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 15-year-old daughter does exceptionally well in school, where she has many friends and is involved in extracurricular activities. However, outside of school and organized events in our community, she rarely spends time with friends. She prefers her own company, playing musical instruments, being at home with her dog and her family. When I ask if she wants to invite friends over or make plans to go shopping or to the movies with them, she says no. She identifies herself as an introvert; she is very articulate and will indicate that her social gas tank is empty and she needs to recharge. While she says she enjoys the silence and her own company, I worry that she is missing opportunities. My question is not about her, but for me. Do you have tips about how I might stop perseverating about this and instead count my damn blessings that my kid is smart, well-liked, knows herself, and is happy?
—Extrovert Mom With Introvert Kid
The single best piece of advice I was ever given about parenting, which I’ve mentioned before in another context, was to ask myself: Whose need is this?
You already know the answer, of course. Your daughter isn’t worried that she’s missing out—your daughter is fine. (She sounds awesome, by the way, and remarkably well-prepared for life beyond high school.) I don’t think you need any “tips” beyond the reminder that she isn’t you, doesn’t need what you need, and doesn’t need what you seem to need for her.
Every time you catch yourself feeling anxious about what she’s missing out on, please take a breath and a good look at her, contentedly playing her guitar, dog curled up at her feet. And maybe lay off the suggestion that she go shopping (talk about counting your blessings!). I don’t think you should be proposing any activities involving her friends. She’s 15, not 8: if she wanted to make plans with her friends, she would, without the assistance of her mother.
If it’s any consolation, I have rarely met a parent who is fully able to see their children as separate beings who are entirely themselves, not extensions of the people who brought them into the world and/or raised them. It can be hard work for children to individuate—but it’s often even harder for their parents to accept that they have.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is in 10th grade and desperately wants to be an author. She is a voracious reader with an above 4.0 GPA in honors/AP classes despite her busy schedule, which includes music and volunteering. She’s a talented writer, and her English teachers have gushed over her abilities. She is starting to think about college and has no idea what she should major in that would use her talents but also best situate her for a decent career after graduation. I am worried, too. I have too many friends with humanities major kids still living with them into adulthood. Also, I am in HR and see firsthand the struggles kids who don’t have STEM or business majors have in getting decent jobs after college. And I have personal experience in this area, too: Her dad was a liberal arts major (he and I have been divorced since she was a toddler), and he works a low-wage job, spends money like there is no tomorrow, and struggles financially as a result. I was a business major and am now in an executive-level position and live very comfortably. Financial independence has always been important to me and something I have drilled into our child, for better or worse. How can I set aside my own baggage and find balance between encouraging her passion and helping to direct her toward a path that will allow her to have gainful employment post-college?
—Raising an Independent Woman
I cannot tell you how gratified I am by the last sentence of your letter. In my long career as a college professor, adviser, and mentor to undergraduate and graduate students, I hear so often about—and from—parents who cannot set aside their own baggage for the sake of their children’s happiness (not to mention parents who burden their children with their own baggage—and parents who refuse to acknowledge that there is any baggage).
Unsurprisingly, I have a number of thoughts on the questions you pose. And I think you do pose several of them, even though you directly ask just one.
First: It’s true that hardly anyone can make a living only by writing books. Sure, J.K. Rowling and Stephen King do, but almost all of the rest of us have a day job (or two). I have often wondered how I knew this growing up (certainly no one told me, and I didn’t know anyone who wrote books), but there was never a time I did not know that I would have to find a way to support myself—even as I also knew, from the time that I was 7 years old, that I would be a writer. Or, as I would have said back then, that I already was.
I made a number of missteps along the way—or, rather, I walked down a number of paths that weren’t fruitful in helping me figure out how to earn a living and still pursue a writing career. In college, I double-majored in English and chemistry, not because I believed in the almighty power of STEM (STEM was not a thing then) but because I thought perhaps I could be a doctor like my hero, the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov. In the end, I found I had little talent for or interest in science, and I didn’t apply to medical school after all.
After college, I worked in book publishing and as a reporter and as a freelancer. It took me over a decade, and a return to school for a (fully funded) graduate degree in creative writing, to find the right fit—but it was well worth the wait because the job I eventually settled into was one I loved, and which I still love after more than three decades. And it is not a job I could have gotten any earlier—or that I would have been any good at any earlier.
