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,
Parenting is so tough. I’m fairly easygoing in my parenting style. My kids (4 and 1) go to day care and my husband is a teacher, so in winter it’s rare to go a week without at least one of us getting sick. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are both very anxious people, especially when it comes to health. They have both had their share of health issues, so some of it is understandable. When my daughter started going to day care and getting sick, as most kids do, they made a lot of judgmental remarks asking why she’s always sick and suggesting we should feed her more nutritious food. My sister-in-law now also has a 1-year-old and has completely isolated him in their home. My mother-in-law is practically staying over there to help and if any of us are sick (even a tiny sniffle) we can’t come over to either of their homes.
Last week my husband took the kids to visit; I stayed behind because I was just finishing up my antibiotics for strep throat. My sister-in-law is now livid because her son is sick and we just found out this week that my daughter has strep throat even though she wasn’t showing symptoms then. She blames us because my daughter tried to kiss her son on his face, which is something I do with my kids. I told my daughter afterward that she shouldn’t kiss anyone but me, my husband, or her brother, but the damage is done. My mother-in-law is angry as well because she thinks us kissing our kids on their face and sometimes on the lips is disgusting.
I think that we are a normal family with affectionate, energetic, outgoing, and outdoorsy kids. They think we are neglectful, unhygienic parents. How do I calm this anxiety and still try to maintain a close relationship with my in-laws?
—Momxiety Is Killing Me
My official ruling is that this mother-in-law and sister-in law-of yours would be well served to chill TF out. The problem, to be clear, isn’t that they prefer not to get sick and would like for the toddler not to get sick as well. That’s normal. The problem is that, at least by your telling, they seem to hold you personally responsible for the mere existence of childhood illness. They are making you feel as though the germs that every child comes into contact with every day are somehow irrefutable proof of your substandard morality. I’m here to tell you they are not.
Parenting is tough, and you sound like you are doing your level best to execute a consistently low-key herculean task with care and love and excellence. It sucks that your family has to be sick all winter. But it’s not your fault, it won’t always be the case, and nothing short of encasing everyone and the dog in plastic for three-fourths of the year is going to prevent it. Any reasonable person should be able to see that.
Which brings me to these in-laws. Something tells me that while their phenomenally low tolerance for you and your choices is currently finding expression in their reaction to your kids’ sickness, it isn’t entirely about it. Are there other tensions in your relationship? Is this just an advanced version of “Nobody is good enough for our boy?” I don’t know, but something is going on here and it’s not about your parenting. I wonder what your husband has to say, were you to give him truth serum, as he’s been dealing with these people presumably his entire life? Can you get a hold of some truth serum?
There’s another possibility: You mentioned that they’ve both been sick in the past, but you didn’t tell me what kind of sickness they’ve had. Putting aside for a moment that they’re both kind of being asses about this, it’s worth thinking about what need is buried underneath the shitty behavior. Maybe they feel fragile. Maybe they feel like their medical histories require that people behave around them with extra care. And maybe you’re missing some of that. Sometimes when people act out it’s because there’s a vulnerability or fear they’re really unprepared to face. If I felt like some reckless healthy person was willfully putting my fragile constitution at risk, I’d have a little bit of an edge about me too.
So maybe you don’t have to change your parenting. You can kiss your kids all you want. (That complaint from your mother-in-law is bizarre, by the way.) And you certainly don’t have to feel like you’re doing anything wrong, because you’re not. But you asked about how to calm their anxiety. And it may be that the only way to do that is to let them have their craziness and give them a wide berth. You may not be able to be close to them and also be yourself, but you may find that being a little less close makes all of you a lot happier.
Dear Care and Feeding:
At 34 weeks I went into early labor and delivered a stillborn daughter. I had a “perfect” pregnancy and even after the autopsy (and countless pathology reports and consultations) we still do not know exactly what happened. My immediate friends and family have been incredibly supportive and helpful. My issue is that many acquaintances, or people I see at the coffee shop, have noticed I’m no longer pregnant and naturally congratulated me on my new baby or made friendly requests to see the bundle of joy. Under other circumstances I would be overjoyed to share about my new baby—if I’m being completely honest, I would probably be pretty annoyed if no one asked.
I do not mind explaining that my baby did not survive birth. I don’t want to seem ashamed or too fragile to talk about her, and I also don’t want to sweep my baby under the rug like a shameful secret. It happened, it was horrible, and it is a part of life. The issue is that people either apologize so profusely for asking or become so overwhelmed themselves that I end up comforting them instead of the other way around.
I think my matter-of-fact approach is making me seem cold or uncaring. I’ve had many people assume, because of my lack of crying, that I either didn’t really want the pregnancy or that perhaps it was an early miscarriage. It wasn’t. It was a full labor for a very wanted and very loved baby. It was the single worst experience of my life, even after losing parents, and I still mourn every day. I probably will in some way for the rest of my life. How do I convey my loss when asked in a way that is simple and factual without seeming hysterical or unfeeling? I’m having a very hard time finding a proper balance and don’t want to make well-intentioned inquiries seem wrong but also don’t want to seem like I’m a robot who didn’t care. It’s hard enough just to go about my daily tasks right now.
