How do you celebrate your kid’s birthdays together when divorced grandparents don’t get along?

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By: Iain WatsonCC BY 2.0
I’m the product of divorced parents who are happily remarried, but that don’t get along well with one another. Now that my husband and I have brought our three families’ first grandbaby in the world, I’m wondering how we’re going to handle birthdays and other celebrations when two sets of grandparents don’t jive.

I’m not entirely sold on birthday parties to begin with, but even if we opt out of those there will inevitably be circumstances that will require all sets of grandparents to be present at the same time.

How do we deal with the tension and ensure that our child’s celebration isn’t taken over by drama between the divorced grandparents? — Kate

Comments on How do you celebrate your kid’s birthdays together when divorced grandparents don’t get along?

  1. We don’t have children yet, but my husband and I are both products of divorce. His parents don’t get along so well, but they put on a happy face for our wedding.

    I don’t personally tolerate childish behavior from adults. In terms of our parents, who have been divorced for over 20 years, if neither party can act like an adult in a happy and fulfilling relationship because a member of a prior sour relationship (of which I was a PRODUCT OF) is present, then I make it clear that everyone has to leave.

    It is possible.

    Or, if it doesn’t bother you, have alternating birthday parties – just like how divorced kid’s usually split holidays.

  2. I think you just have one event, and invite everyone. If someone doesn’t want to come because of who else will be there, that is unfortunately their loss.
    If bickering begins, I think one quiet warning along the lines of “let’s keep this about grandbaby’s birthday” could be issued, and if it continues, asking them to leave is reasonable. But I would try not to stress about it too much; You are not responsible for anyone else’s behaviour.

  3. My in-laws had a messy split with happy remarriages. At family events for the grandkids (my niece and nephew), they stayed in separate areas during the party and just didn’t speak to one another. From my perspective, they basically pretended that the others weren’t there. I don’t know if my sister-in-law had a sit down with them when her oldest was born or what, but it seemed to work.

    • Kids can pick up on that kind of passive aggressive behavior. It’s sadly the case in my family that MIL holes away in a separate room from FIL or simply doesn’t show up to family gatherings.

  4. I know what helped my sister with her in-laws was to have the party somewhere else, like a park. That way, if bickering happens, you can usually calm it easier by pointing out that they are disturbing others as well

  5. They generally don’t speak to each other unless necessary. If anything dramatic started happening, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell them that this is not the place and if it didn’t cease, I’d tell them both to leave.

  6. Having the party where there is plenty of space so the two don’t have to be in the same area is what works for my family. It also helps if you have family members who can run interference/keep everyone distracted that works too. My brothers tend to see that my dad is entertained while my aunts take care of my mom. This way they are too busy for anything too awkward to happen. It also helps that my dad doesn’t like parties and tends to leave them early.

  7. This is a work-around, not a direct answer to your question, but could you institute grandkid/grandparent birthday week traditions instead of all coming to one party? Brunch with one set of grandparents, movie with another, outing with another. The party itself doesn’t have to be the focus; the party could be for kids. It isn’t like they would get good time with a grandchild at the party itself.

    • I agree to this, I don’t think I personally have ever had a birthday party that any of my grandparents came to (and they all actually liked each other, so that wasn’t why). What we did have was a birthday party… and then weekend visits to each set of grandparents (or each set of grandparents would come and visit me). I don’t know if my family dynamic is strange, but this is kind of how we did all gathering-type celebrations, and it’s how I’m planning to do birthdays and holidays with our little one. Even when everyone loves each other, planning for a few small get-togethers is usually less stressful than trying to orchestrate one big one — at least for me (I am typically super adverse to giant groups of people, even when I know and love everyone in the giant group).

      • I’m the same way – when I was young and my grandparents were living they never attended my b-day parties (can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to take part in watching seven squealing little girls pretending to be ponies or whatever…). Usually they just sent a card or gift, and if we did see them it was a weekend before or after and we went to their house or out for dinner. When I got a bit older (around 4th or 5th grade) those separate gatherings with family made it seem like I got to stretch my birthday out longer, so that might be a great solution for families where not everyone gets along.

  8. The years where we had a party, my in laws didn’t need to be told, they knew to just exchange pleasantries and find someone else to talk to. When we haven’t had a party we visited with each of them separately, which is nice because it extends the celebration, gives every grandparent one on one time, and prevents the child from getting overwhelmed with presents from everyone all at one time.
    I think, if you want to have a party, and one of the split grandparents thinks they can’t make nice that you should just say ” We love you both, and we don’t want to choose between you, so why don’t we meet up the day before/after for a special birthday dinner?”

