Care and Feeding

My In-Laws Want to Visit Our Baby, but They’re Ignoring COVID Rules

Can we tell them no?

Mother holding her child.
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,

My husband and I have an 8-month-old baby boy. My in-laws live out of state and would visit every weekend if we’d let them. They’ve come up a handful of times since the birth, but they only communicate this to my husband who often forgets to tell me until a day or two before they arrive. What I’m struggling with is the guilt of not wanting to cut them off from their son and their only grandchild, but feeling really anxious that they live in another state, in a county that’s constantly turning from yellow to red based on COVID-19 cases. They are supposed to quarantine for 14 days before crossing into our state, or seven days and then proof of a negative COVID test, but they haven’t done those things. I understand why (that would mean taking time off from work), but it doesn’t make me feel any better. The last time they came up, which was just a couple of weeks ago, my mother-in-law was in my son’s face and, even though I asked her not to, she kissed him. She also told me that she doesn’t believe in flu shots.

They are nice people, and I do love them, but they can be “a lot.” My husband is a quiet man who is overwhelmed by his mother, and has developed a coping mechanism of tuning her out and/or going off with his dad to do various projects, leaving me alone with his mom. When they visit for an entire Saturday, it means I spend hours alone with her. I should mention that I’m just generally overwhelmed right now because our baby doesn’t sleep great, and because I am a public school teacher trying to survive teaching in-person and online. Anyway, they wanted to come up again the very next weekend, and I put my foot down. My husband and I got in a fight about it. Eventually he said OK and told them not to come, but he essentially blamed it on me. They seem bitter and don’t understand what has changed, and I feel bitter because I feel like my husband basically threw me under the bus. I want him to be the one to tell them they need to get flu shots before they come up again, but he’d rather just avoid any type of confrontation. How do I fix this?

—Exasperated New Mum

Dear Exasperated,

Your husband did indeed throw you under the bus. This issue was always going to come to a head eventually, even if not for the pandemic, because he has yet to establish appropriate boundaries with his parents. He needs to strike “[Exasperated] doesn’t want you to visit” from his vocabulary and replace it with “We are not comfortable with you visiting under these circumstances.” The two of you are a parental unit, you are both responsible for the health and safety of your family, and if you’re going to take a given risk—like having relatives who don’t believe in flu shots, don’t socially distance, and refuse to get COVID tests visit you in your home and hold/kiss your baby—you both need to be OK with it, or it’s not OK. (And of course it’s not OK right now!!)

First, you and your husband should discuss and set the conditions under which you, together, would feel comfortable hosting. Maybe what you need to greenlight a visit are flu shots, two weeks of aggressive social distancing, and negative COVID tests. Maybe you need all of that, plus masks, and no kissing the baby. My point is, you two need to decide on the conditions together, and your husband should then clearly explain them to your in-laws. They get to decide whether to go along. If they don’t? That’s their choice, but then they’re also making the choice not to visit you. (For the record, I also don’t think it’s wrong if you decide, as others have, that you want to just hold off on lengthy indoor visits indefinitely, or until there’s a vaccine, etc.)

Obviously your husband is worried about making his parents mad. But people who would visit you every weekend if they could aren’t going to cut you off over this. They may be upset at first, but they will also know exactly what they need to do if they want to see you—and you’ll have begun establishing the healthy boundaries you clearly need, better late than never.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 16-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. My son was diagnosed with autism when he was 6. Recently, my daughter came to me and confessed that she has been doing some “research,” and thinks she might be autistic as well. Her evidence: She struggles with eye contact, dislikes being touched by nonfamily members, is sensitive to sound and smells, and struggles with social skills. This is all true, but I think if she truly were autistic, at least one of her past teachers would have noticed. She says she would imitate the other girls in her classes and can remember doing so as far back as first grade, but she has always felt like she “didn’t belong anywhere.” She does have some specific tendencies/anxieties, like feeling the need to charge her phone if it is below 84 percent. I know that everything she’s told me is true, but I don’t know if it’s autism that is responsible for these traits. My son has always struggled with academics, behavior, and reaching milestones. My daughter hasn’t. She gets all A’s, has always been very well-behaved at school, is very independent, and taught herself to read at a very young age. I just don’t know. Do I have her tested? Tell her to stop “researching”? Tell her she might be right but not test her?

