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Warring Grandparents

Dear E-Hell,

When my son turned 1 year old last year, his birthday party was kind of awkward. We made it small and only invited his grandparents and any aunts/uncles that live close by. His biological paternal grandfather and grandmother have been bitterly divorced for nearly 20 years and there is still a lot of strain (throw in a step-grandma, too). They don’t fight with each other or anything, but during the entire party, grandpa’s “side” took up one side of the room and grandma took up the other side. They tried not to look at each other and did not even so much as say hi to each other. To say the least, there was so much tension in the air that at his 2nd birthday coming up, I do not wish to invite either of them over. It’s absolutely not worth it, and I know once my son gets older he will be able to feel the tension because it is STRONG. They pretty much abhor each other. My question is, what should I do? Invite everybody but the grandparents? Leave it up to them to take my son out and celebrate his birthday in another way, on their own time? I’m not sure how to handle it because I would love to celebrate with family, and I know excluding part of his family is not right. Thanks! 1007-13

What struck me reading your story is that you have two grandparents and siblings who are willing to come to your home to celebrate a grandchild’s/nephew’s birthday regardless of the history and their animosity.   They knew it would be awkward and came anyway.

By having a small and intimate party, the entire guest list consisted of enemy combatants who had no “bunker” to retreat to.   In other words, if the party had been larger with neutral guests like friends, neighbors and the other spouse’s parents and siblings then the enemies can “hide” amongst these people and the lack of communication between the warring sides does not appear to be as severe or mitigates it entirely.   When you married, didn’t these same people have to behave during the wedding and reception?

So, you can either choose to host a larger party or keep your birthday celebrations more sedate with quiet celebrations with each grandparent.    My two grandchildren live almost 2 hours from us but right around the corner from their other set of grandparents and because of that distance we often have two different birthday celebrations on different days.   Trust me, the kids won’t mind.   So, you may have to treat your feuding parents as separate families that will do better celebrating separately.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lo October 10, 2013, 6:38 am

    I like the admin’s suggestion of treating the parents as seperate families to do separate celebrations with.

    I would definitely not want to deal with the stress of having these people in the same room if they cannot even greet one another. If this has really been going on for 20 years then there’s nothing you can do to mitigate it. Keep them apart as much as possible, treat your son to two smaller scale celebrations or get togethers instead of one large family party.

    I guess all things considered this is better than relatives who fight at parties but man, what a sad situation.

  • Gram October 10, 2013, 6:42 am

    Sounds to me that the gramdparents were not impolite. They came for the party, did not instigate troubles with the other side, but did not go out of their way to put on a facade of friendliness.

    Remain distant and cool. Isn’t that exactly what us E-Hellions recommend whenever we encounter someone we dislike? I see nothing wrong about this situation, other than questionable party guestlist planning. Take the admin’s advice. Do double the fun for the kid, and don’t subject these poor grandparents to each other without adequate refuge again!

  • CaffeineKatie October 10, 2013, 6:51 am

    I think I would opt to tell the grandparents that when they could act like they were actually older than the birthday boy, they would be invited back–but not until then. And then I’d invite friends or family members who can model mature behavior to the subsequent birthday parties.

  • Huh October 10, 2013, 8:25 am

    I agree with admin’s suggestions, especially about two separate celebrations if they really cannot stand to be in the same room with each other, and I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

    My ex’s parents had a bitter split and can’t stand each other and we always had separate birthday/holidays rather than make them be in a room together. The few times I can think of when they were together, his mom always made a big deal about being as far away from him as possible. A lot easier to have them not be around each other at all.

    Fast-forward to present, ex and I are divorced. We are capable of being in a room together, but due to how it ended, we are not friends. We pretty much are polite acquaintances, we say hello, we talk about the kids (the bulk of our conversations revolve around them) and may talk about the new movie/TV show everyone’s talking about, but that’s pretty much it. We are both at the kids’ birthday parties, and we are actually around each other quite a bit, due to pickups, drop offs, school events/activities, but we’re never going to be BFFs.