  9. I think it would be worth sitting down and having coffee with the bickerers individually, and lay out the ground rules. It’s not about them, one strike and they’re out…no exceptions. If they can’t act like civil adults around your baby it’s their problem not yours.

  10. We are about to have this same problem! My parents divorced recently, and my Dad is getting remarried in May, while I am expecting our first child (and first grandbaby on this side) in July. My mom can be very petty, and has made it clear on numerous occasions that she is not pleased to be in the same room as my dad’s new wife, regardless of how important the event is.

    After worrying about the same things you are, such avoiding needless drama and worrying about giving all grandparents access, I decided that nothing was as important as keeping my KID happy. That means one party, one baby shower, one waiting room during labor, etc., everyone invited, and like others have suggested, having other family members run interference. If people misbehave, they will be treated like children and asked to leave until they can compose themselves. I totally feel for you, because it’s a crappy position to be put in, but if my parents can’t rise above their differences in order to enjoy their grandbaby, it’s their loss.

    I plan on being very firm with them about this, and not allowing their drama to dictate my choices or what is best for my little family. Best of luck to you! 🙂

    • I’m in a similar situation. Baby is due in June and my dad left my mom only a few years ago. Both are very bitter. The complication for me is that dad moved overseas, so while I don’t expect him to be at most birthdays, I have the ability to choose whether to set the baby welcoming ceremony during one of his fairly brief visits and deal with any bullshit, or avoid the anxiety and feel guilty for excluding my dad from this special occasion.

      I like your suggestion of having people run interference.

  11. Maybe its because they lived hours away and were different religions, but I cant think of many times growing up when all of my grandparents were around at the same time – and they DID get along. Holidays were spent with one set or the other (easier simce the Jews got the Jewish holidays and the Christians got Thanksgiving and Christmas). Birthday parties were about havimg other kids over. Maybe when I was supersmall family came over too, but I certainly dont remember. Family, usually in the form of my uncles, would come over before or after to deliver presents and spend time together.

    Having local granparents might change things, but ultimately I dont think this really needs to come up as often as you might be afraid of.

    • I didn’t grow up with extended family nearby (or near each other), either. Now my son has all his grandparents living in the same town, and, yes, there are occasions when everyone gets together.

      My husband’s parents are both divorced and remarried, and they did a pretty admirable job of being civil co-parents when my husband and his sibs were little. Now that everyone is grown they’ve managed to be in the same room through all the graduations, weddings, and grandkid birthday parties. It’s better if the party is large enough that they can just more-or-less ignore each other and talk to other people. Even if your parents don’t like each other, they’re grownups and should be able to put on their big kid pants for a couple of hours.

  12. I agree with a lot of what has been said. These are 2 grown adults, who have been for quite some time. This is not the first or last time they’ll have to be around someone they don’t really like. I think you need to tell them basically to put on the big boy and big girl pants and suck it up. It’s not about them, it’s about the grandchild and what is best for the kid. Since you’re not too enamored with birthday parties, you don’t have to make a big deal out of birthdays for the first couple years, but around age 3 it may change – that tends to be the age at which concepts of birthdays and holidays “gel” in their mind, and they start to “get it”. Plus they might be at preschool or something then and would potentially have already been to other parties, so they know what’s up. With your parents, they need to be cordial to each other but that’s it. Keep it about the grandchild – that is a great common bond there. They can squee over the cuteness of the child and no one gets upset! They can exchange pleasantries, acknowledge how wonderful the child is, and then go find someone else to talk to and be done with it!

  13. My parents are like that, and I don’t make any effort to accommodate them. I have a party and give them the where and when and if anybody decides not to show up, well, they’re adults and if they can’t put their personal problems aside for an hour with their grandchild then I don’t want them there anyway. I haven’t decided what to do if the kids ask someday why one set of grandparents is never there, but I figure that will just be the norm to them so I won’t ever have to have that conversation.

  14. My brother and I are….let’s say…thoroughly estranged. However, we are both adults. When holiday time comes around, instead of making our mom suffer through the drama, we behave. Those that can’t behave don’t have to stick around. It’s not a perfect situation, but it is absolutely something that I would do to make sure my mom and dad have a great holiday with all of their children.

