The Joy Cannot Be Manufactured
When parents divorce, issues of custody and parenting time must be resolved. Most courts base their decisions on a “best interests of the child” standard. It is generally believed that it is in the best interests of the children for divorced parents to co-parent. They should make decisions regarding the children together. Even though they are no longer living together, they should still parent in the same way they parented their children when they were still married. But that idealizes that intact family.
Even parents in the most functional families don’t make daily parenting decisions together. Certainly the stay-at-home mom or dad is more likely to decide which extracurricular activity the children participate in. The other parent doesn’t usually get involved unless there are major health, social or scheduling concerns. Married parents may disagree about major issues too, such as how a child handles being bullied. And even the most functional families often have to juggle time spent with both sides of the extended family.
Birthday parties are a great example. Extended families do not always celebrate children’s birthdays together. Schedules are complicated. Grandparents, aunts and uncles don’t always live nearby. Perhaps there are personality conflicts. Maybe her mother doesn’t like his mother or sisters-in-law don’t get along. The reality is that children in intact families might have more than one birthday party. One with their friends and perhaps one with each side of the extended family.
Being intact doesn’t always mean everyone gets together and gets along for every celebratory event. So why do court personnel expect this when a couple divorces? It is because they have an idealized notion of how an intact family interacts, and how the divorced couple should interact. The word “should” can be very dangerous in a divorce, especially if the divorce is high-conflict. It is a word that denies reality.
In high-conflict divorces, the reality is that the parents do not get along. They fight and the conflict is ongoing. That is, it may continue for years. This feud impacts the extended family as well, since parents and siblings take sides to support their blood-relative. No one gets along so why should the objective be that they all celebrate a child’s birthday together? Even if they are polite to one another, the undertones of hostility reverberate and the children notice. Studies show that even infants are sensitive to the moods of their caretakers. The radar of toddlers and teens is even stronger.
The goal of having parents in high-conflict divorces co-parent and celebrate their child’s birthday together, is misguided. There will be no genuine happiness and the children will know. They will feel uncomfortable at best; confused, ashamed, angry or depressed at worst. And encouraging hostile adults to celebrate together risks generating even more hostility, because the more opportunities angry parents have to interact, the more opportunities they have to generate conflict.
It is not in the best interests of a child to force his angry parents to plan a party or to celebrate together, even if those parents are polite and non-confrontational at the time. If they don’t want to be together, the joy cannot be manufactured. And even if they were still married, there is no guarantee everyone would have been celebrating together anyway.
It is better for a child to experience genuine happiness separately with mom and dad, than to force him to endure the undercurrents of hostility. And what child would say “no” to two parties anyway?