Holiday Party Custody Battles

by admin on December 10, 2012

Today’s blog post is unusual in that we get to read both sides of this dilemma at the same time.   I did edit these two submissions to change the names of all involved for consistency between the two.

Story one:

I met Phil about 9 years ago when I started working at my current job. He works in a different department and is older than me but was good friends with my cube-mate and I thought he was funny. We became really good friends over the years and, when his wife divorced him our friendship grew even more and we are now engaged to be married. Because of how some people think that our relationship started, which isn’t true, we’ve lost some friends but gained some other really good ones.

Phil’s ex and I do not speak, at all, unless we have to. She calls me as ‘the mistress’ in conversation with Phil, just to get him upset. I will admit that she doesn’t say anything bad about us to their two kids, so that’s something. And she and Phil work very hard to be friendly when the kids are around, which is something else.

Two weeks ago, really good friends of ours had a holiday party. They wanted to have it early enough that people would be able to come, so they scheduled it for the weekend after Thanksgiving. Phil and I had custody of his two kids that weekend and our friends told us to bring them, so we did.

We had been there for a while and the kids were playing in another room when Phil’s ex-wife walked into the house!!!! It turns out that she is dating our friend’s step-brother and he brought her with him to meet the family. The kids knew, IMMEDIATELY, that their mother was there and kept making comments about how nice it was that all of us were in the same place for once, which was cute and sort of painful, at the same time. The ex said hello to Phil and I when she walked in, even taking the time to hug my fiance. Then she obviously avoided talking to us from that point forward, moving from room to room to stay away from us. It was awkward and awful when it should have been fun just because she was there.

After everyone ate, I went in to help my friend with the dishes only to find the ex standing at the sink, chatting with some people in the kitchen, including her new boyfriend. I went over and offered to help, instead, thinking that I would get to spend some time with my friends, finally, as she was sure to leave the room. Instead, she sat down at the table and continued to talk to them all while I stood at the sink washing dishes.

Then, our youngest child came into the kitchen and he was excited. He ran past me and to his mother, saying something about his older brother and trying to pull her out of the room. While I tried to get him to calm down and tell me what was going on, the ex snuck out a different door and down the hall to where the kids were to find out for herself. The older boy had cut his arm on a toy and needed a band-aid, but she looked so panicked that Phil went with her while I held onto the younger child, Little Guy. Then, Little Guy decided to throw a tantrum, probably because his mother was there, and Phil had to come help me calm him down. Once he got a band-aid, the older child decided to come out and do a bit of yelling, as well, and then finally Mommy swooped in like a hero, calmed everyone down and then refused to speak to me, at all. She and her date left right after that.

After that, the kids were cranky, and the party was sort of over, so Phil and I packed up and left, too. I felt so bad for my friends that their party was ruined! After discussing it, Phil and I decided that he needed to stand up to her and explain that the polite thing would have been for her to have left, once she realized that we were already there as invited guests, to avoid the sort of mess that happened. Of course, when he did that, she told him that I was the one that was immature and impolite and refused to acknowledge that he was right.

In the future, any gatherings that we have with that particular couple, I am going to ask first if his brother and the ex are going to be there and, if they are, I’m going to sadly decline the invitation or ask them to only invite us to things where they won’t be.

(You might get a letter from the ex, too. Phil told her that I was going to ask you for your opinion and she said she couldn’t wait to see it and that she might give you her version, too, so that you could ‘properly decide’.)   1204-12

And now the ex wife’s side of the story:

Background: My ex, Phil, and I have been divorced for more than 3 years. He has been in a relationship with another woman, Melanie, for 6 years. Yes, there is some causality there.

Our relationship is civil, even friendly, when dealing with matters relating to our two beautiful children. Melanie does not speak to me, at all, and Phil does an admirable job of never putting us on the same patch of land if it can be avoided. Of course, the 2 or 3 times that it couldn’t be avoided, she dedicated herself to the task of making sure that everyone in the room, including the kids, knew that he belongs to HER, now, which is silly and defensive and completely understandable. Trust issues abound.

