Seeing everyone stare, wasn’t easy. And neither was hearing the officiant introduce the new Mr. And Mrs. Shawn Gipford. But my son’s reaction at the end of the night made me realize I made the best co-parenting decision to photograph my ex's special day. 

By Erin Gipford
A photo taken by the writer of her ex-husband Shawn and new wife Tina on their wedding day. Courtesy of Erin Gipford

As I do with all my assignments—I'm a wedding photographer by trade—I arrived at the wedding early. But this time it was as much to prep my shots as it was to help my own kids get ready. This, after all, was my ex-husband, the father of my children's second wedding. According to Tina (my ex-husband's soon-to-be new wife), everything was going well and on schedule, so I just took a few minutes to revel in how insanely cute my children looked in their wedding attire. Lance, 6, in his miniature tuxedo, was absolutely the most adorable sight. And April, 10, in her long, wine-colored, junior bridesmaid gown (which added way too many years to her outward appearance) could have easily passed for a 16-year-old on her way to prom. Just the fact that April had on a dress was epic. We struggled to get her into anything other than sweats and a t-shirt.

First and foremost, the ceremony (that and the reception were held at a local casino with a hotel attached to it). It was five minutes to showtime and the seating of the guests was nearly complete. Naturally, as I do at every wedding, I strolled up to the front and took my photographer stance in the front corner so that I would be poised and ready when the processional began. Normally, I have no problem standing in front of a sea of strangers. I don’t even think guests generally notice me and, if they do, they note the ginormous camera, dismiss me as “just the photographer,” and proceed to chitchat amongst themselves.

Once I took my position up front and started scanning the sea of guests, I realized a very big and important piece of my past was staring back at me. One entire side consisted of familiar faces from my own wedding. A rush of insecurity spread over me like the plague. Some of them, who I had stayed in contact with, obviously smiled and waved at me when our eyes met but then there were some, understandably, that were simply trying to make sense of my presence. They seemed very deep in thought, attempting to piece together what seemed so unlikely. Part of me wanted to address the elephant in the room, politely nudge the officiant away from the microphone and just clear the air. “Yes, I am Shawn’s ex-wife and, yes, I am also the photographer at this wedding. Enjoy the show, folks!” I realize now that it was more than likely all in my head, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. Thankfully, for all involved, the processional started before I had time to make a fool of myself.

As the music started and the wedding party began their descent down the aisle, I forced myself back into “work mode,” snapping away and capturing as many moments as my shutter finger would allow. And, yes, I’m positive that I unconsciously took way more photos of my own kids than I should have, and that this probably wasn’t glaringly obvious until weeks later, when everyone thumbed through the wedding album. I think they forgave me.

By the time the officiant started wrapping things up, I was really proud of myself. The ceremony was almost over, and I had succeeded at not letting my emotions get the best of me. I was emotional, but they were warm emotions like gratitude, peace, and love instead of sadness, regret, and grief. Although I knew that I had absolutely nothing to be sad about, when the officiant introduced the newly married couple as “Mr. and Mrs. Shawn Gipford,” I could not help but feel a little something deep down inside my heart. I had heard those words before, at my own wedding. I was Mrs. Gipford for almost six years but now there was a new Mrs. Gipford. It wasn’t necessarily a negative feeling, more just the realization that one season of life was ending but a new one had begun.

A photo taken by the writer of her ex-husband and new wife on their wedding day. Courtesy of Erin Gipford

Alcohol. “Where was the alcohol?” I wondered as soon as the ceremony was finished.

I found myself a glass of wine and spent the rest of the evening mingling and catching up with mutual friends and most of my relatives from the past. Shawn’s family had always been extremely kind to me and appreciative of our co-parenting relationship, so it was actually fun. For a few brief hours, I sort of felt like one of the family again. By 10 p.m., the social butterfly inside me was exhausted and my feet had had enough for one day, so I attempted to summon my children off the dance floor and say goodbye. (You know you’re getting old when your kids can outlast you on a Saturday night!)

April came running over soon after I flagged her down. I told her I was getting ready to head up to my room. I reached my arms out for a big bear hug and we exchanged an “I love you!” I knew I had interrupted her dance party, so I kept it brief. I gave her a quick kiss and shoved her back out onto the brightly colored dance floor.

Just as April left, Lance came whizzing by with his cousin and I gently grabbed his elbow and pulled him off what seemed to be an invisible racetrack. “Hey, buddy, I’m going to head up to my room, so Mommy needs a hug and a kiss, okay?” I said as I knelt down to his level. He kindly obliged and we exchanged an unusually long and firm hug which I sealed with a quick mommy kiss on his rosy cheek.

He looked me straight in the eyes and blurted out, “Thanks for everything, Mom,” while simultaneously hopping back on the invisible racetrack. He was gone before my brain could even wrap itself around his words. I probably looked like I had had a few too many glasses of wine, standing there by myself, utterly dazed and confused, seriously contemplating if I had heard him correctly. You see, this is just not something that normally comes out of my son’s mouth. Like ever. My daughter, yes—it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if she were the one to say it…but Lance?

That emotional train wreck earlier in the evening I had desperately tried to avoid? Well, it was on its way in full force. My eyes got watery, my heart felt like it was going to explode, and yet I stood there, all alone, emotionally exhausted from a long day of trying to hold myself together. It was the greatest “thank you” I’ve ever gotten in my life.

Erin Gipford with her kids, Lance and April, at their father's wedding. Courtesy of Erin Gipford

Every single ounce of co-parenting worries and anxiety I had experienced thus far in our crazy journey quickly vanished upon fully processing my son’s words. I would compare it to seeing the light at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel, the type of tunnel that is so long you often forget how far you’ve come.

“Thank you for loving me. Thank you for being here today, even though I’m sure it was hard for you. Thank you for always putting my best interests first. Thank you for creating structure in my life when I needed it most. And, most of all, thank you for respecting my dad and my new stepmom.”

Aww, yes indeed. I knew exactly what Lance meant when he said, “Thank you for everything.”

A few more tears escaped down my cheeks as I tried to discreetly duck out of the party and bee-line it towards the elevator. I got back to my hotel room, crawled into bed, and proceeded to thank the good Lord above for working his magic, yet again, as I drifted off into a deep and peaceful sleep.

What I learned from this season of life:

  1. The right thing to do is not always the easiest, but doing the right thing always pays off in the end.
  2. My son looks adorable in a tuxedo.
  3. Time truly does heal all wounds.
  4. It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.

This article is an excerpt from (Step)Mom - A Dual Memoir: How We Navigated Divorce, Remarriage, & Co-Parenting With the Same Goal...Happy Children, reprinted with the permission of the authors, Erin Gipford (bio-mom) and Tina Gipford (step-mom). You can learn more and buy the book (available in paperback and ebook) at www.gipfordmoms.com/book or on Amazon

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