Care and Feeding

One Last Christmas

I can’t bear to tell my sons their father may only have months left to live. What should I do?

A man puts his arm around his son as they stand in front of a Christmas tree.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by digitalskillet/iStock/Getty Images Plus and vnlit/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,

My husband and I have two teenagers, aged 14 and 15, who are well-adjusted and doing well in high school, both socially and academically. About three years ago their father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, which has since metastasized in various ways. From the beginning we have been honest with them about his diagnosis and its development, but even though we knew the prognosis was three to five years, we never told them that because we didn’t want to scare them. Instead we conveyed optimism about the possibilities of treatment, and, indeed, we have been genuinely hopeful about how well the treatments would work. Now we have reached a point where treatment options are limited. There is a chance he could get sick very fast and be gone in three months. Even if he doesn’t deteriorate that quickly, it is very likely that this will be his last Christmas with us. Do we tell them that? Will that enable them to savor their time with him, or will it spoil the holiday for them? My husband feels like he is being dishonest with them by not telling them everything, and I can see that. I do worry that they will be blindsided if we don’t warn them. But I am also concerned that they will not be able to enjoy their last Christmas with their father because of their anxiety and sadness. And what if, against the odds, the next treatment does work and he gains another year or more? Then we would have worried them needlessly. Should we tell them the whole truth or not?

—Afraid to Tell

Dear AtT,

I am so sorry your family is going through this. Nothing will make it better, or easier. But I believe you can be both completely honest and kind. The children deserve to know, and your husband, who is uneasy about being less than fully honest with his children, needs your help to have the grace he deserves as he comes to the end of his life.

Tell your children what you have told me: that you have not entirely given up hope—that you feel it’s possible, if unlikely, that the next treatment will work and their father will live longer than is currently predicted. But share his current prognosis with them. Christmas may be hard indeed if they (and you) believe it is likely to be his last. But everything is going to be hard now. Talk to them about this. Better yet: Talk a little, and listen a lot. My love to all of you.

Enjoy Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series from our beloved advice columnists. Keep your sanity intact this holiday season with Jamilah Lemieux’s self-care tips. Nicole Cliffe presents classic gifts for children of all ages. Teacher Carrie Bauer recommends educational gifts your kids will actually enjoy.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 2 and for the past few months, before bed every night, we have done “five little monkeys jumping on the bed.” (She jumps around while we recite it together, we laugh, we snuggle, then she goes to bed.) But every night this last week, she has told me: “No monkeys, Mommy. I go to bed good night I love you”—and she’s ready for bed. It’s such a small thing but I find that I am heartbroken. It’s hit me hard. I honestly have been fine with her “growing up” until now. I don’t look back at her babyhood and long for those days again—and not because I didn’t enjoy them, but because I want to enjoy the little person she is now. But I’m having a really hard time with this new turn. I guess I’m looking for advice about how to handle children growing up. How do you keep yourself from falling into the trap of longing for the “good old days” as your children become older and more separated from you?

—No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed

Dear NMMJotB,

I think the way to keep yourself from falling into that trap is to take a leaf out of your own playbook, doing your best to adapt a be here now instead of dwelling on the (oh-so-recent) past. It’s hard, I know. Some parents can’t manage the smooth transition you made when those little lumps of babyhood become children capable of self-locomotion and verbal expression. Some, of course, don’t freak out until their kids start kindergarten … or until the first time their 7-year-olds race off at drop-off time without pausing for a kiss goodbye … or until they start high school (or even until they leave for college). I remember looking at my baby on the day she was born and thinking, sadly, Oh, this is just the first step toward her leaving me. (I might have said this out loud. I might have completely weirded out my husband when I did. But I’ve always been a start-early-and-avoid-the-Christmas-rush kind of gal.)