    If it seems like they’re going to start screaming at each other any minute or if it’s just too tense for you to deal with, have separate parties. If they are just sitting on opposite sides of the room, not really talking to each other, but talking to others and still being actively involved in the party, then after a bitter divorce and a lot of strain as you described, they seem like they’re trying to be civil.

  • Elizabeth October 10, 2013, 8:59 am

    I second Admin’s suggestion of a larger gathering. I resorted to this because of a difficult family member and it made gatherings more tolerable. This may greatly relieve the grandparents since clearly no one was having a good time last year but all were there in an attempt to honor your son.

  • Anonymous October 10, 2013, 9:41 am

    Another thing, OP–soon enough, your son is going to “age out” of this problem. Once he’s in kindergarten, or even preschool, he’ll want to have a birthday party with his friends instead of his extended family, so you can always just say that (truthfully) to both sets of grandparents, and possibly arrange some separate, low-key, “grandparent time” for another day before or after the birthday party. The grandparents probably wouldn’t be offended, because “friend parties” for young kids usually involve bouncy houses, disgusting pizza served by giant mice, and other things that are fun for kids, maybe within shouting distance of tolerable for those kids’ parents, and not really appealing at all to anyone else.

  • Mary October 10, 2013, 9:44 am

    My DH family prefers their own celebrations. It’s not that they don’t like my family but they don’t really socialize or have any desire to mingle. The few times that both families got together it was as OP described, DH’s family grouped together and my family grouped together. I started having 2 small gatherings for DD bday and it works very well. We have casual dinner and cake with DH’s family and then casual lunch/cake with my family. Everyone is happy and it’s not really any more effort on my part. If you are up for 2 separate gatherings it really can be a pleasant alternative.

  • startruck October 10, 2013, 9:49 am

    i understand tention can be awkward , but i cant help but to wonder if you cant just bear it for the sake of the childs birthday? alot of people cant even be in the same room together , and if they are, they are fighting like cats and dogs. at least they can show up, not fight and be there for the kid. i wouldnt exclude any of them , that would be hurtful. and how would you decide which ones get to come anyway ? if you invite neither of them , that would be hurtful to your son, to exclude grandma and grandpa. i would just go on with the party and enjoy his birthday . cause really, how often do you have to be with them both in the same room? a couple of hours once a year is not to much to ask.

  • Lisa October 10, 2013, 10:15 am

    How about your husband has a talk with his divorced parents and inform (not ask) them to suck it up and be friendly all around as your child’s birthday party is about the child and not them?

    Deep down, I would love to throw hot grease on my ex, but, I informed him that and events that involve our children need to be about the children. We suck it up, play nice, and give the kids the love and support that they deserve for their special occasions.

  • Lisa Marie October 10, 2013, 11:09 am

    Have two parties, just pick a home and talk with whichever grandparent would be willing to host the other party. That’s what we do for our grandkids because my husband cannot stand our daughter’s inlaws. I have to say he’s right and I am not too fond of them either. I make a point of never bashing
    SIL’s parents in front of grandkids too. Which you might want to keep in mind. I know it’s same side for you but there is still animosity there that kids can pick up on. This works for Christmas too. Either trade Thanksgiving with Christmas or Christmas Day and Eve.

  • hakayama October 10, 2013, 11:52 am

    @Anonymous, Smart Person! I just love the term “age out”. Once peers are involved, there is NO EFFING room for anyone but said peers and perhaps THEIR parents who decide to stay.
    It allows for widening one’s circle of “parental networking”, and does not deprive the grands of anything as they see the b-day child at other times anyway.

    OP: While waiting for the “aging out”, you might consider taking your child on a birthday outing. Just the child and parents. Then at the age of 2, 3 or 4 , the candles on a cupcake or a bowl of ice cream can be dealt with ease and WITHOUT sourpusses to spoil the moment…

  • Joanna October 10, 2013, 12:03 pm

    While I can definitely understand the POV of suggesting the family have two separate parties, I also don’t like that because it seems like catering to people’s inability to act like grownups. How much is truly being asked of them? This is a young child; we’re probably talking two or three hours, tops. If they can’t suck it up and focus on the child for that length of time, then why should the parents have to go through the additional trouble and expense of two separate parties?

