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,
Four years ago my sister had a baby, and when he was learning how to talk, his grandparents, my parents, became “GoGo” and “Papa.” My husband and I now have a 16-month-old daughter. I’m known as Mama, her dad is Dada, and she’s just starting to call my parents GoGo and Papa at everyone’s encouragement but my husband’s. He cringes every time anyone refers to my dad as Papa but has never said anything to my parents—instead, he privately fumes to me that he thinks “Papa” should be his name. I told him he needs to speak to my dad if he has an issue with it; he tells me I need to since it’s my dad and it would be “a lot nicer coming from me.” He wants to start encouraging my daughter to call him Papa, but I just don’t agree. I don’t see why he needs to be referred to as Dada and Papa when our daughter has already settled on Dada for him. Even my cousin’s kids refer to my parents as GoGo and Papa, it’s just become who they are.
My daughter is starting to name all her family members in pictures, and when she gets to my parents, my husband says, “That’s Grandma and Grandpa.” I can see the confusion on her face. I feel so torn. I don’t want to make what I feel like are unnecessary waves in my family, but I also want to support my husband, which he says I’m not doing. I told him I love him, but I feel like he should let this one go. Please help.
—Who Is Papa?
I am so happy that you have written to me, because otherwise I suspect you’ll be having variations of this same fight for the next 17 years or so, at best.
Both of you are being wangs, would be my professional advice. I will start with you, because I think the way in which you are being unreasonable is more likely to have long-term consequences for your marriage than the way he is. Your husband is 100 percent correct that you are being actively unsupportive. The wisdom of millions of years of human familial development has regrettably shaken out into very few definitive pieces of knowledge, but one of those is: “You deal with your family. I deal with mine.”
Would it be easier if he talked with your dad about Papa-gate? Absolutely. Your husband’s having decided to invoke his ancestral right to in-law intervention, however, means that it’s your job to get involved. Even if, as you have made very clear, you think he’s being ridiculous.
(He is being ridiculous, and I promise I will transition into that discussion shortly.)
I am suspicious of your air that nothing can possibly be done to assuage your husband, because a 16-month-old baby has expressed a mild preference: Therefore, unto the end of time, her grandparents must be GoGo and Papa. Someone else’s kids ALSO say GoGo and Papa, you continue, so clearly your husband needs to shake it off and get with the program.
Lady, a 16-month-old baby is 100 percent able to commit a couple of new neuron paths to switching what she “calls” her grandparents. She may currently call sheep “baa baas,” but she is unlikely to enter college still doing so. I absolutely agree that mostly grandparents wind up with pet names based on whatever adorable hash of the English language the baby in question creates for them, but let’s be honest here: Your baby did not independently arrive at GoGo and Papa, via the language of the spheres. She did so at “everyone’s encouragement but [your] husband’s.”
That means you! He’s annoyed because you are calling them GoGo and Papa in full knowledge he hates it. So, that is why you are being a wang, in this instance. You are not a neutral party, attempting to dodge involvement. You are a ground troop in the GoGo and Papa faction in your husband’s own home!
Your husband is being a wang because this is ridiculous and who cares. People call their grandparents all kinds of stupid things: I had a Monny and a Papa John. He knows it sounds ridiculous, which is why he doesn’t want to say the following to your dad: “I want to be Papa, not Dada. My wife thinks that this is silly and less important than the fact her cousin’s dumb kid already calls you Papa. I don’t have a great way to communicate that this makes me feel like my desires and wants are never going to be taken seriously, and maybe I also worry that whenever there’s a disagreement, she’ll steamroll me into doing what her family wants instead of what I want.”
He doesn’t want to say that to your dad. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid. If I could wave my magic wand and make him content with being Dada, I would. Failing that, I want you to start referring to your parents as “Grandma and Grandpa” to your daughter, calling your husband “Papa” to her, and dropping your parents a quick line to say, “Oh, by the way, I know Jackie’s kids say blah blah, but little Muppet is going to say blah blah because in our family Papa is what dads are, and it’s confusing for her, have a blessed day.”
You’re a team. There will be many times in your marriage when you have to go a few rounds over something that truly matters, but “Well I think it’s silly” is not a good enough reason to side with your family over your husband. Trust me, you will one day want this favor returned, because there will be something that matters to you that he thinks is silly, and the precedent you set now will help determine how you resolve it.
More Care and Feeding:
Dear Care and Feeding,
At the age of 18 my parents sent me to live with friends in England, where I gave birth to a baby boy and placed him for adoption. I have been happily married for 40 years and am extremely proud of our three adult daughters and four beautiful grandchildren. Several years ago, with much encouragement from my husband and daughters, I located my son. We discovered that he is profoundly autistic, living in a wonderful group home with strong support from his loving family. Of course, our wished-for reunion could not take place.
My daughter told me yesterday that her sons asked her if she is sorry she doesn’t have a brother. She told them that she does and explained the circumstances to them. I am shattered. I feel that she has shared this story unnecessarily and violated my privacy. I’ve told her that I am very upset, and she has said that she is sorry I am upset. She doesn’t seem to grasp that I am very concerned this news will change how these two wonderful boys feel about me. Beyond that, while she is sorry, I’m upset I’m finding it difficult to forgive her.
