Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m part of a close-knit extended family whose members all live in the same town. I used to be extremely close with one of my cousins (we were born the same year and grew up two houses down from each other), but he married a woman who demanded he cut off all contact with his own family and friends. None of us know why: We’re a pretty normal, boring family with minimal melodrama. (I met his wife a few times while they were dating and I don’t remember any kind of major incident—or even minor incident, for that matter—that would cause her to insist he cut off contact.) Anyway, my cousin hasn’t seen his parents in eight years, ever since he snuck out while his wife was at the grocery store to go to his sister’s wedding. Since then, his wife keeps an even closer eye on him. He talks to his parents on the phone for about two minutes on holidays, and that’s it. We have all continued to reach out to him from time to time, but his wife gets an alert whenever he gets a text or call, and she demands that all phone calls be on speaker, so we can’t have a private conversation. He occasionally calls me or his sister from a pay phone at the library but can never talk for long. Needless to say, this is a bizarre situation.
My question is about my kids. They know they have a “Cousin Joey” and have met him exactly once, some years ago, when Joey was on a business trip and stopped by very briefly. His wife called again and again while he was with us—upward of 40 times in that hour—and proceeded to ream him out at maximum volume when he finally answered. (My kids learned a lot of choice words that day.) They’re getting older (12, 10, and 8) and are asking more questions about this mysterious cousin. Because the rest of the family is so close, and because they know he and I used to be close—they’ve seen many pictures of us together as kids—they are very confused. They want to know why he isn’t a part of our lives and why they’ve only met him once. I don’t know what to tell them. It’s not as if we’re estranged after a falling-out that I could tell them about. If he lived far away, I could’ve used that as an excuse. How do I explain to my kids that Cousin Joey’s wife is a lunatic?
Lunatic is not the word I would use, but your oldest child is old enough to learn about abusive relationships (in fact, I think age-appropriate conversations about control and bullying in relationships are just as important to have with preteen children as are talks about sex); the two younger kids can be told, if they ask, simply that Cousin Joey’s wife seems to be a very sad and troubled person and this is making it difficult, if not impossible, for Joey to have a relationship with his family right now.
But I think these conversations with your kids are the easy part. If you are not exaggerating, if Joey’s wife really is as controlling as the examples you offer suggest, then your cousin needs help and support. Being angry with his wife, or outraged over what’s happening, doesn’t do Joey any good. He may feel—as many people in abusive relationships feel—that he has no choice about any of this, that he cannot assert himself, and that the situation he is in is not “bizarre” at all. (His wife may have convinced him of this.) It may be that he feels he cannot change anything about his life; it almost certainly is the case that he feels he cannot leave this marriage.
Being in an abusive marriage can be like being in a cult. It’s possible he’s lost sight of what things are like in the “real world” and believes he would be lost without the woman who controls his life. But the fact that he does continue to make an effort to be in touch with his family, despite his wife’s commanding that he do otherwise, means he is available, in however limited a way, to be thrown a life preserver. I can’t tell from your letter whether any of you have ever acknowledged to him that you can see he is in trouble and you continue to love and support him and want to help. Communicating that you’re angry with him for capitulating to his wife’s demands will do more harm than good. Instead, I would urge any of you who hears from him to make it clear you are there for him and will do anything you can to support him. You have nothing to lose by telling him that he is loved, that you all miss him. If any one of you is able to communicate with him privately (even if only for a few minutes), I would suggest you remind him that he is capable of making his own choices and let him know there is nothing normal about what’s happening.
It may not work—or it may backfire, if he tells his wife what his family has said and she decides never to let him out of her sight again … or otherwise escalates her abusive behavior. But I think you have to try, if you love your cousin and are concerned for his well-being.
I have one more thought, and even though what I am about to suggest seems unlikely to me, I feel it would be irresponsible not to mention it. In part—but not only—because you have indicated that Joey’s wife has demanded he cut off contact with family and friends, I wonder if you might take a moment to consider whether there is any possibility that something awful happened to Joey in the long-ago past about which he has confided in his wife—that she is being protective (or rather, both punitive and [over]protective) rather than abusive. And before you hasten to say, “Not a chance! We are the world’s most loving family! If you’re insinuating that Joey might have been abused, you’re out of your mind,” I would strongly suggest that you, or someone else in your family, ask Joey this question directly the next time you have the chance to talk to him, even if his wife is listening in.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I both grew up in fairly insular, religious, socially conservative communities, and got married in our early 20s. While we are both still religious and live in a religious community, the place we have chosen to live in is much more diverse and liberal than where either of us grew up. We’ve been married for 12 years now, and over time, both of us have grown much more liberal. (I’m more liberal than he is, but we’ve both trended in the same direction, which has made me really happy.) As a kid, I never imagined I would be able to find a community of liberal-minded religious people, let alone be married to one.
