Care and Feeding

My Previously Ambitious Son Wants to Delay College to Wait for His Girlfriend

A recent illness of hers has left him anxious and feeling unready. I’m worried he’s missing out on a big opportunity.

A man in a sweater bites his fingers nervously.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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 son is 17. He’s been in a relationship with a girl for the past year. She’s been through a lot, dealing with a severe medical diagnosis and several surgeries. I would characterize her as an anxious person generally, even before those things happened, and they have both felt a lot of stress during that time. Thankfully, she’s now much better, and things seem to have normalized.

What concerns me is the changes I have seen in my formerly confident and outgoing son over the last year. He has become anxious and frequently very down on himself, despite being a pretty accomplished and articulate kid. He has applied to a challenging university program, but says he now doesn’t feel ready. His girlfriend has decided not to go off to school next year due to her health concerns, and I know at least in part, he wants to wait for her.

We have talked about making decisions about his future based on his own needs, but this relationship seems to have become really influential. He has made several decisions about next year without even talking to us about it. He started seeing a therapist and has become more open with us recently, but I’m just concerned about handling this situation carefully. I’d like to see him go into this program that he’d been interested in, which requires an audition, but I don’t want to push him if he’s actually not ready. What to do?

—Worried It’s the Girlfriend

Dear WItG,

I’m probably going to get eviscerated in the comments for this, but I’m inclined to say that it’s not the worst thing in the world for your son to delay college (or enter a less challenging program of study for a spell) because he wants to wait for his sick girlfriend. Maybe it’s the steady stream of horrible news we’re experiencing right now, but I think the human connections that we have in the present can be as significant, if not more, as the dreams of professional success we may have for the future.

Also, even if this is little more than puppy love and will fade away sooner than later, it still seems that the events of the past year have taken quite a toll on your son, and understandably so. Watching a peer go through significant health challenges can be a painful reminder of the fragility of one’s own body; watching a loved one suffer such issues while being unable to protect her from them is one of the most devastating experiences a person can have, and he’s had it at a very young age. As such, his readiness for this program and the application process may have taken a blow. It may be demoralizing for him to attempt this audition and not secure admission because his focus wasn’t there, or because he hadn’t had adequate time to prepare.

It’s great that he’s in therapy and becoming more communicative. Encourage him to stay on this path and work with him (and perhaps a school guidance counselor, or instructor) to develop a plan to continue pursuing whatever it is that he was working toward (I’m assuming something artistic?) while honoring his need to have more time at or near home. Let him know that you are willing to continue to be supportive and respectful of his relationship, but that he must plan for a future that isn’t entirely centered around it either. Hoping for good health and wise moves for all involved.

Dear Care and Feeding,

There are five of us in this blended family: my adult daughter and her new husband; his 22-year-old son and her 17-year-old son; and me. The house is mine; the money to keep us going comes from her and from my Social Security. My son-in-law is an artist who makes metal sculptures. Sometimes it pays, but there are extended periods when he is busy welding, and no money is coming in. My grandsons are both fine young men. The 17-year-old attends a combined high school/college program to become a video game designer. The 22-year-old works nights as a security guard at a local university. He pays 25 percent of each paycheck toward his groceries and otherwise lives here as another child of the household.

My daughter is under enormous strain, trying to make ends meet, and she is sometimes irritable because of it. Her discontent centers around her stepson, who admittedly can be stressful. He is disrespectful and dismissive of his father and does not like to do his chores. He is currently living in our dining room, which my daughter would like to have back. The 17-year-old has the room he has always had since he grew up in this house, but he is also a smart aleck who disrespects his mother and doesn’t like to do his chores (an average teen, I’d say). My daughter tends to have strong opinions about what other people should be doing, and her feeling is that my 22-year-old grandson should move out or pay more to live here, that my 17-year-old grandson should be cut some slack when he skips his chores, and that I should tell people in the family what they should do because it’s my house. There are a lot of expectations running loose in the house and frequent ill-feeling. What should we be doing to make this work?

—Grandma Needs Peace

Dear GNP,

Ma’am, first let me affirm that you are incredibly kind—benevolent, even—to allow all of these big people to remain in your space and, at least to some extent, reliant upon your Social Security income.

