Dear Care and Feeding,
I am the proud father of two awesome kids and I’m married to a great woman who is a wonderful mother. I am a lucky man; I know it. We’re a happy family. My issue (and I’m thankful it’s not something too serious) is that, while I love my children, I know to my very core that I don’t want any more. My wife doesn’t have the same clarity. I’m not sure if she actually wants a third, but I’ve brought up scheduling a vasectomy multiple times, and she won’t let me do it! She says it’s too final, that she’s not ready to “close that door.” But I kind of feel like the fact that I am definitely ready to close that door means it just needs to be closed, regardless of whether she wants that or not. But I see as I type it that that seems awful. Is it?
—Fertile in Fort Collins
It’s kind of awful, yeah.
I’m not suggesting that you should have more children if you definitely don’t want to. I’m saying that if you mean to stay married to this great woman and continue to be a part of this happy family of four, it’s not your place to make the unilateral decision to close that door forever, because that’s not the way a healthy partnership with another human being works. If you and your wife ever get to the point where she feels certain she does want another child and you continue to be certain you don’t, that’s a different kind of discussion—and yes, that might be a marriage-ending one (at which point you would be free to do whatever the hell you want with your reproductive capacity). But at this point, if your wife isn’t ready to totally commit to two-and-done, you don’t get to pull the plug if she has already asked you not to.
I’ll add that she may be unready for that for reasons having nothing much to do with thinking she might want a third child. (I can tell you that I knew for sure I didn’t want a second, but even so, when I reached menopause, I cried just because the possibility was gone forever. It was not a rational reaction. But not every human reaction is.) It’s possible, too, that she’s thinking about how if something happened to the children you have, she’d want to have options. (I know this sounds morbid—and it may be this is why she isn’t spelling that out for you. Another morbid thought: Maybe she’s thinking that if something happened to her, she’d want you to have options with someone else.) Whatever it is that’s keeping her from going along with your plan, trust it. Be patient. Be supportive. And double down on birth control.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am 14 years old and am feeling really stressed out right now. When I told my parents how I was feeling, they just told me that I didn’t have to worry about COVID because our family social distances and wears masks. I tried to tell them that I’m stressed about things other than COVID, but they won’t believe me. How can I get them to see that I’m stressed about other things too? Talking to them just leaves me more anxious, and I don’t know what to do.
—Not Just COVID
I’m so sorry you’re having such a hard time. I wish your parents believed you. It’s possible they don’t want to believe you because they are so anxious right now themselves and can’t bear having one more thing to worry about—or because they want so much for you to be OK they have the mistaken idea that they can make it so by not taking this seriously. But if talking to them makes you more anxious than you already are, the first order of business is not to get them to listen and really hear you, but to get help. If there are other adults in your life whom you trust (the parent of a friend? An aunt or uncle? A teacher?), now’s the time to reach out to them. Perhaps they can intervene with your parents, but even if they can’t, they can offer you an ear and their empathy.
Also: Whether or not you have people other than your parents to whom you can turn or not, I strongly suggest you seek some other resources too. The Jed Foundation offers immediate help in the form of a hotline and it has services specific to teenagers and young adults. The HEARD Alliance too offers help for stressed-out teens. Contact them both. There you’ll find people you can talk to honestly about what’s going on with you, and who have experience helping high school and college-age students deal with what’s troubling them. You are far from the only 14-year-old who is overwhelmed and in need of support. Another resource is Headspace, which, although based in Australia, has lots of online interactive features that may be of use to you.
I hope you’ll let me know how you’re doing. I’ll be thinking about you.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Since March, my husband, my 2-year-old son, and I have been very careful about staying home and eliminating unsafe interaction. My husband still goes into work, but his job is conducted outdoors. I am an adjunct professor, so my job is now entirely online; I work when my husband is at home and can take over the child care. This works out really well for us because I can focus on providing a fun, stimulating environment for our son during the day.
Over the summer, we had a few masked backyard meetings with either grandparents or cousins—this is the most we have been comfortable with doing. My parents and siblings have all been understanding about this. My in-laws, however, are a different story. Every time we talk with them, they tell us that we are doing our son a disservice by keeping him from other kids. They keep saying “studies” prove that masks and isolation will permanently damage our son’s cognitive and social skills. My husband and I are sick of this. Our son is bright, cheerful, and hitting every milestone. Nobody is concerned with his development but his paternal grandparents.
We have explained our position countless times. But no matter what sort of boundaries we establish, my in-laws challenge them. To make it worse, my brother-in-law and his wife from out of state have kept their children in day care through the duration of this pandemic. My in-laws insist that since they’re fine, we “shouldn’t be so paranoid.” How do we get them to understand that we don’t want our actions to be to be compared to how “looser” siblings are handling the pandemic? Bro- and sis-in-law even flew to our state to see my in-laws and tried to persuade us to have maskless gatherings with them, and my in-laws were very unhappy that we refused. We try not to judge them, but this whole experience has changed how I see my husband’s family.
