Care and Feeding

My 5-Year-Old Is Desperate for a Sibling, but I Can’t Have Any More Kids

How can I help her understand? I’m heartbroken too.

Little girl wearing fairy wings, eyes downcast.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monkeybusinessimages/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 am the mother of a delightful 5-year-old girl. I’m an older parent and knew that it was a possibility that I might not be able to have a child at all, and certainly would be a long shot to have two kids. After I had my daughter, I didn’t get pregnant for another five years, even though I was not on birth control. This year, in the midst of COVID, I had an unexpected but very much wanted pregnancy, which I miscarried. I was very ill and had some serious complications partly brought on by the fact that I was initially trying to avoid going to the hospital because of COVID. The doctor advised me not to try again for a baby, and my husband is absolutely against another pregnancy (assuming it could happen at all) because he is worried about my health.

My daughter is obsessed with siblings and has been asking me, nearly on a daily basis, if she can have a brother or a sister. I’ve told her that it is not possible in as many ways as I can manage, and she often cries about it. I’m not sure what to do here. It makes me feel really bad that she says over and over again, “Mama, I’m so lonely every day.” She is in kindergarten now and goes to school in person two days a week, but interaction is limited because of COVID. I work full time and am quite stretched for time with her schooling. It’s been hard for me to figure out how to set up play dates or interact with other kids in a safe way during a pandemic. She also gets more television than she probably should because my husband and I sometimes have pressing work assignments.

Every time she asks for a sibling, I want to cry. Tonight, we went to a socially distanced Halloween event, and I just felt so bad because she spent her whole time saying, “I bet all of the other kids will like my fairy wings,” but then no one said anything, and she started to say “I’m so lonely and I want a sibling” again. I know that there will always be things I cannot give her, as much as I might wish to. What is the best response here when she asks why she cannot have siblings? Is there something I should be saying or doing differently? How can I get past this place she’s in and my own sadness at not being able to have a sibling for her?

—Are Anna and Elsa to Blame?

Dear AAaEtB,

First, I am so deeply sorry for your loss, and that you’ve had to deal with that while also navigating a young child through this pandemic and managing her inquiries about a larger family. I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to seek the support of a professional to help you, your husband, and your daughter to cope with what has happened.

I know you have talked to your daughter about the fact that you will not be having another child, but what have you shared with her about your feelings about the matter? It’s very difficult to see our children recognize our pain, or to let them know we are hurting deeply—the last thing you want to do is to add to her sadness. However, it is absolutely necessary that our children see us as human beings who experience a full range of emotions, not just unflappable, caring figures that are responsible for tending to their needs at all times.

Let your daughter know that you had wanted to have another child and that unfortunately your body is not able to do that, that this makes you sad, and that it also makes you sad to know how disappointing this is for her. Also let her know that you understand that the loneliness of being away from friends and classmates right now makes the absence of a live-in playmate more difficult to bear. With those things in mind, work on cultivating her ability to both talk about her feelings and be sensitive to her mother’s.

You and your husband have to undertake some special efforts to increase her interactions with other children. Schedule video play dates with friends’ kids, classmates, whomever you can. When you go to events like that Halloween party, make sure that she is actually talking to kids instead of just leaving it to her to wait for another child to strike up a convo about her fairy wings. This may be awkward at first, but hopefully she’ll end up with a buddy or BFF to talk to on a regular basis.

Be mindful to select books and shows with characters that are only children so that your daughter doesn’t find herself feeling like everyone has a sibling but her. Remember that even children with siblings are feeling lonely and isolated right now, and that many kids who beg, plead, and pray for a brother or sister find themselves pining for the days in which they were the only little one in the home. Give yourself and your child as much grace and understanding as you can while you deal with this. Sending you lots of love and wishing you all the best.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How do I keep materialism from ruining Christmas? Apparently, mid-October is the start of the Christmas shopping season now, and I’m already feeling overwhelmed. I have two toddlers and, of course, am excited to create Christmas traditions with them. I have two or three toys in mind that each kid would enjoy. But honestly, in my ideal world, that would be it, and Christmas could be more about the church, spending time with family, and making cookies.

My parents and in-laws and husband, however, take a “more is more” approach to gift-giving. Last Christmas, both sets of grandparents gave each child, no lie, 20 gifts, and it was exhausting from start to finish to open them, transport them, find a place in our house for them, and eventually donate half of them because we have too much stuff. I want to tell the grandparents to limit themselves to two or three presents and to tell me what they are to avoid duplicates or gigantic things like a playhouse that we have no space for, but my husband says that’s mean. Assuming I just accept that I have no control over the 50 presents that each of my children will receive: How can I encourage them to have an attitude about Christmas that focuses less on presents and more on family and traditions? How can I encourage them to be grateful for what they have and realize that some kids would be thrilled to receive just one present? I know people (including me!) love receiving presents, but I don’t want them to develop the expectation that a merry Christmas is dependent on gazillions of gifts under the tree.

—Not Opening a Toy Store

Dear NOaTS,

Considering that this year has largely upended most folks’ way of life and that the holiday season is going to be drastically altered by that, it is not super likely that your children’s grandparents will be excited at the prospect of dialing back the one Christmas tradition they can execute from a safe distance. However, you should be able to strike a reasonable compromise between your desire for modest toy bounty and their inclination to turn your living room into FAO Schwartz (this is a pop culture reference with a rapidly approaching expiration date, isn’t it?).

First, let your husband know that you can have these conversations without being insensitive or mean, but that the burden of all these gifts seems infinitely more ridiculous to shoulder when so many families won’t be able to purchase toys for their children this year (much like every other year prior, of course).