The moral of this story is not that every English major or creative writer should set her sights on an academic career (and in any case there are fewer and fewer such jobs—which is a dismal subject for another time); the moral of the story is that it is possible to figure out a way to support oneself that is fulfilling without giving up one’s dreams—but it may take some time. I had no idea until I stepped into a classroom to teach for the very first time at age 29 that this would be the perfect sort of work for me. It doesn’t trouble me at all now that it took so much time post-college to find that out; I learned something important from every job I had, and I learned a lot, too, from the years I struggled financially. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
Which brings me to my second point, and this one is related to the matter of parental baggage: Your daughter is not you, nor is she your hapless ex. A liberal arts education does not ipso facto lead to a life of low-wage jobs and financial irresponsibility. If you can keep in mind that your daughter is her own person who will have her own strategies for dealing with the world—and making use of her gifts and her passions—it will help you to set down that baggage.
I can also assure you (my third point), as a professor who teaches both undergraduate humanities students and MFA graduate students, that such students are not doomed to be unemployed or underemployed and move back home with their parents. I’m sorry to hear that you have so many friends whose children are failing to launch, but those failures are not the result of their choosing to major in an area outside STEM. Don’t believe me? Read this recent article in the Washington Post, and this one in the New York Times. And then, for good measure, there’s Forbes and Bloomberg too—all talking about the value on the job market of a liberal arts degree. These should provide plenty of ammunition for you as you fight your own anxieties and be the supportive, encouraging parent you want to be for your daughter. Please tell her I’m rooting for her, too.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
How can I convince my brother that getting engaged while he’s not yet divorced from his current wife is unwise? He’s been separated from his current wife for over two years, but it seems like a mistake to rush into an engagement with a woman he’s been dating for only eight months (they’ve known each other for three years) who just got divorced herself. They’re getting married in a year, and his fiancée is already planning the wedding (who, save for Meghan Markle, plans a second wedding so far in advance?). My worry is that he is searching for certainty while he deals with the bitter acrimony from his current wife during their very messy divorce. He hasn’t seen his kids a whole lot during this process, so they don’t know his fiancée very well. I don’t even think he’s told them about the engagement yet. This is a lot to throw at kids who have heard nothing but terrible things from their mom about their dad. What is the best tack to take with him?
—Not Ready in ND
The best tack to take is none at all. I know you mean well, but it’s not your place to judge the speed with which he is moving on to the next phase of his life or the pleasure his fiancée is taking in planning their wedding—or, for that matter, when and how he chooses to talk to his children about what’s ahead for him, or how he means to work out his relationship with them. Wish your brother and his fiancée all the happiness in the world. And please try hard to mean it.
Dear Care and Feeding,
When I was 12, my parents divorced. It was rough starting puberty while my mother lamented that my dad had cheated on her and abandoned us to be with his new mistress. I’m 25 now but learned a while ago that I only heard half the story back then: Dad pursued this relationship only once he and my mom were separated and even asked Mom’s permission first. He’s also married to this lady now, and she’s quite nice to me, so I don’t have any complaints. Still, it’s taken a lot of therapy to forgive my mom for turning me against my dad and to forgive my dad for leaving us.
I’m now in a pretty good place, both on my own and with both of them (although they still don’t get along). I even lived with my dad for a while when I was in college, and it was great relearning how to cohabitate with him and learning who he is when he’s not in a miserable marriage with my mom. At this point, I live just a few miles away from him. I see him often. He takes my fiancé and me out to dinner and offers emotional as well as financial support whenever I need it. My mom too has become a better parent, and she’s apologized for her past behavior (and really means it). Although she lives five hours away from me, we talk and text frequently.
My problem is that I feel comfortable telling my mom things that I can’t tell my dad. For example, she knows and he doesn’t that I smoke pot (legal in my state) and that I failed one of my college classes. I also haven’t told Dad that Mom’s engaged to her boyfriend. I keep hiding things from him, and I don’t know how to stop. I love my dad so much, and I feel very guilty keeping secrets from him. Is it OK for a kid of divorced parents to tell one parent something and not the other?
Sure it’s OK. You’re an adult. You get to decide when, how much, and what you want to share with either—or both, or neither—of your parents. You have nothing to feel guilty about.
And besides absolving you of guilt, let me congratulate you on finding a way to forgive them both for the ways they made your childhood and adolescence difficult and painful for you (not everyone is able to do this, with or without therapy!) and on making it through to the other side, in which you enjoy good relationships with both of them. Different relationships, yes. And that too is OK.
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My son is a thumb sucker—which isn’t the end of the world, except that he’s almost 12. Yes, we should have dealt with it earlier, yes to all the things we should have done instead of thinking he’d grow out of it (or peer pressure would end it). I don’t think it’s a matter of self-soothing anymore so much as it’s become a reflex. How can I get him to stop?