I was sitting in the waiting area as a mother and daughter emerged from the back changing room, chatting excitedly. The mother looked at me and gestured to the white garment bag draped across my lap.
“Wedding dress fitting?” she asked. I nodded. “Congratulations,” she said with a smile as they walked out the door. As I watched the two walk across the parking lot, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness.
The seamstress came out and greeted me. “Will anyone else be joining you?” she asked before locking the door behind us.
“No, it will just be me,” I replied, trying to sound cheerful.
I followed her to the changing room and quickly closed the curtain. I took a deep breath. These moments were the hardest. The parts of wedding preparation that society tells us should be done with our mothers.
I was newly engaged and estranged from my mother, and unlike every other aspect of wedding planning, there was no how-to guide for it. Our culture tells brides it’s their day, yet we have a very narrow scope of what that day looks like and who should be a part of it. For those of us who do not have a traditional nuclear family, these expectations make the idea of having a wedding daunting.
My family life had always been chaotic, and for that reason, I had never imagined wanting a wedding. But at the age of 40, after years of therapy and self-improvement, I found myself in a happy, healthy relationship with a man I loved, and we got engaged.
My fiance was from India, where the social mores regarding families carry even more weight and weddings are just as much about the families as the couple.
“Tell me about your family,” my future mother-in-law had asked only minutes after we met following our 36-hour journey across the globe. The truth was, I didn’t know what to tell her.
Both my biological father and my stepfather were in and out of my life. My mother suffered from mental health issues and had recently disappeared from my life when she got married, moved out of her house and changed her phone number, all without telling me.
Years later, I would come to understand that she was having a manic episode and that it had nothing to do with me, but at the time, I was devastated. I had no way to make sense of it, let alone explain it to anyone else. Those I did tell looked at me with pity; they had no idea what to say.
I looked online in hopes of finding advice on how to navigate the situation, but almost everything written for “motherless brides” pertained to women whose mothers had died. In one advice column, the author recommended the bride-to-be elope instead of having a wedding without her mother.
But for me, avoidance wasn’t the answer. I was determined to have a wedding even if my mother couldn’t be there.
“Estrangement is taboo, and talking about it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. People would offer unsolicited advice like 'Just invite her! She’ll come around,' or 'It’s the most important day of your life; you will want your mother there.'”
Getting married without a family member or members can be done, but it requires radical acceptance, a practice I cultivated in the months leading up to the wedding.
“You may need to think about the fact that Mom may not be at your wedding,” my brother suggested shortly after I got engaged. At the time, the thought of getting married without her seemed inconceivable. Soon after, as her behavior continued to spiral, I realized he was right.
My mother was going through something that left her completely unavailable to have a relationship with me, and this made having her there on my wedding day impossible. Accepting this early in the planning process allowed me adequate time to process my feelings regarding our relationship, which for me, was the bigger issue at hand.
Processing my feelings early on also made dealing with people and their reactions a lot easier. Estrangement is taboo, and talking about it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. People would offer unsolicited advice like Just invite her! She’ll come around, or It’s the most important day of your life; you will want your mother there.
While these types of comments were well-intentioned, they were not at all helpful. They were speaking to the situation from their perspective — one that had nothing to do with my reality. I had seen my mother create scenes throughout my life, at holidays and family events, and I was unwilling to risk the sanctity of our wedding day to avoid the discomfort of not having her there. So I learned to trust myself and the decision I made. Once I did, I didn’t care what people thought.
I also learned to let go of societal expectations and instead focus on what was meaningful to me. We’re told that our wedding day is the most important day of our lives. Magazines, TV shows and movies tell us what this day should look like, creating expectations around what we “deserve.”
Mother-of-the-bride checklists read like job descriptions, with duties such as helping pick the dress, helping with the guest list, supporting the bride’s decisions, “wrangling” bridesmaids. The Knot lists “Be your Rock” as one of her duties because “She’s a well of wisdom, solid advice and emotional support, and her biggest job throughout the wedding planning process is to be the amazing mom she’s been for you all along.”
These checklists reek of privilege, assumptions and contrived expectations that are used to fuel the billion-dollar industry that weddings have become. The traditional wedding forces us to put our relationships on display. It’s expected that we have a father to walk us down the aisle, a mother to be our everything and bridesmaids to wrangle. What about those of us who don’t have these relationships? Are we not deserving of a wedding?
“The idealized mother with her checklist waiting excitedly outside the fitting room to see me in my dress did not exist.”
I wanted a day that was authentic and true to us, something that could not be found on any checklist. Reimagining what we wanted our wedding to look like and doing away with traditions that focused on family left us room to get creative. We wanted to pay homage to my fiance’s culture, but an Indian ceremony would have required certain family members to be present. Instead, we opted for our spin on a Sangeet, a traditional pre-wedding musical celebration, which allowed us to incorporate Indian music, food and traditional attire into the night before the ceremony.
Not putting family front and center also made space for friends to get involved in ways I had not imagined — like my fiance’s lifelong friend, who prepared food for the Sangeet, or the girlfriends who spent the morning of the wedding helping me get ready while we sipped mimosas. I was overwhelmed by the encouragement and enthusiasm, and I felt supported and loved in a way I had not expected. Having gratitude for those who stepped up to be a part of our day, rather than lamenting the relationship I did not have with my mother, was key.
Of course, there were times when I wished my mother could have been there with me, like that moment in the changing room. But then I considered what that moment would have actually looked like with my mother. The idealized mother with her checklist waiting excitedly outside the fitting room to see me in my dress did not exist. I was there, and that was enough.
It’s been seven years since my wedding, and two years ago, my mother and I reconnected. She is in a much healthier place now, and we can both agree that not having her at my wedding was a wise decision. Her absence during that period of my life gave me the space to grow.
I share my story and how I handled the situation in hopes that it will help others. While it often feels like you are the only one, there are many of us out there in similar situations, and it’s time we normalized dialogue around estrangement and life events such as weddings, to make it easier for all of us.