    Regardless of your parents feelings for each other, I would just make it clear that you absolutely would love to have them both at the celebration, but make it double clear that everyone will be on their best behavior. I’m sure that once they realize what a great event they are attending, they will be able to put their differences in perspective for a few hours.

  15. I don’t have any experience with this particular situation, but from my experience with events involving people who have friction between them, my advice would be to keep events where both people are there short and focused. Do the activities you are all gathered together for (e.g. open presents, sing happy birthday, eat cake, play with the kiddo a bit) and then send everybody home before a lull in activity gives the people with issues a chance to start talking to each other too much.

    And don’t get them drunk. Unless both people involved are the sort of people who are mellower when they’re drinking, then providing alcohol might actually help. But, for the most part, people aren’t good at being on their best behavior when intoxicated.

  16. I have angry divorced parents, and angrier divorced grandparents. To top it off, my dad’s parents and my mom’s parents do not get along at all. However, they have pretty much always put it aside and smiled big for my son. My son loves having all of his people in the same place at the same time, and he knows that it only happens for very special occasions. He doesn’t completely understand why, but now that he knows that, he gets really excited about those occasions. For his 5th birthday, he told all of his people that he really wanted them at his birthday party. His friends, his grandparents, and his great grandparents. It hasn’t always been perfect. Last year my dad didn’t come to his birthday party and the kid was really disappointed. This year he made a point of telling my dad that he was sad he wasn’t at the party and really wanted him to be at this one. That was enough to remind my dad of what was really important. My grandmother missed a party as well, claiming she was never going to one again because my grandfather’s new wife (of 25 years) made her uncomfortable. I told her that was her decision and left it at that. The lack of response from anyone in the family threw her off guard, but she’s never pulled that again.

    I’m a big believer in not bending to grown-up tantrums. This isn’t everyone’s experience, but in my family, that’s exactly what it feels like. Since I’m the one who has to explain to my son why people are acting badly, I don’t try to force anyone to come to anything. I also don’t make up for them choosing not to participate in activities. I expect all of my family members to be able to act like adults and set a good example for the kid.

    • If an individual knows there is a chance they might not display their best behaviour at an event where someone they dislike is present, I believe it is a very adult choice to decline attending that event.
      It would be childish to attend an event if you know you will behave in a way as to make everyone else uncomfortable.

      Either attend and behave, or not-attend and save everyone else the drama. If I were hosting a party, I would be grateful for my potential guests to choose the latter if they really really need to. 🙂 Their loss, maybe next time!

  17. We have this problem as well. Both my husband’s and my parents do not get along. The first few years, we did two different small parties (his mom, my dad at one, then his dad and my mom at the other), but as our children get older, I have become less tolerant of adult conflict getting in the way of my family. Now we invite everyone to one party, and it’s their choice whether they want to involve their drama in my kids’ lives. My mother opts to not come to the party, but always comes to a birthday dinner on my sons’ actual birthday. This has worked out pretty well. I will continue invite all family members to birthday celebrations, as I do not want to spend the mental energy dealing with problems that don’t involve my family. Good luck on sorting this out for yourself. I know it’s not easy!

  18. One of the things that worked well for our family after our son was born was that the rules were laid out ahead of time. We explained, in a polite manner, that we had concerns based on their prior behavior involving other family members and that we were setting only 2 rules……

    Rule #1: They were not required to be super nice to one another, but they did have to be civil, for the sake of their grandchild.

    Rule #2: If rule #1 was broken, their invitation to the next event would be revoked.

  19. I feel you here. My parents have been divorced for 26 years (since I was a year and a half) and they still can’t even be in the same room, let alone say hello to each other. The issue hasn’t really come up too much with my kids – my husband’s parents live an hour away, but all of my family is a six hour plane trip. However, I just came back from a trip to see them all (trapped on a plane for six hours with three kids under 5 without my husband – but that’s another story!) and honestly, I had to separate them. It wasn’t a birthday occasion visit, but even if it had been, I would have done separate occasions, simply because it’s so incredibly stressful for everyone else who is around them. Every year when I used to fly home for Christmas from university, I’d have to spend weeks negotiating precisely how long I was going to spend at which house – my mother is the absolute queen of petty things being blown completely out of proportion. If I was to try to invite them both to the same event, and convinced both of them to come, I’d be so stressed out by the whole thing I think I’d forget to actually focus on my kid and enjoy their day.
    I would pick the less social parent (my dad and stepmom, who don’t really care for parties anyway) and have dinner or a small get-together with them and my stepmom’s family, and then a party and invite my mom and stepdad. It’s not perfect, but I have spent my whole life forgetting to actually have fun at christmas, easter, etc, since I was so worried about getting back to the other parent’s house on time and trying to keep my parents happy with each other. I’ve settled for doing whatever I can to actually be able to relax and enjoy said event, and for me, that’s keeping my parents at least an hour away from each other, and for being very clear beforehand on where we’ll be and who we’ll be with before we show up.
    I have to say I love being across the country from my parents, as horrible as that sounds. Good luck, and try to make sure YOU can enjoy the day too, instead of babysitting grown-up children, whatever you decide to do!

