Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Won’t Stop Breaking Our COVID Rules

We’ll bring the kids over for a quiet visit, only to find a dozen guests crowding the house. I’m sick of it.

Father leading his masked daughter away from two maskless women chatting and eating
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by DGLimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus and evgenyatamanenko/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 know the pandemic has impacted everyone’s lives. I have preexisting conditions that make me more susceptible to COVID-19. Our immediate family is very careful: We always wear masks outside of the house, at work, and at school. We get grocery pickup, attend church virtually, and only attend small, outside events with our friends and family. My frustrations are that our friends and my mother-in-law don’t do anything to protect themselves. Our friends have quit inviting us to large gatherings as they know we won’t attend, but they act like they don’t understand our refusal to be around them after they have attended such parties. As for my mother-in-law, she is always inviting us out to come to visit and swim so she can see us and our children.

The problem, especially with my mother-in-law, is that she’ll invite others to come over when we are supposed to visit. We may get to her house, a 45-minute drive from our home, only to find out that there are a dozen people there and no way to socially distance—even outside. She sees no problem with this and doesn’t understand why we leave when this happens. It hurts my husband and children greatly; I’ve lowered my expectations and am no longer surprised, and I have started calling to see how many people are there before we come.

My MIL also doesn’t understand why when she comes to visit us our visits are always outside and socially distanced in the first place. Not being able to see our friends and family makes the pandemic isolation very hard. We’ve tried talking to her, as well as our friends, but they think we are “taking things much too seriously.” I don’t think I am being unreasonable; I don’t want to get sick. Is there a middle ground that I am overlooking?

—Is It Just Us?

Dear IIJU,

There is no middle ground. You aren’t being unreasonable. I’d like to say that your loved ones are being unreasonable, but I am finding it increasingly hard to hold everyday citizens accountable for their failure to abide by rules and recommendations that have been undermined at every level of government, leading up to the highest office in the land.

It is likely that your mother-in-law and some of your other nearest and dearest have heard from people whose opinions they regard more highly than yours that the pandemic is largely overstated, that “only” populations that are considered expendable will be affected severely (the elderly, poor people, the differently abled, people with preexisting medical conditions, Blacks) and that they needn’t do much, if anything, to stay safe. You can, and should, continue to challenge this by presenting factual information that refutes the myths they seem to have chosen to believe. You also ought to prepare for the possibility that you will not be able to change their minds.

So then what? What happens when people have decided that they are tired of sheltering in place or wearing masks? When there are others who never even tried those things to begin with and have functioned as normally as possible for the past seven months without regard to the narratives from around the world that made it clear that the United States needed to take COVID seriously, or else? Well, we are seeing it as we speak. People are dying. The virus is continuing to spread. Schools and other institutions have reopened prematurely, only to abysmal results.

People we know and love who called this thing “a hoax” or “not as bad as it seems” will die, and we will be left to nurse the void in our hearts while hearing those conversations in our heads, asking ourselves what we could have said, how we could have convinced them. Worse yet, people who have followed every recommendation, who did everything they could do to avoid COVID, or who couldn’t avoid the public for financial reasons will die because of those who could have and should have stayed indoors for what will one day feel like a very short period of time.

Guilt them, shame them, blame them. But do not be made to feel like you are the unreasonable person here, and do not relent when it comes to the safety of your family by sticking around at a backyard barbecue that was meant to be a quiet visit to Grandma’s.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m sorry in advance for the length of my question; I wasn’t sure what was important and what wasn’t. I’m in my late 20s. My mom has been battling severe depression my entire life; my dad has always been busy with work and avoided being around as much as possible. As a result, when my little sister (now in her early 20s) was born, I essentially became her caregiver before I was out of kindergarten, while my dad was elsewhere and my mom spent probably 80 percent of the time sleeping. For all of our issues, we all do love each other. But this has been the situation for years and years now, and I’ve become my sister’s mother, my mother’s mother, and my father’s emotional support system, even as I was a severely neglected child, then teen, then adult.

In the last few years, I finally moved out, started therapy to work on myself, and became engaged to a wonderful woman who has accepted me, warts and all, and has helped me in innumerable ways to come to a healthier, happier place. It’s only recently, however, that I’ve really come to grips with the fact that not only was this situation abnormal, it was outright neglect and emotional abuse, and the scars from it run deep.

The current problem is that I have, in that time, finally begun to set actual, proper boundaries with my family. My sister has always struggled with the fact that I’ve always treated her/seen her as my daughter and wasn’t able to connect with her as a sister or a friend, rather than as a parent. I thought she would be happy that I’m finally trying to change that, and I was open with her from the start that it wouldn’t be instantaneous, but that I was actively working on it. I found out via a long message she sent to me recently that she’s upset about the changes. She thinks I’m abandoning her because I no longer try to tell her what to do, nor do I try to leap in and fix any problem she has; instead, I try to have fun with her and talk with her as equals. She’s angry that I don’t include her in everything with my fiancée, and that I prioritize the relationship and my fiancée’s well-being over continuing to mother her.

