Q. My ex and I disagree about how to celebrate our kids’ birthdays. We celebrate all other holidays together with extended family, and we both agree it would be nice to have one party, but when the date rolls around, she insists on hosting. When I get angry about it she tells me to have my own party, but we both know friends and family won’t go to two parties. When I asked the kids what they want to do, they said they would like to have “some parties at Mom’s and some at Dad’s.” What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. Not asking the kids to pick between mom or dad would be a good start. Even though you think you just want to check-in with what they want to do, it’s doubtful they’ll say if the choice is picking one parent over the other. Even if they do tell the truth, it will be difficult, and now special occasions, like their birthday, are riddled with “mom or dad,” questions, just like every other day of their life.
Here’s a quick observation, and I realize it’s a generality, but, when parents are together, moms often have the party planning role. Dad usually weighs in, but he’s not the organizer. Once divorced, it may be difficult for moms to let go of that responsibility. So, they do an excellent job of co-parenting on just about everything else, but “party planning is my domain. Don’t mess with it.”
It’s just not that way once parents break-up. The kids have two homes and two parents that perform very similar responsibilities. It’s not surprising that you want to throw a birthday party now and then, but like everything else, it takes time to re-establish roles and learn to cooperate. That’s why I came up with the Ten Rules of Good Ex-etiquette for Parents — to give parents some guide lines to help them — starting with rule number one, “Put the children first” and ending with “Look for the compromise.”
Let’s analyze the possibilities:
1. Having two separate parties each year. This is for parents who don’t get along and maintain separate families and friendships. Your friends and family attend the party you host, her friends and family attend the party she hosts. Notice there is no mention of “the child” here.
2. One party, alternate years. For example, you host the party in odd years, she hosts it in even years. The guest list is up to the host. The success of this approach depends on the host’s attitude. It’s dangerous only if you are the type of person who picks and chooses which relatives or friends you’ll invite — otherwise it’s the most diplomatic choice.
3. You both throw the party at a neutral location, like a bowling alley or pizza parlor, split the cost, invite everyone, act like adults and allow your kids to have fun on their day.
It’s not a secret I prefer the third approach, but I never suggest parents celebrate together unless they’re ready. To turn a child’s birthday into a combat zone because mom and dad can’t decide how to celebrate — or one parent strong-arms the other because he or she wants his or her way — is just plain selfish and sets a bad example for the kids. Make your decisions remembering that they are watching everything you do. That’s good ex-etiquette.