Surviving Wedding Planning: The Emotionally Absent Mother

Last year we ran a piece about The Motherless Bride, or how to get through wedding planning without your mom. The second we ran that it became really, really clear that we needed someone to step up and write about how to survive wedding planning with an emotionally absent mother, as that posed a huge set of totally different and equally painful problems. Well, it turns out that the woman willing to step up and be the brave face on this was Morgan, who has already written about getting married right after her father died. So, from a woman that deeply understands what it’s like to have a parent that has died, and a living parent who isn’t able to be emotionally present for you, here is a hand to hold to make it through.

Let me start off by saying that I love and admire my mother.  She’s run her own business from home for almost 20 years, and has bounced back from various failed side projects.  She worked and thrived in a male dominated environment for years.  She’s smart, capable and resilient.  She also makes me want to stab myself in the face after I spend a couple of hours with her.

She’s hypercritical, completely self-UNaware, insecure and condescending.  She is rude to me, my husband, and about everyone we know.  She still has the ability to make me feel terrible about myself or send me in to a rage with just a few choice words.  I’ve never really felt that my mother had my back.  Something pretty awful and messy happened to me growing up, and she always, always sided against me, in favour of “keeping the peace,” even after the police were involved.  I spent a year in therapy just dealing with that anger, and I think we can all agree that maybe a year wasn’t enough.

The wedding really brought everything to a head, of course.

When we announced our engagement, my mother looked at the ring for a long moment, and then offered wan congratulations.  My parents left shortly after.  She later told me that the large diamond looked grey under the light and she thought it wasn’t a real diamond and that’s why she wasn’t happy.  Yeah, right.  This is the woman who told me, when I explained that I was planning on ending a long term relationship, that I should stick with that guy, get married, have a couple of kids and that way when the (probably inevitable) divorce happened, at least I would have kids out of the deal. (While also managing to imply that if I didn’t marry him, I would never find anyone else, being all of 26 and homely, or whatever.)  My father told me that he’d been afraid for years that the guy would break my arm or worse, and that leaving was clearly the smart call.  He always was much more supportive of me.

I knew I could never go wedding dress shopping with my mother – my self-esteem could never handle the battering and her need for me to agree with her critical comments.  So I went dress shopping first with a friend, and then with my sister.  When I was down to two final choices (two almost identical dresses), we brought my mother to see. I felt that while we were never going to have a *moment* with the tears and the hugs, I at least wanted her to feel involved.  (Or at least not be able to insult my choice on the wedding day.)  So there I am, all dressed up, tiara and veil on, feeling pretty and bridal, waiting for some maternal approval.  My mother stares at me for a long time, and her only comment?  “Your elbows are too brown, you should moisturize more.” (This, from a woman who washes her face with ‘Head & Shoulders’ shampoo.)

The wedding itself wasn’t much easier.  She was four hours late for the hall set up and rehearsal, and she had half the stuff in her car, so we were stuck waiting.  Then she b*tched about how we were doing things.  Morning of, she got her hair done with us and then bailed on everything else to go have lunch with a cousin.  She wouldn’t give her speech, but that was almost okay, because we’d already figured out what we would do if she toasted my husband by my ex-boyfriend’s name, which was sadly a fairly real risk.

And now, 8 months later, she still brings up the wedding almost every time we talk, and complains about something we did, or insult-compliments something, or tells us she wants us to do it again so she can be more emotionally present this time.  Which at least suggests she knows she did something the wrong way, but still?  No.

I’m no expert on what you should do if you have an emotionally distant or toxic mother.  I just want to say that I’ve been there, and it sucks, and I’m sorry that you’re going through this.  I affirm you!  I do have a couple of suggestions though, mainly based on the ‘be smarter than me’ principle.

  • It’s okay to grieve. Having an emotionally absent parent, for whatever reason, is hard.  In some ways, it can be harder than having a dead parent, because then you can keep hoping for a change, and there’s always a chance for a new hurt.  Having one of each?  I wish neither on anyone.
  • If you know it’s not going to happen, don’t try to force the moment. I knew my mother would be mean when dress shopping, but in the desire to have a Hallmark moment, I asked her to come and got burned.  I knew it was coming, and asked her anyway.  Be smarter than me – don’t set yourself up for failure.
  • Protect your heart. I’m not saying you have to be totally closed off to your mother, but if you think nastiness is coming, prepare yourself.  Let your friends know and make them run interference.  Sneak a flask in your purse.  If you have a father willing to intervene, ask him to.  Make your bridesmaids snap you out of a negativity funk, if you find yourself sliding into one.  Don’t delegate tasks to her, if you think she’ll flake out.
  • No one can replace your mother – for better or worse, she’s your mom. But! People can replace her in tasks that “traditionally fall to the mother of the bride.”  I am lucky, and I have an amazing mother-in-law, who did things like organizing breakfast on the wedding day and talking me off (planning related) ledges and telling me I looked beautiful.  Maybe it’s a sister or a bridesmaid or a friend who keeps offering to help.  People will step up, if you allow/ask them.  Go wedding dress shopping with someone who will be honest but kind about dresses (or at least, make you try on absurd ones for the giggles), have your uncle give a toast, have your bridesmaid do up your dress, and so on.

I kept wishing for something to change.  Hell, I still do.  Maybe it will – maybe in 10 years I’ll look back and laugh.  I’m not going to give up hope, but I sure am pulling back further and further, to protect me, and my baby family.  And really, I think that’s about all you can do in these situations.

I’m not really sure how to end this, so I’ll give David the last word, because he is able to be far more objective about his mother-in-law than I am about my mother.  “Few people should just give up on their mother ENTIRELY either in every day life, or for the wedding.  In my opinion that would have only made things worse, and there would be no chance at salvaging a relationship afterward.  The sad part of a “distant” parent is that there is that hope that things will change, but without that hope (and the pain that goes with it) there really is no parent left.  One has to hold on, regardless…  Others I’m sure would say to run away, and let the relationship die, but I think those people have gone through different circumstances.  Your mother does love you.  She just has no idea how to show it or act on it – whatsoever.”

(Addendum:  It’s been several months since I wrote this, and there’s one thing I realize I didn’t stress enough here: boundaries.  Set them again and again and again.  Every time my mother brings up the wedding, I shut down the conversation.  Every time she starts commenting on my appearance in any way, I change the topic.  When she’s rude to my husband, I call her on it.  I’m also learning to make plans for side-by-side activities – no one can complain that much while watching a play, you know?   I’m not trying to close off my heart to her – just remove her ability to be a voice inside my head; in order to protect me, my husband, and my baby family.)

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