How do I keep my parents from coopting my wedding?

Dear Bear,
I am in the middle of planning my very queer and very Jewish wedding, our parents are splitting the cost for some context. It is bringing up everything I’ve avoided addressing with my parents, namely the fact that I’m a person with my own needs and desires, and it is messy and painful. I just got off the phone with my mom. I’m inviting 75 fucking family members. I need to cut back on some second cousins. I told this to my mom and she was basically like, well you know don’t you think some of your friends won’t come. I’m like those are the people I want to come! This is just one example of how she sees this wedding as a family occasion first and my queer ass wedding second. It feels like she is denying my desires in this process and makes me so ANGRY and it also feels like erasing the queerness of our wedding. Some of the second cousins, of which I speak, apparently are already making plans. Is it too late to call them and explain that we’re already over 200 people on the guest list? What do I do when I assert my desire and my mom shakes her head (which is any time I have any fucking desires about my own fucking wedding)? 

Dear Brave Correspondent,

Yeahhhh, this is a really crap thing to have happening around a joyful occasion for you and your love-person, and it makes me feel exhausted on your behalf. And really, this is two questions: 1. How do I get my parents to see me as a separate, valid, adult person and 2. How do I have (mostly) the wedding I want in the face of parental nonsense?

The second question is considerably easier, so let’s do that one first. Weddings, Brave Correspondent, are complicated in this way because you and your future spouse want – of course – to have the celebration of your love the way you want it. It’s the big socially-recognized jumping-off point of your official lives together, and so that makes perfect sense. Meanwhile, parents of the people getting married generally also want the occasion to be an opportunity for them to extend their hospitality in the way they want to, to the people they want to. This, in and of itself, is less of a queer problem and more of an all-people-who-have-weddings-ever problem.

Here’s the good news: nothing she or anyone else does can make your queer wedding less queer. You, a queer person, are marrying your queer spouse, and there is no number of heterosexual second cousins that will make it anything other than a big queer celebration of queer love (and congratulations on that, friend). In a ballroom, in a backyard, on a train, in the rain, in a box, with a fox – still queer. The long (long) series of negotiations and compromises that come with planning a wedding are a classic site of parent-child disagreement, and even the most conventional and heterosexual couples end up at odds during this process over the details, whether its the color of the flowers or the religious officiant or season or time or place or meal or who wears what or who does what. You’d think parents would want their children to have the experience the chid wants, but generally, no.

So: brace yourself. And then prepare for negotiations as any skilled bargainer would. Sit down with your sweetheart privately and make a list of your must-haves, whatever they are, so the wedding feels like it’s your wedding. I am of the opinion that the more a wedding reflects the personality of the people marrying, the more everyone enjoys it, so this isn’t selfish at all – no one is really delighted by a cookie-cutter occasion where everything is basically bland and generic. So give it some thought – what do you want to share of yourselves with your guests? What are your values? What is your aesthetic? What specific things delight you that you want to enjoy with a couple hundred friends and family members? And remember, all weddings are valid no matter how much or how little they resemble the pages of Brides magazine. Do you want to get married in a pinball arcade with wine and a dozen kinds of snack cakes? Do it. Want a line-dancing instructor and an hour of Boot Scootin’ Boogie? Yes. Are you poetry nerds who would find nothing nicer than to pile the tables with your favorite poetry and require each table to read your favorite poems aloud? Excellent.

After you make your list, call the relevant parents and ask them to do the same. What is really, really important to them in making this celebration? Let them feel, you know, consulted. Included. Then when you get the list or lists, sort them into three categories. The categories are: Sure Whatever, That’s Weird, and Nope.

Then you write back, and say yes to everything in the Whatever category. Do not discuss the other categories yet; save them for the negotiation that will inevitably ensue. Your mom will counter – but what about having Cousin Francis sing an aria from Turandot? If that’s a Nope for you, write back and say “I just don’t think we can, Mom, but we could do [thing from the That’s Weird category].” And so on, in which you perhaps allow a few things from the That’s Weird category and zero things from the Nope category. If she says “we’re paying for this!” then you say “Yes, and that’s why we’re doing X, Y and Z, which we don’t particularly want but are important to you. But we are the ones getting married, and so we also get to have things that are important to us.” This is unimpeachably reasonable behavior and if there are any reasonable people in this scenario they will accept it. Perhaps gracefully and perhaps grudgingly, but they will accept it.

