Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email email@example.com.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 16-year-old daughter is out (as bi) to her friends and immediate family, but not to her grandparents. While I was having dinner the other night with my mother-in-law, she asked point-blank if she’s gay. Not knowing how to answer (and frankly, new at this), I answered with the truth. I told my husband via text about this and my daughter read that text and now knows about my revelation. I feel terrible. I apologized to her for violating her trust, sharing information that wasn’t mine to share. She’s furious with me for “outing” her. I asked her how I should have handled it, and she said I should have lied and said she is straight. I told her that it wasn’t fair for her to ask me to do that and I need a better way. This is where it stands today. How can I answer these sorts of questions in the future without compromising my daughter’s trust? Help!
—New Bi Mom
We often tell our kids that honesty is the best policy, and that’s true like 98 percent of the time. But congratulations, you’ve found the 2 percent of the time when it’s not. This is one of those times where your daughter’s story should always remain completely and exclusively hers to tell. Period. Coming out feels (and is) very dangerous to many of us, and we pick our spots for our emotional—and often physical—protection. This right of safety is protected by one inviolable rule: Never, ever out someone against their will. In doing so to your daughter, you more than violated her trust; you robbed her of the ability to determine her own safety.
I acknowledge that “Mom, lie for me” feels dramatically antithetical to the values you’re probably trying to instill, and that’s totally valid. But if you’re going to be a loving mother to a queer child, you must begin to recognize that there is something bigger here than that. It is not dishonest for her not to tell people of her orientation. She 1 million percent gets to decide who knows and when. And I get that it makes you uncomfortable, but I guarantee it makes her way more uncomfortable to be outed by the person she needs to be protecting her.
So you didn’t know and now you know. You did your best, and I’m glad to hear you apologized to her. Now let go of your own personal sense of wounding, work it out with a therapist or friend (not your daughter), and try to learn from the situation. And in the future, the answer to any question about her orientation should always be whatever your daughter tells you to say.
More Care and Feeding:
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife was with another man for 10 years and had a child with him. During that time, she cheated on him with me. Ultimately, she left him for me and we were married, but soon after that I went to jail for 40 days. This time, she cheated on me with him. I tried to have a cordial relationship with him, mostly for the sake of their daughter who was living with us, but it was hard for me because he continued to call late at night, trying to talk my wife into sleeping with him again.
Meanwhile, I relapsed and ended up going to jail again while my wife was pregnant with our son. My stepdaughter, who had been staying with us, went to live with her grandmother, and I was sentenced to 18 months, missing my son’s birth, which broke my heart. When I got out, I learned that my wife’s ex had been out of state on the run from the law but was still calling my wife on a regular basis. I changed our phone number and the calls stopped. But my wife believes she should be allowed to talk with him about how she’s doing and how her relationship is going. He’s completely abandoned his daughter, and he won’t turn himself in so he can get his legal troubles over with and be a dad, but he still finds time to talk to my wife on the phone? I’m not OK with this, at all. Am I wrong for saying this is highly disrespectful and that I won’t tolerate it? Am I wrong for asking her to tell him to stop calling? Should I be asking her if she’s still in love with me, if she really wants to raise our son together, and if we should work to get my stepdaughter back with us permanently?
—Please Give Your Honest Opinion
This is a messy situation and I truly feel for all of you. But I want to take a moment here to focus on the kids, whom all of you need to do better by. I believe you know this already, but it bears repeating because it can’t be said often enough. Something that a lot of parents, myself included, frequently forget is how much our drama creates deep wounds and long-lasting instability for our kids, no matter how unavoidable that drama is or seems to be. Life is hard, people are messy, and things happen. And the truth is that none of us are living our adult lives exactly as we would have planned out.
But once kids get involved, this excuse is no longer good enough to let messiness slide. Having kids must change our priorities in such a way that things that seem unavoidable are nevertheless somehow avoided. We can’t do this perfectly, but it must be our goal to make progress along these lines. It sounds like you are working toward that and I want to commend you for that. But I also want to remind you to never stop working for that. Avoidance of messiness and drama has to be your No. 1 priority.
