Co-Parenting:  Who Should Attend the Children’s Events?

“I have been married to my husband for 3 years. He has a daughter from a previous marriage, who is turning 10 next month. His ex-wife is throwing a birthday party for their daughter, has invited my husband and his extended family, but has specifically requested that I not attend. I’m crushed. My husband is angry and stuck in the middle of not wanting to ruin his daughter’s day and not wanting to go without me. I don’t want my stepdaughter to blame me for this and I don’t want to bash her mom. What should I do?”

From a legal standpoint, there are no consequences for anyone in this co-parenting scenario. Some custody agreements specifically provide for birthday party arrangements, most don’t. This is one of those things that parents must resolve outside of the courtroom. Either parent can throw a birthday party and may invite whomever they want.
From a practical standpoint, this is a tough issue and one I think co-parents face often. You are right to be concerned about your step-daughter’s feelings. Unfortunately, this issue, if not handled properly, is likely going to ruin a special day for the child. The advice I have for you depends on the specific circumstances, which are not clear from your question.

Why has mom taken this position? Is it warranted? Have there been past instances where your conduct and presence at an event has created a problem and made it uncomfortable for your stepdaughter? Have there been any altercations between you and mom? If so, most likely you are at least partially to blame because you engaged in the altercation in the first place. You need to apologize for your past conduct and make clear your intent to be on your best behavior. If your apology is accepted, you may be able to move forward in a positive direction.

If you have done nothing to provoke this other than simply existing, then I suggest that, for the well being of your stepdaughter, you ask mom to sit down and talk. As pride swallowing as it might seem, I think you should extend the olive branch to mom. You should explain to mom that you are just here to support her daughter and your husband. You mean well. You understand that it is uncomfortable and you would like nothing more than to remedy the issue. You may want to ask what you can do to make mom more comfortable. By doing this, you defuse her perception that you are the evil woman she believes you to be. Sometimes acknowledging mom’s importance goes a long way. I know what you are thinking: why should I be the one to kowtow to her? She is the insecure one, right? Perhaps, but remember that you aren’t doing this for her. You are doing this for your stepdaughter.

It is important to remember that stepparents are almost always in a Catch-22. On the one hand, it is imperative for your own sanity and the success of your marriage that you set boundaries and protect your position in your own family. On the other hand, “marking your turf” is almost always construed as a hostile move by the other side. Remember that your turf used to be her turf. Can you blame her for having a negative reaction to this difficult situation? Empathy can sometimes be therapeutic.

Communication between mom and stepmom is key in this scenario. If, however, you simply cannot communicate with mom, then I suggest that you start throwing separate birthday parties. Dad should decline the invitation and make sure his daughter understands that your family will be doing something special for her at your house as well. This is not ideal for your stepdaughter, but it is preferable to awkwardness and hostility, which will have a deeper negative impact on your stepdaughter than both sides keeping their distance from one another.

Anderson Keuscher PLLC
Reno Family Law and Divorce Attorneys