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,
The Atlanta shootings just occurred yesterday, as I write this. I’m struggling with how to discuss it with my kids, who are biracial Asian Americans. It’s hard for me to talk about it with them because I’m filled with so much anger. I also feel frustrated and resentful that many people seem to be just paying lip service to slogans like #stopasianhate or going about their lives as usual. My kids were saying how strange it felt because so many of their friends were talking about St. Patrick’s Day or prom, and I so wanted to tell them how hard it’s been for me not to comment on similar social media posts with what I was really thinking at that moment—e.g., congrats on whatever fun thing you’re celebrating today, but has it occurred to you that your celebrating makes me feel like the plight of Asian Americans in this country (including my kids and me) doesn’t matter to you? How do I help my children acknowledge and express their anger without feeling like a horrible, self-centered person?
—Angry and Uncertain
Like you, I’ve also noticed and felt the silence of some people I know since the Atlanta-area shootings. Part of me wants to extend the benefit of the doubt to some and assume that they do care and are privately taking action or just aren’t the sort to express themselves online. I also know that the world never comes to a standstill—people have to continue to celebrate and find joy where they can. My younger child’s birthday falls just after the anniversary of my father’s death, and while I never feel like celebrating, of course we always do, because life can and must go on.
Does everyone I know see and care about racism, and anti-Asian racism specifically? No. That has always been the case, even if it hurts more this year. I try not to have any expectation of solidarity from people who I know don’t get it; it’s not my responsibility or my life’s work to chase after them and try to get them to care. Instead, during this hard, heavy week, I’ve been trying to focus on the community I do have, the people I know are there for us—and that’s what I’d encourage you to do, too, if you find you’re able. The fact is that we do have allies, people who didn’t just wake up and start noticing anti-Asian racism or violence in the last year or the last week. I’ve been drawing strength from the care and affirmation offered by those who’ve spoken up, taken action, donated or educated or organized or participated in a vigil. And I’ve reminded myself that none of this should be one-way support, and asked myself what more I can be doing.
Like you, I’ve found it really hard to talk about the Atlanta-area shootings with my Asian American kids. It is not the first time we’ve talked about racist violence in this country; that’s been an ongoing conversation for years. But it’s still hard to have to tell them that something terrible has happened—harder still to talk about what it means to be vulnerable, or even a target, on account of identity. I do not want them to live in fear. I have this tendency that I think many parents have, which is to want to leap directly to comfort or to the work we can do; I find myself wanting to reassure my kids, come up with reasons they shouldn’t feel threatened, point out any large or small thing we can do to be part of a solution. The heartbreaking truth is that we’re not going to be able to fix this world for our kids quickly or anytime soon, nor are we necessarily going to be able to make them feel “better” about this (though maybe that shouldn’t be the goal).
One important thing we can do is make sure there are plenty of opportunities for them to share their own feelings and experiences and fears with us, and know they are heard and validated. And I want to remind you that whatever you’re feeling right now is OK, too, and deserves the same space and acknowledgment. We cannot protect our children from the truth, but we can share the burden of it with them—affirming their emotions, making room for all their questions, providing what explanations and context we can, and letting them know that we see and love them for who they are. Eventually, if and when they are ready, we can also try to talk about the ways we respond to and challenge racism as a family—the ways we make our values known—and how we want to do this together going forward.
I know this might not feel like enough. It is not the unassailable haven we may wish we could provide. But sometimes, this is what we can offer after tragedy: sitting with our children in a painful time, letting them ask us questions and tell us how they feel, honestly telling them we don’t have all the answers but we’ll try to find more together. I have to believe that this can help them begin to gather their thoughts and consider how they want to respond in their own lives. We can teach our kids to love justice so they can be the allies others need, and hope that they draw comfort from us, from others who love them, from our communities and chosen families and those in solidarity with us. If there is any refuge to be found right now, I believe it is in these spaces where we are free to acknowledge our pain, offer aid and receive it in turn, and try to keep one another safe as best we can.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband, 1-year-old child, and I all hold two passports—one for the U.S. (where I’m from) and one for Europe (where my husband is from, and where we live). We have been traveling with our baby to meet various family members, and while he’s a dream baby and travels well, it’s still a lot of work and time, and I worry that my American family is getting a bit complacent. Never once has anyone mentioned that we are always the ones to come to them. No one has mentioned traveling here once the pandemic is over, and one very close family member has let their passport expire! They also haven’t sent cards or presents for his birthday or Christmas, because “we’ll wait till you’re over here.” We are always the ones to FaceTime them, never vice versa. They do have the means to fly over (or, like, send a postcard), and for the one family member where it’s questionable, we’ve offered to fly them here on our dime. I know that COVID is making this more complicated, but I can’t help but feel hurt. How do I ask them, in all the chaos of this moment, to be a little more active in our child’s life without us having to bundle him, his accessories, and various travel documents onto a pricey plane ride?
