Care and Feeding

Kids Keep Tossing My Sweet Toddler’s Rock Garden Contributions Into the Gutter

He loves his “pwetty wocks.” Clearly the monsters next door do not.

A child paints a rock.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Inna Reznik/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,

Some neighborhood kids set up a community rock garden on the side of the walking path near our home. Judging by the writing on their sign encouraging others to add rocks and join in the fun, they’re in elementary or middle school. My 2.5-year-old son was so excited to contribute to the garden and used some markers to decorate a couple additions. Unsurprisingly, they’re not exactly pretty, but he had a lot of fun with the activity and couldn’t wait to deposit them in the garden.

Well, they must not have made the cut for one or more of the kids, because we’ve now found them in a nearby gutter … twice. I’ve placed them back when my son wasn’t looking, as it was so heartbreaking for him to walk by and wonder sadly where his “pwetty wocks” went. My question is, should I leave a note? Like, “Stop throwing people’s rocks away because they may be hurt”? For the record, his are the only ones I’ve seen in the gutter.

I understand kids in elementary and middle school are still learning how to be kind, so I’m just wondering what the best course of action is. My son LOVES the rock garden and wants to take a look at it every time we go for a walk.

—Dreading the Rocky Road

Dear DtRR,

Absolutely do not leave a note. This is just kids doing something to pass the time. If your son asks where his rocks went, say, “Now we get to find them! A treasure hunt!” and then act very excited to ferret them out of the gutter and put them back in the garden.

Either they’ll get bored of removing them or you have a fun new daily activity. It’s only disappointing to him if you encourage the idea it’s disappointing. “Let’s see where your rocks are hiding today, and then we can put them back to bed!” is absolutely fine.

I’m sure his rocks are lovely, and I’m glad he’s enjoying the garden.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a new mom to a healthy 4-month-old, and as luck would have it, my maternity leave coincided with the pandemic, so I spent all of that time at home, seeing no one but my baby and husband. As an essential worker, I have recently gone back to working in person in a health care field, where many of my co-workers haven’t seen me since I was heavily pregnant.

I have always been relatively fit/thin, but as with many people living in our society, I have complicated emotions/history regarding my body and weight. However, I didn’t gain very much weight during pregnancy (I was always within the healthy range), and once my baby was born, breastfeeding/general parenting requirements have led to me losing the weight I did gain rather quickly, and perhaps even losing a bit more weight than my pre-pregnancy body (although nothing concerning).

Now that I’m back at work, everyone—and I mean EVERYONE—is commenting on my body.
Usually, this is something along the lines of “Wow, you lost the baby weight so quickly!” or “You don’t even look like you had a baby!” I know these people mean well, and their comments are meant to be complimentary. But I’m having a hard time coming up with a response that would convey my feelings, which are: I don’t like to focus on my body or other people’s bodies, and I don’t think it’s a compliment to say someone has lost weight, nor do I want anyone who hears this comment to internalize the idea that it’s important for moms to lose the “baby weight” in some predetermined amount of time.

Making things more complicated, I work in a setting where 1) everyone works interconnectedly and I have to rely on the goodwill of my co-workers to function in my own job, so chastising or lecturing them on body image is not a good idea in my professional environment; and 2) I am in a higher “position” than many of the people who are making the comments, so again, even slightly lecturing someone in response to what they mean as a compliment could sound condescending, and I don’t want to do that.

Based on a friend’s advice, I tried saying in response to one person, “Oh, I’m just glad me and the baby are healthy!” and it came off extremely awkwardly, and I still felt a bit holier-than-thou. I have no trouble responding if someone says something about my daughter and her body (them: “Wow, she’s so chunky”; me (with a pointed tone): “Yes, she’s a healthy baby!”), but I am stuck on what to say when the comment is about me. Are there magic words to convey “I’m not trying to change society’s body image issues with a lecture here, nor am I trying to sound high and mighty, but also I don’t think me losing weight is a good/bad/relevant thing”?

—Stop Talking About My Body

Dear STAMB,

The workplace is rarely suited to hosting Teachable Moments, so I encourage you to happily relish that your co-workers will soon forget you have recently had a baby, as people do not actually care that much about the lives of their fellow employees. In the meantime, a simple “I still can’t believe she’s already X months old!” is a statement that is a) true, b) not completely a non sequitur, and c) redirects the conversational flow. If anyone tries to bring it back to your body after being parried, say, “Oh, I think I have a call scheduled, excuse me” and leave the room.

Congratulations on your baby! I can’t believe she’s 4 months old!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My boyfriend, “Jack,” and I have been together for more than seven years. We are both out of college, I have a career, and he’s in law school, and we are ready to get married.

The trouble is Jack’s family has always been extremely rude to mine. They frequently have gatherings at their home that Jack and I and other friends and family members of theirs are invited to attend, but my parents have never been invited to their house once in seven entire years, despite living in the same town. They essentially invited themselves to my sister’s graduation party and then ignored everyone in my family while they were there. They’ve also agreed to go to dinner with just our two families and then essentially ignored my parents the entire time then as well. They do activities and go on trips with Jack’s sister’s boyfriend’s family and seem to have no problems reaching out to them, and I’ve often seen them go out of their way to include other people who may have nowhere to go for holidays, etc. As far as I know, literally nothing has ever happened between the two families that I don’t know about. If they have perceived a slight, it is one that I, my boyfriend, and my own family are all unaware of.

