Care and Feeding

Blue Christmas

It pains me that my mom won’t celebrate the way we did as kids.

A woman in a black turtleneck has a neutral-to-negative expression in front of a Christmas tree.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Frank van Groen/LOOK via Getty Images Plus and Sean Locke / EyeEm via 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 am an unmarried woman in my mid-20s. My dad died about seven years ago. My mom is Jewish, and my dad was an atheist but the thing that made him happiest in the world was our celebrating Christmas as a family. We created many family traditions around it that the whole family, Mom included, participated in. In the years immediately following my dad’s death, we continued these traditions as a way of honoring his memory. My mom knew how important it was to my sister and me, though she never was big on Christmas herself.

Mom is now remarried and has a robust life with her new husband. It’s hard sometimes for my sister and me not to feel excluded from her life and new adventures, even though we know that she’s entitled to move on, and that a new marriage later in life is bound to change the family dynamic. What’s hardest for us is that lately she seems to be just going through the motions around the holidays—setting a date to decorate our tree as a family, then conveniently disappearing to book travel excursions (which I’m sure could be done at other times!); asking us to make other plans for Christmas night because she wants to make plans with her friends; changing the menu of our traditional Christmas dinner, claiming that she never liked those foods in the first place. To my sister and me, all of this suggests that she’s abandoning the notion that we ever had a family with my dad. She never even talks about him anymore, and this is most painful around the holidays, when the four of us used to feel so much joy together. I know Christmas was never her thing, but I want her to celebrate it just for the sake of our family, tradition, and keeping my dad’s memory alive. Is it wrong to expect this of her? It seems like I need to start making my own traditions, as painful as that feels.

—Maybe Not Home for the Holidays

Dear MNHftH,

This is hard. The loss of your father when you were a teenager was a terrible blow, one that you’ll be dealing with for the rest of your life, that will continue to hurt. It’s different for your mother, though. As painful as it was for her to lose him, she was able to absorb and, yes, move on from the loss in a way that’s never going to be possible for you—for any child who loses a parent so young. This is not to say that your life is going to be defined by grief. But it has marked you, and I think you need to sit with that for a little bit, to really understand what you’re feeling, and move away from ruminating about your mother’s joyful new life. It may take a while for you to be able to be truly happy for her, but I hope you can find your way there, even as you learn to take care of yourself and live your own life and—oh, yes—make your own traditions.

It’s not wrong to wish your mom would continue the traditions you grew up with—it’s natural. But it’s not fair to expect this of her. You and your sister are now adults. It would be generous and loving—and very grown up—of you to let your mother off the hook. For many years she celebrated a holiday that wasn’t her own, an act of pure generosity that it sounds like she pulled off thoughtfully and beautifully. Perhaps it’s time for you and your sister to step up to the plate and not only create your own traditions, both together and separately, with an eye to your own futures, but also invite your mother and stepfather to participate in them to the extent they choose? And don’t do this abruptly, resentfully, petulantly, or coldly (i.e., don’t show up at Mom’s and demand the box of ornaments you grew up with, telling her you and sis have decided that if she’s not that into it, you’re going to put up your own tree). Have a conversation that acknowledges the need for a change going forward, and in which you thank her for the many Christmases she gave you—entirely for your sake and your father’s. Let her know how glad you are that she has found happiness again. And do your best to mean it. Make that your Christmas gift to her.

Change is hard for everyone, and I think most people underestimate how hard it is just to be in one’s 20s, trying to figure out how to live one’s adult life and the kind of person one wants to be. You have an extra burden to carry. And Christmas somehow, for practically everyone, makes burdens feel heavier. But you can do this. My Christmas gift to you is my assurance of that.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m 33 and have been married for seven years. My husband and I want children but we live in a one-bedroom condo in an expensive city. We have steady jobs (both right at or under the median income for our city) but don’t have a ton of savings and so it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to upgrade to a larger home in the near future. Some friends say you’ll never be ready for a kid, which makes sense in many ways. But I also read about the negative impact of co-sleeping and worry about that and the general suitability if our space for a baby and then toddler and possibly young child. Plus, there’s the overall financial piece. But the fact is that I’m not getting any younger, and I feel ready to have a baby. What should I do?

—No Space for Baby

Dear No Space,

If you feel ready to have a baby, it’s time to have a baby. You’ll figure the rest of it out. Lots of people manage to raise children without living in a big house—even while living in a small apartment. I am amazed and impressed by the way people I know in New York City and San Francisco—and nobody I know has a lot of money—have found ways to make their small places work for them. I lived with my parents in a small one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn for the first four years of my life; my mother grew up with three siblings in their parents’ one-bedroom (kids slept in the bedroom, parents on a fold-out sofa)—and yeah, that was in olden tymes, but housing in big cities has gotten more, not less, expensive. Money isn’t everything (hey, somebody should embroider that on a pillow!). What matters most to a child is being loved and cared for—and if you’re equipped for that, then you’re equipped to be a parent.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve come to realize that I need help addressing what is clearly going to be an ongoing issue with my sister: the way she constantly gives me parenting advice, though she herself is childless and has no idea what she‘s talking about. Her response to my decisions and descriptions of my life is usually to angrily tell me that I should “just” do something different—”just” call a babysitter, “just” start traveling more and my son will get used to it and sit quietly in his car seat when we do, “just” take more time to see friends, etc.

