Care and Feeding

My In-Laws Left a Gun Out With My Young Nephew Around

I’m livid.

A gun on top of a nightstand next to an alarm clock and lamp.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FuzzMartin/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 husband and I have a 1-year-old daughter. Our parents all live in a state where gun ownership is common. I’ve talked to my parents about the shotgun I know they own: It’s locked in a safe, without ammunition, and only my mother knows the code. They are respectful and transparent about gun safety concerns, and I’ve never felt unsafe. My in-laws, however, are another story. My stepfather-in-law is, well, kind of a shithead. He’s not … evil, but he’s never been my favorite person. Lots of racist and sexist jokes over the years, dominates the conversation wherever he goes, carries himself like a wannabe cowboy. He’s not someone I would choose to have in my daughter’s life, but he’s married to my husband’s mother, whom I love and is generally sweet. He seems to be a good husband to her, so whatever.

We know they own a handgun, and my husband asked his mom about gun safety before we went to visit for Christmas this year. Our daughter was still a baby, but we have a 6-year-old nephew who is at the house a lot. My MIL was obviously weirded out by the questions but told him they keep it locked up, out of reach, and the bullets are somewhere separate. On the last day of our trip, my husband saw the gun out on the dresser in their bedroom. No case. Nothing. We both think it was some kind of flexing from his stepdad, who was probably annoyed we asked in the first place.

I was so angry, but since we were leaving that day, we didn’t say anything. Since the pandemic happened, we probably won’t be visiting them anytime soon (especially since none of them socially distance or wear masks). But how do we handle it when we go back in a year or so? We’re totally in the right to ask them to show us where the gun is and ensure that they’ll keep it locked away, right? I’m also tempted to tell them that if it’s taken out for any reason while we are staying with you, we will leave and not come back.

My husband and I have already talked about our daughter not being left alone with them. Even though he’s never done anything to hurt a child, I just don’t feel comfortable with her around him unsupervised. He raised a son who he obviously loves, but I just don’t trust them. Am I being overly sensitive? How do you let grandparents be involved when a culture gap leads to safety concerns? Also, she doesn’t have to call him Grandpa, right? They’re pushing that too, and my husband and I both hate it.

—From His Cold Dead Hands

Dear FHCDH,

You’re not being overly sensitive. Irresponsible gun ownership is a cause of accident, death, and needless pain, and I cannot imagine any gun advocate would argue that leaving one lying about as though it were a hair dryer or stapler is responsible.

Maybe it was an assertion of authority from your stepfather-in-law; maybe it was a stupid mistake. I’m not sure it matters. You’ve a greater responsibility to your child’s (and your nephew’s!) safety than to this man’s feelings. This is not what you term a culture gap, because being an irresponsible gun owner is not a cultural choice! It’s just idiocy.

You can be respectful but entirely clear with your mother- and stepfather-in-law: “The last time we visited, we saw Bill’s gun lying out. We aren’t comfortable visiting your home unless you’re going to be careful with the gun. If it’s out now, can you please lock it up and promise us it’ll stay there until we leave?”

If they try to brush this off, you can point out that you’ve discussed this before, and that they did not honor their assurances that they’d put the gun away. That’s a violation of trust. If you feel so strongly about this matter that you’d let it prevent future visits, you should state so. They might think this is you making some silly demand; they might feel this is that culture gap to which you allude. But it’s not a silly demand, not to me, anyway.

I also think you should communicate about this with your nephew’s parents. These are legitimate and serious concerns. Your stepfather-in-law might want to be called “Grandpa” (your call, I think!), but first he should start acting like one and exercising every possible caution to keep the kids in his life safe.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I read a letter from May 5 from a stepmom wanting to be called ““mom,”” and it made me think of my own situation: I have a 7-year-old stepdaughter. I’ve been in her life since she was 3, and I’ve always been very involved. She’s with us half the time, and our relationship with her mom is pretty good, thankfully. Since she was 4, every few months, she’ll ask if she can call me “Mommy.” It’s my belief that kids should call their parental figures whatever they choose (within reason), so I reply, “Sure, if you want!” and she calls me “Mommy” for about an hour and then it wears off. The rest of the time, she uses my first name.

In the past year, though, she’s been calling me “Mommy” more and more without asking first. I’d say it’s about 25 to 50 percent of the time, which is OK. Sometimes it’s at particularly touching moments, like when I’ve soothed her after a nightmare. But sometimes, it crops up when she especially wants my attention. If I’m focused on work, or if I’m giving her dad a welcome-home hug, or if I’ve got my head under the sink trying to figure out what’s leaking, and she feels left out or I don’t answer right away: “Mommy!”

I think she’s figured out that, deep down (or, horrifyingly, more clearly on the surface), it tugs on my heartstrings to be called mommy (I certainly love her as a daughter), and she’s figured out that “Mommy” is the key to getting me to answer her bids for attention. I try not to answer to one more than the other, but I am horrified of the thought of her growing up and thinking, “Wow, my stepmom only paid attention to me when I called her ‘Mommy.’ ” How do I snap out of it? Am I totally overthinking this?

—Maybe Mommy

Dear MM,

I hate the language of “stepparent.” It connotes something so specific—distant and cool—when the truth is that many stepparents are, like you, as involved and loving as the other parents in the equation.

I think you’re right: If your kid wants to call you “Mommy,” then there’s no real harm done. She probably thinks of you thus, because that’s what you are to her.