  • Angel October 10, 2013, 1:08 pm

    I would make things easier for everybody and just have two different celebrations. You can ask them to suck it up and just be in the same room with each other–but if they can’t do that, eventually your child will suffer when they are old enough to know what’s going on. Best to have two small celebrations and make it pleasant for everybody. They needn’t be extravagant either–and having a smaller amount of people will ease the stress off you.

  • Jewel October 10, 2013, 2:07 pm

    I get annoyed by advice suggesting that “warring” parties just suck it up for the occasion. When people have been seriously wounded emotionally or physically or financially, by a friend, family member, or former partner, it’s not fair to expect them to then make nice and chit chat. We would NEVER suggest the involved parties do this if the injuries occurred during a stranger-on-stranger attack, so shouldn’t we be MORE tolerant and understanding when loved ones are involved? For this reason, I also advocate separate activities whenever possible.

  • acr October 10, 2013, 2:10 pm

    I disagree with those who say the guests were rude. The OP invited two warring “factions”. These factions were obligated to behave politely – etiquette does not oblige them to be friendly. I agree with the two seperate parties idea. Even with a larger party, I (personally) would not be able to enjoy my child’s party b/c I would be so worried about these two groups. I love the idea of letting each grandparent host something at their home for their side of the family. As your son gets older, this will fade away. While many people love to watch a toddler blow out candles – watching an 8 year old blow out candles is not quite as cute or interesting.

  • Maria October 10, 2013, 2:15 pm

    I completely agree with Admin and either having larger parties or having separate ones. I love the positive angle that was presented as well – although enemies, the grandparents chose to attend, and should be given props for that. Having gone through an incredibly acrimonious divorce myself, I fully understand the levels of hatred that can last for quite awhile afterwards, even with massive amounts of therapy. Sometimes putting it all aside for one day is the stuff of fairy tales.

    While the situation may be tiresome, awkward and uncomfortable, it is what it is. No amount of pleading with or scolding of the guilty parties will yield the desired outcome which is everyone getting along. In fact, it may make things worse.

    OP, eventually this particular issue will phase itself out, in that your child will soon be wanting his own friends at his birthday parties, not his grandparents. Hang in there!

  • Marozia October 10, 2013, 3:26 pm

    I like the idea of two parties as well, especially if the grandparents cannot act like mature adults at the main birthday party.
    One wonders why they got divorced….they both deserve each other!

  • Firebrat1229 October 10, 2013, 8:02 pm

    I personally feel that, unless there was an abusive type of situation, divorced parents should be able to be socially polite and (at minimum) greet one another in a family setting. Particularly after 20 years!

    Listen, I don’t like my ex-husband but like one of the posters said above, when it came to events for our kids, we put it aside and we’re cordial and would speak about mundane things like the weather or TV, etc.

    I find it ridiculous that people can’t put their differences aside and be marginally polite, particularly all these years later.

    That said, I think Admin’s advice about having two gatherings is spot on. If they’re going to behave like awkward children after 20 years, clearly it’s not going to get any better. Also, great advice from the poster upthread who advised that you have it to look forward to that eventually the child will ‘age out’ of family parties and his/her friends will be the focus instead. Something to look forward to. 🙂

    Tough situation all around and I wish you the very best!

  • Kate October 10, 2013, 9:02 pm

    Can you have two separate celebrations? My BIL and his ex-girlfriend do not get along (the last time they were in the same room, she hit him with a vacuum cleaner) and they have two kids together. They just do separate celebrations for the kids’ birthdays. Not ideal, but necessary.

  • Erin October 10, 2013, 9:07 pm

    @Jewel, because if you’re an adult, you have to do what’s right for your children and/or grandchildren, and put your petty drama aside no matter how “wounded” you are. You don’t have to like your ex, you just have to be polite. You suck it up so you don’t hurt the people who can’t protect themselves.

