Maybe I’ve just had weddings on the brain, but it seems like I’ve been reading about matrimony everywhere. First, I read about the demise of the magazine Modern Bride. Can you believe that? The publication has been dropped. Then Wednesday Martin posted a link last week to the art and story of a second wife’s wedding day and opened a discussion about how women handled their weddings with their husband’s children. And just before that I saw a tweet from my friend at Eyes Wide Open, linking to a steaming garbage pile of an article detailing wedding etiquette for stepparents; with inane guidelines such as having your stepparents sit in the row behind both biological parents and suggesting that it isn’t appropriate for stepparents to attend wedding receptions. Seriously. I don’t have the creativity to make that crap up.
The wedding etiquette article is nothing short of ridiculous. Offensive, even. And the biggest problem is that someone might read it and think that it’s credible. That’s the problem with the internet and something that I always had to teach my students about when preparing them to write research papers. Anyone can write anything and post it out here on cyberspace. And that article proves it. The internet in itself is not peer reviewed.
But this article does illustrate a problem for divorced and step families.
Like so many times in a child of divorce or divorced parent’s life, there’s often no ‘standard’ to look to. No ‘way it’s always been done’. So when we come to various milestones in our lives, no one is really sure how to proceed. I cringe to think about what could happen if the wrong divorced child or parent were to google “stepmother wedding etiquette” and found that article. In the hands of a parent or child wishing for reconciliation or retaliation, it could be used to hurt a stepparent terribly with the excuse of it being proper etiquette.
The problem is, the ‘proper’ etiquette doesn’t exist. Yet.
Now I’m certainly not an expert in weddings. I’m also not an ‘expert’ in divorce. I simply share my experiences, thoughts and observations in the hope that others will consider what they themselves might think or do in a given situation.
Eight years ago, I encountered this conundrum. And it was difficult. It was hard to find the balance between prioritizing myself and my then fiancé, keeping us as the focus of the day while thinking about making sure both of my blended families were comfortable and feeling honored too. I tried hard but I’m not sure I succeeded. One of my parents told me that my wedding was the worst they ever attended, but I certainly never meant for any of them to feel that way.
There are so many time honored traditions surrounding weddings with their focus being mainly on the family. And the range of blended and divorced families is so wide that there can’t be any hard and fast rules or even firm guidelines. Since I’m clearly unqualified to write a grown up child’s ‘how to’ on this subject, we’ll call this a ‘list of considerations’ (not as catchy, but what can you do?) for weddings.
Traditionally, the bride’s family hosts the wedding and reception while the groom’s parents pay for the honeymoon. But that doesn’t happen much anymore. I’ve had friends where the bride and groom’s parents have split the expenses. And more and more, the couple either pays for the wedding themselves or splits the cost with their parents. For my wedding, my mother and stepfather along with my husband’s parents split the cost of the reception. My husband and I paid for the rest. In the end, it ended up being split in quarters with me, my husband, his parents, and my mom and stepdad each picking up about 25% of the final bill. I never highlighted them as the actual hosts of the reception though. It wasn’t important to any of them to be pointed out as such.
You will need to explain it all to your photographer. Explain who each family member is and who is to be photographed with whom. I got ready at my mother’s house. The photographer came there to do the bridal party shots and also photographed my mother and I together. After the ceremony, the photographer got my father and I together to do the father/daughter shots. It worked out well, I think. She also took family photos with me and both of my families, but the pictures were skewed towards my mother and stepfather who she had met at the house earlier. I just found in my proofs there were more pictures of that side. I also noticed that she took pictures of my husband with his siblings but there were none taken of me and my siblings. I don’t think my photographer had a lot of experience shooting blended families and didn’t know quite how to do it. And on the day, I didn’t have the resources to direct her well enough. Be careful here and be very clear about your portrait wishes and expectations with your photographer.
The aisle walk
Traditionally the father of the bride walks her down the aisle and ‘gives her away’ to the groom. I felt weird about this. I felt like in order to give me away, my father would have needed possession of me first. I had decided long before the wedding to walk down the aisle myself. But my mother felt it was important that I ask him. When I explained the reasoning behind my decision, she asked if I would feel more comfortable if they both walked me down the aisle. For some reason, that fit for me. Both of my biological parents, one on each arm, walked me down the aisle and I simply hugged each of them when we got to the end.
