Care and Feeding

When My Mother-in-Law Visits, She Insists on Keeping Our Daughter Apart From Us.

This is weird, right?

Photo illustration showing a toddler eating a cookie while a grandmother figure eats a cookie and grins at her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by bowdenimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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,

My MIL lives several states away, so we see her just a few times a year. My 10-year-old daughter is her one and only grandchild. Of course, when she comes to town, I don’t want to block access to my daughter, but it has always made me uneasy that her time with all my in-laws has to be alone, something my husband shrugs off. My husband and I are pushed far to the side of all time when they are in town. When she came up several years ago a few weeks prior to Christmas, MIL had my daughter for the weekend and threw a “Christmas Morning” with my daughter and her other son. My husband and I were not invited. I explained to my husband I wasn’t OK with this for several reasons, including but not limited to: I want to see what she gets, and take pictures, and am not OK with being out of the picture.

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I thought we were on the same page, but when MIL came in a few weeks prior to my daughter’s birthday, she gave her all of her birthday gifts in private, despite the fact that I was throwing a family dinner for everyone at the end of the weekend. Husband says it’s no big deal, but he also went and cleaned the chicken coop the minute his mom showed up for the dinner, so I’m thinking he’s out of touch on the issue too. Am I crazy, or is this weird?

—This Seems Wrong

Dear This Seems Wrong,

This is absolutely weird, and it ends today. Your MIL can get stuffed. Tell your wuss of a chicken coop–hiding husband to get in gear and back you up, you’re tired of being treated like the nanny when his mother comes to town.

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That “Christmas Morning” shit she pulled? Not on my watch.

From now on, you go where your daughter goes, you act pleasantly bemused when your mother-in-law tries to reinstate the old rules, and if she asks why things have changed you can say, “Oh, they just grow up so fast, I want to be there for every minute,” ideally while staring her dead in the face and channeling Charles Bronson.

I insist you email me about developments in this situation.

Dear Care and Feeding,

When I was 34 weeks pregnant with our second child, my husband and I found out that our baby would not survive more than a week after birth. We immediately consulted numerous child therapists to navigate how to tell our 4-year-old daughter. All agreed that we should tell her a day or two before birth and that we should not pursue therapy unless she seemed in distress. She met her baby brother and seemed to accept that he wouldn’t come home. Now a few weeks later, she will ask every pregnant woman she sees if her baby will die, she’ll ask why she couldn’t keep her baby when other kids do, and today she told me she wanted a different mommy who would give her a baby who wouldn’t die. We’ve contacted child play therapists, but is there anything I can do to alleviate her grief in the meantime? And what should I say to the pregnant/new moms who overhear her comments and may be freaked out?

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—We’re Grieving

Dear Grieving,

Your daughter is making sense of this massive change as best she can. She can also tell that you are in deep pain, no matter how much you may try to mask it around her. I do think it’s time for a child play therapist, who are often called into duty in just this sort of sad occasion; in the meantime, give her space to say what she needs to say to you while trying to react as neutrally as possible.

That doesn’t mean saying upsetting things to strange pregnant women! You can absolutely say, “Honey, we can’t ask people if their baby is going to die, it’s very scary and sad for them to think about,” and remind her if the behavior continues. As for what to say to the wide-eyed pregnant women, I recommend the truth: “I’m so sorry, we recently lost a baby shortly after his birth, and she’s still processing her feelings.” It would take a cold-as-hell person not to immediately understand where she’s coming from.

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I am so deeply sorry for your (unimaginable, yet all too common) loss, and I hope that you and your husband are taking the time and resources to deal with your own feelings of grief in addition to managing those of your daughter. It’s wonderful to be a rock for her, but don’t let that cause you to push your own healing off into the future indefinitely.

Wishing you the very, very best.

