The Mother's Dilemma: Mothers, Weddings, and Emotions

Valerie Kay, Psy.D.

Behind every wedding is a story of a parent and child’s relationship. Each story is as unique as a snowflake, yet
each contains the same essential truths.
 - Valerie Kay

“I wished it had been easier; I think there was a week when I seemed to be in tears the whole time. I knew that this was a wonderful event, but it was also an end of an era. It’s a big change.”
     [Lynette, a mother-of-the-bride]


Weddings are a time for joyous celebration. However, along with joy, mothers often find themselves experiencing unexpected and seemingly unacceptable emotions surrounding their child’s wedding, such as:

• Sadness
• Stress
• Voicelessness
• Anger
• Ambivalence
• Grief
• Shame
• Jealousy
• Envy

Often mothers feel they cannot talk about these feelings for fear of judgment, or for fear of hurting their relationship with their adult child. However, suppressing these emotions and not giving voice to them can also have negative consequences.

My doctoral research focused on the relationship between mothers and adult children surrounding the event of the child’s wedding. I interviewed numerous mothers about their experiences. While each story was unique, certain common themes emerged:

1) Mothers struggled to define their roles with respect to the wedding.
2) The wedding was experienced as a time of profound transition in their relationship with their child.
3) The marriage of their child brought up strong memories, emotions and emotional connections to the past—most specifically, to their own wedding.

For the most part, the mothers interviewed found that the experience of telling their stories in a safe, nonjudgmental environment helped them begin to understand and validate their feelings. Exploring these emotions often led to surprising insights. In some cases, the mothers were able to give voice to emotions they hadn’t yet named. Narrating their own stories became an occasion for growth—both personal and in their relationship with their child—and a tool to help them overcome shame and find their own voices.

Roles And Expectations

As preparations for the wedding got underway, many mothers (of both sons and daughters) struggle with tension between their desire to be a “good mother” and the challenge of defining their role with respect to their child’s wedding.

The mothers clearly wanted to have some role in the planning and in the actual wedding event. However, it often wasn’t clear what this role should be and who or what defined this role. The inability to define their role was often emotionally difficult for the mothers. One mother said, “I knew I wanted to be involved with her wedding, yet she could not actually come and say how”. Another mother-of-the-groom explained that she felt so misunderstood because she didn’t know just how much to say and always worried she’d say the wrong thing. One mother stated, “I could tell she didn’t really want my opinion. I also knew she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I tried to support her with minimal resentment. I wanted it to be wonderful for them.”

Another mother tried to develop a “no-fail” method for negotiating her role:

This was my only child’s wedding. I didn’t want to come across in the role of a pushy-bossy mother. I invented my own role by deciding that I’d do any and every thing either of them asked of me. I knew that way I could prevent getting into any trouble. My role was whatever they wanted of me!

“There is no role for the mother!” protested a mother who had spent more money than she could afford. Yet she felt she had no power to say no to anything, and had no real input in the decisions that were being made. She felt angry and disappointed, with a sense of purposelessness, and expressed irritation that her husband got more attention as the “father-of-the-bride”. She went on to complain that her husband had not done any of the pre-wedding work.

Shifting socio-historical contexts were clearly a strong factor in this role-identity crisis. All of the mothers in this study were themselves married in the 1960s at an average age of 21 years. In that cultural context, it was their mother’s responsibility to plan, execute, and host the wedding. Their mother’s role was very clearly defined.

Today’s brides are typically older, over 30 years of age, at the time of their marriages. The couples usually have their own ideas about their weddings. While there may still be expectations that their parents will contribute financially, the mothers’ roles in the planning of the event are less well defined. This can lead to the mothers feeling “left-out” or feeling useless and disempowered.

The generational divide is further defined by shifting financial expectations. The 1960’s brides, whose mothers had lived through the depression, had relatively simple weddings. Their daughters often had dramatically different expectations for their own weddings, driven by the media and a burgeoning wedding industry. In financial decisions, the mothers sometimes found themselves caught between their own values and their desire to be a “good” mother under the pressure of cultural expectations. One mother reflected, “I had no idea how different my child’s values and ideas were from ours.”

There are deeper issues underlying the “role definition” issue. Not only is the mother in the process of defining her role in relation to her child’s wedding, she is also confronting the uncertainties and complexities of redefining her role as a mother in the context of the child’s marriage. Her relationship with her child is going through a profound transition.

Transitions

Weddings are a critical time in family dynamics, a time when parents and adult-child are going through a major and irreversible change in their relationship. As one mother said, “it was just hard to know she’s going in a different direction in life… she won’t count on me as she had before!” Another mother described the intense emotions she felt as she experienced this change:

It’s hard for me, she is moving even further away and you know living her own life, which is what we in this culture have taught our children to do. I’ve done a very good job; I’ve set my little birds free. But there is a real pain that I didn’t feel I could share with anyone. I felt an incredible sense of isolation in the midst of everything.

Throughout their lives, a mother and child experience a recurring pattern of separations and reunions. If the mother is doing her job well, she is usually the one who feels the burden of the detachments. While the child is happily growing, the mother experiences the “mini-losses” of her child’s separation from her such as first shoes, first steps, first loves, and on and on; all representing movements away from the mother.