I’m obviously extremely embarrassed and hurt by this. I feel so angry on my parents’ behalf, and the only reason I have never said anything (I’m a healthily confrontational person, I think) is because my boyfriend has begged me not to, telling me I have no idea how vicious his mom can be in a fight, and that no matter what I do, she won’t stop fighting with me until she wins.

I feel like this is a big reason we aren’t engaged. We’re not in particularly high-paying jobs and although we’re not especially fancy people, I suspect it will be a group effort involving both of our families to plan and have a wedding. But I don’t even feel comfortable talking about it with them until I’m able to hold them accountable for being kind to my family while we work together to plan a wedding and enjoy ourselves on what’s supposed to be a happy day for all of us.

Jack loves my parents and feels embarrassed and angry for them too, but I think he also is at a loss on what to say to his mom and dad about it. This doesn’t have to be a lasting peace, as we’ve already agreed we don’t have to spend a lot of time with the families together after we’re married. We are fine drawing boundaries on who we spend time with and when, but this is one day we can’t really negotiate about. How do we make my future in-laws aware that they MUST be kind to my parents at least long enough to participate in a wedding when they are notoriously difficult to confront and negotiate with?

—Pre-engaged in Purgatory

Dear PiP,

I was glad to hear you say that you’ve already discussed what role you hope your families will play in your marriage, because I must admit that “I have no idea how vicious his mom can be in a fight, and that no matter what I do, she won’t stop fighting with me until she wins” had me pressing the eject button on your behalf. Despite the fact you have discussed this, I am still concerned. Lots of people are very, very clear about How Things Are Going To Be before they get married, up to and including the number of children they plan on having, and then life happens. I want you two to sit down and really process this issue together. There are a number of books (and websites) with titles like The 6,000 Conversations You Should Have Before Getting Married, and I suggest tackling a few of those. Sometimes boundaries work fine until you have kids (should you plan on having kids), and then you find out Jack’s mother is a heat-seeking missile trained on your carefully constructed walls.

I’m not overly concerned about the wedding. It’s a hill of beans in the bigger picture. Also, you are … not actually engaged yet. What I want you to do before things go any further is have Jack say to his parents: “Beth and I are very seriously involved, and I think it’s time you get to know her family better.” Their reaction is going to tell you a lot. Listen to that reaction.

You have been together for seven years and appear to have good communication. That’s great. I do have to say that, after reading many, many letters from people who are navigating the aftermath of your situation, I would be hesitant to commit my life to someone whose mother is a proven Spartan emotional warrior who will never, ever back down until she drinks the blood of her enemies. Jack did not say “my mother is difficult.” He did not say “she can be a handful.” On one hand, I am grateful that he is clear-eyed about his family and is not attempting to conceal their reality from you! On the other hand, you are still very young, and the world is filled with men whose mothers are not fire monsters. If this issue is standing between you and getting engaged, I think it’s worth taking some time to consider if it’s not one of the hundred or more deal-breakers that can (and should) keep a lovely boyfriend from becoming your husband. I have dated a lot of nice people I didn’t marry.

Probe it. Test it. Think about it. Have Jack take the reins on his parents’ relationship with your family. Keep us posted.

Is the Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo Worth Watching?

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 have been married for five years with two kids. My problem is one of my sisters-in-law. She has disliked me from the start and never missed any chance to insult or humiliate me, ever, mainly because I am a rather reserved person and that seemed abnormal to her. She doesn’t understand boundaries: Why wasn’t I getting pregnant after eight months of marriage? Can she watch me breastfeed my son?

Now, she is all lovey-dovey with me, for reasons best known to her, and if I don’t respond to her, she starts a slew of complaints to my husband (her brother), and there’s no peace till I write out a reply.

I am sick of this drama. I do not want to be close to her, ever, but can’t cut her off either. My husband is a conflict avoider, and frankly I don’t want him to fight with her (he has argued two to three times when the insults really crossed a line, but there are no insults now really, only smothering “love”).

How do I deal with her on my own so I can live drama-free?

—I Want Mental Peace

Dear IWMP,

You drop your end of the rope. You reply to the texts and emails you wish to reply to, and you ignore the others. If you do not want to hang out, don’t. Learn the power of “That won’t work for me” and “We have plans.” If she pesters your husband, that’s his problem. Don’t make it yours. He can continue to avoid conflict all he likes, but he doesn’t get to dump it in your lap.

You can be civil without being warm. You can be polite without inviting someone into your intimate family life. Focus on your life and live it to its fullest. It does not take two people to create drama, but you always have the option not to engage. Hide her posts on social media; remember your phone is for your convenience and is not a royal summons; and if your husband starts nagging you to get his sister off his back, tell him that you are civil and polite and would rather focus your emotional energy and limited spare time on him and your children.

I also encourage you to pretend she is a work colleague, because handling her as you would handle a colleague you do not particularly care for will set the correct tone in terms of civility, politeness, and boundaries. If you are above objective reproach, she can scream into the wind.

I wish you all the best.

—Nicole

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My husband and I recently found out I’m pregnant (yay!). We have very few disagreements and generally see eye-to-eye on most things. But we fundamentally disagree on whether or not to find out the gender of our unborn child. I don’t want to find out; he does. I could go through all of the arguments, but neither of us views it logically. Me: It doesn’t really matter what the gender is, I’d rather be surprised. Him: Hates surprises. This is one of the few things in life that there’s no compromise, because you either find out or you don’t. I also don’t think that it would work for him to find out and me not to—I know the answer would be revealed one way or another. How can we resolve this?