—Flew Under the Radar

Dear F.U.R.,

First, I would never tell a child of any age to be less curious about how or who they are. Having one autistic kid (I have one, too) doesn’t give us some kind of autism radar; it just means we know what that one autistic kid is like. Plenty of early-reading, straight-A, independent kids of all genders are autistic. In addition, those evaluating kids for autism often miss the girls—so many autistic girls are diagnosed later, and many autistic women are not diagnosed until adulthood. I’m not saying your daughter is definitely autistic; I’m saying it wouldn’t be at all surprising if she were and no one had flagged it.

I am so impressed with her thoughtfulness, her self-guided investigation, and the fact that she seems to know herself so well. She is 16—old enough to do research (without those qualifying/scare quotes) on autism, to wonder if she is autistic, and to figure out whether she’d like to find out more and be evaluated for it. If I were you, I’d listen to her, join her in pursuit of this question, and help her get evaluated by someone competent and qualified to do so. From what you’ve shared, it doesn’t sound like she needs a great deal of enhanced academic support, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t in need of help, understanding, or accommodations in other areas. Of course a diagnosis won’t magically address anything she might be dealing with, but it could help her gain access to more resources, better-informed care, even community if she wants, now or in the future. And it could help her better know and understand herself, which is always valuable.

You sound like you’re trying to talk yourself out of believing your daughter is autistic. I urge you not to take this same approach when you talk with her about it. If you’re really struggling with the thought of having a(nother) autistic child, I think you should seek the help you need to work through these issues without making them your kids’ burden. You and/or your daughter may want to seek out a good therapist, one with knowledge in this area. For sure, your daughter needs and deserves support from her family while she explores this question, so make it clear that she can always come to you with her thoughts and feelings and anything else she wants to share about it. Don’t try to tell her she’s wrong to wonder if she’s autistic, don’t discourage her from reading about it, and please don’t make her feel as though you’re disappointed or upset by the possibility. Remember that if your wonderful 16-year-old is autistic, she has been all along! It changes nothing about who she is. She’s exactly who she is supposed to be, and the same person you have always known and loved.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My spouse is a stricter parent than I am. He will insist our 4-year-old daughter wear clothes that he picks out, use whatever cup or plate he chooses for her, color in the lines, and other things that I think are arbitrary and not worth fighting over. I back him up once he has taken a stand and do recognize the value of my daughter experiencing different parenting styles. We’ve been alternating days working and parenting during the pandemic, which she is aware of since she is no longer going to preschool. My spouse spends his parenting time teaching our daughter to write letters, or they read together and go for hikes. On my days, it’s pajamas and slime-making or other hands-on activities that she chooses.

This all seemed workable until recently, when my daughter began to violently protest spending time with my spouse. She sobs and flails and screams that she’s worried I’ll “die from the virus and go away forever.” She also says she “hates Daddy” and that if one of us dies, she hopes it’s him. (I should mention that she just noticed that parents often die in cartoon movies. Thanks for that, Disney!) My spouse becomes stricter and puts her in timeout if she is tantruming because she wants to be with me. This seems counterproductive to me, but I haven’t been able to come up with a better solution. Any ideas?

—I Liked Parenting in Precedented Times

Dear I.L.P.i.P.T.,

Forgive me if this is obvious, but have you had a real heart-to-heart with your spouse about this yet? It sounds like he might be trying to make up for some of the missed preschool at home, whereas you’re OK with your kid calling the shots and playing all day. I do think your spouse could stand to loosen up—it’s good for kids to get to make their own choices when they can; coloring in the lines is overrated; let her choose her own outfit if she wants. (When our kids wanted to pick their outfits but were too young to do it quickly or especially well, we’d give them a few choices, and they got to make the call.) While it’s fine to ask a 4-year-old who’s not currently going to school to read/listen to a story or work on their letters for a little while, I think you and your spouse could try to think of ways to make “Daddy days” more fun and give your child more agency. Maybe the two of them could start their day with an activity your daughter chooses—he can give her a few options, if he’d prefer that to a total free-for-all—before moving on to anything resembling “work,” and seek to maintain that balance throughout the day and potentially ward off tantrums.

