Care and Feeding

My Mother Tricks My 3-Year-Old Into Telling Her About My Personal Life

It’s not just “girl talk” if it violates my privacy!

A 3-year old girl in a denim jacket telling a secret.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by master1305/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter Natalie is 3 years old and talks A LOT about every detail of our lives. (I heard her telling the mailman the other day that I cut my nails while I was sitting on the toilet!) My mom takes MAJOR advantage of this and asks Natalie questions about my personal life and anyone else Natalie is around like, “Nat, does Mike go in Mama’s room when he visits?” or “Nat, did Aunt Tracy bring a girlfriend or a boyfriend to Thanksgiving?” When I try to cut in, my mom says, in front of Natalie, “Don’t get in between me and my favorite granddaughter! We’re having girl talk.” My daughter loves being besties with her grandma, and I don’t want to crush their bonding, but I’m not thrilled with my 3-year-old being exploited or encouraged to gossip. Boundaries aren’t really my mom’s thing, and she gets defensive at the slightest criticism. Whenever she gets mad at me, my kids get caught in the crossfire, and she stops talking to me and them. It hurts them a lot and I’d rather avoid it. What should I do?

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—Toddler Talks a Lot

Dear T.T.L.,

Your mother sounds a lot like my grandma (who I also adored), right down to the silent treatment when she was mad at us, so I feel for you and your kid! I do think you need to at least try talking to your mom about this. If this gossip (though not at all malicious on your child’s side) goes unchecked, it could lead to family drama anyway; worst case, it could eventually affect your daughter’s relationships with other relatives.

I’d start by letting your mom know that you’re very happy she has a close relationship with your kids, but you don’t want your 3-year-old sharing information and secrets that aren’t hers to share. I realize this might not work—your mom hasn’t listened in the past when you tried to set what I assume were reasonable boundaries—but it’s something she should hear anyway. As for your kid, she has to listen to you at least a little, because you’re her parent. If she’s old enough to (unintentionally) gossip with her grandmother, she’s probably also old enough for you to at least start talking with her about boundaries and other people’s privacy. You can let her know that it’s unkind to share secrets and personal information that other people have not given her permission to share, and tell her that you expect her to try not to do so, even if asked. It’s a good time to bring in a variation on the Golden Rule: Would she want other people sharing her secrets? (To this day, when I am invited to gossip, sometimes I shut it down with one of my mom’s go-tos: “Wow, that doesn’t sound like my business!”)

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Of course it shouldn’t be your child’s responsibility to rein in her grandmother—that’s not what I’m suggesting. But as your daughter grows and learns more about what’s expected of her, you’ll naturally expect her to take more and more responsibility for her own behavior. “Don’t tattle or gossip” is a normal thing for parents to talk to kids about, and even if it takes a while to sink in, there’s no reason not to start now. You can’t control your mom’s behavior, but you have lots of time to try to influence your daughter’s—she doesn’t have to become a gossip just because she knows and loves one.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a cousin who was trying to have a child for many years. She suffered through multiple miscarriages, and every time this happened, I would spend hours with her on the phone consoling her for days and weeks. I flew a few times across the country to be by her side during some of these times when she was especially low. At one point, we even discussed me being a surrogate to carry their child, but it never went further than a discussion (her choice).

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Lives got busy and for several months, we lost touch. However, I received an email—addressed to about 45 other people—announcing the birth of their baby two weeks ago. I didn’t even know she was pregnant or that they had a baby. I’m very hurt that I wasn’t told about this. Even if they wanted to keep the pregnancy a secret due to fear of miscarriage, it’s unclear why I was notified in a group email two weeks later. I sent the obligatory congratulations and a nice baby gift, but I have no interest in continuing this relationship. I feel used and hurt that they couldn’t even let me know individually in a phone call about the baby. Am I being self-centered here? Should I let it go? Or should I just distance myself and wish them the best?

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—Bummed About Baby Broadcast

Dear Bummed,

Birth announcements, whether emailed or snail-mailed or both, are generally how most people—especially those not in regular contact with the parents—find out that a child has been born! I remember sending similar emails to friends and family after my kids were born, and it was not a sign that I didn’t care about them. Quite the opposite: I cared a lot, genuinely wanted them to know, and did not have time or energy to reach out to everyone individually. The only people who got calls were our parents and siblings. (I did send printed birth announcements many weeks later, but you shouldn’t feel slighted if you don’t receive one; digital is more eco-friendly, after all.)

