Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Convinced My Husband to Change My Child’s Middle Name While I Was Recovering From a C-Section

For real.

A mother yelling at her mother-in-law, with the mother's child in between them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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 son is 2 months old, and I just discovered my husband spelled our son’s middle name as “Finlay” instead of “Finley” on all of his legal documentation. I, of course, am furious, because I told him I was fine with the middle name but it had to be spelled Finley—and he agreed before our son was ever born. His mother even sent a Christmas gift to middle name “Finlay,” and when I made a comment to my husband he didn’t even have the decency to tell me! He just let me keep believing for two months that our son’s middle name was spelled Finley when it legally isn’t! I discovered this all when I went looking for his Social Security card and birth certificate to file them away properly. He says he regretted it as soon as the card came and has been afraid to tell me.

Now here is where it gets tricky. Apparently his mother guilt-tripped him into doing this while I was asleep after my emergency C-section. Keep in mind she lives a few states away, so this was all over the phone. She tried to convince him to give our son a first name that I very much hated, saying that I would “get mad, but get over it.” My husband thought changing his first name was too much but apparently gave in to spelling his middle name the way his mom wanted. She thinks that “Finlay” is more masculine than “Finley.”

His mother has always been a manipulator and I have always known she doesn’t like me. But she blatantly disrespected me and the name my husband and I had chosen for our son. I really think she put his whole name in his Christmas gift as a jab to me, knowing I would see it. She manipulated my husband into thinking it was all right to lie to me about something as serious as the spelling of our son’s name.

My husband is very much also at fault for doing this in the first place and we are working through that together, but I feel as though something needs to be said to my mother-in-law. Do I approach her about this? Do I let my husband approach her about this? Do we approach her together? What should I say? I have no desire to have any sort of relationship with her moving forward, so I am not worried about playing nice.

I will be legally changing my son’s name to the correct spelling.

—Mama Bear

Dear MB,


If I were in your situation, I would not approach the offending in-law about this issue because I’d be afraid an actual fistfight would break out. We’d really have to talk about renaming these hands. That’s how mad I’d be.

Secondly, what in the entire fuck is up with your husband? He’s got to decide if you are his co-parent or if his mother is. And until he makes that decision, he can’t be trusted. Period. Purposefully changing the name of your child on a birth certificate behind your back is pretty close to a fireable offense if you ask me. I mean real close. I don’t take divorce lightly, and I’m not recommending it on the strength of this one event alone, but a thing like this gets up to a good 65 percent on the Potential Divorce-O-Meter, and if I were you I would need some time to get over this. He owes you a very significant and full-throated apology, and if he doesn’t see why then it’s hard for me to imagine that you are in a relationship with a trustworthy partner.

I don’t think I would talk with Mother. If I did, I would say only one thing: “Whether you let or encouraged your son to go behind my back and change the name of our child, it was an extremely shitty thing to do. You can rest assured that I will remember it for a very long time.” Then I would drop the subject and let this woman spend the rest of her days anticipating a retaliation that may or may not be soon coming.

I’m mad just reading about this. You and your kid deserve so much better. Your husband needs therapy, your mother-in-law needs to kick rocks, and you need to be as angry about this as you feel like being for as long as you feel like being angry about it. Be honest with yourself about how you truly feel and don’t be afraid of that feeling. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

A few weeks ago, a white child at my kids’ public elementary school told a child of color that he could not play with him because he has dark skin. My (also white) child witnessed the exchange (along with a whole crew of third-graders). A teacher was told, and the offender was sent to the principal.

Now, the racist child’s mother has invited my kid over for a play date. I’m not super comfortable sending my kid to their house; after all, maybe that’s where he gets the racist message. I know that the kid is only 9 and hopefully will grow and learn, but the child of color will always be a person of color, and these early messages are so damaging.

I have a lot more thoughts on this, but I guess my question is: Can I politely (or directly?) refuse a play date for my kid because of a racist remark from a 9-year-old?

—Racism Begins at Home?

Dear RBaH,

You can both politely and directly refuse this play date. Both would be reasonable; neither would be out of line. However, you’d be doing so on the assumption that this kid picked up this racist shit from home, which, at this point, is an unproven theory. It’s not an unlikely one, but it’s still just a guess. If I were in your shoes, before deciding whether to ostracize these people, I would probably offer to sit down for coffee or tea with this mom. I would tell her honestly what’s on my mind. I would share that I couldn’t help but to wonder if her kid picked this stuff up at home.

If she is defensive or offended at the suggestion, that tells you she’s the kind of person who’s more worried about not seeming racist than about not being racist, which, in my experience, indicates the presence of actual racism. If she admits that the report from school indicated real trouble in the home and that she’s rethinking things as a result of this incident, then you can decide where to go with that, but at least she’s being honest and acknowledging the existence of a real problem and a desire to address it. If she completely denies everything and changes the subject, that at least tells you that she doesn’t take the issue at all seriously—and that, in and of itself, is information.

You don’t yet know what to do, because you don’t have enough information to decide. And the idea of letting your kid gather that information via play date is rightfully making you uncomfortable. So instead, gather more information yourself, and leave your kid out of it. If you’re uncomfortable with that, then maybe under these circumstances this relationship is not the right one for you. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have become part-time, unofficial guardians to a 4-year-old nephew whose dad is incarcerated. His mom is a severe addict, and she has lost custody to her mom, who is also addicted to illegal drugs. We’ve not been close to this side of the family, but in an effort to help the child, we offered to take him several nights a week “so Grandma could have a break.” At our home and at preschool, the boy is mostly delightful but struggles with rules—like regular bathing, bedtimes, potty training, and healthy meals. He can have very fierce tantrums over not getting his way, but it’s hard to know when that’s normal little-kid behavior that needs scolding or a timeout, and when there’s genuine distress. We are alarmed by the things this child has been exposed to and shocked at how little help we’ve had from authorities. Meanwhile, he loves and misses the truly dangerous and dysfunctional place he knows as home whenever he’s with us. It’s hard to know if we’re confusing and stressing him out more than is helpful, or if we’re doing any good at all. Our hope is to be a permanent placement someday, or at the very least to be a source of stability and normalcy in his life. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.

—Stepping Forward

Dear SF,

My belief is that you are helping this child. Of course it’s not perfect; none of this is. Part of what makes this so difficult is that there is no immediate way for you to know the exact impact of your help because it won’t be revealed for a very long time. As a result, you have to go largely on faith, and that’s a tall order. But as a person whose life was impacted when nonparents offered some intermittent love and support, I am a staunch advocate for this kind of thing.

The first advice I’d give you is to never underestimate the power of simply being a loving, respectful adult in a child’s life, of being there to listen to his words, make eye contact, share your food with him, laugh at his jokes and tell him your own. None of this is spectacular, but that kind of witnessing and presence is immensely powerful to a child who has faced trauma and as such is looking for validation that he belongs somewhere—that he has value.

The second piece of advice I would give is this: One of the other deeply important ways to show a child that he matters is by expecting good things from him and making sure he knows that you expect good things from him. So, do that. Hold him to standards; gently and lovingly correct him when you see him erring. Model kindness, love, attention, patience, and acceptance for him. Do not confuse this for control, or even passive-aggressive control. Do not use anger as a weapon, and definitely don’t let this turn into judgment. It is a fine line to ride, but it is an important one. Love the kid first, guide the kid second. You are lucky to have him.