—Fatigued Frequent Flyer
As you note, the pandemic has limited what is possible. Americans are, of course, currently barred from entering many countries, and have been encouraged to stay put unless travel is necessary. I assume you’re also not frequently traveling overseas right now—and actually, this fact might provide an obvious excuse to begin addressing the lack of long-distance communication with your family. You could try saying something like: “We really miss you all, and obviously in-person visits are all but impossible right now. We’d love to hear from you all more often, whether it’s video calls or letters or both—we really want you to be a part of our child’s life, as much as possible given the distance and the pandemic.”
If, in happier, healthier times, you visit multiple people/families abroad and they’re all mostly clustered in one place, I do understand the assumption that you’d travel more often because it would allow you to see everyone at once. But there’s also no reason some/all of them can’t sometimes return the visit, especially given your generous offer of financial assistance. When the worst of the pandemic is over and travel feels more possible, I would just explain to your American relatives that traveling with a toddler is really tough, and you cannot always be the ones to fly. In a perfect world, of course, all your family would automatically grasp the fact that it’s both difficult and expensive to travel with a small child and voluntarily come to you on occasion. But if they haven’t already gotten this, I think you may need to (kindly) make it explicit.
I also wonder when your American family’s communication/travel issues began—I’m guessing they predated you becoming a parent? I’m not saying that you have to like or not be annoyed by their travel hesitancy or communication lapses, but there are certainly relationships I have with people in my life who I love—and who love me—where I just do a lot of the outreach and most of the travel. The fact is that some people aren’t good travelers; others find various forms of communication challenging, or just aren’t great at keeping in touch with others (even people they love). And asking people to travel in a post-COVID world, should we ever get there, may feel different than it once did. I say all this to note that even if you hint or outright ask them to do more, they may still forget or not reach out/communicate the way you’d like them to or just be unwilling or unable to do what you want. You may not be able to get your relatives to travel or communicate more often, pandemic or no—but you also don’t have to continue putting in the same level of effort if you don’t feel it’s worth it or being reciprocated.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I married into a Jekyll and Hyde family. In the beginning, they were kind and caring, but after years of marriage and the birth of our child, the kindness only comes if we’re willing to live our lives the way they want us to. My husband has told me horror stories of what it was like growing up under their roof. To this day, there are always unwanted opinions and criticisms offered, and it’s getting to be incredibly frustrating. I feel like we’ve made it pretty clear that we will live our lives the way we want to, but if we do something differently than what they did, or what their other children do, it’s wrong—especially when it comes to how we raise our child. My husband and I are solid, and we make our decisions for our family together. Because we’ve taken this stance, though, and because it’s easier to blame the spouse than it is to blame their own child, I feel like his entire family has turned against me. I want to get along with all of them, but I will not let someone else run our lives. How do we best deal with this?
—Frustrated in Fresno
The key questions, for me, would be: How much are you currently enduring from your in-laws? How do you and your husband want to try to address it with them? And if they will not change, how else might you and your husband try to mitigate the harm caused to you, your relationship with your in-laws, and possibly your relationship with each other? If it’s true that these folks will only be happy if you let them weigh in on all of your life/parenting choices, you might have to just accept their displeasure. But being unable to alter their behavior doesn’t mean that you have to accept a steady lack of kindness, sole blame for the shared decisions of you and your husband, or constant judgment, if any/all of these things are occurring.
