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Guest List Stress: The Culprit is Exactly Who You Think It Is

Wedding guests giving a toast

I attended a virtual writing workshop last week, and to get started, the coach read a poem, and then invited us to use one of the lines of the poem as a starting point. I already knew what I had come to write about, and this is what poured out of me, unedited, when I heard the line, “Honour and a task.”

Honour and a task: planning your wedding for you. It’s about you, of course. But you need me. My style, my flair, my know-how. As your mother I know exactly what you need and also what you don’t know you need, your flaws, that I can publicly repair by crafting this perfect moment for you. And for me. For my friends to see how truly great I am, how generous, and what good taste I have. There are things that are simply not done, and I know them, and you are not worldly enough to know them. So I will do this for you, as a gift, and its rightness will set you on the path to rightness, and everything will be good in your world because I made it so, because I passed my perfection down to you by way of this perfect day. My perfect day, for you.

And I’ll be honest, I don’t think you know a thing about it. About the right food or the right flowers, and it’s not about what calls to you. It’s about what matters. To the right people. Because that will determine your success, and that is what I need, what I require. And if only my mother had better taste, and had done for me exactly what I’m doing for you, my life would have been better. But she didn’t know the right things to do, and she was too controlling. I won’t be that way. But you want me to do this for you, don’t you? It’s just easier this way, my love. It’s just better if you let me do it all for you, and anyway, we’re paying for it.

And your father has people coming, you know. It’s only right; they had us to their children's weddings and we gave a big gift.

I got all of that out in about five minutes of stream-of-consciousness writing, putting myself in the shoes of your mother. It felt easy, because I’ve been thinking lately about a time when it was natural for your mother to take the reins.

It made sense, way back then. (There are actually a lot of things about “back then” that carry over and make messes of engagement and wedding planning today, but I’ll get into those another day.) People got married very young. So young, in fact, that they didn’t have a single cent to put toward their own wedding, so parents (usually the bride’s) paid for the entire affair. And because they paid, they decided: where they would host their event, what food their guests would be served, how the room should be decorated. Not only were they the ones making the investment, they also had the knowledge (or at least more of it than the young couple) about what was and wasn’t appropriate. And then, of course, there was the fact that parties of that scale were an opportunity for they and their friends to gather and celebrate the marrying off of a daughter who might otherwise be a financial burden on the parents.

It was also an opportunity for business deals to be made and fortified, and with that came a risk of offending anyone who might not be invited. And this is exactly the issue I came upon planning my own wedding in 2014.

I wasn’t all that young, but I certainly didn’t have the money to throw the kind of party I wanted, let alone the kind my father wanted. We went from my dream of a casual backyard barbecue with bouncy castles and a local band that played in my favourite dive bars to a banquet style, black-tie optional, typical Montreal Jewish wedding, complete with rabbi (even though my husband and I are both atheists, and were technically already married).

The one thing I managed to get my way about, though, was not having some of my dad’s less appealing business associates present. There was one man in particular who had really rubbed me the wrong way, and I would sooner not have a party than have to shake his sweaty hand and say “thank you for coming.” And since I wasn’t getting pretty much anything I had chosen for my dream day, I put my foot down hard about this.

Now, I can argue with my father until the cows come home, and not to drive the metaphor home too much, but we’re both tauruses: you mess with the bull, you get the horns. We were both prepared to argue to the death over this jerk, when I came up with something super simple that cut the tension like a hot knife through butter. (I’m so sorry – could I be using any more idioms?)

I said, “Dad, I don’t want to be fake-nice to people on my wedding day.”

That simple phrase, which I had to repeat a few more times throughout the process, made my life that much easier. Did I still need the half-an-Ativan and glass of chardonnay I’m always on about? Hell yes. It didn’t solve all my worries. But that phrase evolved into our wedding mantra, which meant everyone involved got on the same page about what was truly important to French Husband and I:

“Only people who love us in the room.”

That was it. I didn’t get the flowers I wanted, and I had to be flexible about my barbecue becoming a sit-down dinner with wine pairings (that I still get compliments on!), but we only met 5 people we didn’t know prior on our wedding day, which I count as a huge win.

The last thing you want to do on the best and shortest day of your life is make small talk with people you could not care less about. And while this definitely isn’t a cure-all phrase, it’s one I think you should keep in your back pocket for the inevitable moment when your parents forget that it isn’t 1950 and try to take over the guest list.

For more on wedding mantras, check out my singular coaching offer, The Jumpstart – a way to get my actual expert eyes on your wedding plan before your mother-in-law comes in with all her “wisdom.”


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