Care and Feeding

How Low May I Sink When My Co-Parent’s Away?

Like, do I have to change their clothes?

Photo illustration of a mom and two children relaxing with pizza on the couch
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,

Generally speaking, when one parent or the other is periodically gone for a brief business trip, what level of parenting is acceptable? I’m talking about things like meals, screens, etc. In our family it’s usually two days tops, maybe once every two months.

—Cat’s Away!

Dear Mice,

[flexes fingers outwards happily]

You have asked me a question on which I have very firm opinions. Some of my happiest memories as a child occurred during my father’s thrice-yearly weekends visiting his father in Toronto (always bearing a few cartons of Player’s cigarettes, which I’m sure the nursing home was delighted about). My mother, the working parent, made zero effort during those weekends. We ate takeout cheeseburgers and poutine every night. We slept in her bed. We watched all the television.

Now, if one of you is routinely gone for weeks on end, or deployed overseas, that is an entirely different kettle of fish. You really need the emotional stability provided by routine in those situations. In your family, that not being the case, I am happy to give you permission to lower your standards into the basement. Breakfast for dinner, lunch in front of the TV, rewear yesterday’s clothes if they have no visible stains, etc.

A day or two every couple of months? You do what you gotta do. If you notice your kids acting out more or trying to game the system once the normal routine picks back up, adjust accordingly. Ideally, your children will recognize this is a special situation and not the beginning of a new utopia.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I (30, male) am the legal guardian of my 15-year-old sister, “Zoe.” Earlier this year, I established a “No Questions Asked” shelf in our bathroom.

This shelf is always stocked with condoms, Plan B, and pregnancy tests. We’ve agreed to never question each other about diminished supplies, and I’m committed to keeping the shelf restocked as needed. This is more of a preemptive move on my part than a response to anything, though I know she’s got various flirtations and crushes happening pretty much all the time. My own adolescence is not so far in the past that I can’t remember how intimidating it was to even think about birth control, or how dumb and selfish teenage boys in particular can be about shrugging off that responsibility. I’m much more concerned that she doesn’t make the same risky choices that my friends and I made than about trying to police her sex life.

I designated a close female friend (Zoe’s honorary aunt) years ago to handle the sex-and-lady-body stuff that she may be reluctant to discuss with her big brother—said auntie was tapped because she’s not inclined to wait for questions before dropping knowledge. And truthfully, so far I think I’m the only one visiting the NQA shelf anyway. All that is to say I’m pretty confident that this decision, though it may not be right for other families, is a good policy for us.

It’s some of those other families I’m worried about. Zoe goes to a Catholic school, and many of her friends and classmates come from families much more religiously conservative than us. I’m sure that some parents of kids who are frequent guests in our apartment might not be happy to hear about the No Questions Asked shelf. This includes her best friend’s parents, who are immigrants from Latin America. I’m on friendly terms with most of these parents, but between the age gap and the language gap (my Spanish is rusty at best), our connection is pretty much limited to the kids’ friendships. But I’ve made a point of asking awkward questions (much to my sister’s chagrin) before she goes to anyone else’s home to make sure it’s safe and appropriate according to our own values—i.e., are there guns in the house, what’s the supervision, do you let your kids drink at home etc. And I’ve always gotten honest answers and an understanding for my concerns, even when they’re not shared, which I deeply appreciate.

So now I worry that I’m being dishonest or sneaky with these same people, since they don’t know that I’m effectively making birth control available to their kids, and I do know that runs counter to their own moral and family values. Zoe is an extrovert with a growing group of friends—all genders and orientations represented, as far as I can tell—and of course I’m proud of her for that. But it’s futile to try and keep the NQA shelf a secret.

So: Am I morally obligated to tell her friends’ parents or guardians about this shelf? If I wait to be asked, how should I answer—knowing that the truth might result in her closest friends being forbidden from visiting our home? What if they complain to the school? Should I talk to one of the administrators there now, since I know a few who would share my perspective on this? What happens when the high school gossip chain (“free condoms at Zoe’s place!”) reaches an angry teacher or parent?

—Zoe’s Place

Dear Zoe’s Place,

Where’s your parenting column? You’re doing great. You don’t need to volunteer anything about the contents of this shelf. If asked, you should answer honestly, thus giving your sister’s friends’ parents the same courtesy you expect when you inquire about gun storage.

Way to go, bro.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

About a year ago, my dad’s prized (and maybe very valuable among aficionados) 95-pound dog attacked my child. My parents and I were both present.

It was totally unprovoked and no typical complicating factors were in play—no food, no wild behavior from my kid. My elementary-age kid just asked permission to get something while the dog was walking around, and the dog took him out by the throat. By the time my mom and I pulled the dog off of him, my son needed dozens of stitches through his ear, scalp, and temple, and had livid bite marks on his throat and shoulder. The dog was biting his other arm and ribs, while my kid was in the fetal position under a table, as I dragged her off. It is indisputable that she would not have stopped until he was dead.