  • Really? October 10, 2013, 10:46 pm

    I am in a similar situation to the op. We have three kids and their paternal grandmother can’t stand the sight of her ex husband or his new wife. Paternal grandfather has his own issues with his ex wife as well. Our way of coping with this has been to invite both of the grandparents to every family party, and they just have to suck it up. Hubby doesn’t see why he has to be the bad guy choosing between his parents or why we should throw two different parties for each family occasion. Imagine how many parties we would have to have each year! Generally one of the grandparents chooses not to come to an event but that is their loss and choice. We don’t allow the events to be about the drama prone grandparent, the events are instead about our children.

  • Vermin8 October 11, 2013, 6:44 am

    As near as I can tell there is no war – just a very cold truce. The grandparents are behaving as they should – ie, no fighting, no rude comments or snipes. They just aren’t pretending to be buddy-buddy but I think it’s unfair to expect that. The tension is the fault of those putting unrealistic expectations on the 2 of them. I almost get the impression everyone was hanging back waiting for them to make small talk. I have a lot of trouble with small talk as a general rule so I’m sympathetic to the grandparents here. And if they know that the others expect them to behave as buddies, the pressure is going to make them feel worse and LESS comfortable. If holding 2 parties is not feasible perhaps a better solution is for the other attendees to engage one or the other (and step Gramma) in conversation rather than expecting them to interact with each other?

  • Sarah Jane October 11, 2013, 7:27 am

    Anonymous took the words right out of my mouth.

    Until your child is old enough to have a “kiddie” party, have separate celebrations with each set of grandparents.

  • Jewel October 11, 2013, 8:35 am

    @Erin — Petty dramas are not what I was referencing when I used the word “wounded”. I’m not talking about couples who are still sqwabbling over who got the set of copper pans 20 years later. To get my point, imagine your adult kids expecting you to politely interact with their father at numerous occasions through-out the year — a man who, after cheating on you multiple times over the course of the marriage, vowed to ruin you financially and destroy every other loving relationship you have because you had the temerity to file for divorce (and who pretty much succeeded in accomplishing his threats). A man, who in every way he can, still meddles in your life in an attempt to continue fulfilling this threats.

    Now why would you expect that woman to pass cake and chat politely with that man?

  • DRS October 11, 2013, 10:48 am

    The only people at my birthday parties were my siblings and my parents. I was allowed to invite friends for my 10th birthday party (we all were) and that was it. Is something wrong with that? I am 49, if that makes a difference.

  • kingsrings October 11, 2013, 11:46 am

    In these types of situations, the homeowners are the ones who get to decide what is and isn’t allowed in their house at all times. When battling friends or family gather together for a mutual event, all sides need to be appraised of that in advance. They all need to be told that they must peacefully co-exist with one another or leave. If they don’t follow this rule once the event is happening, they need to leave. It’s as simple as that.

  • MichelleP October 11, 2013, 12:00 pm

    While I agree with admin on some points, I’m with other posters who say they need to act like grown-ups. Invite more people so they have others to chat with.

    My mother and father have been divorced for over 29 years, and he’s still bitter toward her and her husband, my awesome stepdad. I’m barely 34, so they have never been together when I could remember it. Neither my mother nor stepdad did anything terrible to him; he was abusive toward my mother until she finally left. He will not come to any event if they are there, causing him to miss my wedding, the births of our children, and their birthday parties. It has caused a rift between him, us and our children. My mother and stepdad have always behaved graciously toward him on the few times he has come.

    @Jewel, my ex husband did all that and worse to me, and I still behave civilly toward him and allow my child to see him. Grow up and act polite. Your children will remember you as the bad guy if you don’t.

  • Huh October 11, 2013, 12:36 pm

    @Vermin8: “I almost get the impression everyone was hanging back waiting for them to make small talk.”

    That’s somewhat the impression I got too.

    I wondered if the tension was almost an outside factor, that the adult children were tense because dad’s sitting on one side of the room with stepmom, and mom’s sitting on the other side and they didn’t really talk when they came in, and OMG is one of them going to make a scene? Because I have been there with warring friends – actually they were perfectly OK being in the same room and being civil, and I was the one freaking out for absolutely no reason. They were fine. It was all in my head.

