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 each brought a teenage daughter into our marriage. I think we blended together very well, and for the most part everyone gets along. The girls think of each other as sisters, and I am Mom to both of them. (My stepdaughter’s bio mother is not in the picture at all.) My stepdaughter is now a high school junior, and for the past three years, she has been involved in cheerleading. The first year, she was on the JV team, and it was annoying but doable. But the past two years, she has been on the varsity team, and I HATE it. It’s so sexist (they make the girls bake cookies for the football players!), incredibly expensive, and, most of all, super annoying.
I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, but here, cheer is a year-round sport: The season starts at the end of April and does not end until the following March. They have practices all summer long, and during winter break and spring break. The coaches have said that cheer is more important than anything else in the girls’ lives: It should come before any other activities, jobs, religious activities, etc. Basically, we can’t even take a weeklong vacation during the summer without the coaches complaining about her missing practice.
It seems like our entire lives revolve around cheerleading. She has practice almost every day, plus games and competitions. There have been plenty of days when she has gone to school at 7 a.m. and not returned home until after 9 p.m., because of cheerleading. Her grades are suffering terribly (she used to be an A and B student, and her last report card was all C’s and D’s), and she’s always exhausted. And, although she claims to love cheer, all she does is complain about it.
After she finished 10th grade, I told my husband that she should not do cheer again, but here we are. Now I’m saying she shouldn’t do it senior year, but I get the feeling he is not going to listen again. Which is very frustrating! He is making a decision totally against my wishes, but I will have to suffer the consequences. I am very much expected to attend all the games and competitions, go to meetings, sign permission slips, write checks, and play chauffeur on a regular basis.
When I’ve pointed out that cheerleading basically sucks, he’s said my daughter takes piano lessons and he doesn’t complain about that, so I should not complain about the cheerleading. But there’s no comparison: Piano lessons are once a week (across the street from our house), and there is only one recital a year.
I am sick of it all. If he allows her to do cheerleading again next year, I want to boycott it and refuse to attend any of the games or competitions. It would still be incredibly annoying, but at least I would not have to sit through it. But that kind of feels like a nuclear option that will cause a lot of problems. What else can I do?
Yup, it’s a nuclear option, all right. But this whole letter feels radioactive to me. I don’t like cheerleading any more than you do, and I would hate it if I had a kid who was this deep into it, but the way you frame your problem, it sounds bigger and more complicated than cheerleading—or, rather, it sounds like your stepdaughter’s cheerleading is a convenient basket into which you can drop all your grievances against her father.
When you talk about all the things you are “expected” to do, who’s doing that expecting? Can you back off a lot—or even some—of those duties without boycotting the whole enterprise? Can you have a kind and honest conversation with your stepdaughter about whether she really wants to keep doing this if she’s not enjoying it? And most important, can you and her father have a kind and honest conversation? From the tone of your letter, it sounds like that ship has sailed, in which case, I recommend the two of you get into marriage counseling. Because it doesn’t seem like the two of you are communicating or co-parenting very effectively at this point. In any case, I’d take my finger off the big red button, take a few deep breaths, and think about what’s really at stake here. And maybe remember that, at worst, you’ve only got another year of cheer. It’s what happens after that I’d be more concerned with.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I need your advice on what kids really need, and what I need to do for my daughter. I’m the mom and primary parent of a fantastic 6½-year old. I adore her. Her dad, not so much. The marriage isn’t intolerable—there’s no abuse, no addiction, little conflict that spills over into our parenting. But we have truly substantial problems. (The specifics don’t matter, but trust me, I’ve spent years trying my hardest to work on our issues without success, including trying to get us all into therapy many times.) I don’t love him and I want to leave. As much grief as it causes me to think of being without my daughter half the time, I’m a grown-up and I could manage. But what about her? Her father’s largely a good dad, but our daughter and I have a much closer bond; she cries when she has to stay with him, even for a few hours. And when my husband and I talk about divorce, he says he’d want at least 50-50 custody.
As parents, we say we’d do anything for our kids—that we’d jump in front of a bus—and I truly feel that way. But if I disrupt her life so substantially because I want to get out of this marriage, which would mean leaving my daughter half the time, am I in effect throwing her under the bus for my sake? Or am I overrating my own importance as a parent and underrating the resilience kids can have? And even with two hypothetical best parents in the world, is shuttling back-and-forth all the time just too nomadic a way for kids to develop? This is an honest plea for your insight. I’m not asking for permission. I’m asking for perspective.
—Tangled Up and Blue
As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the hardest questions about parenting there is. I do have an answer, though (my answer, obviously—you ask for perspective, and all I can give you is my own). I’ll preface that answer by saying this is something I’ve thought about for a long time—long, long before I read your letter—and also something I have talked about with a lot of other women (both those who stayed and those who didn’t) and therapists.
My perspective is that it’s hard to be married and that most of us have unreasonable expectations about what marriage is. (Blame it on the movies, fairy tales that cut out right at “happily ever after,” and our own foolish, desperate, youthful belief that marriage is a cure for whatever ails us.) And while I would never suggest that anyone stay in an intolerable marriage—an abusive, awful, mean, or otherwise toxic one—the situation you describe (you’re not in love with him, the two of you have significant problems, this is not a happy marriage) is a very common one. The women of my generation (I am in my 60s) mostly left such marriages, just as the women of my mother’s generation mostly stayed in them. The children of divorce suffered, yes—because even with, as you say, two hypothetical best parents in the world, children hate it when their parents split up; it’s a fracture in their lives that hurts. And I’ve never had any patience with the self-serving argument (you’re not making it, I hasten to say, but I’ve heard it a thousand times) that children will be happier if their parents are happier, that anything less than a beautiful, loving marriage that fulfills the adults in it does more long-term harm than a divorce would.
