Q: Dear APW,
Six months out, one thing is keeping me up at night: how to manage my alcoholic mother at wedding events.
My parents are divorced, and my dad has been basically out of the picture for most of my life. As a result, my mom is very skeptical of love and marriage, and has a history of getting drunk and making a scene at family weddings. She doesn’t remember any of this, denies having a problem with alcohol, and is generally lacking in self-awareness. Since the last family wedding, her alcoholism and general cranky demeanor have gotten much worse, so it’s hard to imagine just how bad the worst case scenario could be.
I’m literally up at night thinking about ways to manage her. Having the bartender water down her drinks will be hard because she mostly drinks red wine and would notice. She runs right over my brother, so he can’t be her handler. And none of my friends have ever met her (for obvious reasons), so I can’t really ask them to watch out for her.
For the optimistic amongst us who think mothers will be on their best behavior for their own daughter’s wedding, she has been an absolute nightmare so far. She’s shown zero interest in my wedding and changes the subject when talking on the phone, has complained about the date, cost of travel, and color choices, and has offered to do or spend exactly nothing for the wedding.
The wedding will have many more of my fiancx’s family and friends than mine, (mainly due to the dysfunctionality of my family), and his family is paying for a bulk of the wedding, as it’s important to them. I’m already embarrassed and struggling with how to manage her. I really don’t want my wedding day, and my in-laws’ opinion of me, to be marred with memories of my drunk mom, whether she’s telling everyone that weddings are a waste of money because most marriages end in divorce or she’s puking at the table. But I also don’t want her to remind me ten years from now about how I ruined her day by trying to parent her. Help!
A: Dear Anonymous,
I’m so sorry. This is really tough. I know how easy it is to hope that our family won’t disappoint us, that they’ll come through, that this time will be different (all the more when you’re being dragged along in their cycle of substance abuse). While you don’t say any of that in your letter… if you’re honest with yourself, perhaps you were being a smidge optimistic that maybe mom would change course, that maybe you wouldn’t have to worry about her this time around. And in clinging to that hope, maybe missed some of the easy answers here. This would’ve been a great time to have a dry reception or a smaller wedding, or even elope and skip the pressure.
I know you’re not here for woulda-coulda-shoulda. Moving forward, though, I hope you can be realistic with yourself about mom’s limitations and what you can really expect of her. Part of that means coming to grips with the fact that none of this is your fault, none of it bears any reflection on you. It also means recognizing that you can’t keep secrets for her, and you can’t protect her.
Consider sitting with your in-laws (or having your partner do it) and letting them know what’s up, so they’re braced for the worst and able to be compassionate when it happens. I know you’re worried about what they’ll think of you, so let me remind you: this is not your fault.
And then reconsider having a handler. You listed reasons why no one will be able to prevent mom from drinking too much. Instead, consider finding someone who can just keep her distracted and away from you. We’re being realistic here, remember: mom is going to get drunk and she’s going to act how she does when she’s drunk. But that doesn’t mean you have to see it or deal with it. You say your brother isn’t great about reeling her in, but can he keep her away from you? Does your mom have a close friend who you can invite and ask to take her home when she’s had too much?
On your wedding day, my hope is that you can completely focus on getting married—not spend it being worried about what your in-laws think or concerned that your mom is going to resent you in ten years. Moving forward, I hope you feel that you can turn to other folx for help with this, rather than be ashamed or try to hide it. Because it really is not your fault.