Maggie Williams says her stepdaughter’s wedding was the second worst day of her life. (Her name, and others in her story were changed to try to preserve the family peace.) It was the night before, at the wedding rehearsal, that topped the cake — so to speak.
“I was so excited about Jessie’s wedding. After all, I lived with her since she was five, when I married Greg, her dad,” Maggie says. “I went to every teacher conference. I sat up late with her making Halloween costumes. I toured colleges with her. I helped her choose her wedding gown, met with the caterers, fussed over the invitations and flowers. Biologically of course, I’m not her mother, but I have been her mother for 21 years,” Maggie explains.
(MORE: How to Be the Perfect Mother of the Bride)
But during the wedding rehearsal, Maggie suddenly felt like she had been transported into a parallel and unpleasant universe.
She discovered she wasn’t going to be escorted down the aisle — although Anne, Jessie’s biological mom, would be ushered to her seat by the best man during the procession and would sit in the front pew, next to Greg. Maggie was instructed to find a place in the second pew when the guests were being seated.
'Suddenly I Didn't Matter'
“I was incredibly hurt. Greg and I had primary custody of Jessie, and she had seen Anne maybe a total of two weeks a year. Suddenly I didn’t matter,” Maggie recalls.
The next evening, at the wedding reception, Maggie was placed at a table on the side, with her parents and siblings, who had been like grandparents and aunts and uncles to Jessie. Anne, meanwhile, sat at a center table with Greg and their relatives.
The irony: Greg had been unemployed for about 11 months the previous year, so Maggie was the one who had actually paid for the wedding.
Unfortunately, not a single voice shouted out, “NOBODY PUTS MAGGIE IN THE CORNER.”
Maggie had not been prepared, and the damage done has affected her marriage and her relationship with Jessie.
“I am so angry that Greg and Jessie didn’t care about my feelings, and I can’t get over my sense that I was betrayed,” Maggie confesses.
When wedding planning involves a stepmother, especially one who is close with the bride, the needle on the stress meter tends to jerk all the way into the red zone, says Kim Blackham, a marriage and family therapist in Winston-Salem, N.C. It’s not unusual, Blackham thinks, for a young woman planning her wedding to gravitate emotionally toward her biological mom, even when they’re estranged.
“Sometimes the bride-to-be has spent many years longing for a relationship with her biological mother; it doesn’t matter that the woman has continually disappointed her,” says Blackham.
With the "alienated” biological mom in the picture, stepmoms may find themselves delegated to a secondary role. As happened with Maggie, hurt feelings can affect post-wedding bonds between stepmother and stepdaughter, sometimes creating wounds that take a long time to heal.
When the bride-to-be is close to her biological mom, and everyone expects that woman to play a key role in the wedding planning and actual event, the stepmom may still feel pushed away and disappointed.
“Weddings seem to be a lightening rod for all kinds of dysfunction in blended and extended families,” Blackham observes.
Six Tips for Stepmoms
No stepmother wants to find herself sidelined during a joyful event. These six strategies can help her feel useful and loved — and avoid surprises that can sour all the day’s sweetness.
1. Talk to your stepdaughter, early and often. As soon as the bride-to-be starts to plan, open up about your own hopes and expectations. “Let your stepdaughter know that you understand this is her special day and you want to be involved,” advises Christina Roach, a therapist in Tampa, Fla. who specializes in stepfamilies.
Cover all the details ahead of time: who will be in the procession, where people will sit during the ceremony and at the reception, the color of your dress, and whether she would like you to wear a corsage, among other items. If you are using a wedding planner, ask her about specifics that need to be settled. Bridal magazines and online wedding-advice sites also provide these kinds of lists.
2. Include all parties in the conversation. If your stepdaughter intends to include her biological mother in her wedding, no matter what her actual emotional relationship, try to have a conversation with the woman.
“Let her know that you aren’t trying to take her place and that you just need clarity about everyone’s expectations,” Blackham advises.
If the biological mother won’t speak to you, or if you’re the one who finds such a conversation awkward or impossible, you can ask your stepdaughter, a member of the bridal party who knows both of you, the wedding planner or whoever will be performing the ceremony to be a go-between.
As uncomfortable as you may feel with the biological mother, you both want your daughter to have the best day possible.
3. Don’t necessarily put dad in the middle. Your husband may seem like the natural negotiator in this situation. After all, he is the bride’s father, and he and the biological mother have a common interest in the bride’s well-being. However, he may be coping with the strain of seeing and dealing with the biological mother’s family, Roach points out.
On the other hand, do make your wishes completely clear. Let your husband know you’ll feel abandoned if he sits with the bride’s biological mother during the ceremony or the reception. Remind him that you may not be his daughter’s biological mother, but you are his wife.
4. Huddle with the wedding planner. “At the end of the day, my clients are the bride and the groom, and I do what they say they want, no matter who is writing all the checks,” says Mary Homer, owner of Fairy Tale Weddings in Cicero, N.Y. “Like all good wedding planners, I sit down with the family members to make sure that there aren’t any rough spots on the special day. So it’s important that if a family has special issues, they get communicated.”
An event pro can’t make tensions disappear, but she may have ideas that will smooth away the bumps.
5. Anticipate difficult situations. If yours is a recent marriage and you don’t know your stepdaughter well, she may gravitate toward the family unit she knew as a child — her biological mom and your husband, along with their immediate family — unintentionally hurting your feelings and making you feel sidelined.
Relatives from the biological mom’s side of the family may resent the stepmom and be unpleasant.
Blackham suggests making a mental note of everything that could go wrong and deciding ahead of time how you want to react. “On site, the wedding planner can also act as a mediator. She and her team will be watching careful and diffuse any situation that looks ugly,” Homer adds.
6. Rally your team. Blackham stresses that the stepmother will have allies at the wedding — her own family and friends. “Depend on them for company if at any time you begin to feel lonely or left out," she says.
Make sure you have someone to dance with when the guests join in after the father/daughter dance. If your husband plans to stay until the very end of the reception, ask a friend to stay as well, so you’ll always have someone to talk to.
Sometimes we expend so much energy on the “show” that we forget what weddings are all about: family.
“Wedding planning is a perfect time for a stepmother to become close — or closer — to her stepdaughter. There is so much potential for sharing,” Blackham reminds us.
Sure, there will be craziness and strains during the preparations. (They make TV reality shows about that!) But in the end, a stepmother can feel happy and proud that she has helped create a magical and meaningful day.