—Mourning Every Day
Listen, my friend. You are not a robot. You are neither hysterical nor unfeeling. You are a human being who has been through what must be one of the most deeply devastating experiences any of us can possibly imagine. And that would be true no matter how you reacted—whether you silently stared at a wall or fell to the floor wailing and pulling your hair in the grocery store, you would still be neither robotic nor hysterical. You would just be human. If a person can’t see that, that is their problem.
And you must let it be their problem. It makes sense that you feel worried about how others receive or respond to your grief—especially when that puts an undue burden on you to manage their reactions—but you don’t have to be. You should not be managing other people’s feelings, or reactions to your loss. That really is not your job, nor should it ever be in this situation.
What I suspect is happening is that you have a head start on processing your feelings over pretty much anyone else whom you share this news with. You have been living with this. They are just hearing it for the first time. They don’t know what to say or do, and they get hit with sudden shock, horror, and grief all at once. It’s obviously not the same level of shock and grief that you are carrying, but still it’s coming out of nowhere for them. There may be nothing you can say to change this for them because it cannot be changed.
But the good news is that you do not have to change this for them. It does not matter what people think about the way you grieve, and you have literally zero responsibility to create a “proper balance” for anyone. You simply can say what is true, and if people have a problem with that, they can deal with it in their own time. You can say, “My child was stillborn. It was incredibly shocking and devastating. I know I’ll be OK, but I’m just handling my grief one day at a time. I understand that this is probably shocking for you to hear and that you probably don’t know the right thing to say, so don’t worry about saying the right thing. I understand. Thank you for caring.” And then move on with your day. You are still in the phase where you have to break the news to well-wishers and bystanders, and that is unbelievably difficult and, in my opinion, unfair. But it is where you are. The frequency of interactions like this will, thankfully, diminish over time.
You are most impressively and most admirably doing everything you need to do. You really are. Please do not let anyone’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, discomfort, or judgment stand in your way. You deserve so much better than that. My heart is with you.
More Care and Feeding:
Dear Care and Feeding,
My boyfriend and I are both 21-year-old college students. We’ve been dating for about two years, and overall it’s been a pretty good relationship that I don’t want to end. Lately, though, things have been super tough. He has a 5-year-old daughter. He and his parents raised her. (The mother of the girl is not in the picture.) Now that my boyfriend has moved off campus, his daughter has moved in with him full time. I live in another apartment nearby with two good friends.
I’ve been honest with him since the start of our relationship that I’m not interested in being a parent. I find kids really emotionally draining to deal with because they require so much attention and maintenance. Maybe I should never have started dating him because of this, but if it weren’t for his daughter he’d be the complete package. I’m OK at dealing with the kid; she likes me and I’ve babysat a few times, as have my roommates.
It’s a struggle though! She’s always there. Parenting is a full-time job! He can’t really afford an actual babysitter and is really relying on me and various friends to help watch her whenever he has to work or something comes up. (For instance, today school was canceled, so she was bounced between friends on campus until he was out of class.) When he asks me to watch her I feel like I can’t reasonably say no if I don’t technically have anything else going on, but I need time for me and time to be young and have fun. I want to go out downtown. I want to see movies. We’re only 21! I think we are both too young to have our lives sucked into being parents.
I don’t know what to do. Even if I broke up with him I’d be just as sad as I am right now, and because I’d still want to be friends I’d still end up babysitting! Should I learn to like kids more? Should I just decide to stick it out until she’s older and not constantly demanding attention? Nobody I’ve asked for advice has been helpful because everyone I know has an opinion already set in stone. (My mom, for instance, wants me to leave him.)
—Stepmom or Leave?
You’re in a tough situation. But here’s the reality: The kid is not going away. The kid’s neediness is not going away. Like, ever. It’s perfectly fine to feel like that’s not for you at this point in your life. But if that’s the case, then that may mean you can’t date a guy with a 5-year-old.
“Learning to like kids more” is not really a viable option. Your opinion about children may change naturally over time, but you can’t count on that as a strategy to salvage a relationship.
Kids are emotionally draining, and, as you rightly observed, they are “always there.” Like always always. Some people are cool with this. Some people are not. No judgment. It’s hard to be cool with that when you’re 21 years old and in your first apartment, I would think, so you just have to be honest with yourself about where you are and make decisions accordingly.
But I do want to challenge one assumption you have built into your letter. You don’t have to babysit just because he is your boyfriend. You also don’t have to babysit just because your roommates are babysitting. It is not your child. You can say, “No, I can’t do it today. I have plans.” Or “I can’t, today I actually just need to chill. Maybe Yetzel and Derpina can watch her?” Even if you break up with this dude and remain friends, you still don’t have to babysit. Because again, it’s not your child. You may want to babysit because you want to help a good guy who could use help. But no one is making you. It is your personal choice, and it should always remain your personal choice.
Whether you continue to date or not, this may not sit well with him over time. He may come to resent your freedom relative to his. And that is a bridge you both can fall off should you come to it. But it may also force him to change the way he structures his life if he can no longer view you as a source of free ever-present, guaranteed child care. You’re allowed to have boundaries. If your relationship doesn’t work with those boundaries, then maybe it wasn’t as complete a package as you originally thought.