The Hen Do

Hens admiring the cocks on the 'Hen Calendar'

Hens admiring the ‘Hen Calendar’

I wasn’t planning to end my hen do in A and E. I am sure nobody does, but as a sedate thirty-something bride with my daughter in attendance for half of the event, I wasn’t planning a scene of messy carnage. The most adventurous thing I did was to wear contact lenses, one of which tore and got stuck in my eye, bringing my night to its premature end.

The ‘hen do’ apparently first appeared in the UK in the 1960s as a feminist response to the tradition of the ‘stag do’ and became popular in the 1980s. They were initially modelled on the stag do, which enacted every male stereotype in the book – excessive drinking, womanising and creating outrageous initiation rites for the groom (tying him to a lamp-post naked seems to have been a popular one). Although the name ‘hen do’ apparently references the Middle English word ‘hen’ meaning ‘female bird’, the aim of the night was not to conform to the typical female stereotype – it was for women to indulge in laddish behaviour. Just because they could.

As hen and stag dos competed for the reputation of showcasing the worst of British drunken behaviour, and more and more places refused to host them, the entertainment industry came up with solutions in the form of hen and stag ‘experiences’. Now, Google ‘hen do’ and you are answered with a whole host of organised events, ranging from canoeing in Wales, to dance lessons, to nude drawing classes. While it is still possible to stick with the popular 1980s format of drinking too much and dancing on tables until you collapse, there seems to be an expectation that you will ‘do something a bit different’ (and also, ‘a bit more expensive’).

I avoided the pull towards the suggestive and bawdy (blindfolded games of ‘pin the willy on the man’ being one suggestion from a friend which I rejected), and planned a day having spa treatments. Chief Bridesmaid and her friend came, and had their nails painted and their hair done. I had a massage and my first ever facial, most of my friends had facials or manicures, and my Mum came out with beautiful red toenails. My hen do approximated more closely to older forms of the bridal party, which would focus on preparing the bride for the wedding day. In the West, friends of the bride-to-be would dress like her in order to confuse evil spirits, and in India, it was traditional to paint henna tattoos on the bride, to protect her from the evil eye. Another suggested origin for ‘hen do’ is that it comes from ‘henna’. My day was focused upon relaxation and beauty, but without the precautions against the evil eye.

It certainly beat being tied to a lamppost, but my eye looked pretty evil after the jagged edge of the contact lens had lacerated it for a few hours. It began as a slight irritation while I had my hair styled in the spa. As I drank cocktails and got ready to go out, surrounded by the woman who brought me into the world, the daughter I brought into the world, and the friends I have made in between, it became more of an insistent pain. By the time we went out for a meal, the alcohol was definitely numbing the pain. The evening was relaxed and happy, the wine was flowing and glasses were clinking in my honour. It was perfect.

Sometimes this is the right time to leave – on a high – and this is what happened when two of my nurse friends looked at my eye and decided that the emergency department, not a nightclub, was the place for me.

A couple of hours later, my eye thanked them and the doctor who managed to remove the lens. Eye patch in place, I decided to call it a night, although my friends were still in the club, now drinking shots in my honour. It was enough for me, although there is now talk of a replay, a ‘bride do’ to make up for the bits that I missed. Whether that happens or not, the night can never really be replayed for me, for never again will I be at that point in time – less than 3 weeks away from getting married, wondering what the Big Day will bring…

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Wedding Vows

Hearts and promises...

Hearts and promises…

Like most couples, at the instant we met we were child-free. However, unlike younger couples, we would not be child-free for several years while we cemented our relationship and planned for the future. Three hours, at most, would separate us from school pick-up time and the resumption of parenting duties. As our children unsuspectingly practiced for their Nativity Plays, we sat outside a cafe and talked. It was November, as I recall, and our words came out in puffs of smoke which mingled with the steam from the coffee on the table.

It was a small sliver of time in which to be our independent adult selves, to focus on each other, like any new couple. Yet on this occasion and the many that followed, our conversation focused often on the kids; we found a mutual pleasure in sharing stories about them. There was no ‘me’ without my daughter, no ‘him’ without his son, and no ‘us’ without the both of them. Right from the beginning, there were four of us. As the children meandered through their school day, they didn’t know it and neither did we, but we were beginning to dream a family into existence.

