Care and Feeding

My Stepdaughter’s Mother Lets Her Eat Candy for Dinner

How do I make sure my stepdaughter knows I don’t agree with her mom’s poor parenting choices?

Judgmental woman looking at a mom with her daughter.
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 careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am stepmother to an 8-year-old. Her father has custody, and we live several hours away from her mother, who is a nice person but doesn’t always make great parenting choices. My stepdaughter visits her mother for a week or a weekend from time to time, and I understand that these visits are important to her, but I struggle with how to talk to her about them. When she talks to me about going to see her mother, she will say things like “My mom lets me eat candy for dinner” or “Sometimes I stay up all night at my mommy’s house—she lets me.” For the most part she is not saying this to try to manipulate me; I think by now she realizes that rules are different in different houses. I guess she is just expressing excitement about going to see her mother.

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I suppose the best strategy overall is to talk to her about why certain choices are better than others, but in the moment, I struggle with what to say. I don’t want to quash the excitement that she has about seeing her mother, and I don’t want to say negative things about her mother, but I also don’t want to imply that I agree with these choices. Mostly, so far, I have tried to sound as noncommittal as possible, letting her know that I heard her but not agreeing. What is the best thing to say in these moments?

—Not an Evil Stepmother

Dear NaES,

I can see how this is a tricky situation for you, and it may help to draw a distinction here. You know that it’s not good to communicate your judgment about her mother’s choices, but I would also point out that your judgments about her mother’s choices actually don’t matter at all. A general rule with all two-house co-parenting situations is: Unless it’s abuse or neglect you’re worried about, what the other household does is none of your business. I realize that may sound counterintuitive, but this is hard-earned wisdom for most divorced families. This works because these are boundaries, and boundaries are key to the health of a child caught in the middle.

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Of course, I don’t advocate feeding your kid candy until the break of dawn, but I also don’t think that it’s abuse or neglect if that’s happening once in a while. I might also point out that you say your kid is not sharing this to manipulate you, but I’m not sure how it is that you know that. Kids are wonderfully complicated people with all kinds of plans and schemes and experiments happening in their curious and rapidly developing minds. “Candy for dinner” might mean a candy bar at 6 p.m. after a 4 p.m. taco lunch, which may feel wildly decadent to your kid. “Up all night” may mean a movie and a pajama dance party that ends at midnight, which might as well be Burning Man to her. I mean. She’s 8. She may even be exaggerating these things in an attempt to get you to loosen up the reins a bit. It could even be that this is all happening exactly as you imagine it and it’s because her mother just wants to make her happy. None of this requires your intervention, nor your opinion.

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You say you want your kid to know that you don’t approve of this stuff, but she already does because you don’t do this stuff at your house. That’s really all you need to say about it. Remember that this is a long-term situation and there will be plenty of time for your kid to figure out everything there is to know about how different parents can love her deeply and in totally different ways. There is no need to say anything negative here. There is no need to even feel anything negative. Your child is connecting with her mother and is happy about it. That’s all you need to care about. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

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Please help solve this disagreement that my husband and I have. I’ll even grit my teeth and present it as objectively as possible.

On the rare occasions that we hire a babysitter, we sometimes end up coming home early. I think we should pay her for the time that I hired her for, and my husband thinks we should pay her for the time she worked. In the most recent case, we were supposed to have a class from 6 to 9, but got home at 8:30, so he wanted to give her $50 and I wanted to give her $60.

What say you? And is there a way to compromise upfront?

—Counting the Hours

Dear CtH,

Congratulations—your husband is wrong, and you are right. If you book someone for a three-hour gig, you owe them for three hours of work. Next time go somewhere after class for a slice of cake and a decaf coffee so you can get your money’s worth.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My question is more about being a child than being a parent. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a safe or stable home life growing up, what are you supposed to do as an adult? I’m now a grown-ass woman with a great career, my own apartment, and a handful of friends. But I really want that sense of love and belonging that comes with a family. I’ve had friends and exes over the years assure me they were my family, only to have them ghost or break up and never invite me over for Thanksgiving again. I spend holidays volunteering at soup kitchens now and come home and make a nice meal for myself—I’m an excellent chef—but it’s hard and it’s often lonely (and my non-family cellphone plan is so freaking expensive). Where do you fit into this family-obsessed culture when you don’t have a family?

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—Misfit Toy

Dear MT,

I’ve learned through experience that the answer to this question changes over the years. We often think of adulthood as one period of life without acknowledging that it’s literally decade after decade and that over time, things change drastically and sometimes unexpectedly.

When I was in my 20s, I did try to make a “family” out of friends and partners. It was nice in its own way, but my experience was the same as yours: Ultimately, everyone had their own place in the world that they returned to. In my 30s, I was lucky enough to have marriage and kids, and that became my family. In a sense it always will be, but in another sense it won’t. My marriage has already ended, and my kids are now old enough that I can see they will need to move on with their lives and away from mine, which of course makes perfect sense.

Now, in my 40s, I recognize that one of my most consistent miscalculations in relationships has been looking for other people to replace what I feel I didn’t have on my own. Not only is that not anyone’s responsibility, it’s also just not something people can do. Period. And when we rely on them to do it, they invariably let us down, because the truth is we’re asking too much.

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These are just the facts of the case, and none of them is a cure for loneliness. But it does help to let go of the belief that some perfect family will pop up to replace what we feel we have lost. The feeling of loneliness is temporary and perhaps unavoidable sometimes. But the feeling of being a misfit is internal. And that can be addressed. You have to learn to accept and love yourself and your life situation exactly as it is. It’s paradoxical but true. You have survived and are thriving despite a rough start, and that’s a testament to your power and worth. It does not reflect poorly on you that you feel lonely sometimes, and you don’t need the second wound of feeling bad about yourself because of it. In my own experience, I found that therapy helped a lot in getting me to a place of enough self-acceptance that I was not constantly thinking of myself as lacking, and soon I was able to see that there was already great love, satisfaction, and even ease in my life as it currently stands.

I believe in you just as I believe in all survivors. You will make friends and lose friends, and some of the friendships you have will, against all odds, last for a lifetime. They will not replace family. They will be something different but equally as valuable, if you let them be. Life is hard, but you have done the hardest thing: You’ve made it this far. I hope you can be grateful for that and enjoy yourself. My heart is with you.

—Carvell

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