Dear Prudence

Help! My Absentee Father Is Threatening to Ruin My Wedding.

Each week, Prudie discusses a tricky letter with a colleague or friend, just for Slate Plus members. This week Jenée Desmond-Harris discusses her response to “Get Me Out of Here” with fellow Slate writer (and also her husband) Joel Anderson.

Dear Prudence,

My parents are divorced due to my dad cheating on my mom with my godmother, her (then) closest friend. My mom and I walked in on them together when I was 6 years old and she had taken me out of school early due to my being sick. Seeing them was awful and the divorce was a nightmare. My mom wanted custody split evenly, but my dad missed picking me up so regularly and would so often take me back to mom’s early that eventually she got sole custody instead. It was a really difficult time in which I felt my dad didn’t love me anymore. When I was 9, my mom married “Gareth,” my stepdad. Gareth was and is incredible—everything my dad wasn’t. He showed up for all my school events, patiently looked after me during my worst, moodiest teenage behavior and a severe mental health crisis when I was 15, and all-round has been the best father figure you could wish for. He and I are close to this day, and I love that my mom has found such a great man.

I’m getting married next spring. I of course want Gareth to walk me down the aisle. He seemed overjoyed when I asked him, and he and my mom have been enthusiastically helping me and my fiancé with wedding plans—they have offered significant financial support, for which we are deeply grateful. My dad, meanwhile, has only met my partner once, and was extremely rude to him. I wouldn’t dream of accepting financial aid from my dad even if it was ever offered, incidentally. Nonetheless, I invited my dad to my wedding and asked if he would not start a fight with my mom and Gareth if we all sat at the family table together. He agreed, then asked sharply if I was doing the “father walks you down the aisle” tradition. I said yes, and that I’d asked Gareth, as the man who raised me for most of my childhood. My dad blew up, yelling at me and saying that my mom had “stolen” me from him as a child, that she had obviously manipulated me into hating him, and that if he saw Gareth walking me down the aisle, he’d walk out of the wedding.

I was genuinely taken aback as, to be honest, my dad has never come across as particularly caring about me or being involved in my life before this—he hasn’t ever visited my home and never calls me, always expecting that I will call him and make arrangements to see him. He prioritizes his latest girlfriends over me, consistently. My fiancé thinks we should disinvite him from the wedding to prevent him causing trouble, while my mom suspects that he is all talk and wouldn’t actually leave midway through as he claims. I don’t know what to do. Part of me is weirdly touched that he even cares about this, while the rest of me is furious at his actions. I need an outside viewpoint—what do you think I should do?

— Get Me Out of Here

Read Prudie’s original response to this letter.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: The part of this that made me sad was “Part of me is weirdly touched that he even cares about this.” Everyone wants their parents to love them, no matter what. And it’s so heartbreaking when parents just don’t deserve it.

Joel Anderson: My heart really goes out to the LW because obviously none of this is her fault, but it’s still her problem. As we often discuss here, and as you read in these letters all the time, weddings are such fraught events. More often than they should, they end up becoming inflection points across a range of relationships.

Jenée: Yes, they aren’t only events that reflect your current relationships—they can really make a statement about where people stand going forward. If you attend someone’s wedding, you’re always going to feel closer to them. If you’re left out, well … it’s hard to come back from.

Joel: Absolutely. And so I can actually understand where the father is coming from in this regard too. Though the relationship has been strained for years, one of the milestones he’s probably been thinking of since the LW’s birth is her wedding. To know that he’s going to be left out, it has to be a crushing disappointment and maybe his first real time understanding how he failed his daughter over the years. Let me very quickly follow that up by saying he’s at fault and this disappointment is his to deal with. It’s not fair that he’s attempting to put that burden on the LW. But that’s probably what’s going on here.

Jenée: You’re such a DAD now!

Joel: Hold up: Is that your shorthand for “meninist”?

Jenée: LOL, no, I’m glad you added those last two sentences. But I just know you immediately were like “Oh God what if my kid didn’t invite me to their wedding” and read it that way.

This is obvious, but he is not a dad who has shown a lot of emotional attachment to his daughter. I struggle to imagine him sitting around fantasizing about her wedding when he was not, like, just calling her! Or making her a priority over his girlfriends. I get it though, people can do and feel conflicting things.

Joel: Right. And he might have a point about how his ex-wife understandably turned his daughter against him in the wake of their divorce, but he might not have had the tools or the wherewithal to maintain and cultivate a better relationship with the LW. But she didn’t ask us to assess blame. She wants to know what to do. So here’s what I say: Tell him that you love him, that you want to improve the relationship, that you want him there, but that you still want your stepdad to walk you down the aisle. If he walks out, that’ll be his embarrassment to own. Not hers.

Jenée: That’s easy to say, but I don’t want her to be preoccupied with what he’s going to do on her wedding day. I think he needs to show remorse for making the threat and really give her some reason to believe he can control himself.
Otherwise, as I wrote in the column but didn’t share with you yet, I think it’s fair to disinvite him based on the plan he’s announced to be a hater.

Joel: I think disinviting him is definitely on the table if, after that first conversation, he’s not amenable to behaving like a grown-up taking responsibility for their fuck-ups. He definitely needs to be contrite and open-hearted here. If he can’t muster that, then sure: leave his ass at home. It actually sounds like, sadly enough, that she won’t be missing much if he keeps his distance.

Jenée: And if he does come, he needs to have a keeper. Like one of the groomsmen needs to be assigned to watch over him and help him make a quiet exit if he appears to be getting worked up.

Joel: See, everyone can have a role at a wedding! Sisters can be flower girls. Groomsmen can be security!

Jenée: It’s true! [Listen to the Slate Plus segments of the Dear Prudence podcast for a discussion of the flower girl thing.] Anyway, I hope the wedding goes smoothly and I know Gareth is going to do his job perfectly, regardless of what drama may be surrounding him.