And yet what makes your situation extra difficult is that there are three grown adults involved, not only you. That means there are two other people whose actions you can’t control, no matter how much you want to. People being messy means they’re going to do what they’re going to do; it may not be fair or respectful or even right, but that’s just the way it is. So of course it feels disrespectful for your wife to carry on an emotionally intimate relationship with her ex while you are away. Of course it feels wrong for him to be calling, talking with her about who-knows-what. Your feelings are valid here. But the point is: What can you actually do about it? If your wife honestly wants your marriage to work, she will put a stop to it. But from your letter it sounds like she has cheated in the past, and so it’s not wild to suggest that she has boundary issues that are damaging to your marriage right now and may damage it permanently. If you have to change phone numbers in order for her to be faithful, then you have bigger problems than the phone number.
But that’s not the only thing damaging your marriage. You must be honest with yourself and admit that you began this relationship in deception. You must be honest with yourself and admit that you were not there for the birth of your son. This is not to say that you are the bad guy here, or that the situation can’t be rectified, but it’s to remind you of something more important: Your wife’s behavior is bad, but it’s not really the main thing you can or should be focused on here. You have to get honest about what part you’ve played in this and how you can heal to become a better father and co-parent. Not only is that what you should do, it’s truly the only thing you can do.
You mentioned that you relapsed before your 18-month stint. So you need to get sober and stay sober. You need to prioritize this above everything else because without this—and I cannot stress this enough—you cannot be the father these children need you to be. Without this, you cannot grow emotionally into a man who can take care of his responsibilities. You will suffer setback after setback while your kid’s childhood disappears. You don’t have time for that, and neither do they.
Yes, tell your wife your feelings, but the reality is that she may not care enough to change her behavior. That hurts, like really hurts, but if that’s the case, it’s better to accept it now than to go on with a fantasy that she will turn into someone you can trust. Prioritize your sobriety first, your son and daughter next. Work for them. Spend time with them. Read to them, listen to them, play with them, stay out of jail for them, continue to get your life together for them. There is a lot you cannot control, and only a few things you can. Stay focused on those and I think you will see that over time your life will come together in ways you did not expect.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter was involved in a horrible freak accident on the Fourth of July and by all accounts should not have survived. Her entire family witnessed the whole thing, and there are still times I get emotional even thinking or talking about it because it was so horrible. We are so lucky she survived, and she was so strong and brave throughout the whole thing. But as a parent it was so difficult to see my child in so much pain, to feel and see her struggle, and to know that she almost died that I went to therapy for PTSD.
My issue is that now she wants to get a firework tattoo in a visible location as a way of displaying what she overcame and how strong she is. I feel that the tattoo will be a constant reminder of what happened. She’s 19 and can do what she wants but is asking for my permission. Do I give her my permission even though I really don’t want to? Do I tell her why I don’t want her to? Can I recommend she get some other symbol reflecting bravery or strength instead of a firework? When I think of how strong she was I’m amazed and proud, but when I think of a firework I think of how she was injured and feel pain. I would greatly appreciate an outside opinion!
—Let Her Colors Burst?
First of all, I’m so sorry that your family and daughter went through something so deeply traumatizing. The thing about experiences that emotionally damage an entire group of people at once is that everyone has to deal with it differently. I understand how reminders of this horrific day cause you tremendous pain. And I see how, for that reason, you’d be squarely against having someone you love tattoo such a reminder on their body where you can never not see it. But the path toward recovery from traumatic events is the one you’re on, involving therapy and healing; no long-term plan can ensure nothing in the world ever reminds you of that awful day.
Your daughter also needs to tend to her recovery. And though every single person who witnessed what happened was damaged, there is an unusual hierarchy of victimhood here. Your daughter is at the top. This means that her recovery takes a kind of precedence over yours in certain cases, and this is one of them. Let her get the tattoo. You can, I would think, tell her what your concerns are. Maybe she can get it in a place where you don’t have to look at it every minute of the day. But do not pressure or try to guilt-trip her into anything. Make it clear that you value her recovery and you’re willing to support her in doing whatever she needs for it. And if it means you have to look at a firework now and again, you can accept that as part of living alongside the daughter you’re so grateful to still have.