Lauren’s stepfather — the man she calls “Dad” — crying as he sees her in her wedding dress for the first time.
Weddings and families. Depending on your family, the very thought may send you into a swoon of happiness or a mad dash for the Xanax. As a wedding photographer, I’ve seen both responses (and everything in between) played out over and over again on notoriously emotion-filled wedding days.
Some moms forget it’s not their wedding; some dads can’t stop complaining about the suit they have to wear; some grandparents are ready to leave before the ceremony has even ended; some aunts and uncles arrive drunk and leave drunker. Family is beautiful; family is stressful; family… just is.
I had a great family, and for me, the word conjures images of hugs and laughter, late-night impromptu dance parties, picnic dinners in the living room, whiffle ball games in the back yard. Unfortunately, not everyone’s experiences with their biological families are so idyllic. Not everyone felt loved, accepted, encouraged. Not everyone had parents who said, “you want to go to art school? Awesome!”
It’s those men and women — the ones who didn’t have that organic, loving family — who have taught me the most about what family really means. Because they didn’t settle for the messy, difficult, unkind people who gave them their genes. No, they went out into the world and found new people. They built their own families.
In 2007, I photographed a wedding for a beautiful southern couple who celebrated their marriage at a gorgeous estate in east Georgia. The day was absolutely perfect: perfect weather, perfect setting, perfect joy. Early in the day, the bride told me that her stepfather would be walking her down the aisle — not her biological father; he wouldn’t even be present. “My stepdad is really my dad,” she said.
Makeup, hair, putting on the dress — these things filled up the morning, and eventually it was time to go downstairs and line up for the wedding ceremony. At the bottom of the stairs was Lauren’s stepfather, not yet suited up, a man who shared no genes with the beautiful woman in front of him; a man who immediately started crying when he saw his little girl all dressed up for her wedding day.
Daddy-daughter moments always move me. I have an amazing dad, and I love to see that same love between other women and their fathers. But this moment between Lauren and her father moved me more than most, because there was no obligation to emote. There were no forced tears, or required demonstrations of connection. This was love, real and honest and open. This was family.
Within the hour, Lauren’s stepfather was walking her down the aisle, and she became part of a new family. For most women, the “Giving of the Bride” ceremony holds a certain benediction. Clearly, no modern woman believes she is her father’s property, or her husband’s. But there is a blessing in this traditional handing over, as a woman unclasps hands with the first man in her life, and joins hands with her soon-to-be husband.
Lauren’s stepfather was not the iconic first man in her life. They had no biological ties, no legal bonds. But his presence as her father-figure was strong and sure as he escorted her down the aisle toward the man she had chosen to marry. His love for her made it so evident; her trust in him made it so clear.
Blood doesn’t make you family; love does.
We have no control over the families we are born into, but we are blessed with the ability to make our own families. To find people who support our dreams, love us unconditionally, speak truth to us even when it’s hard, hold us when we hurt, and maybe even walk us down the aisle on our wedding day. Go out into the world and find these people, the kindred spirits and like minds. Build your family, and be welcomed home.