In the years since our divorce, Phil has explained our split to family and friends as me being “controlling” because I wanted to “choose his friends”, notably, Melanie. The list of things that he says that I am guilty of is long and odd and has no actual basis in reality and all serve as an excuse, in his eyes, for him to have engaged in his extramarital “friendship”. His family, of whom I was and am very fond, were initially stuck in the middle but, over time have, of course, stayed on his side of the “fence”, so to speak, which is also completely understandable. When I see them, we are all very cordial with one another but there is no communication outside of the occasional holiday drop off or chance meeting in the grocery store. I have no idea what they ACTUALLY think of the whole situation and tend to think that they believe him, which is out of my control.

End of background.

I recently began dating an extremely lovely gentleman by the name of Richard Irish (his last name becomes important later). Richard, himself, comes from a blended family, twice over, and has sisters and brothers and step-brothers and a half sister. He speaks of them all often and glowingly and I had been looking forward to meeting them. Initially, as we are both divorced, we took things quite slowly and spent our limited time together getting to know one another and adventuring together, just the two of us. Last month, we decided to take the “this is getting serious” plunge and introduce one another to our children, which went better than we could have even hoped for. The kids are all similar ages and had a great time playing games, running around and telling stories about Mom and Dad.

With the holidays upon us, we each have a bunch of invitations to answer both personally and professionally. The weekend after Thanksgiving, he had been invited to one of his brothers’ homes for a family get together and asked me if I would join him which, of course, I did. We arrived at his brother’s house at the same time as his sister and another brother and introductions were made in front of the house. His brother is employed in sales and is one of those fellows that immediately offers his hand and full name in greeting. Upon hearing his (step)brother’s name, John Italian, I had a little mental start as his last name is not only not the same as Richard’s, which was to be expected, but it’s also not a very common name and one I know well as a good friend and colleague of Phil and Melanie’s has the same, uncommon last name.

I shrugged the possibility off as both unlikely and unimportant and we continued into the house to meet the rest of Richard’s large family. Coats and hellos and the dog barking as we walked in and suddenly there was a small person wrapped around my legs. My younger son, 8 years old, was there!! I turned around, baffled, and came face to face with my older son, 10 years old, as well! Richard looked as confused as I did, until I saw that his (step)brother, John Italian was, indeed, the same person who is close, personal friends with my ex-husband and his fiancé. This party was at John’s house and he had invited Phil and Melanie and the kids, not knowing, at all, that there was any connection between them and Richard’s new girlfriend.

We said our hellos and Phil and I exchanged an ironic look and an awkward hug and then endeavored to give each other a wide berth for the remainder of the afternoon. I asked Richard, early on, if I should, perhaps, bow out and he wouldn’t hear of it. I had a lovely time with Richard’s entire family and loved the fact that my own kids were there, as well, to show them off a little bit. John and I ended up in the kitchen for a bit, talking, as he had some concerns about me dating his brother considering some of the things that he had heard about me from Melanie. I told him that there were three sides to every story and that I would be happy to talk to him about anything that he wanted to talk about, but I wondered if that moment was the right one and he agreed so we made a date for coffee later in the week. Shortly thereafter, Melanie came into the kitchen to get something and saw me helping John’s wife do the dishes while a few of us chatted. She came over to the sink and, without a word, took the sponge from my hand and told me that it was “her turn” to hang with her “dearest friends on the planet”. Not wanting to cause a scene, I wiped my hands, backed away from the sink and started to leave the room. John and Richard, sitting at the table, immediately made room for me there and asked me to sit down with them so that they could finish their story, so I did. Several times, Melanie went out of her way to lean over or around me, awkwardly. I said nothing about it, made no faces – I HATE scenes and I ESPECIALLY hated the idea of THIS scene in THIS place with THESE people.