But the lesser-talked-about part of this is a perspective I heard from a friend recently: She left a not-intolerable marriage when her daughter was 6 because the marriage made her unhappy. And while nearly 20 years later she says she doesn’t regret it exactly (she is now in a much happier marriage, as is her ex-husband), if she had it to do over again, she wouldn’t have divorced. Not only because she’s learned (as most people who get divorced and then remarry and stay married learn) that most marriages settle somewhere on the not-intolerable spectrum and that very few marriages are blissfully happy ones, but because what she hadn’t stopped to consider 20 years ago, in the 50-50 custody arrangement that followed her divorce, was how miserable that arrangement would make her, and why.
It wasn’t the being-away-from-her-daughter part that was so hard (though sometimes it was hard, for both mother and daughter). It was the fact that half of her daughter’s upbringing occurred without her input. It was all the things—not even anything huge, but a million small things—that happened when her daughter was at her ex-husband’s home that broke her heart. It was ceding control to a stepmother (something she hadn’t even considered when she was making the decision to get out of her marriage): “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with [the stepmother]. I’ve even come to like her. But so many things happened when my daughter was at her house that made me crazy.”
She and her ex are good friends now, she says. She and her current, longtime husband are, too. (That’s what happens if you’re lucky and you stay in a marriage long enough.) As for me, as a woman who’s been married for 27 years and once thought seriously about leaving it and then decided to stay, I want to tell you that I’ve never had a moment’s regret about my decision. Many years ago I wondered if once our daughter was grown, our marriage—which was certainly held together by our shared love for her—would collapse. Instead, it’s grown stronger, at least in part by the virtue of sheer years put into it. We are family to each other. We have each other’s backs.
I’m not promising you that if you stick out your marriage long enough, it will magically transform into something better. It might, though (well, maybe not magically). And I don’t think there’s anything mystically important about marriage per se: I think couples who aren’t happy but don’t have children together should feel as free to split up as any unmarried couple (though I would whisper in their ears that they shouldn’t be so sure they’ll be any happier married to someone else). And if “not intolerable” starts sliding toward and then sticks at “totally intolerable,” then I’d reconsider. But at this juncture? While I’m guessing it’s not the answer you were looking for, I’d say you have too much at stake not to see if you can make it work for as long as you possibly can.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My two children are 10 and 6. We’ve worked with a lovely babysitter (T) for about a year. The sitter is only in middle school, but my kids are old enough that it works great for date nights. The sitter plays board games with them and they get along great, but it’s not a regular gig—maybe once every four to six weeks. Recently I noticed that T changed their first name on their email from a stereotypically male name to a more feminine one. While driving them home after a sitting job, I mentioned that I’d noticed and asked if T had started going by that name. They said they go by it at school. I asked if they would prefer we call them by that name and T said yes, that would be great, thanks for asking, but seemed slightly unnerved. I then asked if T had a pronoun they would like us to use, and they said to use they/them but definitely seemed uncomfortable at that point, so I didn’t ask anything else. So I’m not sure if they are trans or nonbinary or female but prefer a less gendered pronoun or what. It’s really not my business! I will call T whatever T wants to be called.
But now I’m trying to figure out how to talk to my kids about it in a way that doesn’t put T on the spot. My kids have known about different genders and sexualities for a long time, and we have several trans friends who are great about answering my kids’ basic questions. But those friends are adults! Being 14 is awful and awkward at the best of times. I want my kids to call T by the name and pronoun T prefers, but I don’t want T to be interrogated. My kids are inquisitive, persistent, and used to asking us very direct questions about almost anything. Do I tell my kids T’s name and pronoun but that I don’t know if they are transgender and it’s not polite to ask, when I know there’s no guarantee my kids will comply when I’m not around? Do I ask T what they want me to tell the kids? (I am worried about putting them on the spot about something that could be a source of emotional turmoil.) Do I ask T’s parents? They were copied on the babysitting email to keep schedules synced, so I know the parents are at least aware of the name. T’s parents and I are passing friends but not close (and 14 seems too old to be bypassing T and going to their parents about a nonemergency). I would love some advice here!
—What’s in a Name?
You are way overthinking this. I say this with empathy, as an overthinker myself. But it definitely is not your business to determine what’s behind T’s name change, and it’s not your kids’ business either. You asked T if they wanted to be called by that name: The answer was yes. You pushed a little harder, despite the unease you noticed, and asked about pronouns and got an answer to that too. Don’t ask that poor child any more questions (14 is a wretched awkward age) and absolutely do not bypass them and question the parents. Tell the kids T’s name and leave it at that. If the kids ask T any questions when you’re not around, T can answer them (dollars to doughnuts, they’ll be much less uncomfortable talking to the children than to you). You’ve done more than due diligence here. Let it be.
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My husband and I have a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old. We have a wedding coming up, and I’m torn about whether or not we should make the six-hour drive with our kids. As it’s a kid-free wedding, we’d need to find a local sitter, plus I’m breastfeeding (and struggling to figure out the logistics of keeping the baby fed while we’re gone as well as pumping during the wedding). The trip would also be expensive. What should we do?