Five years later, we sat down to plan our wedding service. We wanted to acknowledge the importance of the children, without making the entire day about them. After all, they will actually leave home one day, and our union will outlast the family unit we are creating. I flicked around on the internet for ideas about involving children in weddings. In the US, there is a ‘family medallion’, a patented idea which seems to be fairly popular. It comprises three engraved circles which interlock to symbolise the couple and the child (ren), and is sold with wedding vows for children (also patented). We decided that these were too commercialised, and I wasn’t sure about the Venn diagram symbolism. The circles seemed more representative of a couple with a baby, than our shape-shifting family. Rather than three interlocked circles, we feel like planets orbiting one another – moving independently, sometimes out of sight of one another, but always returning to the same point, linked by forces we cannot see (like hunger, that undeniable force that brings them to the dinner table every day).

The children are fast heading for puberty and the creation of their own mini-universe, already beginning to struggle for independence, and so now doesn’t seem the right time to get them to promise commitment to an extra parent. I was even less convinced when I read this heart-rending comment on an internet discussion forum: from someone who had been overjoyed to get the family medallion as a child, only to be disillusioned when the marriage broke down:

‘It taught me that promises can be broken,’ she said ‘and I felt responsible for the marriage not working, as if I hadn’t kept my promises.’

This testimony reminded me that promises should not be bandied around like sweets; they are too heavy a burden for a child to carry. Yet, for my Intended and I, who have chosen to make promises on this day, it is important to show that we are committing to one another’s children as well as each other.

I carried on clicking through vows and comments, had a brief laugh at the idea of my daughter promising to obey my Intended, before finding these words:

‘I was not there when you took your first steps, but I promise you now that I will love and support you in every step you take in your life.’

This seemed to say just enough, but not too much. There is an acknowledgement that we are not the birth parent, and a simple promise – one that asks nothing in return. I felt that I could keep this promise, regardless of what happened between my Intended and me.

More clicking, and I found the necklace (above) and this beautiful thing from notonthehighstreet.

Dog tags and promises...

Dog tags and promises…

The pieces of jewellry on this page are made by Dizzy; we think that Best Man will like the dog-tags and Chief Bridesmaid the necklace, engraved with something short and sweet. Hopefully they will keep them and treasure them, these symbols of how far we have all come since that cold November day, back in the mists of time.

The Juggernaut

As 2012 turned to 2013, the wedding was approaching like a juggernaut. I felt the ground shake underneath me at the approach of 60 stampeding guests, all expecting to see a bride in a dress, not to mention flowers and cake (none of which were yet arranged). This wedding, which I had wanted for so long, was beginning to feel like a force of doom, bearing down upon me as I fought the urge to run away.

Dress from shopweddingdress.co.uk, showing how I will probably (not) look on my wedding day...

Dress from shopweddingdress.co.uk, showing how I will probably (not) look on my wedding day…

It seems that it is normal at some point to feel as if you have totally lost control of your wedding. For me, this happened at the moment that I ceded victory to my old school friends over the guest list. Having initially decided that I found drunken guests much more offensive than children at a wedding, I made the decision to avoid inviting people I knew were likely to view the whole event as one huge piss-up. This decision survived a few weeks of anxiety and guilt, until a bad dream in which they were hurt and no longer speaking to me prompted me to invite them all. And their boyfriends.

The guest list having grown exponentially, along with the cost of the wedding, we went to view the small room into which these guests would be stampeding. At the wedding fair, we spoke to people on flower stalls and cake stalls, and the photographer we have miraculously managed to book. Everyone asked the same question

‘What date is the wedding?’ and then pulled the same expression of shock and horror.

‘How long does it take to bake a cake, seriously? Do you have to order a birthday cake a year in advance? Why would a wedding cake take a year to prepare for? Why do you all make such a fuss?’ I muttered (but silently, in my own head).

Put the word ‘wedding’ in front of anything (flowers, cake, dress, drinks, meal) and it seems to take on an extra seriousness and gravity, a slightly ominous and threatening quality – as if the ingredients are all somehow different and harder to get right.

We emerged from the wedding fair somewhat frazzled. We drove silently through the frosted country landscape, the trees becoming starker against the sky as night fell. My Intended pulled into a car park in front of a building that looked familar: – a B-and-B that we stayed in once, in the early days of our relationship. Memories rushed to greet me like old friends.

A few hours later, ensconced in front of a log fire with a glass of wine and a meal, happily discussing our past and our future and basking in a warm contented glow, I felt as if nothing could faze me. Until my Intended informed me that one of the guests is planning to bring some of their home-made moonshine to the wedding…

The Vacuum at the Christmas Table

By vacuum, I mean unfillable empty space, rather than someone who can suck up a large quantity of food in very little time, although we will have one of those too.

