Care and Feeding

Good Intentions

I love to watch out for kids in my community, but my partner says their parents might find me creepy.

Photo illustration of a black child trying to cannonball into a pool.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Robert Daly and LSOphoto/iStock/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,

I bought a house a few years ago in a nice neighborhood. We have a community pool, and I love it. The local parents have never said anything but “thank you” as I give their kids swimming lessons or play games with them, allowing them the opportunity to chill.

The other day, a group of young teenagers were harassing a disabled child by splashing in his face in the deep end of the pool. I approached the kid, whose dad was busy with a toddler, to offer some support but he turned me down. I kept an eye on the young man, who was wearing a full-body life vest, as my partner napped.

I told the teens to knock it off, but they didn’t. I approached the target of their harassment again and asked if he’d like to see his dad. He said yes, so I swam him over. My partner opened his eyes and asked me to get out of the water. He accused me of being and/or looking like a predator. I’ve never been more upset in my life, and that’s something, considering that I’ve been assaulted.

Though I want kids, it’s clear I will probably never have them, nor any nieces or nephews. I worked with children for years, and the last thing I would ever do is harm one. The neighborhood and parents and kids generally like me, even though I’m a bit shy. But I’m mortified that anyone could think I was harming a child. I am so unbelievably upset that my boyfriend said this, even though he retracted his comment upon seeing my reaction.

What should I do? Not look out for kids? Let the parents deal with everything even when they have their hands full? Let asshole teens be asshole teens? Also, I don’t think I can ever get over my partner’s comment. I’m mortified at the thought of a kid thinking he was being preyed upon. I would rather die than put someone through that.

—Just Trying to Help

Dear JTtH,

Throw the whole man away, boo. He sounds like an asshole. UGH! I’m angry for you. Well, wait, before you take him to the dumpster…it’s possible there is some childhood trauma of his own he’s holding that makes him particularly skeptical of adults taking an interest in kids? But it seems more likely that he’s the typical disaffected and detached American who feels that someone else’s kids are someone else’s problem. Speak to him, and figure out which of these is the case. If it’s the former, remind him that you are the person he loves and trusts, and that the people in your community can trust you, too. If the latter, have a stern conversation with him about your commitment to being a good member of these kids’ village and why you see their challenges, their safety, and their happiness as a priority.

Adults should feel a sense of connection to the children in their community and a duty to protect any child in their immediate vicinity. It’s great that you have found a way to channel your love for kids into spending quality time with your young neighbors, and you’ve taken steps to obtain their parents’ consent in order to do so. As far as the bullying, who knows how much more trouble those little jerks could have caused if you weren’t there? The only thing that may have been left to do was finding out who their parents were and snitching on them, which they absolutely deserve.

Good for you for being the sort of adult parents hope to have around when their children are in need! And if your partner cannot accept that, you may wish to examine what other values you have that aren’t aligned with each other. Maybe (hopefully) he was a good guy having a bad day. Either way, don’t you dare let him compromise who you are on this or any other issue.

Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a light-complexioned Black woman—I know, cue the eye-rolls. I understand how difficult life can be for darker-skinned women and how hard some of them have to fight every day to get the love, respect, and acknowledgment they deserve. I also understand that my own color gives me a certain degree of privilege, more ease of movement through this society. 

The issue I have is that I have always felt like an outsider, even within my own family. My father, brother, and sisters all have different complexions than me, and there have been jokes that I’m adopted. My mom is also light-skinned, but I’ve still felt isolated.

For most of my education I went to predominantly white schools where no one questioned my heritage: “Black” was always a good enough answer. They saw me for what I was, though that wasn’t always an easy thing to deal with, from having someone tell me that me and my sisters were “monkeys,” to a boy slamming his hands on my desk while shouting he was going on a “coon hunt.” The harassment was difficult, but at least I had a clear identity. When I went to a more mixed school, I was so happy not to have to explain to my friends why I didn’t want to get my hair wet, or why I wore a scarf to bed, but I was shocked by how difficult it was to be accepted for what I was. My best friend at the time constantly asked about my background, refusing to accept that I was “just” Black. I finally relented and said my mom was mixed.

I kept lying and letting people believe what they wanted to for a long time—not because I was ashamed of who I am, but because I wanted to stop the awkward conversations and interrogations. I’ve only recently started to correct people. I am unapologetically Black, yet I’m still seen as an outsider because of how I look.

Family reunions are always challenging, especially when someone new joins the ranks. I brought my fiancé, who is also Black, to my uncle’s house for a gathering. My cousin’s wife, whom I had never met, stood to greet him with a hug, a warm smile, and a “Hey, fam!” When I went over and introduced myself, she sat down and refused to acknowledge me. I laughed it off, and after she figured out that I was her husband’s actual relative, she spent the rest of the night looking dumbfounded. Every time I’ve seen her since, she’s been sickly sweet. This happens often. In public, I get dirty looks that say, “Why is this white woman or mixed woman with that man?” I just want to shake them sometimes scream in their faces “I am one of you!” But they can’t see it.

