Care and Feeding

My Toddler Stomped on an Ant

Why are her instincts murderous?

Photo collage of a toddler's boot looming over a scared ant.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by lamyai/iStock/Getty Images Plus and alexkichi/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I was walking with my 22-month-old, and while we were waiting for a traffic light to change I knelt down to the sidewalk and showed her an ant walking by. She tried to smush it with her hand, but I grabbed her arm away. Then she stomped it with her foot.

Is my toddler a lunatic? Does she understand ants are alive? Does she understand that she is killing them? Where does the urge to smush and stomp come from? I know lots of people did terrible things to ants as children, but at older ages, no? And maybe after they’ve seen friends do things, or something on TV. I don’t know that she’s ever seen an ant before, but she immediately tried to kill it. It concerns me that her pure instinct so young is murderous. It really was startling to see, and I have no idea whether this is normal.

So am I crazy? Or is she?

—Concerned Parent

Dear Concerned Parent,

It’s you. She’s fine. She’s a baby. No one is crazy.

For a 22-month-old, squishing an ant is no different from knocking over a tower of blocks or pouring apple juice into your purse. Keep talking to her about living things and being kind to them. It will be OK, I promise.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a very lucky person with a wonderful 11-month-old son, a beautiful wife whom I was fortunate to marry five years ago, and an amazing career. I feel guilty for ever having any problems with anything. All the same, I’m human, and I’m writing to seek advice on how to deal with my mother-in-law who mom-shames me like it’s her job.

It all started when I became pregnant with our son. My personality is closely tied with my career, and those who know me know that I’m not the stay-at-home parent type. My mother-in-law told me that if we were planning on putting him in day care (of course we were), he would likely bond with the day care teacher and not with me. “Because kids only bond with one caretaker, and it’s the one who is primarily around,” she said. Throughout the year, my mother-in-law has continued her constant stream of judgments and mom-shaming comments, and I’ve been complaining to my wife. It bothers her that I complain to her, and I feel bad for doing it. I just don’t know how to stop, and I feel really violated by some of the comments. I guess deep down I feel like there’s something she can do to help since it’s her mother.

One important thing to note is that my wife works for her father in their family business. They share the collections in an agreed-upon scaling split, and her father controls the money in the business. It has been my father-in-law’s business for almost 40 years, and he is used to taking care of his expenses directly from the business bank account. Last year when I was pregnant, my mother-in-law built a barn that cost $100,000. To cover the expense of the barn, my father-in-law neglected to pay my wife in full for last year and didn’t pay her for her work this year until April. That was a total of seven months of work with no pay. My mother-in-law is constantly implying that I “choose” to work. I do love my job, and working fulfills me. However, with a newborn baby and expenses to pay, I had (and continue to have) little choice in whether I work, because of the position that my father-in-law puts my wife in.

There’s another dimension to this situation, though. My wife’s younger brother suffers from schizophrenia and has done for the last decade. My in-laws have sought treatment for him at a semiprivate facility, and the cost is exorbitant, to the tune of almost $200,000 for the past calendar year. For all intents and purposes, the treatment has failed, and my brother-in-law is dangerous, unstable, and likely to wind up in the hospital again soon. His illness has been a source of tremendous pain for the whole family for quite some time, and I feel for my in-laws deeply. Because of this, I have given a lot of latitude to my mother-in-law; I know that she is constantly in pain, and that lashing out at me and my wife makes her feel better. In a lot of ways, my son represents a new beginning for her because her own son is “lost to her” (as she puts it). Spending time with him helps her feel better, and she and my son have a great relationship.

With all that being said, am I just being a big dumb jerk about all of this? I’ve always been super great at being a doormat, but in my older age I’ve gotten emboldened to stand up for myself. With all of the crappy stuff that has happened to my mother-in-law, though, I don’t feel inspired to talk back. It doesn’t stop the smoldering resentment that I feel deep down when she antagonizes me.

—Workin’ Mom

Dear Workin’ Mom,

Sounds to me like you have been, if anything, remarkably tolerant and empathetic to your mother-in-law.

