Care and Feeding

I’m the Introverted Mother of an Extreme Extrovert, and I’m Exhausted!

Do I have to show up for every activity?

A young boy in a soccer uniform holding out a soccer ball.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ValuaVitaly/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Nicole is out today, so we’re publishing a few of her classic Care and Feeding letters.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 12-year-old son is an extreme extrovert. He is into band, choir, soccer, swim team, dance class. He is starring in the school musical this year. He has activities pretty much every school night and would love to add more to his calendar.

I, however, am an anxious introvert who hates having to be a “soccer mom,” “stage mom,” “dance mom,” etc. My worst nightmare is being forced to spend tons of time with the other parents of kids in these activities. They assume that we can all donate $50 for matching uniform jackets. Or they make a decision about which “cool” hotel the whole team should stay at, which is always out of my budget. Or they want us to sign up for 20 hours of volunteer work during the season. Even little things, like sitting and making small talk during practice, can be excruciating. Sometimes I hide in my car.

It’s not their fault—they are stable, middle class, married adults who have plenty of time and resources to devote to these extra parenting duties. But for me, it’s always a huge deal. I already struggle with awkward social situations, so forcing me to confront social hierarchies for every group my kid joins is exhausting and makes me just want to quit.

At the same time, my kiddo is an only child, an only grandchild, has no neighborhood kids to play with … he needs this outlet. I’m proud of him for being so brave and talented. Still, I need to not have to constantly be on alert for a new way to feel inferior. I go to counseling for my own issues, but I need to know: Is there a balance? Does being a good parent mean being constantly uncomfortable and anxious in every single public parenting event ever, sometimes for a full weekend at a time, for the rest of my life?

As I’m writing I’m aware that some of this is my own insecurity about being young, single, poor. But some is legitimately about socializing as a person who enjoys alone time. After I’ve worked a full day, should I have to go deal with snooty people for several more hours every single night? Can I limit it, or is that me being a selfish parent? How many nights a week is required for me to be doing my motherly duty?

—This Is Exhausting!

Dear TIE,

I would hack and burn my way out of these obligations whenever possible. Only one woman could handle doing all this nonsense, and that woman is Reese Witherspoon. If you are not Reese Witherspoon, you have my permission to sit down with your 12-year-old and ask him to rank his activities in order of his enthusiasm for them.

This is a two-step cull. The first step is to tell him that you have only so much time and money (there is nothing wrong, and a great deal right, about making your kids aware that money is not an infinite resource), and it’s not possible for you to support him in doing an unlimited number of extracurriculars and activities. Sit down and think about which ones are the most expensive/taxing/exhausting for you while he thinks about which ones are the most energizing/enjoyable/important for him, and talk together about which ones to cut. This is good for him! You are not asking him to do something unreasonable.

The second step is to begin coolly refusing to do optional nonsense associated with the smaller list of activities he truly wants to do. “That’s not in my budget” is a perfectly acceptable sentence, as is “that simply won’t be possible” when you are asked to spend your weekend making origami cranes shoulder to shoulder with other parents. You also don’t have to be as involved in the activities of your 12-year-old, to be honest. It’s OK to just drop him off and pick him up. This is your life too! You have every right to try to make it enjoyable, or at least survivable.

Be strong, my sister. I support you.

Read the original column.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 3-year-old toddler never wants to eat dinner. He will ask for snacks, and when we say no, he will have a temper tantrum. We won’t let him have anything else but won’t force him to eat dinner. If he asks for food later, he can eat what was made for dinner or have a glass of milk. For a while he would ask for food after his bath, but now he just won’t eat. We have tried to limit his snacks, especially closer to dinner, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. We tried cooking more adult food, more kid-friendly meals (pizza, chicken tenders, etc.), having him cook, etc. He doesn’t seem interested. He also doesn’t really seem excited for breakfast the next day. He usually won’t eat until around 9 a.m. How is he not hungry? Is there something we can do to get him excited about food?

—Hungry Yet?

Dear HY,

When it comes to toddlers and eating, I always think of the Monty Python pet ant sketch in which (this is a paraphrase!) the guy buying the ant asks what you feed them and the store guy is like, “Huh?” and the buyer says “What do they live on?” and the store guy says, “Oh, they don’t, they die, and then you get a new one.”

Toddlers are like magical pet ants in that they do not eat anything but somehow live. Many toddlers seem to defy physics in this manner. In a 24-hour period you’ll somehow jam a cheese stick and three crackers and a grape and a cherry tomato and a glass of milk into them and instead of vanishing they grow and flourish. No one understands this.