One of the most amazing things about raising and loving children, one of the things that makes our relationships with them completely different from any other relationships we have, is that at every new stage of their lives we get to have a relationship with a practically whole new person. Here’s how I like to think of it: Just as in a brand-new, interesting friendship—or a new romance!—there’s the thrill of getting to know this fascinating, wonderful new person who is suddenly in your life and full of surprises. But this is better, because you never get to that plateau phase that every great friendship or romance inevitably reaches, because just as you’re approaching it with them, a whole new person appears in their place, and a new relationship has to develop. And you don’t even have to break up with the last one!

At least, that was my strategy, and it worked for me. It still works with my adult child. As she moves from her mid-20s into her late-20s, she’s still evolving and I’m still enjoying every stage of her evolution.

I treasure my memories of her as a baby whose every need I could (it seems to me now) so easily meet, and as a 13-month-old who came home from day care eager to tell me everything that had happened that day (in a dialect that was missing all its “R” sounds and turned all “Grs” at the start of words into “D’s”). I miss both of those tiny people still—as I do the 5-year-old and the 8-year-old, etc. (True, I don’t much miss the eye-rolling 14-year-old, but honestly, thank God for that—if there weren’t one pretty wretched period to look back on, I might collapse under the weight of so much misty-eyed nostalgia.) But I wouldn’t trade my conversations over a martini with my adult daughter for any of them. We have an entirely different relationship now than we’ve ever had before—one in which I sometimes ask her for advice, when I’m venturing into territory I know she knows better than I do. We share our successes and our failures and our fears in a way that often startles me with its utter levelness. We are not “equals” in this new relationship (for one thing, I miss her a lot more than she misses me; for another, I still know a lot more than she does about a lot of things—and I am also disinclined to lean on her, ever, as I still believe it is my job to be the one who is leaned on, if needed), but the differential between us gets smaller every day.

Sometimes I will still get a pang—a sudden image will come back to me, of when she was 8 and we played “making commercials” for imaginary products, or when she was in high school and we sat together on the porch as I quizzed her with flashcards she had made to help her study for a Latin test—but it passes. The pang passes, I mean. The pleasure these, and all the other, memories gives me? Never.

I know there are people who deal with the sadness of a child growing up and separating from them by having another child. Such people may tell you that’s the only cure for what’s ailing you. But I want to go on record and say I think this is terrible advice. For starters, it’s your relationship with this particular child that you’re mourning—the no-more-babyhood of one specific, marvelous human being with her own set of adorable behaviors and eccentricities—and she is not replaceable. But beyond that, this seems to me a nonsolution to the problem, or at any rate one that just kicks it up the road. If focusing your attention on a new baby allays your grief about the first one, won’t it rear up again once the next one is that age? Then what? Do you just keep having babies? And what happens when you do finally stop? (Maybe by then you’re too exhausted to care?)

The only way to cope with longing for the child your daughter used to be is to welcome the new one with open arms, tucking away the lovely memory of the most recently discontinued version of her where you can take it out and replay it any time you like, in private. There are so many versions of her ahead of you! There will be delights to be had with every (or nearly every) one of them. And she may forget the monkeys jumping on the bed, but you never will.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a wonderful 6-year-old son. He’s bright, funny, and sweet. He loves school and his extracurricular activities, gets along well with his classmates, and is well-behaved and on board with whatever his teachers are trying to get him to do. Because my parents tended to railroad me when I was a child, I have raised him to feel that he has a strong say in many aspects of his life and given a lot of weight to his wants. He also went to a preschool that emphasized emotional development over obedience to authority. He has therefore grown into an opinionated kid who is protective of his happiness and that of those around him. But I think it all may have worked a little too well because he is completely without hustle. This child—who otherwise sprints everywhere he goes—will joyfully amble through mornings, stopping with one sock on to transform a Transformer or read a book even if he’s 10 minutes late for school. There is no amount of early I can wake him up that won’t lead to him being late. Mornings, pickups, and sometimes even crossing busy streets turn into incredibly frustrating scenarios where I am begging him every step of the way to do the next thing while he stops to tell me a story about koalas. (Cute doesn’t stop oncoming traffic.) I feel like I am—on my own—providing all of the will to get him to go anywhere or do anything. And it’s making me resent him. But the worst thing is that he is disappointed when he’s late or misses something. We normally have such a great relationship, but we fight about this. There’s so much about the way he moves through the world that I don’t want to discourage, but I need him to understand that time exists. Any advice?

