Planning A Wedding With Divorced Parents (Part II)

Last week we kicked off a discussion of wedding planning with divorced parents, with a lovely and emotional post from Rachelle. Today, Maddie (she of the original lazy girl wedding, and these days half of APW photography sponsor extraordinaire Hart + Sol) is here with a helpful, logistical advice post. This post is a Must Read people, even if you have nary a divorce in your family. Both David and I have happily married parents, but I found myself welling up and nodding as I read this post. Because the thing is? Families be crazy. Lovely, messy, loving, and slightly nuts…particularly at wedding time. And all of this advice is wise, and will make you feel a lot less alone. Because you know what? You’ve got Maddie on your side (and me).

{Maddie’s Family Rainbow: she tried to make a family tree but it didn’t really… work}

Sometimes I look at the Pottery Barn catalogue and wonder what it must be like to be the kind of person who can order a kitchen table and have it delivered to their door in one piece, ready to transform a dining space, seemingly without effort, into something that looks like it belongs in Martha Stewart Magazine.

But frankly, I have no idea what that’s like. I own Ikea furniture. When I bought a new kitchen table, it came in two different boxes and the pieces for each component were split apart between the packaging, so I had to take all of the parts out of both boxes, lay them out on the floor, and then begin the puzzle-like assembly from instructions written in Swedish.

When I put my furniture together, it seldom looks like the picture in the catalogue, and there are always extra pieces that don’t seem to have any purpose but to confuse me. But at the end of the process, I have a kitchen table that I can eat off of, so I suppose that’s all that really matters. But still, I can’t help but wonder if the lives of the Pottery Barn elite aren’t just that much simpler.

My family is not so different. While other kids grew up with two parents who arrived at parties together and stayed in the same hotel room for out-of-town competitions, mine was the kind that came in separate cars, maybe didn’t speak to each other at the party, and yet still would be introduced as “My family (exclamation point, pause, jazz hands)” to inquiring parents of friends.

I could explain the detailed intricacies of my little unit, but Meg made me promise this post would be shorter than War and Peace, so suffice to say through a complicated mess of babies out of wedlock, marriages, and divorces, I have a mom, a biological father that I call “Dad,” a stepfather (who is no longer married to my mom) who I also call “Dad,” a woman who has been dating my biological father for twenty years who I call “Pam” to her face, but refer to as my stepmom behind her back, and a man named John who married my mom about a year ago and is very nice but might not ever earn a fatherly title. They all live within a mile of each other, are cordial in the presence of one another, and have been involved in raising me for most of my life. We aren’t a catalogue family, but we function nonetheless. And thankfully, it’s never seemed like work. I’ve always just been thankful to have a big support system made up of lots of different, complementary personalities. Why would I pass up the opportunity for big love like that?

{Maddie’s Family Map: for reference purposes}

However, it wasn’t until planning our wedding that I realized why this complicated family of mine works so (seemingly) effortlessly. It’s because I put in a lot of effort into making it work. I’ve never blinked at my double birthday parties, or complained when I shuffled from my mother’s house to father’s house to stepfather’s house for Christmas dinner. I was always quick to ask my father for my mom’s child support check or defend my mom when my father’s sister questioned her parenting skills. Throughout my childhood I juggled personalities, relationships, and priorities like a well-trained circus clown. And I was happy to do so.

But the problem with weddings, you see, is that the bride isn’t supposed to play that role. There are surprise showers to throw! And celebrations to plan! And it’s your special day, so we’ll just take care of it!

And that’s when things go to shit. Kind of.

{Maddie’s two dads walking her down the aisle}

I don’t think I have to explain to the kids of divorced parents what can go wrong when you are removed from the equation of wedding planning. Your family will take it for granted that you’ve been mediating their relationships and they’ll jump right in, preconceived notions and all, preparing for the celebration, often without consulting you or each other. And it can get messy. This is how I ended up with two bridal showers on the same weekend, in the same town, with the same guests.

But I’m also here to tell you, as resident Queen of the Kingdom of Broken Families, that there are ways to have a wedding that is authentic to you and your family that won’t* leave you feeling like you’re on the brink of:

  • Choosing Sides
  • Liking one of your parents better
  • Crying in the supermarket parking lot refusing to speak to your father because he hasn’t learned when to shut the hell up about your mom**
  • Feeling like you might kill everyone you’ve ever loved***

1. Err on the side of inclusiveness. Sometimes I wish I could take the easy road and pick a dad. Just pick one. Wouldn’t it be easier? Your wedding presents an opportunity for you to make the important people in your life feel special, but it also presents an opportunity for naysayers to insist that one person should feel more special, or that another person doesn’t deserve to feel as special. And you need to say, “Eff that noise!” It is absolutely illogical that someone should suggest exclusion on a day that is about coming together. And when they do make those suggestions, they sound like Middle School biatches. So no matter how heavy the guilt might be, don’t give in to the cries of “Blood is thicker than water.” If your heart tells you that you need two mother-son dances or that your stepsisters should be co-maids of honor, do it. I guarantee you won’t feel half as bad about taking the extra step to include someone important in your life as you will if you consciously exclude them.

