Q: My son is recently divorced. He shares custody of two daughters. His wife wanted the divorce.
This summer, my oldest daughter has a milestone birthday. My son, his daughters and I want to travel to her state to surprise her. I mentioned this to my son-in-law, and he wants me to invite my son’s ex-wife. He said he and my daughter feel strongly that both or neither one should be invited to family affairs.
I’m not comfortable being with my former daughter-in-law, although we are cordial to each other and I would never say anything bad about her to the children. The divorce was her decision, and I don’t feel she should be invited to family functions (holiday dinners, etc.). What’s the best way to handle this without causing a family feud? My son and his ex are amiable because of the children, but he also wants his brother-in-law to butt out of his business.
A: This is one of the bigger gaps I’ve seen between meaning well and doing well.
Your son-in-law is good to be concerned about the ex-wife’s inclusion, because not excluding or vilifying a co-parent is key to the emotional health of the kids. However, it’s none of his business.
If he had taken the initiative to throw his wife a birthday party, then he would have standing to invite the ex-wife. It would be a bit of a head scratcher because it’s her ex’s sister, not hers, and it’s not an event having anything to do with her children, but he’d still have that prerogative.
In this case, though, you and your son are not only taking the initiative but also bringing the party to them. Sure, your son-in-law is entitled to say, “Thanks for the generous idea, but this is not a good time/we’re making our own plans to travel then/other reasons here” – as in, to say yes or no to whether you come at all – but he does not get to tell anyone who travels with whom.
Unfortunately, spelling this out as a non-emotional fact of boundaries is a luxury I have that you likely don’t. Your son-in-law seems to feel strongly that he’s in the right, which suggests resistance or even an argument.
To pre-empt that, I suggest you say what was going to be my next point: Excluding the ex from holiday dinners, etc. (as you say you’d prefer) is a bad idea. She’s the mom. She has a place whenever their nuclear family has something to celebrate. And it’ll be good for the daughters to see that their mother is invited when you host, say, the family Thanksgiving. If not every time then every once in a while, to make an important point.
But in this instance, you and your son are giving a gift to your daughter by surprising her – and you reserve the right to limit that gift to your choice of traveling companions.
Tell your son-in-law that if he feels uncomfortable with that, then no hard feelings, but it’s time to discuss this as a family. Say you’d like to ask your daughter about it directly. Your gift doesn’t have to be a surprise; instead it can start an important, precedent-setting conversation – especially if you come to it anger-free.
Washington Post Writers Group