My little guy came running breathlessly into the kitchen at this point yelling, “Mommy! Mommy!” I stood up and he started to speak at warp speed about his brother and a cut while pulling me out of the kitchen. As he passed behind Melanie, she stepped back from the sink, grabbed his hand from mine and told me, “I’ll take care of it, they’re on my time, now. Sit.” He told her that he wanted Mommy to fix it and tried to pull away from her. She knelt down and started to give him a speech about the difference between ‘Mommy Time’ and ‘Daddy and Melanie Time’, while all that I could think about was “his brother and a cut” so I stepped out of the kitchen through another door and went in search of my older son. As I passed by Phil, he saw the look on my face and asked what was wrong and I told him and we both ventured to the playroom where the kids were playing games to find Big Guy sitting there with a fairly large cut on his forearm, bleeding heavily, having fallen back on a toy with a sharp edge. At this point, I could hear Little Guy having a meltdown in the kitchen and, as Big Guy wanted me to fix his cut, Phil squeezed my arm and told me that he would handle Little Guy and left the room.

There was quite a brouhaha in the kitchen while I was in the bathroom and John’s wife came in to check on us, practically in tears about the wound. I told her to please not worry about the cut, it happens, little boys roughhouse, it wasn’t mortal and she shouldn’t feel so bad. Upon finishing up in the bathroom, though, she wouldn’t let me leave as we could still hear raised voices in the kitchen. Melanie, evidently, insisted to Little Guy that when he’s on ‘Daddy and Melanie Time’ that he can ONLY ask them for help, no matter who else is around and he has to let only them handle it. Little Guy told her that he wanted Mommy to help because Mommy was the best at fixing cuts. They both insisted on their own point of view and Richard, John and Phil all had to get involved to convince Melanie to back off and let Little Guy go. The continued raised voices in the kitchen were, evidently, a new tirade about the inappropriateness of me being present at the party, me butting in on her and Phil’s time, me swooping in to rescue a situation that they were perfectly capable of handling, etc. I stood patiently in the bathroom with John’s wife, waiting for the argument to end. It was the first time that I heard, first hand, exactly how awful and horrible a person I am and have been for years and years. I was hoping against hope that my kids were too engaged, again, to be listening to it, in any case. John’s wife just held my hand and patted my arm and apologized every few minutes.

And then Big Guy was heard, in the kitchen, telling Melanie that if she didn’t have anything nice to say that she shouldn’t say anything at all and that she absolutely wasn’t allowed to say bad things about Mommy when Mommy didn’t do anything wrong. Little Guy followed that up with, “You’re a bad, bad lady!”

I finally exited the bathroom, at that point, against John’s wife’s protest. I sat down on the floor between my two boys and did my best to explain that everyone just wants to take care of them and do the best thing for them and we were scared about Big Guy’s cut so everyone got a little bit crazy and we needed to calm down, say we’re sorry and move on. I was SEETHING inside but letting the boys know that wasn’t going to help anything, at all, at that point. Phil pushed Melanie to apologize and I encouraged the boys to accept it and everyone moved off into their own corners, not feeling at all better but having given it a go.

I looked at Richard and asked him if we could leave and he went to gather our coats. Phil was murmuring to Melanie and she finally looked at me to say something. I put my hand up and told her that I was meeting all of these folks for the first time and my kids were there and I did not trust myself not to make a scene right then and there, so I would prefer to leave without any further conversation between us. She responded that they were her kids, too, now and I was going to have to learn to deal with that. Richard wrapped my coat around my shoulders, turned me around and we left before I tried to kill her or said another word.

The next evening, when bringing the boys back to me, Phil asked why I had stayed when I knew that it would cause so much turmoil. I told him that I stayed because I was hoping that my relationship with this man who was actually RELATED to the other people at the party was actually going somewhere and because I presumed, 3-6 years later, that the three of us could be adults and there would be no turmoil and because, once I walked in, had I walked back out, the boys would have been disappointed and asked a thousand questions that no one wants to answer yet. He told me that it would have been easier if I had just left and let Richard enjoy the party with them. I told him that he was entitled to his opinion.

