Care and Feeding

My Mother Viciously Shamed My Weight. Now I’m Terrified of What She’ll Do to My Kids.

My sisters tolerate her abuse. Am I allowed to cut her off?

Woman on a smartphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by scyther5/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 are in the very early stages of trying to get pregnant, so I know this question is premature. But planning for a family I hope to have (I have PCOS, so I know conception is not guaranteed) has obviously brought up a lot of feelings about the way I was raised (I’m working through this in therapy), and I am deeply worried about what my parents could do to my potential future child.

The gist is that my parents were emotionally and verbally abusive to me, mostly about my weight. They first put me on Weight Watchers when I was 6 and forced me on one diet or another, at one point staging an “intervention” for me and threatening to withdraw financial support unless I got weight loss surgery. I was able to establish a boundary with them when I was in college, but as the years pass, their adherence to it frays. And the weight, to be honest, was mostly just a convenient target of my mother’s uncontrollable anger and perfectionism. She was also terrible to my eldest sister, “Kyla,” who has been “straight-sized” her whole life. But in general, most of the abuse was directed at me, especially after both my older sisters left the house.

My parents are still in my life, and though I want to cut off contact from them, it would cut me off from an extended family I adore and complicate my sisters’ lives. I am mostly able to guard my mental health by limiting contact with my parents, especially my mother, the source of most of the abuse. However, my sister “Jane,” who has the best relationship with our parents, had a daughter three years ago, and watching how my mother forces herself into my niece’s life is worrying me for my future kids (and honestly, for my niece right now). Before the pandemic they drove to visit my sister across five states constantly, FaceTimed multiple times a week, and showered the kid in gifts to buy her affection. Since the pandemic, the video chatting is daily. I even have been drawn in once a week and seeing my mother more than usual (before I just talked on the phone to my parents every three weeks or so) is having a significant negative impact on my mental health.

Jane is willing to bend over to accommodate my mother’s ridiculous requests and avoid the anger issues rather than address anything or set boundaries. She’s essentially set a precedent that my mother gets to be a huge part of her grandkids’ lives, and that she gets what she wants regarding the kid, when she wants it.

My question is, how do I set boundaries with my mother (and also my dad, but he’ll do whatever she does) if I get pregnant? Can I talk to my sister about the dangerous precedent I feel she is setting? And how can I do this without doing anything that might harm my potential kid? For what it’s worth, Kyla has expressed support for me and would help. But I also don’t want to gang up on Jane.

—Keep Grandma Away, Please

Dear KGAP,

Kyla and Jane are adults. Your relationships with them (or with other members of your extended family) do not have to be mediated by your parents, even if they think they do.

Your mother was abusive, and still behaves toward you in an unacceptable manner. I do know some abusive parents who have evolved into becoming completely adequate grandparents, usually after a lot of soul-searching and professional help, but your mother shows no sign of developing healthy boundaries or not making “ridiculous requests.” You do not enjoy speaking to her, you do not have positive memories of her, and the fact that Jane is willing to dance to her tune is not your problem.

Me? I would peace out. There are lots of ways to have other, emotionally healthy adults, in the lives of your children. My friend’s grandmother once said that most people can be divided into two categories: radiators and drains. Your mother is a drain. She will not benefit your children by being in their life. I would cut her off now, before you are a parent yourself and the stakes become higher.

I would ask your therapist to work with you on the goal of detaching from your mother, and on maintaining relationships with the members of your family you do wish to remain close to.

I wish you all the best, and I’m so sorry your mother has been such an asshole to you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I married 20 years ago when we each had older children from previous marriages. All our grandsons (18 to 2 years) are crazy about him, but we definitely see my younger daughter’s sons (ages 11, 8, and 2) the most often due to proximity. I’d noticed when the two older boys were practicing baseball with him a few years ago that Grandpa (my husband) would say things about throwing or running “like a girl.” They would be one-off comments that were immediately followed by other chatter so rather than correct him and disrupt their flow and put him in a foul mood, I never made a correction.

The other day the 2-year-old was over by himself. Dylan is an exceptionally pleasant toddler, charming and chill. Grandpa wanted to engage with him as he stood between us running a car along the tabletop where we were seated, so he said quite pointedly, “Dylan, are you a boy or a girl?” No response. “Hey Dylan, are you a boy or a girl?” Nothing. “Huh buddy, are you a boy or a girl?” I was speechless. Fortunately, I wasn’t required to break up this line of inquiry because Dylan started jibber-jabbering about the toy he had. This really weighs on me, though.