That said, I am disturbed that your daughter moved her underemployed husband and his adult son into your home … a home that has accommodated her and your grandchild for at least 17 years … and then expects you to be the one to challenge the adult son’s poor behaviors, while also being insistent that her own nearly adult son is given a pass when he doesn’t pull his weight. I’m also curious as to why she felt marriage and cohabitation was the best move, considering that neither she nor her new husband had a place to put this new blended family. And I’m side-eyeing this “artist” and wondering about what motivated him to move himself and his manchild into his new mother-in-law’s home.

Perhaps this is an issue of poverty and housing insecurity, in which case it would make a whole lot more sense for these two men to go above and beyond with the contributions they can make toward this household, as opposed to being on their worst behavior. In my opinion, if the husband is unable to find paid work aside from his art, he should be performing some additional household duties to compensate for his inability to financially support himself and his family in any meaningful way: cooking, cleaning, running errands for you and his wife, etc.

As for the 22-year-old, is there a plan for him to eventually leave your home? Why is he there? Again, if this is an issue of money, then there needs to be some exploration of the other ways in which he can contribute, and it is wholly unacceptable that he is failing to perform his agreed upon chores and being disrespectful to his father when he’s getting to live rent free. He is not your child, however, and it’s wild that his stepmother feels comfortable outsourcing her man’s parenting duties to her mother.

Have you functioned as your daughter’s co-parent all these years? Her insistence that her son be cut some slack for falling short with his chores begs the assumption that you have been critical of him. If she’s looked to you to share in child rearing for 17 years, it’s somewhat unreasonable to decide that now you ought to step back and let him do his thing unchecked. He needs to be corrected regarding his household responsibilities as well as his treatment of his mother, as do all “average” teenagers.

There needs to be some serious conversations about the imbalance of labor in this household. Before that happens, however, I think you need to do some soul searching. How did we get here? Why are you and your daughter bearing the load of all these men? Have you ever forced her to be responsible for her own choices, or have you historically stood in the gap for her and simply done what needed to be done to ensure everything was OK?

You asked about how to make this work. Do you want it to work, or do you feel there are no other options? Is there a vision for the future of this marriage that involves this couple (and whichever son or sons they intend to keep with them) moving out of your home? Are you reliant upon your daughter’s contributions to your household to stay afloat? Do you enjoy having her there? Are you happy? And if not, would you be if the boys were carrying their weight and being kind? In short, what do you want? It sounds like you’ve spent a great deal of your life taking care of other people, and that your daughter (despite her seeming tendency to expect you to continue taking partial care of her responsibilities, both the legitimate ones and the ones that she mind-bogglingly chose) has taken on the same approach to family by allowing a husband who can’t make rent and his adult dependent to come live off of you two.

If you do not want to have this extended tribe under your roof, you need to have the courage to explain that to your daughter and come up with a reasonable timeline in which her family can relocate to a place of their own. But if what you truly want is to be a big, happy family, then start a conversation with your daughter about what that needs to look like and be firm with your expectation that she work to make it possible. Everyone needs to pull their weight, in one way or another, and be respectful of the other members of the household, full stop. And any adult who cannot tick off those boxes needs to go live elsewhere.

As the matriarch and homeowner, you absolutely should have a level of authority here, but not in the way that your daughter has suggested. Make it plain that while it may be your name on the deed, she is the one who brought this man and his man son into this household; just because you may have helped her raise her son does not mean it is your responsibility to raise this bonus grandson who is old enough to buy beer. The way things are going now, either of your grandsons is apt to show up with a pregnant partner and another set of mouths to be fed in your home. Get control of this situation now before it’s too late. Best of luck to you and please send us an update in a few months.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am at a loss on how to handle my 28-year-old sister’s pregnancy. She has only been with her manipulative, controlling fiancé for a year, and they started trying for a baby three months ago. Our parents, my husband, and her friends all dislike this guy—I’d say for good reason. He has a 4-year-old son with his ex-wife whom he has only been legally divorced from since October (they were separated for a year prior to that.) He’s made inappropriate and mean comments to our parents, and on no less than three occasions, he said something awful enough to my sister that made her consider leaving him. Just two weeks ago, she’d told us she was done with him, but I’m inclined to believe she decided to stay because of the pregnancy.

This man has never lived on his own, even during his last marriage; he works for his parents, lives in a trailer on their property, and moved my sister in with him just recently. He sweet-talks her about buying a house together, claiming that he has a few businesses that will all “take off” at any moment and then they’ll have lots of money. Everyone sees through his BS except her. I get anxiety when he’s around and don’t want him around my son.

