A few weeks ago my younger daughter got married, the first wedding in our family for over twenty years. The intense feelings of that day are still strongly with me, they’re a surprisingly large part of my present awareness. I keep wanting to go up to strangers and tell them about my daughter’s wedding, and I’m a person who rarely talks to strangers about anything. I am writing this partly to work out for myself why it was such a major experience.
It’s clear that the wedding is a rite of passage for the Bride and Groom. The event is full of rituals, large and small: the rings and vows, the Groom in his speech shyly saying, “my wife” for the first time, the guests cheering the new couple as they drive off into their future. I had not expected it to be a rite of passage for me too, but it was.
A rite of passage means a ceremony, ritual or other experience which celebrates a major change in your life stage or life condition. Men’s writers have noted the sad lack of rites of passage in Western society: for example, from boy to man, or from man to elder. Maybe the lasting popularity of weddings is because this is a rite of passage which is understood and enjoyed by many people.
Odd as this may sound, the emotional intensity I felt at Fran’s wedding took me by surprise. People asked how I felt about giving my daughter away, and I replied that I was not giving her away, she was not mine to give. I dislike the phrase giving away, which suggests archaic property rights of fathers over daughters, and feudal deals where you exchange your daughter for an extra fiefdom. I missed the fact that there is a real and deep change going on here. You could say that the first man in the Bride’s life, the one she would turn to in a crisis, changes from her father to her husband. I am sure that Fran and I will remain close, but this is a big shift in the tectonic plates of the family structure.
For me, the classic rite of passage is the vision quest: an extended time in solitude with nature. The wedding was totally different, since my change was witnessed by so many people. It’s clear that the Bride is the star of the day, closely followed by the Groom and bridesmaids: I had not expected that I would be so visible too. Driving to the wedding with Fran in her amazing dress in an open-top vintage Rolls Royce, we both felt like royalty: folk in the street were actually cheering. It was a pretty smart wedding, and my role in paying for much of it was known, visible, recognised in the speeches. And then there was my speech.
To soothe my nerves, I had drafted my speech for the reception as soon as the engagement was announced, eight months before the wedding. But in the days before May 21, I grew doubtful. The father’s speech at a wedding needs to find a delicate balance, between expressing your love for your daughter, and not being sentimental; between celebrating her character and not embarrassing her; between moist eyes and floods of tears. I was sneaking into corners to make final revisions until just before the speech.
I thought I was managing my nerves well until I stood up to speak. Then I felt really overwhelmed. I have made keynote speeches at conferences to over a thousand people, and had good training in public speaking, but this was personal! From somewhere in me confidence returned, maybe the sense that I was doing this for Fran, not for me. I actually started adlibbing jokes, and when I finished and sat down, I knew I had done well. All this was part of the rite of passage: being so visible in a personal role, not the usual professional ones I hide behind. Being seen as myself, and as a father, and being appreciated. For someone like me who is driven by low inner confidence to high external achievements, there is something very healing and steadying about this.
This wedding was also a rite of passage for the whole family. My wife and I split up in 1998, fairly amicably, but it created a distance between us and our families, who had been close before. For this wedding, the families worked together to make the day wonderful, and there were some sweet moments when my ex-wife and I were supporting our daughter through some nervous wobbles.
Another feature that made this day so moving for me is that I have never seen people looking so happy as my daughter and her husband. Amid all the troubles of our times, it is great to have times of hope and celebration, and to feel that you have helped to create them.