Care and Feeding

Liberty, Anxiety, Paternity

An anxiety disorder has me convinced my beautiful son isn’t actually mine.

A dad holding up his son, studying him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo 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’ve suffered from anxiety my whole life, and with the help of my wonderful wife and a lot of therapy, it’s more under control now than it’s been in the past. I’m also prone to intrusive thoughts, and unfortunately these two issues have coalesced into constant worrying and obsessing over whether my 10-month-old baby is actually my biological child. Of course, I have no reason to think he isn’t. My wife has never given me any suspicion of being unfaithful, and he was a planned and much-wanted child. I can’t sleep, it’s all I think about, and I’ve been too embarrassed to tell my therapist. I’m worrying that it’s going to hurt my relationship with my beautiful baby, and I don’t know what to do. Can I ask my wife to take a paternity test, or will that ruin everything?

—Maybe Baby

Dear MB,

I have no intention of being hard on you. This is clearly a serious mental health issue, and you’ve been coping with this latest manifestation of it alone for too long. If I were you, I would show your letter to your wife; it’s completely clear from every word that this is an intrusive and obsessive thought, which you know has nothing to do with her or your baby. There are ways to bring up your paternity phobia which could ruin your marriage, and then there is “My anxiety is becoming overwhelming. Can you and I and my therapist sit down and figure out how best to work through it?”

That puts the emphasis where it belongs: on you, not on your wife’s honesty or fidelity. This is your problem, not hers. With this framing, your wife might be willing to do a pointless paternity test to give you peace of mind (I would, in her position), but let me caution you: Without addressing the underlying problem, it is very likely that a positive paternity test will not quiet the incessant droning in your head, and you’ll start to question its validity. That’s something to hash out with your therapist before you take that step.

One way to help ensure this won’t hurt your relationship with your beautiful baby is to spend extra time with your wife and son over the next few weeks, building memories no one can question. You haven’t lost 10 months of your son’s life, but I’d like to see you spend the next 10 months bringing 100 percent of your Dad Game to the table.

More Care and Feeding:

My Niece Wears Her MAGA Hat to Family Parties. What Should I Do?

My Kid Won’t Stop Spitting

Can I Care for My Dying Mother and My Very Alive Kids in the Same House?

Slate Plus Bonus: I Pack Extra Lunches for My Son’s Needy Friends. Now They’re Bullying Him.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My teenage daughter Annabelle is in recovery from an eating disorder and has been making great progress after a lengthy inpatient stay last year. We’re finally starting to breathe a little easier. Or, rather, we were. Her cousin Ellen has been hanging out with her more over the last few months since her family has moved back into our area. Ellen is extremely appearance-focused, talks a great deal about dieting and bodies and exercise, is always snapping pictures for social media, etc., and I’m becoming concerned that it’s a problem for Annabelle’s recovery to be seeing so much of someone with very different priorities. However, I don’t want to interfere with two first cousins becoming closer. How do I best protect Annabelle’s fragile well-being right now?

—Stop Talking About Thigh Gap

Dear STATG,

Oh, my gosh. As a mother, my first reaction is to drive Ellen out to the Pine Barrens and never speak of it again, but that’s why I give advice and don’t hire myself out for direct action.

You’re right to be concerned. Eating disorders (especially ones that have already resulted in a “lengthy” inpatient stay) are extremely serious, and the increasingly constant physical scrutiny afforded by social media has not exactly been a boon to anyone’s recovery process. With this in mind, my first suggestion would be to talk to Ellen’s parents. You can emphasize that Ellen is a lovely girl, that you’re very fond of her, and that you’re thrilled that she and Annabelle are becoming close friends. But Annabelle is in a fragile state of recovery, and it’s very important to keep “body talk” to an absolute minimum around her. (There’s no need to say that Ellen is particularly body-obsessed; they probably already know that and we want to keep the conversation positive.) Ask them to talk to Ellen about this, and suggest that it might be wise for everyone to sit down together with Annabelle’s care team and talk about guidelines and strategies for keeping their conversations healthy and recovery-neutral, at the very least.

It doesn’t sound like Ellen is a bad person, just a teenage girl with more than her fair share of obliviousness, and she’s also family. If she were just some kid at school, I might be inclined to pull out the nuclear I don’t want you spending time with this girl card, but that’s not one to play lightly and can often have the exact opposite effect.