Your choices depend a bit on your current desperation level, but since he is not actually physically unwell at this point, we’ll go for the tough move: No more snacks, and serve him whatever appealing, palatable, vaguely nutritious dinner you want, and then the kitchen is closed until the next meal.

He really won’t starve, I cannot emphasize this enough. If he had texture or taste issues as opposed to being merely disinterested, my answer would be different, but I promise he’s going to be fine and will one day eat you out of house and home.

Read the original column.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I have a 3-year-old daughter, and are expecting another little girl in a couple weeks. Because that means I’ll be the only one working for the next year, we have to pull our oldest out of day care, because it would be impossible to afford.

I think we’re both feeling guilty, because she’s made so many friends and can’t really process the idea that she’s going to be leaving soon. Even on weekends she’ll ask if she’s going to school that day to see her friends! Anyway, the question I have is, does anyone have tips on helping her transition into life without day care? What can we do at home to keep her stimulated and not missing her friends too much?

—Where Everyone Knows Your Kid

Dear WEKYK,

I am SO glad you have written to me! Ordinarily, whenever someone informs me that they are timing a second major change in their child’s life to coincide with the birth of a new sibling, I flip out and try to stop them (it’s always a disaster), but this might not actually be the case for you. Let me explain why.

In a different set of circumstances, I would say you should pull your kid out of day care right away, before the baby arrives, so that she’s not absorbing two huge alterations in her daily schedule at once. Looking at your family, though: a) your wife probably doesn’t have enough leave from work to really pull that off, and b) the last thing you want is for your small child to get used to spending all day with her mom just in time to have a tiny noisy newcomer monopolize all her time, to your detriment.

Start swapping numbers with the parents of her little day care friends ASAP and explain your situation. Some weekend play dates might suit everyone very nicely indeed. And do what you can (it’s so hard with a newborn) to try to give your toddler a predictable routine for her new weekdays at home with your wife, even if that’s just “lunch is at noon, in the afternoon we go to the park.”

Three-year-olds, blessedly, are like goldfish in terms of memory, and if she gets to see some of her friends on the weekends, she will not feel the loss of her current day care schedule too keenly.

Rooting for you!

Read the original column.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I think I remember Nicole tweeting something to the effect that only people who don’t have kids don’t believe in parental controls. Right now we mostly let our 4-year-old navigate to what she wants on specific streaming services with kid profiles, and we are in the room when she chooses what to watch. No YouTube. I can see this changing (and needing to change) as she gets older. What are your recommendations for using parental controls?

—What Happens When She Can Type

Dear WHWSCT,

I feel so strongly about parental controls! Have you seen the internet? It’s The Entertainment from Infinite Jest mixed with poking a dead raccoon in the butt with a stick to see if anything oozes out of it mixed with the kind of pornography you used to only be able to find in the Combat Zone, and that’s just the stuff that gets smuggled into YouTube Kids.

You sound like you’re doing a great job with your 4-year-old and have clearly recognized there’s really no completely safe substitute for being in the room with her. And you’re right: Your attitude toward internet freedom does need to change as your child grows and craves (and needs!) more autonomy. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of this question as though it’s a timeline: On one end you have your 4-year-old, who deserves a very firmly controlled stream of hand-selected content (also one or two of those horrible shows she will insist on loving, like Daniel Tiger). At the other end of the timeline, regardless of what you do or say in the interim, your kid goes off into the world and you have literally no say over what she consumes online ever again. Nor should you! I watch such horrible things online, you don’t even want to know. If someone dies horribly in a movie, I’ve found it on LiveLeak within 20 minutes of it being uploaded.

Your job, then, as parent, is to carefully throttle back on the controls so that your child neither sees unbelievably inappropriate things before being a little more prepared for them nor dies from shock when she suddenly holds all the cards. A lot of that is going to be your call and your comfort level. Lock down the worst of it, and keep your child’s activity in as public a place in your home as possible until you have more confidence in their judgment. Phones and tablets are something to be particularly careful about, the ol’ family room desktop less so.

One more note on parental controls: Please assume children will crack them. They will. And if they don’t, they’re going to see it at their friend’s house or on their cousin’s Kindle Fire. Whatever your plan for curtailing their internet education, it needs to incorporate this reality: Make sure your kids know that if they see something they can’t handle, you want them to feel as though they can talk to you about it without you throwing a fit because you didn’t want them to know about, I don’t know, vore. They will find out about vore.

Read the original column.

— Nicole