Care and Feeding

Can I Tell My Son His Beloved Dead Grandmother Was Actually Awful?

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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.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband’s mother passed away five years ago. She was a manipulative person, although he worshipped the ground she walked on. Theirs was a co-dependent relationship, and he rationalized a lot of the terrible things she did to him. She was extremely jealous of me, and early in our marriage said some horrible things to me.

This created terrible and constant tension between my husband and me. She basically sabotaged our marriage.

She did have a good relationship with our son, who is now 20. Often when he’s angry with me, he will speak of her and how wonderful she was, sometimes while belittling my own parents, who have always been stable and supportive of all of us. I’ve never spoken a bad word about my mother-in-law to my son, but it makes me feel hurt when he elevates her to sainthood. I would never say anything about her as long as my husband is still alive because I know it would cause a massive fight. But someday I would like to tell my son how much distress and pain she caused me. Is that completely wrong?

—Can’t Forgive and Forget

Dear CFaF,

I’m sorry that you had such a bad relationship with your mother-in-law. I don’t doubt your reports about her behavior, and its effect on your husband as well as your marriage, and I know those feelings can linger well after someone has died.

But those are your feelings, and they affected your marriage and your relationship with your spouse; they’ve got almost nothing to do with your son’s relationship to his grandmother.

Surely it’s painful to hear your son praise a woman who treated you badly. But if that was his experience with her, then you should just accept that; pushing back or pointing out that your parents were better to your family than your son’s father’s parents were isn’t going to seem to him illuminating but toxic.

Your feelings about your late mother-in-law are powerful, but they are your feelings. It’s not your son’s responsibility to hear about the distress and pain his grandmother caused you. If that distress and pain continue to plague you, it might be something better worked out with a therapist than visited upon your son. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently had my first child and am realizing how many parenting situations I had not thought about before becoming a parent! There’s one topic in particular I would like to talk with my daughter about someday. I’m a bisexual woman married to a wonderful man. I am comfortable with my understanding of my sexuality, and my husband knows this about me, but it’s not something I talk with other people about often.

I would like to raise my daughter to treat everyone with respect. And I would also like her to feel supported in however her own identity develops. I’d like to avoid getting to the point of her being a teenager and telling her about my own identity then, like it’s a dirty secret I’ve been hiding. But I have no idea how to make it be a known thing in an age-appropriate way before then.

In general, I think we as a culture don’t provide young adults with enough information on how to have healthy relationships compared with how much we tell them about the mechanics of sex (and we barely teach about that!). What are some age-appropriate ways to talk with my daughter about my bisexuality specifically, and about the diversity of human relationships in general, as she grows up?

—Kind of Closeted

Dear KoC,

Congratulations on the new baby! I love that you’re already thinking about how to raise a child who’s respectful and informed. And the good news is you have many opportunities ahead of you to guide and teach her.

The chance to give your daughter a fuller picture of your romantic past might arise organically, but you should probably accept that it might not be for some time yet. I don’t think being discreet and mindful of parent-child boundaries is quite the same as being closeted, and I don’t think your kid will automatically understand a disclosure like this as you having kept some shameful secret.

It’s hard to imagine right now, but someday that little baby will be a real person, asking questions as a way of making her way in the world. She might well ask about this specifically or ask some other question that allows you to explain this part of yourself to her. I have no doubt you’ll be able to teach your daughter to be respectful of all people and informed about sex; I have no doubt you’ll be able to be honest with her about who you are. But while I don’t think you can plan what that conversation will look like or when it will transpire, I do think you’re in good shape for the future. Good luck!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 5-year-old and the other kids on our street, Bobby and Megan, both 6, are a “quaranteam.” Last weekend, the kids were playing in the sprinkler in our backyard. My husband and I were in and out. (All of the parents are OK with not-constant supervision.) After the kids went home, Bobby’s mom texted me and Megan’s mom saying that Bobby claimed the girls touched him on his private parts. She said he wasn’t upset; this revelation came in response to her asking where his underwear was. (He wears underwear beneath his bathing suit and left it in my yard.)

After some gentle questions, my daughter said that the kids took their bathing suits off for a couple minutes and were wagging and poking bottoms “because it was funny.” Although I didn’t see what happened, this account seems plausible—we frequently have to remind her to keep her clothes on.

Megan’s mom reported via text that her kid gave a similar account to my daughter’s, but the mom was very upset and is refusing to let Megan play for the foreseeable future. Bobby’s mom then texted again: Bobby revised his story and said only my daughter did the touching. This last text only came to me. I understand that she believes her son. I believe my daughter. None of us actually know what happened. All of these kids are telling evolving stories, and the older ones are clearly embarrassed and afraid of getting in trouble.

