Manchester, VT. The minister is standing before us on the lawn of the Hildene estate in his madras Bermuda shorts and Ralph Lauren navy polo, squinting into the afternoon sun, book of liturgy in one hand, the other hand raised to block the glare. He is fitting our wedding rehearsal in between summer barbeques.
“I’ve been known to ask this a couple of times, until I can really hear you all very well. You have to sound as if you truly mean it. After all, we are convincing this man to let go of his daughter. We need to give him assurance that we all are behind this. ‘Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?’ Please respond with ‘We will.’”
And the second time the 50-some rehearsing wedding party and various relatives and raise our voices, supporting the father of the bride, with a resounding and hearty “We will.”
So the minister proceeds: “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”
“Her mother and I do,” the father quietly replies, as he physically releases my future daughter-in-law’s hand to my son, and steps back into the assembled witnesses.
There is no tradition, no ceremony that supports the mother of the groom in letting go of her son. Perhaps this is an anomaly, left over from frontier and olden days when the daughter-in-law came into the son’s family, worked on the family farm, cooked in her mother-in-law’s kitchen, or danced in the court of her new surname. But times have changed, and this tradition has not. Perhaps tradition as it stands is a blind spot that needs addressing.
At one of the warm-up parties in Dallas leading up to the wedding, I chatted with a woman whose child had recently married. Eager to understand this life passage ahead of us, I asked her, “How was it for you?”
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” she said as she marched drivenly towards an hors d’oeuvre platter, possibly trying to duck the subject, and me. “There is grief involved. I know it isn’t supposed to be that way, but it’s there.” Yes, I was experiencing that already, in flashes. It is no mistake that so many people mix up the title of “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
An Indian friend told me that the Sindhi wedding ceremony lasted a week, and began with a funeral-like ceremony, Wanwas. Both the bride and groom are dressed in old clothes and are to stay inside for 3 days. Then seven women from each family gang up on the couple, pouring oil on the top of their heads and ceremoniously tearing and shredding the couple’s old clothes, enacting the end of family and emotional commitments. Then the torn clothes are thrown into the sea. In the Oriya marriage ceremony, the groom’s mother is not even allowed to participate, for fear that she may not be able to endure the strain of the celebrations.
These traditions acknowledge that there is grief in the transition of your family unit as you knew it. The dreams you had for your son or daughter must be released, and their dreams themselves embraced. No family celebrations will be the same number of people again. And you likely will have less of them, because you are now sharing your son with another family, or families in the case of divorced parents. And they are sharing their daughter with you. Holidays become much more complex then they already were.
Walking down the aisle at your son’s wedding, you cannot help but feel the ghosts of your own marriage, the vows you took that bring you to this moment. I remembered my dreams for my own marriage. And I remembered the reality, which ended in divorce. And I want so much more for my son and new daughter-in-law. It is a mother’s instinct to keep her offspring safe. And marriage is a risky business, albeit with strong rewards.
But the grief is the elephant in the room that we don’t walk about. Only joy is allowed as appropriate visible feelings. When this honest Dallas woman told me “There is grief involved,” I felt the same relief I felt as when, as a new mother, another mother admitted to me that sometimes she wished—in fleeting moments—that she could get out of this motherhood gig and have her freedom back. A not-allowed moment, but a true one. And the guilt I was carrying was released.
And here, at this ceremony, we do get out of some clauses of the motherhood gig, and have more freedom back. And there is guilt related to enjoying that new freedom too.
I began asking other women about how to be a good mother-in-law. My friend Sarah is very close with her mother-in-law, so I asked her what wisdom she could dispense. She told me that she initially found herself struggling with her son’s choice of bride. She confessed to her own mother-in-law, “I am praying that I come to love my daughter-in-law.” Sarah’s mother-in-law replied, “Don’t pray to love her. Pray to accept her. Then you will grow to love her.” Later, Sarah realized with shock that must have been what her own mother-in-law did, when Sarah married. This woman who was a dear and close companion had once struggled to accept Sarah. And now loves her.
While the happy couple is deeply in love, the families may need time to grow into it. History and shared experiences help build emotional solid ground. For families far-flung, accumulating enough time together to build that love is sometimes a challenge.
The evening of our rehearsal dinner party, at the Wilburton Inn one hill up from Hildene, I ask my son to walk with me, and we take a moment. I express my deep joy in having him in my life. My pride in the man he has become. And my faith in his decisions. He knows this woman well, and as he chooses her wholeheartedly, so I do too. Since he loves her deeply, I will also.
I realized later that in that moment, I gave this man to be married. No congregation backing us up, just our own love and history together.
I released his hand to my daughter-in-law.
“Who gives this man to be married?”
“His father and I do. “
With joy, grief, love, anticipation, excitement, and with all our blessings for a strong and supportive life together.