Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Tried to Fat-Shame My 1-Year-Old Daughter

Sure, it was a joke, but she’s never teased my son this way.

Infant eating cake

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter just turned 1, and we had a birthday party for her with some extended family. As she munched happily on her chocolate cupcake after we sang “Happy Birthday,” my mother-in-law jokingly chided, “That’s gonna go straight to your hips, girl!” Several of the women present chuckled or pitched in affirmative comments. (Of course, no one has ever made a remark like this to my 3-year-old son, who also enjoyed a slab of cake before family at his birthday party recently.)

I was internally aghast, but I held my tongue. We were in the midst of a festive family moment, they meant no harm, my daughter is too young to grasp what was being said (though I don’t know if my son is), etc. But now I’m not sure I did the right thing. Should I have said something? Should I say something now, after the fact? (I honestly don’t think my mother-in-law will even remember having said it.) When comments like this are directed at my daughter again, what do I say, and with what kind of urgency?

—Let Her Eat Cake

Dear LHEC,

Being a woman is the worst, because of society! I think with a 1-year-old and in this particular context, choosing to say nothing at the time was a perfectly cromulent option. You’ve got your radio tuned to the right station is the important thing.

Embarrassing people in public, although sometimes meet and right, is usually not that appropriate with loved ones, and I swear by the quiet word in the hallway a few minutes later:

“This may sound silly, but … ” (it’s not silly, but I find a bit of self-deprecation helps—I’m Canadian). Don’t bother doing this now, a week or two after the fact, but as your daughter starts to actually hear people, it’s really important to do the absolute best you can to postpone and defang the nonsense language of competitive food and Body Hatred.

I am a broken record on this point, but that’s because it’s important: You can run your mouth from dawn to dusk about loving our bodies and how beautiful and strong they are and how food is fuel and fatness is not immorality and so on, but you can undo it in an instant by letting your kid hear you talk down about yourself or see you step on a scale and wince. Women have to walk the walk. We cannot out-teach the reality of how we feel about our own bodies. Fake it to make it, whatever works, but we all really do have to try to do better for the next generation.

This is hard stuff. Thanks for paying attention to it.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have three wonderful boys (aged 16, 14, and 11) who, by most metrics, are great kids. When my oldest was born, my father told me that one of the biggest parenting regrets he had was not assigning regular chores to me and my siblings. My dad yelled at us if the house was messy and on multiple occasions bagged up all of our earthly belongings into garbage bags and threatened to throw them out. Taking this into consideration, I thought regular chores and clear expectations might be the way to go with my kids.

Since the boys were little, they’ve had some form of daily cleaning. As they got older and, ostensibly, more responsible, we assigned additional age-appropriate chores. But my husband and I philosophically differ on the point of chores. Is it to teach the kids that they are part of a family and that being a member of a household carries with it certain responsibilities? Is it to ease the burden on the parents? Should chores be done perfectly, or is the idea to get them used to just doing things on a regular basis and eventually it gets better?

My basic goal is that when the kids move out, their roommates don’t say, “Didn’t your mom teach you anything?!” and I feel we are on our way there. But is that standard too low?

—Teach Me

Dear Teach Me,

I think you’re doing a great job. Chores are absolutely part of the responsibility of living in a house with other human beings, and you are preparing your sons for adult life in a sensible and useful way. Keep them clear, age-appropriate, and reasonably equitable, and you’ll be fine. I honestly think you could write a how-to guide for chores, so please pat yourself on the back for learning from your parent’s regrets!

In terms of doing them well, there’s nothing wrong with having them redo something like hand-washing delicate dishes with closer supervision. You just don’t want them to get into the learned helplessness game.

As to your philosophical difference with your husband, you’re not really in opposition. You can welcome having your burden alleviated now, while also keeping your eyes on the prize of adult competence.

May your children be a blessing to all their future spouses and lovers and roommates.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter, “Mary,” is 15. Her father and I are recently estranged, when he chose to move out of state earlier this year without us. Mary stayed with me to finish the school year, then spent most of the summer with him and came back in August for school, but we have no official co-parenting or custody agreement. Mary wants to get a tattoo, which I’ve said is fine for her to do when she turns 18. It is illegal in our state to tattoo a minor, not even with parental consent. When Mary went online to confirm what I’d told her, she discovered that the state where her dad now lives allows minors to get a tattoo with parental consent. She is supposed to visit him over winter break, and she says that he is going to sign for her to get a tattoo while she’s there. He refuses to talk on the phone with me—because I refused to allow him to record our calls—and he turned off his voicemail, so I can’t leave a message. I emailed him last week with a few questions about the winter break logistics, and I also asked point blank about Mary’s plans for a tattoo and said that I’m not OK with any permanent body modifications before she’s a legal adult. He sent two replies to that email but never mentioned the tattoo. Short of canceling Mary’s trip, what can I do to prevent my underage child from being tattooed this winter?

—No Ink Please

Dear NIP,

Oh, my word, what a nightmare. I share your opinion about the wisdom of teens permanently altering their bodies, but I think you have a bigger fish to fry right now: You need to formalize your separation and custody arrangement! Please immediately arrange a consultation with a divorce lawyer.

People can muddle along doing their own thing for a while, but you and your husband are not those people. You are in it. I am not in any way guaranteeing that lawyering up will result in your kid not somehow getting this tattoo—that and the advisability of the winter break visit are questions for the lawyer. I am saying you cannot wait any longer to take this more formal step.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have recently become the aunt to two little girls who I am able to see every few weeks. I have developed a close relationship to the oldest, a 4-year old, and it is lovely. I always look forward to seeing her, and we have a great time together. The problem is that when she has to go to bed or I have to leave, she gets extremely upset. I would hate for my visits to be a source of stress for either her or her parents. What are some ways to make my departure less painful?
—Agonizing Auntie (at Bedtime, That Is)

Dear AA,

This is such classic child behavior, and I have a really good strategy: graduated warnings! It can, however, work too well: My cousin and I got so used to being given five- and 10-minute warnings before needing to leave places or watch others leave that to this day we become a little sad and mad at parties when someone just announces her departure. Where was my warning?!

With their parents’ assistance, check in about a half-hour before leaving to remind her you’ll have to go at 7, then at the 10-minute mark, then at the five-minute mark. With little kids, more is better, and you can fade this over time with ease. Kids just don’t like having things sprung on them, essentially.

Congratulations on being such a marvelous aunt that people weep when you leave rooms!