  20. Thank you for this discussion. I have faced this situation with every life event since my parents divorced when I was a young teen. And now that I’m a parent the situation has transferred to my child.

    I’m not sure if it’s a Baby Boomer thing, but my parents are honestly both very selfish people emotionally, and as another commenter put it, they have adult-tantrums.
    On top of wanting to protect my kid from their pettiness and bids for my (any) attention, it brings up a lot of hurt for me; all the times they put themselves before me and my older brother, basically leaving me to raise myself.

    So, early on I decided to be a badass and institute some strong boundaries from the get-go to protect my kid, and myself. Being adult children, my parents LOVE to challenge boundaries. I mean like, constantly. Constantly. Sometimes I have to compromise just to maintain momentary sanity, but I know that leads to more pushing of buttons and boundary crossing. So thanks for reminding me to take stock here.

    One of the more important boundaries I attempted to hold fast to is removing my dad’s toxic girlfriend from our life. Unfortunately, my dad practices a sort of willful forgetfulness, showing up with her in tow, acting oblivious. In truth, I think he is oblivious as long as he gets his way. My brave do-not-involve-this-woman-in-my-life boundary has been run over so many times, that at this point it’s more of a speed bump than a wall.

    Our way to deal with our kid’s birthday was to make it a going-away event for us, as we were moving towns. That way I could say to my folks that it was mainly going to be old friends of mine, and their kids. This made it easier to do what some above suggested and set up separate times for them to visit. It worked, but I also resent it.

    The positive side to it is that I could relax more when dealing with them separately (yes my dad did bring his girlfriend, fuck). That would have been misery for me if both were in the same room at the same time; the try-and-make-people-happy thing is too deeply ingrained.

    I hope in the next few years to move to my husband’s native land, half way around the world. And no, they won’t be staying with us if they come to visit.

  21. My parents can’t stand each other since they got divorced 3 years ago, so I antsy about my sons first birthday party pretty much since he was born. As it got closer each of my parents asked if the other would be there and I informed them yes they would and they better leave the drama at the door ( or in reality the park entrance) because I had no qualms about booting either or both parent from the party. Its not that I don’t love my parents and didn’t want them there. But the party was about my son not them and I made sure they had a clear understand of that so that they were fully aware that I would not tolerate drama. They steered clear of each other and we all had a great time.

  22. I grew up in your children’s position, my dad’s parents had a very messy divorce. My grandparents didn’t come to any of my birthday parties. When me and my siblings were born they visited at different times. My high school graduation was easily the first time they were around each other since my dad was a child and then so much time had passed that they were cordial. They didn’t talk to each other but there were so many people around that if you didn’t know you wouldn’t have noticed there were two people not talking.

    I say just don’t invite them. I never noticed anything as a child, I don’t think my childhood was lacking.

  23. I have a very similar situation and I’m most concerned about Christmas. My parents are great, but my mother in law (who is recently remarried) refuses to be in the same room as my father in law. I’ve made it clear that its not our child’s fault that they got divorced, if they want to see their grandchild open presents on Christmas morning, they are going to have to see one another. I refuse to shuttle my family around to five different houses on Christmas because adults are acting like children. Our first child is due this fall, so we’ll see how it goes once the child is actually here.

  24. Buffers! My son’s father and I are divorced and do not get along. Not everyone else in the extended family loves each other either. But, we suck it up. I invite lots of extra people who can be friendly to anyone and it’s fine. Do I love it? No. But my kid does and that’s what matters. Everyone else can act like a grown up or get out.

  25. The grandparents are adults and should act as such. If they can’t tolerate each other for sake of their grandchild, they don’t need to be invited. Don’t cater towards them, people managed to be around people they don’t care for all the time.

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