Dear Care and Feeding,

When I was a young child, my mother suffered from a prolonged episode of clinical depression. She got the help she needed and went on to be a more or less stably happy person who has been a great support for me in my adult life. But my childhood was marked by a lot of very public sadness, hopelessness, and guilt—both coming from her, for being unavailable emotionally, and guilt I felt because I couldn’t quite believe that it wasn’t in some way my fault. For example, I used to try to tell her I loved her as much as possible so she would remember it when I wasn’t in the room. I used to be unable to sleep at night imagining myself dying, and how she would feel at my funeral, and how guilty I would feel if I left her behind. Now, in my adult life, I have two wonderful little girls (7 and 5) who I love with my whole heart, a supportive partner who has remained loyal to me through 16 years of ups and downs, and my own mental health issues with depression and extreme anxiety which I am managing with medication.

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My problem is that I am noticing some of the same coping mechanisms in my little girls that I used in my relationship with my mom. My youngest hugs and kisses me all the time; she tells me she loves me so often it is like a verbal tic; she looks me searchingly in the face and asks me if I am in a good mood or a bad one. My oldest apologized profusely the other day because there was too much dust under her bed! I wasn’t the one upset about the dust (it was her father, and he wasn’t upset with anyone in particular, just at the fact that the screens he put in the heating vents aren’t solving the problem), but it was still me she came to apologize for something she shouldn’t have been worried about at all. I am worried that my impression of myself as a relatively even-keeled, involved, and energetic mom isn’t the impression they have. I know firsthand how sad and lonely it is to have a very sad parent, and I don’t feel like I am that, but maybe they do? Am I overthinking? What can I do to protect my kids from feeling like they are responsible for my emotions?

—Congenitally Anxious

Dear Congenitally Anxious,

To a certain extent, all parents underestimate how closely kids monitor the barometer of our emotional lives. Our children may see a TV show about a sad mother and spend a week trying to cheer their own mother up. It may very well be that due to your childhood, you’re just paying closer attention to what is actually a fairly common behavior. In addition, yes, you may be raising sensitive and empathetic children who can tell when all is not right in the state of Denmark and want to help jolly you through those times.

It does no one any good to feign a constant buoyancy that you do not actually feel, of course, so I would first like you to get your husband on board with just … observing you … for a month or so. It may be that you are manifesting sorrow without realizing it—a smile stretched too thinly, etc.—and that would be helpful information to have. (Perhaps it’s time to adjust some medication, perhaps it’s time to talk to someone new.) It may be that you are the “relatively even-keeled” parent that you have hoped your kids see every day.

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Very few of us ever truly internalize that we are not responsible for the emotions of those we love most. I know that I want to be the dancing and singing frog when my husband is a little down, and have to restrain myself from “fixing” it. You seem to be a warm and committed mother with a great and supportive partner, and I think your children will have far better memories of their childhood than you do of yours. You’re doing the work. Good job.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

In my state, the cutoff for kindergarten is Sept. 1. That is, any child born on or after the first of September starts school a year behind the other children born in the same year.

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My mother was a kindergarten teacher for 25 years and always told me that the children in her classes born September–December tend to have better concentration and pick up more quickly on concepts due to being a little older and, therefore, a little more mature.

I see this theory at work in my own family as well. I am an April baby who tended to always be a little bit behind, and my younger sister is a September baby who was always the star student.

What do you think is an appropriate cutoff for children to be at their best when it comes time for kindergarten? Would it be crazy to hold our child back a year if they’re born, say, after March or April? Are they truly at an advantage starting school a little older, or is it more up to chance and the child as an individual?

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—Kindergarten Now, Kindergarten Later

Dear KNKL,

This often winds up being a very class-distinctive question, as many families will obviously enroll their child in free public school as soon as they possibly can, while more affluent families can afford an extra year in day care, an extra year with one parent out of the workforce, etc., and then reap the benefits of a larger and more mature kindergartener. This is not super relevant to your situation, it’s just something to be aware of when the subject comes up: This choice is a nice one to have.

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If you can afford it, go ahead and hold your kid back. There are, in fact, advantages to doing so, which your mother (and anyone else involved in early childhood education) have observed over many years. A year is an eternity to a child, and if you have a physically little kid who is still working on emotional maturity, that extra time may be really valuable and set them up for success. If you don’t do so, no harm no foul, you’ll be in the same boat with the majority of the nation’s parents, and all that is meant to be well shall be well.

—Nicole

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