Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s Pleas for a Sibling Are Breaking My Heart

One child was the right decision for us, but I still feel guilty. How do we help her understand?

Sad 6-year-old girl.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by santol/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,

I’m the mother of a bright and sociable 6-year-old, “Jane.” She is an only child for many reasons, but the overriding factor was economic—we’re median earners in an area with high housing costs, my husband and I both work full time, and we simply couldn’t afford to have another child. I’ve always had conflicting feelings about this; despite knowing it was the right decision for our family, I’ve felt guilty for not “giving” her a sibling. Ordinarily, Jane would have soccer games and swim lessons, and I’d fight my own tendency toward introversion to arrange get-togethers with her friends. Because of COVID, so much of that is off the table, and Jane frequently brings up her only-child status and asks why she doesn’t have a brother or a sister. We’re doing the best we can to make things normal for her: She goes to a day camp three days a week with some of her best buddies from kindergarten, I do special things with her, and we spend time with her cousins, who are close in age. But Jane’s questions are dredging up my feelings of failure and resentment. I see her watching other children play in our neighborhood, and I want to cry. How do I keep my issues from affecting my child?

—One and Done

Dear OaD,

Jane is old enough for you to explain to her that you made the right choice for your family, that it was a difficult one to make, and that while you understand just how badly she wants a sibling, it simply is not going to happen. Allow her to express her feelings about this and then share your own; you love your daughter very much and work hard to make her happy, but you won’t always be able to give her everything she wants. This is one of those times, and she should know that it doesn’t just make her feel bad to be without the brother or sister she so desires; it also makes you and your husband feel bad to see her feeling that way. Continuing to push the issue will not get her the result she wants, and it will continue to make her parents feel worse. Offer her some ideas for things she can do when she’s feeling low about not having a sibling, such as drawing a picture, FaceTiming a friend, or coming to Mommy for special cuddle time.

Also, explain that there are many siblings who do not get along, and that having one does not guarantee having a built-in playmate or lifelong best friend. Point out some of the things that you all are able to do as a unit of three, or that she gets to do one-on-one with each of her parents, that you may not be able to do anymore if there were another child present. As the sole child of a mother who wished to have other children and could not, only to have to deal with me complaining about it for many years, I wish that she had been more transparent with me so that I would have given her the peace she deserved.

The most important step you can take to keep this from affecting your daughter is to address the pain you are feeling with a professional. It’s not surprising that you feel crummy about having to choose not to have a second child when you know she really wants you to, but if those feelings are taking a major toll on you, you should address them in a way that centers your own healing. Take care of yourself, and I’m sending you lots of love and healing thoughts.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son lets my 2-year-old grandson stand in front of him and help push the lawnmower. I get little videos of this with captions about him being a good helper. I think this is crazily unsafe. Many accidents can happen with lawnmowers, and I believe this is an accident waiting to happen. I am a long-distance grandparent and keep up with Skype and Snapchat. I don’t ever give parenting advice, but this really bothers me. Do I say something or keep my opinion to myself?

—Concerned Grandma

Dear CG,

You have every right to express safety concerns to your son over his lawnmower antics, and you’d be letting down generations of grandparents if you didn’t do so. Considering that you don’t make it a habit of giving unsolicited parenting advice, perhaps he will take this departure from your usual M.O. quite seriously and reconsider his actions. Feel free to arm yourself with an article or some statistics about children and lawnmower accidents, which may help drive the point home even further. Best of luck to you!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I believe, and think I’ve probably even read in this column, that children shouldn’t be responsible for managing their parents’ emotions. But how do you demonstrate that while having actual emotions in front of your children? Is it important to show them that you have emotions too? My toddler gets fairly upset when I’m sad or sick (and I’ve had mastitis THREE times in the last four months, so I’ve done quite a bit of parenting from the couch while very sick). He will bring me water and say, “Now Mommy happy!” or make me laugh and then say, “Now Mommy not sick!” It’s sweet, and I’m glad he’s empathetic, but at the same time, I’m worried he thinks he’s responsible for making me feel better. Is that a worrying sign, or is he just being a sweet toddler?

