Michelle Buteau Tackles Birthday Parties, Divorce and Insensitive Questions

Our etiquette expert weighs in.

Photo of comedian Michelle Buteau on blue background

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Michelle Buteau is a mother, wife, dog mama, actor, writer, comedian, and TV host. Her book of autobiographical essays, Survival of the Thickest, will soon be a Netflix series. She also co-hosts the popular podcast Adulting on the Exactly Right network. With all this life experience, we trust Michelle's ability to navigate a number of social quandaries. Here's her advice to our readers from the March 2023 issue of Real Simple.

Birthday Party Blues

KATIE: My 40th birthday is coming up, and I told my husband that my dream would be a tropical vacation with my sister, brother-in-law, and 3-year-old niece. He invited them and even offered to book a big house at no cost to them. They promptly declined without an explanation. I’m trying not to feel rejected and sad, but the truth is, it hurts. Should I bring it up to her or sweep it under the rug?

MICHELLE: Lawdy, lawdy, look who’s 40! Congratulations on your birthday and having enough money in the bank to make a trip happen! I’m going to be honest here: I have 4-year-old twins, and traveling with them is like all the seasons of The Amazing Race but with no prize at the end. I’m sure your family would love to celebrate with you, but it’s probably not in the cards for them right now, and that’s fine. Not everyone is gonna be on the same vibe check. If you really want them to be there, perhaps do something more toddler friendly. And if not—that’s all good! Honey, it’s your birthday. The only expectation you should have is not to be too hungover the next day! But definitely talk to your sister, because that’s what women in their 40s do. Something like “I was bummed you said no. Was it the date? The location? Anything I can do to tempt you all to come?” While it’s OK to be disappointed that your family can’t go on your birthday trip, you’ll still have a fantastic time. Happy Born Day, boo!

Answering Insensitive Questions

QUEENIE: I’m currently on long-term disability. I was a corporate vice president, active in my community, and an activist for diversity in my profession. I have long Covid and a medical condition and can no longer work. It’s hard for me to accept. Working with all my doctors is a full-time job. Plus, being in pain is exhausting. I’ve had some friends ask, “What do you do with yourself all day?” I don’t want to be rude and point out how thoughtless that question is. How do you think I should respond?

MICHELLE: Queenie, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. When I was trying to conceive via IVF, it was a grueling five years, and I had four miscarriages. I didn’t know how to have a conversation about what I was going through, until I did. I just muddled through it. You don’t have to make it nice or pretty. You don’t have to worry about people’s feelings. You just have to be honest. You can straight up let them know what you can and cannot do in a day. You can say it’s insensitive to ask such a thing. Tell them to ask you how you are or what you’re doing in a way that’s empathetic. Maybe it’s not your job to teach them, but they need to learn, and they never will unless someone calls them out. You got this. Your health issues don’t define you—they add to your journey, and you will be an inspiration. You’ve already inspired me.

You don’t have to worry about people’s feelings. You just have to be honest.

Respecting Your Son's Boundaries

SHERRI: My son is divorced and shares an 11-year-old daughter with his ex, who has their daughter most weekends. When a celebration falls on his ex’s time, my son believes he can’t ask for an hour or two because his ex will want extra time as compensation. I feel like his ex would be fine with it. Is it OK for me to have a conversation with my former daughter-in-law?

MICHELLE: Hey, Sherri, I feel for you. My mother loves being a grandmother so much that sometimes she forgets there are other people in the room! That said, figuring out family dynamics within divorce is hard, painful, and extremely complicated. It seems like your son is respecting his ex’s boundaries, and you should follow his lead. Trust your son. Going directly to his ex might make him feel like you’re undermining him. The best, most important thing you can do is make sure your granddaughter feels loved and celebrated (even when it’s not a celebration day), because this divorce happened to her too. And there’s nothing more healing than Grandma’s hugs!

No More Gifts, Please!

CAROLYN: I have a family member who insists on sending tons of random gifts all year round. Despite repeated suggestions that she use this money to create memories together, she persists. The trouble is, I then have to deal with the items—holiday napkins, expired treats, a single dish, etc. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but when so much of what she sends ends up at a donation center, I feel guilty. Help!

MICHELLE: I love when my friends visit. They are so sweet and usually bring gifts for my kids, which is very thoughtful! But honey, when I tell you the look on my tired, freckled face when they open a puzzle with more than 100 pieces that I’m now in charge of. It’s tricky because it’s all coming from a place of love.

How do we ask the gift giver to stop giving gifts? I don’t think we can. Especially when we already have! Here are two wild pitches:

• Invite this person to an event at your house so they can make a memory with no gifts.

• What about creating a gift bin? I had a cousin who used to give me regifts all the time. It was wild. I’d just put them all in a bin, and on game night I’d give them out as prizes. It was very fun!

I hope this helps. Try to make the lemonade!

Have an etiquette question? Submit your dilemma to Michelle at modernmanners@realsimple.com.

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