Dear Care and Feeding,
My son started high school this year and has become friends with “Brad.” Over winter break, Brad had a party at his house. When we drove our son to Brad’s house, I was in shock when I saw that Brad’s stepdad, “John,” is the man that caused me to leave a job I loved back in 2001. We were both managers of different departments in our company. John slid his hands up under my clothing thinking he could get away with it. He cornered me in a bathroom one night when I was working late and tried to assault me. I kneed him in the groin and hit him in the nose. I wish I had pressed charges, but I was embarrassed and thought I had done something wrong, as I was in my 20s and the youngest manager and only female manager in this company. I filed complaints against him, and we had to sit with a mediator. I was not taken seriously, and I ended up leaving.
I did not want to leave my son at Brad’s, but I also didn’t want to embarrass him. It makes me sick to think about John raising a son and the things he might be saying to him. I have begun to ask my son more questions about Brad and what kinds of things he says and does, but my son knows something is up. I simply told him that I knew John back when I worked at XYZ.
Brad is having another party and has asked my son over. Part of me says it’s not Brad’s fault that his stepdad is a creep who doesn’t understand and respect other people’s boundaries; the other part of me says I don’t want to see John on purpose ever again, and I don’t want John to approach my son and speak to him about me. Usually, I’m good at figuring out how to handle conflict, but not this one.
—Never Thought I Would See Him Again
This is terrible, and also so tricky! I’m incredibly sorry. I read this letter about six times and called a few friends, all of whom had the same reaction. I wish this wasn’t happening.
As you know, John saw you and your husband as well, and he will be going through a similar freakout in the privacy of his slimy brain. You have no control over that aspect of what happens; I’m hoping that John will make himself extremely scarce and try to ride this out, but he’s a terrible and impulsive person, so who knows?
This next part is the hardest, and one I cannot help you with. Your son sounds like a great kid, and he’s in ninth grade, which is very young but not a child. You and your husband should sit down and come up with an honest but age-appropriate account of your past with John—one that emphasizes that Brad is a great kid, and you want their friendship to continue, but that you absolutely do not trust John and cannot be around him. Then talk to your son. He can choose to spend the night at Brad’s house or not, but I think he would want and deserve to have the information he needs to make that decision himself.
I know so well the impulse to be the person who sucks everything up because the Children Come First, but if your son were actually your daughter, the path forward would seem clearer, and you would not feel obliged to drop your daughter off to spend the night with your assaulter just to avoid carpool unpleasantness. It’s good for a young man to understand the bad things that happen in this world and that the consequences of violence and cruelty can last a very long time. Preserving the innocence of the young is great, but we can’t put it on an immovable pedestal. You matter too.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I just found out from my 5-year-old that my mother-in-law doesn’t have him buckle up when she is driving him. Safety issues, particularly car safety, is always something we’ve had to argue about with her. My mother-in-law doesn’t like me, she doesn’t respect our decisions as his parents, and she thinks she should get to make decisions for our family. My husband thinks we should just not leave him alone with her again and leave it at that. But I am angry. I’m sick of being disrespected. I want to talk to her about this overarching pattern. Frankly, I want to be done with her unless she apologizes, and my husband will support me in that. He understands that this is particularly hard for me because she is repeating the cycle of how my dad’s mother treated my mom. I feel like a conversation needs to be had, but I have no idea how to initiate that.
In this situation, I think your husband’s plan is probably for the best. If she doesn’t get unfettered access to your kid, you’re covering all the most important bases. I know how badly you want to have a big come-to-Jesus talk with her, but I would save that energy for when she pushes back on not getting Grandma Time without you riding shotgun.
If I were you, I would use my free-floating anger to write a letter to your mother-in-law, outlining all the times she’s violated your wishes vis-à-vis your son, and really getting all of that emotion out on the page. Then burn the letter (or drag it to the trash). It’s remarkable how much doing this satisfies your need to explain and justify yourself to a person who, let’s face it, is never going to give you the satisfaction of “getting it.”
But since you and your husband have both recognized that a not-inconsiderable portion of your anger derives from feeling that this dynamic brings you back to your childhood experiences, it’s even more important to get clarity on who you’re angry with. That may be something to hash out in therapy, but I think it’s important to not just recognize it, but try to separate it from your feelings about your current antagonist. Don’t budge on the unsupervised visits and slay the dragons when they appear.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a dear friend whose youngest son is very sick with cancer. He is receiving the best medical care available, and we all hope he survives. I am trying my best to be there for her, mostly by taking her older son as often as I can so she can focus on her sick boy.
The younger son’s birthday is coming up soon, and I told her we would keep the day free just in case she decided to have a birthday party for him in the hospital. I get the feeling that since he has had surgeries, infections, and chemo, she is not planning on having a birthday party at this time. I worry she may regret not having a little celebration for his last birthday, if he succumbs to this disease. I lost a child a couple of years ago, and I regret working 16 hours and not celebrating on her last birthday.
Is it rude for me to suggest that a small birthday celebration might be a good idea for the sick boy? I usually make a point to never ever make parenting suggestions to my friends, and I am hesitant to start now.
Dear Tough Situation,
That poor woman. I’m glad you’re giving her meaningful support and assistance by taking her older son as much as possible.
Because of your own terrible experience, I absolutely see why you want to spare your friend some of your own regrets. That being said, this is a different child and a different situation, and birthdays matter a great deal to some people and nothing at all to others.
I recommend saying once, and once only, “Are you thinking of having a birthday party for Sam? I’m happy to help out if so,” and listening to what she has to say in return—really listening. If the answer is no, that’s it. Not a word, not a facial reaction, just move on with your life. My sense is that the last thing she wants right now is having a bunch of other kids around her infection-prone and medically fragile child, and that a party is just too much for her, mentally and emotionally and logistically.
Keep being the good friend you are, and be ready to let go. You’ll both be in my thoughts.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband was raised in an incredibly restrictive religious household—no TV, no secular music, no public school. These limitations and his refusal to abide them came to head when he ran away as a teenager; my husband ended up in one of those schools for “troubled” children and rebuilt his life from that low point. His relationship with his parents has always been contentious. We’ve been married for 15 years and have two girls (13 and 10), but my husband’s parents fight with him about our “secular lifestyle” like he’s still a wayward teenager.
In 2016, our daughters stayed with his parents for two weeks, and while they were there, my in-laws crammed an entire childhood worth of religious ideology into their brains. They told my daughters all sorts of deeply problematic things. The two biggest culprits were convincing my then-8-year-old that because I wasn’t saved, my soul was going to burn forever in hell and telling my daughters a litany of grossly homophobic and hateful things about their aunt.
The fight that followed this stay led my husband to break off contact with his parents. While I was appalled, heartbroken, and furious with them, that decision hasn’t sat well with me. So when my brother-in-law told us my father-in-law was hospitalized, and my husband’s resolve began to crack, I convinced him we should re-establish contact, albeit with very strict ground rules.
My in-laws are having a massive 80th birthday party for my father-in-law in May. Due to work scheduling, my husband is going without me, and my oldest daughter has decided that if I’m not going, she’s not going. My husband and I decided to support this decision. My mother-in-law was finalizing the RSVPs and called to demand why our family of four would be two members shy, so my husband explained to her why I and our daughter won’t be coming. This has sparked a flame of outrage from my mother-in-law like never before. She has taken to social media and the family group chat to air her grievances about this, but oddly the blame has now fallen on me. I’m tired of taking the high road. Should I just give up with them?
—A Good-Natured Agonistic Simply Trying to Keep the Peace
Dear Good-Natured Agnostic,
Give up. These people are assholes.