{Two dads!}

2. Not everyone will want the same level of elevation on your wedding day. Being a stepparent is complicated. They have their own set of rules; rules that have been established over a period of time and that might not have anything to do with being your stepparent. My Pam (stepmom) loves me dearly, but I know she hated the thought of taking the experience of being Mother of the Bride away from my mom. No matter how many times my mom and I protested, Pam wouldn’t listen. And you know what? I really needed to respect that. She was showing her love for me in a way that was both respectful to our relationship and to my relationship with my mom. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include your stepparents in your wedding, it just means that you should be mindful of how they envision this day for themselves and have open conversations with them about what they think their role looks like. In the end, Pam made all of the bouquets for the bridesmaids and me. She got to be quietly included in the wedding without feeling like she was stealing my mom’s thunder.

{Pam’s flowers}

3. Don’t expect anyone to change for your wedding. If your crazy Aunt Helen has been taking quiet jabs at your mom for twenty-five years, it probably won’t change just because you have higher expectations for people on such an important day. I know it sucks that sometimes our loved ones won’t drop childish behavior, even if they know it hurts you, but I do feel like we can avoid some of the disappointment if we have realistic expectations of the adults in our lives. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat either. You know better than anyone where that line is drawn.

4. Sometimes you just have to cave. And I know from experience that this can be the hardest lesson of them all. When we were getting married I really hated the idea of a bridal shower. Single-gender parties aren’t really my deal, so I asked my mom to include me in the planning of my shower. We decided a Jack & Jill pot luck in the backyard would be just my style and moved forward accordingly. When my dad’s sister suggested that maybe we should do something a little “nicer” I politely declined and she seemed okay with it. I assumed we were all in agreement on the subject. So imagine my surprise a few weeks later when I heard Michael whispering into his phone one Sunday night that “Maddie is going to be so mad.” I knew immediately what he was talking about. His mom had been invited to a surprise shower for me, one that was planned for the day immediately following my mom’s shower, in the same town, with the same damn attendees. I was livid. And then I was really livid. And then I was f*cking pissed. And then I caved. I picked out a really cute leopard print dress that might have been a tiny bit inappropriate for the occasion as a silent protest, and I forged ahead. I pretended to be surprised for the sake of my aunts and their goddamned good intentions. Because at the end of the day, fighting is a lot of mother-effing work. And we all know I’m the original lazy girl, amiright?

{Maddie’s mom and stepmom}

5. Try to understand that the stupid stuff your family does is largely because they are stupid in love with you. And maybe, just maybe, we’re lucky because we get double that love (or n times that love, if you’re me). I believe that life maintains a balance. The family issues that Michael and I faced while planning a wedding with our divorced parents (Michael’s parents are divorced too, but that’s a whole different story) were more than offset by how much love we were surrounded by on our wedding day.

6. Lastly, and most importantly, don’t forget your partner. As a child of divorce, I know that it can feel like you are the only person living your situation. Growing up I was the sole child in my family with my particular family tree (my siblings are all either legally or biologically my stepdad’s children, so their holidays are much less complicated than my own). When it came to planning the wedding, it seemed like I, alone, held the instructions for putting the different pieces of my family together in a way that wouldn’t result in catastrophe. Or a law suit.

{Maddie hugging her mom’s husband, John}

But then I realized that Michael was there when my parents got divorced. He’d listened to me cry on the phone that time I tried to have a joint graduation party and it ended in disaster. He’d sat down on separate occasions with my mother, my stepfather, and my biological father and asked for their permission to marry me. He was already tagging along for the multitude of holiday gatherings that take place back home. He’s my person and he gets it, even if he doesn’t totally understand it. And your partner? They get it too. Even if your wedding is made from Ikea furniture and the process of putting it together leaves you in a pile of tears and tools*****, if you do it together it’s not just furniture anymore. It’s a custom-built testament to the efforts you’ve put forth in building a home and a life together. And that, friends, cannot be bought from no damn catalogue.

{Family Photo with mom and two dads. Says Maddie, “I made them do this, but this is how I see my family.”}

*No promises. Bitches be crazy. I can only help you learn to use the force. You’ve gotta defeat the empire with it (or blow up the Death Star, or whatever it is that Luke does).

**True story.

***Every holiday, amiright?

****Also a true story.

*****What? This is hypothetical. Shut up.

First photo by: Kara Schultz.

Other photos By: Monica Donovan and Judson Lamphere of Eve Event Photography. Drawings by Maddie.

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