Care and Feeding

Should I Have Kids?

A woman, seen from the side, puts her hand to her chin.
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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 partner has always been a soft no toward kids, I’ve been a soft maybe.

I would have kids with him, but I still don’t know if I want to. There’s pressure to have children from our family, and we’ve talked about having them. We would be good parents: we’re stable, fully employed, debt-free, and we own our house and cars outright. He’s very empathetic and kind, and I’m practical.

Which brings me to the main reason we haven’t tried. We’re both sarcastic, and neither of us suffers fools well. Toddlers are basically puppies who can open drawers and have loud meltdowns. I have a goddaughter, and I hated being out in public with her as a toddler because she would just scream. I don’t know how to get the patience to deal with meltdowns and messy hands. We’re both fine with teenagers and the small babies we have in our lives, but the under-5 phase, starting when they can talk—how do we navigate that? I don’t want to do it wrong, if we do it at all.

—To Have or Have Not

Dear to Have or Have Not,

Trying to plan for life’s bigger and less-predictable moments is not easy, and in this case, I think it’s impossible! There’s absolutely no way to know how you will feel about some hypothetical child you haven’t yet had. The passage of time—even the nine-plus months it takes to have a baby biologically—can change you. The act of becoming a parent will certainly change you.

I get your point: Toddlers (particularly other people’s toddlers) can be shouty, and loud, and irritating. But nature is clever, assuring that most of us care so profoundly for our kids that we are able to overlook the less-fun stages of their development in ways that we can’t when the children aren’t our own. And how you navigate the less-fun years is something impossible to plan from here! You can read all the books and then find yourself parenting a child who is not neurotypical. You can steel yourself for a wild toddler to find he’s calm but then acts out at 7, or 17. There’s absolutely no way to know.

It’s great that you don’t want to do it wrong; should you decide to have kids, that desire will guide you to (mostly) doing it OK. But just as every toddler has her annoying days, every parent messes up a little. When asking yourselves whether you’re ready to be parents, think less about practical things like the fact that you are financially stable (not as relevant as you think, maybe). This is a big choice, and enumerating pros and cons may not get you very far. You’re weighing taking on a lifelong experiment, one choice that will lead to many more. Maybe listen more closely to your inner voice than to any others (including mine). Good luck!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’d love to say that I’m capable of dealing with my anxiety, but I’m realizing that I’m not. In the age of social distancing, is it OK for me to ask my family to keep their distance while we are at home?

We have a large family: myself, my hubby, six amazing children, and a beautiful grandbaby who lives with us. For the past 11 months, since her husband died, my mother has been living with us. My husband and I and our youngest children live in the main part of our home. My mother has an apartment in our basement, and our oldest son and grandchild share the other half of the basement. Their area has two bedrooms but no kitchen, so my oldest son comes up to eat, and I get to spend lots of time with the baby while he’s at work.

My mother refuses to stay in her apartment. She’s constantly in our space, so much so that I feel like I can’t even have a conversation with my children without her interfering. I miss the quiet days with my grandchild while everyone else was at work or school. I now realize that I used that time to regroup and feel at peace.

My kids (from 21 down to 10) are independent and give me space—it’s like they know that I need a 20-minute timeout whenever we’re in a shared space for an extended time. My mom either doesn’t care or gets offended when I ask her to go downstairs for awhile. She guilts me about her grief to get me to agree to her staying upstairs until we all go to bed. I feel bad that I can’t meet her needs along with my own, but I need some space!

—More Distance, Please

Dear MDP,

The age of social distancing or not, it is perfectly valid for any one of us to need time and space of our own—never mind those of us with six children, a grandchild, a spouse, and a parent all under one roof, however big that roof is. Of course you need some space! I’m sorry.

I think the inevitable frustration of a big change in your living arrangement—Mom coming to stay!—is exacerbated by the special conditions of having to hunker down at home during this pandemic. But it’s been almost a year of her living with you; even if you had initial conversations about the logistics of life together, now you’ve had some time and can reevaluate those.

I think you will find it difficult to manage Mom’s schedule. For whatever reason (perhaps she’s just loneliness) retreating to her part of the home is not appealing to her; she wants to be upstairs in the thick of things. That might undermine your ability to have conversations without her participating, and it might eat into your quiet time cradling the baby. But you can save important mom-kid conversations for bedtime or stolen moments when Mom is downstairs; you can have one-on-one time with the baby when you’re out for a walk (6 feet from anyone else, please!). What you can’t do, not really, is send your mother to her room like a naughty child. It makes her feel bad, she breaks out the guilt trip, and then you feel bad!

