Care and Feeding

My Tween and I Rarely Kiss or Hug Anymore

It’s making me so sad.

A young black girl rests her chin on her hand. A black woman holds a cellphone and looks over at the girl.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by MangoStar_Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Nick White/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 am a single mom to an 11-year old daughter. Up until around age 7 or 8 we were pretty physically demonstrative and would hug and kiss, and I would pick her up and carry her around. That slowly tapered off as she grew, and now we almost don’t touch at all. No hugs and kisses. We don’t avoid touching but don’t initiate at all.

We only have each other in our household (plus a dog), and I worry I’m harming her by not being physically affectionate. We are emotionally close and open and have a good relationship, so I wonder how I can get back to being close physically like we were. Puberty has started so there have been rapid physical and emotional changes lately and I don’t even know if she even would welcome me bringing the issue up.

—Hands Off

Dear HO,

I don’t think you’re harming your daughter by being less physically affectionate than you were when she was a cuddly little kid. You write that you still feel close, and I think it’s worth remembering that the nature of a close parent-child relationship can change over time—especially when puberty has set in.

But if this is bothering you, perhaps you can simply decide to reintroduce the kind of gestures you’re missing. Try not to overthink it or feel awkward! She’s 11, and still your baby. Drop a kiss on her head in the morning, hug her to communicate your pride or presence as warranted, try to hold her hand when you’re out walking. Snuggle close on the couch when you watch a movie. She might wriggle away from you, or she might still be at the age where she welcomes such things and has only outgrowing offering them.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m writing this in the middle of another night of insomnia, which is a nightly thing for me now. As a stay-at-home mom of a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, not sleeping makes life not OK.

We all have our pandemic struggles, and one of mine is that I don’t have any outside help with the kids. I have struggled with mental health issues for a few years, and pre-pandemic I had worked out a system to keep it all in check. This mostly involved employing the help of babysitters and having my older child go to preschool to give myself breathing room. It was really starting to help me feel like myself again.

Now that my oldest isn’t going to school—and we aren’t going anywhere, and no one is coming here—I am getting worse. I’m worried about both children’s social development away from friends, but my younger child is higher risk for COVID complications, and this has made me afraid to create a pod.

They are happy kids, and they have been fine with our routine. But six months in with no end in sight, I’m feeling trapped and shitty and very tired. My husband works full time and does what he can, but he has nothing extra. I’m doing all child care, home-schooling, most housecleaning, meals, etc. No family nearby. Therapy helps marginally. CBT is great and all, but I need solutions here! Got anything for me?

—My Struggle

Dear MS,

I wish I had some kind of magic advice for you. Sure, we all have our pandemic struggles, but that’s not to diminish yours. Even without a personal challenge with mental health, two kids under 5 with no extra help around would be a difficult road.

First, I’d say that you’re their mom, and if you’ve observed that they’re fine with the routine, hold onto that! There’s no reason to worry about their social development because there’s no real step you could take there anyway, if a pod is not a solution for your family. The kids have each other, and they’re young enough that they accept the reality they find themselves in. That’s a mercy.

It’s harder to address your own feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, both wholly understandable. What I’d say to you is that a full-time job like your husband’s is a 40 (OK, maybe 48)-hour-a-week commitment; child care, home-schooling, housecleaning, and meal prep are closer to 96 hours. Talk to your husband! Tell him you’re feeling overwhelmed, that you value his work, but maybe the two of you can figure out a schedule that’s a little more equitable. Can he take charge of all laundry; can he stop work at midday and get the toddler’s lunch ready; can he make every meal all weekend long; can he stay up late Sundays and make dinner for Monday and Tuesday; can he take the kids every Saturday afternoon and let you go for a walk, or a drive, or just take a nap alone? I’m sure he’s doing a lot, but these are extraordinary times, and you’re a team—maybe he can take on more and help.

But if he’s working full time, the simple fact is your days are going to be long and tough. Life right now isn’t normal, so maybe there are simple ways to adjust your own expectations for how the days work.

If the little one is still napping, maybe you can make those hours a family rest time, during which your big one plays alone while you catch up on chores (or rest—resting is an important part of being a good parent to them, so don’t feel guilty about that). If you’re spending too many hours cooking, maybe you can have one meal a week that’s no cooking (personally I’m a fan of cheese/salami/crackers/carrots/hummus or some other finger food extravaganza).

If you’re big on keeping a tidy home (I am!), maybe you can make your peace with closing the bedroom door rather than making up the bed, or not stressing over the clean laundry you never got around to folding. If you’re running a lot of errands, maybe it’s worth the extra money to have the groceries (or an occasional meal) delivered, or to drop off the laundry. If you’re attempting home school for what I’m assuming is a pre-K student, maybe you could decide not to fret over all the worksheets and lessons—your kid will survive.

None of these are perfect, of course. But we don’t know how much longer these conditions will persist, or when you might feel comfortable hiring a cleaning person or a babysitter. So you need to make the work as easy on yourself as possible, and be mindful of your own mental health. It is hard; there is no denying it. But I hope there are small adjustments you can make that will make these coming months easier to bear. Hang in there.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m looking for guidance on a relatively trivial issue: My almost 4-year-old has been talking about having a fat tummy. She pulls up her shirt, pats herself, and says, “I have a fat tummy!” Incidentally, she definitely does not have a fat tummy by any standard; her weight and height are right where they should be.

I have no idea where she heard this word. I’ve never used it in that way around her. She has other caregivers, but my husband thinks it might be from Winnie-the-Pooh (“I am short, fat, and proud of that,” Pooh sings). I’ve always had issues with weight, but have never revealed that around her (we all eat together, talk about balanced meals, etc., but have appropriate desserts and enjoy baking cookies and other standard stuff). My issues aren’t anything clinical, just what almost any non–sample size woman experiences in this culture.

