Dear Care and Feeding,
Early in the pandemic, my neighbors did not go near each other. As the months went by, they loosened their restrictions and our kids began playing together. I have one young child. Somehow, my house became the hangout. I am working from home, but the key word is working—I still need to work. Every single day, up to three children show up at my house. They want lunch and snacks. They use up my craft supplies, dirty every dish, and make huge messes. They stay here for six or seven hours, and their parents never check in or respond when I contact them. When I walk them home, they end up right back here, stay for dinner, and sometimes overnight. I have a lot going on in my own life, including the recent loss of my spouse. I have told these parents this. I don’t have the emotional or financial bandwidth to keep this up, and the other parents don’t seem to care. I don’t know what to do anymore.
—Neighborhood Nanny Not by Choice
Dear Neighborhood Nanny,
Of course you cannot deal with this anymore—it should never have been expected of or forced on you in the first place! I would really like to talk (“talk”) to those other parents; that you have not (I assume) left angry notes and glitter bombs in their mailboxes is a testament to your enormous patience. I’m so sorry you have to endure such inconvenience and presumption during a pandemic, as you grieve for your spouse.
I know you have already tried talking to the neighbor kids’ parents. If you decide to try one more time, feel free to be very blunt about why this situation cannot go on—e.g., “I really need to be able to work, and I don’t have the time or resources to care for and feed your children all day.” And then draw a clear line for them: “From now on, if your kids show up at our door while I’m working, I won’t be able to let them in.”
You shouldn’t have to be so firm—these parents should know better already, but obviously they lack both logic and empathy. It’s depressingly clear that you can’t control their behavior, so regardless of the words you choose, it’s your follow-through that will likely prove most important. Don’t let any of these kids in your house if they show up unannounced. Don’t feel a second’s guilt about turning them away from your door. “Sorry, Billy, you’ll have to go back home,” etc.
If you do want your child to continue to have some or all of these neighborhood kids as playmates, you can leave that possibility open, but stress to their parents that playtime needs to be planned ahead and mutually agreed upon, that it cannot always take place at your house, and that you’ll be limiting it to weekends/times when you’re not working. In the absence of neighbors with a lick of common sense or courtesy, I wish for you the peace that comes with a much-needed boundary and a far quieter house.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m currently four months pregnant and own a small business, which has been very difficult and stressful due to COVID-19. My little sister (four years younger) is three months pregnant and just found out she’s having twins. I love my sister, and I don’t feel angry at her for being pregnant, but am deeply upset that I have to share this time with her because our family dynamic treats her as the golden child and me as a black sheep. My sister is unemployed and has never paid a single bill in her life, yet my parents praise and shower her constantly. I am an entrepreneur that has always worked very hard and am treated as cold and insensitive for putting myself first. I’m terrified that my child will be treated as less-than by my family, just as I was. Selfishly, I feel as if my pregnancy—which was a very careful and serious decision on me and my husband’s part—means nothing to my family anymore because of my sister. I’m in therapy to heal from my childhood, but I perceive my sister’s pregnancy as a threat that this dynamic will continue for the next generation.
—Anxious and Expecting
Dear Anxious and Expecting,
I’m sorry if your family has made you feel less understood or valued because you have different priorities than your sister (although, to be clear, I also think it would be weird and messed up if they favored you over her because you make more money and are generally more of a go-getter). I’m not going to pretend that some parents don’t play favorites or that this can’t lead to harmful patterns and hurt feelings. Have your parents said anything to you about your pregnancy being any less exciting to them because of your sister’s? Have they seemed less happy for you since learning her news? Gotten her more gifts, planned a baby shower for her and not for you? If so, I think you can try to talk with them about it, let them know you find it troubling and hurtful. Similarly, if, once the kids are born, they seem to favor your sister’s over yours, you can decide if and how you want to confront them over it.
However, in the absence of signs or current evidence that your pregnancy “means nothing to [your] family” or that they will love your child less, I don’t think you should necessarily assume that will be the case, or view your sister’s pregnancy as a threat to your future child’s place in the family. To do so when you must have so many other demands on your time and energy feels to me like borrowing unnecessary trouble—pre-worrying won’t actually prevent any future unfairness or favoritism; it will just make all of this harder for you. And I could see such distress and bitterness potentially contributing to a new and different harmful dynamic, one that has an impact on your child’s relationship with their cousins and/or grandparents.