The good news is that you can manage your own schedule! Can you deputize Mom to handle Tuesday night dinners and then say you won’t be a part of those—you’ll be up in your room reading a magazine, having a bath, or being alone? Can you set up a grandma-led homework session so that you can slip away for 30 minutes in the evenings to sit in the yard, or reorganize your dresser, or watch television? Your desire for personal space is tricky to manage when we’re all staying home, but if nothing else, can’t you lock yourself in the bathroom and take a long steamy bath while listening to a podcast? My hope is that if you focus on identifying what you need and state that out loud (“I’m going upstairs for 30 minutes! Grandma’s in charge!” or “I’m going out to the yard to read! If you need something, ask Dad!”) your family will honor that. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and my 2½-year-old son have good moments, but most of the time they do not get along and it creates unbearable tension in my house. I’m the primary caregiver: We both work 9–5 but my husband also works on a side business that keeps him away most evenings and weekends. My son has preferred me over his dad for quite a while, which hurts my husband’s feelings. I think the basis of their tension comes from my husband’s impatience for what I think is typical toddler behavior: tantrums, picky eating, talking back, etc.

My husband insists that our son is a brat who treats his dad poorly because he’s a mean child. I’m tired of living with this dynamic. I can’t seem to make my husband understand that he and our son are not equals, and trying to argue and reason through toddler behavior won’t work. I am so worried that their relationship will never be healthy. What can I do to try to improve the dynamic?

—Will Love See Us Through?

Dear WLSUT,

I’m so sorry to hear this. It’s quite natural for your son to be more bonded to you given the work schedules you describe, but your husband’s misunderstanding about a child that age is no doubt exacerbating things.

I cannot blame you for being tired of trying to negotiate this. Your husband’s inability to understand something as fundamental about parenthood as the fact that he and his child are not equals is troubling. I know he’s working two jobs, but does your husband ever have the time to join you and your son for a trip to the playground so he can see, firsthand, how toddlers behave?

If visits to the playground are off the table at the moment, perhaps there are other members of your extended family or social circle raising kids—some trusted voice who could affirm that toddlers are unpredictable and picky and full of big emotions, and that part of the task of a parent is to guide them through those emotions.

Failing that, I wonder if your pediatrician or some other trusted figure could point out to your husband that, no, tantrums aren’t a sign of disrespect but a still-developing psyche.

If your husband’s work schedule has been affected by what’s happening right now, perhaps that is a blessing. If Dad and Kid had more time to spend together, your son’s obvious preference might soften a little; not only might the two develop a stronger relationship, but your husband might better understand what a 2-year old is capable of emotionally. Please try to encourage a little bonding between the two of them—regular bedtime stories, some other special rite. It will help.

It might also help to remember that kids change quickly! This is one of the many phases your little guy will pass through, and while you are in a tough spot, I’m confident that you can turn things around. I hope you will call in some backup to show your husband the error of his thinking; I hope it will help him better understand his son. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 12-year-old daughter has been dealing with a bully, Jeff, since the start of the school year. Jeff’s bullying has been mostly verbal (calling her stupid and ugly) but occasionally physical (pushing her down and kicking her, throwing things at her and encouraging his friends to do the same) and it has happened almost daily.

On one occasion she has called me in hysterics begging me to pick her up because he’d jostled her in the hallway and said, “See you in class,” and she was afraid of what he would do.

The school administration has been slow and reluctant to respond, but they finally agreed to transfer my daughter to a different classroom where she won’t have to see or interact with Jeff. They asked me if I thought punishment was required, and I told them I just wanted my daughter to be safe. Rather than being relieved with this result, my daughter was angry. She thinks it’s unfair that she’s being moved and Jeff isn’t, and she wants to see Jeff punished. (He has occasionally been sent out of class, but no banishment lasted more than an hour.) I don’t believe that punishment would do anything to help the situation, and I was surprised to hear my normally gentle daughter sound so vengeful. What should I do?

—Safety First

Dear Safety First,

What a rotten situation. I don’t blame your daughter one bit. Why should some other kid’s transgressions mean she has to be uprooted? Why shouldn’t Jeff be truly punished for his behavior? Even if she is “normally gentle,” it’s not necessarily bad to see her stand up for herself, and it’s a human impulse (perhaps a youthful one), anyway, to want justice.

But in this instance, I suspect you feel, as I do, that what matters most is her safety. The situation you describe is so awful, and she’s free of it. Going back to the school to demand retribution—especially since the administration was slow to take this seriously when the issue was more pressing—seems likely to end in frustration. And as the adult, you understand what your daughter might not, that revenge may not be the salve she imagines.

I think you should tell her how proud you are of her for speaking up and confiding in you—remind her that you’ll always be available to back her up when she’s in a tight spot. Of course, she’s right to stand up for herself, to demand repercussions, to point out bad behavior. At the same time, I think you should tell her that sometimes real justice is elusive, and matters less than her safety. It’s a grim lesson, but sometimes lessons are are.

—Rumaan

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