. And I was allowed to feel that way every time something happened. But I really struggled with this. I felt like I should have known this was always going to happen, so I didn’t allow myself to feel sad or cry or feel angry about it. Instead, I kept putting myself in the way of being re-hurt by her (those invitations!). Try not to do that. Don’t ignore that feeling to cry. Try not to allow that devastation to help you put yourself in a position to be hurt again. Set those boundaries and keep to them. And be sad because you have to have them.
I am now three years and some change past our wedding. I contacted Meg in 2011 about wanting to write this post, and it took me this long to finish it. Part of the reason why is because I felt I needed to be in a place where I was neither devastated nor rage-full when I thought about the wedding and my mom. As I said, our relationship is getting better. But, I still practice every one of these things with her. For example, I do not allow us to get into the details of the wedding, because she remembers it all completely differently (I shut her out). Rather, we talk about the kindness of others, the (happy) emotions of the day (carefully), and our shared frustrations (my photographer failed to take any pictures of the ceremony). Our relationship is better for these boundaries and invisible rules. In a way, wedding planning was a turning point, just maybe not the way I had expected.
I want to say, though, that if you are feeling this way, know that I’m so sorry you’re expectations of the relationships while wedding planning aren’t being realized. I also want you to know that you are not alone. You have people who love you and want to be there for you. And you are a wonderful person. Protect yourself and love yourself and move forward. I’m sending you virtual hugs.
Photo by APW Sponsor Emily Takes Photos