Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband, 3-year-old son, and I live in an area with moderate to high COVID rates and have been pretty strict with COVID precautions since the beginning of the pandemic—we have not hosted any guests inside our house or traveled to family since March. My husband is high risk, and since we had to return our son to day care in June, we feel like that is already enough of an exposure risk. All of our extended family is a plane ride or 8+ hour drive away, so we are coming up on a year of not seeing family. It has been really hard on all of us to have Zoom and FaceTime as the only means of connection. Most of our extended family has been more lenient and done some traveling/visiting, and I know they have been disappointed we’re not comfortable with seeing folks, but it’s been a respectful “everyone has their own risk tolerance, and every region has its own positivity rate” situation.
My trouble is that (a) both my son and I are pretty sick of Zoom and FaceTime at the moment and (b) my mom and dad in particular seem to be (not unreasonably) grieving the first anniversary of our last visit and reacting by trying to maintain or up the frequency of FaceTime meetings (currently one to two times per month). My son, as a typical 3-year-old, only wants to sit still and talk for a few minutes before losing interest and going to play with toys. When I try to tee up any call with an excited sounding “do you want to FaceTime with [insert family member]?!” his response is usually “no!” This leaves me during calls with (a) trying to chase after him so they can still see him, (b) desperately try to ply him with new activities or questions to keep him in front of the iPad, or (c) let him go and try to have an adult conversation but seeing their sad faces and hearing their concerns that he’s “forgetting” them. I have tried to reassure them that’s not the case (it truly isn’t! He talks about them a lot, and I text them when he does!) and his lack of interest is not personal to them, but it doesn’t seem to work.
Also, I am just super burnt out myself and struggling to maintain reasonable mental health (I have a therapist I see via Zoom) after a year of no real date nights, being cooped up at home, trying to keep up with a demanding job, and trying to find COVID-safe things to wear a toddler out with on the weekends. I have nothing to talk about because every damn day is the same, and we’re not doing anything new or noteworthy. I am starting to really dread these calls and feel drained after them, but it feels cruel to cut off my parents’ one already limited line of communication. I don’t blame them for feeling sad about missing out on a year of their grandson’s life at an age where he’s still changing so fast. Any tips for how to talk to my folks about this, or how to make Zoom calls with a toddler more bearable, or other ways to help maintain the grandparent/grandchild relationship in what is (hopefully) the last few months while we all wait to get vaccinated?
Dear Zoomed Out,
I picked this letter because I suspect your situation will resonate with a lot of people. We really want our young kids to be able to socialize remotely, but depending on their age, temperament, and developmental stage, it just isn’t an option for everyone. Right now, the Zooms and FaceTime calls with your son and your extended family aren’t working for anyone. I give you carte blanche to quit doing them entirely!
Of course, you have to communicate about why you’re doing this and then find some other ways for them to participate in your son’s life from a distance. Maybe it would be easier and more fun for your son to record a video to share with his grandparents, and vice versa—they could, depending on their gameness for silliness and performativity, sing a song or invite him to do an activity they enjoy alongside them, like gardening or walking the dog. Taking the expectation for real-time communication out of the equation might help everyone feel less pressured. And you and your husband might also take turns increasing the frequency of your phone calls and emails with them, so that they can make sure to get their fill of updates about your kid’s life in all its glorious minutia. This might be a pain in the neck, and I’m sure you don’t have time, but in the long run, I bet you’ll feel it’s been worth it. And at least you won’t have to chase him around with the phone.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I had a baby in May, and I’m so happy to be a mom for the first time. I was less happy when my mother-in-law recently announced that she wanted our daughter to call her “Mama [Her Name]” rather than “Grandma.” I’m not terribly comfortable with my daughter calling someone else “Mama,” and I also want my daughter to know she has grandparents. My mother-in-law hasn’t asked me about it, so there’s no natural opportunity for me to give feedback on the nickname. From what I understand, she is uncomfortable with “Grandma” because she thinks it sounds old and has a feel she doesn’t identify with, although she is of course actually a grandmother and in her late 70s. My daughter is not yet talking, so the name question is still theoretical somewhat, but my mother-in-law signs all gifts to my kid with “Mama [Her Name].” Every time it makes me bristle, so much so that this week I wrote a passive-aggressive thank-you note from my baby daughter to “Grandma [Her Name],” signed with love of course. Perhaps this is all made worse by the fact that my kid doesn’t have my last name as I did not take my husband’s but does have hers. Should I just quietly continue referring to her as “Grandma [Her Name]”? I hate confrontation and hate being in this position at all.
—My Child’s Actual Mama
Passive aggressive is not going to cut it this time. You need to be regular aggressive, or at least direct about your feelings. “I don’t feel comfortable with my daughter calling someone else ‘Mama.’ Can we find something else for her to call you that feels right to you, too?” There are plenty of creative options besides Grandma, and she may well pick a nutty one that you’ll hate. (Remember how Kris Jenner has her grandchildren call her “Lovey”?) But at least she won’t be calling herself Mama, and you’ll have established a healthy pattern of open communication that will serve you well in the future. And that’s good, because it sounds like you’re going to need to have this kind of conversation a lot!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I are at our wits’ end with our younger daughter, “Janie,” who is about to turn 4. We transitioned her from a crib to a bed two years ago, and she settled in pretty quickly. She didn’t always fall asleep very right away, but she pretty reliably stayed in bed until she did. Then, upon turning 3, things took a turn, and she began refusing to stay in her bed. We’ve done all the typically recommended stuff—a calming bedtime routine, dim lighting, songs, stories, relaxing baths. We’ve made sure she’s gotten exercise during the day and cut out screen time. We’ve tried eating dinner earlier. None of it has made any difference.