We have three children (aged 8, 6, and 4), and my husband is a great dad. He’s actively involved in their lives, listens to them talk, enjoys playing with them, and is loving, caring, and patient. And I thought we were on the same page when it came to LGBTQIA issues. We’ve had a few local teens come out as queer, and my husband was part of the conversations that made sure these kids were welcomed and embraced in our community for who they were. So I was very shocked and upset when, in the middle of a conversation recently, it became clear that he’s immensely transphobic. He has made a point of saying he’s fine with gay people, but transgender is where he draws the line. He feels so strongly about this that I know he plans on imparting this opinion to our kids. He’s not going to volunteer it, but if it comes up and they ask, he’s not going to keep these thoughts to himself.
I’m horrified. I want to raise children who love and respect people for who they are, whom they love, and how they embrace their own pronouns and gender identity. I want to raise kids who will know that if they themselves are queer or trans, they can tell us and we’ll continue to love and support them. But I know that if I’m clear and firm with my children about loving and respecting trans people, they’ll casually repeat those ideas to my husband, who will share his own feelings on the subject. I hate the idea of talking to them about trans people and saying, “But don’t tell Daddy that we talked.” I think that’s an awful burden to place on children. How do I navigate this?
—Transphobia Is Not OK
Navigate this by being honest with your children. And under no circumstances should you ask them to keep secrets from, or lie to, their father. If he communicates his transphobia to them, tell them how wrong he is, and why. Your children are going to be exposed to all kinds of harmful, hateful “opinions,” and they will have to learn how to deal with them. It’s a pity for sure that this navigating, for them, will have to begin at home—too bad indeed that your husband feels the way he does and is likely, you say, to communicate that to the kids. But your job, as you well know, is to teach your children how to be: how to live in the world, how to treat others, how to be a force for good. Stay that course. If you’ve done that well, they may be able to push back against their father’s “opinions” on their own. At worst, they’ll return to you with questions (“Why does Daddy think it’s bad/wrong/sick to be trans?”), which you will answer honestly. That answer might be “Honestly, I don’t know why” if that’s the truth, or it might be “Because Daddy doesn’t understand what being trans means, and sometimes when people don’t understand something, they are afraid of it or they insist they hate it,” or “Because Daddy was taught this by his own parents, and they were wrong too.” If your husband feels you are undermining him by telling the children this, that’s a problem for the two of you to deal with, perhaps with the help of marriage counseling. The fact is: Parents aren’t always on the same page, or on the same page at the same time. If he strongly disapproves of your telling the children that trans people deserve respect and grace and love, the two of you will argue bitterly about this. That’s OK. A good argument may help move the needle. I wouldn’t give up hope on your husband—at least not yet. Keep having conversations with him about this (especially when you’re not in the middle of an argument). Help him educate himself.
And here’s the good news (or maybe just the good reminder): As you have already seen for yourself, people change. Your husband has changed, just as you have. He has not come as far as you have, but that doesn’t mean he can’t. You describe him a loving, caring, and patient person. These are traits that may be able to help him come out the other end of his knee-jerk response to something he clearly doesn’t understand and has made no effort as of yet to try to understand. You and your children may be able to help him get there.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My beloved wife died tragically and unexpectedly when our daughters, “Cleo” and “Mia,” were 2 and 4 (they’re now 7 and 9). I was devastated and severely depressed, and was barely able to care for myself and my daughters. My mother-in-law moved in to help out and lived with us for three years, but she moved out to a condo nearby two years ago and still frequently watches the girls after school. She’s currently in our quarantine bubble, and they have grandma-granddaughter time at her place once or twice a week.
I am lonely, and I have reached the point where I would like to dip my toes into the dating pool again. When I tentatively broached the subject with my daughters, I made sure to explain that I was not trying to replace their mother and never would, and that if they didn’t feel OK with it, I would put off dating until they felt comfortable. They seemed fine with the idea of it at first, but a week later they came back from their grandma’s saying they had changed their minds. I asked them why and they said their grandma told them it hurt her feelings that I wanted to “forget about Mommy forever.” I reassured them that I was never going to forget their mother, and we had a long talk about what we still did to remember her and how, even if I got remarried, I would only marry someone who would support all the things we do to remember her.
But I am still very angry with my mother-in-law. Aside from postponing the kids’ visit for a week, I haven’t confronted her because I do rely on her for occasional child care, and I don’t want to cut my kids off from one of their last links to their mom’s side of the family (her mother was a single mom and my wife was her only child). I just can’t get over the fact that she said this to my kids! What should I say to her? Is there any way we can come back from this, or should I stop the weekly visits altogether?
—Widower in Washington
I know you’re angry and hurt, and yes, it was a lousy thing for her to say. But I would cut her some slack. She misses her daughter. It pains her terribly to think of your wife being replaced—and this is how she perceives what’s ahead for you. She’s not thinking; she’s just reacting. Please don’t punish her for it. Try instead to put yourself in her shoes: She’s not only still mourning her beloved only daughter, but she’s also, no doubt, afraid that she herself will be ultimately replaced, that she will lose her grandchildren. It sounds like you did a great job reassuring your kids. Now why don’t you pick up the phone and reassure their grandmother? Can you say, “Look, I understand how sad and fearful this makes you. Please know that I will always love your daughter, and so will the kids”? And then talk to her about your own loneliness? It may take multiple conversations, but this is a relationship worth preserving.
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