We spent two days in the ER and then a children’s hospital getting my son stitched up. I have spent the year since helping my son with the pain, anxiety, and fear he dealt with after the attack. It doesn’t help that my child had serious medical events early in his life that almost killed him then, so it’s all compounded with present and past trauma.

I am glad to say that the work my son and I have done has been very successful. He is cautious but not afraid of strange dogs and no longer panics if he’s alone. Emotionally he’s doing really well and we are fortunate, given the location and severity of the bites, that he didn’t suffer nerve damage in his face or severe scarring.

The problem is my dad. After the attack, dad offered to put the dog down. I asked only that he delay putting the dog down for a week until my kid was away, so my son wouldn’t feel responsible because he knew how much his grandpa loved the dog. Animal control was called by the hospital, but somehow they did not force the issue. First my father said he’d take a few weeks to say goodbye and participate in one last competition with the dog. Then he said he’d create a secure space where she couldn’t possibly come in contact with anyone else.

Fast forward to today and nothing has changed. No new space, no plans to put her down. His habits around the dog haven’t even changed. My siblings and I will not allow our children to visit their grandparents’ house. My mom is miserable and my dad refuses to come to us, saying he’ll wait for us to change our minds. He has missed family gatherings because “it’s a sensitive time for the dog.” I recently learned that her attack on my child was not her first bite, and both my parents knew there was a risk but didn’t tell me because they didn’t want me to restrict their access to my kids.

I’m so sad and so disappointed. My kids love their grandparents and want to know why we can’t see them more. I love my parents and I’m worried about both of them, mentally and physically. I was raised in a household of hunters that prized good dog ownership and responsibility to others, and I don’t understand any of what my parents are doing. It’s not the first time my dad has prioritized a dog over me (or my mom), but this is well outside any norm even for him. Other friends in the hunting world have offered to quietly go by and shoot the dog for me.

What do I do? I tried to talk to my dad again last week and was very frank about how his decisions are affecting me and the rest of us, but he just replied that he’d take her to one more competition in the fall and then “think about it.”

—The Dog Tried to Kill My Child

Dear TDTtKMC,

What the hell? This is a terrible thing to happen to anyone, especially a child your son’s age, and I’m so glad he escaped more serious injury and also that you’ve been able to preserve his general relationship with dogs. (This is no small feat, as many adults who experienced similar things in their youth can tell you.) Your parenting is spot-on here, which includes the boundaries you’ve set with your parents in the wake of the accident.

He’s not going to put the dog down.

He’s just not. It’s very apparent. I would love to be proved wrong (and please do update me if he comes to his senses). You have no control over this. If you want to keep an eye on your parents’ health and general stability, you can go visit without your children. This is unbelievably frustrating, and there’s really nothing else you can do. If you are not currently doing FaceTime or Skype with your parents, please give it a whirl. (Make it clear that Lady Cujo is not to make a sudden guest appearance on camera.) You can help your son have a relationship with his grandparents, and you can not-so-subtly show them what they’re missing. I would never treat their home as a safe place for your children while this dog is alive—nor would I, honestly, if the dog dies and is replaced with a new one. Your father is an irresponsible dog owner, and that’s very unlikely to change.

Sometimes things are just terrible and you can’t do anything about it. I encourage you to keep the lines of communication open with your family. You’ve done a good job speaking frankly and honestly with your father about what this is doing to a once close and loving relationship in the very short window of time he has to fix it, and that’s really all that you can do.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am an airline that has recently said some nonsense on Twitter about breastfeeding parents needing to “cover up” if someone is “offended.” Why is what I said nonsense?

—KLM

Dear KLM,

Thank you so much for reaching out. First of all, anyone offended by seeing a baby eating should look away or request an eye mask; the burden for their personal feelings should not be placed on the person feeding the baby. In addition, many babies will refuse to eat under a cover, kicking and causing an unholy mess that will result in a lot more visible nip than if you just let the poor person trying to feed their baby do so in the manner most convenient for them.

As you are the Royal Dutch airline, please enjoy this lovely 19th-century etching of mother and child by Paulus Anthonius Liernur, in the collection of your very own Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam! It may change your heart.

—Nicole

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When I was young I was married briefly. I did not want children, and thought I’d made that clear to my husband. I accidentally got pregnant, and he was thrilled. Against my better judgment I had the baby, with the understanding that he would take care of it. I did not like motherhood and when the girl was 2 years old, I divorced her father and moved out of state. I recently got a letter from her saying she would like to meet. When the young woman visits I intend to introduce her as a niece. What do you think?