Care and Feeding

Should I Tell My Daughter She’s the Result of an Affair?

She’s old enough to know the truth, but I don’t think she’ll take it well.

Mother talking to teen daughter while hiking.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Comstock/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 have a 14-year-old daughter, “Anne,” from my first marriage. Her dad and I met when he was in a monogamous marriage to someone else, which I knew. We had an affair, I got pregnant, and he divorced his wife and married me. Anne doesn’t know any of this; she thinks we just met through work (which is true!) and her dad was already divorced, but I’m starting to think I should tell her. For one thing, her much-older cousins know, and I’m worried they’ll let it slip one day. For another, I don’t want to lie to her anymore, even by omission—she’s too old.

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The issue is, Anne is very concerned with justice and right and wrong. She’s a smart kid, but has little understanding of nuance in cases where someone did something “bad,” and I’m worried she’ll think badly of her father forever for having had an affair. (This actually came up when a character on a TV show had an affair, and she was completely unforgiving.) The complicating factor is that Anne’s dad passed away when she was 6, so he’s not around to speak to her or “redeem” himself. How do I have this conversation?

—Shades of Gray

Dear Shades of Gray,

You’re right, you need to tell your daughter the truth. You absolutely do not want her hearing about the affair from another relative. It’s also not the kind of thing you want her bringing to you; it should be the other way around.

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I imagine you’ve been thinking about how to have this conversation with Anne for years. As you consider what to say now, focus on her and her feelings and what you believe she’s capable of understanding. Think about all the questions you would have if you were in her position, and then try to address them without defensiveness. You might begin your talk by acknowledging that, at 14, she is old enough to have more complicated conversations about relationships and personal ethics. I understand you’re worried about what she’ll think of her late father (and perhaps what she’ll think of you, too), but I think she deserves to hear the truth in all its complexity—and hear it from you, specifically.

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She may have a strong reaction when she learns about the affair. She may feel angry and hurt—over what happened, and/or the fact that you didn’t tell her earlier—and if so, there’s no getting around that. Even if she immediately accepts what you say about the complicated nature of life and love and adult relationships, that won’t necessarily make those feelings go away (nor should it). The goal is not to try to talk her out of her feelings, because she has a right to them, but to give her the truth about her family. Be as open as possible, given her age and maturity—whatever the situation was, I doubt it was simple or straightforward for anyone involved, and you can try to explain that to her. If you acknowledge that it’s complicated but have no regrets, you can tell her that, and why; if you do wish anything had happened differently, you can be truthful about that, too.

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This will be a hard conversation, but remember that it’s an ongoing process, not a one-and-done. You don’t have to express everything perfectly the first time, and Anne doesn’t have to get it all resolved in her head and heart in one sitting, either. She might want to talk about and process this with someone else—a friend or trusted family member or therapist—so make sure she knows that it’s OK for her to seek support from anyone she needs to. Remember that you’ve had many years to think about and reckon with everyone’s choices, but your daughter will only be beginning that process now. Be honest, be patient, try to put her feelings and needs before your own, and give her whatever time and help she needs to come to terms with this.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am socially awkward. My spouse is socially awkward. Our son, 4, takes after us. We moved across continents this summer. Darling Boy had 3.5 months in preschool, then a bunch of lockdowns. Now the preschool is emergency care only for the foreseeable future. My son is home, although three-quarters of his classmates are going. In the parent-teacher conference, the teachers said his social skills are not great. They recommended play dates and more social practice.

We have no family here, and are not allowed to meet up with the literally three acquaintances we have. When I sent out a message to the parents of his classmates asking if anyone wants a playmate, I got no takers. I don’t know if this is because everyone is doing a lockdown and/or has friends, or if their kids just don’t want to play with my son. Of course, I’m upset by this latter possibility.

But beyond fretting that no one likes my amazing kid, what do I do? Do I send him back to preschool, as all of us have been ill already? (Lots of kids in his group were sick; lots of parents, including me, got positive coronavirus tests, but the kids were never tested.) While I can and do work from home, I am slammed with work, so it’s not like I have tons of flexibility. How is a socially awkward person to find play dates for a socially awkward kid in the middle of a pandemic?

—Making Friends Is Hard to Do

Dear M.F.I.H.t.D.,

Yeah, I’m not surprised you don’t have many play date takers during a surging deadly pandemic. Try not to worry about what it means or take it personally. It’s really just not the time for tons of play dates!

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I know it’s hard to see our kids so isolated, and the longer this goes on, the more we worry. You could try to set up Zoom play dates, 1:1 or with a group, but I doubt your son would get much out of virtual play dates at his age. If you’re sure the preschool is following all necessary health and safety guidelines and you want to send him to preschool, that would provide more opportunities to learn and practice social skills in person. (If you’re not comfortable sending him to school right now, though, I wouldn’t just ignore/override that instinct.) I don’t know exactly what your son’s teachers meant by “not great” social skills, or whether they flagged anything else at the conference—if you have any concerns about your son’s development, now or down the line, you can start by talking with his pediatrician. But I do want to point out that some social awkwardness … is really OK? Especially at the age of 4, when kids are still learning how to be in a group, take turns, and talk to one another. Social skills will be a work-in-progress for years to come (you mention that you and your spouse are also socially awkward—and hi, same!—so you know this is true).

