Care and Feeding

Minding the Middle

Our middle kid is a parenting breeze compared to his brothers. How do we make sure “easy” doesn’t feel like “overlooked”?

Photo illustration of a mother looking worriedly at a young boy reading a book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by TolikoffPhotography/iStock/Getty Images Plus and GeorgeRudy/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 have three boys: a teenager, tween, and toddler. The toddler is about as demanding of attention as a toddler usually is. The teenager has mental health issues and requires more attention than the toddler most days. That leaves my tween. He is an amazing kid. He does his homework without needing supervision. He makes straight As in a highly academically competitive school. He’s well-behaved, helpful, well-liked, and self-confident—just an all-around awesome kid.

The problem we’re facing is that because he’s such a low-maintenance, easy kid, I’m afraid he’s going to feel neglected or that we don’t care about him. What can we do to make sure he doesn’t feel like the forgotten middle child when his brothers demand almost all of our attention and he’s so self-sufficient?

—The Non-Squeaky Wheel

Dear TNSW,

Kudos to you for being able to step back and look at the big picture of your family! Your tween does sound like a lovely young man and quite adept at paddling his own canoe. That, as you have intuited, does not mean that he might not feel pressure to be “the easy one” or as though he gets less of your time than his higher-maintenance brothers. He could be happy as a clam, or he could be quietly working on some anxiety.

I think he’s old enough for you to talk to him about this directly. Go take him out for dinner, just you and him, at a place you know he enjoys, and say that you want him to know what a joy of a son he is, and that you know it’s easy for middle children in general to feel a little overlooked. Make sure you don’t (I’m sure you wouldn’t!) say anything about his older brother’s issues being a factor. He already knows. It’s fine to mention the toddler. Then ask him if he ever feels that way, and what you can do going forward to make sure it doesn’t happen, even if he currently feels fine with how things are.

That thing might be a weekly ritual just for the two of you, one that can be rain-checked by a day or two but not skipped. It might be a specific activity you’re missing (sports games, his two-man jam band in the basement’s practice sessions) that he would really prefer you not miss. He might say that things are gravy and have always been gravy, and he’s just a chill-ass dude. Hence the jam band I have imagined for him. Then listen.

I think you’re so wise and thoughtful to be thinking about this before he enters puberty in earnest. Building good communication and a relationship with him, specifically, as a person and not “the kids” is a great place to be in.

I hope your life calms down a little, and I wish you and your children the very best.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are expecting our first child. He very much wants to give the baby, if it’s a boy, his own name. Which is a very nice name. It’s a classic but not a common name, and if it wasn’t my husband’s name, it would probably be high on my list of possibilities. But I dislike the idea of having two people with the same name in my home. Personally, I find the idea of naming one’s child after oneself rather narcissistic and silly, unless there’s some deep and meaningful family tradition behind it, which is not the case here.

He said that if I don’t like using his name, I just need to bring him a better one, but he vetoes every other name I suggest. I have given my husband a list of 15 other names that I like and I think are similar (uncommon but not quirky, classic but not boring), and he has found fault with all of them. I have suggested using his name as a middle name, but he won’t accept that.
Thankfully, we’re in agreement on a name for a girl, so I guess I can just cross my fingers for offspring of the female persuasion. If it’s a boy, I think he should just pick a name he likes well enough from the list I’ve given him. Also, I’m the one going through pregnancy and birth, so does that give me final naming authority? What say you?

—Just Pick a Name

Dear Just Pick a Name,

I have always felt that numerals after a name, unless you live in a house with a moat, are ridiculous and narcissistic. Are you a York or a Lancaster? Do you plan on marrying this as-yet-hypothetical future son to the Infanta Sofia of Spain (she’s a little old for him)? Is your husband a stock-car racing legend? A professional football coach? A great left-handed pitcher? (I understand these are the American equivalents.) I had a male friend in college who was a “The Fourth” and when—in conversation—it came up that I thought a “The Fifth” was four bridges too far, he informed me he had crossed me off his list of possible wives. He’s living in a monastery now, as a monk. Hand to God (as it were), true story.

Thank you for letting me riff on this.

