Care and Feeding

What Do We Tell Our Child About His Racist Grandmother?

Can we tell him she’s dead?

Racist grandmother in front of mother and son.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a woman of color, married to a white man for the past six years; we have a beautiful 3-month-old son together. Our problem is my husband’s mother, who lives in England. I’ve always known that she is a bigot who merely tolerated me as a daughter-in-law, but she exposed herself as a full-blown racist when we told her I was pregnant: She said really ugly things about her family’s bloodline being sullied by my child. (I won’t repeat the words she used.)

My husband was horrified and embarrassed and supports my cutting off all communication with her. I no longer see her during our visits to the U.K. (several times a year) and I am resolute she will never lay her eyes on our child. My husband continues to maintain a relationship with her out of a sense of duty since she is also estranged from other members of her family for different reasons and is pretty much on her own. When he visits her, they don’t discuss me or our child. As weird as it is, I am okay with him having a relationship with her—she is no longer my problem.

However, I do worry about what we will tell our son about his grandmother when he starts to wonder who and where she is—especially since his other grandma (my mom) is extremely close to us and we see her every couple of weeks. When he is old enough to ask, do we tell him that his English grandmother is dead? Do we tell him that we don’t see her because she is a bad person? I’m torn about how to be truthful without hurting our kid about who he is—or perhaps more likely, hurting him with the truth about the ugliness in his dad’s side of the family.

Any advice on how to navigate this?

—Grandma’s Gone

Dear GG,

I am so delighted to hear that she lives an entire ocean away from you! That does a lot to cut down on any chances of lawn tantrums and milkshakes being thrown at you in McDonald’s parking lots. I am also delighted that you and your husband have found a good and workable compromise that meets both of your needs: a limited relationship with his mother for him, and complete radio silence for you. I think she sounds like the absolute worst and has experienced the natural consequences of being the absolute worst, but people have the right to draw their own boundaries, and this one seems to be working just fine.

When it comes to your child, I strongly encourage you not to go the Dead Grandma route. He’ll find out; they always do. I think at this age it’s best to wait for him to bring it up organically. (It may take some time! Children are often deliciously unconcerned about their parents’ lives.) Whatever you do tell him about her, it needs to be able to incorporate the fact that his father still talks with her and sees her on trips to the U.K. You don’t want him worried that his father is seeing a “bad person” or a “sick person” (though both of those descriptions ring true enough.)

Instead, let’s take this slowly and age-appropriately as we go. Yes, Daddy has a mother. Why don’t we see her? Well, she didn’t want to be a grandmother, just a mother. Luckily, we have a wonderful grandmother already, etc. Once he’s a teen, and your conversations about race and the unfeeling world have reached what you consider to be the right place, you can tell him precisely why his grandmother didn’t want to be a grandmother.

Her loss. He’ll be in my thoughts.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m the dad of a 9-year-old daughter. At least, that’s the way she and I see it. I’m actually her stepfather. I have been in her life since she was 2, when I married her mom. Heidi hasn’t had contact with her bio dad since she was 3. She never cared for her biological dad even as a toddler. She was afraid of him. We have been close from the very beginning, and because of this physical abandonment I have worked hard to be a dad, not an aloof stepdad. My wife is supportive of this.

Since she was old enough to talk and identify herself to people, she has done so as my daughter—using my last name, not her legal name. She uses my name on all of her school papers, etc. If she sees anything with her biological name on it, she gets depressed. For instance, in this year’s yearbook her teacher forgot to make sure her preferred name was listed under her photo. The second she saw it, Heidi put it away and hasn’t looked at it since.

Overall, the school has been good with her, although state tests and that kind of thing have her legal name. But this year’s teacher has stepkids, and she always is very clear in class about how there are “kids” and then there are “stepkids.” There are also some friends and family who still talk and ask questions around her like she’s not my daughter.

As an adoptee myself, I know how that can hurt. Until adoption and name changes are official, what can my wife and I say to these people to get across that we are a family, that she is in my heart as much my daughter as if she had my DNA, and that she shouldn’t be considered by anybody as less than fully loved? I mean, without just yelling at them to get a grip?

—Family Ties

Dear FT,

Personally, I think you’re dismissing the “yelling at them to get a grip” option too quickly, it’s a perfectly cromulent option!

