Care and Feeding

My Son Misremembers His Mom’s Presence Throughout His Childhood

A twentysomething young man stands next to his father, both with their arms crossed
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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.

Many of you wrote in last week expressing concern that I was dismissive of possible emotional abuse in my response to Daisy’s stepmother. It was absolutely not my intent to suggest that children’s reports of abuse of any kind should not be taken seriously. A child’s cry for help should always be heeded. As I advised in my original answer—though I should have stated it at the outset—Daisy’s father should get involved immediately in sorting out what’s going on, and independent therapy for Daisy is a must.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single parent of a grown son I raised mostly on my own. There was a turbulent custody battle that ended with me being awarded primary custody of our son when he was 3. While I get along fine with my son’s mother now, she was not very involved in his day-to-day upbringing and was much more of a weekend parent—and, at that, I would still have to sometimes pick him up on weekends to take him to sporting or social events that she would not attend. I take a lot of pride in the job I did raising him, and in being a very active/involved single father.

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How do I address it when he misremembers his childhood? For example: He recently said something about how when he was in elementary school he lived with his mother during the week, when in fact he lived with me but went to his mother’s place two days a week after school, where he waited for me to pick him up after work. Or he’ll mention that she attended almost all his sporting events, when it was usually only one game a year. It hurts me a little when he says these things, and I want to correct him—and sometimes I do, when he says something that is way off base, but I mostly let him have his memories even if it means that in his mind his mother had a role or participation level she didn’t, or that I had a lesser role. But the truth is that I had the honor of being there for him and his mom didn’t.

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His mother has significant health issues and most likely will have an earlier than expected death, and I do want him to have the best memories of her possible. So do I continue to let him have false memories, take the hit to my pride, and just be happy I have a great kid?

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—Hurt but Doing My Best

Dear Hurt,

I have the distinct feeling you know the answer to this question, because you’re a good father. Yes, take the hit to your pride; yes, be happy you have a great kid.

I will point out that memory is complicated; it’s not an exact science. We remember things the way we do for a variety of reasons, not least because of the way we want to remember them. You did right by your child. You are deservedly proud of that. Keep doing right by him by letting him give his mother a bigger place in his childhood than she had. And keep in mind that even if she didn’t have as big a place in his life as you did—physically, in terms of where he spent more time and how present she was in a literal sense—she had and continues to have a very big place in his life in all the ways that aren’t physical. I’m guessing that this may be as painful to you as his mistaken memory of where he slept at night during his elementary school years. But you might try to reframe the way you’re thinking about it. Try this: You raised your son to honor his mother’s (metaphorical) place in his life even when she wasn’t there. I suspect this is partly why he turned out so well. Keep being proud of yourself. And resist the urge to correct the historical record until the time comes—if the time comes—that he asks you: “Hey, am I remembering this right? Because now I’m wondering if maybe I’m not … ”

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have been very lucky that our 3-year-old has always been a pretty good sleeper. She was very small at birth so on a tight feeding schedule for a while, but she started sleeping through the night well before she was 1. These days, she only wakes up in the middle of the night a handful of times a month, and even then only if she has had a bad dream or realizes she needs to use the bathroom. I, on the other hand, have always been a terrible sleeper, and having a child has made it worse. I wake up at least a few times every night thinking I’m hearing her crying when in fact she’s fast asleep. Sometimes I can recognize that I was dreaming, but most of the time I have to check the monitor to see if the crying was real. This happens even on the nights that I’m not “on” to get up with her (my husband and I alternate nights/mornings). Back when I used to be able to travel for work, it did not happen when I was sleeping in a hotel. I’ve spoken with other moms with children about the same age who also hear their babies crying in their dreams, but those mothers seem to be better sleepers than I am, since they are able to get back to sleep fairly easily. I have a hard time getting back to sleep after I get woken up by the lightning bolt of an (imaginary) baby cry. Please give me some hope here—do the phantom cries ever stop?

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—How Do I Sleep-Train My Brain?

Dear HDISTMB,

I am just like you. I sleep poorly and too lightly; when I am awakened, I have a very hard time getting back to sleep. So I can’t give you hope on that front—I am in my 60s, and this problem has gotten worse, not better. If you have always been a terrible sleeper, you may well always be one. (My mother, by the way, tells me I was a dreadful sleeper even as a baby.)

