Dear Carolyn: My parents divorced when I was a toddler. Growing up, birthdays were huge for my sibling and me because they were one of few times all year that we got to hang out with both of our parents at once.

Later, when my dad remarried and had another child, they were even more important as a reminder that we mattered to him. But my stepmother was always a huge downer about this. She always actively pushed back against our wanting to have an all-family gathering for birthdays — literally, two days a year! One for each of us. There were a couple of dramas and arguments over this.

We are now adults. I still like getting together on special occasions like birthdays, and my sibling does, too. We have children now, which makes it even more special and fun. My mom is always game and so is my dad, but my stepmother comes and pokes her lips out as if her favorite toy has been stolen. She makes snide remarks about what a fuss is being made.

These are not regatta galas, they're family-only dinners at, like, pizza joints. She tries very hard to ruin every one of them.

At the risk of seeming like a damaged little kid who hasn't gotten past my parents' divorce of 35 years ago, do you think it's okay for me to start UNinviting my stepmother from these events? My dad is very much a look-the-other-wayer.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Have you ever just asked her: “You look miserable. Is there anything anyone can do for you?” If not cheerfully, then at least in something resembling an upbeat tone.

If this yes-I-see-you honesty isn’t enough to nudge her in one direction (speaking in truth vs. snark) or the other (wiping the sulk off her face already), then you will have also laid a foundation to say, next time: “You look miserable again. If you’d like to skip these, then I won’t be offended.” If you think this puts Dad’s attendance at risk, then talk to him about it first. But again — from her angle, not yours: “I don’t think I’m out on a limb saying [Stepmother] doesn’t look happy to be here. Would she appreciate it if I gave her the out, or if you did?”

Obviously uninviting her is a valid option and ignoring her an underrated one; she can’t ruin anything without others’ permission in the form of granting her that power. However, after so many years of this, it seems like it could be very satisfying to dispense with the whole charade and just talk about why everyone keeps doing this dance.

And no, you didn’t sound like a damaged little kid at any point in this letter. It is your version of family. You have something you value emotionally, it is well-meaning and harmless to anyone who isn’t looking to be harmed, and you’re trying to find a way to protect it. What are we here for, if not that?

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