—Angry at the Indiscretion
Oh, dear. I am so, so sorry for what you endured at such a young age. If you have not already, I strongly recommend the book The Girls Who Went Away to both you and your daughter, as it really makes manifest the enduring issues around closed, semiconsensual adoption in an earlier era. I think it will help you process some of your own residual trauma and give your daughter a greater understanding for what you faced at the age of 18. If you are not in therapy, I suggest it wholeheartedly. There are few people I feel more instinctive sympathy for than very young birth mothers who were whisked away from their communities by their parents to hide their “shame,” and left to process those feelings without being able to discuss them openly.
Let me now push back gently on some of your statements here. It is not clear to me why the discovery that your birth son is “profoundly autistic” means that “of course” neither you nor your family could ever meet him. Your daughter may feel that you are unfairly attempting to bar her from the possibility of forming a relationship with her brother, one that, however limited, has the potential to be meaningful to her.
This is why your anger at her choice to be honest with her sons is, I fear, unreasonable. She is an adult; your birth son is as well. He is not just your son, but her brother, and their connection exists outside you. Part of the pain and joy of being in a family is that stories we thought our own exclusive property will be changed and renovated and critiqued by the other people they impact. Your daughter did not volunteer to your sons that you placed a child for adoption; when asked directly, she told them that she had a brother, which is her own story, and true. She has apologized that this has brought you pain, and I would very much hope that after talking this out, you can see that most of that pain is really just referred pain from a much earlier and more profound hurt. Your grandsons love you and will continue to do so.
Please open yourself to the possibility of meeting your birth son, in whatever form feels comfortable, and work on reconciling with your daughter by bringing as much transparency to the discussion as possible. You’ll be very much in my thoughts.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a fiancé who has a son in his early 20s. The son is my fiancé’s sponsor for citizenship, and I feel as if he uses the sponsorship, and his dad’s guilt from his divorce, as a tool to manipulate his dad. Since I have lived with them, I have had to endure the son swearing, threatening to stab us, stealing, and lying to us. He cannot keep a job for more than a month and is obsessed with making custom Nerf guns, which I find a creepy hobby. He says weird things to me and threatened to kill himself when he recently lost his job. We got into an argument about him cutting my dog’s hair once, and he took my cat and cut her whiskers when we all were getting ready for bed. He also trashes the house so bad and my fiancé just cleans up after him or blames me for the mess. His son has wrecked one of his cars and keeps getting tickets, continues to swear, lie, steal, and trash the house. I want him kicked out, but I also feel horrible about the sponsorship situation. Before my fiancé’s son started acting out, we never argued. He supported me when I didn’t have a job and has always been there for me, except for this issue.
Don’t marry your fiancé. It will be the best decision you ever make, and if you write me in 10 years and say you regret having walked away from this relationship, I will give you $1,000.
Dear Care and Feeding,
In 2014, when I moved in with my boyfriend (now husband), he had 50-50 custody of his two teenage sons. After a very long, contentious divorce (for which his ex-wife very publicly blamed me, even though their marriage had been over years before I entered the picture), his ex-wife had moved out, taking practically everything in the kitchen with her. I moved in shortly after, placing my heirloom teapot collection in a glass display kitchen cupboard.
Then I started to notice the teapots were being subtly moved. So, I just moved them back to their original positions. Then they would be moved again. I asked my husband and the boys if they were moving them and everyone said no. But this kept going on. I tend to be a little OCD, and it was obvious this was starting to really bug me.
Soon I started to notice other things I had placed or displayed around the house also being moved. For instance, while I was out of town recently, the boys (now 18 and 20) visited the house; when I returned, two mugs I bought on vacation and put in that display cabinet were turned completely backward. I once again asked the kids if they were doing this, and they both denied it.
It may sound like I’m being silly, but I am sick and tired of having my things moved. And what bothers me most is why someone would continue to do something that bothers me so much. I don’t mess with their things and I’d like to not have my things messed with.
—Teapot Home Scandal
I will first put on my serious face:
1. Gaslighting is deeply wrong, and not funny.
2. Do you actually have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or do you just like things to be organized? If the latter, best to just say so.
I will now remove my serious face:
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAA THIS IS HILARIOUS. They are harmlessly trolling the shit out of you and I kind of love it!
Look, here’s how it is: Your husband’s kids are adults, they’re rarely around, and they think you’re an asshole because you were helping their dad cheat on their mom while they were still living together as a family (unless I have misread your slightly hand-wavy timeline). You say, in an outraged tone, “even though their marriage had been over years before I even entered the picture,” like this is an inarguable fact as opposed to the No. 1 thing adulterous dudes tell their girlfriends to explain why they’re doggin’ around town.
Was their marriage over years before? I don’t know, and neither do you. Maybe it was! What I do know is that they were not divorced and they were living together in one house, and he was cheating on his wife with you while the boys were still teenagers and living with both parents. That absolutely makes him an asshole, and in my opinion, makes you one as well, though not the kind of asshole who has broken a sacred and eternal and legal set of vows to a person you have pledged to love and be faithful to.
Does this mean these adorably petty young men should be messing with your brain? No, it does not. They should instead be signing their dad up for mailing lists and political contribution websites he would find aggravating and distasteful.
If I were their mom, would I think it was kind of funny and touching? Oh, I very much would.
Buy a $20 nanny cam and position it at your china cupboard. When you have evidence, be airy and amused at the villain in question, and make your husband have the more firm talk.
If it turns out you actually have ghosts, instead of benignly misguided moral-avenger stepkids, do not sign away the film rights to your story without professional representation, especially the foreign rights.