See how things develop after your sit-down, and keep a closer eye on Annabelle’s general and physical well-being as you see if Ellen is taking this guidance to heart. You’ll be in my thoughts, and I hope that Annabelle’s recovery continues and flourishes, and that these two girls can find something else to obsess over, like [Googles “what are the youngs into”] the beautiful romance of Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande.

Dear Care and Feeding,

The woman I’ve been seeing for the past few months has a 7-year-old daughter, Abigail. She’s a nice kid, but my relationship with her mother is not a serious one, and I have zero interest in taking on a fatherly role in Abigail’s life. Unfortunately, she’s recently started calling me “Daddy” and her mom hasn’t bothered to correct her. How can I transition this girl back to thinking of me as “Philip” and not as a surrogate father?

—Not Your Daddy

Dear NYD,

It’s always refreshing to have an easy answer to a question! You need to break up with this woman immediately. I am very doubtful that she realizes your relationship is not a “serious” one, and honestly, if you’re looking for a fun fling, a woman with a small child is not a good choice! A 7-year-old doesn’t understand “we’re just having fun.” A 7-year-old without a dad just sees a man in her mother’s life who’s around a lot. There’s no putting “Daddy” back in the box. Do it now. Do it this week. It’s deeply unkind to this little girl to let her think of you as a stable and permanent father figure in her life, and I suspect it’s unkind to her mother as well. Do I think her mother is displaying great parenting by letting her call you “Daddy” instead of correcting her when it started? Is it great parenting to introduce a boyfriend to a small child when you’re not on the same page about commitment and longevity? No, but I don’t have any control over her choices, and neither do you.

You need to end this relationship. And don’t date anyone else with kids unless you’re sure you’re in it for the long haul.

Dear Care and Feeding,

This is a totally ridiculous question, let me get that out of the way. When I was little, my grandmother gave me a truly terrifying doll. Absolute nightmare fuel. It looks like the sort of thing that’s being inhabited by a possessed soul in a horror movie. My grandmother passed away shortly after, and my mother’s grief led her to really cling to the various mementos and tchotchkes she left behind—including (as you may have guessed) this horrible doll, which she insisted on giving a prominent place in my childhood bedroom. I was terrified of this doll my entire childhood, and it gave me nightmares until I was almost a teenager, even though I shoved it in a closet or under the bed whenever I was alone. Frankly, it was a real relief when I went off to college and saw it get stuffed into a Rubbermaid container.

Flash-forward to the present: My daughter just turned 4, and for her birthday, my mother has presented her with … do I even need to say it? My daughter is definitely scared of the doll (any child would be) and she never plays with it, and I want to spare her years of emotional scarring at its hands. That being said, my mother is a very fragile soul and still cries whenever anyone mentions her own late mother, and I know that if I throw out the doll it’ll result in months of drama and tears, some in front of my kid. I don’t want her to push that guilt trip on my daughter. What can I do?

—Worse Than Chucky

Dear WTC,

I truly wish you’d included a picture of this demon doll with your letter, as I have a morbid fascination with such things. I am, however, happy to take your word for it that the doll is, as you so put it, “nightmare fuel.”

The doll’s gotta go.

My first inclination was just to turf it and wait until your mother organically discovers its absence: “We’ve been looking for it everywhere! You know what kids are like, we have stuff all over the house.” But that just opens the door to a full house search and a lecture about clinging onto our beloved familial heirlooms.

The option of truth is also available to you: “Mom, I always hated this doll, and it’s freaking Becky out. Do you want to keep it at your house, or should I donate it to Goodwill?” I would hope that the fear of Goodwill might make repossessing the doll seem like a workable option.

The road of least resistance, which is also the road of lies, is what I think might work best for you. (Don’t loop your daughter into this; she’s too young to get involved with your mother’s mind games.) Pour a bunch of grape juice on the damn thing, wash it on hot with bleach, and crack its stupid head wide open. (This will all feel richly satisfying, I am sure.) Then toss it out. Before your mother even notices it’s gone, you can say that you, personally, spilled stuff on it and then it broke in the washing machine. That way the blame is on you, not your daughter, and the demon doll is out of your house for good.

With any luck, your mother will decide that you are not a responsible memento caretaker, and you will not have to foster any haunted music boxes or cymbal-playing toy monkeys going forward.

Now, where’s my picture?

—Nicole