Best Man is not going to be with us. Our family is lopsided, having one child permanently (my daughter) and one half the time (his son). This means that sometimes it feels as if we are a small rocking ship, periodically struggling for balance as we adjust to a member of the crew leaving, then getting back in as soon as the ripples have subsided. The transition gets smoother as time goes on and we grow more used to the rhythm of his visits, but at times like Christmas, the lack of one family member becomes glaringly apparent.

My Intended feels this most of all. At first, when we spoke of this Christmas, he would say ‘but we are not having Christmas until after Boxing Day, when (Best Man) is here.’ When I pointed out that Chief Bridesmaid would still be expecting to have Christmas on Christmas Day, we made plans accordingly (we’ll spend it with my family). Best Man will be sorely missed, although of course he’ll be having fun with his Mum and other step-family. It’s hard to know what the situation is like for him, but maybe it’s easier to be the one leaving rather than the one who is left behind…

My Intended sat morosely playing his guitar last night, and I became irritated by his gloom. Many angry rants were running through my mind (all beginning with ‘you’ and ending in ‘ruining Christmas’ and ‘always in a mood’), until he said to me

‘My Dad died on this day.’

Even after 5 years together, there’s so much I don’t know and so many things I never thought to ask.

Today, I direct my thoughts and good wishes to those who will feel loss and sadness this Christmas. Peace and love, I wish them…

Fighting body fascism and teaching the kids about feminism

As the wedding draws closer, I am starting to feel the pressure that I thought I had done well at resisting: – the pressure to look beautiful, slim, elegant. I am considering detoxing, waxing, and even omitting my nightly glass of wine. This is the result of trying on dresses almost daily in my search for one that I can imagine wearing in public. I realise that I never wear dresses, for the simple reason that they just don’t fit me. They are not designed for buxom women like me.

‘This kind of thing is harder for women,’ I tell my daughter, Chief Bridesmaid ‘we are under a lot of pressure to look nice in our wedding dresses.’

‘Well of course,’ she says ‘the dress is the main thing about the wedding.’

‘Yes, but the men don’t have to worry about that, do they?’

‘Ha ha, well that’s because they don’t wear a dress Mum!’ She laughs at my silliness for some time, before she is struck by a thought.

‘He isn’t worrying about his suit though, is he Mum?’

She is beginning to get the point of my observations. This conversation went better than the one I had the other night with Chief Bridesmaid and my future stepson, Best Man:

Watching an old video for Band Aid, I saw a sea of male singers,

‘Music was just like a boys club in the 80s, wasn’t it? There are NO WOMEN at all in this!’

‘Yes there are!’ the kids like to argue these points with me. When I challenged them to show me the women in the video, they shouted ‘there’s one!’ as John Taylor came into view. It was hard to convince them that any of the members of Duran Duran were male, and as for Boy George and Marilyn – impossible. They then proceeded to shout ‘There’s ANOTHER girl!’ every time a member of Bananarama appeared, until it seemed that Bananarama outnumbered very other band.

The androgynous pop stars of the 80s look very strange to our children.

Magazine cover from the 80s, with Duran Duran (top left) and Boy George (top right)

Magazine cover from the 80s, with Duran Duran (top left) and Boy George (top right)

It’s a different story today.

Magazine cover from 2012 with Rhianna, JLS, The Wanted and One Direction

Magazine cover from 2012 with Rhianna, JLS, The Wanted and One Direction

As more women have become successful in the music industry, gender differences have been emphasised. Women can look almost like caricatures of femininity; from eyelashes to nails, to footwear, they are decorated in bright, impractical colours, while the men are dressed in plain clothes – in the case of JLS, just a white vest in order to show off their muscles.

Brides seem to have always been caricatures of femininity, from the 80s

Princess Diana - the 1980s power princess look

Princess Diana – the 1980s power princess look

To the present day

Kate's tiny princess look

Kate’s tiny princess look

There doesn’t seem to be all that much difference between the two gowns – the Big White Dress look is pretty much the same, whatever the era.

Marriage is, of course, whatever you make it, but the wedding service does seem designed to bring the age-old pressures of a patriarchal world bearing down – I’m worrying about things I haven’t considered worrying about for years, in fact I’m having to work hard to prevent myself being taken back to teenage levels of body insecurity. On this journey with me is Chief Bridesmaid, who is already a little worried about her developing figure. In talking to her about these things, I try to show her that it’s not wrong to feel these insecurities; sometimes they are impossible to avoid. It’s how we deal with them that is important. I hope that she will learn to question why she feels that way, and in doing so avoid being helplessly swamped by external expectations.

