Stepparents sing instead of argue

The last time I clashed with my ex-husband, Tripp, about how much time our son, Travis, would spend with each of us, Travis checked my face, then his dad's. He positioned himself halfway between us.

"Please," my son said, unfolding his small hands and extending them toward me and his dad. His blinked, as if fighting tears.

With my son's expression etched in my heart, I vowed that I would change. Somehow I needed to summon the superhuman strength to set aside my feelings of pain and distrust, to find a way to spend civil social time with both Travis and his dad. Then we wouldn't have to fight over him. And Travis wouldn't feel as if he had to completely separate his life with me - spent mostly at my house, in my neighborhood - from his life with his dad.

At that moment, I had an idea - but I knew it could lead to disaster.

What if I invited my ex-husband, his wife, my new husband, his ex-wife, and our six children to a party?

Maybe - just maybe - we could create a new tradition that would give our kids the opportunity to feel connected to all their parents, at the same time, in the same place, if only for a few hours.

First, I unveiled my idea to my husband, Bill, who responded by issuing one of his classic warnings. "The potential for disaster would never be more than 20 seconds away," he said.

I reminded him that just last Christmas, his daughter, Emily, had begged to invite her mother over to our house for Christmas.

Bill closed his eyes and scrunched up his face, as if gathering the courage to jump off a cliff.

"I think it's worth a try," he said. "But..."

When Bill and I presented my idea to Travis and my two stepchildren, we were greeted with silence.

Travis checked my eyes. Bill's kids, Emily and Chris, gazed at Bill's face. They seemed to be searching for the tight jaw line that signaled Bill's discomfort.

"If all our parents are at the same party, who's going to be in charge?" asked Chris.

"Since it's our party, Lisa and I will be in charge," said Bill.

"But my mom will make us all eat tofu," Travis said. "Then she'll make my dad run around to lose some weight, like she used to do when they were together."

"I'll serve food everyone likes," I promised. "Then I'll ask Bill to demonstrate his squat-jumper exercises, but I won't insist that your dad join in."

The kids laughed.

"Neat," said Travis. "Emily's and Chris's mom will meet my dad."

And so the preparations began.

Bill spent what felt like months shopping for his ex-wife's favorite hors d'oeuvres.

"Linda likes homemade bread," he said, as we picked our way through the gourmet section of the grocery store.

"What's the matter with the stale white bread you feed the kids?" I asked.

He ignored me and immersed himself in memories of party planning with his ex.

"We used to have dinner parties, and we always bought Gouda cheese," he said.

Next he insisted on fresh shrimp.

"What's the matter with the sticky frozen stuff we usually eat?" I asked.

"Lisa, I'm not trying to woo Linda," Bill said, turning away from the food for the first time. "This is all about the kids. I want Linda to feel welcome and at home. If she feels comfortable, the kids will feel comfortable, and our party might actually be a success."

When our guests arrived for our party, we all shuffled around the dining-room table, mostly silent. My head pounded as I arranged the gourmet cheeses. I tried to think of something to say to Bill's ex-wife.

As we all gaped at the food, I counted the sweat droplets that appeared, one by one, on Bill's forehead.

My stepchildren positioned themselves equidistant from Bill and his ex-wife and held that distance. If Bill moved to the right, Emily and Chris adjusted their stations; if their mother veered toward the kitchen, Emily and Chris followed her just so far.

Travis eschewed the equidistant rule in favor of gluing himself to the parent he had seen the least in recent days, in this case, his dad.

As the children danced around their parents, I worried about the possibility of calamity. I tried to think of something scintillating, opened my mouth, closed it, blushed.

Bill's eyebrows twitched, a sign that he thought his worst nightmares were about to come true.

I decided I couldn't bear the discomfort, worry, fear, and potential for embarrassment for one more minute. I silently prepared myself to send everyone home and proclaim the event a failure.

That's when 11-year-old Emily, 5-year-old Chris and 10-year-old Travis stepped forward.

"Hey, Dad," said Travis, leading his father to our living room. "Check out our new couch. It's supposed to look good with those scary masks that Bill nailed on the living room wall." Travis sat on our couch and patted the seat beside him.

"How about you sit right here, Mom?" asked Emily, choosing a spot on the couch a few feet from Travis. "How do you like where we put the TV?" She pointed to a television set wedged into a corner of the room. "It's way over there because we're not supposed to watch it."

Chris jogged into the kitchen and returned with a tray of shrimp and cheese. He passed it from guest to guest.

The kids' efforts freed me to suggest we all sing "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands" for our baby, 8-month-old Allison.

Bill's wife launched immediately into the song, and Allison swung her legs.

"OK, how about 'Bingo' " said Linda, when we finished.

"There was a farmer, had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o..."

Everyone joined in.

Then Travis led us in a rendition of "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Robin Laid an Egg."

Even Bill joined in, belting out the song in a bass voice that once garnered him a position in a high school rock 'n' roll band.

Tripp smiled. The kids sang louder. Linda laughed.

For just a moment, the sounds that issued from our living room suggested a moment of joy, among family members. For just a moment, my wish for our children came true.

At that moment, we launched a tradition that has continued for five years - in spite of the potential for disaster.

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