There is obviously nothing you can do about the fact that your sister is pregnant and due to give birth around the same time as you. Try to remember that not every family pattern is destined to be repeated generation after generation (in my experience, even as we avoid what we view as our parents’ mistakes, we tend to make new ones all our own). I really hope that you eventually reach a place where you are able to recognize your sister’s pregnancy as her own experience—not as a threat to yours—and envision your future kids as loving playmates without any fear or bitterness. I’m also glad to hear that you’re talking about your feelings, and the pain you’ve felt within your family, in therapy. If you feel a need to discuss this with your parents as well, it could be worth trying. It’s clearly weighing heavily on you, and I think it would be unfortunate if the next generation did wind up bearing any part of the burden for a dynamic they had no role in creating.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My mother “Carol” has been with her boyfriend “Steve” for about eight years; she is in her mid-60s and he is in his early 70s. I find him incredibly difficult to be around. He is a classic know-it-all who changes the subject in the middle of conversations to tell random stories about himself. My mother acts like his personal hype man, constantly saying things like “Oh, Steve is the best _____” about absolutely everything (he’s apparently the best driver, best at talking to people, best handyman, etc.). I think the constant compliments have been an attempt at getting us to like him, but it’s done the opposite. On top of this, he has attempted to bond with me over the years by bad-mouthing my father, which just seems like an obvious no-no in communicating with a significant other’s child, no matter their age. My mother is incredibly defensive about any sort of critique (if you were to tell her you didn’t care for her favorite food, for example, she may take it personally), so I’m hesitant to broach sensitive subjects with her.
I have a toddler. My mother frequently refers to Steve as “Grandpa,” but he’s not their grandfather. He’s also not my father figure, due to me being an adult before my mother even met him. During the last visit, she called him Grandpa (“Give Grandpa a hug!” “Go say hi to Grandpa!” “Grandpa, look at your grandson!”) no less than 50 TIMES. On top of the frequency and obnoxiousness, my son has two living grandfathers, and this feels disrespectful to both of them. It feels like Steve being a grandfather figure is being shoved down my throat instead of developing naturally; I do recognize it might happen as my kiddo ages, and that is fine! I even tried giving him his own Grandpa-like nickname as a compromise, but it was ignored (I didn’t bring it up as a discussion, though, just did it a few times before giving up). Is it wrong to want Steve to no longer be referred to as Grandpa? Or is it the more the merrier for my little one, and we should lighten up? If it is reasonable to bring this up to my mother, any suggestions on how to do so without upsetting anyone too much?
—What to Call a Not-Grandpa?
Dear What to Call,
You don’t want your mother’s long-term boyfriend to be your kid’s de facto grandpa—fair enough. What your kid calls Steve is a decision you have a right to be involved in. Based on what you’ve shared, I don’t think your wishes are ridiculous or out of bounds, nor do I think you need to just smile and go along with him being installed as a third grandfather.
As your mother seems so determined to forge ahead with dubbing Steve “Grandpa,” I’m afraid the only way to stop this train is to say, directly, that you disagree. You can try to be kind and truthful about it—you don’t have to lead with “I find Steve insufferable,” nor do you have to pretend to like him more than you do. If I were you, I’d go with something simple and straightforward, such as “I know how much Steve means to you, and I’m glad that you’re both happy together. But I don’t think of him as my kid’s grandpa, and I’m going to encourage them to call Steve ‘Uncle Steve’ [or whatever alternate title you want to suggest].” You don’t have to defend this position, in my opinion—you’re the parent, and for now you get to decide who’s in your toddler’s life, set the boundaries you’re comfortable with, and help them define those relationships. But if your mother does press you for an explanation, I think it’s OK to share a version of what you told us: “If it happens that my kid eventually comes to see Steve as another grandpa, that’s fine, but right now that’s not the case and I’m uncomfortable with him being given that title.”
It’s clear that you do have some larger Steve-related issues. It’s up to you whether you want to try to address them, now or in the future—whether you want to let your mother and Steve know, for example, that you don’t appreciate his comments about your father. But I understand wanting to avoid unpleasantness, and you don’t need to have anything out with them unless you want to. When it comes to the “Grandpa” title, unfortunately I don’t think there’s any way to achieve the desired end without speaking up, underlining the fact that Steve is not your child’s grandfather and that, for now at least, you consider the subject closed.