Now, it is always possible that your mother or some other relevant parent is not prepared to be reasonable, and that is when you may have to make a choice to take your wedding back and pay for it yourself. Here is where I remind you that the correct formula for planning a wedding is as follows: step one, figure out who you want to invite and step two: figure out what you can afford to feed that many people. Punch and cake is enough. Make-your-own-sundaes is fun. Hot dogs and cotton candy and a two-hour disco playlist on Spotify is delightful. Breakfast or bunch weddings are usually considerably less expensive than dinners and everyone loves breakfast food anyway (waffles and bacon wedding? YES.). The point is getting married to the person you like in a way that leaves your feeling joyful, not resentful. You do not need a Broadway-musical-worth of costumes and chorus members for a very pleasing wedding. If your parents are using financial assistance as a rope to yank you around with, you can always choose to cut the cord and do it yourself in a style you can afford without going into a ton of debt.

(All I ask is please, don’t ask your wedding guests to pay for the wedding so you can have a bunch of fancy stuff. You really don’t need it, I promise.)

The issue of getting parents to see you as a separate, valid, adult person is… harder. I find that LGBT2Q people have an especially difficult climb on this, but really many young people struggle with it and that’s doubly true for people who’s lives are really different from the lives their parents lived at the same age. Parent-child relationships can be really static – you’re stuck in time for them, and they’re probably stuck in time for you. A concerted effort to un-stick must be made by parents in order to see their children as anyone other than who they were at eight years old, which is why parents are always saying things like “You’ve never been good with money,” and as proof they remind you of the time you were 11 and blew all your savings on cute erasers at the school book fair, or saying “You hate asparagus,” because once when you were five you snuck it to the dog and got busted.

But also, those of us who are queer and trans can sometimes, for reasons of safety, get pretty good at hiding most of our lives from them, because they won’t listen or won’t do the work to understand. That gulf grows. When I have been deep in my feelings about the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando or Georgia trying to outlaw gender-affirming treatment for trans kids, my queer peers are having the same feelings. We can discuss and cry and eat ice cream about it. My straight parents have no idea that anything is happening, so when they ask me why I’m upset I have to do this calculus – do I have the emotional energy to explain what’s going on, then answer their questions, and perhaps eventually get some support or sympathy? I mean, maybe? But probably not. So I say “Oh, I’m tired,” which isn’t a lie – I am really fucking exhausted of trans-antagonism and anti-queer violence and also of explaining things about gender and sexuality to people, especially for free – but it’s not the kind of truth that bridges the gap. So straight, cisgender parents of LGBT2Q kids can sometimes really not grasp that we also have adult needs and concerns unless they’re willing to do some of the work, which it sounds like yours are not. You may need to do some strategic information-feeding to get past this hurdle with them – mention your various adult-pursuits of a less (or non-) emotional nature then worrying about politics and violence. Sports team or hobby club? Volunteer shifts? Religious observance? Fundraising or community organizing? These are all culturally-recognized hallmarks of Being Grown that your parents may be able to recognize, which might help them turn the corner. Some talk about the most boring adult things you do, like filing taxes or having your gutters cleaned, might also get you somewhere. Not necessarily – I definitely know a gay man who is an entire married doctor whose mother considers him basically still a child because he has no children of his own – but it can help.

And then, there are the parent-narcissists. I’ve saved this for last because it’s the most exhausting. But some parents simply do not give a shit about what they’re children do, or want, or need – they only think about how it makes them look and what story they can tell about it. They care about what they can humblebrag about to their friends and how it looks in public and that’s all. Narcissists are exhausting in this way and they are exhausting to plan anything with or even near and being parented by someone like this is pretty likely to leave you struggling with the lifetime effects, including a pattern of trying to win praise and validation from someone who isn’t really interested in giving them to you (repeated over and over forever) in a very emotionally understandable but ultimately misguided series of attempts to prove to yourself (and your narcissistic parent) that you really are worth something, damnit. Therapy, though expensive, is very helpful for this I find.

If this is your situation, Brave Correspondent, wedding planning is going to be as much of a nightmare as everything else because your mother is only interested in what the day will look like to her friends and relatives and not about your experience of it at all. One possibly useful strategy might be to plan a way in which she is, briefly, the unquestioned star of an entire moment – can she throw a dinner or brunch or perform something or organize all the flowers or whatever? – and give her every single bit of that piece to micromanage exactly as she likes. Sometimes one really shiny public-facing thing can distract a narcissist from noticing that other people are doing other things that might… not be about them. But you may end up having to take your whole wedding including the bills back to keep her from completely draining all the joy out of it for you, and I am sorry if so.

I hope you can use some of these tactics to get to the wedding you and your sweetheart want, Brave Correspondent. You certainly deserve that, and I want it for you. Just remember, no matter what happens, every wedding has wedding-day nonsense and your job is to handle it graciously and not be distracted from the fact that this absolutely amazing person wants to marry you, you personally; to declare right there in front of everyone that they are throwing their lot in with yours to be going on with for the entire foreseeable future. That’s the good part, whether it’s followed by filet mignon and a jazz band at the Ritz or Ultimate Frisbee and campfire hot dogs at the state park – and I hope it brings you many decades of happiness.

love and courage,

Bear

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