My sister thinks we’ll have a change of heart because she’s pregnant, but no one is happy about it. She also believes that she and I will be hanging all the time once we’re both moms; but to be honest, I’m over it all and don’t really feel like having a relationship with her either. She seems so causal about choosing to bring a child into an unstable relationship/environment. I told her that having a baby is a big deal, but she couldn’t see past her “baby fever.” My whole family is distraught over the situation; we were once all very close and had an awesome, fun family dynamic. She’s always been the troublemaker, and she’s put us through a lot, but this is the icing on the cake for me, and I’m ready to call it quits with her. I don’t want to break apart the family, but I can’t stomach being around her or her fiancé. How can I navigate this? Do I suck it up for the sake of the family or drop her from my life? Maybe there’s a happy medium that I can’t see.

—Unenthusiastic Aunt-to-Be

Dear UAtB,

There is a lot here. I’m curious about just how close you are to your sister that you’re ready to wash your hands of her at the most vulnerable time of her life, as she prepares (perhaps poorly) to bring in a new member of your family who is even more vulnerable—due in great part to the ramifications of her and her man’s poor decision-making.

I’m not saying that you have to feign excitement about this marriage and pregnancy, nor that you should keep quiet about your reservations. However, it sounds like your sister needs her family more than ever and would likely be in direr straits if you, of all people, were to cut her off. I’m inclined to assume you are the eldest, but that may not be the case; alas, you are her elder in motherhood and very well may be the more mature one of the two of you. Be you her big sister or her “little big sister,” I think that absent a history of her being abusive, manipulative, or violent toward you, the right thing to do is to remain constant and accessible right now.

In order to do so, you’re going to have to swallow your disappointment and frustration with her choice to have a child under these circumstances. Yes, it sounds like a mess, and at 28, she likely had time to find a better father for the baby she wanted so badly. But the baby is coming. Shaming her or continuing to lament the mess she’s made won’t do anything to untangle it. What will be helpful, however, is forming a family support system that works to help ensure she is healthy, attending doctor’s appointments, and managing her stress levels during this pregnancy, and that she has folks in her corner to be present when the baby comes … especially since it sounds like this dude has very little to offer, and she very well may find herself raising their child as a single parent. (Not assuming he won’t be involved at all, but it sounds like the probability of a split might be high here.)

As far as homeboy is concerned, consider how things may go for your sister, and the baby she is carrying, if she were to be isolated from her other loved ones and only had him to call upon. Your family and her friends need to ensure that she feels comfortable keeping you abreast of what is going on in that relationship, no matter how much it gets on your nerves. You can’t allow your distaste for him or the circumstances under which he is in your sister’s life to create a situation in which she feels too ashamed of her choices to tell you if his poor behavior escalates. She needs to feel safe telling you guys if he puts his hands on her, or becomes emotionally abusive beyond what you’ve already described.

You don’t have to become this man’s friend (nor have him around your son often), but you also want to keep an open line of communication with him. If he disrespects your parents or any other relative again, then call him out on it, of course. But you want to keep an eye on him so that you all can respond to his behavior accordingly and so that, again, your sister is not easily isolated away from her loved ones.

A 28-year-old is certainly a grown-ass woman, but all new mamas need help, especially those who are giving birth under challenging conditions. Please be there for her and your niece or nephew. Investigate options for local free or low-cost counseling and see if you can convince her to sign up; tell her that you’ve been reading about postpartum depression and wish that you’d gotten some help before and after your own pregnancy. Be prepared to step in and help more than you want to, including that “mommy friends” time that she’s dreaming of having with you. Be the sister you’d want to have if you were in trouble. Sending good thoughts to you all.


More Advice From Slate

I have been with the same guy for six years, married for one. He has two sons from a previous marriage, and she is not in the picture. I’m a male too. My husband has asked me if I could accept his moving into his own apartment for a year because he has never been on his own. He says he doesn’t want us to break up, just live apart for a while. The boys would stay with me in our home, and he would take them to spend the night every so often. We would also have a weekly date night just to keep our relationship “on track.” He married his ex right out of high school, and they had children right away, so he really hasn’t ever been on his own. I feel this is unbelievably selfish of him, but I kind of understand. But the boys have already been abandoned by their mother, how would this plan affect them? I am so confused, and hurt. Help!