Care and Feeding

My Wife Is Such a Klutz. I Worry She Might Harm Our Newborn.

A baby's hand is seen looped over an adult's thumb.
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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 wife is by her own account a complete klutz. She’s frequently bumping into, tripping over, or falling on all kinds of things. To be honest, with the exception of a few broken family heirlooms, I’ve always found this to be a bit endearing. But now that we have a small baby, I’m concerned by this clumsiness. Recently she sat down hard on a nursing pillow the baby had just been sleeping on. I had picked the baby up, but my wife hadn’t even noticed the pillow was there. She’s bumped the baby’s head a few times while walking past. We’re both pretty healthy. and I don’t have any reason to think there’s anything medically wrong with her, but she’s unaccustomed to caution.

—A Danger to Others?

Dear Danger to Others,

Speaking as a chronic butterfingers myself: I really don’t think your wife is going to hurt your baby. Absentmindedly sitting on an empty nursing pillow isn’t the same as absentmindedly sitting on your own sleeping infant, and I don’t think you need to trouble yourself that because the former happened the latter might too. Her bumping into the baby as you’re holding it (if I’m reading you correctly) is a failure of depth perception and a bit clumsy, yes, but not dangerous. So I want to reassure you that what you’ve described doesn’t strike me as risky or concerning behavior.

Your letter does remind me of the reckoning most new parents undergo: the dawning realization, when you arrive home with that fragile, defenseless newborn, that the world you previously believed to be “normal” and “fine to live in” is a sideshow house of horrors designed to imperil your baby at every turn. It’s common to feel fearful about injuries your baby might sustain, even in unlikely scenarios. (When our oldest was a baby, my husband took her for a walk in her stroller. Their route took them over a walking bridge, and halfway across, he was seized with such a wave of terror that a gust of wind might blow the stroller over the guardrail and hurl it, and her, into the river below that he turned around, took a longer route home, and never walked that path with her again.)

I don’t know your wife, so I can’t know what causes her clumsiness—if she’s a bull in a china shop, or her coordination is just poor, or what—but I do think you should tread lightly. She’s got all the same protective instincts toward your baby as you do, and I bet caution is already on her mind. I think you can give the occasional kind reminder to be careful if she really fumbles, but most new parents already need to build their confidence, and she might get pretty rattled if she’s persistently getting feedback that she’s being reckless or if it seems like you don’t trust her with the baby.

Hang in there. You’ll all be OK.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three children: two sons, ages 10 and 2, and a 9-year-old daughter. For the past year or so, our 10-year-old has shown no respect for boundaries or personal space. It is invasive and constant. I’ve worked with kids my entire life, and I know personal space is a foreign concept to them. I welcome (and encourage) lots of hugs, snuggles, and love. However, he is all over everyone all the time. Even his little brother pushes my older son away when he invades his space (which he does often, even when he’s eating). My 10-year-old follows my husband around, hangs on him, follows him to the bathroom, and makes loud noises in all of our faces. We’ve repeatedly told him that we all have “bubbles” and he needs to respect our space. He stops for a few minutes, but then the same behavior continues. I can’t even sit on the couch next to my husband without him trying to lie on us. I’m so exasperated by this behavior. We have a lot of family time with our children (walks, bike rides, games, playing in the backyard, etc.). At first I thought it was just that he needed more attention, but all of our kids get a lot of attention, so I don’t think it’s entirely that.

How do we address this behavior? How can we help him understand that we love him but also need our space? My husband agrees we need to seriously address this, but we’re at a loss on how to do so. We’ve tried different approaches to no avail. How can we convey that this behavior is not acceptable, in a loving way?

—Can We Social Distance at Home Too?

Dear Social Distance,

It sounds like you’ve made a strong, consistent effort to communicate to your son when his physical touch is uncomfortable or unwelcome, but I wonder, have you tried to discuss what’s motivating it, and why it’s so persistent? A 10-year-old may not be able to articulate exactly what he needs when he’s engaging with you like this, but I bet he can reflect on his behavior to some degree. I’d try to approach it with empathy and curiosity, in a calm moment when you’re not feeling irritated by being so touched out: “I noticed that you’ve been wanting to lie on us a lot, even when we let you know that it’s not comfortable for us. What does that feel like for you? What’s going on in your body or your mind when that happens?”