My husband I both work full time and our toddler is clingy with me, not great at independent play, and has never successfully been left with a babysitter without bawling the whole time. (And yes, thanks, we had said babysitter over for multiple play dates before trying the ill-fated solo sessions.) Transitioning into motherhood has been hard for me, and as much as I adore my son, he is a lot of work, I miss the independence I had before he arrived, and I haven’t been very good at making space for myself.

My sister has friends with kids this age, and she frequently treats me to lectures on how those parents are living their best lives and not letting their kids stress them out. Of course I want to be less overwhelmed! Of course I’m working on it! But she is not very involved in our lives, she doesn’t really know our son, and she doesn’t understand that kids can be really different in terms of how easy they are to tote along. Never mind that she’s never had a toddler or a demanding job (separately, or at the same time). I want to shut her down by reminding her of this, but I don’t, because part of the reason she’s not a parent is a condition that makes her infertile. Granted, she wasn’t very interested in kids anyway, but I know infertility can sting even for women who didn’t want kids. So instead of saying what I want to say, I just say things like, “I’m glad Ramona has dinner parties while little Liam plays quietly under the table, but I assure you my little Johnny wouldn’t do that.” I’ve also changed how I interact with her. I no longer have time for long phone calls on the weekend, and I’ve said we aren’t going to drive the many hours to visit her while my son is young. I’ve scaled down how much I talk to her about my life, too, but still these things come up when we do talk. I know she loves me and I know she’s saying these things because she wants me to be happier, but everything she says enrages me. How can I preserve my relationship with my sister while also permanently turning off the faucet of underinformed parenting advice?

—Doing the Best I Can (Really!)

Dear DtBICR,

You know how when you open your jewelry box there’s always that impossible knot of necklace chains that you look at hopelessly, knowing how hard it’s going to be to disentangle them? And who knows how they even got so knotted up together? There are a lot of different things going on here that have become twisted together. I’m going to do my best to delicately separate the individual strands. (I myself use the point of a safety pin, the light of a 100-watt bulb, and all the patience I can summon.)

The first strand is that you feel like you’re failing and that there’s a voice in your head telling you that if you “just” were a better parent, everything would be all right. And your sister is the unwitting voice of that anxiety. So I want to pause here, pin in hand under that bright light, and say firmly that you are not failing, that the darkness your sister is tapping into without meaning to is a cruel and wrong voice. Parenting a toddler (hell, parenting at any point) is hard work—hard when things are going well and hard when things aren’t going well. Like anything worth doing—like anything that really matters—it’s not a goddamn walk in the park. Sometimes it’s wonderful and sometimes it’s hell. And you’re right: Your sister has no idea. But that’s another strand. Sure, it would be nice if she knew that. It would be nice if she didn’t offer you unasked-for advice about something she knows nothing about (sistersplaining! A word I just coined, but I know it’s a thing: I did it myself before I had my own child!). The sistersplaining strand, though, is another knot: part good intentions, as you say—she wants you to be happier! She’s frustrated listening to your tales of woe! She feels there must be something she can say to make it better—and how can she just stand by as you suffer and not offer some words of what seem like wisdom (to her)? What is she supposed to do, she might ask if we pointed out that she was sistersplaining: say nothing, and watch you suffer? (And to this we could say, Well, yes. Say nothing. Except maybe, “You poor thing. I am so sorry. That sounds hard.”)

But here comes another strand in that sister knot. She misses you. She feels left out. Who knows if her infertility plays a role in this (that’s another strand, maybe, but I won’t pick at that one—let’s just remain aware that it might be in the tangle somewhere). What seems obvious, though, is that the two of you have been close and now you are much less close. This happens sometimes when one person has a baby and the other doesn’t. It happened to me with some of my closest friends, and some of them lashed out in complex and subtle ways (and it started when I was pregnant, as I recall—when I first began to pull away from them and toward my daughter). Sisters who are close, as I understand it (I have only a brother), can be like superfriends: the friend one has had forever and from whom one expects, well, everything. I think yours is baffled by what feels like your disappearance. She “just” wants you back.

There’s more to this glittery little knot—how overwhelmed you are and how much you wish someone would give you real advice, useful advice that would fix what feels like a mess as you struggle to balance the competing demands of work and parenthood. These feelings make it all the harder when someone seems to be dismissing your complaints as easy to solve.

To preserve your relationship with your sister and at the same time staunch the flow of unwanted, unhelpful advice, stop telling her how hard things are. Talk about her nephew but tell her the good stuff—cute anecdotes, new words he’s learned and other milestones, fun things you’ve done with him (a bonus will be that you’ll remind yourself of all of that). And talk about other things, too. If you want to vent to her (she’s your sister! She was born into the job of listening to your complaints!), vent about work. Or some other thing that’s driving you crazy. If you don’t give her the opening to advise you about parenting, there’ll be no reason for her to do it. And while you no longer have time for the leisurely phone chats of yesteryear, I bet you can find a few minutes here and there for short, more frequent ones. This will let her know that you’re still thinking of her, that you still love her, that she still matters.

As to Johnny and his clinging, the impossibility of leaving him with a sitter, the challenges of traveling with him: all of this will change and get easier. I know you find it hard to believe this right now, but I say this with great authority as the once upon a time mother of a child very much like yours. Keep trying all the things you’ve been trying—don’t give up. But most of all, hang on. He won’t be a toddler forever, and while your toddler may be higher-maintenance than others, this is not a sign that you’re doing something wrong or that he won’t be extremely independent later (mine switched gears dramatically in elementary school). Remind yourself, as often as necessary, that this stage of parenthood will pass. And that you’re doing the best you can.


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