Think twice before asking child to be go-between

I am a three years divorced father of one daughter, age 17. My daughter and my ex joined a religion last year, and my daughter is being baptized. She’s excited and proud.

About four months ago, I began a new relationship. My girlfriend and my daughter seem to get along well. My daughter asked my girlfriend to the baptism. But my girlfriend and I are really uneasy. We’re worried about my ex, who my girlfriend has never met. Should we tell my daughter to talk with her mom first and make sure it’s OK? What’s our next move?

— P.D., Oklahoma City

For ease of typing, I’m giving the players fictitious names: Your daughter is Kat, your ex is Pam and your girlfriend is Sue.

No. Please don’t ask/suggest to Kat that she make sure it’s OK with her mom. No, no, no. Please no.

I know it feels like the logical thing to do. Furthermore, the idea is probably motivated by your sincere desire to be gracious, hospitable and honorable to Pam. To give Pam every due respect. Let me be clear: That’s very nice of you!

But sometimes we move forward with pure and beautiful motives into a strategy that is unintentionally problematic.

Asking Kat to garner Pam’s “permission” creates a triangulated relationship. It puts Kat and Pam in a real bind. Though I believe this was not your intention.

Asking Kat to “make sure it’s OK” with her mom makes Kat the courier of a concern that is not hers but yours. And that’s not fair. Furthermore, your graciously motivated suggestion might give Kat a concern about her mother that, before, she did not have. And might not need.

And lastly, I ask you to think through the corner into which it paints Pam. You and Sue were concerned — right? — about the possibility that Pam might feel uncomfortable, awkward, that she might have desired to protect this intimate moment and not want to share it with a stranger, or even that she is insecure about other women usurping her role in Kat’s life. So, if your concerns are even half-right, what on earth would make you think she’d like to spill any or all of that vulnerability with her daughter! Or that it’s in Kat’s best interest to “see her mother naked” in all of that!

Oh sure, Pam could just say, “No, please don’t invite Sue.” But then Kat gets to walk away thinking, “Sheesh, what did I just step in?”

Or Pam could lie: “Oh, the more the merrier! What a terrific opportunity this will be for me to meet your dad’s new girlfriend (while I’m standing without makeup in a dripping baptismal robe looking like a drowned rat). Great!”

Or, even if it is OK with Pam, my criticism remains: Why would Kat be the social secretary on this one? Why is Kat navigating and negotiating Pam and Sue’s relationship, and, by proxy, your post-marital relationship with Pam?

Here’s what I think should happen:

You call Pam. Or Sue calls Pam. Or, better yet, you and Sue call Pam. If you and Sue are in it for the long haul, and especially if issues of family celebrations/festivals are beginning to overlap, then I’d say it was way past time for you to be introducing Pam to Sue anyway. It’s ya’ll’s concern, so I say ya’ll ask Pam. Straight up. Adult to adult.

But, if not, then at least soften the language to your daughter. Not, “You should go make sure that’s OK with your mom,” but, “How nice of you to ask me! … Uh, but, I guess I was wondering if this wasn’t something really special you wanted to share just with your mom?”

Do you see how your directive asks Kat to check in with her mom on your behalf? While my suggested alternative invites Kat to check in with herself? Huge difference.

Sue might also decide to pre-empt the whole thing and not go. Sue might decide Kat’s invitation, through no fault of Kat’s, presupposes an intimacy in which it would be premature for Sue to participate. Four months just ain’t that long. She’s not your wife. Not your fiance. Not your cohabitant. And, while she loves you and loves Kat, while she is deeply committed to a future with you, she might decide to graciously sidestep this invitation in principle.

Sue might decide to take this whole discussion off Kat’s plate, as an adult mercy to an innocent adolescent.

Originally published in View News, Sept. 1, 2009.

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