Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tossing Traditions, Opening Dialogue

While I recognize that merging families is never simple, I also recognize how lucky I've been with the family I'm marrying into. The first time I met them was at the Houston airport, where they greeted me with a Dr. Pepper, expanding upon a ritual they've developed with their son whenever he comes home to visit. While building a deep relationship with future parents/children in-laws across several states can certainly take time, they immediately welcomed me into their home, which was a huge relief and therefore allowed us to get to know each other. (Let's just say that previous experiences with meeting-the-parents of exes didn't go so well.)  Distance has its challenges, but I feel lucky to have a future family that's been so welcoming since those first moments.

One of the challenges with distance is how difficult it is to find ways to be natural and comfortable, since it's neither natural nor comfortable to go from spending zero-time with someone else's family to four-days-worth of time with a family primarily during their holiday rituals. That's not to disparage the joys of holiday rituals, but they can also create stress, formality, and bring out old family tensions because absolutely everyone, including Great Aunt Martha, is underfoot and in the way for an intense several days. It's been an incredible experience to begin sharing holidays with J and my future family, but it's also been a less-than-ideal circumstance in which to get to know each other and get family-level comfortable.

For all these reasons, I've been really looking forward to wedding planning as a chance to bond with my future mother-in-law, to have a real reason to share wedding planning ideas and to learn from them and their 30+ year marriage.  However, up until now, it hasn't quite worked that way. When his parents visited us in Los Angeles, we didn't really talk about the wedding (though we did talk marriage and family, which was a whole lot more important). Then, I didn't receive feedback on this blog when I sent his mother a link as a way to (ineffectively) open communication about the wedding.  Since we're paying for the shindig ourselves, I'm not really looking for approvals, but I am hoping for dialogue and a little bit of squeeing when exciting things (like venue decisions) happen. So I've been confused about how to open that dialogue, but figured the holidays would provide an in-person chance to open a discussion about roles in this planning process.

Only, it turns out they were never expecting a dialogue or a major role. They were leaning on tradition and the expectation that the groom's family has a minimal role until they hand over their guest list to the brides' family (who is paying for the wedding, of course.)  Even though they had an inking the wedding might not follow "traditional" planning processes or format, his mom just didn't picture a role for herself.  She just figured she'd get her chance at wedding planning with her daughter (who's a few years younger than J and happily enjoying the 20-something unmarried life in NYC) and she'd leave this to me and my family.

I'm sure there are brides who would be relieved to have their future in-laws keep out of the planning.  I am not one of those brides. I want family involvement in this process, despite any challenges it may bring up in balancing needs and options, because those conversations are a real chance to move beyond holiday family rituals and into a real family comfort zone (warts and all.) It shouldn't surprise me any more, but I continue to be flabergasted by the insidious ways in which "the way things are done" really inhibits meaningful wedding rituals (the back-and-forth discussions about our ceremony and about whether Great Aunt Martha will be able to hear if she's seated at table eight) and elevates the BS like whether guests will be offended if we have a buffet instead of a sit-down dinner (as I gently informed my mother, good food is good food and we'll have two lines at the buffet, so the answer is no.)

When I rail against "tradition" I'm not trying to tear down the institution of marriage.  When I question the need for a white dress or a floral bouquet, it's not a knock against those who choose it.  I simply refuse to believe that we should tie ourselves to assumptions that limit us to a narrow range of wedding options, behaviors and roles.  Not only is it constrictive (for those of us who look bad in white or don't have enough $$ for expensive florals) but it's sometimes the absolute wrong approach is we want to build healthy family relationships as we move into marriage.

I want a wedding.  I want a (somewhat) traditional Jewish wedding ceremony and ceremony-reception structure for our wedding celebration.  But I also want to approach it as a process of conscious decision-making, carefully choosing the traditions that matter to us because we know why they're important.  To me, the assumption that the bride's family pays (unless there are economic reasons to compel it) is one of the backwards, limiting traditions I was happy to be rid of.  And I'm looking forward, from here on out, to sharing our new traditions with J's family.


  1. Good for you for knowing what you want and going after it. Unfortunately, there are always going to be some people who assume everyone follows the same traditions, especially when it comes to weddings. This has really surprised me, because this seems to be one of the few arenas where people still embrace traditions so fiercely. Can you imagine anyone chiding you for serving fried turkey or flan instead of baked turkey or apple pie at Thanksgiving? Not really. But doing anything nontraditional for your wedding guarentees you'll hear comments such as "but you have to have a cake" or "but your father has to walk you down the aisle" from dozens of people.

  2. i too want mike's fam to participate in the wedding planning. mike's fam reads my blog and we talk about the wedding every time we are together. i was lucky that they immediately got our do-it-together approach to these nupts. but mike's parents are already progressive, feminist, liberal college professors, so i didn't expect anything less from them. again, i got lucky there... So wait - did you discuss with J's parents your plans for wanting to develop new traditions? because like you said, they are going off of what they already ASSUMED about weddings. i think that if you and J sit down and discuss what you want from them, that they'd be happy to comply. i mean, what parents wouldn't want to be ASKED to be a part of their son's wedding process? but then again, every fam is different. for what it's worth, i think you're a mother in law's dream. they'll come around. ;)

  3. My fiance's family also prefers to be hands off in the wedding planning. They're also sadly not big on welcoming me as part of the fam...like you said, it's can be difficult when you don't live close by. Good luck getting his family more involved in the planning!


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