More seriously, you sound like a wonderful father and I’m so pleased that your daughter feels tightly bonded to you. You’re doing everything right. You’re pursuing adoption and name changes, and the bio dad is not around and hasn’t been for years, so no part of me thinks that you need to introduce her (or tolerate other people referring to her) as a stepchild. Lots of kids have a different name from one of their parents. Briefly prep new teachers (her current teacher seems to have a bit of a weird hobbyhorse around the issue), and pull aside the worst offenders among family and friends to reiterate that Heidi is your daughter and if they want to hang out with either of you, they’ll act accordingly.

Best of luck with the rest of your adoption process, and please consider having Heidi see a therapist, if she hasn’t. She sounds like she’s doing great, but the fact she was scared of her bio dad even as a toddler and still recoils six years later when she sees his last name on a document does make me wonder if there isn’t something going on there that’s worth probing a bit.

More Care and Feeding:

My Mother-in-Law Wants the Horrible Grandma Name “Nama”

My 8-Year-Old Loved Gymnastics—Until It Became Hard Work

My Son Wants to Join the Army. Can I Get Him to Change His Mind?

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 2-year-old son, and about a year ago I became extremely concerned about climate change. I worry about his quality of life as an adult, and though I very much want another child, I think it may be cruel to bring another human into this world. Is it acceptable to bring a child into a world that may not be livable in 20 years?

—Rising Temps, Falling Spirits

Dear RTFS,

This is a question that thoughtful parents have been asking ever since we gained the ability to actually make a conscious decision to have children (or not to). Throughout modern history, there has always been something that would seem to be an absolute barrier to bringing a new person into this troubled world: the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War, the specter of Nazism, the Spanish flu, the Yellow River flood of 1887! I am sure that oppressed people in South Africa during apartheid wondered if it was right to bring more children into this mess. And yet, people do it. Why, the protagonists of A Quiet Place did it, and they are being hunted constantly by blind aliens with extra-perceptive hearing!

Philosophers have a variety of very high-level debates over the existential acceptability of giving another person life they did not ask for, and I’m glad they can stay busy, but I don’t think it really matters to people who are just picking up groceries and driving home and playing Scattergories together. Nor should it. If your grown child informs you that your existential choice was a cruel one, they can check out any time they like. People have kids, if they want them. They have frequently had excellent reasons to worry about the future of the world, and, sometimes hoping their particular child will make a meaningful difference to it, sometimes knowing they probably won’t, people have kids anyway. We’ve never had any reason to suspect that the world will be around in a benign form in 50 years, but it somehow keeps going, just the same.

If you did not want a child, or believed that you could not parent another child effectively, you should certainly not continue. That doesn’t sound like where you’re at. Many people do stop having kids, whether out of concerns about contributing to more climate change or out of fear that the world will be unthinkably awful for them, and I don’t want to imply that choice wouldn’t be perfectly valid. I do wonder if you find yourself helplessly seized with guilt for having already brought your 2-year-old into the world. If it’s impacting your daily life and enjoyment of parenting, I think it’s risen to the level where speaking to a therapist about it is wise, certainly before making a choice about having a second child. If these worries are persistent and intrusive, best to tackle them now head-on. Then you can have or not have a child freely, knowing you’ve given it the kind of careful thought that, frankly, more people should muster.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mom and I have been at loggerheads over solid food ever since my baby was born. She wanted to give him rice cereal basically the minute he could hold his head up, I want to start by giving him vegetables at 6 months. She has taken to saying plaintive things like, “Ohhhhh Henry looks so hungry. He wants to know when Mommy will give him real food.” What should I do?

—The Solid Food Battleground

Dear Battleground,

Ahhh, the solids question! When I had my first, 6 months was the gold standard, but my pediatrician suggests that best practices are now to introduce them starting at 4 months, which I accordingly did with my third child (yes, I know, I live in Utah), much to her wild enthusiasm. You certainly do not need to find a compromise with your mother, he’s your kid, but in the interests of family unity, I feel that it’s best to give the other team a partial win when it’s reasonably possible, even when their requests are presented as passive-aggressively as your mom’s. Rice cereal having fallen out of favor for being nutritionally pointless, you get to start with mushed vegetables. Four months instead of 6? That’s going to cheer her up.

I find the “talking through your baby” maneuver your mom’s pulling to be maybe the most irritating thing in the world, and would shut it down, but I do get that people who have already raised their kids chafe at being told everything they did is now wrong and probably dangerous. You don’t have to give in on things you feel strongly about, but when you can ask genuinely for advice, please do so, and if your child’s grandparent has a nondangerous suggestion, give it a shot! Starting solids a little earlier than you planned, but well within acceptable norms? It seems like a good time to humor your mother.

—Nicole