Dear Care and Feeding,
How do you move on from a close call? I’m a new mom, and my baby is 8 months old. She is adventurous and bold and already doing a great job of keeping me on my toes, even though she’s not yet independently mobile (she’s walking well with assistance, but has no interest in crawling). This morning I looked at the baby monitor and noticed she was awake from her nap and examining something she had in her hands. I went to check on her and discovered she’d managed to pull a sticky mosquito patch (we live in the tropics, where dengue is a concern) off the bar of her crib and was happily licking away. We called poison control, and she’s fine. But I’m not. I keep imagining how much worse that could have been. She could have choked. She could have swallowed a toxic substance. If I hadn’t happened to glance at the monitor at that moment, I wouldn’t have known she had the patch in her hands at all.
Before the holidays, we had a friend and her precocious 6-year-old over for a visit, who took a strong interest in the baby. At one point my friend’s 6-year-old, while holding the baby under supervision, still managed to unexpectedly take off running down our hallway and into the back bedroom, all parents giving chase. Everything was completely fine—absolutely no harm was done. But I found myself replaying this incident over and over and over for days, imagining all the ways it might have turned for the worse. I do have the ability to learn from these close calls: children who want to hold the baby have to be seated the whole time, no more mosquito patches around the crib, etc. But instead of taking the lesson and moving on, I find myself obsessing. Do other parents have a level of resourcefulness or resilience I don’t have that allows them to more easily move on from these scares? Am I missing something? Or is parenting truly just this terrifying, all the time?
—What Am I Missing?
I promise you, not only does every parent have stories like this, you are far from the only one still haunted by yours. Close calls can be really tough to move past. When our first child was just a few weeks old, my husband tripped at the top of the stairs while he was holding her. He slid down in a sitting position, with her bundled tight against his chest; he didn’t drop her, but he wasn’t in any kind of control, either. It was a shock for our daughter—she had been napping, after all, then woke up in the middle of a very scary, bumpy ride—but she was also fine, if incredibly pissed. We, of course, were shaken. It took months for us to stop reliving that moment, and we’ll never forget how terrifying it was.
I’m not going to lie to you: You’ll always worry. Of course you will. Your whole heart is running around outside your body, not only unbearably vulnerable but constantly flinging itself into danger. You may never stop reflexively assessing the perils in a brand-new space, Googling stuff like “symptoms of poisoning” and “signs of concussion” or experiencing the occasional kid-related anxiety dream. But I do think it gets a little easier. You get used to the worry and the vulnerability. You learn what your kid’s “normal” looks like, and reserve the greatest portion of worry for when they’re clearly not. Over time, you amass a whole catalog of moments that scared the crap out of you yet were then followed by your kid picking herself up and running off as though nothing happened. It’s a real load off once they are able to communicate to you where it hurts and how bad, and can show you that they’re all right and perfectly able to carry on.
When I feel my own parental anxiety spiking, I try to remind myself that no amount of worrying can truly protect me or my kids from the risks associated with Being Alive in the World—and I don’t want to spend their precious childhoods always bracing for the very worst that could happen, nor do I want them to be less curious or less brave or to go through their lives in fear. I say this not to take you to task for your feelings (again, I’ve been there!), but to encourage you to be a little gentler with yourself, if possible, and also forgive yourself for not being able to foresee or prevent every potential risk or danger out there. If you’re able, let yourself focus more on the joys of parenting than its terrors—I hope and believe you’ll soon feel that balance shift. Remember that you’re in this for the long haul, and while some parental fear is unavoidable, you don’t deserve for it to become the default state.
More Advice From Slate
In college, I started having a series of flings and casual sex with no consequences. I never had an issue with it and neither anyone else in my life. I’m now 30 and I’m still hooking up. I love Tinder. The trouble is, now that I’m older I’m getting a lot of judgment thrown at me. My sister says I need to find a nice guy and settle down. My friends say variations on the same theme. I’m OK with things the way they are. I doubt I could settle into monogamy anyway, and I’ve never really wanted kids. Last night, I told my sister that, and she said I’d better get my act together or I’d be too old for a “real” relationship and would have to settle. So I’m wondering—can you get too old for casual flings?