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I understand it’s hard to feel that your child might need or benefit from something you can’t easily provide right now. But keep in mind that when it comes to awkwardness, your son is far from alone. Plus, many kids will have some social readjustment and relearning to do once classrooms are full again. When the worst of the pandemic is behind us and play dates are actually safe again, I am sure you’ll find some takers.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 10-year-old wants to spend $100 he got for Christmas from his grandmother on an avatar in a video game. This is technically his money to spend, but it seems ridiculous to spend that on just an avatar in a game. What is a good reason I can give other than “because I say so”?

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—The Gift Grinch

Dear G.G.,

As someone who once saved her allowance for months to be able to buy a see-through phone from RadioShack (except it was maybe $20, $25 in my day; those prices for “vintage clear phones” on Etsy are outrageous?), I understand where you’re coming from—it’s a lot of money, especially for a kid, and this particular purchase doesn’t make any sense to you. But if I were you, I wouldn’t want to set myself up as the Christmas gift money police indefinitely. It’s your kid’s Christmas money, and presumably his grandmother wants him to spend it however he wants.

Perhaps you could choose to think of this as a learning opportunity for him? You could talk with him about how $100 is a lot of cash, and encourage him to think about (maybe even make a list?) of all the other things he could buy with it. After all, the more important objective here is not necessarily to prevent your son from buying an avatar, but to help him think more critically about money and its value. It’s not just “don’t buy this because I said so”; you’re having a larger and potentially more useful conversation with him. Of course, it’s possible that your kid will listen and participate in that discussion and then you’ll learn that what he really, truly values is this video game—maybe he spends hours playing it every week; maybe the people he plays with make up an important chunk of his social circle; maybe an expensive avatar is genuinely the best use he can think of for $100 at this point in his life, or at least the thing that will bring him the greatest enjoyment. (If the actual issue is that you don’t think a video game should be that valuable to him, that’s a separate question, and not really about the gift money at all.)

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At any rate, my advice is to talk with (not at) your son about money and responsibility—and then, if he’s still determined to go ahead, at least he’ll have had to have the conversation with you. He may still learn a lesson from this, even (especially) if he later regrets dropping that much money on an avatar. Either way, he’ll have thought about and talked through his decision-making process, and it’s possible he’ll remember some of that the next time he has a lot of money to spend.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a college senior currently back home with my parents because of the pandemic, and I’ve been living with them for the past eight months. My dad is a teacher, so he’s been working from home for almost as long as I have. This has obviously taken its toll, and he gets really angry at the smallest things. The anger’s not usually about something my mom or I did, but rather at a really simple and solvable situation (“the cat messed up my study” or “we’re out of coffee”). However, he gets really mad about these small, inconsequential things, and lets his mood affect the entire household and his interactions with everyone around him.

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I’ve tried talking to him about how his anger doesn’t solve anything, and how the problems would be resolved faster if he just stayed calm and fixed them, but he never seems to listen to anything I say. My mom is a health care worker and already super stressed, and I’m really overwhelmed and tired because I haven’t seen my friends in so long and will be graduating college from my high school bedroom. Everyone in our little family (everyone in the world!) is going through a hard time right now, but because my dad takes up so much space with his anger, my mom and I have no room left to express our feelings or frustrations—a family can only take so much negativity. I just don’t know what to do. Should I try talking to him again? How would I do that in a way he’d listen?

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—About to Explode

Dear About to Explode,

I’m sorry you and your mom are going through this—things are tough enough without your dad’s anger filling up the house. Unfortunately, this sounds like a long-standing behavior, one you have no control over. I want you to know that you don’t have to intervene or try to talk your father down—addressing his anger issues is not your responsibility; it’s his. It may be all you can really do is ignore him when he gets angry and remove yourself from his presence. From your letter, I can’t tell if what he’s doing ever rises to the level of verbal abuse—but in any case, you have to look out for your own mental health and well-being first. And if you ever feel like it’s just too difficult to be there and you need to get out of your parents’ house, consider whether any relatives or friends might have space for you to stay while you finish up your senior year online.

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If you want to talk with your dad about this again—when he’s calm—you could try explicitly laying out the stakes: “If you don’t work on addressing your anger issues, I’m really afraid they will permanently harm our relationship.” It’s possible that may at least help him understand how seriously this is affecting you. But I want to stress, again, that such an intervention is not your responsibility, and in the end, you don’t have any ability to control his behavior. Even if he accepted that this is a real problem and made the decision to change, that change would require time and work, and it would be his work to do.

I know how challenging it is to live with someone whose anger takes up that much space, and I really think it’s OK to just do whatever you need to do to get through this stretch of sharing a roof with your parents. I hope you’re able to find a job that allows you to move out after graduation—and with more physical and emotional distance from the situation, perhaps you’ll also be able to further consider your relationship with your dad, and what you want or need it to look like. In the meantime, I hope that you and your mom are still able to talk to and support one another, and that there are other people and spaces in your life (even if you only have access to them virtually) that do allow you room to feel and express your emotions.

—Nicole

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