Care and Feeding

A Mom With an Asterisk

We’re caring for a relative’s child. How do I navigate conversations with other parents who assume she’s our biological daughter?

A woman with a toddler on her shoulders.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by quintanilla/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

A few years ago, my husband and I became guardians of a relative’s child. The home situation was bad enough that it probably should have been a foster care kinship placement, but we couldn’t get a response from Child Protective Services in time, so we filed for emergency custody in court ourselves. We are now permanent guardians of an absolutely amazing preschooler who has made huge strides in recovering from her rocky start. We have no other children.

My dilemma is this: I find the details of our situation really difficult to handle when I’m in acquaintance-type situations with other parents (waiting for ballet class, school events, birthday parties). I’m an introvert who finds conversation in those types of unstructured social situations with strangers difficult anyway. What makes these ones particularly fraught for me is that parenting seems to be the thing we all have in common, so that is usually the topic of conversation. People share pregnancy and birth stories a lot, it seems. Our kiddo looks quite a bit like me (even though we aren’t biologically related), and she calls us Mommy and Daddy. I haven’t figured out how to correct the assumptions people make in an elegant, not terribly revealing way. Either I mention the situation (which takes at least a little explaining, since we aren’t foster parents, we aren’t even technically her aunt and uncle, and we haven’t adopted her) and suddenly I’m telling strangers more than I want and it also awkwardly shifts the conversation toward this weird place where people feel the need to praise us for “taking her in” (the worst). Or I don’t mention the situation and don’t correct small assumptions, and then I suddenly find myself being asked how long I breastfed her or how magical giving birth was. And then it is more awkward.

I know this is a small problem to have. (Believe me when I say caring for a traumatized toddler brings bigger challenges!) But I hate those awkward moments so much it makes me dread every school function and never want to talk to new parents. Surely other people in non-straightforward family situations run into something like this. Am I simply an inept conversationalist? Do I just have to wait until she’s older and the topics change? Please help!

—Mom With an Asterisk

Dear MWaA,

You are not a mom with an asterisk; you are a mom. I want deeply for you to know that. I was raised for five years by a woman who was not my biological mother, and I can tell you there is no asterisk. That’s not how parenting works. You don’t get more parent-y because of biology. You become a parent because you parent—because you clean up bed-wetting and suffer through public tantrums and take them to ballet classes and stay with them until they fall asleep, sometimes in your arms.

It’s a shame that in these conversations the discomfort is yours when really it should be theirs.

You should not have to shoulder the burden of the fact that other people are suffering under narrow understandings of how parenting works. So, I would encourage you to remind yourself every day that any awkwardness anyone feels about these conversations should belong to them, not you. You get to say what’s true, and if they feel weird about it, they can just feel weird about it.

You get to say, “We’ve taken her in, and we’re hoping to adopt.” You get to say, “I didn’t give birth.” You get to say, “I don’t want to get into it, thank you for asking.” The most important part of all those sentences is the period at the end of it. The conversation can end when you want it to end, and the topic will be closed when you close it. You are the mother. That means you are in charge.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

In March I got married for the first time and became a stepmom to a 13-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl. I do not have any children of my own, but these kids are mine now. My challenge is with the 13-year-old. He is age-appropriate in every way—all he wants to do is sleep and play video games. I worry about how much is too much. My husband and I were going to impose some pretty strict digital media rules, but my sister, who has raised three very good boys, talked me out of them, because playing games and sleeping in is normal for a boy his age. So I have decided that during school, as long as his homework is done and he goes to bed on time, there are no restrictions. (We do make him do one “active” thing after school each week: tennis or baseball depending on the season, which he hates but he does it.) On weekends I let him play and sleep pretty much as he wants to, unless we have a family activity the next day—then the gaming needs to go off by 11:15 p.m. My worry is about the long breaks and summer. I don’t think it is healthy for him to stay up till 4 in the morning playing games and then sleeping until 4 in the afternoon.

But 13 is hard. He is not a kid anymore, but he isn’t old enough to work. He is not motivated by money, so he is not hustling to mow lawns, walk dogs, or anything. No matter what I make him do, he is going to hate it. But I cannot just let him do whatever he wants. We have him every other week, and he says his mom lets him sleep and play whenever he wants. That’s her prerogative in her home, but I cannot do that. It will drive me mad if he retreats in his room all day, sleeping and playing video games. When I met him, he was a sweet kid who didn’t mind being around us, but now he is a surly teen who can’t stand to do anything. Even getting him to do the expected chores is like pulling teeth. I am not sure what are reasonable rules and expectations for this young teen. Do you have any guidance?

