Dear Prudence: Mom Making Daughter’s Wedding for a Do-Over for her Own

It’s wedding season! When all the crazy comes out to play and those of us fortunate enough to NOT be planning a wedding get out the popcorn and watch. Today, Slate’s advice columnist Dear Prudence got this question from a woman whose mother wants to use her daughter’s wedding to relive her glory days at a bride, now that she can afford to do it in style. If only the groom were on board …

Q. My Sister’s Wedding or My Mother’s?: My sister and the love of her life are going to get married this winter. Our whole family is very happy about it, especially my mom. When my parents got married more than 20 years ago there was not much money. Everything was nice and happy, but nowhere near the dream wedding my mom always wanted. The family’s financial situation has improved significantly since then and it seems my mother finally wants the wedding of her dreams—even if it’s not actually hers. My parents are paying for everything, but my mom wants everything her way. My sister, who has a soft heart, is willing to let her have it her way. The future son-in-law is another story. He wants no part of what he calls “a Ken and Barbie nightmare” and thinks a wedding should first of all reflect bride and groom. He even went so far as to offer to pay all the bills out of his own pocket. Mom is furious, but he won’t back down. My poor sister is so upset about all of this, she’s considering canceling the whole wedding. I would be grateful for any suggestions to solve this mess and give my sister a wedding that doesn’t give her nightmares for years to come.

A. Your sister may be soft-hearted, but she’s going to seem soft-headed if she can’t grow up enough to separate from her mother to be in charge of her own wedding.

As Jafar says in Aladdin, “You’ve heard of the golden rule, haven’t you? Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” This goes double for weddings. If you want to be in charge, you better be ready to empty your piggy bank. (And if you can’t stand up to either your husband or your mother, maybe you should reconsider whether you’re ready to get married?) But the broader questions of Who Pays? and Who Decides? these days are fascinating.

Increasingly, individuals in the US marry later, intermarry (“About 15% of all new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another, more than double the share in 1980 (6.7%)”), and marry same-sex partners. What remains constant through this tumult is the traditional generational push-pull over the wedding itself. To what degree will the ceremony and reception reflect the values of the couple and to what extent will it reflect the values of the families? If the families have different values, or religions, or cultures, whose wins?

Back when there was always a bride and her family handled the money as well as the choices, Emily Post had the answers; these days, as the Book of Judges would put it, there is no king in Israel so everyone must do what is right in his/her own eyes. Some of my friends have family-only ceremonies; others have such friend-oriented events that the families barely register and afterwards I can’t pick the Mother of the Bride out of a lineup. Some friends are married by other friends, without an authority figure in sight, or have self-uniting ceremonies. Save on an officiant! Legal in Pennsylvania.

Summer Camp Weddings and other more casual affairs — no showers or bridesmaids, much less pomp of the cake-cutting-and-garter-throwing kind — are increasingly popular in my community, where the trend is for the couple itself to a) make the calls, and b) carry many if not all of the costs. These weddings are celebrations of youth and love in all its idiosyncrasy. Not so much of family and tradition. Occasionally this leads to some messiness of which my mother, a strict disciple of Emily Post, would not approve: insufficient amounts of cutlery, for example, or such a lackadaisical approach to seating that some guests end up having nowhere to eat but the floor. But each wedding certainly comes off as reflective of the happy couple (and their Pinterest board).

It gets much more complicated when everyone contributes, though, and everyone compromises. The question becomes, What is a wedding really about — the couple or the community? And is it possible to make both, or even several, generations happy at once?

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