This is not a great situation. I am not excited for future compromises and communication in your marriage. You have given him 15 names. I suspect a further 15 will not produce a hearty “ah, yes, Henry, a fine manly name!” from him. I am never enthusiastic about packing people off to marriage counseling over children’s names, but I do see it in your future: if not for this, the next three things. Go now, develop some compromising/disagreement skills, and get it done before you’re both on two hours of sleep a night with young Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. Because you might wind up with one—and agreeing to refer to him on a daily basis as “Chip” to avoid having two people in your home with the same name.

You are in my prayers.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an amazing 2-year-old son who is the light of my life. My brother died suddenly, in his 20s, quite recently. We were very close. I have been a wreck internally, but I am trying to keep it together externally. Meanwhile, my son is having night terrors, spends his waking hours hugging me constantly and telling me “I love you so much,” and has regressed from being fully potty-trained to having multiple accidents per day.

How do I support my son while also processing my grief? My husband is a big help, but my sweet, empathetic son still knows something is terribly wrong, and I don’t know how to reassure him. I’m used to being the caretaker for my entire extended family, and I feel so guilty that I can’t show up for my son the way I usually would.

—Mothering While Mourning

Dear MWM,

I’m so very sorry for your loss. What an awful thing. Grieving is a physical process as well as an emotional and psychological one, and when a wave hits you, it doesn’t care that you’re trying to feed your toddler. You can’t postpone it, you have to experience it. All he knows is that something is wrong.

What I have found with small children (and bigger ones), is that masking an emotion and pretending you’re feeling a different one instead can be more disconcerting for them than just crying a little and saying, “Mommy is sad, but she’ll feel better soon.” (Speech and language pathologists would rightly prefer “I’M sad, but I’LL feel better soon”.) He can understand that, he’s a 2-year-old, he probably cries eight times a day for about 30 seconds. If he sees you forcing a smile and saying that everything is OK but can tell you’re unhappy, he feels like he doesn’t understand you like he once did.

You will just have to get through this time. Almost all small children wind up with short regressions for various reasons: a new sibling, a move, day care. He will not be permanently traumatized by this.

Can we talk about you for a minute? I don’t love that you’re “used to being the caretaker for my entire extended family.” Maybe don’t do that anymore. Your son’s needs come first. Your needs come first. If part of this is taking agonizing phone calls with adult family members multiple times a day, set some boundaries, turn your ringer off, etc. You have to grieve, but you don’t have to make everyone else feel better.

Again, I’m deeply sorry.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have been close friends with Jenny for almost 15 years and was the maid of honor in her wedding. Until recently, I would see her about every two weeks. About four months ago, Jenny stopped reaching out to me completely and began rebuffing/being very vague when I asked to hang out. It got to a point where I had to text her to ask if I had done something to upset her or if something was going on (she responded that she was “busy”).

All throughout this time, I had been having some of the toughest months of my life with really bad health problems and actually having to move out of my house because of them. Jenny was fully aware of what was happening. Four months later, she invites people to her house and announces that she is pregnant. While I want to be over-the-moon excited for her, I can’t help but feel burned by the whole situation.

She claims that she did this because she was afraid she could miscarry or that there would be another issue, and she didn’t want to risk slipping up and accidentally telling me if we met up or spoke. I completely understand the desire for privacy during those precarious first few months and can’t imagine all of the anxiety and stress that it brings. However, I still can’t really wrap my head around the need to ghost one of your closest friends, especially during some of the hardest times of her life. There are so many alternatives that would have left me feeling less abandoned—even a simple text every once in a while to say she was thinking about me.

I have shared my feelings with her saying that I am excited for her but hurt by being abandoned during a rough time. But, given that I have never been pregnant myself, I also wanted to understand: Am I being unreasonable?

—Abandoned Friend

Dear Abandoned Friend,

You’re not being unreasonable. We all assume or hope that our close friends will be there for us through difficult times, in whatever way that means for our unique situations. She dropped the ball. I’m glad you told her how you feel.

There are many things that could have contributed to Jenny’s global peace-out during these four months: having had previous pregnancy losses she kept to herself, anxiety, prenatal depression, etc. I think it would be fine to gently ask her why she felt like she couldn’t even return a text. But, it happened. You can’t unring that bell.

I think the answer now is to move forward with Jenny, as a friend, advocating for yourself and your needs when you have them, and also to worry about Jenny a little. It’s not normal behavior, and she will need someone to notice if she withdraws completely after the baby comes.

Please keep me posted on this one.

—Nicole

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