Stacy’s veil floated silently behind her as she gripped her bouquet of peach daisies and white roses. I watched her take a deep breath before entering the sanctuary. I invited the congregation to stand as Stacy linked one arm with her father and the other with her stepfather. Then all three began the slow walk down the aisle, all eyes following their procession.
I’m a Christian minister, and I was officiating this wedding between Stacy and Jim. They'd begun dating in college, and now, in their late twenties, both were teaching in public schools in central Illinois. Jim’s parents are long-time members of the Lutheran congregation where I serve as pastor. I'd met Stacy during our premarital counseling sessions, during which time I learned about her parent’s divorce when she was in second grade. Each parent remarried quickly, and she said she could not remember a time in her life without her stepmother and stepfather in the picture.
Walking in a long, unwieldy, tulle dress while carrying a heavy bouquet can feel foreign for any bride, and making the walk with two escorts seemed no more awkward than with one. Because the three had practiced the procession during the rehearsal, they walked with relative calm and confidence. At the end of the aisle, Stacy stopped to hug her stepfather, then her father. Then she joined her groom to begin the ceremony.
They saw their procession as normal, which led the congregation to see it as normal, too. As they should; nearly half of all Americans have at least one step-relative—four-in-ten as of 2011, according to the Pew Social Research Center. Processions such as Stacy’s happen quite often. Finding creative ways to incorporate all those we call family in a wedding ceremony is not only important but also a task that many people face.
At first glance, the extra planning and rehearsal needed to smoothly incorporate step relations might seem like a hassle, but it’s actually a chance to work with your officiant to plan a wonderful ritual that celebrates not only the family you are becoming, but also the families from which you both came.
Because you have to think about who to include and why, coming from a blended family can propel you to think more deeply about what family means—at a time when many couples get side-tracked by the accouterments of dress, cake, flowers, and whether or not their dog should trot down the aisle, too.
There can be setbacks and glitches in any wedding; everyone involved is nervous, and there are a lot of moving parts. Many couples worry about inadvertently offending or overlooking someone important. Careful planning can ensure that including parents and stepparents is the least stressful part of the day.
Here are five tips for incorporating step relations that I’ve learned from officiating:
1. Determine who is family.
Bring a list of the family members who will attend the ceremony to the first meeting with your officiant. Be as inclusive as you can. Family members such as step-siblings and ex-stepparents can serve as ushers, a guest book attendant, readers, or participants in unique rituals. In a recent wedding I officiated, a bride and groom of Celtic background asked the bride's brother and groom's sister to lead a tartan ribbon hand-fasting ceremony, binding the hands of the bride and groom in a symbolic “tying the knot.” Most officiants can offer suggestions for how to make the marriage ritual unique while incorporating all the people you'd like to honor.
2. Decide who will escort the bride.
The father of the bride traditionally escorts the bride, but like Stacy, many people have a father and a stepfather they want to include. Another bride, Jane, wanted only her stepfather to escort her down the aisle because her relationship with her father had been estranged for many years. A bride can also ask a friend or a sibling, a mother or grandmother to escort.
Legally and religiously, there are no requirements concerning who or how many people escort the bride.
However, guests tend to expect to see one father, so, like with Stacy and her fathers, I'll encourage a bride to practice the procession, and walk with confidence as a way to model for the community what is "normal."
3. Share your choices privately, in advance.
In the case of Jane, who wanted only her stepfather to escort her, I brought Jane and her father together prior to the ceremony so that she could explain her plans to him. Her father was disappointed, but he understood that his previous choice to step out of her life for several years resulted in this consequence. He appreciated knowing his daughter’s choice in advance.
4. Remember that the order of entrance carries weight.
Although Stacy’s parents were happy with having both her father and stepfather escort her down the aisle, there was conflict over the order in which her mother and stepmother would enter, and be seated. Stacy thought that the last person to enter held the higher place of honor, and so she wanted her mother to be ushered in last. But her mother wanted to enter first.
Traditionally, the person who enters last holds the greater honor (hence the bride enters after all the attendants). However, as Stacy realized, what really matters is how the parents you love feel. Their emotions matter more than traditional “rules.” Stacy gave in to her mother’s wishes and had her walk down the aisle first.
5. Plan for meaningful pictures.
When planning formal photos, think through what family groupings will be most meaningful to you—and for your family. For example, Stacy and Jim chose to have one photo that included all family members of both of them—the parents, stepparents, siblings, step-siblings. They wanted to display that photo in their home. However, they also took photos of the two of them with each parent (and that parent’s spouse), and the siblings and step-siblings. This allowed each parent to have one formal photo of “their” own family grouping.
Discuss the different family arrangements with the photographer before the ceremony so that you can coordinate who needs to be in each photo, reducing confusing during the actual wedding day.
In Stacy and Jim’s premarital counseling sessions, we discussed how to include both her father figures early on in our talks. Navigating how best to honor family members can be tricky, but with planning and forethought, your wedding ceremony can be a wonderful way to celebrate your blended family or families.
*All names have been changed.
Amy Ziettlow is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and she serves Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Decatur, IL. She previously served as COO of The Hospice of Baton Rouge, and is the co-author (with Naomi Cahn) of Homeward Bound: Family, Elder Care and Loss in the 21st-Century (2017, Oxford University Press).