Elegant Wedding: Relationships: When Momzilla Attacks

You love your mom. You want to love his mom. Here's how to still feel that way when the wedding's over.

Zoey S.* liked the cake. Her mother, as usual, didn’t like it — but wouldn’t say why.
Her mother asked, “You like that one?”
Zoey replied, “I do. I like it.”

ZOEY S.* LIKED THE CAKE. HER MOTHER, as usual, didn’t like it — but wouldn’t say why.

Her mother asked, “You like that one?”

Zoey replied, “I do. I like it.”

“It’s square.”

“I know it’s square. You don’t like square?”

Her mother shrugged. They moved on to the next cake and she continued to ask questions that noncommittally expressed her distaste. It was driving Zoey up a wall.

When the Center City bride started planning in July 2005 for a May 2006 wedding at her parents’ home, she knew there might be some tension. But she took comfort in the fact that her mother wasn’t the type to get caught up in something as appearance-oriented as a wedding. Plus, Zoey’s no teenager — she’s 35. “I figured we could handle it. I was older now,” she says, “and she was miles away.” That assumption faded fast. “In a way I never could have predicted,” Zoey says, “my mother all of a sudden cared desperately what everyone thought — everyone except me.”

Give and Take and Take

AS LINGUIST DEBORAH TANNEN WROTE in You’re Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Random House, 2006), interactions between daughters and mothers are fraught with booby traps. Any daughter wants her mother’s approval. Mothers feel obliged to voice judgments about everything from their daughters’ choice of breakfast cereal to their choice of life partner — because, they reason, it’s for their own good, and who else is going to be honest with them? Stir the anxiety of wedding planning into this turbulent mix and it’s easy to see why a seemingly innocent question about a square cake can ignite an emotional reaction.

“You’ve probably got two strong-willed women who already have some issues,” says Mark Kingsdorf, owner of The Queen of Hearts Wedding Consultants in Philadelphia. “If a mom and daughter were to go out shopping for her first condo, and Mom and Dad were involved with the financing, it would be stressful. Now you’re taking 14-16 major purchases and lumping them all together,” he says. “There’s a big give-and-take in wedding planning — brides tend to think that since it’s their day, they don’t have to give. If parents are paying for part of it, they think that means they don’t have to give.” Nothing brings out anxiety like money.

Add to that social pressure. “It’s a self-esteem issue,” says Dr. Julie Ann Allender, a licensed psychologist with offices in Sellersville and Lebanon. “Women get into it more than men, because we’re more into the dress and the nails and the hair and what people are going to think.” This is one reason why mothers hijack the wedding planning. Another could be residual disappointment over her own wedding. “Twenty-five to 30 years ago, people were doing much smaller weddings,” says Kingsdorf. “Moms and moms-in-law were once little girls, too. They dreamt about their weddings, and they didn’t necessarily have the wedding that they dreamt about.”

The In-Laws

DEALINGS WITH THE GROOM’S FAMILY CAN BE EVEN STICKIER. In Rachel R.’s case, her future grandmother-in-law was the main source of angst while planning her Jewish ceremony. When the grandmom heard that her favorite grandson was engaged, she said, “I can just see myself floating down the aisle.” But for various reasons Rachel and her fiance had decided to forgo the Jewish tradition of having the grandparents walk down the aisle and instead have a small bridal party at their June 2006 Center City wedding, with one attendant each. They chose to honor their grandparents by seating them in the front row. Of course, Grandmom flipped when she heard these plans, accusing Rachel of not having a large bridal party because she didn’t have any friends — before announcing her intentions to wear black to the ceremony.

“With in-laws, it could be a turf issue, somebody wanting to exert their power,” says Dr. Rose Marino, a licensed psychologist with offices in Media and St. Peters. “The new bride may be trying to position herself so that she can let the mother know, ‘I’m in charge here.’” And it’s tricky — with your own mother, you can act like a child and she’ll still love you. With a mom-in-law, the way you handle conflict during the wedding planning could set the tone for your lifelong relationship. So even though the groom’s family can be even more meddling than her own, a bride has to keep it together.

Rachel dealt with her situation by using a kill-her-with-kindness approach, meeting each of her future grandmother-in-law’s lashings with a tight-lipped smile and a change of subject.

Another smoothing-over strategy is to manage the situation before it spins out of control. Rachel and her fiance discussed their wedding during the long drive home to Center City from the Poconos the day after he popped the question. By the time they’d arrived home, they’d hashed out details like location, timing, size of bridal party and guest list. They made a pact not to agree to anything without first checking with each other. They stuck to the pact, presenting a solid front during the inevitable storm of strongly worded “suggestions” and attempts at manipulation.

Sneak Attacks

OF COURSE, THERE’S LITTLE RECOURSE IF THE MEDDLER conveniently forgets to ask first. This is what happened to Alice B., who anticipated problems when her mother-in-law began buying her wedding magazines a year into her relationship with Mike, an only child. (It would be another two years before they were engaged.)

Alice has very different taste from her mom-in-law — she’s into classic and uncluttered, where her mom-in-law is into girlie and frilly. “She wanted to take me to go try on these enormous dresses at a place that was called something like ‘The Bridal Depot,’” says Alice, who managed to keep her mother-in-law out of her hair by giving her jobs, such as making a basket to hold the gift cards.

The day before her June 2005 wedding, Alice found her mom-in-law knee-deep in tulle, crafting bows to attach to the back of each chair under the outdoor tent. “I talked her out of it,” says Alice, “but she had bought all of this tulle. I convinced her just to decorate the tent poles.”

So while there may not be a foolproof way to prevent tiffs with your mom and soon-to-be mother-in-law, letting go of the smaller things — the tulle on the tent poles, the strongly-worded “suggestions,” for instance — will help you keep the moms involved without letting them take over.

Remember, your relationship with both of them will last much longer than your Big Day. Taking the time to see where everyone’s coming from and learning to compromise will make sure you have a happily ever after — with both of them.

* Names and identifying characteristics have been changed in order to protect these already fragile relationships.