Although many of these earlier developmental events are subtle and occur appropriately without acknowledgement from mother or child, the wedding is a major departure from the earlier succession of mother-child interactions, marking a more complete divergence. The mother’s role—and relationship with her child—is about to change dramatically, yet she can become so distracted by the details of the wedding that she may not be conscious of the significance of her child’s wedding on her own life.

In fact, while her child is transitioning into marriage and a new family, the mother is often in the process of her own midlife transition. In particular, if the mother has formed her sense of identity primarily around meeting the needs of others, her role in life can feel less defined as her children grow up and get married. While this can be an opportunity for personal and creative growth, it can also be uncomfortable and scary.

Connections With The Past

As each mother narrated the story of her child’s wedding, it evoked memories of her own wedding. Surprisingly, every mother interviewed during my research compared her wedding with her child’s wedding, her wedding dress with the bride’s wedding dress. This revealed an emotional connection between her child’s wedding and her own many years earlier. In most cases, there was a sense of wistfulness and nostalgia combined with a sense of awe at what her child had that she didn’t have. One mother acknowledged, “I can only now understand that I was trying to make a wedding for my daughter that I had wanted for myself!” Another mother reflected, “My own wedding was not as fun as their plans appear.”

As the mother is grieving the end or an era, she is simultaneously watching her child enter into a new era of his or her own life; evoking a complex mix of emotions, ranging from joy, pride, and satisfaction to grief, envy, and a sense of loss. If the mother’s own marriage was less than satisfactory or ended in divorce, this can add another dimension to her emotions and how she relates to her child in the context of the child’s wedding. She may have an urge to shield her child from the realities of her own unhappy marriage — despite the fact that undoubtedly the child is already aware of it — further contributing to suppression of her own emotions.

Weddings can also bring to the surface other memories, of lost loved ones:

The other thing that I finally realized is unresolved was that I really missed my mother; she’s been dead now for five years. And, you know, very often during this process I would think, oh, I want to call mother and ask her what she thinks… and then I’d realize, oh no, I can’t call my mother, she’s not here. [The wedding] made me really want that connection with my mother, because I have fond memories of planning my wedding with my mother.

Many of the mothers interviewed hadn’t fully explored the implications of the memories and emotional connections to the past that had floated to the surface, often unexpectedly, during the wedding and preparations for the wedding. Sometimes these feelings didn’t occur until months after the event.

Psychological Implications

There is a grief and sadness that coincides with any change. It is normal and common for mothers to experience a range of emotions surrounding the marriage of their child. However, if a mother believes her feelings are unacceptable, she may withdraw from saying or doing anything that she feels would be misunderstood, and this silence may stifle her own psychological and emotional experience. One mother acknowledged, “I made choices for myself based on how other people would understand my motives.” Yet another mother admitted, “I feel so much judgment about who I am supposed to be that somehow I have a hard time acknowledging my sense of self!”

When women do not feel they have the freedom to speak with their authentic voice and express their emotions, they may be more susceptible to feeling depressed. On the other hand, the mothers I interviewed who were most conscious of their feelings, and who took the time to explore the meanings of those feelings, were often able to take positive steps toward dealing with those emotions and making opportunities for personal growth. One mother prepared for the day after the wedding by planning a vacation with her husband, to coincide with her daughter’s honeymoon; in this way the parents marked the beginning of a new phase in their life as their daughter was beginning a new phase in hers. Some mothers decided to return to school after their child’s marriage.

Conclusion

If you are experiencing confusing emotions surrounding your child’s wedding, keep in mind that these emotions are normal. Don’t ignore your feelings, but pay attention to what you are feeling and take time to explore your emotions. Also keep in mind that meeting with a life coach can be helpful in working through this transitional time.


How Coaching Can Help

Meeting with a coach can be an opportunity to unveil your emotions surrounding a child’s marriage, and validate and explore the meanings of those emotions in a safe environment. It can also help you as you explore personal issues of role and identify, and as you work through changes in your relationship with your child and his or her new spouse.

This can also be a time to explore questions like; what dream went unrealized during the time you were focusing on others’ needs—for example, a career or a creative endeavor? If a dream is no longer physically possible (for example, being a professional ballerina), how might you revise that dream? Coaching can provide a place for working through these questions and for exploring opportunities for creative and personal growth. As was once said, “If not now, WHEN!”

This is a portion of a copy-righted dissertation which will become a book titled  Ghosts at the Altar. No portion of this article may be copied.

In addition to helping mothers and other members of the wedding party, Dr. Kay also offers coaching that focuses on all aspects of the relationship between parents and adult children. She is available for office or phone counsultation. She can be reached at (415) 789-8244.

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Mother and Bride

Members of the Wedding Party:
You probably have your own story to tell! Almost everyone wants to talk about the wedding. I offer an opportunity to explore the deeper meaning of some of the feelings that arise during this major ritual.
If you are seeking a safe place to do this, please contact me. Together, we can explore these feelings more fully and uncover
the authentic needs behind them.

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Call Dr. Kay: (415) 789-8244

See other articles by
Dr. Kay:

When Grief Overwhelms: Do Your Feel Understood?

Communication Between Aging Parents and Adult Children: How A Life Coach Can Help

Grandmother's Role When a Grandchild is Ill
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