Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I divorced when my daughter was 6 years old and I was 43. I love my daughter to death, marveling as she grew up, basking in her love, and returning in kind. I still love her so much, but there is something wrong in our relationship.
She has no difficulty in ignoring my texts to her, never mind my calls. It hurts me very much when she blows me off. She’ll say, “I never respond to texts from anyone,” but will immediately respond to anybody’s texts during those infrequent times we are together.
While I am far from the perfect father, I have always loved her without bounds. In the years after our divorce, I drank heavily, so I suppose that might have something to do with her behavior. Her mom has constantly tried to minimize my involvement in my daughter’s life. She was terrible in how she portrayed me to my girl. I always thought that my daughter would see through all that as she got older. But her apathy about our relationship hurts me deeply.
I have tried to speak with her about this, but she insists that she loves me very much. I’ve tried to take the approach that kids can be like this at her age, but I’m having serious doubts and am beginning to think there is something seriously wrong.
—Father in Name Only
From the sound of this letter you are a father in more than name. To be worried about your child, to be unsure of how to heal your own pain and fears in your relationship with them—well, this is much of the stuff parenthood is made of. It is clear that you love your daughter. But if love were enough to make a relationship go exactly how we want it to, then, well …
This, obviously, is not the case. Your daughter is 23 years old, effectively an adult. If she is being cold or distant with you, there is probably a reason. It does not mean that she does not, as she says, love you very much. It’s just that her love probably contains a resentment or two.
You mention that you drank heavily at times in her life. It’s been my experience that when you hear about a person’s drinking only from the drinker, the story is only half told. We all tend to believe that even if our actions were less than perfect, they certainly don’t warrant distance or resentment on the part of those who were around us. But we are wrong. We alone are not qualified to judge what another person’s reaction to our behavior should be, and the lane of what constitutes “relatively harmless” drinking in parenting is much narrower than a lot of us are inclined to think. Everything you do matters, and the tough part is that we don’t get to decide how or how much. At the very least, your bewilderment at your daughter’s behavior suggests that your assessment of how bad things were may not be aligned with hers.
You should view your relationship with her as being in the recovery phase. The two of you are recovering from an experience that probably impacted the both of you in different ways. This means you must approach things with her gently and kindly. The fact that you love her is very helpful in this. Prioritize that love over that part of you that wants a very particular kind of interaction with her. Continue to show up for her. Continue to give her space. Continue to love her. Do not expect her to be effusive or to communicate her love on your terms. She will communicate it on her own.
I’m sure it feels like you are being unfairly treated by both her and your ex, but I assure you that this is not the way toward resolution. It is likely that you owe them more patience than you think. Perhaps you can let your daughter know that you are willing to listen to her if she has things she wants to get off of her chest about your relationship or your past. But don’t pressure her. She is navigating her own experiences as best as she can, and your job at this point is not to get her to where you need her to be but to support her in getting where she wants to be.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a good friend of many years, Merry, who is mother to two sons, ages 10 and 7. She is married to Anna, who travels often and who recently came out as trans and is currently transitioning. Merry tends to parent her boys by talking things out instead of timeouts or yelling. I’m supportive of all of this.
However, I’m extremely worried about her older son and I don’t know what to do. Her 10-year-old is very difficult to be around. He appears to delight in interrupting and annoying her in a dark and disturbing way. It’s so extreme that I’ve avoided hanging out with her if he is present. When paired with her parenting style, it’s almost unbearable to watch because the kids face no consequences. Mutual friends refuse to invite him to their home because they feel unsafe when he is present, and others were worried when she added some pets to her home because they worried he might harm them. The nearly unanimous consensus of a dozen or so of us is a truly alarming level of concern, but no one has expressed this to Merry because she’s extremely sensitive and we are scared of hurting her.
For years, I’ve gently suggested therapy for him and his brother, who is beginning to display similar behaviors. Having a newly trans parent is a great reason for therapy! Merry adamantly refuses taking him because she’s worried a therapist won’t understand his needs like she can. I don’t know what to do and am willing to risk our entire friendship to have an honest discussion with her. But I also want to respect her autonomy as a parent. What do I do and how do I help this child?