If you decide to confront them, your husband could speak to them—or the two of you could address it with them together. I would certainly do this if they’re actually treating you badly, if their behavior feels personal. If you decide to talk with them and their behavior doesn’t improve, you and your husband can then discuss drawing firmer boundaries and doing whatever else you may need to do in order to prevent you from being their perpetual scapegoat and/or punching bag.
It’s completely natural to want to be liked and to have our choices understood or at least respected by all members of our family. It can be hard and feel very unfair when we’re deprived of that—and of course it’s OK to be frustrated and angry about it. But in the end, unfortunately, there’s just not a whole lot we can do if people choose to withhold their approval or affection; we don’t always get the assurance of knowing we’re liked, appreciated, fully seen, or supported in our own families (or the families we marry into). You can’t control your in-laws’ choices and you may not be able to get them to change, but together, you and your husband can decide what you want to do about it.
Dear Care and Feeding,
About a year and a half ago, my dad died by suicide. My parents were married for about 40 years, and I am an only child (35 years old). Our family was dysfunctional: Dad had mental health problems and an alcohol use disorder; Mom is the anxious and passive type. Even prior to my dad’s death, relationships were strained. My mom wanted support from me for dealing with my dad’s depression, even when I was going through a divorce of my own. That has continued—Mom wants my time, attention, and emotional support, but doesn’t offer much in return. (For example, she didn’t say anything to me on Father’s Day, because she was afraid to bring it up, but wanted support from me on their anniversary.) She reacts poorly to perceived criticism, and in her defensiveness has said things such as, “When are you going to get over what happened in your childhood? You had a much better childhood than I did.”
I have been trying to rebuild my own resilience and mental health after leaving a volatile marriage and losing my dad to suicide, and I am at my wits’ end. I don’t have the time or mental energy for it, but she seems to believe we are both at the stage of life in which I should be taking care of her. I’ve set firmer boundaries in place, and now she says that the only thing she wants in the whole world is for us to be closer. Well, I want her to figure her own life out! And to be happy without looking to me to play a critical role in that happiness. But since I’ve put stronger boundaries in place, it feels like she’s fixating on breaking them down. What can I do to get her to build intimacy with other people that she can turn to for attention and support?
I’m very sorry about your dad’s death and everything you’ve been through. It makes sense that your mom would need help in the wake of such loss, and also that you would be unable to supply all she requires, especially while dealing with your own grief. It might be worth talking with her about her other supports. Does she have any other family or friends she can reach out to? Has she considered looking for individual or group therapy—perhaps the latter with a focus on those who’ve lost loved ones to suicide? Obviously not everyone is open to counseling, but I think it’s worth trying to get your mother to at least consider talking to a professional. You can make it clear that you’re suggesting this because you know she’s been dealing with a great deal, because you want her to get the necessary support, and because you are somewhat out of your depth and also don’t have the ability to provide all she needs.
Ultimately, of course, you can’t force her to seek assistance or treatment. All you can do is 1) decide what is and isn’t in your power to offer, 2) communicate your availability and limits to her as best you can, 3) suggest that she consider seeking the additional help she needs, and 4) stick to the boundaries you know you need. If there are additional things you want from her, you could also think about letting her know, if you choose—but I realize that it’s a challenging relationship, and you might prefer to look elsewhere for your own support.
It’s always hard when people want more from us than we’re able to give. I think it’s good that you understand your own capacity and needs, as well as the fact that you cannot be solely responsible for your mother’s healing or happiness. She may still try to push your boundaries and want you to do more for her, at your own expense. But you don’t have to be available all the time just because she wants you to be. You have your own health and well-being to look out for as well.
More Advice From Slate
When is it appropriate to confront a stranger over their treatment of a child? When I was walking by a group on the sidewalk, I watched one of the little boys (my guess is he was 5 or 6 years old) approach one of the women in the group, perhaps his mother. She promptly smacked him on his upper arm and yelled at him not to interrupt her. At the time, I decided to mind my own business and keep walking. But the memory sticks with me, likely due to guilt. Would it have been appropriate to say something? If so, what?