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I think you need to have some compassion and consider how difficult and anxiety-producing this pregnancy must have been for your cousin, given her history of multiple miscarriages. In addition to whatever fear she must have felt after experiencing so many pregnancy losses, it could not have been easy to be pregnant and give birth in the midst of a terrifying pandemic.
And it’s also worth noting that even in normal times, which these are not, the newborn period is not known for being a chill and peaceful time for parents. Even if she’s overjoyed to finally have a baby in her arms, your cousin is probably also sleep-deprived, still healing, leaking milk, and trying to feed herself one-handed. She doesn’t have tons of free time to sit and go through her contacts list, calling folks one by one.

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You admit the two of you lost touch for several months because “lives got busy.” Past closeness doesn’t always automatically carry one over a considerable breach in communication. Maintaining a relationship or letting one lapse is usually a two-way street, and it was not your cousin’s sole responsibility, while pregnant or postpartum during a pandemic (!), to reestablish contact with you. I don’t think there’s any reason for you to feel wronged or used here, or to try to make this about you at all? I also think it would be a shame to cut off your cousin over it—if you want to actually be close to her again, and hear more about her baby, there’s still time to rebuild that connection. But if you really can’t maintain this relationship without bitterness because you received an email instead of a phone call, I suppose ending it is technically your prerogative.

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• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have been a stay-at-home mom to two girls, now 3 and 1.5, since the pandemic began and I lost my job. We are fortunate in that my husband is an essential worker and working lots of overtime so we can remain financially stable and healthy. However, more and more, I have found myself grieving the loss of my job and my sense of self, missing life the way it was while having to hold the entire family together, and feeling guilty for having these thoughts when I know so many are suffering more than me. I know my husband is working hard, doing his best, and is mentally and physically exhausted after long days at work—but caring full time for the girls, dog-walking, meal-cooking, laundry, seasonal housework (mowing the lawn, shoveling snow), etc. is really causing me to struggle. Not to mention my parents are both facing significant health issues. I honestly don’t know when I’ll be able to go back to work, as I see myself eventually becoming their caretakers, though we have not discussed this yet.

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I am burnt out. I don’t even know how to pull myself together to make the days fun for the girls. It’s more and more TV and me finding excuses to let them play by themselves (“I’m going to fold laundry and scroll Facebook while you build blocks next to me”) rather than what used to be crafts, outside play, dress-up, and giggles. I know I need to pull it together for the girls, but the idea of another freezing winter day with my husband at work and just me dealing with everything makes me sob in the shower. How do I put my big-girl pants on and be the fun and engaging mom I used to be when I am having such a hard time?

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—Love My Family, but Miss Being Me

Dear Love My Family,

I wish I could give you a hug and/or a giant cake and/or your own personal housecleaning angel and/or an actually-nice Mary Poppins. The longer this goes on, the harder it gets, I know. And hearing that many other parents—the majority of them moms—are in the same leaky boat as you is probably not, I realize, especially comforting.

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You asked for a kind of pep talk here, a get-back-into-the-good-fight, but the most important thing I want to tell you, in the absence of the real solutions I wish I could offer, is: Please be gentle with yourself. Guard your energy. Ease up on those standards. Of course you’re not doing 8 million crafts and playing dress-up and serving gourmet snacks all the time like the moms in those insidious commercials (I like to yell at those moms when I see them on screen, btw). It is not only fine but wonderful that your kids can play on their own and, I assume, together—that’s the great thing about siblings! Remember: If they build the tower or the fort themselves, it’s a learning experience; if you do it for them, it’s just annoying. Don’t feel bad about some screen time—how else is any parent supposed to get through this pandemic winter?

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I’d love for you to think more in terms of what’s essential, and what’s just nice if you have time/energy. Your girls are little enough that they will constantly need a lot from you, but when you’re on kid duty, are there any other things you can relax about or phone in a little that will result in something being even slightly easier? What are the simplest meals in your repertoire? What chore can be put off just a little longer? Is there a neighborhood kid you can pay to shovel your driveway next time it snows? (It’s snowing right now at our house and we’re gonna let that stuff sit there and melt the natural way.) I know a little easing-up and reframing won’t fundamentally change your situation, but I earnestly want you to try to believe that you are doing your best and have nothing to reproach yourself for.

