Annette Byford, a psychologist and psychotherapist of 30 years, based her talk on her research published in a book of the same title*, after the AGM on 9th March. It was well attended, and of particular interest to me as my son married recently married. Annette engaged us with clear conclusions from her research, and anecdotes, including from her own daughter’s wedding. She allowed colleagues to interact naturally and let us choose how to structure the session.

“Weddings create deep emotions”.

Annette disclosed her fury when her daughter’s mother-in-law told not to attend the wedding because she had a cold! People commonly get emotionally charged around a family wedding, which was borne out in Annette’s interviews with mothers of brides and grooms. Why not include fathers? – because, however modern the family is, the “wedding work” is still mostly the role of mothers. Interviewees were seen just after the announcement, 2-3 months before the wedding, and after the event. Annette found that the ceremony serves to challenge our family culture and expectations, especially when theirs is different.

This is stark when one family seems to “steal” the couple, e.g. when they move closer emotionally or geographically, especially to a different country. Annette highlighted cultural differences with Muslim and Hindu respondents. She talked about learning the “rules of engagement” which differ between families. Research with same-sex couples would raise different issues, as new traditions are being formed.

Themes that emerged were the desire for perfection, “tiptoeing” around for fear of either interfering or being excluded, becoming the “monster-in-law” In the process. Families could easily compete. I certainly felt restless, especially the week before the wedding when everyone else was staying in the in-laws’ home in Dublin preparing decorations, making the cake, discussing everything.  Not that we were excluded – my husband chose a poem to read in the ceremony and I made an after-dinner speech – breaking with gender role tradition when mothers generally don’t speak their own words. But I felt odd not being there, so made numerous phone calls instead. Fortunately, they are a loving and open family, and my frequent enquiries were warmly received!

Of huge symbolism is preparing the bride before the wedding, reflecting the mother’s intimate role in dressing her child, and this intimacy is restored if she is involved in the dressing of the bride. (We helped our son with his cufflinks, bow-tie and nerves in his hotel room).

Dressing is one of the rites of passage that occur as the adult children move through the ceremony (think about the symbolism of the father walking his daughter up the aisle) and become the new order, where they are then an adult family of themselves. Original family members are then left to re-configure to the possibilities of children, half- and step-children in some cases, thus everyone has to find a new role. Another aspect is the photographer’s role in creating the story of the day.

Annette invited us to discuss our own roles in family wedding, which for many included their own. This talk produced a lot of sharing, and a sense of “Oh! Now I get it!” I am now avidly reading her book. Thank you Annette for a full, fascinating talk – read the book to find out more.

Maggie Lomax

*Byford, Annette, 2019: A Wedding in the Family (Ortus Press/Free Association Books)