Marriage comes with all sorts of milestones: Anniversaries, vacations, kids. Similarly, separating from your spouse brings its own set of milestones: Finding your own place, filing for divorce, and for some, figuring out all the ‘firsts’ that now come with co-parenting. One of the most important co-parenting firsts is successfully navigating your child’s birthday party with an ex. How do you keep it all together for the sake of keeping it all about the kids?
Here are some things to consider when making your child’s birthday party a positive, memorable milestone after a separation:
Family, friends, and in-laws (oh, my!). By the time your child’s birthday rolls around, chances are you’ve already had some social encounters with your ex (although your first post-separation interaction probably shouldn’t be chasing eight year olds around an indoor trampoline park). But it may be the first time your extended network is brought back together. If you are planning to co-host your child’s party as co-parents, have an honest discussion about the guest list. Are things amicable between in-laws? Are you up for accommodating once-mutual friends and family? And, if the separation is new, are new partners welcome? Consider the important figures in your child’s life, and above all, consider what’s in the best interest of the birthday child.
Calgary mom Tara L. and her ex-husband Cody have been successfully co-parenting their two daughters for five years. “We always decide to co-host the girls’ birthdays to ensure that day is focused on them,” she says. “Neither of us would want to miss out on seeing the kids on this special occasion.”
Celebrating your child as a team can help them feel secure. If, however, the guest list is too long or the relationships are too painful, two intimate celebrations are better than one bitter get-together.
You’re invited? Curating a kid guest list for a child’s birthday can be challenging even in the most straightforward situations. Do you invite all of their classmates from school, teammates, kids from the neighborhood, or just your child’s closest mix of friends? Add to that a separated set of parents, a second home, and several social circles from which to choose and things can get complicated pretty darn quick.
“The stress on the kids deciding what friends to invite to which birthday isn’t fair,” says Tara. “And you don’t want other kids having to come to two different parties.”
Start with your child’s list, fill in any blanks, and work together to set a realistic limit. Maybe it’s cupcakes in the dressing room and a small party for school friends. Maybe it’s your ex-spouse’s nieces and nephews, or just the kids in your tight-knit neighborhood. Whoever makes the cut, just be sure to leave any hurt feelings off the list.
The birthday bill. Birthdays aren’t just birthdays anymore. Often, they’re events with themes and décor and commemorative favors. Instead of asking kids, “Oh, you celebrated a birthday? How old are you now?” we ask, “Oh, you celebrated a birthday? What kind of birthday did you have?” Cartoons, superheroes, sports - the possibilities are endless and overwhelming. And so are the decisions.
Incorporating the wishes of your child, the schedules of two adults living independently, and a full calendar of other programs and activities into an agreeable date, time and, (gulp) budget can be tricky. When, where, and who pays for what? You may no longer be married, but if the two of you want to plan a big shebang in celebration of your amazing child, you can’t escape the partnership on this one. Be realistic about costs, contribute your fair share, and remain flexible.
Gift baggage. Many parents develop a style of gift-giving over time. Do you go all-out for birthdays with fancy bikes, expensive equipment, or gaming consoles? Or do you prefer to give gifts on a smaller scale? Whatever your style, resist the temptation to go bigger and better than you did before (or worse, bigger and better than your spouse) in an effort to reaffirm your love to your child post-divorce. Kids don’t need bigger and better things; they need to feel secure in their relationship with you. And compensating or competing with an over-the-top gift-off may actually make things worse. If there’s something big your child does need, is it possible to gift it together?
Also consider which gifts will go where. It’s one parent’s weekend, so do the puzzles and games and Lego (so much Lego) go there, or does it make more sense for these things to stay with the other parent during the week? Maybe the shiny new bike shuttles back and forth. Decide these things privately, with some input from your child, and try not to fight over who doesn’t get the Lego.
The reason we’re all here. If you’ve ever hosted a child’s birthday party, you know there isn’t much time for serious matters. In fact, there’s often barely enough time to cut the cake. Those two to three hours of guests and gifts and (hopefully) merriment are not two to three hours to sort out your co-parenting schedule or finances or any other potential curveballs that may detract from the fun.
“Birthdays are about the kids, not us who decided to get divorced,” says Tara. “Even if we aren’t getting along, we will always have smiles on in front of them.”
Tara believes that co-hosting as co-parents reduces the stress of one parent not being able to see their child on their special day, and allows her kids the opportunity they deserve to relax and enjoy the day.
“[The best outcome] is the girls having a blast and knowing that we both love them and will always be there to watch them together,” says Tara.
Shannon is a freelance writer living in Calgary with her husband and three daughters.
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