Sara Cunningham had officiated many weddings of same-sex couples before deciding to publicly volunteer herself as a “stand-in mom” for individuals whose mothers would be sitting out of their weddings. The 55-year-old mother of two from Oklahoma made what she thought was a modest announcement on Facebook last summer, but the post promptly went viral. “If you need a mom to attend your same sex wedding because your biological mom won’t, call me. I’m there. I’ll be your biggest fan. I’ll even bring the bubbles,” she wrote.
As a wedding officiant, she had witnessed these absences first hand; as a stand-in mother, she hoped to reassure the happy couple that they were loved. “I posted it out of frustration,” she recently told People in an interview. “So often I heard about parents who were not acknowledging these relationships or not attending the wedding.” As a stand-in mother, she’s already penciled in three weddings this year.
— Free Mom Hugs (@freemomhugs) January 24, 2019
Cunningham shared with the magazine the mix of emotions she experienced at the first wedding she had attended as a surrogate, the November marriage of Tabatha Cash and Marlee Castillo. “It was bittersweet because I know [Tabatha] didn’t have a mom there. No matter how much she knew she was doing the right thing for herself, there’s still a part of her that’s missing, and that’s her mom.”
A Personal Journey to LGBTQ Advocacy
Volunteering as a stand-in mother wasn’t Cunningham’s first role as a loving, maternal advocate for the LGBTQ community… and she wasn’t always an advocate either. When her son came out to her as gay, she had been unable to fully and immediately embrace his truth. “My biggest regret is not celebrating [my son] and what was important to him, earlier — even during his high school years, and not being able to look past my own fears and my own ignorance to see him,” Cunningham told CNN last month.
This regret inspired her to disrupt other parents’ experiences with their LGBTQ children in order to foster positivity and unconditional love in what can be a difficult time for everyone involved. Cunningham founded her organization Free Mom Hugs several years ago as a LGBTQ parent resource to support family members who are struggling with acceptance so that no child will have to face the trauma of rejection on behalf of their identity. (The name of her organization comes from the fact that she’s literally advertised free mom hugs at pride parades.)
You may remember Seth Owen and his story of being rejected by his family for being gay. He became valedictorian and awarded a full college scholarship. And last night@HRC was given this blanket with 4,000 mama bears hugs wrapped inside! @MamaBearOk @lizdyer #timetothrive pic.twitter.com/vyVGcG94Kg
— Free Mom Hugs (@freemomhugs) February 16, 2019
Cunningham emphasized that the very least one can do is show up for loved ones — especially when they need it most. “And when I say showing up, I mean we as parents, as friends or allies,” she said. “I’m not the first mom to offer free mom hugs or attend weddings as a stand-in. But when we show up for any group that’s marginalized, that’s how we can make sure they really know they are loved and celebrated.”