Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m one of those letter writers who probably just needs to hear someone say what I already know. A few months ago I ended a five-year relationship with someone I still love dearly because I couldn’t see a way to agree on a future family. When we talked about kids earlier in the relationship, my perception was that both of us were pretty ambivalent. (In my experience, “maybe someday” is what twentysomething men say when they haven’t given it a lot of thought.) Now it seems clear that becoming a dad someday is important to him. Meanwhile, my ambivalence has drifted toward being childfree. If baby fever hasn’t hit me yet, it’s just not going to, right? Everyone told me I’d change my mind when I was older, but now I’m 32 and I still don’t see the appeal of having kids. The stress of wondering whether we had a future together was really affecting me, so I called it off. At the same time, he’s my best friend and I love him with all my heart. It’s hard to imagine ever having that with someone else. Did I do the right thing? Is there any middle path for us that I didn’t see? And how were we able to misunderstand each other for so long?
—No Splitting the Difference
The answer to the questions of how you were able to misunderstand each other for so long is easy: You were in love; you didn’t want to understand. (I’ll confess to you now what I’ve confessed in this column before—that, long ago, I dated someone for four years whom I loved very much, and with whom I was sure I’d spend my life, despite his having told me he wanted to have “at least six” children, when I knew I wanted only one. He knew that too. Later we both realized that each of us was absolutely certain the other “didn’t really mean it.” I remember him saying, on the day of our mutual revelation—and breakup—“I was sure you wouldn’t have stuck with me if you were serious about not wanting a big family.” I had told myself the corresponding lie about him.)
The answer to whether there is a middle path for the two of you is, of course, no. You can’t split the difference between child-free and children. Which means the answer to “Did I do the right thing?” is yes (and you will have this—a best friend you love with all your heart—with someone else, as hard as it is to imagine that right now). My only caveat is that I hope you two talked this out before you called off the relationship. You don’t mention such a conversation, but I’d like to believe you had it and that you didn’t make a unilateral decision based on guesses or suppositions.
I also feel honor-bound to bring up your rhetorical question about “baby fever.” Despite what “everyone” has told you, the fact that it hasn’t hit you by now doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t. (It hit me later than 32. That one child I wanted to have? That was a feverish desire that came on strong and suddenly and took me by surprise. Slate’s former Dear Prudence columnist Emily Yoffe has written about her own reversal. And I know plenty of other women who were pretty sure they weren’t interested in procreating and then suddenly became extremely interested during the second half of their 30s.) I’m not saying the desire to have children will hit you. There is every chance you will continue to drift in the direction you are already going until you dock the boat forever at committedly child-free, and if your ex is sure he wants kids and you’re not, you shouldn’t patch things up with him. There’s too much potential for misery down the road. But we humans are strange creatures. We often surprise ourselves. I feel it’s my duty to tell you that too.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
How do you establish a foundation of parental support and love for a child without making them, well, self-centered? I know young children are self-centered, of course. But when (and how) is it appropriate to instill in them the sense that the world does not (and should not) conform to their every desire and preference, while still leaving space for their feelings and preferences to be heard?
I do not have children myself yet, though my partner and I plan to start trying in the next few years. Even so, I’m already anxious about this prospect based on my own upbringing, during which my mother absolutely prioritized the whims of my siblings and me over her own. It’s not that we were never told no, or spoiled with material things, or catered to if we didn’t want to, say, eat what she had prepared for the family for dinner. But growing up, I never once saw her prioritize her own relationships with friends, or hobbies, or just … time for herself. She was always helping us with something, or coming up with a new fun craft for us to do, or watching an age-appropriate movie with us. (For the record, my mom stayed home with us, and because my dad’s military job often required him to be away for months at a time, he wasn’t as much in the picture.) I’m not complaining—I had a great childhood! But I also see how deeply unhappy my mom is at this point in her life, with all of her kids grown up, and I do not want to replicate this pattern (nor, frankly, do I feel like I could–I’m just not that selfless).
My brother, who lives near our parents, has a baby and a toddler, and my parents’ lives are now fully about the grandkids (they provide a lot of free child care for my brother). I understand it’s normal for people to be obsessed with their grandkids, but it’s hard to watch my mom go through the cycle again where she drops everything to play with the kids, or whatever, and then occasionally has breakdowns where she laments that she doesn’t have any time for herself. She also seems nearly incapable of holding a conversation with another adult.
It seems to me that my mom’s approach had negative impacts on her mental health and sense of self. As I write this, perhaps I’m realizing my question is less about how to avoid making kids self-centered (though I’m curious about that too) and more about how, as a parent, one can prioritize themselves without eroding that foundation of support and love. I didn’t grow up with a model for it, so navigating that balance in the future feels daunting. I would really appreciate your advice!
—Having a Kid While Having a Self
I’m glad you asked this question. And I’m gladder still that by the end of your letter you realized what question you were really asking.
I’m going to tackle your initial question first. Not only because you indicate that you’re still curious about the answer to it, but because this question underlies a false assumption about childhood and child-rearing that I am tired of hearing. So let me say this very plainly: A child who is well supported and deeply loved—whose psychological and emotional needs and fundamental physical and physiological ones are being met, whose parents consider the child’s well-being when making decisions that affect everyone in the family, and who feels valued and respected—will not grow up to be self-centered. A sense of petulant entitlement as an adult is not the result of being raised by genuinely, healthily devoted parents; it is the lifelong frustrated yearning of someone who was insufficiently cared for in childhood.
