Care and Feeding

My At-Risk Daughter Does Not Take COVID Seriously

What should I do?

A 50ish dad in despair.
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,

Our 19-year-old daughter lives with her boyfriend and two other roommates. We are not thrilled about this (we wanted her to go to college), but he’s a nice enough kid, and she’s an adult and can make her own choices. Her two roommates have temporarily moved back in with their parents for the entirety of the pandemic. Our daughter is immunocompromised, and while she has been staying home (she doesn’t work), her boyfriend works at a grocery store, where he is not allowed to wear a mask. We’re terrified that he’s going to bring the virus home to her, but she is unconcerned. We have asked her to move back in with us, just until this is over, but she has refused. She claims they’re “in love,” and she doesn’t want to leave him alone. Again, she’s an adult, but this could potentially be a matter of life and death. We’re thinking of cutting her off from her health and car insurance, as well as her cellphone, which we pay for, unless she agrees to move back in with us until this is over. Are we out of line to do this?

—Quarantine Parents

Dear QP,

Let me get this straight. Your daughter is neither in school nor working (not temporarily out of work but doesn’t work, as you put it) and you are paying for her auto insurance (to drive what? A car you have also paid for?) and her cellphone plan. Why? Is she so immunocompromised that she cannot work? But not so much so that she would have been able to attend college?

I am very confused by the situation you describe.

But since you didn’t ask me to weigh in on whether you should be supporting her financially in the ways you have been—or what I think about the fact that (presumably) her boyfriend is paying the rent and utilities and buying groceries, all on his grocery store salary—I shall try to set aside my confusion and answer the question you did ask. First things first: Cutting off her health insurance, so that if she does get seriously ill, she will be financially ruined if she seeks treatment (or she won’t seek treatment at all) is an insane thing to do at this juncture. (I also assume that if you cut her off from health insurance you will pay out of pocket for her health care costs because I cannot imagine you would allow her, if seriously ill, to remain untreated. And then, perhaps, you would fall into a deep financial hole.)

And cutting off her cellphone would cut her off from contact with anyone other than her boyfriend (and “anyone” would include you, of course), which would make her even more dependent on her boyfriend than she already is. (I’m not sure how much difference cutting off her auto insurance would make right now, since nobody’s going anywhere—but this too would only serve to increase her dependency on the boyfriend.) The one result of this draconian action I don’t foresee is her agreeing to come home because you have bullied her into it.

Look, I get that you are terrified on her behalf. This is a scary time. And wanting to keep your child safe is something I absolutely understand. But efforts to keep an adult child safe—honestly, even those who are still living under one’s roof—are usually fruitless. And you cannot force your daughter to do what you (and I) feel would likely keep her safer at this time. Making the threat you are contemplating would drive a wedge between you that may be irreparable.

So make your case (again), persuasively and reasonably as well as calmly and lovingly. But that’s all you can, and should, do.

I must add this before I close: If your daughter is aware that your response to her disclosure that she’s in love with her boyfriend is to call it a “claim” and to put that claim in (plainly dismissive) quotes, her refusal to return to your home to live with you right now—while unwise from a health standpoint—is not as surprising to me as it seems to be to you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I are a few months out from starting our family and while I am very excited about having kids, I have one hang-up. I don’t want a baby. I want toddlers, kids, tweens, teens, young adults—I want all of those, but man, I don’t like babies. I don’t care to hold any of my friends’ or family’s newborns, I don’t find them cute, and they don’t interest me whatsoever. It’s not about feeling unable or unwilling to take care of them. I am very patient and always willing to do whatever is necessary. So, what gives? Is this normal, something other people have felt as well? Or is it just that I don’t care about other people’s babies and will care about my own?

—Babies Minus the Baby

Dear BMtB,

It’s possible that you don’t care about other people’s babies but will indeed be interested in your own. It’s also possible that you just don’t like babies and never will. Some people don’t, apparently. Some people do wait eagerly for their own babies to turn into little people they can (sort of) have conversations with, and some don’t become seriously interested in their own children until they’re old enough to have real conversations with (a pity, it seems to me, because from there it’s not all that long before the kids are grown and gone).

Since you are looking forward to everything from toddlerhood onward, I would say only this: As long as you take good care of your babies, you are not required to be deeply interested in this brief stage of their lives. (For many of us, the fact that it passes so quickly is a source of real grief. Perhaps you should just consider yourself lucky.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

A few years ago I transitioned to veganism from vegetarianism. I did this largely because I became aware of the cruelty of the dairy industry and the health benefits of a plant-based diet. I was about to start having kids (I now have two!) and wanted to give them the healthiest food I could. The problem I face is what to tell other parents when they ask about this.

I know how easy it is to feel judged when someone makes a different decision than you have about what’s best for their kids. How do I avoid moms not liking me when they find out I’m vegan and that I’m raising my kids that way? What should I say when they ask me why?

I’m passionate about the ethics of our treatment of animals, and I’m very well-informed both about that and about the latest studies on plant-based nutrition. I am aware of the stereotype of “Want to know if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you”—but honestly I get asked about it all the time. Although this is a passion of mine, I am not the one who brings it up! The only time I mention it is when I’m repeatedly offered something with meat or dairy, and I keep saying no and it’s awkward, and so I have to explain. Or when someone invites me over to dinner or out to a restaurant and then there is nothing I can eat or order.