My husband and I do not have the kind of relationship that allows a frank discussion of how that interaction made me feel. I do, however, want this kind of implied gender stereotyping to never happen again around me. I do not want any of my grandkids to associate me with it. I need help bringing it up, stating my needs, and hopefully not starting WWIII.

— Really?

Dear Really,

I answered this question in Tuesday’s live video, but I’m going to expand on it here for a larger audience.

I’m disturbed that you don’t feel you can have a frank discussion with your husband of 20 years about something that troubles you so deeply. I would be interested to know how your communication holds up in other respects, and if you are able to bring up things that bother you.

As to the matter at hand, my first step would be to speak to your younger daughter, as Dylan is her son, and say, “Hey, I’ve noticed Dad has a tendency to say x, y, and z around the boys, and it bothers me. How would you like me to handle these comments?” Your daughter may say that she’ll speak to him herself, that she would like you to intervene in the moment, or that she’d like you to have a talk with him about it.

If she would prefer you handle it in the moment, I think a “what a strange thing to say?” or “why would you ask him that?” are good options. He may be upset at you later, but it sounds like any attempt to question or confront him on this point will result in some form of conflict.

If she wants you to talk to your husband, then you’ll have to talk to your husband (I would anyway, frankly) and if “it starts WWIII,” that’s on him, not on you. I would start with questions: “Yesterday, when Dylan was over, you asked him repeatedly if he was a boy or a girl, what’s up with that?” On the off chance he was trying to tell a funny joke and it was the equivalent of saying “knock-knock,” he can explain that. In terms of the more generalized running/throwing “like a girl” comments, I would just say that you don’t want the boys hearing that being a girl is shameful or less than, and there are better ways to encourage them.

If he blows up, he blows up. You haven’t done anything wrong.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter and husband have an aversion to eggs. They feel sick and their heads hurt if they are near any type of cooked eggs like scrambled or hard boiled for several hours. I like eating eggs for breakfast, but with everyone at home, I can’t wait until after they leave to make eggs. My daughter hides in her room for hours and won’t eat if I have made eggs recently. How do we compromise on this?

—Egg Dilemma

Dear ED,

It seems likely that your husband and daughter have some sort of actual physical reaction to eggs, which I would pursue with an allergist when time and resources permit.

Regardless of whether they have an egg allergy or just a strong reaction to the smell of eggs, I suggest you stop eating eggs for breakfast. There are many things you can make for breakfast that do not torment the other people you live with. When the pandemic is over, conceivably you can go back to eating all the eggs you want.

What Should You Do When Grandma Starts Playing Favorites?

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’m the youngest of three siblings, and I recently had my first child. Neither my brother nor my sister have children and neither want to. They constantly joke about how they are giving our parents “grand-cats and grand-dogs,” and I’m giving them grandchildren. Before I got pregnant, they assumed that I didn’t want kids either, despite us never discussing it, and would include me in these jokes. When I was one month pregnant and had yet to tell anyone, my sister, whom I’ll call Sharon, even tagged me in a post about how my parents would only ever have grand-pets. It made me feel ashamed and less than, even though I love my son and have no regrets having him.

Recently my sister explained to our mom that she doesn’t want to have kids because she wants to be successful and do well at her job. She commented on how her co-workers have to take off work for their kids and how they are coping home-schooling during lockdown. Sharon doesn’t want any of that getting in the way of her career and ambitions.

While I certainly understand and applaud her for having goals, when I hear her talk like this, I can’t help but feel like I am being shamed for choosing to have kids. Like somehow I should have chosen to be childless so that I, too, could be as successful. Like I am not as driven or worthy somehow. How do I cope with these feelings?

—Tired of Feeling Ashamed

Dear ToFA,

I encourage you to be 100 percent less interested in your siblings’ opinions. Not wanting to have kids is absolutely fine; not wanting to have kids so you can focus on your career is absolutely fine. But you definitely don’t need to hear about it, and you absolutely don’t need to let it question the sources of joy in your life.

It sounds to me like many of these comments are not meant to be directed at you (the “grand-pets” comments before they knew you were pregnant, the career conversation your sister shared with your mother and not with you, etc.), so I encourage you to develop a thicker skin around their views on having children.

If your siblings start in randomly on how having kids is ridiculous or self-sabotaging, you have my permission to roll your eyes and leave the room. Or end the phone call. Or say “you do remember I have a kid, right?”

I do not think they are actively trying to shame you; I think they’re just a little solipsistic and callous. I suggest you enjoy parenting your son, ignore their choices, and, if you continue to be plagued by feelings of inadequacy, I would give therapy a try. Therapy is great for distinguishing between helpful feelings of discontent and feelings of discontent that have been planted in you by third parties.

Congratulations on your wonderful son.

— Nicole

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