Also, I think the situation you describe is unlikely to end up with your daughter in therapy, wondering why she could only get your attention when she called you mommy. I think it’s most often just an honest expression of the emotional tenor of the moment—she’s scared, or feeling cozy, or fond of you. And then there’s the fact that she’s almost certainly sometimes doing it on purpose because she knows it might help her get what she wants, even if the objective is only your attention. You don’t need to snap out of anything. Your daughter’s lucky to have someone as thoughtful as you in her life. But I don’t think you need to worry about this!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a first-time mom. I have had boundary issues in the past with my parents, mainly my mom, and I’m finding I need to deal with them now in a new way now that I have children. The day before Mother’s Day, my parents gave me some flowers and a card, but instead of signing the card themselves, they signed it from my daughter. I let it slide, miffed that they had, in my mind, stolen what was to me my husband’s job of giving me my first card from my daughter. But it happened again for Father’s Day. Two days before Father’s Day, they left my husband a card in our mailbox, that was signed by them as if it was from our daughter. He and I both think that this is overstepping their role as grandparents. We believe it is our job as parents to send cards from our daughter. I messaged my parents saying as much, telling them that I was hurt that they had stolen firsts from us, and that it would have been entirely different if the cards had just been addressed from them. Are we being too harsh on them? I know our daughter is their first grandchild, but before that she is our daughter. My mom’s argument (in part) was that she would love to get cards from our daughter (from us) and thus she sees no issue.

I’m finding generally that I haven’t told my parents about some choices my husband and I have made regarding how we plan to raise our daughter, because I know they will cause a stir. (This has been an issue since I was pregnant, when we told them we didn’t want anything overly girly for our daughter, to which my mom replied that she would just keep the girly things at her house. It made me wonder what other rules we make that they would break.) My parents raised me Southern Baptist, but my husband and I plan to raise our daughter without taking her to church unless she asks, teaching her the basic beliefs of several major religions. I know that is going to be a major issue with my parents.

I guess what my question boils down to is: Are we overreacting about the cards? On a larger level, any thoughts on how to broach what we know will be difficult choices regarding how we are raising her?

—She’s My Daughter

Dear SMD,

It is not always easy to balance your respect for your parents with your desire to make a family all your own.

Ideally, your folks will give you a little leeway as you settle on what makes the most sense for your family; ideally, you and your husband will understand the grandparents’ excitement and desire to stay involved.

What you describe seems to me like a minor thing—they signed a card to you on behalf of their infant grandchild. The intention wasn’t, I don’t think, to meddle, but instead to make a sweet gesture that communicated their excitement for your first Mother’s Day. You didn’t tell them this made you unhappy, so they likely thought it had been well received, and repeated the gesture for your husband. I don’t know if it was worth getting upset over, but you communicated to them how you felt about this, and hopefully they heard that. Your mom doesn’t need to understand your feelings, but hopefully she will heed them.

The best way to avoid conflict over other choices you intend to make is to communicate them clearly. If you don’t want your little girl to have tons of pink things, say as much before your parents rush out and buy her a bunch of pink things. The same pertains to church; if you intend to raise your family in a more secular tradition, you should find an opportune time to explain that so your parents aren’t expecting you beside them every Sunday.

Personally, I do think you’re overreacting to the cards—it’s in the past now, and you’ve made your position clear. And if you have strong feelings about an issue, I think the best way forward is to communicate clearly, so you can avoid misunderstanding.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter turns 3 next month and is slowly giving up her afternoon nap. She used to sleep from 3–5:30 p.m. regularly, and we’ve still been putting her down for a nap at this time. More often than not, she stays awake the whole time, telling her dolls and stuffed animals’ stories. She’s an imaginative kid who seems to keep herself entertained. If she cries out for me, I go get her. This happens rarely.

My son is 10 months old and also naps at the same time. I love this peaceful break from my kids. It keeps me sane. But I also feel guilty for leaving my toddler by herself in her dark bedroom for 2½ hours every afternoon. Is this bad developmentally for her? Would it be better or worse if I plopped her in front of the TV? (She gets about an hour of TV per week right now). How long can I keep this “naptime” routine going?

—Needing Naptime

Dear NN,

I know well the challenges of dealing with slightly out-of-sync nap schedules. It sounds like your toddler is naturally aging out of the kind of nap cycle a toddler requires.

For the sanity of your household, I can understand why you want to have a routine and some downtime. I don’t think television is the only answer, though! You can institute big girl quiet time: When her brother is napping, she gets to go in her room and read books or play what she likes, as long as she doesn’t disturb the baby.

Two and a half hours might be a big ask, though, even if she’s adept at entertaining herself. Perhaps you could set a timer and give her an hour of this quiet time, which is also giving yourself the gift of an hour. I’m absolutely not opposed to screen time, but for me it’s more last resort. If she doesn’t understand or enjoy this quiet time alone in her room, you could devise some other big girl activity that doesn’t involve her brother (a big selling point, I think, for a toddler) and won’t require your active participation: She could lie on the sofa with a pile of books, or sit at the table with a ton of art supplies, or you could play music or an audiobook and maintain your distance so she knows she’s on her own for this period. Make the rules clear—she’s to stay in whatever area or room, with whatever activity or diversion you’ve come up with.

Experiment with this—give her an hour, or 90 minutes, and figure out what feels right. After you’ve had your break and she’s had hers, you may find you enjoy having a bit of one-on-one time with her while the baby is still asleep.

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