—Congratulations, It’s a Boy and He’s 13!

Dear Congrats,

This is both super hard and super normal. As you say, it is entirely age-appropriate for a 13-year-old to want to behave like this all the time. It’s also entirely appropriate for a parent to intervene to stop it. Ideally, you will land somewhere in the middle.

At the very minimum, this kid should be doing chores in a specific and timely fashion, so this is a situation where a little bit of work upfront will pay dividends later. You should make a very clear set of chores and be specific about when they are to be done and what “done” looks like. So rather than take out trash it should be take out trash, recycling, and compost by 8 p.m. every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, or whatever. We covered some good chores in a post here.

I tend to think that behavior management can be imagined on two axes: intrinsic to extrinsic motivation along one axis, and positive to negative motivation along the other. The trick is knowing where to situate your intervention given the circumstances. Your kid does not have intrinsic motivation to do chores, and positive motivation (“If you do this, you’ll reap financial rewards”) isn’t working. So, were I in your shoes, I would lean toward negative, extrinsic motivation. Namely: If you don’t do these chores, you lose the screens. Period. You’d have to think through the details and loopholes a kid is likely to exploit, so I might put a chart on the wall and declare that there must be a 100 percent completion rate for the week. Otherwise, the screens are gone. Then, if he makes it through the next week, he gets them back. You could also do this on a daily rather than weekly basis.

Maybe, if there’s a lot of backlash, you can set it up as a monthlong policy that expires after four weeks but can be reinstated if there is trouble. Running a household is a bit like governing a country, and nowadays kids can benefit from some examples of seeing it done well. (No shade.) (Who am I kidding? Shade.)

I want to acknowledge that I offer this advice with absolutely no idea how your stepparenting thing is going otherwise. It’s hard enough to lay down the law as a lifelong parent; it’s even harder to do so if you’ve only been in the kid’s life for a few years. So it might be prudent to make your husband take the lead on this particular strategy. But either way, the point is that while you’ll never get him to spend all of his free time working around the house and volunteering at the animal shelter, you also can’t leave him entirely to his own incredibly young and immature devices. You have to begin pulling him toward the middle. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Some of my dear friends are two couples who also have children about the age of my older daughter. The grown-ups are all friends. So we have tons of invitations to use their pool, come for dinner, or go to their weekend cabin for getaways.

So far, so lucky. The problem is the other kids. One family has a boy in elementary school who was regularly violent with playmates as recently as last year, has hit my daughter more than once over the years, and is still bullying his younger sibling as far as I know. The other family has a girl who gets into screaming fights with her little brother every time we’re together. I also find her to be rude and demanding.

Do I level with these people about why we often pass up their invitations? Or is there a way for everyone to get along better? Or some other solution I’m not thinking of?

I am hosting an annual party at a deliberately less child-friendly venue, and one of the dads just asked if he could bring the kids. I wrote, and deleted before sending, an email that read, “Remember at this same party last year when your darling son punched another kid in the head?”

—I Remember

Dear IR,

Let’s put aside the question of whether someone should be allowed to bring their kids to a non-kid event. (They should not.) I can’t help but wonder if these “dear friends” are as dear to you as you say. Often when people complain about other children, what they’re really saying is “This is not my kid, so they shouldn’t be my problem.” You don’t like the way their kids behave, but you don’t feel close enough to get involved in helping to manage it, which is something that close parenting friends do for one another.

Also, you are unsure about whether or not to tell them that you don’t love their kids’ behavior. This also strikes me as … particular to your relationship. There are friendships where you get to have honest conversations about difficult behavior. And while it can certainly be uncomfortable or awkward for a little bit, these conversations are entirely possible and useful. Your friends are presumably not idiots, so they must have some idea of how their kids behave. What they may not know—what you may be able to share with them—is how that behavior is impacting other kids and adults. It is perfectly within your rights to let them know about that, provided you are coming from a place of wanting to help, love, and support, rather than to judge and boost your own ego about how your kids are better than theirs.

So, while these friends are certainly dear enough for you to want to use their pool and vacation homes, they don’t sound dear enough for you to have an uncomfortable but necessary conversation or to parent their kids as you would your own. It seems that the natural progression of your relationship is that if you want to continue hanging with these people, it’s time for things to get real. Tell them that you’re having a hard time with certain things; ask how they are feeling about it; see where you can help. If your relationship can’t tolerate that, then maybe you’ll have to find somewhere else to do your swimming and vacationing.