Maybe his answers will give you some direction and you’ll have an idea of how to meet his needs differently and better target your responses. Personally, I’m curious if what he’s seeking right now is not attention but more sensory input. I think there’s a perception that sensory processing issues always refer to an aversion or rejection of certain sensations, but it can also manifest as sensory seeking: needing high levels of physical stimulation to feel soothed and regulated. Kids who are sensory seekers tend to demonstrate behaviors like those your son exhibits, such as overloud or close talking and using other people’s bodies to meet their needs. It would be a little surprising to develop sensory-seeking behavior for the first time at age 10, but then again, you said it’s been going on for a year, and we’ve all been spending vastly more time together, inside and understimulated, for the better part of that. The conditions we’re experiencing might have exacerbated this tendency or brought it to light more noticeably. It would be worth a little exploration to see if anything resonates.

Regardless, you should continue to gently, but firmly, uphold your own boundaries. Since you welcome affection from your kids but—reasonably—don’t want to receive it constantly, I would prompt all family members to use consent language with one another before initiating, if you don’t do so already. It doesn’t have to be anything overwrought; a simple “would you like a hug?” will suffice. It’s a healthy practice for everyone, and it will help your son distinguish when physical contact won’t be well received. If he struggles to respect the limit you’ve set, then I think you can give him a reminder or two, and then, when possible, remove his access to you and offer an alternative. (So, “I said a few times that I don’t want you to lie on me right now, but you keep doing it, so I’m going to hang out in the kitchen instead. You can lie under the weighted blanket/use the head-scratcher thing/bounce on the yoga ball if you want.”)

This sounds tough, and I’m sure you’re not the only agonizingly overtouched parent out there right now. I also don’t think there will be one quick fix here; sometimes, it’s a long game of setting the same limits and upholding them over and over, and that gets exhausting. You’re doing the right thing, though, so stay the course. While your son needs affection (and whatever else he might be seeking), he also needs to recognize other people’s physical space preferences, and you’re right to help him learn.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I struggled with test taking in ninth and 10th grade but still got about an 80 or 85 in most of my classes. My parents were worried about it so they sent me to a couple of psychiatrists and I was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and dyslexia in February of 10th grade. I didn’t want to do the evaluations, but I didn’t have a choice. They used that to get a 504, which did improve my grades.

However, while receiving a diagnosis of ADHD and anxiety explains a lot of things I do that I like having the explanation for, I wish I’d never been diagnosed because my diagnosis has caused other worries of mine to get worse. I’ve done research into what having ADHD and anxiety mean, like how ADHD causes me to want me to shake my leg a lot when I’m sitting, or how I have a hypersensitivity to certain sounds and smells. My parents only see the benefits of the diagnosis now that my grades have gone up. When I tell them my anxiety is worse, they get mad and say I’m not flexible enough and that I have to get used to certain things when I have roommates in college.

I don’t know if I can do that, and I also worry about my mental health. How can I tell them that I feel like they only care about my mental health when it helps my grades? It hurts when I feel like they are being ableist toward me because I can’t conform to their expectations.

–Struggling With Diagnosis, Struggling With Parents

Dear Struggling,

First of all, you should be really, really proud of yourself. Getting through 10th grade while coping with undiagnosed, untreated ADHD, anxiety, and dyslexia, and achieving 80s and 85s in the process, is a tremendous feat, and it speaks to your tenacity and skills. You must have worked so hard, and I hope you’re giving yourself credit for that. I also want to remind you that the 504 didn’t improve your grades—you did. The 504 gave you access to the learning conditions you need, but the accomplishments are yours.

It sounds like you’re still working through some shame and discomfort around your diagnoses, and I think that’s both very normal and a process for which you should grant yourself some time to get through. ADHD and anxiety are both still so misunderstood and stigmatized, and that’s even after they’ve been identified. You mentioned that you like having an explanation for some of your symptoms, and that makes sense to me. When you haven’t been diagnosed and don’t have that explanation, those symptoms can take a major toll on your confidence; I think people with ADHD and anxiety both struggle with feeling like their symptoms mean they’re doing something wrong or need to try harder. Folks with ADHD can sometimes even develop rejection sensitive dysphoria—a strong emotional response to the perception of being criticized or rejected—because the feeling of not meeting others’ expectations is so common and so challenging. It’s OK that you’re still trying to make peace with what it means to have been evaluated and diagnosed, and to know that you’re living with these conditions. It’s a lot.