I also don’t think it really matters! I don’t believe for a second that any of these kids acted out of sexualized motives or victimized any of the others. They are little kids who think butts are funny. But clearly my neighbors don’t share my feelings about this, and one of them has decided that my daughter is the culprit.

I wish we could mutually agree to talk to our kids about boundaries and no-touch zones, and maybe roll back their independent play, and move on. But clearly there are some charged feelings, including mine (despite my best efforts). Did I mention that both of these families are our next-door neighbors? We are literally surrounded. These kids see one another every day. Am I way off base? Is this actually a big deal and I’ve got it all wrong?

—Butt Is It a Big Deal?

Dear BIIaBD,

I don’t think you’re way off base. This sounds like the sort of thing a bunch of little kids would do, and as you say, it’s not about sex or power or violation but just some silliness and curiosity.

That’s not to say it doesn’t matter! This is still something you should discuss with the other parents involved, all the more so if you and these families are allied during this period of quarantine.

I think texting is an impossible medium for serious conversation, but perhaps you could send one more, to invite the other grown-ups over one evening after bedtime to talk this through. See if you can put aside your own charged feelings and help defuse the situation for all involved. You can talk about how kids do this sort of thing, and your feeling that it was all innocent, but be open to the necessity of being more vigilant going forward so all the parents feel comfortable.

I hope the other families feel as you do, though there’s no guarantee that they will. But as you point out, you’re surrounded by these families, and you’re all sort of in this together; perhaps you’ll all therefore be willing to approach this as something to put behind you. I really think you can. Good luck!

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Jamilah Lemieux and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

This happened pre-COVID but it’s still irking me. I have a friend whom I’ve known for almost 20 years. We grew up together. She dropped out of college the second she met her husband; I chose to have a successful career. I live in a big city, and she lives in the suburbs. Every other month we get together.

She mostly comes to my apartment with her kids because she can’t bear to be away from them. Last time she was over, as always, I arranged some kitchen chairs for the kids to sit on while the adults sat on my new couch. Even when I had my old sofa, I asked that her kids sit on the chairs, because they’re messy and I like nice things. I reiterated several times that her kids had to stay on the chairs, away from the rug and the couch.

I left the room for a second and when I came back, there was grape juice and crushed peanut butter crackers all over my brand-new $6,000 couch. My friend said it was an accident and that it was my fault for making her kids sit on uncomfortable chairs. She said, They’re just kids. I’m a little tired of that excuse. She’s crossed boundaries with the kids before (bringing them to an adults-only party because her babysitter canceled) and we can’t go out for lunch because her kids won’t eat anything but chicken nuggets.

I got the couch cleaned (there’s still a small stain) and sent her the bill. She called me to complain, reiterating that it was an accident and that the length of our friendship should mean something to me. It does, but I chose not to have children for a reason (so I could travel and live my life and have nice furniture). Her house is full of washable polyester fabrics and gaudy kids’ stuff.

I know I sound like a snob, but I don’t want to lose a friendship over this. She still hasn’t paid the bill. I’m thinking of taking her to court. Is the friendship doomed, and was it unreasonable of me to ask her to pay for the couch cleaning? For what it’s worth, her husband is still working full time, and I got knocked down to part time due to the virus. I think she’s lucky I didn’t ask her to buy me a new couch.

—Between a Couch and a Hard Place

Dear BaCaaHP,

I don’t think you’re truly asking for advice—there’s little you can do to force your friend to take this debt seriously beyond reminding her, which would certainly put more strain on the friendship, or suing her, which would obviously end it. Nor do I think you sound like a snob. But I do find it hard to believe you don’t want to lose a friendship over this, given that you’re considering litigation.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable of you to have asked your friend to pay for the couch cleaning, and I do think the friendship is if not doomed then certainly hobbled by both the fact that you are so frustrated by her as well as the fact she didn’t herself offer to pay for the cleaning (as I’d like to think most responsible adults would).

If you want to salvage this friendship, you could choose to put this matter of the couch in the past. You could call your friend and appeal to her to hang out with you without the kids, as you once did. You could sell her on how fun it is when it’s just the two of you, when you are able to eat something fancy, and when you can catch up without being interrupted.

But I don’t hear you expressing that desire, or even any affection for this friend. So maybe that relationship simply doesn’t matter to you as it once did, which is something that happens in life.

I know you’re irked about the couch, and I understand that. But you should ask yourself what would make this right. You want your friend to reimburse you, which is fair. But if there’s something more you want—an apology, a sense that she respects your choices and your diverging paths in life—those might be harder to get.

—Rumaan

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