The Wedding Planning begins in earnest,

So, now it’s time for some actual wedding planning, as opposed to vaguely musing about weddings. In November, on the 5th anniversary of our first meeting, my Intended and I visited the country hotel that I had fixated upon for a Valentine’s Day wedding. For some reason, it was of great significance to me to end my 30s with a bang a wedding, and wake up on my 40th birthday a married woman. I might have mentioned this once or twice, but my Intended wasn’t keen on the idea and so we were sort of haphazardly thinking about a June wedding (to call it’ planning’ would be stretching things a bit), until I splurged my feelings about it all onto these pages.

‘Let’s go and have a look at the hotel then,’ he said. I called to book a meal at the hotel, and told them we were thinking of having our wedding there. I rang back later with the afterthought that we could stay the night there, too.

‘We only have the Bridal Suite available, at £400.’

I told them we couldn’t afford that, and after a muffled conversation the receptionist told me that they had managed to squeeze us in somewhere. On arrival, we were told that we had in fact been upgraded to the Bridal Suite ‘free of charge’.

‘So much to do, and only an hour before dinner!’ I mourned, sinking my toes into the deep pile carpet as I surveyed the massive apartment with wood-burning stove, whirlpool bath, HUGE TV in front of the four poster bed, private garden…’We should have got here earlier!’

It was decided. We would have a small, intimate wedding here, on Valentine’s Day, with a civil ceremony in the ‘Orangery’ with its view out on to the frost-covered hills, and spend the evening by the enormous log fire upstairs. I am swept away by the romance of this: the log fires, the hills, the escape to a country retreat – but most of all, the date. I never expected my Intended to change his mind and move the wedding forward, and the fact that he cares about my happiness – enough to indulge this whim, so silly but so important to me – feels like the most romantic thing of all

So, now we have 8 weeks to plan our romantic wedding. The invitations arrived today. I have 3 mail-order wedding dresses under my bed ready to try on when I get a private moment. Venue – check. Guests – check. Dress – we’ll see. Anything that isn’t done, won’t matter soon….

The New House

We are now in the New House, receptacle of all the hopes and dreams of recent times. In the New House, we would turn into better versions of ourselves. The hallway would always be tidy and we spend our evenings playing musical instruments with the children rather than giving them TV dinners. (I am not sure the children were dreaming about this. I think they thought there might be satellite tv and an x-box; neither of which we had in the Old House).  After 10 days of unpacking boxes, the dream of a tidy hallway has still not come true. TV-free evenings are a reality though, as we can’t get freeview to work. We have all learnt to play chess. It’s nice to spend quality time with our children, I for one am experiencing  a virtuous glow. But, I now realise that the telly was the equivalent of an ‘off’ switch for the children. Now there is no such switch, they follow us around the house, catching us every time we try to sneak a private moment.
‘What can we do next?’ they say.
‘Ah, so nice to spend time with the kids’ we sigh, as we begin to dream of satellite TV and an x-box…and internet. Despite the fact that we have known we were moving for weeks, neither of us thought to set up internet for the New House. The result of this is that the unpacking got done much quicker, and I am typing out this post on a phone which thinks that every time I write ‘will’ I actually want to write ‘Wilkinson’, and when I type ‘the equivalent’ I mean ‘rhetoric equivalent’.
Predictive spelling is not my friend. It is in fact my worst enema…

Write like no-one’s reading?

Dance like no-one’s watching, sing like no-one’s listening, love as if you’ve never been hurt…and write like no-one’s reading?

I love to write. It’s always been the way I organise my thoughts, and often my preferred method of  communication.  As a child, I would write eloquent letters to my parents (usually about why they should let me have a cat but sometimes about why they should not make me clean my room), push them under the door then go and hide in my bedroom. At work, I would email people in the next- door office rather than walk over to speak to them. And at home, I have been known to text my Intended from the next room. Our arguments are often conducted via email.

I feel I am much more persuasive on paper than in person. Writing sometimes feels like a way of revealing my true self; a way to shed inhibitions and self-consciousness and speak from the heart (for times when I have no access to that truth potion, alcohol).

However, a total lack of self consciousness is rarely a good thing, as a brief look at the diaries of my teenage years (or even last week) will prove, or as anyone listening to my kids singing in the shower could vouch. The operative word in the above motto is ‘like’: dance like nobody is watching, but don’t go off into a room and dance by yourself. You may be pretending you are alone, but the knowledge that other people are around you should prevent you from dancing like the legendary drunk uncle at a wedding.

By the same token, thinking out loud on the internet avoids the worst excesses of self-indulgence found in an unseen journal…thoughts are honed and sharpened, you try harder to communicate your ideas, and sometimes you are rewarded with a comment…like a dancer who falls into step with you for a few beats, someone has read your thoughts and been moved to share their own thoughts in turn. You nod, smile, admire each other’s moves, and continue the dance.

