My ex wants our 14-year-old daughter to witness his new wife's childbirth

It irks me to imagine my daughter in the delivery room with her stepmother, but I don't know if I should object.

Published February 13, 2008 11:50AM (EST)

Dear Cary:

I have sole custody of my mostly fabulous 14-year-old daughter. My ex-husband and I are both lawyers, he more successful than I. People say I'm fortunate that he does not use his lack of custody as an excuse to shirk any of his responsibilities to her. I do appreciate that, and try to keep a positive attitude.

Recently, my ex-husband asked my permission to have our daughter be in the room when his wife gives birth a few months from now. He says he has not yet mentioned the idea to our daughter. (We both assume she'd accept if given this invitation.) I said I would think it over.

Cary, I don't want to say yes. I admit my motives are not 100 percent noble and maternal. The thought of a cozy foursome in that room -- mother, father, big (half)-sister, newborn baby boy -- with me on the other side of the door makes me heave. But even if I am prejudiced against a notion, that doesn't make it right. I just don't know if it's a good idea for a teenage girl to witness childbirth. And if anything goes wrong during the delivery, nobody will be focused on her needs.

And while I won't pretend to care about the wife's feelings, what are the odds that a woman giving birth to her first child wants her teen stepdaughter in the room? Hell, I adore my kid, and I'm not sure I'd want her nearby if I were delivering a baby. My ex must have pressured his wife to go along with his plan. Ain't nobody's business if he did -- but if in the throes of labor she orders my daughter out of the room, I'll have to deal with the emotional fallout.

Rereading what I've just written, I know I sound overwrought. Please help me calm down. It's really very simple: I should do what's best for my daughter. Once I know what that is, I'll make a decision and won't look back.

Single Parent

Dear Single Parent,

The ideal scenario, it seems to me, would be one in which the child is consulted carefully about her wishes and is allowed to decide what she wants to do.

So let's imagine this. What if your husband -- rather than issuing an explicit invitation, which to a child can sound like a veiled command -- were to take a gentle approach aimed not at persuading his daughter to attend but at coaxing out her true inclinations either way. Say he asks her to imagine the upcoming birth and where she would like to be when the birth occurs. He gives her time to think about it and to consult with her friends.

The daughter might say, You know what, I would really like to see it happen, that would be a kick. Then he could say to her, OK, well, if you really want to be there, ask your stepmother. Tell her why you want to be there, and then maybe she will allow it.

On the other hand, maybe the daughter says, No, thanks, I've got a schedule conflict. Then the father says, OK, darling, it's your choice.

Thus the decision-making power is placed with the people involved. We let them work it out. That's the ideal situation as I see it.

Now, I don't know your ex. It's possible that he will pressure your daughter. He may have some grand scheme he's quite attached to. I don't know what you can do about that. You cannot control the private conversations he has with his daughter. But you can be clear about how you think it ought to be decided.

You also express concern that someone should be focused on the needs of your daughter, should she be present if something goes wrong. That sounds sensible. In my limited research I found that, at least for young children, support people are often present expressly for that reason.

The bottom line is that you need to get this thing focused on your daughter and the expectant mom. At the same time, this raises all kinds of intense feelings. These feelings are normal. You may feel you're being excluded, that your ex-husband is drawing your daughter out of your realm and into his by involving her in a primal scene in a new family. You picture yourself on the other side of the door while this primal scene is imprinted on your daughter's consciousness. This causes you significant anguish, this imagined scene. You may fear that you will lose your daughter, or that her allegiance will shift. And this may all be part of a larger struggle between you and your ex-husband.

Your ex-husband may very well be acting out some grand scheme in which he emerges as the Sun King. I see how that could irk you. This topic is primal and highly emotional. Your husband's motivations may indeed be grandiose. This may represent his bid to shift the balance of family power. But it is all symbolic. It need not have any concrete effect on you at all. You are still raising your daughter, she is still living with you, and you are still her mother. This birth spectacle is just ceremony.

Your job as her mother is to ensure that your daughter is informed of her options and allowed to decide for herself. And if she decides to participate, then you should work to ensure that there is a support person there for her, and that she has adequate preparation.

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