Dear Care and Feeding,
The other day I sent my 35-year-old daughter a link to the weather report for where she lives (about icy, dangerous roads—I was concerned about her morning commute), and she phoned me to ask that I not send such things, “as if you think I’m incompetent.” I took this as her setting a boundary and told her I’d respect that, even though doing things for the people I love is my love language.
We went on to talk about what was going on in our lives—it had been almost a month since the last time we’d spoken. Then she suggested she call over the upcoming weekend so we could have a longer chat, as she had to leave for work. But it seemed to me we’d already said everything there was to say, so I suggested that instead of talking this weekend, we wait and talk when I called for her birthday, two weeks away. There was a long pause and then she said she’d “have to think about it.” Now I wonder if she thought I was putting off talking to her because of her request for boundaries.
The thing is, I have very little contact with my daughters. Conversation in general isn’t easy for me, so I don’t enjoy phone calls. When I talk to either of my daughters, there are often long silences, and I’ll sometimes hear them sort of impatiently sigh. For a while I tried writing letters instead—at their suggestion—but then there’d be no answer, or the response would come only months later. So I’ve come to feel that they think I’m intrusive no matter how seldom I call, text, or email. I love them both very much! I don’t want them to see me as a burden. But honestly it feels like we don’t have a relationship at all. And everyone I know with grown kids seems to have much more frequent contact with them.
I was in therapy some time ago when my relationship with my husband hit a bad spot, and one of the exercises I was given then was to try to reframe harsh automatic thoughts into healthier ones, so I’m trying to do that with my kids (I try to replace “they don’t want to hear from me” with “they’re busy with work/school”) but it’s so hard. My therapist thought I had some depression and I think she was right. I know I need to go back into therapy, but I’m home all the time now with my husband and I don’t have the freedom and privacy to talk that this would require. I suppose I don’t even know what my question is. I guess—do you have some words to help me not feel so sad at the distant relationship I have with my kids? I don’t think this is going to change and I am bereft about it.
—Too Much Mom?
I can be too much too, so my heart goes out to you. I am intimately familiar with trying to replace “she doesn’t want to talk to me” with “she’s busy,” and I learned a long time ago—long before I had a grown-up daughter, back when I was the grown-up daughter and my father wouldn’t think twice about sending me the sort of link (if he’d known how to send a link) you sent your kid—that if you want to have a good relationship with adult children, you should assume competency and never offer advice unless asked for it. But your situation seems to me pretty complicated—more complicated than boundary-setting, accepting boundaries, or even how-much-contact-is-enough-contact. As a baseline, let’s stop comparing our relationships to our kids with anyone else’s. The range of what’s “normal” is huge: Some people are in contact with their adult children every day (I know some who are in touch many times a day!); some people have contact sporadically. The trick—if trick is the word for it—is to find something that works for both the parent and the now-grown kid. And that’s not easy.
I can’t speak to your relationship with your husband because you’ve said little about it. But where your daughters are concerned, I’d suggest you be frank with them about your wish to connect with them. If you can’t manage a phone conversation, I would put your thoughts in a letter. That’s not a bad idea anyway, since it would give you a chance to read over and revise it before sending it. What you do not want to do is make them responsible for your feelings—i.e., dump your feelings on them. Instead of saying “It makes me feel bad that we have so little contact” or “I try to show how much I love you by doing things for you, and then you tell me not to!” you might just tell them that you love them, that you’re sorry you are so awkward on the phone, and that you would be very glad to know what they would welcome from you by way of contact or expressions of love. I will tell you that if I were your 35-year-old and I’d said, “I’ve got to go now or I’ll be late for work, but I’ll call you this weekend, OK?” and you said, “No, let’s just wait until I call you in two weeks,” I would have been hurt. Perhaps in the future you might say something to the effect of “Whatever works for you! I’m always glad to hear from you,” and leave it at that.
