As a divorce mediator, I work closely with couples to develop a settlement that works best for them. And when I begin working with a divorcing couple who have children, the first thing I do is establish a parenting plan. I do this first for a number of reasons.
First of all, I like to start with a topic in which the parents are likely to be on the same page; after all, nearly every parent wants what is best for their children. Secondly, children are not “negotiables”, and I do not allow them to be negotiated for anything. So as the mediator, I spend as much time as possible learning about each of their kids and what the parents want for them in the future; the more I know them, the more I can help them.
At some point during the creation of the parenting plan, I ask how they want to celebrate their children’s birthdays. Usually I recommend that if the parents are able, they should celebrate each child’s birthday together by perhaps going out to dinner as a family. In my years of research and speaking with psychologists, even adult children like to have a sense of immediate family being together. Often times, parents will say “yes” to the suggestion to celebrate children’s birthdays together, but sometimes the answer is “no”.
The Right Answer? That Depends
For a long time, I believed that in the ideal divorce settlement, it was best to celebrate the birthdays of the kids together. I understand that, for whatever reason, this is not always doable. Sometimes, one of the spouses says I don’t think “I” can do that. Other times, geography or other factors hinder this option. Recently, I received a different answer that caused me to re-think my views on this issue.
In a recent session, one parent said to me “well, I don’t want to do that right now, because it would create more confusion in my children’s lives, but down the road I would like to try it.”
She went on to explain that her young children were having a hard time understanding why they were divorcing. Although they had been physically separated for over a year, they saw their parents being civil and couldn’t understand why they couldn’t stay married. Doing birthdays together would likely have only added to the confusion, and made it more difficult for the kids to cope with their new reality.
This answer caused me to take another look at the research I’d relied upon regarding the issue of children’s birthdays and divorce. While it may be true that children of all ages like to have a sense of family and togetherness, it is also important to look at how each individual child is currently dealing with the situation. As a general rule, the younger the child, the more confusing it can be. So in keeping with the best interests of the child, it is definitely important to factor in their age and current state of mind before making important decisions like these.
The parent in my recent mediation session was very thoughtful and had a strong reason for going against conventional wisdom in regards to her kids’ birthdays. It was a good reminder that, although I have many years of experience and a lot of guidance to offer as a divorce mediator, the parents are the only ones who really know what is best for their children. And this is what makes divorce mediation such a valuable alternative to traditional methods; divorce mediation provides greater flexibility, giving parents the room and ability to make the thoughtful decisions that are most suitable for their specific circumstances.