  • Jewel October 11, 2013, 3:33 pm

    @MichelleP — The example I provided was not a personal one. My husband and I have been happily married for nearly 22 years. I do know women (and some men) who have suffered just as I’ve described, though. I would never tell them to “grow up” as you advised. It would simply add salt to the wound and would be an incredibly inappropriate and hurtful thing to say. I didn’t advocate that they have my blessing to create a Jerry Springer episode if they happen to be in the same room; in that way I guess you could say I would expect them to be “polite”. However, I would not expect them to chit chat, sit together, or even be on the same side of the room. And, I would never blame them if they felt they couldn’t attend the event at all. I hope that clears up your misunderstanding of my posts.

  • kingsrings October 11, 2013, 3:55 pm

    What Michelle P said. People need to remember that in this situation, it’s not about them. And innocent people end up getting hurt because of the actions of angry people who can’t let it go for just one event once in a while.

  • Anonymous October 11, 2013, 7:08 pm

    @DRS–I think that’s a bit of a shame. If a child wants friend parties, then that child should have friend parties. I’m not saying it has to involve 30 kids at the Mouse Themed Pizza-like Substance Arcade and Indoor Playground, but what’s wrong with cake and ice cream and traditional party games, like pin the tail on the donkey, musical chairs, a treasure hunt or pass the parcel, etc.? Kids see their families all the time, but “friend parties” teach so many essential skills–First off, there’s forming a guest list: Who do you like, who do you play with a lot, whose parties have you attended, which of your friends get along with one another, and who’s going to enjoy your chosen theme? For example, maybe it’s not the best idea to invite Joey to a circus-themed party, because he’s scared of clowns. Then, once the party starts, there are the skills of making the rounds and socializing with everyone; not just your best friend, and winning, losing, and receiving gifts graciously.

    family-only parties, that doesn’t happen, because most people (kids and adults) don’t put on their “party manners” for family, because family members are people who see us at our best and at our worst. I mean, if the birthday kid would honestly prefer a family party, or, say, a sleepover or a water park excursion with just one or two close friends, that’s fine, but if the celebrant wants a friend party, then I think the parents should try to make it happen, if it’s feasible–even if it has to be a simple home or park party, that’s fine. Most kids are pretty happy with a day of friend time and too much sugar; it’s the parents who try to “keep up with the Joneses” with their kids’ birthday parties.

    Has anyone ever seen the show “Party Mamas?” It’s a “reality” television show about rich people with more money than sense, who pour thousands upon thousands of dollars into planning parties for their kids that cost more than the average university tuition, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single episode of that show that didn’t involve at least one screaming meltdown. A lot of the kids/teenagers have also said straight up that they don’t want a party, or they’d prefer a smaller party, but they get steamrolled and called “ungrateful” by their parents. The episodes usually have “happy endings,” with everyone enjoying the overpriced extravaganza, and saying that it was “all worth it,” but I beg to differ, because the people could have planned a simpler party, without all the fighting and drama, and everyone would have had fun anyway. So, people watch that, think it’s normal, and then erroneously believe that throwing a birthday party is this huge, complicated, expensive endeavour, when it really isn’t.

  • Anonymous October 12, 2013, 7:43 am

    Okay, I can’t edit on here, so my second paragraph of my previous post was meant to say, “WITH family-only parties, that doesn’t happen.”

  • Whodunit October 12, 2013, 11:07 am

    I agree with most posters, actually the only thing I’m going to add us that 1 yr olds and 2 yr olds don’t need any huge parties– they really don’t understand and most don’t really need gifts at that age either. By about 3 they are understanding, but by then they are more interested in “doing” stuff at parties than sitting around making small talk with grandparents. Make the party for the kids and about the kids, and you may find out that your guest list isn’t even what the kids want.

  • Anonymous October 12, 2013, 2:36 pm

    @Whodunit–I didn’t mean that infants and toddlers should have huge parties, with friends OR with family–in order to have a “friend party,” one must first be old enough to make friends. Even with big family parties, it’s silly to waste all that effort and expense organizing a massive shindig for a guest of honour who has no idea what’s going on, or is otherwise too young to appreciate it. Maybe a good work-around would be an open house type of set-up, where friends and family members could come and go as they please for the day, and give gifts/well wishes to the birthday kid, who wouldn’t be overwhelmed with a huge crowd of people, and a huge pile of presents, all at once. Of course, it’d take some adjustments (i.e., cupcakes instead of a large birthday cake, and individual appetizers instead of a big sit-down meal), but I think it’d be worth it.