But I say all of this with the shadow of your depression over it. I think you do have to get back into therapy. I think your depression is casting a shadow over everything and will continue to until you get the help you need and deserve. Let your husband know you need privacy when you’re on a phone or video session with your therapist. Ask him to take a walk, if possible (well-masked, staying away from others!); if that’s not possible, ask him not to disturb you when you are in a session. Ask him to use headphones while he works or watches TV or listens to music while you are with your therapist. Close the door. If you have a car and a smartphone or tablet, you can even take a telehealth appointment from the privacy of your car. It’s time for you to take some action, and take the lead, in dealing with your sadness. Things can change, but only if you do something about them.
• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!
Dear Care and Feeding,
My stepdaughter, Daisy, is 14 and we have a good relationship. But her relationship with her biological mom is strained and only seems to be getting worse. Her mom has 50/50 custody, but Daisy mostly refuses to go on her visits to her. This is because her mother is verbally abusive to her. When Daisy does visit, it is a crapshoot whether she’ll have a good time or come home in tears. They attend joint therapy, but her mom doesn’t seem to be making any progress. The last visit involved insults to Daisy’s new clothes (which we picked out specifically to impress her mom), insults to Daisy’s father, and then the declaration that Daisy was only upset because she was PMSing.
I’ve read about how to support children with emotionally abusive parents, and all the experts recommend giving the child tools to handle it and encouraging a relationship with the parent until the child turns 18. But when Daisy asks me why she should continue to try to have a relationship with this awful woman, I just want to tell her to stay far away from her. How can I be a supportive figure in her life and not alienate her from a relationship with her biological mom?
—Striving to Be Supportive
When Daisy asks why she should continue to have a relationship with this awful woman, you might gently point out that the awful woman in question is her mother, not her “biological mother.” I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that the person this needs to be pointed out to is not Daisy. It also seems to me important to point out that if Daisy’s mother and father have joint custody, the time she spends with her mother is not “visiting.” Daisy has two homes.
It may very well be that her mother is being verbally/emotionally abusive. To be honest, I can’t tell for sure. I apologize for second-guessing—I am, after all, an outsider!—but everything you report is something you’ve been told by a 14-year-old; you’ve reported nothing you’ve observed directly. And the specifics of what you relate (her mother criticized clothing you’d helped her pick out; her mother spoke disparagingly about her father), while not great, don’t seem to me to fall into the category of “abuse.” Nor does an insensitive, dismissive remark about PMS. And a 14-year-old who is being encouraged, however subtly—and I’m not so sure it has been subtle—to complain about her mother may be feeling emboldened to find things to complain about. Especially to her stepmother, who seems to be making no effort to hide her own considerable distaste and dislike for the child’s mother.
Of course children must be given tools to cope with emotionally abusive parents. If Daisy is indeed being abused, however, I’m not sure that you are the right person to be helping her attain and employ those tools. You don’t say much about Daisy’s father, which seems curious to me—I can’t figure out how he fits into these conversations about Daisy’s reluctance to spend time with her mother, what his relationship with his daughter is like, or what he has to say about his ex’s relationship with their daughter before the Solomonic splitting of her—but he needs to be brought into the conversation now. And I would say that Daisy needs to be talking to a therapist without her mother present as well as undergoing therapy with her. In the meantime, when Daisy confides in you about her mother’s awfulness, can you bring yourself to say, “I’m so sorry that happened. You know she loves you, don’t you? She’s so lucky you’re her daughter! Sometimes people who are hurting aren’t their best selves”? Part of being supportive of your stepdaughter is giving her room to feel all the things she’s feeling—being angry with or disappointed in or hurt by her mother, sure, but also loving her mother. Which—I am just guessing here—might also be the case.