—Feels About Feelings

Dear FAF,

I think it is incredibly important to teach children that parents are complex human beings who experience a full range of emotions—including sadness, fear, disappointment, anxiety, and others—that may chip away at the veneer of infallibility and endless strength that many of us present. It is also important to make the distinction between the impact they can have on your emotional state (“Your hugs make me feel so much happier!”) versus the notion that they are responsible for your emotions. Kindness can make people feel better, rudeness can make people upset; he is responsible for avoiding unnecessary/inappropriate behaviors that may lead to negative emotions, and he is appreciated for behaving in a way that is intended to make you feel good. But neither of those things means that he should see your state of mind as a burden that he has to tend to.

It sounds like he’s just being a sweetie pie who sees that his mom isn’t feeling her best and wants to do what he can to help her improve. Thank him for his gestures, but let him know that while they may put a smile on your face, Mommy’s illness doesn’t go away just because she’s had some water or a hug, and that unfortunately there isn’t anything he can do to make you feel 100 percent better. You needn’t scare him with all of the details of your medical issues at this point, but it’s OK for him to know that Mommy isn’t OK right now and that you need his cooperation at this difficult moment. Affirm how much it means to you that he wants to make you feel better, that you are taking all the steps you can to recover, and that even when you are feeling your worst, his love remains a bright spot in your heart. Sending you best wishes for your recovery.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question about setting boundaries with kids who are not my own. My partner and I live in a tightknit neighborhood with lots of little kids. We are particularly close with our young neighbors Chloe (7) and Mark (4) and their mother. We don’t have children, and we probably won’t, as years of infertility, doctor visits, and failed procedures nearly broke us, but we both have years of experience in teaching/child care, and we love our little neighbors, who have the run of the yard and adore our pets.

Lately Chloe (who is the only little girl on the street) has gotten used to me being at home and spent nearly every day of the stay-at-home orders coming by, playing with the dogs, and chatting with me. Now that I’m back at work, she has begun coming over in the evenings, which, after a very long day for me (I have a high-pressure job), is not the best time for a young guest. I am also a frequent marijuana user. I’ve told them many times that Saturday mornings are the best time for them to come over; however, the kids tend to head over as soon as I get home from work on weeknights, and it’s getting exhausting.

Last night, I had a visit from a close friend, the only one I have been able to see during the quarantine. The kids continuously popped over to chat. It was disruptive, annoying to my friend (who is quarantining with her young niece and nephews and comes over to get a break from the madness), and uncomfortable, especially since we were drinking and smoking pot. I kept gently reminding Chloe she was welcome to come by on Saturday but that I was busy at the moment. Yet she persisted until she finally lost interest because my friend left. I am not super comfortable talking with their mother; she’s very nice and obviously doing an excellent job with the kids, but I struggle to have conversations with adults (probably why I got into teaching), and I feel awkward and out of place as the only adult without children hanging around. I really want to find a way to gently set boundaries (is that an oxymoron?) while still letting Chloe know that I enjoy having her around. Any ideas?

—Trying to Stay Neighborly

Dear TtSN,

It’s really beautiful that you and your partner have made space in your lives for your young neighbors. However, while it may be difficult for you to have conversations with adults, it is important that you have solid communications with the parents of any children who are going to spend time in your company, as students or neighbors, in order to ensure everyone’s safety and comfort. This current conundrum may be in some way connected to the lack of communication between you and the little ones’ mother, who may have fallen a bit short when it comes to teaching her children boundaries and/or does not know that you have requested that visits be typically limited to Saturday mornings to enforce your house rule.

Let her know that you two love having her kids over but that you’re usually exhausted after work and need that time to decompress. Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with the interruption again after that, as she should be the one ensuring that her children are abiding by your wishes. If they do return unannounced at a time during which you do not wish to entertain them, politely remind them of the rules for hanging out at your home and walk them back to their own unit, ring the bell, and let Mom know that they came by. Hoping it won’t have to come to that! Best wishes to you all.

—Jamilah

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