Care and Feeding

We’ve Trained Our Baby to Wash Her Hands, and Now She’s Obsessed With It

What started out as a fun game has turned into needless anxiety over being “messy.” Have we gone too far?

Collage of a toddler washing their hands in a sink surrounded by pink paper tears.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by yaoinlove/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 partner and I have a 16-month-old and a 3-month-old. Because of concerns about the younger baby’s health (she was born 2 months early), we’ve been extremely diligent about washing our hands, and we started isolating pretty early on.

At first, the older baby seemed to think that all the hand-washing was a fun game—we’d sing ABCs, count, etc. for the duration. But more recently, she’s started acting distressed whenever she thinks her fingers are “messy” and doesn’t settle until we rinse them off. Think between bites of mac and cheese or while poking at Play-Doh.

I have a few questions. Is this something we should worry about? Is this a normal phase? How can we continue to stay safe without freaking her out?

—Wishy-Washy

Dear Wishy-Washy,

A lot of toddlers have a “mess! mess!” phase—it’s just their way of imitating us. She doesn’t know the difference between germs and crumbs. But you may also be freaking her out a little; I do not want to discount that. Ask your pediatrician about what, at this point, is a reasonable amount of hand-washing to be doing with your 16-month-old. You may find that you are going a little overboard and can pull back some, especially since you are in isolation.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am hoping for advice about a tricky family situation. My husband comes from a very small family—his dad is an only child, and his mom just has one sister. He has two cousins (“David” and “Susan”) and an elderly grandmother. I have a difficult relationship with my in-laws, who are very judgmental and difficult to please and quick to anger. My husband is very close with his family and speaks with his parents at least three to four times weekly. They visit often, which is difficult for me.

Long story short: My husband and I did one of those cheek-swab DNA things for fun and found an unexpected person last year. Through some detective work, it has become incredibly clear that this is a firstborn child (“Alice”) of my husband’s widowed “Aunt Emily.” Emily, at the age of 21, moved to a different state for a year and had limited contact with her family. We have been able to piece together that she must have had an unexpected pregnancy and a closed adoption. Emily then went on to marry much later and had two children, my husband’s cousins. When we figured this out, I received an email through the genetic website from Alice with details about her adoption, but she clearly knows nothing about her birth family and I have data about this. She has not been pushy or annoying at all. But she did seem curious about her relationship to my husband.

I am struggling with what to do with this information. In conversations with my in-laws, they feel adamant that Aunt Emily intentionally kept this a secret and did not want the family to know, and they have no intention of ever asking her or bringing it up or contacting Alice (their niece). This falls into their strict column of things not to be discussed—like health issues, politics, or anything where their opinion may be contradicted. I am not super close with Aunt Emily and do not want to bring drama to the family. I am fairly close with my husband’s cousin Susan and feel she would probably be upset but want to know about her half-sister Alice. Part of me also feels Alice deserves the chance to know her mom and grandmother (although I realize I have no obligation to her).

I also get angry about it because my husband’s family insists on doing all sorts of things together and guilts us into taking extraordinary measures to get together more frequently than I would like “because our family is so small.” I have a lot of conflict with my husband about this. I know it’s a slightly separate issue, but for example, for the first five years of our relationship, we had to have Thanksgiving with my in-laws “because our family is so small”—as if my family is less important or doesn’t care just because I have lots of extended family and cousins.

Many people have advised me to just forget the whole thing. I could also send Alice a reply email giving her Aunt Emily’s email address so she could reach out if she wishes. But this has the potential to “explode” my extended family. I could be passive-aggressive and just mail some DNA kits to Susan and her family so they can figure out the connection themselves. I could contact Aunt Emily directly to confront her about it, but I am not super comfortable with that. Any advice?

—Impossible In-Laws

Dear Impossible In-Laws,

They do not sound that impossible to me, for what it’s worth, just garden-variety overbearing in-laws, and I think you need to separate your general distaste for them (which is really more about the fact that you and your husband disagree about the time you spend with his family) from how you proceed here.

You already told some of your in-laws, which is something I certainly would not have done before deciding if I wanted to say something to Aunt Emily. It seems far more appropriate to me to reach out to Aunt Emily directly than to discuss this with other members of her extended family. She’s not made of glass. And Alice isn’t pushing aggressively for information about her birth family, an act I would find more difficult to ignore.

What does your husband think? You need to be on the same page here; this is his family. If I were your husband (he of the relevant cheek swab, after all), I would email Aunt Emily and say: “Look, we did one of those cheek-swab things and found a close relative match we hadn’t anticipated. She was born in X year in Y state, and if you would like to have any contact with this person, or for us to share any relevant medical information and then close that connection, please let me know and I’ll pass on your contact information or anything else you would like.” She’ll know exactly what you mean.