Help! How can I support Slate so I can keep reading all the advice from Dear Prudence, Care and Feeding, Ask a Teacher, and How to Do It? Answer: Join Slate Plus.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Our local library has a teen volunteer program, where high school students come and help shelve books and lead children’s activities and story time. During the pandemic, one of the volunteers has started a Zoom book club for kids in second and third grade. My 8-year-old son loves reading the books and getting to talk with other kids about them, but he also really likes “Kaylie,” the girl running the book club. She’s very patient, kind, and funny—of course he likes her! But he’s been telling us that he’s “in love” with her, “like you and Dad.” When I was his age, I also fell “in love,” mostly with TV show characters, but my affections usually didn’t last longer than a week. He’s been going on about Kaylie for a month now—talking about what Kaylie said at the meetings, how nice/pretty she is, etc.—and I’m starting to get concerned. I’m positive Kaylie doesn’t know about this, and my husband says I’m overreacting—that he’s just watched too many TV shows and movies in which “true love” is part of the plot, and is also probably just lonely, what with living life online. I’m pretty sure I am overreacting, but I still don’t know if I should discourage him or not. I want to teach him that it’s OK to have big feelings, to cry, to really love things that boys aren’t stereotypically into, but I also don’t want to raise him with unrealistic/sexist views about love. What should I do?
Don’t do anything. He has a crush—his first one, I guess (or at least the first one he’s told you about). It happens to the best of us at that age (and a month isn’t so long! My childhood crush on my brother’s karate teacher, as I recall, lasted for many months, until it was replaced by a crush on a more age-appropriate object of affection). You’re not raising him with unrealistic or sexist views about love if you don’t discourage him in his adoration of Kaylie. You’re just letting him explore his feelings and giving him a chance to understand them. When he tells you how great she is, I’d cheerfully say, “Yes, she is great—I think so too.” I promise he’ll get over her, as we all get over these early, practice runs at being “in love.” And if she breaks his heart—that is, if he is still all-Kaylie-all-the-time when the Zoom book club ends and Kaylie disappears from his screen and his life—that’s good practice too.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 3-year-old who is obsessed with gloves. Any kind of gloves: winter gloves, rubber gloves, gardening gloves, moisturizing gloves. I let him play with my old, no longer used gloves of all kinds. He asks for privacy when he does, and I say sure. When I peek at him, he is just trying them on—it may just be a sensory thing. Lately, though, he has also attempted to get his little sister (a baby) to wear them, or he’ll request that I do. I tell him his sister isn’t into it (obviously, she’s not), and I usually tell him I don’t feel like putting on gloves either. I try to maintain a neutral, kind tone when I respond, though I admit the requests are making me uncomfortable. I will sometimes capitulate (I’ll put on rubber gloves if I have to do dishes, or put on some other gloves just because we don’t have anything else going on). His reaction varies if his request is granted. Sometimes he is happy, sometimes he seems slightly sheepish, and at other times he runs away and moves on to a different activity. I really do try to be neutral about the whole thing—I don’t want him to be ashamed of this quirk—but maybe he is picking up on my own unease about it?
Three-year-olds are the weirdest people on the planet. Today it’s gloves; next month it could be snap-shut purses. Or ladybugs. Or dinosaurs. Or Scotch tape. He likes gloves—let him play with gloves. I don’t know where asking for “privacy” comes from (is this something he hears you or others say, which he may be imitating? That’s something else most toddlers do), but it doesn’t seem alarming to me (see weirdness of 3-year-olds, above). Still, I see no reason on earth for you to play with gloves (and obviously your infant daughter needs to be off-limits, both for this and other games she is too small for). If he asks you to put on a pair of gloves, don’t worry so much about being “neutral.” Just say “I don’t want to/need to put on gloves right now” and go about your business. Not only is there no reason for him to be ashamed of this “quirk,” there’s also no reason for you to take it so seriously.
More Advice From Slate
Recently a friend of a friend’s brother died of cancer. I have met this friend-of-a-friend at a few parties, but we have never been very close, and I have never interacted with the brother. Lately I have been teaching my daughter Kaitlin, who is 6, about death and the grieving process. Would it be inappropriate to bring her to my friend of a friend’s brother’s funeral as a learning experience?