Q. My husband works out of town. We share the kids with his ex and they continue to go back and forth between homes even when he’s out of town.(We have young children and the older kids miss their siblings if they don’t continue to see them on a regular basis.) Since my husband won’t be home until Christmas Eve, he’s asked me to take the kids shopping for a Christmas present for their mother. I think the request is way over the top. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. I don’t think it’s over the top at all, and if you can, I’d do it. Sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zone in the best interest of the kids in our care (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #1,”Put the kids first.”) If you aren’t comfortable it could backfire. The kids will sense how you feel and that could cause resentment. If that’s the case, tell Dad to get a gift card on the way home or there may be an aunt or grandparent who can help.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken my bonuskids shopping to buy something for their mother—and it hasn’t just been Christmas presents. We’ve bought birthday presents and even Mother’s Day presents together. Sometimes their dad went along, but if he was unavailable and time was getting short, I did it.
At first, I have to admit, it was a little weird, but let’s examine what taking the kids out to buy a present for their mom really does:
First,I found that it brought me closer to the kids. They adored their mother, and the fact that they cared for me as well actually complicated things for them. For a time, they were quite secretive with both their mother and me about how they felt. They worried that liking me might hurt their mother’s feelings and fought feelings of allegiance or betrayal each time they went back and forth between homes. When we were out shopping for presents for their mom it gave the kids permission to talk about her when I was around. We chatted about what she liked, what she didn’t like, and openly acknowledged their love for her. That simple act made it much easier on the kids to go back and forth. It wasn’t me against their mom, it was the kids and I united to find her a present. The kids loved that and that strengthened our bond.
Second, since mom and I were at odds at times, when the kids showed up with a present–when she knew their dad was out of town–she knew exactly who took the kids shopping, and that paved the way to improve our relationship.
Some people might think this attitude is strange. Parents and their ex’s new partners aren’t supposed to get along or even discuss the kids. But, even if your think things like this are “over the top” you’re actions say something else. For example, you recognize how important the sibling relationship is, and though unconventional, continue to care for your bonuskids even when their dad is out of town. Some might feel that’s “over the top”, but it’s also a way to “put the kids first,” (Ex-etiquette for parents rule #1). Impressive.
Bottom line, the ideal situation would be if dad took the kids out to buy their mom a present, but if that’s not possible, it’s not surprising you’re next in line. Although buying presents for a partner’s ex may seem like you’re going above and beyond, it’s not about buying the present at all. It’s the act of shopping for the present with the kids that makes you the bigger person and sets a positive example. Congratulations. That’s really good ex-etiquette.
Ex-Etiquette®, runs in countless newspapers and websites all over the world. It is written by Dr. Jann Blackstone, who specializes in child custody, divorce, and stepfamily mediation. Dr. Jann is the author of seven books on divorce, remarriage, and co-parenting, specifically, Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce and Separation, Ex-Etiquette for Weddings, and Ex-Etiquette for Holidays. Dr. Blackstone is also the founder of Bonus Families,501 c3 non-profit organization dedicated to peaceful coexistence between divorced or separated parents and their combined families.