Your wife is the one who needs to talk to her mother. She also, ideally, needs to find employment outside her immediate family. That’s work advice, and I recommend she write to Ask a Manager about laying the groundwork for getting out. But it is a disaster. Also, illegal.

You seem like you are carrying a lot of the emotional weight on this because you do not want to put more on your wife’s plate. Just as you are pulling your punches because of your wife’s brother and his troubles. You seem like a good and kind person. That’s wonderful, but you deserve to be treated with respect. Please talk to your wife—not “complaining,” but sitting down and talking with her seriously about how troubling and upsetting you find this. Tell her how these comments make you feel, and be clear that you love and care for her and do not blame her for your mother-in-law’s shit-talking.

While you and your wife strategize on how best to talk to your mother-in-law about this, practice shutting these things down in the moment. “We’ve talked about this a lot, and I’ve made it clear I love my work and my family. I don’t see what’s left to discuss.” “Karen, I’m not interested in continuing this conversation.” “This topic is now off the table.” Any and all of the above.

Congratulations on being a great mom.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I adopted a beautiful girl at birth, and we have an open adoption with her birth mother and grandmother. This relationship has been an overwhelmingly positive one for all of us, and we have always been excited to celebrate educational and personal milestones with our daughter’s birth family. Our daughter is 7 now.

Recently I was unable to reach her mom by phone, so I reached out to her grandma to see if her number had changed. Grandma told us that Mom has been using drugs—she thinks heroin. Mom has dropped out of her school program and is not responding to any of her mom’s attempts to get her to rehab. She seems to be spiraling out of control. Birth Grandma is understandably distraught, and I am in shock.

Upset and sad, I offered what help I could. Neither of us thought that telling our daughter about her birth mom’s struggles would be appropriate at this time. However, after some discussion we landed on our daughter recording a video for her mother where she reiterates her love and affection for her birth mom and says how much she misses her (all of which are true and which our daughter would say without hesitation to anyone).

Grandma believes this video could be helpful in getting my daughter’s birth mom to take that final step to enter rehab. I have no familiarity with the intervention process, and while I’m hopeful, I’m not sure if this will be seen as emotionally manipulative. If it got her mom to rehab, I would be open to involving our daughter more, but I’m not sure how wise that would be for any of the parties involved. Our daughter is young, and I don’t want her to be traumatized by this process. At the same time, I love our daughter’s mom and would do just about anything to help her recover.

—Where Do We Draw Our Line?

Dear WDWDOL,

I am incredibly moved by your compassion and love for your child’s birth mother, and impressed by how carefully you are trying to balance your daughter’s emotional health with her mother’s needs.

I think that the video, if shared privately and then deleted, is your best bet. Under no circumstances should your daughter be placed in an intervention-type environment. That’s your line. Keep protecting your child, keep supporting her birth mother, and keep listening to that voice that tells you not to cross the streams.

I’m so sorry for everyone involved.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I wrote in four months ago about my husband’s strict rules for smokers and vapers touching our baby. You were absolutely right that I just needed to start the conversation. The intensity and fear we were experiencing from his surprise entry into the world made every conversation feel heightened, but I think we were both ready to start to relax. In response to some of the comments: Our baby was sent home with us only four days after he was born because despite being tiny (4.5 pounds!), all his parts were intact and functioning well. This was both wonderful and terrifying for both of us!

We relaxed the rules to hand-washing and a clean shirt, and (as some had predicted) it actually didn’t help me much. My sister just started spending more time away once I started asking for more help. But life got easier as he got bigger, and I stopped feeling like I needed help, so it is all good!

His goal was to protect our baby and make my life easier by making and enforcing rules because I was extremely busy and in a pretty vulnerable state. I don’t (and didn’t) fault him for his call, and I’m so happy that he is such an involved and loving father! Our child is 5 months old and has made it onto the charts and is hitting his milestones and we have moved into a new home, just the three of us. Everything’s coming up Milhouse!

—Surrounded by Smokers

Dear Surrounded by Smokers,

Thank you so much for telling us! Updates are always very welcome, and I am particularly delighted, of course, when the news is good.

Keep on crushin’ it, Milhouse. Your husband, too.

—Nicole

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