Dear Carolyn: My son is recently divorced. They share custody of two beautiful 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 also wants me to invite my son’s ex-wife. He said both 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.). Please advise the best way to handle this without causing a family feud. My son and his ex are also amiable because of the children, but he, too, wants his brother-in-law to butt out of his business.
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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 absolutely none of his business here.
If he had taken his own 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 (their birthdays or graduations or whatever), 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 try to pre-empt that, I suggest you say to him what was going to be my next point to you: 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.
And, it’s Son’s life. Doesn’t he get the last word?
Then 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.
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