Fifty gifts per kid is absolutely absurd. Hopefully, spelling that out to the grands might make it clear to them. Were they all exchanged at once? Are the grandparents aware that their counterparts are doing the same amount of lavishing? Is this a contest for them? Even so, expecting a group of grandparents, a demographic known to count wasting money on children as a hobby, to go from complete excess to the totally reasonable and still generous number of presents you suggested is probably unlikely. Let your goal be to cut this year’s bounty in half, and then to do the same next year. Start giving things away now to make space.

Explain that you want your kids to actually enjoy each item they receive (as opposed to being delighted by the sheer bounty and then homing in on one or two favorite items), and you also want them to be able to appreciate how fortunate they are to have such generous loved ones who have the means to do so each year. Ask to discuss the toys they will purchase before they’ve done so, as space has been a concern in previous years.

Let this be the year you start talking to your kids about folks who are less fortunate and why you’ll be giving some of their old toys away. Allow them to pick out some of the items from their Christmas come-up to donate as well. Good luck!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We recently moved to a new town-home community that has become very tightknit in the time of COVID, as we are all stuck at home. There are two groups within the group: young adults with kids and young adults without kids. In the communal space, we all hang out with and without the kids. However, when the kids are inside, it usually becomes more of a partying space. Lately, it seems as though my husband, who makes friends easily, is having a hard time getting along with some of the young adult males that do not have kids. They are employing bullying tactics, teasing, name-calling, pranking, etc., and it feels like we are the butt of all jokes. Recently, it all came to a head, and my husband blew up on one of the neighbors in front of our young son and other neighbors. The situation is causing individual and marital stress, and at this point I don’t even want to live here anymore. Unfortunately, we are stuck, as we just bought this town home and don’t have any other options. I know we can ignore them, but it’s so hard as we literally live right next door to one another and share a communal space.

—30 and Living in a Frat Zone

Dear LiaFZ,

I wonder if television’s frequent depictions of bullies and their victims that do not challenge that dynamic have led to grown-ass men who think it’s funny to harass a fellow adult because he’s short or bookish or simply outside of the friend circle. I’m sorry you guys are dealing with such jerks in what sounds like an otherwise great space.

I’m assuming that these men are a couple of years younger than you/your husband, but even if you guys are the same age, there’s obviously a maturity difference. Now might be the time to lean into that and be the adults in the room. Would you and your husband be comfortable inviting the guys to sit down and talk? If so, let them know that you enjoy living in this small community and that they are making that difficult for you, that the jokes and the pranks are not how you guys get down and that you need them to stop.

Not enough bullies have the experience of having the target of their harassment look them straight in the eye and say, “I want you to recognize what you are doing, and I want you to stop.” While it is not your responsibility or obligation to do such a thing, if you two have the bandwidth and feel safe doing so? I think it could be useful. A letter or an email can too easily be misinterpreted or shrugged off, but a callout might work.

If you’d prefer not to sit with these guys on your own (and I understand that), you may want to figure out what sort of rules or system of order there is in place for your community. Is there a homeowners association, and if so, would you want the president or some other member to mediate or to intervene on your behalf? Unfortunately, this situation doesn’t improve without engaging with the bad actors here. Hopefully this can be a peaceful conversation and these dudes will recognize the error of their ways, and if not, at the very least leave you all the hell alone.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have been married for 15 years to a wonderful man. The only issue in our marriage is his mother. Unfortunately, my husband hates her. He is rude, disrespectful, and unkind due to his childhood and her addiction to OxyContin. We see her often, and she has some terrible qualities. She is loud, judgmental, rude, and has made our children cry. She has no responsibilities, as she comes from an upper-middle-class lifestyle where she hasn’t had to take care of herself. She does not care for our children or even pick up/drive them. She does not ask about them. We’ve gone to countless therapy sessions with and without her.

Multiple therapists have told us that my mother-in-law’s brain basically has holes in it (she’s missing both memories and the ability to know what is and isn’t appropriate to say). At a recent family event, she walked by me and slapped my head. It was supposed to be a joke, I think; however, it caught everyone off guard. She, of course, has no recollection. She’s getting worse, and I’m not sure what to do. My husband works with his brother and father, so they all need to be on happy terms. I see signs of mental illness. Please, guide me as to what to expect and how to deal with her. How much worse will this get?

—Pecked on the Head

Dear PotH,

I’m so sorry your family is dealing with this. Has therapy been the only attempt at addressing your MIL’s behavior? Does she see someone alone as well? Have you and your husband had a serious conversation with his family about what’s going on with her? Is it the general consensus that she is “getting worse”? Are folks complacent or trying to ignore the issue?

I can’t tell you what comes next for her, but it sounds like her family may have the means to get some support to address her behavior and establish coping mechanisms/best practices for her loved ones while dealing with her challenges. It does not sound like she is receiving the sort of care that she needs—is the fact that she’s no longer abusing OxyContin being used as evidence that she doesn’t require support anymore?

Explain to your children that their grandmother is ill, and that her illness causes her to say and do unkind things, and that there is nothing they have done to cause her to mistreat them. Do your best to limit their time in her company accordingly and to avoid leaving the kids alone with her for the time being.

As for your husband, make sure he understands just how much this is bothering you and how important it is that his work life and family life remain as harmonious as possible. Hopefully he will be on board to rally his father and sibling(s) around getting this woman some real help. Sending you all the best. Please let us know how things work out.

—Jamilah

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