I also don’t want my kids being offered food with meat or dairy. And I feel like a lot of moms ask me because they already think I’m ridiculous and WANT a reason to dislike me. No matter how gently and nonjudgmentally I explain myself, they will sort of purse their lips and nod, and then avoid me afterward. So what do I say? Should I just allow this to be what it is and the moms who don’t get offended by my choice be the only moms I’m friends with?

—Vegan Mom

Dear VM,

To answer your last question first: Yeah, don’t be friends with people who are offended by your choice to be vegan.

You’re not really talking about friendship, though, are you? You’re talking about that weird category of mom “friends” who aren’t your actual friends but are the mothers of your child’s friends or schoolmates with whom you end up spending time and having a relationship of your own. English has no word for this, but Japanese does: mamatomo—a term I embraced when my daughter was young, to make clear to myself the difference between my mamatomos and my friends. This category of relationship exists only once the kids are old enough to choose who they want to spend time with, and then bit by bit evaporates once they’re old enough to spend time with those chosen people without their parents present (unless somewhere along the way the mamatomo has become a real friend).

My point: These “friendships” with the moms we meet through our kids are rarely for the long haul, and they are unlikely to be the friendships we would have sought out for ourselves for reasons other than proximity. It’s unavoidable to be thrown into some social situations with mothers who don’t care for you (or vice versa) when your kids are young. You don’t even have to be mamatomos, though, with the ones who make you feel bad: You just have to tolerate their presence.

But let’s spend a moment on why and how they’re making you feel bad—and why and how you may be having the same effect on them. You gracefully acknowledge (“I know how easy it is to feel judged”) the insecurity and second-guessing of our own decisions that every mother struggles with at some level; you seem well aware that when another mother confidently asserts that she has the Answer, it uncomfortably tickles that tender place inside us. But you may be forgetting that the anxiety this stirs up often expresses itself as hostility.

One way to avoid making other mothers anxious, especially about something as elemental as the choice of what to feed their children, is to sidestep a discussion of one’s own choices. I don’t mean “be secretive about them.” I mean there is no reason to explain them. “We’re vegan,” is sufficient if someone asks if you would like (or why you don’t want) a hamburger. “But why?” is not a follow-up question you should feel obliged to answer in any way beyond, “I prefer it to other ways of eating.”

No matter how nonjudgmentally and gently you speak to other parents about the unethical treatment of animals raised for food, or the health benefits of your plant-based diet, many if not most of those who are feeding their children differently are going to feel uneasy about this conversation. That unease will play out in different ways, depending on the temperaments (and politics!) of the moms you’re talking with. Is it possible that you will occasionally meet a nonvegan mom who will think (and say), “Cool. Different strokes/different folks.” Maybe. Or one who has never thought of and never heard of the issues you raise? Probably not. (Although I suppose, depending on where you live, there is a very slim possibility of this.) If a mamatomo happens to say, “I’ve always wondered if that might be a good idea for us, too. How’d you make your decision? Was it hard?” then and only then feel free to talk about it at greater length.

I want to say something, too, about the specific circumstances you mention, which you say force you to explain your veganism. None of them force you to explain anything. If your child is invited to play at someone else’s house, and you want to be sure your rules around food are enforced, say something, but don’t make a speech of it. “We’re vegan, so I packed a snack for Sophie. She’s welcome to eat fruit, veggies, or anything else vegan at your house, but I figured this might make it easier.”

Your anxiety about all of this, however, makes me wonder if there isn’t something else going on. I was struck by your sense that a lot of moms ask you about being vegan because they already think you’re ridiculous and are looking for reasons to dislike you—an assertion that either indicates a great deal of insecurity (and mild, nonclinical paranoia) on your part, or that you know, deep down, that you are being self-righteous on the subject of food. Take a moment to think about what you are bringing to the table, so to speak, in these encounters with other mothers.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a very low-stakes question, but it’s on my mind every day. I have a wonderful 22-month-old son, and as I lie with him at bedtime while he falls asleep I tell him the usual things: I love you, I’m right here. One of the things I always say is I’m not going anywhere. I mean it generally, like that he’s a part of me and I will never leave him even when I die (leave it to the current state of the world for that to be on my mind daily). I know he doesn’t understand that. I assume he thinks I mean that I am literally not leaving the room. I do leave, though, once he’s asleep. Am I doing him any harm by telling him I won’t leave him, and then leaving 10 minutes later? It brings me a great sense of peace to remind him that I’m here to keep him safe in my arms, but if I’m traumatizing him in some way, I need to know! I might be overthinking this, but I would really appreciate your guidance.

—Overthinking in Michigan?

Dear Overthinking,

Overthinking is an occupational hazard for some parents. I sympathize utterly. Let me assure you that you are not traumatizing him. If I were going to be a stickler about language (which, alas, I am), I might suggest that you shift to the more metaphorical, “I’ll always be here for you” or “I’ll always be with you,” so that if he is taking everything you say literally, he won’t wake up in the middle of the night one night and be outraged: “Mama! You said you weren’t going to go anywhere!”

But it’s not really your child you’re reassuring with this soothing line—it’s yourself. And if saying these particular words in this particular way is comforting to you at a time when you could use (as we all could) some comfort—that feeling of peace you describe—I say go for it. And if he does wake up one of these nights and complains, you can teach him the difference between literal and metaphorical statements. As far as I’m concerned, it’s never too early for that.

—Michelle

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