Dancing, singing, loving: like writing, all of these things are more enjoyable with a companion or two…

To the uninvited

We’ve known each other since we were 11 years old; you are like my sisters. The saying ‘Friends are like stars. You can’t always see them but you know they are there,’ was made for us. Although we can’t always see each other (and I think we’d all agree that that’s a good thing), we like to know that everyone is still there, sparkling away in their rightful place in the firmament.

Gone are the days when we drank cider in the park, giggling, rolling down hills, crying, hugging, pouring our hearts out, hamming it up just a little bit, as we sat in the park under the whispering trees, sharing secrets and cigarettes (‘My parents don’t love me any more’, ‘If you inhale with your head upside down it makes you go dizzy, go on try it’). Half way between childhood and adulthood, we were hungry to live, love and learn, and that is what we thought we were doing as we drunkenly lay in the fallen leaves, forming our sisterhood. We talked about our weddings then, do you remember that? We were going to walk down the aisle in Doc Martens, with each other as bridesmaids; we would wear red and give our children exotic names, and one day we’d sit around a coffee table drinking coffee, while they ran around together.

Those weddings in Doc Martens never happened, nor the multiple bridesmaids, but we did end up sitting around a table while all our kids ran around together – the oldest 16, the youngest 3 years old. It wasn’t a coffee table, though. And we weren’t drinking coffee. That metamorphosis into responsible sober adults still hasn’t happened – at least, not when we are together. We regress to those days when we never really had to get up in the morning, although we still have a curfew as the kids remind us once they start to get tired.

After years of falling out and making up, or just growing apart, losing each other, we are all back in touch and it feels like coming home to family. Like family, we hate each other get on each others nerves, 50% of the time, but we are part of each other’s universe. My twinkly friends, you are the landmarks by which I can set my compass, and it is a dark night when you are not shining.

Like stars, you are so polarised and so bright that getting you together in the same room is difficult. You sparkle from different corners, sometimes shooting sparks at one another, sometimes just sending them up into the sky like fireworks.

That’s why I can’t invite you all to my wedding. This is the occasion for a different kind of family reunion; a quiet celebration.

You’ll love the wedding party I’ve got planned for our return…

What’s in a Name?

I’ve noticed that a lot of my daughter’s friends have double-barreled names. This seems to be the solution for when you have two parents with a different surname; instead of arguing over whether the child should be called Forrester or Davenport, you just call them Forrester-Davenport. Which seems like a good solution (even though it sounds a tiny bit daft), until you consider what is going to happen when Olivia Forrester-Davenport has a child with Sam Smith-Williams: Lucy Smith-Williams-Forrester-Davenport? And when she marries George Parker-Jones-Fletcher-Carpenter?

Another solution might be a Brangelina-style amalgamation of both names. Forrenport? Or Daventor? I think it could catch on. Each generation would start afresh with a new name, throwing off the baggage associated with the previous one. Although tracing family trees would be a nightmare…

So, what is in a name? How important is it? The law recognises name and religion as two of the most basic aspects of a person. Given as a birthright by parents, these things can only be changed by someone other than a parent if a child is adopted. Upon reaching adulthood, traditionally a woman lost her right to her own name when she married, taking that of her husband. The loss of a woman’s maiden name was seen as a loss of identity, a symbol that she had ceased to belong to her father and now belonged to her husband, in line with the tradition of being given away at the altar.

Women and children’s names can be changed – men’s, rarely. Women’s identities are more fluid nowadays. Few women see themselves as ‘just’ someone’s wife. One friend got married and changed her name, but retained her maiden name at work – because Peterson was easier to pronounce than VanSchallwyck. Another friend kept her maiden name. In reply to shocked relatives who asked whether he thought his wife should change her name, her husband would say: ‘but I’ve got used to calling her Lisa.’

My daughter and I share a name (my maiden name), as do my Intended and his son. There is a neat symmetry to it. If I were to change my name, our family would cease to be symmetrical and my daughter would be the ‘odd one out’. She might have some explaining to do at school, whether her name also changed or remained the same. I wouldn’t like to put her through this. Yet there is a part of me that would like to share a name with my Intended. When this is a choice, it feels very different to something that has been enforced.

So, my choices are: double-barrel, change my name, get my Intended to change his name, or stick with seperate names. Or, maybe I could keep my name for work, school, the doctor – but change it where it’s really important: – like on Facebook?

What do you think? Do you prefer double-barreling, made-up names, flitting between two names or keeping to the one name? And which one would you choose?