Care and Feeding

I Worked Too Much, and Now My Kids Are Strangers to Me. How Do I Make Amends?

I feel like I screwed everything up.

An anguished looking man in a suit.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

My oldest just left for college, and my younger child is 16. I am a dad who spent too much time at work. I traveled too much, I chased every promotion, and I always did it thinking this is how a man is supposed to provide for his family (it’s what I learned from my dad, but that’s not an excuse).

I don’t think that anymore. My kids are so much closer to my wife, and they treat me like a pleasant stranger. We don’t have deep talks, they don’t share what’s going on in their lives, and I feel like I screwed everything up. We wouldn’t have been in dire financial straits if I had just stuck to my initial job and put in my 40 hours a week and spent the extra 20 hours a week, you know, playing with them. I missed weekends, and I missed school plays, and I missed just those whopping amounts of quality time that kids need.

I’ve shared these thoughts with my wife, who doesn’t blame me, but where do I go from here?

—Daddy’s Busy

Dear Daddy’s Busy,

Well, I am astounded and impressed by the reflection and self-knowledge you have displayed in this letter. It’s hard to change course and realize you were chasing the wrong rabbit all along.

It’s not too late. It absolutely isn’t. You can fix this. You can’t get back the time you missed (we all have regrets on that front, parents or no), but you can absolutely walk forward into the future with a better understanding of what being a present father looks like.

The first step is to tell your children exactly what you have told me, minus the details about their reaction to your failings. (The last thing you want is to make them feel bad for not being closer to you.) Write a physical letter to each of them, talking about how your priorities have changed, what your regrets are, and your deep desire to know them and their lives more intimately than you currently do. Apologize. Say they’ve become wonderful people and that you wish you’d had more of a hand in their journey to becoming wonderful people.

You are so fortunate to have had this realization now, and not on, you know, your deathbed. You have decades to be a good dad (not that you were a bad dad—“pleasant stranger” is better than “bad dad”!), one who is present and engaged and doesn’t work around the clock.

Let them come to you on their own schedule. Benign neglect is a lot easier to come back from than many other variants of parenting failure, and I firmly believe you can do it. Your eldest is in college, so you’ll have to do the heavy lifting on keeping in touch, but your 16-year-old can hugely benefit from having a dorky, overly emotional, trying-to-make-amends father. Take some of that money you spent too many years chasing and go on a trip. Go to the movies together once a week (they may eye-roll at this), listen to their music (they will definitely eye-roll at this), and more.

I’m proud of you.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 3-year-old son is having a really tough time watching me nurse his infant sister. A really tough time. I know that regression is normal and expected, but he literally tries to pry her off my breast (ow!), constantly asks why he can’t have “momma milk,” asks if it’s because we love her more, etc. My husband and I are doing our best to reassure him, but he’s just dragging an old toy of his around the house, emitting sad noises, whenever I’m actively nursing.

It’s breaking my heart, and I’m also struggling with low supply, so this is a perfect storm of hormonal disaster. How can I make this easier on all concerned?

—You Have to Break the Suction!

Dear YHtBtS,

Ow, indeed. “Breaking the suction” is something every new parent should have drilled into them before leaving the hospital (it’s amazing/horrible how far a nipple can stretch!) and apparently kids need to hear it too.

One of my kids had a similar reaction to watching me breastfeed, including the words “Mommy, close your breast and do up your shirt and pay ATTENTION TO ME.” You’re correct that this is garden-variety regression and that this is normal. I promise you it will pass.

Until it does, my advice is to ask your husband to really step up and do special things with your son, things the baby cannot do, and for you to somehow carve out time for cuddles with him (perhaps while your husband pops baby in a carrier and goes for a stroll around the block). He just wants to know he’s still your baby and always will be. I recommend the classic The New Baby by Mercer Mayer, which will give him permission to talk about how boring she is and how much time she sucks up.

Remember, always, that your baby is incapable of being offended. There’s no harm in saying “Gosh, I can’t wait until the baby is a big kid like you, because right now I’m not getting enough sleep, and she doesn’t do anything, and we can’t play cool games like I can with you.” (Then play a cool game.)

The breast grabbing—that’s gotta stop. That’s a firm limit. Explain that it hurts you and that mommy milk is for babies. Give him some chocolate milk (not before bed). Let him, as it were, milk this a bit.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-year-old, Heidi, has become a vegan. She hasn’t been pushy or trying to show us or her siblings pictures of factory-farming horror stories, but, you know, we do have to eat together as a family. I don’t want to make two separate meals every night, and the rest of us truly, truly love meat.

Any advice?

—Also, I Loathe Beans

Dear Bean Loather,

Blessedly, your daughter is 14! Fourteen-year-olds can cook. Go to a bookstore with her and pick out some vegan cookbooks (it’s not just the Veganomicon anymore, not to diss the bible of veganism!) and tell her she gets to cook a vegan meal for everyone in the family once a week, and on half the other nights, she can make her own separate meal. The other half of the week, I recommend you making a dish that you can add meat to after the fact. Stews (no beans, I understand), stuffed peppers, loads of delicious curries, etc.

Think of it as gaining help in the kitchen, not creating a new burden. She will learn some valuable lessons and will be better off for it. You may also learn some great new meals and cut back slightly on your meat intake. I love meat, personally, but I could stand to eat it fewer days a week than I currently do.

I’m also impressed that she’s being a very chill vegan. Good for her! And good for you, not freaking out.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I was molested by my stepfather as a child. It went on for years, my mother alternated between not believing me and saying she’d “take care of it,” and it never stopped until I packed up my stuff and moved in with my aunt. As an adult, I have long had a limited, cordial relationship with my mother, and my stepfather silently hands her the phone when I call. It’s been OK. I also have a great therapist.

Well, now I have a child. And I’m mad as hell. I don’t ever want to talk to her again. I cannot believe the degree to which she failed me. I cannot imagine allowing my child to suffer as I did, and I just don’t want to politely discuss the weather and Grandma Jen’s gallbladder with this woman anymore.

My partner supports me in cutting her off completely (and, of course, our child will never enter her home). Do I need to tell my mother why? Or can I just block her on everything and wait for the extended family to start asking questions?

—Oh, Hell No

Dear OHN,

This is it. This is the thing about having your first child: You either suddenly appreciate your parents more for doing their best with the knowledge and resources they had, or you realize they were horrible and shouldn’t even have had a pet goldfish.

You can be honest with your mother. “Mom, you allowed Frank to molest me for seven years, and now that I’m a mother, I realize how unforgivable that was, and so I can no longer have a relationship with you. Please respect that.” You should also write a much angrier letter and read it to your therapist and then burn it.

It’s not your job to keep this secret. When the flying monkeys come, with their “You only have one mother!” and “We all make mistakes!” you can say, “She let Frank molest me, and she didn’t believe me, and I am done with her. Please do not bring this up again.” Hang up the phone immediately whenever it is, in fact, brought up again (as it surely will be).

You are a good mother. Don’t let anyone make you second-guess your gut. I’m sorry you were so abysmally failed as a child. Congratulations on building a good life for yourself, and remember that you have your own lovely small family. Attempts to drag you back into the one you are actively rejecting need not be taken seriously.

—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

I hope you have some advice on a toddler who takes forever to eat dinner. She will sit with us for five to 10 minutes and eat, then get up to play, go “potty,” interact with her baby sister, feed the dog, dance around the kitchen, basically anything but eat. Getting her to eat dinner takes up to an hour! Should we be stricter and put our foot down?