Welcome to Week 3 of the She Said/She Said Project! Last week’s topic generated some heated discussion and I’d like to thank everyone who participated. It’s clear that we’re all drawing on our own experience (ie: pain and lessons learned) and we can learn a lot from each other. Let’s also not forget that we’re each in different stages of our journeys and every voyage through divorce is a little different.
This week, Meredith and I are discussing holidays and special occasions. You’ll find her post below and you can read mine at Now Is Good. I’m looking forward to hear how others have handled these scenarios.
Anyone who read my blog a couple of months ago knows that the issue of celebrating holidays (or more specifically, celebrating Christmas) was recently a central issue in my own little divorce/co-parenting/significant other world. Five days before Christmas, my ex unilaterally decided to alter the way we had agreed to spend Christmas with the kids. He was within his legal rights to do so, but he took very little notice of the effect the last-minute change had on the kids (or on me). The result was a fairly nasty few days spent during a time of year when the pain was felt more acutely than normal. The underlying message my kids heard from their dad’s decision (and subsequent refusal to change his mind despite their protestations) was: This is how I want to spend the holiday and this is how I want the kids to do it, so this is how it will be done. When it comes to most holidays, however, I think that the kids should get the loudest vote.
Since our divorce, my ex and I have worked extremely hard to put aside our personal feelings toward each other and co-parent our children. For us, “co-parenting” has truly meant joint parenting. Not parallel parenting, not separate-but-equal parenting, not independent parenting. We do things together. We both attend school functions and classroom parties and informational meetings. We’re both at swim meets and ball games and award ceremonies. The kids have one birthday party; we both attend and we share the cost. The kids have one Christmas morning celebration—and we’re both present (and sometimes give joint gifts that the kids may take back and forth between our houses). When we’ve gone out to dinner to celebrate an accomplishment or good grades or the end of a school year, we’ve gone together. We’ve tried hard to make the kids feel like we are still a family unit even though we are divorced and live in separate houses. Some of that interaction (family dinners, celebratory outings) has lessened over time and the kids have adjusted to living in dual households and become more comfortable with “celebrating with Daddy” and then “celebrating with Mommy,” but the big milestones (birthdays and Christmases, in our world) have remained joint. I feel pretty strongly that celebrating these events together allow the kids to have a few rare times when all the most important pieces of their world come together. Our children have never expressed any fantasies or beliefs that their dad and I will reunite—it is extremely clear that what is done is done. But they are very happy and very much at peace when they are able to have us both by their sides during the big moments of their lives.
That “family” structure gets challenged when one person unilaterally decides to add a member. Despite the very passionate comments by folks insisting that anyone and everyone who volunteers to care about my children should get warmly invited to the party (so to speak), I still think it’s selfish and overreaching to expect that an ex-spouse and all the children should just grin and bear it when one of the grown-ups decides that because they want to add someone new to their idea of family, everyone else must just fall in line. Sometimes (particularly, I would think, after the passage of time has allowed a relationship to grow between the child and the significant other) the child may want the “family” stretched to include a new person; sometimes. In that case, I think the significant other should be included (and yes, it chokes me a bit to say it). This isn’t a situation, like an emergency decision or a parent-teacher conference, when decisions are being made by the adults about the child’s health and well-being and welfare … decisions I believe remain within the purview of the biological parents. This is a situation about the child’s happiness. Birthdays and holidays should be about the kids—more than anything else, they are the kids’ celebrations and it is the kids’ lifelong memories that are being made. If the child wants the significant other at the birthday party, the invitation should be extended. If the child wants all the grown-ups in his or her life present at a particular rite of passage, the adults’ personal feelings should be set aside and everyone should be included.
However, in a perfect world, in order to minimize conflict, there should be frank discussions with the kids about their desires. The children should be encouraged to be truthful about what (and whom) they want present for their celebrations. If they want the SO to attend, he/she should be invited. If they don’t want the SO to attend, then mom or dad needs to leave the boyfriend or girlfriend at home. But for goodness’ sake, if the SO will attend, PLEASE give the ex-spouse a bit of a heads up. A great amount of conflict can be minimized by preparing everyone involved and by providing ample time ahead of time to prepare for the interaction. And remember that there’s no fire: there’s a lot that can be said for slowly integrating a new person into a family unit and for doing it with respect and understanding.