When she has said she has a fat tummy, I have said, “No, you’re perfect.” Is this the wrong response? What do I say, or do I ignore it? I’m not even clear if she is saying that in a self-critical way or in a fun way. I realize now my response may actually be seeding her with the idea that fat is somehow bad, when she might not even think that. What to do about the word “fat”? I don’t want to make it into a taboo, but I also wouldn’t want her to call herself or anyone else fat. … Help I am all mixed up about this.

—Fraught With Fat

Dear FF,

This doesn’t seem like a relatively trivial issue at all! As you say, any non–sample size woman receives complicated cultural messages about her body; for that matter, many model-size women do as well. I think it’s smart to think through this carefully, and weigh your words thoughtfully, as you already have been.

But I think the word fat—whether it’s your kid mimicking Pooh or just observing her own physique—triggered something in you. That’s OK! It’s a word that can be used cruelly, but it’s also a word many people use to describe themselves, robbing it of its power as an insult.

So I don’t think you should panic if you hear your kid using this word, nor do I think you should establish “perfect” as the opposite of “fat.” If she likes this routine of talking about her fat tummy, you can change how the game goes. You can respond with “I have two legs!” or “You have two arms!” or “You have black hair!” or on and on, celebrating your and her physique in language that doesn’t veer into the territory of judgment or critique.

The thing I’ve found useful with my own kids is to remind them as a hard and fast rule that we don’t talk about other people’s bodies. Our own, sure, but no one else’s. It’s not easy to enforce—kids love to observe that some people are tall, or a different race, or have a mole on their face, or rely on a wheelchair, or, sure, are fat. At 4, she’s young enough to be just thinking aloud, but the simple reminder that we don’t talk about other people’s bodies will sink in. (As kids get older, they better understand that we don’t say such things aloud, as others might hear and be hurt; their curiosity is such, though, that they might need to discuss with you why people look different—all very normal developmental questions, I think.)

It’s hard, with a kid so young, to communicate that a word like fat can be impartial or insulting, depending on the context and depending on who’s saying it. If it’s a word you don’t like (which is fair!), forbidding it might make it really alluring. You could try something like “Pooh bear is fat, but we don’t use that word for people” or you could redirect with a bunch of other words for bodies—cuddly or cute or strong; they don’t have to be synonyms.

Don’t beat yourself up over having introduced “perfect” as the opposite of fat, just know that your kid might repeat this phrase and you can have a good response ready. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughters are 18 and 24. They’ve always been close with their grandmother, my mother, but I’ve been noticing some tension in the last few years. Recently my older daughter shared a meme on Facebook about grandparents alienating their grandkids by constantly discussing politics.

I asked my older daughter about it and she said she was having a hard time talking to grandma because she was constantly bringing up political topics. My daughters are pretty liberal, and in the last eight years or so, my mom went from super liberal to super conservative, seemingly overnight. Now she’s completely paranoid and believes in bizarre conspiracy theories. She goes off on tangents when she’s talking to me, but I didn’t realize she has been doing it to my daughters too. My kids said they’re really uncomfortable and at first tried to deflect or change the subject (to no avail). They then recently starting directly asking her to stop and she promised she would but then just kept on talking about lizard people.

It got to the point where my younger daughter broke down in tears, saying she missed her grandma and wanted to spend time talking about fun stuff they used to talk about. My older daughter said she wants to take a break from talking to my mom but feels bad because my mom isn’t getting any younger (their paternal grandmother died unexpectedly a few years ago). I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried to explain to my mom, and the girls have tried too, that their relationship is going to suffer because she can’t shut up about cabal and vaccines and mole children, but my mom just doesn’t care (which is so unlike her).

She’s always begging me and the kids to call her more, but it’s gotten to the point where 30 percent of the conversation is about fun topics and 70 percent of the conversation is her droning on about Michelle Obama while I hold the phone away from my ear. We’ve tried hanging up when she starts in on stuff and we’ve tried leaving the room, but nothing works. How can I save my kids’ relationship with their grandmother? For what it’s worth, my siblings and I were concerned about the rapid changes less than a year ago so we called her doctor. We had to drag my mom to the doctor kicking and screaming (she “doesn’t believe in doctors” anymore). The doctor did cognition tests, memory tests, brain function tests, and mom passed with flying colors, so it’s not a medical issue.

—Let’s Keep Politics Out of It

Dear LKPOoI,

At this point, this is a pretty well documented phenomenon. The right-wing media is in thrall to conspiracy theory, and this is doing real damage to real people. It’s telling that you and your siblings worried that this was a matter of your mother’s mental health—I’m relieved that she’s of sound mind, but also mindful of the fact that anyone who believes something untoward is afoot with Michelle Obama is not, in fact, mentally healthy.

I wish there were some way your family could just agree to leave politics aside and enjoy one another’s company. I’m not sure that’s possible. Your mother’s rants about vaccines and whatever other claptrap she has immersed herself in, whether via Fox News or talk radio or the weirdos on the internet, are unpleasant, even hurtful. While this is surely painful, you can’t ask your daughters to maintain a relationship with someone they find unfun at best and toxic at worst.

As your mother is, medically, of sound mind, perhaps it’s worth one big effort: a frank explanation that her granddaughters want less to do with her because of how she foists her political views on them. Then the choice is hers: Your mother can continue to dwell on these nonsensical stories or enjoy playing a role in her granddaughter’s lives. I hope she chooses wisely.

—Rumaan

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