I have responded minimally and only calmly and gently because I know she’s in a lot of pain too, and I know she’s only saying the nasty things she is because she’s struggling and knows she can lash out against me without fear that I’ll throw her away like our parents might. But I’m hurting deeply nonetheless. I feel like I’ve always prioritized everyone else’s feelings, haven’t been allowed to be sad or angry or in pain because my mom or sister’s needs were always more significant. Now that I’m trying so hard to take care of myself—even just a little bit—the girl I helped to raise says that I hate her, I’m abandoning her, no one has it as hard as her, my fiancée isn’t a part of our family so she can’t also be traumatized by all of this (despite the fact that my fiancée has been involved via me for almost a decade and it affects her too), etc. I don’t know what to do or how to deal with this. I am so hurt and so angry and I want to lash out just like she has. I want to scream and cry and demand that someone else fix everything for me. I won’t because that’s not how adults behave, and above all else, she’s still like my kid and I can’t do that to her. Please, if you have any suggestions at all, I am desperate. I can’t see my therapist for a while yet, and my fiancée has listened to and supported me so wonderfully, but she’s at a loss too. Thank you so much for your time and your work.

—What Do I Owe My Kid

Dear WDIOMK,

First, congratulations to you on the engagement, and for taking necessary steps to address the trauma you’ve experienced throughout your life and to create boundaries that will prevent you from continuing to give more than you can, or should, to your loved ones. I also commend you for maintaining a level of continued responsibility to your sister because of the maternal role you have played, even as you redefine what your place should be in her life.

You know this, but it bears repeating: You are not her mother, she is not your child, and you should not have had to help raise her to the extent that you did. Because of the unfair circumstances of your family structure, you are the most stable, motherlike figure she has known, and there is a level of sensitivity that is required of you accordingly—albeit unfairly.

However, your sister is now a grown woman, and you both must come to understand that people who mother—either by choice or for lack thereof—are to play a different role in the lives of adult children than the one they assumed to care for literal children.

Considering the small age difference between the two of you, it totally stands to reason that you’d want to abdicate the responsibilities of mothering a person in their early 20s. Explain that to your sister as plainly as possible: You stood in the gap for her because she needed a caregiver and your parents were falling short. You should be proud of how you stepped up, and your sister ought to be grateful; alas, it’s simply unreasonable for you to be cast as the matriarch to a family that you are too young to have created, the shortcomings of which left you without a mother figure of your own.

Your sister, if she isn’t already, should be in therapy herself. It may even be helpful for the two of you to enter family counseling together so that you can work through some of the residual tension and shared trauma that is a byproduct of your childhoods (in an ideal world, you’d also undertake this with your parents at some point sooner rather than later). Her feelings of betrayal and rejection are to be expected, all things considered, but you are not to shoulder the blame nor retreat to your old dynamic in order to keep her happy.

The best thing you can do for her is to encourage her to get the sort of emotional support she needs so that she, too, can begin to heal and accept the past while creating a healthier future for herself and her loved ones. But if you find at times that you are unable to deal with the weight of her expectations, it is OK for you to be firm about your boundaries and to take breaks and to center yourself first and foremost. You, too, are a victim in this situation. You, too, have a right to feel betrayed and rejected, and as such, you are no less worthy of consideration because you happen to come first in birth order.

I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the importance of not just nudging your sister to enter therapy, but also keeping an eye out for any signs that her emotional state is such that she may be a harm to herself or others before, during, and after treatment. I say that not to encourage you to continue feeling like her sole custodian, but in the spirit of being your “sister’s keeper” in the more traditional sense of the phrase. Continue to trust the voice inside of you that has ordered a shift in this relationship so that you can be the big sister she deserves, not the mother you both did. Wishing you both all the best.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is 8 months old and in a lovely nursery school where I believe he receives very good care. My first question is: How many clothes per week is it reasonable for a baby to lose at day care, and at what point should I ask the staff to try to keep better track of his belongings? My son seems to come home missing various items (pants, sweaters, sun hat, etc.) on a regular basis. When he gets his clothes dirty, he is changed and the dirty items are left in a bag in his cubby, and usually these are all accounted for—it’s the extra clothing we bring him and the outdoors stuff that seems to go missing the most. The day care has a small outside garden in which the kids play, but it doesn’t seem large enough to lose items in. Should I say anything to the staff? Or is this just part and parcel of having a kid in day care? We don’t send him in anything fancy, but it is decent-quality stuff and not nothing for us to replace.

