Your child’s birthday is their special day, not a time to engage in co-parenting conflict!
Special occasions should be nothing more than an opportunity for fun and making memories; but, in the world of co-parenting, many of us find that a day, such as our child’s birthday, becomes a battleground for drama-seeking exes. Oh, to just blow out some candles and share a piece of cake without a territory dispute or games of manipulation!
What is it about red-letter days that bring out the crazy and uncooperative side of some of our co-parents? Well, everyone involved feels that they have a special stake in it. We all want a prime share of time with the children involved, and each of us has a vision for how the day should go. Perhaps we want to enact a family tradition, have the privilege of being present at the most significant moments, or simply be “the one” who gets most of the child’s time and attention.
It goes without saying that everything about a big day could be smooth and conflict free if all players committed to remaining civil, cooperative, and fair.
Of course, we should all strive to be child-centered in our approach to such occasions so that the child can enjoy the day, which is what we should all want. Sadly, some co-parents have to be reminded (some repeatedly) that the child belongs to both parents and he or she does not want fun and happy memories to be replaced with ones of mom and dad fighting!
My friend Renee’s daughter just turned fifteen. She has shared with me on many occasions how frustrated she becomes by the idiotic games her ex plays on important days, such as their three children’s birthdays. Renee understands that the children want dedicated time with each parent to celebrate, but her ex is not so accommodating. Normally, I would suggest to read what the parenting agreement states; but, in her case, it’s not much help.
In Renee’s case, and I suspect for many other co-parents, as well, her court orders state that each parent should have “equal access to the children on their birthdays” and other specified holidays. Her plan details how the times and days are to be split for major holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas; but, the notation about birthdays says only “equal access.”
So, what does that mean?
In Renee’s estimation, she believes that “equal access” on a child’s birthday should be the closest 50/50 split that can be arranged on the date in question. When a child’s birthday has fallen on her week, she has always done her best to evaluate the child’s schedule for that day, then offer a reasonable time to her ex for his time.
When birthdays fall on her ex’s time, he has historically counted the time that the children are in school as Renee’s time, then takes the entire afternoon and evening from the end of the school day until bedtime as his time. Seems fair, right? Renee’s ex was unusually generous this year when he offered time with their daughter starting at 9:30 pm. He thought that was fair to both Renee and their child to send her to Renee’s an hour past her bedtime so that she would essentially go right to bed at mom’s house, then wake up the next morning and go to school.
“It’s happened year after year and with each child,” Renee’ proclaimed, “and I’m sick of it!” She went on to explain that two of their children have birthdays during the school year; so, if the birthday happens to fall on his time, he counts school time as hers and effectively bars her from seeing them the rest of the day. Their youngest child’s special day is during the summer, which has been a little easier for Renee’ to control. Not always, though. On more than one occasion, her ex has purposely taken their son out of town on his birthday, then calls late in the day to say that they won’t make it back in time for her to have a turn with him.
Besides having a controlling and selfish jerk as a co-parent, I think a big part of this family’s problem is that their parenting plan is just too vague! Ideally, we shouldn’t have to have every last detail plotted out on paper because that can also serve to lock us into arrangements that may be difficult to uphold. In Renee’s case, “equal access” and what to do on school days versus a special day that falls during break is unclear. An ex who only cares about him or herself will use such ambiguity to their advantage.
So, what do we do to avoid birthday games (and not the fun kind, like pin the tail on the donkey)?
Proactively plan. Hindsight is 20/20, so if your custody arrangement has already been finalized, you may be stuck with what you have. If you’re still in the midst of planning yours or have an opportunity to go back and amend it, you may have a chance to clear up the vagueness that invites confusion and trickery.
Discuss and clarify in advance. If you’re on civil terms with your ex, define together what “equal access” means. Each parenting plan is different, so take a close look at what yours says and try to get on the same page with your ex.
Celebrate when you can. My parenting plan has no specific provisions for birthdays. We agreed that whoever had the kids over their birthday would have them for the day, and each of us celebrates at the most convenient time close to the big day. Often, the best time to plan a party or do something fun is over the weekend right before or after the big day, anyway; and, the kids receive phone calls and cards on their actual day. Yes, this means I have missed celebrating with my kids on the actual day. It is hard, but we make the most of the time when we are together!
Ask the birthday boy or girl. When a child is around ten and younger, they pretty much go with the flow of what adults tell them to do. When they become more mature, they can begin to take a bigger part in planning and making decisions. When you feel your child is ready, ask him or her how they would like to spend the day. This should be done without applying pressure or guilt tactics. It’s simply about letting the child have some influence in the order of events and how to celebrate their special day.
Be open to flexibility. Neither parent should be allowed to hog all the choice moments with the children on their birthdays; however, sometimes unique opportunities arise that may make an even split on the day of the celebration impossible. For instance, if the child is given a chance to go on a trip on or around their birthday, saying “no” just to get your 4-6 hours of time together that day could deprive the child of a special experience. Try to negotiate one-on-one time soon after to make it up or make a full trade for the next birthday or occasion instead.
Remember whose day it is. We parents feel a big investment in the priceless moments of our children as they grow up. As much as we feel that it is our right to bear witness to every minute of their special days, we can never forget that these times are about them, not our need to control or be in the spotlight!
What a child wants is to share their special times with the people they love without feeling pressured, rushed, or pulled one way or another. Spare your child the pain of feeling the need to show a preference for one parent’s gift or celebration over the other’s, and keep critical commentary about these things away from the child. At the same time, it is best not to get caught up in competition to try to outshine the other parent or “win” your child’s day.
A child’s birthday, or another special occasion, is not the time to take out ill feelings toward our ex or become part of a battle over time and control of the day. Co-parents can commit to giving their child the best childhood memories possible by giving conflict a break and leaving plenty of room for celebration!