Care and Feeding

I Tried to Protect My Daughter by Hiding the Truth About Her Dad

Is it time to fess up?

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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,

Right out of high school, I was in a short-lived, abusive marriage. As soon as I got pregnant, I was looking for a way to escape. Thankfully, my husband was arrested, I was granted full custody, and I moved across the country.

I met my current husband when my daughter was 2. He has always been my daughter’s dad in every way. We never prompted her to call him dad, but everything fell into place naturally for us. My husband has always wanted to adopt my daughter. We have gotten the paperwork, but I always put it off. I think it just scares me, because I will have to send paperwork to my ex requesting his consent. Divorcing him was a nightmare, and we haven’t spoken since. I’m also nervous about him knowing where we live.

Despite this, we’re planning on moving forward with the adoption when COVID is over. My daughter is almost 10. She has no idea that my husband is not her biological father. The older she gets, the more anxious I get that she doesn’t know. I would rather not tell her if I could. Having a relationship with my ex or his family would put her in emotional and physical danger. But in the age of social media, they could reach out to her when she’s older. I don’t want to ruin her relationship with my husband by telling her he’s not her biological dad. I don’t want to ruin her relationship with me because I have been keeping this from her. Do I keep protecting her and keep our family dynamic intact or does she deserve to know the truth and if so, at what age?

—Deceptive or Protective

Dear DoP,

I can understand how things got to this point—you were young, it was a terrible situation, you escaped it and found happiness. Of course you wouldn’t want to risk that by getting entangled with your ex, and of course this feels too big and frightening to have to explain to your daughter. I understand your desire to protect your kid from painful information, but one of the hard things about parenthood is coming to terms with the fact that you can’t protect your kid from everything. So no, for the sake of your daughter’s future and your husband’s feelings, I don’t think deception is an option here.

These are complicated issues I think you should discuss with a therapist. I defer to the expert, although I will say generally that you need to do all the things you’re hoping to avoid. A therapist can help you figure out exactly how and when to do this, but you must tell your daughter about her origins (you can spare her any details you think she’s not ready for, but she needs to know the big stuff). I also think you should honor your husband’s desire to formally legalize his relationship with his child. And you should develop a strategy for dealing with your daughter’s father and his family; pretending they don’t exist is not a good plan, especially, as you point out, in the age of social media.

This won’t be easy, but you can do it. Telling the truth will not ruin your kid’s relationship with the man she’s always called dad; withholding the truth, though, could be ruinous. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My best friend T and I have an “it takes a village” arrangement. She lives with her husband and kids (ages 10, 3, and 1) and I (a single mother to a 3-month-old) rent her guesthouse. I pay market rate rent, plus separate utilities; we all spend a lot of time together, eat dinner together most nights, and treat one another’s kids as if they’re our own in terms of attention, discipline, and affection. We’re a family.

Once or twice a week I text her 10-year-old, C, and ask her to watch my baby while I shower. I don’t do it every time I shower, just when I want some “me time.” I always ask her to clear it with her mom first, and have made it clear to her that she is welcome to say no if she doesn’t feel like it or is busy. It’s always during the baby’s nap. All C has to do is let me know if the baby wakes up. She’s usually over for about 45 minutes to an hour, and for this I pay her $10.

T doesn’t want me to pay C—she thinks C should be doing it as a kindness and because we’re family. T argues that she does the same thing with C and doesn’t pay her, but I think it’s different because C is, in fact, her toddlers’ sibling, plus, and more importantly, watching her siblings in her own house while their mom showers doesn’t require interrupting what she’s doing, putting shoes on, and leaving the house.

I don’t disagree that T doesn’t need to pay C to watch the toddlers while she’s in the shower, but I do think it’s appropriate for me to pay her when she comes over to watch my baby. What do you think?

—It Takes a Village

Dear ITaV,

Your living situation sounds enviable! You are a family, but I think you need to answer for yourself what exactly that means. Do you intend this living arrangement as temporary or for the foreseeable future? Do you want your friend’s kids to think of your own as a sibling, or a pal? If you want to live in a communal arrangement, perhaps you shouldn’t make distinctions between the care C provides for your kid versus that which she provides her siblings.

But maybe more to the point, I think the key to keeping this living arrangement (or even just the friendship) harmonious is to respect T’s parental wishes. She wants her daughter to learn that sometimes you do things because you’re motivated by kindness and not money, a worthy lesson!

That said, I understand your desire to acknowledge C’s help. Talk to T and see if she’d be amenable to your depositing $10 in a bank account every time her daughter helps you in this manner. This seems like a good compromise—you’d be paying your debt to C and, if you keep this a secret from the little ones for the time being, honoring T’s wishes.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have two foster children we’re going to adopt. My husband is African, and I’m white, and our two children are white as well.

My mother has a master’s degree in psychology and thinks she knows everything about childhood development. She talks about how important it is to make the kids feel good about themselves. That’s fine, but she seems to focus mostly on the kids’ beautiful blond hair and blue eyes.

Is it reasonable for me to worry that she might be accidentally asserting some kind of race superiority complex? My sisters have lots of kids too, mostly browner green-eyed, and I’ve never heard her speak so highly of them. Should I address this with my mother?

—   Does Granny Need a Talk?

Dear DGNaT,

I don’t know if your mother is inculcating some kind of racial superiority in your kids. I don’t even know if she’s right that compliments are the way to assure they’re well-adjusted and self-confident. But if this gives you pause, and you think your mother would respect your wishes, by all means, say something to her.

Kids are so adorable—especially kids you care deeply about—that it can be hard to remember there are ways to compliment them that don’t have anything to do with their looks. Maybe ask your mother to stick to praising the children’s strength, or sense of humor, or creativity, or behavior, rather than talking about their blond hair and blue eyes.

Dear Care and Feeding,

During quarantine, we have been allowing our 10-year-old more video game time. Previously, these were restricted to weekends for a defined period of time, but given that the games allow him to connect with his friends, we’ve come to terms with more screen time. Now he plays during the week and longer on weekends.

But we’ve just found out that he figured out how to circumvent the parental controls and spent $1,600 in one app. We’re lucky that the money is not the difference between eating or not, but it’s still a lot of money. Obviously, screen time is off the table indefinitely, but I’m at a loss as to what consequences are the right ones during this time. Help! I want him to learn his lesson, but these times are hard for everyone.

—Punishment to Fit the Times

Dear PtFtT,

I’m sorry to hear about this. For starters, I think you might want to look into whether the game company or the application or the store where you found it might have a process for refunding accidental purchases by kids. Many do, and this is a huge amount of money worth trying to get back.

I’m all for consequences, but this is a hard one. Your son is so young, and this is the kind of dumb mistake you can expect from someone for whom money is but a distant and abstract concept. Cutting off screen time would be a reasonable punishment in normal times, but as you point out, at this moment, screen time is more than diversion—it’s an opportunity for kids to connect with their peers at the safest possible distance.

Perhaps you could make this instead a learning experience. You could talk to your kid about the importance of fiscal responsibility, and about how pressing a button is the same as forking over a $10 bill, even if it doesn’t seem that way. You could talk to him also about honoring the parental controls you’ve established and remind him that those exist for reasons like this. The real learning experience here, though, is yours; tighten up those parental controls so that your kid can still see his friends but not get up to anything else.

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I have three young kids (10, 9, 6) whom I adore. Due to life circumstances, they live mostly with their dad for the school year. My husband and I are very liberal, and my kids’ dad is very conservative (like, Trump-supporter conservative). How do I handle this?