My second question relates to how often he gets his clothes changed. We always make sure he’s supplied with at least two spare outfits, and almost every day he goes through both. These are rarely wet/explosive poop blowouts; the bag of dirty clothes in his cubby at the end of the day usually has some very small amount of applesauce or puree on the neck or sleeves. We live in an apartment with limited access to a shared laundry room and don’t have the biggest budget for clothing purchases; I can’t keep up with the laundry this number of changes requires, and I’m fine with him having a little potato mash on his sleeve for two hours until his next meal, when he’ll get even more food on himself. I guess my question is, should I be grateful we don’t have the opposite problem, and buy more clothes to keep up with the laundry and replace the lost items, or can I mention that it would be OK not to change him unless it is toilet-related or really wet? Or can I take his basically clean clothes from the previous day and just send him back to day care with them? For context, we do live abroad in a country with a high standard of cleanliness, so I suspect this might be a cultural issue. It’s our first child, so we are interested in your take on what’s normal for both of these issues. Thanks!

—Damper on the Hamper

Dear DotH,

I had a somewhat different answer stewing for this question—until I got to the very important “context” buried at the end. It sounds like children are changed after meals or at some midpoint in the day where you live, and considering that America is currently under fire for being arrogant enough to try and opt out of a deadly pandemic, I’d suggest those of us abroad just play it cool and adhere to local customs. Why give folks a reason to remember that you come from that place with that president, the place where the people think being asked to wear a mask is “oppressive”?

In all seriousness, you are well within your rights to ask if your kid’s clothes are in a lost-and-found or perhaps languishing in a classroom somewhere, and you absolutely can and should mention that there has been a history of him coming home without all of his belongings. If it is customary to do an outfit change over the course of the day (and for children to bring their outdoor gear), it should be expected that care is taken to make sure that these items make it back to their proper place. But I wouldn’t stir the pot when it comes to asking if your son can come home in his soiled items—don’t make an American caricature of your baby just yet.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband has come to me and asked if I would have a problem with him being a stay-at-home dad so he can focus on getting his GED. We are both in our mid-20s with a 3-year-old son. I work from home as a recruiter for a college while also taking care of our son, and he’s been working at a popular burger joint. I can see he’s completely drained. When he’s home, he sleeps super late and lays in bed for the remainder of the day, as opposed to caring for our child, cleaning, or cooking. While I’m proud of him for wanting to work on getting his GED, this wouldn’t be his first attempt, and I’m wary. During the first few months of the pandemic, his restaurant was closed, and he spent his time, as usual, in bed or playing video games. Our son hardly wants to be around my husband, and I can tell it hurts him to know that. I hope that this change could help their relationship (and ours as well, not going to lie), but I’m just so skeptical of these promises. Should I let him quit working?

—A House Husband’s Wife?

Dear AHHW,

I’m going to cut to the chase: There is a long history, across cultures and classes, of lazy and/or inept men benefiting from the labor of nurturing, supportive women partners while offering little to nothing in terms of reciprocity in return. There is also a history of men like this seeking new relationships once they’ve turned a corner professionally (at times due to the support of their dutiful partners). I know that you have a child with this guy, but I don’t want you to think the odds are necessarily in your favor if your end goal is to be in a relationship with this man in which both of you carry an adequate amount of responsibility.

People grow and change, for sure. But they have to want to do it. The only way to know for certain that your hubby is ready to put down the video games and the paid work to focus on getting his GED—which is something he absolutely needs to do in the name of being able to earn an adequate living for his family—is to see him attempt to do so. It may be the case that he doesn’t succeed right away, but there is something hopeful about him even attempting to get this chapter in his life closed.

That may sound like mixed messages, and that’s because this is a tricky situation. You need your man to have a GED to make a bit more paper to care for the household, but you also need him to step up and act like an adult when it comes to taking care of his children. If both of you are working, both of you should be participating in child care. Also, it’s not “helping” when it’s your own child—it’s called “parenting”! And he needs to do it!

How long will it take for him to get the GED? What are his plans for afterward? Do not go into a situation in which you are expected to work to support the house on your own with no end date in place. Furthermore, even with an agreement, I think you have every right to be wary and afraid that he may just change his mind and fail to honor his word.

All things considered, it sounds like it may be easier for him to reduce his working hours than to stop working all together. The pressure of being the only earner in the household seems like it would be a lot, and this person has not proven that he can be trusted to contribute meaningfully to this household on his own. If you agree to let him stop working, fine, but be prepared for the possibility that he’s going to use this time as a vacation.

Depression is always an important possibility to consider when someone is unable to get out of bed before noon or doesn’t feel like doing much of anything. Keep an eye out for any signs that his imprint on the couch says more than “I don’t feel like working,” but also think about whether or not you are willing to hold this man down considering how he’s shown up for you thus far.

—Jamilah

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