If you are divorced and have kids under sixteen together, you can count on trying to get along at one annual gathering if nothing else. It's something that won't change like child support calculations or the way you look at his girlfriend or future wife: it's your kid's birthday party.
Take a mild-mannered mom and throw her into the mix with her ex-husband at a sports complex for their six-year-old's birthday party, and suddenly, she's standing on a basketball court coordinating with the dad, her ex, to do a final headcount and determine who remembered candles for the cake. With Starbucks in hand, wishing it were a Vodka Collins, she's the perfect parent and hostess, well-mannered mom and civil divorcee. That was me, yesterday, at my son's party.
Add a few more variables into the party and you have the makings of a perfect storm, yet a rare time when everyone in the room will sweep reality and conflicts under the rug for the benefit of the birthday child. The dad's new girlfriend, the mom's revealed partner, ex sisters-in-laws and concerned grandparents, soon to be stepsons and a dozen moms from school there to watch the family circus. But all remains calm. It's a celebration!
But look closely, and the most observant parent will pick up on the underlying tension just teetering beneath the streamers. The exes work together to put on a happy face, but maybe it's not such a stretch on an afternoon like this--there is a joint sense of happiness for the birthday boy and a strange feeling of accomplishment we can all actually stand here. The divorce took away the kid's "normal" life and brought endless logistical nightmares of living in two homes, but all is well on the birthday day. He's getting his happy celebration just like everyone else if it's the last thing we do.
So we do it. No matter that I'm busy checking out my ex's new girlfriend, from the estimated size of her jeans (Paige Premium Denim? Size two?) to the way she chats away with the guy who used to be my brother-in-law. She's watching me, too, I know. (My jeans are not a size two, but I know I look good today.)
Together, my ex and I take pictures, cheer the kids on in dodgeball, and, later, watch our son blow out the candles on his cake. When the knife comes out--a big one--I hold it high above my head as I make my way through the cramped room to cut the cake. I see people watching me and I want to laugh. There was a time (A year ago? Yesterday?) when several people in this room, myself included, would have liked to take that knife and jab it right into someone else! But moments later, my girlfriend and my ex-brother in law are successfully working together to cut and serve the still very-frozen Oreo ice cream cake.
Two hours after it began, what's left is a cart piled high with presents and a sense of relief at a job well done. All the adults acted like adults, not children! Our son had a great time. And everyone survived. For an afternoon, we were almost like a "normal" family. But as we divide up the presents to go to "my" house and "Dad's" house, and get stuck in the awkward moment of who should plop down the credit card, I am shaken out of my relaxed state. I have to say goodbye to my son, because it's his night with his dad. I won't hear whatever he has to say about his party, or be able to kiss him goodnight after this special day. Tonight, the reality of being a family of divorce will kick in again, for all of us, as we scramble to find the right basketball shoes or realize a homework folder is at the wrong house.
I am ready for that drink now.