The Guest List Is Full

Seventeen years ago, we didn’t want to invite our parents’ friends to our wedding. Now I regret it.

Courtesy of John Dickerson

I am at the hinge point between being the groom and the father of the groom. I was married 17 years ago. If my oldest child gets married in 17 years, he will be 27. That’s how old I was when I got married. At this important moment of stasis, I would like to make a plea to my son and his younger sister: Let Mom and Dad invite their friends to the wedding. 

Like most of my requests as a parent, I am asking that my children do as I say and not as I did. When my wife and I married, we had thousands of definite opinions about everything from the live country swing band to the vows we’d memorize, to the precise meal we’d have. Our wedding was going to be intimate, dammit. This meant we didn’t want to go down the aisle and catch the eye of someone we didn’t know. Our friends couldn’t bring hit-or-miss dates, and while we were sure our cousin really loved her new beau, unless they were engaged, we weren’t going to take a chance on him. A corollary to this guest limit policy was that we didn’t want our parents inviting their friends. This isn’t about you, we thought, it’s about us. 

Parental friends take liberties. They are apt to think they have license to tell inconvenient stories. Weddings are stressful enough. You don’t want to have to listen to another rendition of the time you interrupted dinner in your Batman costume when you were 4. Parental friends also ask a lot of questions about your job and your goals—all the things you’re trying to ignore during the blissful weekend. When are you going to have children! Or better: Are you going to start trying to have children? As soon as possible, Mrs. Jones. May we send you the video? You can’t respond this way or avoid these conversations because at your wedding it’s your obligation to behave like an adult and not a 12-year-old brat. But the obligation to your parents’ friends is infantilizing and incites your most stupid behavior. 

Still, despite my view at the time, I now say to future brides and grooms, grow up and deal with it. It’s easy enough to understand why people shouldn’t be selfish or childish about the guest list, but there’s also a reason our high-minded theory of excluding parental friends was flawed. 

A wedding is a public affirmation of love. You gather your friends and family to celebrate but also to collaborate. This is going to be a long journey. In our case we assumed the people in the audience would be people we could count on throughout our lives: when our children were born, when we turned 50, when we were fired or hired or fell down and needed to be reminded of our best selves. They’d be there when our parents died, and even when death finally did us part. We would surely want them there when our children got married. What we didn’t understand was that allowing our parents to invite their friends was a celebration of continuity and the communal purpose of matrimony we were trying so hard to create ourselves. 

It’s also the generous thing to do. There’s an indefinite point in your tenure as a parent where you start to realize your kids are leaving you. For us, the first hints came at about age 9. As your kids age, you delight in the new bonds that replace the old ones. No longer laughing over Dr. Seuss, you’re now laughing over The Avengers and tomorrow Arrested Development. Or you’re watching them pull the wriggling fish off the hook, which was once your job. The moments are so sweet you can usually avoid the thread of melancholy embedded in each of them: With each molting, you reinforce that the molting is happening faster. 

As this is happening, you talk about it with your friends at dinner while the kids are upstairs not going to sleep. They are experiencing the same things with their children. Or, you’re puzzling through how to raise them without ruining them. As a child you don’t know it, but your parents’ friends are often responsible for convincing Mom and Dad that whatever you’re doing is normal and not incipient brutishness that needs to be stamped out with extraordinary measures. 

This support group is really going to be necessary at a wedding. It’s a celebration for the parents, but the melancholy is there too. Your child is really gone now. You are heading into another stage—the final stage—of your life. It is precisely in these kinds of moments that parents need their friends to commiserate and laugh and to trade stories.

If your parents are paying for the wedding, that makes the friend exclusion particularly gauche, but even if you’re paying for it, you should make a little extra room if you can. It’s the kind thing to do. And if you need one more reason to give in, think of the invitations of Mr. and Mrs. Jones in utilitarian terms: If your parents are off playing with their friends, they will have less time to fuss over you.