  • Anonymous October 12, 2013, 2:41 pm

    P.S., Can’t edit–I meant to tell Whodunit that my “pro-friend-parties” comment was more about older kids (say, age four or five and up), who are old enough to have friends from school, peewee sports, Sparks/Daisies/Beavers/Joey Scouts, or whatever. I was talking to DRS, who wasn’t allowed friend parties, except for one isolated occasion, upon turning ten years old. I feel that saying “no friend parties,” or “friend parties only once in a blue moon” is taking things to the opposite extreme.

  • ketchup October 12, 2013, 3:35 pm

    Many posters have said the grandparents could set aside their differences temporarily for their grandchild. I don’t agree. Those people have the right to be respected. I imagine we’re not talking about a child’s squabble here, but something serious. Surely this can be accepted as is, and two parties should be the sensible solution.

  • Marbles October 14, 2013, 1:57 am

    Nearly 40 years after their divorce, my in-laws still dislike each other. They very much are the types to make their kids feel badly about enjoying time with the other parent. I’m not willing to encourage their shenanigans.

    For my kids’ birthdays, I invite both of them and expect them to be civil. However, I do fill out the guest list with lots of our friends with kids, so that my in-laws don’t really have to interact. Our house and yard are just large enough that they never have to be in close proximity.

    We split Christmas, though. We see one on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day. Without the buffer of a larger group, it’s more comfortable to visit separately.

  • Gram October 14, 2013, 7:57 am


    I totally agree! Being cool and distant is not being immature; it’s being polite! Politeness and friendliness are not the same thing!

    I think it is completely fine for some guests to maintain a safe distance from other guests at a party, as long as the point of the party is still celebrated. In this case, two sets of grandparents at a child’s birthday party. It sounds like the “tension” was all in the OP’s head.

    @OP, you seriously need to just relax! Let people be cool and distant if they want to. It’s the mature thing for them to do! It’s the proper thing for them to do! It’s etiquette. Outright feigning friendship and acting buddy-buddy is dishonest and factitious. Not to mention, that would actually build tension.

  • Harley Granny October 14, 2013, 11:12 am

    When my step-son graduate HS, he sent a letter to both his Dad and his Mom asking them to put aside their differences for the day. My husband and myself were very disturbed to get this note because we had never ever said anything bad about his Mom in his presence or to anyone he knew. We vented amongst ourselves sure! But never to anyone else.
    Luckily my husband had a good relationship with the boy so he asked for a clarification. Maybe we were doing something subconciously? Nope.
    Come to find out it was his Mom that would tell HIM that his Dad said stuff and tried to start arguments all the time. Sadly this was the time when our son realized that his Mom had been manipulating him this whole time.

    We DO all behave well in a room, but HE(son) has been programed to think that we will cause a scene or get into an knock down drag out. Which never has and never will happen.
    So I’m not convinced that the grandparents are doing anything wrong. I’m getting the feeling that the parents are just waiting for an explosion that just isn’t on the horizon.

  • Harley Granny October 14, 2013, 11:18 am

    When my step-son graduate HS, he sent a letter to both his Dad and his Mom asking them to put aside their differences for the day. My husband and myself were very disturbed to get this note because we had never ever said anything bad about his Mom in his presence or to anyone he knew. We vented amongst ourselves sure! But never to anyone else.
    Luckily my husband had a good relationship with the boy so he asked for a clarification. Maybe we were doing something subconciously?
    Come to find out it was his Mom that would tell HIM that his Dad said stuff all the time. Sadly this was the time when our son realized that his Mom had been manipulating him this whole time.

    We DO all behave well in a room, but HE(son) has been programed to think that we will cause a scene or get into an knock down drag out. Which never has and never will happen.
    So I’m not convinced that the grandparents are doing anything wrong. I’m getting the feeling that the parents are just waiting for an explosion that just isn’t on the horizon.