—Gaslit in the West
You can’t get them to understand that you dislike these comparisons, so it’s time to quit trying. More to the point, it’s time to stop reacting to their “worries” about your son’s development. I doubt very much that they are worried. I think they 1) just want to see their grandson and 2) want to reassure themselves that their other grandchildren are not in danger (which is much easier to do if they’re convinced you’re overdoing it).
Still, let’s pause to consider that I might be wrong about this, that they may genuinely be concerned. If you think there’s a chance they are and you believe a reasonable conversation can be had with them on this subject, you might tell them what Erika Hernandez, a postdoctoral scholar of social development at Penn State, told the New York Times—which is that the majority of neurotypical kids this age will be able to socialize just fine when this is over and a lot of socialization happens implicitly through children’s interactions with caregivers. (With children this young, Hernandez added, just having conversations with them, asking them about their feelings and setting boundaries—no, you can’t hit Dad—gets you most of the way to the socialization they need.) The Times ran a pretty comprehensive piece on the subject of toddlers and their development in the midst of this pandemic that you might suggest your in-laws read.
But I want to stress that I would do this only if you honestly believe this would be productive and if you’re interested in the sort of relationship with them in which their input is valuable to you; if you want to take their concerns seriously; and if you are convinced that their concern is genuine, even if you feel it’s misguided.
Either way, whether you decide it makes sense to provide this information or not, try harder not to judge them for their very human behavior. Seriously. Even if I’m right about their expressed concern coming from an emotional, irrational place. You don’t have to talk to them about this if you don’t want to! Even as you stay the course—doing exactly the right thing!—you might remind yourself that everyone is suffering one way or another. And all you need to tell your in-laws, gently yet firmly, is: “We’re doing the best we can to protect our son. We know you’ll understand our commitment to doing that.” And then change the subject.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My question is specifically for you, because I am trying very hard to emulate your no-lying-to-kids rule. However, I’m getting tripped up on where the line is between not lying to your kids and actively disabusing them of things they’ve made up. My almost–3-year-old believes everything is real: Santa, Elsa, Mickey Mouse, Clifford, etc. I will sometimes say, “Oh, Elsa’s just pretend. She’s not real.” But he invariably responds, “Actually she is real,” and then proceeds to tell me how much fun they’ll have when she comes over to play. At that point, continuing to insist she’s not real feels a little cruel and also fruitless, so I usually respond, “Hmm, maybe,” and we move on. Does that skate the line well enough? Do I have an obligation to make sure my toddler knows exactly what’s true and what’s pretend?
—No Sense of Reality
Dear No Sense,
I know many readers think my sincere belief that lying to a child is never the right thing to do—something I have said repeatedly—is in fact absurd (and that I’m lying to my readers when I tell them I never lied to my own child). So I’ll stipulate here at the outset that I suspect I may be being trolled, because it’s inconceivable to me that anyone would confuse let’s-pretend, or fiction, with lying. (After all, I am primarily a novelist, but making stuff up in the stories I write does not seem to me at all incompatible with my never-lie philosophy—which, by the way, for me, applies in all situations, not just with children.)
Still, I’m willing to take on your question—because hey, who knows, maybe this distinction really is confusing to some people. And maybe you are one of them.
So let’s start with this basic idea: lying and let’s-pretend are two different things.
Sure, sometimes there’s a fuzzy line between them, like when parents continue to insist that Santa and the tooth fairy (etc.) are real after their kids have directly, pointedly asked if that’s true. (I understand that in many families, this is an elaborate, long game of let’s-pretend that has been instigated by the parents and they just don’t want to let it go, even when their kids are ready for that. I’m not going to take that on here.) Children who invent their own elaborate let’s-pretend scenarios often want to believe in them even when they know they’re made up. Do they have to admit that they know that? Think of the pleasure this denies them! (When my own 3-year-old, all these many years ago, insisted she was a dinosaur in disguise as a human child, I felt no compulsion to persuade her that this couldn’t possibly be true.)
I am absolutely sure your son knows, deep down, that his fantasy friends aren’t real in the way that you and other people he interacts with in real life are “real.” He is fully invested in a game of let’s-pretend, and by going along with it, you’re not lying; you’re entering into his make-believe world with him, which is just good, loving parenting. When he responds to your insistent “Ella’s just pretend” with “No, she’s real,” it’s because a game of let’s-pretend for a 3-year-old (and beyond) is no fun if it must be acknowledged it is all pretend. Just like it’s no fun to read a novel if you remind yourself, with every page you turn, that the people whose lives you’re so invested in are made up.
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