This is long enough, so suffice it to say that there has been more discussion about it, since then, with the boys and while they are still a bit cool to Melanie, they are no longer demanding that she not be around. Richard and I are doing well and John and I had a lovely coffee.

Should I have left as soon as I realized the awkward circumstances? Phil still insists that that’s the only way to avoid this situation in the future, should it ever come up again. I told him that I left HIM for that reason and that his fiancée needs to grow up. 1204-12

Isn’t it fascinating to actually hear both sides of a dilemma?  This unique situation did confirm to me that it is possible to get to the nitty gritty issues without ever hearing the other side,  however.  I had already reached conclusions and my opinion based solely on the first submission I had received which was the stepmom, Melanie’s story.   Receiving the ex-wife’s submission merely confirmed my initial thoughts.   So here goes….

There are three major rules in play in this situation.

1.  Children are never, ever, EVER to be used as pawns in adult games and conflicts.  There are no caveats to this, no exemptions.  You don’t hide behind the children, don’t use them to be your mouthpiece, don’t manipulate them in order to achieve control over another adult, you don’t draw them into the fray as an ally, and the list goes on.   Children should never be used as the “battleground” over which adults choose to fight.

2.  One question often repeated by me on this site and one I believe everyone should be use to assess motivations is, “Who is being served by this?”  A lot of etiquette dilemmas could be avoided if people thought to ask this question of themselves.  If you are serving your own agendas, you are probably wading into dire Etiquette Hell straits and need to back out before you really screw it up.

3.   The third rule deals specifically with hospitality so I’ll save that for a little later.

Stepmom Melanie admits that Ex-wife/Mom, “doesn’t say anything bad about us to their two kids”, which is far more decent than most divorced parents.  Ex-wife/Mom is serving her kids, and indirectly her ex-husband and his fiancee, by not poisoning their minds to serve her own agenda.  Whether they trust and fall in love with their soon-to-be step mom will rise or fall solely on Stepmom’s own behavior.

The children became the battleground when Stepmom Melanie initiated an “avoidable mess” regarding the ADULT issue of how children are to be shared by literally restraining Little Guy from getting help from his primary caregiver, his mother.   Moms in general are the more nurturing parent and it stands to reason that if something is amiss, a child will go to the parent that has the most input in their lives which in this case is Ex-wife/Mom.  If we ask the question, “Who is being served?”, of this situation, clearly the child is being served when he seeks comfort and help from his primary parent.   Stepmom Melanie betrayed her own agenda to serve herself when she turned a minor crisis into an opportunity to enforce her fiance’s custody of his children.  If you had backed away and let Mom and Dad handle the problem, all would have been over within 10 minutes with peace reigning in the host’s house.   There was a whole lot of adult drama and angst about a few minutes of parental custody “vagueness” in the midst of a minor emergency that was completely unnecessary.

I am somewhat baffled as to how Stepmom/Melanie can call Little Guy and Big Guy “ours” when it is highly unlikely the judge awarded shared custody to a mother and father and his fiancee.   Bearing the title of “fiancee” or even “wife” does not bestow upon a person the rights and privileges of having a child’s trust and affection.  It is completely unrealistic to believe that a child, in a situation he considers an emergency, should not go directly to his mother but rather mentally remember which parent has legal custody at the moment and choose that parent.  In other words Melanie, you took up your fiance’s offense about custody issues and in the world of etiquette there isn’t a whole lot of grace extended to you.   You will have a happier future marriage and relationship with your stepkids and even their mother if you fade into the background on these matters.  If Phil is not willing to address custody issues he may have with his wife or chooses to not address it in the midst of a crisis, you are not helping matters being his mouthpiece.   Step back and think, “Who is being served”?, and if the answer is, “The children are best being serving”, you won’t go wrong.