—Friend Losing Sleep
If things are as bad as you say and you are willing to risk your entire friendship with her, then you must risk your entire friendship with her. But risk isn’t necessarily the same thing as end. Being honest with her about the way her friends and community are feeling about the behavior of her oldest may be difficult, but there is no guarantee that it will lead to the permanent and irrevocable destruction of your relationship. It will, of course, be hard for her to hear, but it is more than likely that communicating clearly and effectively with her will, at the very least, help lead her to deeper reflection on what she is facing and what the stakes really are.
It might be tempting to loop Anna in on this, but I would advise against it. It sounds like they have a lot going on as it is and should probably not also feel responsible for refereeing this complex situation. Rather, I would suggest sharing the burden with others in the community. More than one of you can bring up these concerns individually, or if the situation warrants, you can talk with her collectively, intervention-style. But be clear on what you’re asking. It is not helpful to say, “Hey we just wanted to tell you your son’s a monster.” If you believe they can be helped by family therapy, then do not mince words: say clearly, “This is the situation as I see it, this is what I think is at stake, this is how it’s affecting people in our community, and this is what I think might be helpful.” Be sure to empathize: Remember that no matter how uncomfortable this is for you, it is 10 times more unsettling and painful for her. And she is doing the best she can in a tough situation and handling it the very best way she knows how. So you must suspend your judgments of her in order to be most helpful.
None of this, of course, means that she won’t become defensive, angry, or resistant.
None of this means she won’t throw you out of her house. And it may create a rift in your friendship. But it’s entirely possible that she may feel great relief not to have to carry this burden entirely on her own. Who knows? Great progress can be made in tough situations when we approach people with honesty, love, and respect. But either way, this is a risk you must take. You cannot prioritize your feelings or ego (or hers for that matter) over the health and well-being of her child and family.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Last summer I was hugely pregnant and driving my small 2008 sedan, which was getting old but was still perfectly functional. It was also totally paid off. My husband was driving his 2012 sporty car and still making payments. At the time, we debated upgrading my car for a mini SUV because we were about to have two kids and neither of our cars fit all the baby gear we were going to need.
So my husband totaled his car in an accident, his fault. I suggested this was the time to upgrade to a mini SUV for the family. He wanted another sporty car. We fought about this for months. Finally, we both decided that the mini SUV made the most sense and used the insurance money and a bit of savings to pay for it in full so we wouldn’t have any car payments at all. Because I’m a stay-at-home mom, I would drive the bigger car for all the kid-related stuff and he would take my smaller car to work.
The smaller car is totally functional and not “girly” or ugly or anything. But he has since become convinced that he “deserves” a better car and has now been taking the SUV to work, often just moving the car seats and not even telling me. There it sits in a parking lot for the entire day, with all the baby gear like the stroller! To make matters worse, the smaller car’s bumper became partially detached a few weeks ago and we had to bungee-cord it while we decide what to do. So not only am I driving the car that doesn’t even fit the stroller, I can’t even safely get on the freeway in case the bungee cords come undone.
What do we do here? He’s convinced that the smaller, older car undermines his authority at work and that people will make fun of him. I told him to grow up and stop caring what other people think!
—Need My Mom Car
Maybe the thing that really undermines your husband’s authority at work isn’t driving a hooptee. Maybe it’s being kind of a self-centered dickbag. Try as I might, I cannot think of any other explanation or justification for what you’ve described here. He lost his sports car due entirely to his own actions, which he admits. Then he was willing to fight with you over the principle that despite being the parent of a newborn he needs another sports car. Then when you were finally able to convince him that this makes literally no sense, he somehow feels justified in secretly taking from you, the person at home with his children, the only vehicle in which you can safely transport his children?
If he wants a sports car, he must save his money and buy a sports car. If he wants to drive the SUV, he should stay at home with the children where he can enjoy all the SUV driving his heart desires. But until then, he will drive the hooptee and he will like it. If his little friends tease him on the playground—I mean, in the breakroom—he can just explain that he’s driving this car because he loves his wife and children and would very much like for his marriage not to end.