After yet another painful recent incident at a graduation party, I left feeling so uncomfortable that I’ve been thinking about isolating myself from my family altogether. That may seem extreme, but this outsider feeling leaves me overwhelmingly depressed. Is this an acceptable way of dealing with this since it’s causing me this much anxiety? And as I am now the mother of two light-complexioned boys, how do I fix this insecurity problem of mine before it taints them?

Not Mixed but Still a Mutt

Dear NMbSAM,

Though we should be cautious not to conflate being hassled with questions over one’s bloodline with, say, someone bullied about how they look, that doesn’t excuse how anyone may have mistreated you or the insecurity it has caused. Furthermore, that the racist taunting from white peers offered what you describe as a level of security in your identity in comparison to being pained by inquiries from Black kids about why you’re so “different” speaks volumes, and I’d wager that your family’s failure to appropriately address the elephant in the room during your upbringing has a lot to do with that.

Your parents’ job was to affirm your identity as a Black woman, and make it clear that your complexion did not make you different from anyone else in your family or community in any way, good or bad. I am truly sorry that they didn’t do that, and even though you know it to be true intellectually, there’s still an emotional pain that lingers. As it is likely that questions or curiosity about your ethnic background will persist and trigger you, I’d suggest speaking to a therapist about the pain you’ve experienced at feeling bothered by your complexion. Once you’ve begun that process, it may be easier to address your issues with your loved ones and explain how they made you feel over the years.

As far as your own children go, you have the opportunity to provide them with a comprehensive celebration of the diversity of Black aesthetics that was desperately missing from your own childhood. Look to books like Shades of Black that highlight the many different skin colors, hair textures and facial features found among us. Make it clear to them that they are no less Black, and no more attractive than anyone else for being light-skinned, while being sure not to hide the truth of color privilege from them either. Also, you should talk to your parents, siblings and other relatives about why it’s so important that they do not repeat the same pattern of joking about color that they followed during your childhood with your sons.

Forgiving your family and other Black folks who have made you feel like an outsider may be challenging, but it’s important that you try. Despite the relative privilege that is conferred upon those of us who are lighter shades of Black, we are not, of course, shielded entirely from the violence of racism and the various forms of bias and trauma that come with. However, as you acknowledge, we (light-skinned Black women in particular) are not the ones to shoulder the greatest burden when it comes to colorism.

In some folks’ eyes, regardless of how plain or how gorgeous you may be to the average person, you are a physical reminder of a painful hierarchy that isn’t of our own making (something that isn’t relegated to color privilege, of course). As such, there are those among us who do not always immediately embrace “high yellow” brothers and sisters unless we have somehow demonstrated above average commitment to racial struggle (see: Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis and countless other light skinned and/or mixed freedom fighters) or other proof of “valid” Negritude, but they are far from the majority.

You have to accept yourself for who you are in order to confidently demand that you are recognized as such. Stop letting people ask so many questions. “I’m Black” is a complete sentence, and you don’t owe anyone any more information about your heritage. Train your sons to have the same approach. Never forget what Q-Tip once stated: “Black is Black.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Six months ago I stumbled into a bar, having spent an evening celebrating a good friend’s professional success and upcoming nuptials, while trying to hide my own jealousy about my perceived lack of professional or romantic success. I saw an attractive man at the bar and started a conversation. We exchanged numbers and the next day went for coffee, which turned into lunch, which turned into strolling around and chatting all afternoon before parting with a kiss. Due to our hectic travel schedules (I officiated my friend’s destination wedding), we then went almost three weeks before we could have a second date. However, we started getting to know each other via daily text messages.

Two days after our first date, he revealed he was currently separated from his wife with the intent of getting a divorce—state law requires a 12-month separation prior to divorce where we live—and that they had an almost 2-year-old daughter. I expressed that while the separation made me uncomfortable, nothing he had revealed was a deal-breaker for me (with the caveat that I want children and wasn’t interested in pursuing things if he didn’t).

Fast-forward six months, and things are wonderful. This man exceeds my dreams and goes above and beyond for me constantly. We talk about his daughter, our dreams together, my dreams, his dreams … everything. I’m comfortable with his explanations about why his marriage failed and trust him. I know it’s still a relatively new relationship, but I’ve never felt this way in my life and think it’s more than likely that we’ll be our own family one day. Their separation is proceeding about as normally as can be expected and they’re still working out the kinks of custody, co-parenting, etc. His ex knows that he’s seeing someone. From what I can tell, she’s understandably a bit hurt, but accepting of the situation. I haven’t met their daughter, partially because we just wanted things to be solid before we took that step and mostly because their custody agreement says a romantic partner must have been in the parent’s life for six months before meeting the child (and must meet the other parent first). Well, that six-month mark is coming up quickly, and I know he and I both want so badly to be at a stage where it can be the three of us together, but we also want to do it in the best possible way.