And then go from there. Don’t play Columbo. Don’t talk to your other in-laws about this anymore. Absolutely do not talk to “many” more people about this anymore.

Everyone else: If you’re gonna buy these kits, remember that, like a box of chocolates without a handy liner note, you don’t know what you’re gonna get.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I could really use some outside advice. I am a stepmother who helped raise my husband’s 18-year-old son “Todd.” Todd’s abusive mother abandoned him when he was 16, and he’s lived with us ever since. I’ve been a caring and generous stepmother to him since he was 6. I have always gone out of my way to make sure he feels comfortable, loved, fed, etc.

So I couldn’t help but feel slapped in the face when he said he didn’t want to have his graduation party at our home when quarantine ends. He said he is having it at his friend’s parents’ house. This is the same couple who disapproved of their son spending time in our home while the boys grew up because we don’t share the same religion. I don’t know how to handle this gracefully without feeling hurt or refusing to be a part of it. I know this may seem childish, and the location of Todd’s graduation party is solely his choice, but all I think of when the party is mentioned is how hurt and upset I feel. Can you offer me any advice?

—Disappointed in the Midwest

Dear DitM,

If your stepson, who has only lived in your house for two years, wants to have a high school graduation party at his friend’s house instead of yours, despite the length of your relationship, I would do my best to take this with good humor. He’s not trying to make a sweeping statement about you as a person. They may just have a nicer backyard. (I’m sure your yard is very nice.)

Now, how is your relationship with Todd in general? Is he kind to you? Respectful? If he is, then please don’t make this into a Big Thing. If you are upset because this is accompanied by a larger gulf between you and Todd, then focus on that and don’t widen the gulf by overreacting to a party location. Teenagers are, generally speaking, not that prone to thinking, “I shall make my stepmother realize she is not my real mother by having a party at a friend’s house.” But if he doesn’t treat you well, and you feel generally frozen out by him, that’s something to process and work on, with the aid of his dad.

Go (eventually!) to the party. Bring chips. Journal a little about your feelings after. The kid has an abusive mother and has been through a lot of rejection. Give him the benefit of the doubt.

Learn From a Lego Master How to Level Up Your Family’s Builds

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I feel like my heart is breaking. My son is 19 and has not had a girlfriend yet. I asked him why today and he said it’s because he’s ugly. I could not believe that he thinks that. He’s not a model but he is nowhere even close to ugly. Right now he works and splits the rest of his time between mine and his dad’s house.

Even without the quarantine he doesn’t go out to meet people, so of course he’s not going to find a girlfriend. I asked if he was gay and he said no and that he’s just too ugly to meet girls. I told him over and over he isn’t ugly, but he thinks it’s just “Mom” talking. What can I do for his self-confidence? Is there anything I can do?

—My Son Is Not Ugly

Dear MSINU,

Oh, dear. Well, generally speaking, don’t ask anyone why they don’t have a girlfriend. Even your son. Lots of 19-year-olds have never had a committed romantic relationship. It’s an intrusive question and there’s no “good” answer. And absolutely don’t follow up with “Are you gay?”

I know he lives with you, but he’s an adult, and if he doesn’t want to go out and meet people, he’s not going to go out and meet people. The most I would do is ask him if he’s thought about therapy, because he sounds a little depressed, but you absolutely will not “fix” his situation by telling him he’s not ugly. I am sure he is not ugly! I know you love him; I know you want him to be happy; you need to take a step back and let him live his life.

My otherwise wonderful mother bugged my brother for years about not having a girlfriend and also playing too many damned video games instead of going out and meeting girls, and then he met a lovely young woman playing a video game online and now they are married and have a nice cat. Times have changed! Girlfriends are on phones now. Also boyfriends, in case he is gay and just didn’t want to engage in answering a series of exhausting follow-up questions.

Keep an eye out for other signs of depression, and let the lad be. You are a mama bear, and it’s never easy to overcome MY BEAUTIFUL BABY IS NOT UGLY, but I do need you to try.

— Nicole

More Advice From Slate

My son is 6. Among other things, he loves fairies, unicorns, stories about girls, and the color pink. Good for him, right? My son and my daughter have both been brought up to know that everything is for everyone. Only trouble is the other kids haven’t been brought up that way. The other night my son couldn’t sleep because he really wants to read a unicorn book at school but doesn’t want his friends to laugh at him. My question is should I keep asking his teacher to step in and try to teach these kids that your gender doesn’t have to determine what you like? Or would I just be setting my son up to be bullied by causing him to be singled out? When it comes to issues like this, does the teacher have any sway, or are they always fighting a losing battle against parental influence?