Care and Feeding

My 11-Year-Old Still Sleeps in Our Bed

He’s sick and afraid, but I can’t take this much more. What can I do?

Photo illustration: Three pairs of feet lie in bed depicting two parents and a child.
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 have an 11-year-old son who will not sleep in his own bed. My husband and I didn’t mind co-sleeping when the kids were small. My older son gravitated to his own bed as he got older, and it was always a non-issue. My 11-year-old, however, didn’t make that kind of progress. If I laid down with him and read, he would fall asleep in his bed and I would eventually relocate to our own room. Around 1 a.m., my son would then come into our bed and sleep between my husband and I for the rest of the night.

This all got even worse about a year ago when my son was diagnosed with a chronic and serious medical condition. I think he has a fear of dying and feels more secure with me around to check on him. I will sometimes sleep in his bed (I know this is not good), but his condition does require nightly check-ins and sometimes I am just exhausted.

How do I break this habit? Looking ahead, I can’t handle sleeping with a teenager in my bed between my husband and me. Not only is it a real “blocker,” it is not helping my son grow up to be independent. I need intervention soon. I tried bribing, I tried counseling for him, I am at a loss. Since my son’s diagnosis, my husband and I do not have sleepovers without him; our only break is a camp which my son can go to with nurses and doctors on call. He doesn’t want to go this year.

Any advice would be appreciated.

—I Want My Bed Back

Dear IWMBB,

Ooooof. I’m so sorry, you’re obviously deeply frazzled and running out of ideas.

I have to admit I was taken aback by “I think he has a fear of dying.” This is a big deal! This is not something to be casual about. I know you’ve tried counseling for him, which is great, but it sounds as though your son has a serious medical issue which is absolutely impacting his mental health. Not to mention that if his condition genuinely requires several nightly check-ins, it seems extremely understandable that he would be fearful and hesitant to sleep alone.

I would try to be as clear and transparent with him as possible about the nature of his condition. Is he a full partner in your conversations with his doctors? If not, he needs to be.
The last thing you want is for him to be imagining increasingly dire scenarios and processing them on his own. Reach out to his pediatrician and his other medical team members for support. Reach out to organizations for seriously ill children for better resources. I’d love to see him spend more time talking with other kids coping with these issues. Perhaps a shorter stay at camp might be something he’d be more open to?

Now, as for the more concrete issue of keeping him in his own bed, I think you and your husband need to sit down with him and say that you know it will be difficult, but it’s now time for him to fall asleep solo and remain in his own room all night. You can try to come up with a mutual agreement (read two books together before you leave, etc.), but you will probably get a lot of pushback.

You can’t physically make him sleep in his own bed, but you can draw a boundary around your own sleeping space, likely involving locking your door. Tell him you’ll stop by for whatever check-ins are recommended by his team, but that your room is now off-limits at night.

You’re going to get through this, but it’s not going to be easy.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three children of my own. I also have full legal custody of three of my sister’s girls. They’re all my kids as far as I’m concerned. I’ve had them in my physical custody since they were under a year (from day one for some of them) and the oldest (twins) are now 4.

Both parents were deemed unfit (unstable, drugs, etc.) but still have limited visitation rights. My sister isn’t in the picture at all and is currently incarcerated. Their dad is allowed Friday nights and Saturday nights each week for visitation but isn’t consistent. These last two weeks, he has asked to have them and then canceled for various reasons.

His current wife, Janice, keeps calling me out on Facebook, saying that these kids need their real parents and that they can take care of them—despite the court, and lots of back child support, telling me otherwise. She’s also claiming I do this just for the fame and money (I am not getting any money!) and has said I need to accept I’m not their mom.

Against my better judgement, I’ve posted my own passive-aggressive statuses saying if she really has problems she needs to talk to me directly, but otherwise we’ve had no contact. I don’t know what started this (one of the reasons their dad gave for canceling a planned visitation was that Janice “needs a break from taking care of my kids”), and I don’t know what to do. I reached out to him and he said this isn’t his business, it’s between her and I, but I’ve gotten nothing but her blocking my Facebook and my phone calls.

—This Cannot Go On

Dear TCGO,

I always want to open every answer, however unrelated, with “delete your Facebook account at once,” but in your case, I feel completely confident recommending this step. Please delete your Facebook account or at least lock it down so that you only see and share information with truly close and trusted friends and family.

Janice is ridiculous, and her husband is useless. Legally, you’re in the clear, and all you can do is continue to make the kids available to their father for visitation and keep careful records of no-shows and cancellations, as well as an accounting of his missed support payments. If she continues sniping, on Facebook or in the world, don’t engage, don’t respond, and do your best to speak positively of your children’s birthparents to them at all times, even when it’s hard. Your sister will (I assume!) not be in jail forever, and they will likely be in your lives and the lives of your kids forever. Stay classy, even when it’s hard.

You seem like a caring and committed mother, and I would focus your energies on parenting these kids. They may be hearing all sorts of nonsense during their visits with their father, and if it’s at all possible, I strongly recommend pursuing individual therapy for them as they get a bit older. And for yourself! You have so much on your plate.

Thank you for being the mother these kids need right now.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question regarding my relationship with my husband around the issue of having a child. I have severe endometriosis and was told by my doctor at the ripe age of 17 that my chances of having children were extremely low. At the time I was 17 and didn’t want to have kids. At 18 I was put into early menopause through hormonal injections to control my disease.