What’s your advice for navigating all of this? I already love this little girl so much because I love her father and know how he loves her (plus, I’ve always been a kid person). She’s only 2, so on one hand I think a lot of this will be fine for her, but challenging for the adults. On the other hand, she’s the top priority in this and I want to do everything as “right” as possible. I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for the challenges of a toddler and the ways that time with my boyfriend will change when we’re with her. I want to be able to help her dad with the day-to-day challenges of parenting and bond with her in an appropriate way. I know her mother probably won’t like me (at least not in the near future), but I want to make her as comfortable as possible with me as a person who is going to be in her child’s life (I’ve joked about printing up references and my CPR/lifeguard/first aid certifications); I also want her to know that I’m not trying to take her place as the girl’s mother. I’d love some insight from the C+F crew.

—Dating a Doting Dad

Dear DaDD,

“Congrats!” with a side of “Be careful,” beloved. Y’all are moving pretty fast, and the ink isn’t dry on the divorce because it hasn’t been signed up on yet. You were feeling some sadness over how your work and love life stack up in comparison to some of your peeps—performing a wedding for friends had to have been quite the emotional rollercoaster—only to meet the man of your dreams at the moment where you were most vulnerable. This is either a fairy tale for the ages or the makings of something a lot more complicated.

I want you to be sure that you and your boyfriend are on the same page. Is he equally invested in this relationship? Do you both wish to be married? Has he expressed the same feelings that you have about being together long-term and having more children? You have to get straight answers to those questions. Yes, you stated that becoming a mother is important to you, but did he give you a clear, unequivocal confirmation that he is willing and able to make that happen?

Also, when it comes to breakups, there are three sides to the story: his, hers, and the truth. The circumstances behind the demise of this marriage are important and you need to figure out what they tell you about the man you love. Is this his first marriage? How long were they together? What led to the split? How does he speak of his ex? How he treats her at this point will give you some important insight into who he’d become if you were in her shoes, and men who mistreat or disrespect the mother of their children are not to be trusted.

You feel the hopefully-soon-to-be ex-wife won’t like you, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Again, his behavior is critical here; if he’s been an asshole to her, she’s likely to hold that against you too. What you must do is be kind, respectful and dare I say deferential to this woman. She is not only The Mother—she’s still The Wife. Your dude didn’t wait until their marriage was legally over to replace her, an option that typically comes easier for men than women in these moments. Let her know that you are sensitive to the delicate nature of this situation, that you respect her role as the mother of this child, and that you want to work with both her and your boyfriend to create a situation that is healthy and happy for all parties.

There may be some boundaries that The Mother wants to put in place that your boyfriend won’t agree with, and you’ll have to be able to see everyone’s perspective—even when it means not getting what you want. She may object to the idea of you, say, moving in with her ex and their daughter right away, or being present for the majority of the time when he has her—and those are fair concerns. You have only been in this man’s world for six months and to write you into the life of his child is a bold move. The more sensitive you are to the discomfort this may cause the ex, the better you can present yourself as someone who can be an ally to her over time.

My daughter got a stepmother at a much younger age than this little girl and while we have an amazing relationship now, we are both clear that had the breakup-to-new relationship-to-marriage timeline not been so aggressive, I could have been saved a lot of pain and we could have become friends much sooner. The ex-wife certainly does not own your man, but he took a vow to honor her once upon a time and you both owe it to her, their child and the future of this relationship to consider her feelings and extend kindness that she may not always be able to return, at least not in this final chapter of their marriage/early stages of your (fingers crossed) new (potential, one day, maybe) family. Best of luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I don’t have children of my own, but I’m the very proud godmother of my friend’s two young children (a baby girl and a 3-year-old boy). Their mom is one of my best friends. I like her husband. I love the kids.

The trouble here is my immune system. I don’t have a diagnosis, but my immune system is wonky. And the boy goes to nursery school. Even though he just hugs me and my husband, I’ve been getting sick almost every time I see the family. Since we see them at least every two weeks, the last few visits have felt like a risky gamble. Of course, Mom and Dad have been getting sick, too.

My dilemma is twofold. One, how do I see these family friends without getting sick? I can’t tell the difference between allergy sniffles and sick children. And two, my husband and I have talked about having our own children soon-ish (I’m 35) but wouldn’t it be horribly irresponsible of me to have a child if I just get sick all the time?

—Baby Fever

Dear Baby Fever,

First and foremost, you must aggressively seek out answers about your possibly compromised immune system. Women aren’t always taken as seriously as we should be when we go to the doctor, which sometimes means finding a new doctor. Seek out a female primary care physician, thoroughly outline your concerns and ask to have a full battery of tests and, if possible, visits with specialists who might be able to provide clarity and, hopefully, a course of action to improve how you feel.

Hold off on in-person visits with the little germ factories for now and consider supplanting them with FaceTime or Skype dates in the meantime. Ultimately, kids are filthy and will bring illness with them wherever they go, but don’t resign yourself to a life of perpetual sniffles without taking steps to find out just why these germs attach to you so easily. Also, take your vitamins!


(See how Nicole Cliffe answered this question!)

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