Unfortunately, your parents aren’t prepared to support you through it right now. It sounds like their perception was that your diagnoses were problems to be fixed and receiving a 504 would fix them. Even worse, they’re getting frustrated and judgmental of you when your conditions are still having an impact on your life. That’s common too. Incorrect and ableist, as you know, but common. They need to be better informed before they can discuss this in a way that will make you feel supported, rather than further criticized, but it sounds like they aren’t ready for that conversation yet.

Since you’re still feeling vulnerable and your parents, right now, aren’t equipped to support you, I suggest that you try to look for resources that will help you feel more confident and empowered within yourself first. If you’re open to the idea of therapy (and think your parents would help you access it), a therapist who is skilled in treating both anxiety and ADHD can help you think through what your diagnoses mean for your life. If that’s not an option right now, the internet can be your friend in learning more about your conditions and finding active, supportive social media communities of other people who experience the world similarly to you. (You could start by searching the hashtags #actuallyanxious or #actuallyadhd on Tumblr, Twitter, or Instagram and seeing if you connect with anything.)

Once you’ve gotten more comfortable acknowledging your ADHD and anxiety and how they affect your life, then you could try sharing what you’ve learned with your parents, maybe in a calm moment when they’re not already reacting to something. (This YouTube playlist might be a good place to start; many of the videos are specifically designed for parents.) I hope they’ll be curious and kind and that information-sharing will lay a foundation so that you can talk honestly with them about their ableist responses toward you.

That’s what I hope. Please remember, though, that if they continue to dismiss you or criticize you, I hope you can turn to other resources, support, or community you’ve found to lift you up. Remember, Struggling: You’re not doing anything wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with you. Keep your chin up. You’re doing great.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 2½-year old who sometimes struggles with bedtime. We try to keep to a nightly ritual, which he follows happily, but it’s like he gets a final energy boost right before he falls asleep that makes him fight it. Things improved dramatically about six weeks ago when we transitioned to a toddler bed. We rearranged his room to relegate most things to his playroom, and we now keep only some stuffed animals and a few toys and books. He plays for anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour before tucking himself in. The same goes for naptime, during which he will sometimes never make it to sleep but instead will rest and talk to his stuffed pals for 45 minutes or so until we go up and get him.

We thought we were living the dream until my mother-in-law, who watches our son during the workday, texted us recently to tell us she thought that our methods were doing damage to our son. She says that he has grown increasingly lethargic and testy with her during the day, and she believes he is lonely from all the time he spends in his room at home. We were very surprised by this because, although he is a bit more moody, he seems happy overall. We have been operating under the assumption he will ask for attention if needed, and he certainly seems happy to make those demands. We have never let him cry it out and check on him frequently, so we can’t imagine him feeling neglected. Though we wish he would go to sleep earlier, our flexible schedules allow us to let him sleep in (he gets about 10–12 hours). We are inclined to think he is just bored at my mother-in-law’s house, as we are pretty lively at home with frequent dance parties and fewer rules, or she’s just projecting. However, in the interest of having an impartial third party, how likely is it that our child would be lonely without making his needs loudly known? Are we wildly off base here by letting him spend this much time alone in his room? I feel compelled to stipulate that we follow all safety precautions and most of the room is screwed to the walls as well.

—No Rest for the Weary

Dear Weary,

I am firmly Team You’re Living the Dream, and I would not change one blessed thing about your current approach.

I think your instincts are dead-on. Toddlers, as a general rule, don’t do silent despair. In fact, they’re notoriously good at communicating their discontent. If your son is playing happily, safely, and independently, then putting himself to sleep when he feels ready, I think he’s mastering self-regulation skills, not quietly languishing. Science is on your side, too: Sleeping 10–12 hours at night, plus regular if not daily naps, puts him right in line with the recommended time for his age, and even the CDC directs parents of 2- to 3-year-olds to “encourage free play as much as possible.” Fifteen minutes to an hour of safe, lightly supervised solo play before sleeping sounds like a totally appropriate (enviable!) amount of time to me.

Nothing lasts forever in parenting, not even the wins, so I’d demur your mother-in-law’s concerns however you see fit and relish this one while you’re in it.

—Carrie Bauer

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I am the mother of 8-month-old twins. My husband is as involved as he can be, but he also travels for work three to five nights a week while I am left to care for the kids. When he is home, I know he is trying to help, but sometimes I really question his parenting techniques. What should I say to him?