Parenting With an Ex
The birthday party—there are two ways of looking at it: from the perspective of a divorced parent or from your child’s perspective. The one way is sure to be filled with tension, bitterness, and accusations. The other way will be bursting with laughter and balloons. Which type of birthday will you choose for your child?
The Old Way
It’s your child’s birthday and that can mean only one thing: an ex disaster. No way are you going to spend your child’s birthday with your ex. A stressed-out day fighting with your ex is not the type of birthday party that you had in mind. It’s hard enough decorating, corralling a pack of kids, distributing party favors, keeping track of gifts, and serving cake. You really can’t handle your ex’s judging presence on top of all of that!
So you rationalize that excluding your ex from your child’s birthday is the best thing. Everyone would agree that it would be better if your ex stayed far away, right? So, you start to plan a grand birthday party: one that includes your friends and your family. If your ex wants to celebrate, fine; he can arrange his own party. (It had just not be better than you party!) Come on, you’re divorced! It would be so awkward. “Happy Birthday!” just isn’t convincing when you’re gritting your teeth. Certainly nobody would expect that the two of you would be at the same birthday party.
The Pro-Child Way
Well, almost no one would expect that two divorced parents would be at their child’s birthday party…except maybe your child. Let’s get something clear, right off the bat: this is your child’s birthday party. Not yours. Not your ex’s. It is her party, with her friends and her family. You are her family. Her other parent is her family. At your child’s birthday party, she should see not just you, but also her dad celebrating the day of her birth. Of course your ex should be a vital part of your child’s birthday. Who else has more to celebrate than the two people that created her? Celebrating a birthday is so important. Creating a wonderful birthday celebration is a joyful obligation for parents. You and your ex are her parents. Being divorced should have no impact on your child’s day.
You’re right, a stressed-out day, fighting with your ex is not the type of birthday party for your child. Your child does deserve better. But the answer isn’t to have two separate parties. The answer is for you to be nice. Impossible, you say? With the right planning and attitude, it is possible.
Start planning your child’s birthday by sizing up the situation: the date, the time of year, age and number of guests, your child’s wishes, and also the current state of your relationship with your ex. As with all issues regarding your divorce, the more time has passed, the easier it will be. But in the beginning, your child’s birthday party requires careful planning to avoid any scenes between you and your ex. Communicate often with your ex, to confirm all particulars.
On what day of the week does your child’s birthday fall? Will you be able to celebrate it on the birth date or does it have to be celebrated on the weekend? Does it land on “Dad’s day” or “Mom’s day”? If is is “Dad’s day,” does he still want you to plan the event or is he assuming that it is his responsibility? It’s time for a phone call, text, or email to your ex. During this call be sure to establish the date of celebration, the primary planner, and confirm that you both will be there. This is not an opportunity for you to talk about or respond to any issues involving your marriage or divorce. Stay focused and positive.
Now that you are assured of the date, you can worry about planning the event. Location is usually the trickiest part of planning a birthday. In selecting a site, you should have one focus: neutral territory. Avoid your ex coming to an event at your house. It has too high a disaster potential. And you shouldn’t be keen on going to his house for the same reasons. Hold the party at a location that is neutral: the playground, pool, or local pizza shop are some suggestions. You want the location to be a place that will be remembered fondly as “her birthday spot,” not the scene of tension between you and your ex. Find a place that is perfect for young guests and perfect for adults who need more space. Down the road, as your relationship with your ex matures, the location of her parties can be determined by the theme, but in the beginning, careful location planning helps to lessen the stress between two newly divorced parents.
Once you have the location secured, you can plan the birthday activities. Homespun games, decorations, and birthday cake are benign issues in regard to your ex. However, if you are envisioning a rented moon bounce, a hired clown, and pony rides, the expense may be of concern to your ex. Know your budget. What, if anything, is your ex willing to contribute? Do not plan to spend his money unless he has agreed. This is not a “blank check” opportunity to test your ex’s love for his child.
Think back to your married years: How were birthdays handled then? If our ex thought homespun birthdays were best back then, chances are neither his attitude nor his wallet have changed. Don’t assume that he will pay for all the incidentals. Don’t assume that he will evenly share the expense. The only thing that you can assume is that you will be financially responsible for the event. If you are not able to afford the entire bill, then don’t plan an expensive party. Plan the party that you can afford. If he is able to contribute to the expenses, then it will be a surprise benefit to your checkbook. At all times, be considerate of both of your financial situations when planning events.
Once the date, the location, and the budget are determined, all that remains is getting ready for the big day. If invitations are being sent, be sure to have your child send one to you and one to her dad. She can include a special message or drawing in these VIP invitations. As the day approaches, frequently mention how both you and Dad are looking forward to her special birthday. Not only does that get her excited, but it reinforces positive thoughts in your mind, too.
Your child’s excitement should be contagious and propel you through a wonderful birthday. Start the day with a smile and continue it through the whole day. During any moments of tension, look at your child and remind yourself of the wonderful reason that you are there. Stick to your plan of being "parents together," and you will be able to create happy birthday memories and picture-perfect occasions.
Excerpted from The Pro-Child Way®: Parenting With An Ex by Ellen Kellner. Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Kellner.