I met a great guy in college who is now my husband, and a small part of our relationship was built on the fact that neither of us wanted to have children. Now that we are both in our early 30s, my opinion on having kids has been changing, but his has not. My amazing doctor has gotten me off of all my medication and assures me that (for now) my reproductive system is functioning just fine. My husband is super happy about me not being on any meds—I had been on continuous birth control to keep me from having any periods—because as you can imagine, having your hormones messed with like that causes lots of other problems, including being diagnosed with osteoporosis at 29.

I have had some conversations with my husband about what me being medication-free means for us and our potential to have a child, and it freaks him out tremendously. However, he is aware how incredible this is and said it was his responsibility to me to not pull out during sex. Recently during one such conversation, he said that he was afraid he would be such a bad dad that he would run off and leave us. However, I don’t really believe him because he is a kind, generous, caring, and supportive person who I think would make an excellent father once he gets over his fear.

I have been charting my fertility and making a point to have sex on days when I am fertile, and I am sure he knows that’s what is going on because I am not trying to hide anything, and I often talk about all the research I have been doing on fertility. But I am afraid to be really explicit because I don’t want to scare him too much. He is a really sensitive person who struggles with some neurosis around issues of responsibility. He failed out of college because of it and often shuts down when he feels he is being attacked for his shortcomings. I don’t want to chase off my husband, but I want to pursue this amazing and possibly short-lived window of fertility. Any suggestions?

—Maybe Baby

Dear MB,

Oh, my gosh.

You and your husband need to have a serious conversation about whether or not you both want to have children. I don’t think that his tentative agreement not to pull out means that he has actually changed his mind about not wanting to be a father, and I am concerned that you are very much hearing what you want to hear and therefore not asking questions you don’t want to hear the answer to. Do I think he should be clearer with you? Yes. However, that’s not going to do much good if you continue to refuse to believe him when he does tell you the truth: He doesn’t think he’ll be a good father, and he thinks he may run off and leave you!

I understand that this unexpected chance at biological motherhood seems like a miracle for you, and you want to grasp it before it disappears. It also sounds as though your husband is very hesitant to rain on your parade, which is also extremely understandable. That being said, if you are too afraid to say “I am actively trying to conceive a child, are you on board?” your marriage is not ready to have a baby in it. You may want to consider having that conversation in front of a marriage counselor, since you clearly have serious communication issues, but having the conversation itself is utterly non-negotiable.

If your husband really does not want to have a child, and you decide that being a mother outweighs all other considerations, your marriage may need to come to an end. I can’t answer that question for you. What I can say is that you cannot let a fear of “scaring him off” overcome your moral obligation to get your husband’s informed consent to actively trying to conceive.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am writing because it is becoming apparent as our young children grow that they are developing loving and caring relationships with all their grandparents, with the exception of my mother-in-law. Should I be making more of an effort to initiate communication with my mother-in-law with the hope it will improve my children’s and my relationship with her?

The situation: My husband and I have been together for almost 15 years, and live on the West Coast. We both have all our extended family on the East Coast. We have two children—a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old.

My mother-in-law has come out to visit us two times in the 19 years my husband has lived on the West Coast, and only once the two of us have been together—when our first child was born. We travel east to visit my husband’s parents at least once a year. When we visit, our family stays in their home. My mother-in-law bends over backward with effort to please the kids, my husband, and me during this time, and the kids do enjoy spending time with her.

My mother-in-law has a pattern of cutting off communication with her loved ones for weeks or months when she feels jealous or wronged, and never acknowledges or apologizes for it. This has occurred when one of her adult kids had a cancer diagnosis and was communicating too much to other people before her; when a sibling was designated caregiver/decision-maker to her ailing mother rather than her; and when I had breastfeeding problems with my oldest during her single visit to our hometown. She got jealous about not being included enough in each of these instances.

In the first few months of my son’s life, she refused to talk to me or my husband for two months when she found out my mother had come to town to help me right after her own visit. I have consulted my husband about trying to talk about it with her because the distrust I now feel after being shut out during a vulnerable time remains uncomfortable for both of us at every encounter. My husband supports that we did nothing wrong and that “this is just how my mom is when she gets really jealous.” He thinks bringing it up will just make her more ashamed and defensive and make things worse.

I respect my mother-in-law, and I am very civil and polite and not critical of her in our interactions, and yet I am distrustful of her due to her abandoning communication with us at such a vulnerable time in our parenting lives. I know she adores her grandchildren from how she treats them when we visit her. I don’t want distrust between me and my mother-in-law to prevent the development of a loving relationship with my kids. However, I will fully admit I do not feel comfortable calling her or spending even more time in their home when our every conversation feels loaded with this shared negative experience.

So, what am I to do? The altruistic part of me wants to forgive her without any apologies, and try to make more efforts at calling her with the kids, and gamble that she would be more than happy to forget about it and move on over time. The other side of me (the side that is winning) still feels hurt and distrustful, so grins and bears it during our limited, intense visits. Or, is the answer to try to have a difficult conversation about a hurtful time three years ago, at the risk of making things worse all over again, in the hope that things then get better in our relationship?

—Reluctantly Distrustful Daughter-In-Law

Dear RDDIL,

You need to spend 100 percent less time thinking about this woman. I am exhausted just reading about your relationship (and I cut a few paragraphs out of your letter for space!). The two of you are playing a fraught and pointless game of tug of war, and all you can do is drop your end of the rope. If she makes an effort to come out to see you, great. Your kids will be fine either way.

—Nicole