While it could very well be that most of the adjustment ought to happen on your spouse’s side—you didn’t share enough about your own parenting style for me to guess whether you should move a little, too—I will say that if your daughter is in charge of all activities and decisions when she’s with you, she’d likely chafe when switching to anybody else, even a way more laidback parent than your spouse. No pair of parents have to have the same approach, of course, but clearly the wide gap between your parenting styles and the lack of consistency is jarring for your kid. For her sake, I do think it’s time to have a serious talk about the impact your disparate expectations are having on her, and try to find some common (not necessarily middle) ground that you can all live with.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Nineteen years ago, I placed a baby for adoption. It was semi-open. We all know each other’s names but have had minimal contact. Not really any in the last 10 years.

The father was diagnosed with some serious mental health stuff that can be genetic, maybe six or eight years ago. I urged him to get in contact and provided him with Facebook profiles and home phone numbers for the parents. He didn’t do it, and he’s vanished in the time since I last checked in on that.

Now the baby is a 19-year-old woman and her (public) social media indicates she is engaging in behaviors that put her at increased risk for developing the mental health problems her biological father has, but which she presumably doesn’t know she’s at risk for. What do I do here? She doesn’t have messaging open on a social media profile and it’s a heck of a thing to put in someone’s DMs. I know what university she attends, but I don’t have an email address. Randomly following her or whatever seems inappropriate. I assume she knows who I am by name, although if not, she might not be old enough to see that we are physically obviously related. She’s not quarantined with her parents, and I don’t have their current address. I do feel like someone ought to tell her “your biological father has been diagnosed with X. Don’t do Y.” He’s not in a position to do so. How do you approach that?

—Hi! I’m Your Birth Mom! I Have Bad News!

Dear Birth Mom,

Speaking as an adoptee raised in a confidential/“closed” adoption: If I were the 19-year-old, I’d want to receive any genuinely important family medical history. (To be honest, I don’t know if I’d have wanted to know everything at that age, but by my mid-20s I definitely did.) Your adoption was semi-open, but given that you haven’t had any contact in years, I might first try to find her adoptive parents to see if they can be helpful—depending on their relationship, she might be more comfortable if they’re part of the conversation, and perhaps they could help you share the information and/or provide her with needed support. You have their names; the agency that handled the adoption should also have their last known address and might also be useful should you try to reengage with the family. You could also try speaking confidentially with someone in the university’s counseling office, though I wouldn’t share all the personal details—maybe just tell them that you plan to share sensitive information with your biological child, who is a student there, and see if they have any advice for you.

If you get in contact with your child again, I’d first ask if she’s OK with a call or email, and say that you have important (not alarming) information to share. If she agrees, then give her the info: “Your biological father has been diagnosed with X, and it can sometimes be hereditary.” I’m not sure what you’ve seen on her Instagram, but I assume it’s fairly standard college behavior, so I probably wouldn’t go so far as to tell her, “Don’t engage in Y”—because she’s 19, and that’s not the kind of relationship you have right now. If she wants to seek medical advice or alter any of her behaviors as a result of what she learns, she can. You can also share any other important medical information she might not have from your side of the tree.

As you weigh what to do and whether to reach out, I encourage you to think through your own supports as well. When I checked in with Joy Lieberthal Rho, a social worker, therapist, and cofounder of I Am Adoptee, she recommended Concerned United Birthparents as a possible resource. You could also consider talking with a therapist, preferably one with specific knowledge of adoption. You’ve seen your daughter’s social media pages and know what university she attends; you’ve kept tabs on her, which is the most understandable thing. I don’t want to make any assumptions about what you want, but if you are perhaps looking for a reason to reach out and reestablish contact, I just want to say that it’s something you have a right to think about—and something you and she can pursue together, if you decide it’s what you both want.

— Nicole

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