It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …”
So begins Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. With a little imagination, the storied words might also apply to a Tale of Two Women: brides and their mothers.
Weddings are certainly the best of times, yet planning them can take a toll on two generations of women. On the other hand, adroitly handling the details associated with nuptials can be another link in what binds mothers and daughters together.
To be sure, some brides-to-be and their mothers are perfectly in sync: their similar tastes allow agreement to come easily for them. There are also young women like 24-year-old Ilysa Greenbaum, who describe their mothers as their best friends. The Plymouth Meeting resident, who weds Louis Schorr Nov. 3 at Colleen’s in Pennsauken, appreciates the wedding planning help she received from her mother, Robin, and sister, Jamie. Greenbaum says, “I haven’t been stressed out at all. I think it has to do with my relationship with my mom. My mom plays a big part in my life, not just in planning my wedding, but everything. She knows more things we need to do for the wedding than I can imagine or do.”
Still, a 2012 survey commissioned by David’s Bridal shows at least some resistance to the influence wielded by mothers. Of 500 brides surveyed, 56 percent said the person they would trust most with wedding-planning decisions was … their fiancé. Mom came in second (but ahead of best friend). In the same survey, a majority of brides confessed that if they loved a wedding dress enough, they would buy it even if their mothers thought the dress was inappropriate. Ouch!
Deborah Abowitz, a sociology professor at Bucknell University, isn’t surprised by the survey results. She sees them as a reflection of parents raising girls to be independent and self-confident. “It’s a product of the women’s movement and the sexual revolution,” she says.
Even so, mothers may have some difficulty accepting that times have changed since they walked down the aisle decades ago. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children, and resident scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, points out that weddings used to be about community; now they focus on bride and groom. Meanwhile, brides are older and have a better idea of what they want, and the rules of who pays, who gets invited and who decides are less clear. Ambiguity can lead to trouble. “There is potential for great conflict unless you talk about things and work them out,” Nemzoff says.
“It’s not just your monstrous mom or your terrible daughter. This is a problem that is endemic to changes in society,” she says.
There are exceptions. Sometimes, wedding planners see brides and their mothers who are not on their best behavior. Lynda Barness, of I DO Wedding Consulting, recalls one such incident. At a meeting with a caterer and florist and in front of the groom, a bride reacted angrily to her mother’s seemingly innocent comment. The bride told her mother to “shut up” and banned her from saying anything else during the meeting.
For mothers and daughters who do want to talk to each other and enjoy the process, here are some tips for a smoother path.
• Share your fantasies. Nemzoff suggests that mothers and daughters have an early discussion in which both share their wedding fantasies, why they are important to them and the ways they could bring their dreams to life. Perhaps the mother wants to invite all of her business associates but the daughter’s ideal wedding would be a small, intimate affair. The mother might get her wish by hosting her business associates at an engagement cocktail party in her backyard.
• Expect conflict. Tamar E. Chansky, a Plymouth Meeting-based psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety, advises mothers and daughters not to be surprised when conflict rears its head. By predicting disharmony and expecting it, it can be downplayed when it comes. Women might say to themselves, “We knew this was going to happen and here it is,” the author of Free Yourself from Anxiety says. That’s better than thinking, “we can’t do anything together, we disagree about everything.”
• Prepare for the “oh, mommy” moment. This moment occurs when a bride thinks she has found the perfect dress but her mother does not agree. Abowitz says, “When the ‘oh, mommy’ moment hits, be prepared for it, even if you don’t like the dress. Think how you will react so you don’t spoil the moment, if you think this is a terrible choice.”
Erica and Lisa Penn had some minor turbulence when they shopped for Erica’s wedding gown for her Sept. 1 wedding to Brian Hoffman, which will take place at the Franklin Institute. Erica, 24, lives in Baltimore, where her mother used to live before moving to Bryn Mawr a couple of years ago. “The first dress I tried on, my mother loved,” Erica says. “She absolutely thought it was perfect. I liked the dress but didn’t love the dress. I think she was disappointed at first, but three or four dresses later, I put on the one I ended up getting.” Lisa Penn acknowledges that the duo had different ideas about the dress but agrees that the dress her daughter selected was beautiful and within their budget.
• Bring in a third party. Rebecca Richman, of The Queen of Hearts Wedding Consultants, recalls one mother who hired her to avoid conflict with her daughter. The mother told Richman that she knew they could manage the beginning of the wedding preparations on their own but she was certain that things would go horribly wrong at some point based on their relationship history. Having a buffer — a third-party intermediary — can be a big help in such situations. If hiring a wedding planner is not an option, Richman recommends asking a diplomatic friend or relative to fill the role.
• Schedule coffee time. Barness suggests that mothers and daughters schedule time every six weeks or so during the planning process to enjoy a mother/daughter moment — with no wedding talk allowed.
• Let mom do what she does best. A bit of early planning can help stave off potential trouble. “If you can, from the get-go, make room for your mother to have her part in this; that will ease her feelings of desperation,” Chansky advises brides. By reflecting on what their mothers are good at and what role they would like their mothers to play brides can create a clear and satisfying role for their mothers to assume. If mom is good at graphic design, perhaps she could design the invitations. If she has a flair for decorating, perhaps she would enjoy making decisions about what goes on the tables.
• Don’t focus on perfection. Chansky says some families put themselves under undue pressure by obsessing over too many details because they believe the wedding is supposed to reflect how perfect their relationship is. But, she adds, love is not demonstrated through elaborate rituals or perfect decorations.
“Often, memories we have of events are things that are unexpected that the host can’t control. The toasts people make for you that you had nothing to do with, the sweet things with kids dancing — lots of spontaneity. You can’t plan those moments, and thank goodness you can share the job with your guests.”
Gail Snyder is a freelance writer based in Chalfont who frequently contributes to Special Sections. She has yet to plan a wedding with her daughters. This article originally appeared in "Simchas," a Jewish Exponent special section.