—Sick of Being Sisyphus

Dear SoBS,

That he is disappointed when he’s late or misses the chance to do something he wants to do is not the worst thing. It is the best thing! It means you can use the tried-and-true “natural consequences” method to get him to correct his own behavior. Plan for it in advance (e.g., if him being late for school will make you late for work, phone in a heads-up and plan to stay late or flex your time if this is an option; if you’re going to a gathering, let the hosts know not to hold the start time for your joyful ambler). Spend a week—maybe, if he’s really stubborn, two or three weeks—letting him set the pace and being late and missing out. Maybe even “getting into trouble” at school. (That was what finally did the trick with my own little daydreamy ambler—who hated the very idea of being in trouble even more than she hated having to rush.) If you let him suffer enough disappointments, there’s a good chance this will work—and it’s a strategy that has the added benefit of taking the problem off your hands and putting them directly into his. It’s not too early for your beautiful little free spirit to figure out that there are some things he’s going to have to be responsible for, like keeping track of time.

But I also feel honor-bound to warn you that this unwillingness to accept that time is a thing may turn out to be a lifelong trait. It’s one my husband has had all his life. Even after 27 years of marriage, he often expresses his gratitude for my willingness to release him from the strictures of time except when it’s absolutely unavoidable (like when there’s a plane to catch). He remembers a childhood, young adulthood, and not-so-young adulthood of schools and jobs that forced him to look at the clock, so although he learned to do it, he always hated it. Now he paints full time and I truly don’t care whether he comes in from the studio at “dinnertime” or not, or what the hell time he goes to bed or wakes up. If your son grows up to be a daydreamy, time-averse artist, I wish him a partner who is untroubled by it, and with luck even supportive of it.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother-in-law was a terrible mother to my husband throughout his childhood—neglectful, cruel, and verbally and physically abusive. Later in life, she seemed to become a different, better person. She also conveniently forgot large swaths of her life, including her own abusive behavior and the behavior of her various long-term partners, who also abused my husband.

She died several years ago, around the time my son, “C,” turned 2. She loved him very much, although for obvious reasons she didn’t see him often. She frequently sent presents, however, and kept his picture by her bedside while she was ill. (This was kind of surreal, but I know a lot of people are better grandparents than they were parents.) My husband works hard in therapy to carry on as a functioning adult and caring parent. Meanwhile, I am filled with white-hot rage anytime I think about her, and I get very uncomfortable when C, now 5, asks about his grandmother. So far, I have stuck with a simple “She loved you very much” because I don’t think “Grandma beat your daddy and starved him too” is an age-appropriate thing to tell him. But it sickens me to gloss over the abuse, which the rest of my husband’s family pretends didn’t happen. My husband would prefer to avoid dealing with it at all, and I sympathize, but C brings her up pretty regularly.

—Grandma Was a Monster, but She Loved You

Dear GWaMbSLY,

I think you can, and should, tell your son an age-appropriate version of the truth. As I have said many times before, I believe there are always ways to tell the truth to children, and that there are no good reasons to lie to them. “Grandma was not a good mother to your dad, I’m afraid, but she did love you very much” is a reasonable thing to say to a 5-year-old. If he asks what you mean (but only if he asks, which I suspect he will), I strongly recommend saying: “It’s hard to explain in a way that would make sense to you right now. But when you’re older, if you want, we can talk about it.” You and your husband together can decide how much to tell him once he’s (much) older. In the meantime, you can certainly acknowledge what you know for sure: “Some people who don’t know how to be good mothers turn out to be good grandmothers.” If he asks you why, you can tell him the truth about that too: Nobody really knows the answer to that.


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