So don’t worry about turning your future children into spoiled brats if you treat them the way human beings deserve to be treated right from the start of their lives. Children who are raised by people who love them dearly, engage with them in meaningful ways, listen to them and make an effort to understand them, and demonstrate and thus teach empathy will grow up to be adults capable of having strong, healthy relationships with others and of treating people with respect and kindness. (Of course, it’s possible to grow up this way despite being badly parented through a combination of mysteriously inborn resilience and herculean effort. But since you’re starting from scratch, let’s assume that your intentions are to do the best, not worst, possible job.)
Being a good parent is a demanding job. It’s often exhausting and it isn’t always fun (though it is fun lots of the time, I swear). Prioritizing one’s kids, which you describe as an act of selflessness, actually requires a pretty secure sense of self—that is, if you’re going to go about it in a healthy way. Which begins to get at the heart of your second question, your real question: the one about figuring out how to accomplish this while also taking good care of yourself. While also having a self.
One of the keys to this is to have a sense of self before you have children. It helps to know who you are and what you want, and to hold those thoughts in your mind even as you dive into the early days (weeks, months, years) of parenthood, when some aspects of your life/self may need to be put on pause—there are only so many hours in the day. (For me, it was writing, something I had done virtually every day of my life since my own childhood. But I didn’t get any writing done during the first year after my daughter was born. I had to remind myself that my writing would still be there waiting for me when I had the time and energy to devote to it again, as indeed it was.) Since you are thinking ahead (and good for you! Many people don’t), pay attention to the strength of your attachments and your habits; think about ways to keep what’s important going, even if in a reduced way, and also about how some things might be temporarily dropped but picked up again later.
It’s clear from your letter you don’t want to be your mother (do any of us want to be our parents?) or, at least, how you perceive your mother, since she might see her situation quite differently. But there are plenty of ways to give love and support to your future children without fully sacrificing yourself. When you are with your children, be with them fully. Do right by them: They should be your priority. But also make sure your life has meaning beyond parenthood. The 18-ish years that children are at home with their parents can seem to be a shockingly short period in retrospect, a drop in the bucket of one’s life span. The best advice I can give you is to have a life—find out what gives you joy and fulfills you, what you’re good at, what you want to cultivate, learn, get better at. Figure out who and how you want to be. And while some of this may have to be put on the back burner for a time, leaving things to simmer is very different from not cooking at all.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
When I was 14, my parents put me on a diet that I didn’t question at the time because it was “for my health,” they said, and, as they pointed out, I weighed more than my mom. But this started nearly 10 years of nagging, yo-yo dieting, and generally hating myself. Now I’m in my 20s and actually overweight, which I now realize I was not back then. My parents have offered to pay for a nutritionist, weight loss program, on anything else that might help me shed pounds. In fact, they make this offer every single time we talk. I haven’t told them that I am trying a weight loss program on my own because if they knew, I would be asked constant questions about how it’s going and offered a steady stream of unsolicited advice. (It’s their intrusiveness about everything that drove me to the opposite coast!) How do I get them to stop talking about my body and offering to “help”? How can I talk to them about how it was NOT OK to put me on a diet in middle school and that I feel I lost a whole chunk of my life worrying about my weight? I understand they thought they were doing the right thing at the time; nevertheless, it was harmful to me. Any advice for how to approach both conversations?
—It’s My Body, Not Yours
I do have advice, but you’re not going to like some of it, because it won’t help you to get your anger at them off your chest. In my experience, when a grown child tells their parents what they did wrong—and how much harm they did—it doesn’t make the grown child feel any better (but, oh, how we always imagine it will!) and it either makes the parents dig in harder or it makes them feel terrible about how badly they screwed up. Neither of those outcomes does anything to change the past, and there’s no lesson to be learned for the future (unless the parents are now raising another young child, but that’s a different scenario altogether). Are you after an apology? The chances of getting one are about 50-50, I suppose (to be honest, I’d say the odds are worse than that, just because most people are more likely to dig in than to instantly recognize a mistake and be regretful), but I’d bet the ranch that an apology wouldn’t make you feel any better about what they did. What’s done is done. Work it out in therapy, which will do you way more good than talking to you parents about it will.
As to the other conversation, which is one you do need to have with them: Tell them you’re not interested in talking to them about your body. If they continue to bring it up, change the damn subject. If they refuse to allow you to change the subject, tell them, “Sorry, I’ve got to go,” and hang up the phone. Repeat this process as often as necessary. Eventually they’ll get the message. And if they don’t, even with your repeated changing of the subject—”So, how’s Aunt Imogene doing?” “What’s the latest on the noisy neighbors?” “Did you hear that crazy story about Armie Hammer?”—it’s time to stop picking up the phone when they call. That may be the only way to persuade them that you mean business. You can try writing to them to spell out, once more, that when you tell them there is a subject that’s not open for discussion, you mean it. But you’re going to have to stand firm, even if that leads to you not talking to them at all for a while. I know it can be hard to draw boundary lines with parents at your age. But if they don’t understand themselves what those boundaries should be, you’re going to have to teach them.
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