We aim for lights out around 8 p.m. (any earlier just prolongs the battle). Some nights we battle with her for two hours before she finally falls asleep, at which point my wife and I have just enough time to say good night to each other before falling asleep ourselves. Sometimes I’ll have an epiphany and try something new, and it will seem to do the trick for a night or two (e.g., snuggling next to Janie while she calms down or playing audiobooks in her dark room). But after the novelty wears off, she’s back to bouncing around and fleeing her bedroom. And she’s not quiet about it either, so in addition to be annoying for her parents, it’s also disrupting the sleep of her 8-year-old sister. I don’t know how much of this is a 3-year-old asserting her developmentally appropriate independence versus how much might be influenced by the pandemic—it hasn’t escaped our attention that the start of these bedtime issues coincided almost perfectly with Janie losing in-person preschool and organized activities.
We’re doing the best we can to keep her active and engaged throughout the day, despite the current restrictions. But on the other hand, it’s no longer recent for her. This is how bedtime has been for 25 percent of her life. Most of the advice I’ve read on this subject has been (a) focused on toddlers rather than preschoolers and (b) pretty unhelpful—stuff like “Calmly take your child back to her room, and eventually she’ll learn that she has to stay.” It may be that Janie is just a night owl, but based on her behavior (and all the yawns), she’s clearly tired at bedtime. And at some point, she’s going to be back in school again and will have to start getting to sleep sooner. What else can we do?
—Wide Awake Again
Dear Wide Awake,
Fighting bedtime around your daughter’s age, in exactly the ways you describe, is pretty common. I’m not saying the pandemic hasn’t exacerbated the problem, but I suspect there is a chance she’d be doing this even if things were more normal in her daytime life. Some kids just live to fight the powers that be, and bedtime is a time for them to flex the limited control they wield in a completely life-ruining way. Can you tell I’ve been in your shoes?
In fact, back when my older son was 3 and refusing to stay in his bed and keeping everyone up until midnight, I remember reading a classic Care and Feeding column in which Nicole Cliffe suggested that toddler beds can be really uncomfortable and advocated buying a large dog bed to put on the floor next to your own bed specifically for your kid to sleep in. The dog beds I considered buying—but did not, ultimately, buy!—haunted my online ads until the next time I cleared my cookies.
Instead, I caved and hired a pricey (though partially insurance-covered) sleep specialist to come and tell us what we already knew we were doing wrong, and to listen to us complain about our son’s specific terror tactics. It either worked, or he moved on to a different way of being annoying—possibly both? Part of what worked was that the specialist made me feel empowered to set boundaries with my son in a way I hadn’t before. This looks different for different people, which is why I don’t want to just pass along the identical advice that she gave us. But basically we were able to stop letting him get the upper hand, which was all he really wanted. You will also find your way toward this goal, whether that looks like letting your daughter go wild until she collapses in the living room at 1 a.m. or buying a dog bed or getting an extra-tall baby gate for her doorway—all of which are, in my opinion, valid options.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Before my husband and I were even married we knew we probably only wanted to have one child. Five years ago, we had that one kid, and she is basically the greatest person on the planet and we couldn’t be happier. We thought we prepared ourselves for plenty of criticism and snide comments from people about having one kid and felt ready to ignore it as needed.
Now our problem is that all of the criticism is coming from our 5-year-old. For years she has asked for a sibling, specifically a baby, and the older she’s gotten the harder the conversations have gotten. While most kids play parent/kid with dolls, she plays big sister. She has multiple imaginary siblings who she talks about and to all day. At least once a month she’ll get some sort of baby fever where she nonstop begs for a baby brother. Normally we don’t shy away from tough, honest (age appropriate) conversations about stuff, but this feels never-ending. She refuses to let us shut this down. As I write this, she is in her room sobbing because I wouldn’t promise her I’d have a baby soon and because I told her I was done talking about it.
We’ve told her we have lots of grown up reasons for not having another baby, that it’s personal, and that we’re sorry it makes her sad, but it’s not something we plan to do. We’ve tried telling her it’s not something we have to explain because it’s grown-up business (which is an answer I absolutely hate, but I’m at my wits’ end). I’ve even tried to make having a new baby in our house sound unappealing. I feel terrible for not being able to comfort her because she blames me for this sadness, but I don’t want another baby and can’t seem to find a way to get that through to her.
Outside of this problem, we have also been in contact with her pediatrician because we’re worried about how big her reactions can be, like over-the-top emotions even for a small child, and she has a problem with holding on to things in her mind. They’ve recommended a counselor, but the process has been slow to start. We just need something to say to this poor kid. We are starting to feel like monsters because we could do this for her but don’t really want to.
—One Is the Loneliest Number
Please don’t feel like a monster because you don’t want to have another child solely to please your 5-year-old. She is a creative, imaginative, emotional, and lively kid, and she has fixated on this issue because she can tell it really gets under your skin, not because she has a deep longing for the companionship that only a baby brother can provide. She has no idea what that would actually entail. She’s 5.
As you work to not feel guilty, though, you still have to deal with your daughter’s tantrums, which currently have this as their theme but will eventually be about something else. You need more tantrum-taming tactics under your belt, and when your daughter sees a counselor, a lot of what they’ll probably suggest will be work you’ll do together, to help you and your husband continue to become the parents that your over-the-top kid needs. This is about helping your daughter move through her anger and sadness, no matter what she’s upset about, and not at all about giving her a sibling.
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