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Self-care is not a magic solution, either, but I still think you should grab those brief moments for yourself whenever you can—even five, 10 minutes at a time. Feel no guilt any time you’re able to sit and relax or breathe or scroll through your phone or call a friend or drink a cup of coffee or read a book or, yes, cry in the shower. This is hard and it’s OK to admit it. Think about your sources of support: Are there friends or family you can reach out to? Who can you call or text when you need to quickly vent/scream? You are not the only one going through this, which means others should be able to understand and commiserate.

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Maybe your husband really is doing all he can while working overtime, but still, you should talk with him about all of this if you haven’t already. You’re a team, and he should know that you’re struggling (you’d want to know if he were, right?). How might he be able to pitch in at home when he’s not working? Could he pick up the groceries on his way home so you don’t have to go out and do it? Does he have any days off work, and if so, can he spend at least part of those days focused on the kids so you can have some time for yourself? Maybe some of the work you’re currently doing all alone can be shifted around or postponed a little, maybe it can’t, I don’t know—but either way, trying to talk with your husband honestly about what you’re going through is better than spiraling and suffering alone.

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In addition to being frank with your husband, I’d also encourage you to consider talking with a good therapist. This is all so tough, and it makes total sense that you’d feel tired, burned out, even depressed. A professional can help you talk through your options and fears and feelings and needs while providing some dedicated time and space where focusing on yourself is precisely the point. You need and deserve that space and that support—we all do, especially during a pandemic—and I hope you’re able to find more of it soon.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I are both women and have an almost-8-year-old daughter. We had a surrogate, but we used my egg and donor sperm. I went through puberty pretty early (hair growth at 7, breast growth at 8/9, and period at 10). Since my daughter is approaching that age, I figured it was time for us to talk to her about upcoming changes to her body that she may already be experiencing (she’s very private about her body, which we respect).

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I brought this up to my wife to find a good day for us to sit down with our daughter to discuss this, but my wife blew up and said it was way too early and we should wait until our daughter is 12 or 13. Based on my own history, that seems late to me. When I asked why, my wife said it was “bad feminism” to talk about this too early, wouldn’t elaborate further, and just stormed out, which is very unlike her. I’m not sure what to do here. I don’t want to lie to my wife, but I don’t want to leave my daughter in the dark. Should I have a talk with my daughter about this behind my wife’s back?

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—Too Soon?

Dear Too Soon,

Given your history, I totally understand why you’d want to start talking about puberty soon, and I agree that 12 or 13 is too late. Kids shouldn’t be surprised or left wondering about the changes occurring—which is why, in many schools, discussion of puberty and sex is part of the health curriculum around fifth grade. But I imagine you want to talk about this with your child before she gets the information in a public setting, where she might not feel as comfortable asking questions.

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I don’t think you have to or should have these talks behind your wife’s back—she should know that you plan to, and hopefully she will come to see the importance of and be part of these discussions as well. Talking to your kids about their bodies and sex and consent in healthy, factual, nonshaming ways is good feminism! I really hope that she cools down and is then able to have a real conversation with you about this, because the two of you need to be able to discuss it in a way that doesn’t risk putting your kid in the middle of a conflict. Your daughter is just turning 8, so I think you do have a little more time to talk with your wife and at least try to get on the same page. If you’ve shared your own history with her, she should understand why it’s important to start this conversation with your child soon.

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It might be helpful to find out why your wife is reacting this way, especially since, as you note, it’s not like her. It might help her to be reminded that this will be an ongoing conversation—the two of you don’t have to tell your kid everything at once. You can start with the coming changes to her body, answer whatever questions she has about that, and take it from there. Many people are unfortunately raised and/or conditioned to feel a sense of shame around these topics—I don’t want to presume anything, but it’s possible that is also a factor for your wife. If so, I hope she’ll consider talking with you and seeking whatever additional support she may need so that she can be part of these important conversations with your daughter.

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— Nicole

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Today, some of my work colleagues got into a heated discussion over lunch: One person knew two different police families whose little kids discovered their guns out in the open, and is now totally freaked out about ever letting her kid go to someone’s house who owns a gun, even if they say they’re locked up, stored well, etc. The fur was flying. Her question was: How do you find out if a family has a gun and then say, “Oh, sorry, my kid can’t come over” without alienating your kid to the whole neighborhood? 

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