A warning to Ex-wife/Mom.  I noticed how, in this story, you used the children as your mouthpiece to really drive home the point of how poorly you view Melanie.   The kids may have said as you reported and believe Melanie to be a wicked witch but they are still too young to understand the consequences of their words and you reporting their behavior to others exposes their indiscretions and does plant in listeners’ minds a picture that you may think is unflattering to Melanie but I would also council is unflattering to your kids and you.   I sincerely hope you are not doing this in real life as this would be an example of misusing children as allies in an adult conflict.

And finally, to the issue of hospitality and shared custody…

A host decides who he or she would like to invite into their home or wedding or any other function they happen to be hosting.  A guest has no business whatsoever influencing the guest list or adding to it or working surreptitiously behind the scenes to discourage other guests from attending.   If you feel you cannot be civil for a few hours, then by all means YOU decline the invitation.   Here on Ehell, we are all about taking responsibility for your own actions since one cannot be responsible nor change the actions of others.  Calling the host to imply an ultimatum that its either you or the other guest is beyond rude and again, serves who?   You!   You’ve put the host in the incredibly awkward position of having to take sides in your stupid divorce wars all because you cannot grow up and learn to act like civil adults.   The host’s home, or where it is they have chosen to host their shindig, is neutral ground in the personal wars.   Truces must be made and kept, peace accords honored on neutral ground.  That means you learn to act like civil, decent, respectable guests in your host’s home.  There is a time and place for serious discussions and a holiday party is not one of them.

My father divorced my mother long after the kids had grown and left home but he was a true gentleman who behaved with utmost decorum and civility on the occasions where he and Mom were in attendance at family functions.   I still remember with fondness the memory of he and Mom dancing together at my niece’s wedding as they both put aside any differences they had to make the wedding all about their granddaughter.  They talked pleasantly and even laughed a few times during the dance and afterwards went to their separate tables.   My Dad never behaved in a way that encouraged the taking of sides in the divorce and to this day, I consider that a gift.  What is the legacy you are leaving your children? What memories are you giving your children?

Should Ex-Wife have left when she realized her ex-husband and his fiancee were also at the party?   Hospitality is not a game wherein the first guest to arrive stakes out his/her territory and the spouse that arrives later loses and must leave.   Again, this is using the host’s home as a battleground and what will result is a perpetual contest to see who can get to a party first.    The decision as to whether to stay or leave lies solely with the person who believes he/she themselves cannot or will not behave civilly.   There are always caveats to certain rules and I can imagine there are situations where the other guest will, no doubt, make a scene thus compelling you to leave for the peace of all.  But if one acts with maturity, civility and graciousness in these situations, it becomes glaringly obvious which guest is the real troublemaking dramatist and one has to believe that their invitations will dry up while yours increase.   As a frequent hostess, you best believe I would “catch on” as to who was actually the instigator of the drama and boot them from future guests lists.

So, Phil, if you believe you or your fiancee cannot behave in a civil, respectful manner in your host’s home while your ex-wife is in attendance, then by all means please decline the invitation or leave.  It is completely unacceptable to suggest that Ex-wife’s date, Richard, can stay at the party while she must depart.  Why not you stay and Melanie goes home?    Both women have acknowledged that you and Ex-wife work hard to be civil for the sake of the children and the logical conclusion I reach is that Melanie is the dramatic fly in the ointment.    I’m going to be even harsher than your ex-wife and counsel you to consider whether you are concerned by the fact that your youngest son got used in some stupid tug of war over custody by Melanie that had more to do about her insecurities than concern for the child.   I have no idea if this has been a pattern of behavior or if it is the first time but if this type of behavior continues, you have a serious dilemma on your hands.   Because your children’s wellbeing and their relationships with you may be sacrificed on the altar of someone else’s agendas, ego and self-esteem and that would be a tragedy.

Btw, the commentary section of this blog post will not be used as another battleground between the two parties.

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