Traditionally, the wedding party sits in the first row on their respective sides at the wedding. The parents of the bride and groom sit in the next row on their respective sides. When you have a side with two sets of parents, they could sit together in the second row. But if that’s not possible or will cause too much tension, one set can sit in the second row and one set can sit in the third – this is what happened at my wedding. Another possibility is that both sets could sit in the same row but with one on either side.
Ceremonies within the ceremony
There are so many little traditions to consider when forming the ceremony. Will you honor a stepparent with doing a reading? If you do a unity candle ceremony, who will you have light your candle? There are so many cultural ceremonies that couples are including in their weddings these days and if one or both of them is a child of divorce, they may find themselves rewriting the rules to include all of their parents or trying to stick as close to tradition as possible in an attempt not to offend anyone. I did the unity candle, but our candles were lit before the ceremony and my husband and I were the only ones to go up and light our wedding candle. I also decided to include all of the parents in performing a ‘blessing of the couple’. They all stood up together and were asked three questions about supporting the union.
The receiving line
Traditionally the receiving line is composed of women (excluding the groom, of course). Mothers of the bride and groom, the newly married couple, maid/matron of honor and bridesmaids are all traditional welcomers. I have to say that every wedding I’ve ever attended had the parents as couples (including the fathers) standing in line. But when one or both of the people getting married have two sets of parents, this can make for a pretty lengthy receiving line. I think it’s best to do all or nothing, meaning you either include them all or none at all. You will need to decide for yourself what will work best for you. If your parents don’t want or will be uncomfortable standing side by side for this length of time, then maybe it would be easier to have them separated by the a neutral set of parents or the maid/matron of honor. I included all of the parents in the receiving line, but none of the bridesmaids so as to keep it shorter. The order of my receiving line was: my father and stepmother, my in laws, my mother and stepfather, my husband and I.
Should you put your divorced parents and stepparents all at the same table? That depends on how well they all get along. I didn’t. I didn’t think any of them would particularly enjoy that and I wanted them all to have fun at my reception. I also made sure that both tables were in the first row directly in front of the head table. It worked out well for me in that both of my parents had enough close family present that I could have them each sit at a table filled with people they loved.
There are so many traditional dances at a wedding! There’s the couple’s first dance, the father daughter dance, the mother son dance, then switch those up to father in law and bride dance and mother in law and groom dance, and then there’s the wedding party dance. Whew! That’s a lot of dancing that not many people outside of your immediate family are all that interested in seeing. I’ve been to lots of wedding since that did the couple’s first dance right after entering the hall, the father daughter dance during dinner, and the mother groom dance during desert. I decided to honor my relationship with my stepfather as a nearly life long father figure by dancing a special dance with him first and then doing a special dance with my biological father next. That’s something that sparked a lot of anger from my stepmother and siblings. It may have been right. It may have been wrong. But it felt right for me and I’ve never regretted it. Good luck trying to figure this one out for yourself!
I think it’s important to give all of the parents an opportunity to speak at the reception and to acknowledge all of them in your speech as well. If you’re concerned about time, you could ask them to keep their speeches within a certain length, but snubbing a set in this regard wouldn’t be acceptable.
Gift opening and morning after
Unfortunately, I had to leave right from my reception for my honeymoon (I was married a little over a month after 9/11 and they were shuffling planes faster than a deck of cards!). But this is a tradition that either all parents can attend or you can tailor to your particular situation. Being that my father, his immediate family as well as some extended family were all in from out of town, I would have loved to have done a special luncheon with them. The one thing you can count on being at your reception is busy! And while mingling with a couple of hundred guests you will find that there’s really very little time to spend with anyone in particular. At the end, you may (like me) find yourself wishing you’d had more time to spend with those who made such a great effort to share in your special day. This was the only real disappointment I had with my own wedding experience.
I believe that a wedding is like a snapshot of your life. If I were to get married now, my wedding would look very different than it did then. But also remember that your wedding and the memories attached to it will be timeless for you and your parents alike. You don’t want to do something out of spite because you’ll regret it later and it will only serve to make you look petty.
If you are getting married soon, congratulations! Good luck maneuvering through the challenges and details I discussed here. If you’d like to share your wedding story, whether it be upcoming or long ago, I would love to read it. If you would like some feedback or are wondering what other’s think about a wedding issue, feel free to start a discussion in the forum. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!