The question

My husband and I have a large and (mostly) happy family which consists of five children and 12 grandchildren. We get together often and have a lot of happy occasions “en famille.” Our eldest son announced last year that he and his wife were separating after 22 years of marriage and four children. He asked us, however, to continue inviting his ex-wife to our family get-togethers as her mother drives her mad. It has now been 11 months since the split and they often attend our family parties with their kids. Our other children find the whole thing uncomfortable and are looking forward to the day when the practice ends. We think that it will be over when one or the other finds a new partner. Are we too relaxed about it all?

The answer

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Relaxed is good.

First of all, please allow me to congratulate you on having “a large and (mostly) happy” family. Leo Tolstoy famously said (in the opening sentence of Anna Karenina): “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Now, I ask everyone’s forgiveness, for the hubris of a lowly Canadian columnist not only to disagree with but actually pooh-pooh a great Russian writer, but it seems to me Tolstoy got it exactly wrong: In fact, unhappy families share a lot of similarities; whereas happy families are as unique as snowflakes.

It’s a real tightrope walk to manage a happy relationship as a couple in the first place (“Argh! When will you learn to put down the toilet seat after you go to the bathroom? How many times do I have to mention that?”). When you throw in some kids filling their stinking, steaming diapers and issuing demands and sneezing on your pasta primavera and making you sick and keeping you up all night and (later) shooting BB guns at the neighbours’ house; then toss in a cat and maybe a big bloody fool of a dog while you’re at it and it’s a miracle anyone comes even close to pulling it off.

In short, a) congrats on your “(mostly) happy family,” b) where’s the problem? I’d feel differently if you said this recently split-up couple was full of open hostility and was constantly scrapping and sniping and squabbling and zinging each other over the canapés and hors d’oeuvres.

I know couples who are together who do that.

But if they can be civil to one another and bring their kids, I think that’s actually lovely and definitely qualifies under the purview of a “(mostly) happy family.”

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Oooh, so your other kids quack about how they feel “uncomfortable” with the whole situation? Sorry, and obviously I’m interpolating here, but my guess is they could be a little less judgey, talk a little less and be a little more accepting.

I have no doubt it costs this couple, emotionally, more than anyone in the vicinity appreciates; I have no doubt they wrestle in “the smithy of their souls” (now I’m sounding like a Russian writer – in translation) with maintaining civil tongues after being apart for less than a year; and I would further speculate they do it for the sake of the children.

So your job, and the job of the other members of your family, as I see it, is to be compassionate, considerate, welcoming, and (why not?) even fun.

I would even go so far as to speak to your other children. Instead of just nodding your heads and saying “Yeah, it’s weird” when they start muttering about how “uncomfortable” it all is, say something to the effect of: “You know what, they are probably going through a difficult time right now, I think what we should really be doing is supporting them and providing a congenial atmosphere in any way we can.”

After all, honestly, let’s be perfectly candid here, family gatherings tend to be only a few hours at a time, your other offspring complaining they feel “uncomfortable” and blah blah blah are just being busybodies and superior and should be more supportive against the day when, perhaps, everything doesn’t go their way.

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