But I can definitely give you hope about the phantom cries! They do stop.

I heard them myself during my daughter’s early years (and yes, also only when I was sleeping at home—even my sleeping brain knew I couldn’t hear her crying when I was many miles away). I also hallucinated her calling my name in the night, without crying: I would wake with a start and wearily head down the hallway toward her room before I realized I had imagined it.

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One thing I’ll mention is that if you don’t have to use a baby monitor at night, don’t. I didn’t use one because my bedroom was just down the hall from my child’s, and I learned very quickly that a monitor meant I’d wake up when she so much as turned over in her crib or sighed. Obviously, if your room is on a different floor than your daughter’s, you may not have a choice. But it helps if you don’t hear everything.

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I cannot tell you precisely when the phantoms stopped for me, though if I were to hazard a guess, I’d guess it was soon after we had a talk about all the things she could do to help herself get back to sleep if she woke up (and she was 6 by then—old enough to write out a list, in glitter pen, and affix it to the wall over her bed) without calling out for me, as she was still sometimes doing. Because after that she never woke me in the middle of the night again, and I got used to that. And since I never heard her call out in real life, I stopped dream-hearing it.

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Nowadays it’s the puppy who wakes me in the night, and then I can’t get back to sleep for a long time, although she does—in an instant. But that’s another story, for another time.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Both my son and daughter moved back home early last summer—the first time we’ve had a full house since they left for college, and mostly we’ve been getting along well. However, I’ve noticed that they are both feeling an extreme need to be productive all the time. The two of them are close in age and have always been competitive, and I think living together as working adults has brought that to a new level. They aren’t hostile or mean to each other, but they do seem to be constantly trying to take on more and more, even though from my perspective it seems like they are doing enough (perhaps even too much). What can I do to calm them down? I know this is also a part of “millennial burnout” and the fact that their generation constantly overworks to feel satisfied. Is there any way I can encourage them to pause and appreciate what they have, and to find satisfaction in a place outside of work?

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—Hopefully Helpful Mom

Dear HHM,

Parenting our adult children, which theoretically should be the easiest part of parenting, is weirdly and constantly challenging, and perhaps because we remember so clearly what it was like to be parents of them when they were demanding, often unruly toddlers—or dramatic, contradictory teenagers—I think one of the hardest things to do is just step back.

Let your grown-up kids be, Mom. They will eventually figure out, the same way we all must at a certain point, that there is more to life than work. Right now, though, there really may not be much more to life than work. And I’m no millennial, but I remember very well how completely I focused on my work in my 20s and early 30s, how I felt that if I weren’t productive every minute of every day, I wasn’t earning my right to my daily breath. You can’t teach people—even those who once lived in your very own body, whose every need you were once able to fulfill—how to live their lives. You can’t teach them to stop and smell the roses, or to grow the roses or arrange them beautifully in vases. You can certainly model such behavior, and maybe they’ll take notice. But I am 100 percent certain that if you try to have a talk with them about this, 1) they won’t take you seriously; 2) they’ll feel you’re being intrusive as well as clueless about “what really matters”; and 3) your relationship with them, especially while you’re all living in the same house, will suffer.

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Besides, given the number of parents who write in complaining about how unmotivated and downright lazy their just-moved-back-home adult kids are, it might be wise, instead, to count your blessings.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I lost my mom to cancer nine months ago. She was a big part of our lives—we would see her almost daily, even before her illness—and her absence has left a big hole in our hearts. My son, who is about to turn 5, talks about Grandma frequently. Lately it seems like he is talking about her more and more, and his references to her are often unrelated to what we are doing or talking about in that moment. Just the other day, when I told him it was time to get out of the bathtub, he said, “It’s hard to without Grandma.” I have told him that it’s OK to feel sad and that we can talk about Grandma anytime (and we do, a lot), but I find myself wondering whether we are still in the realm of normalcy (whatever that even means in the context of grief) when he inserts her into virtually every conversation, or if I should be seeking professional help for him to process these feelings.

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—Grieving Mama

Dear Grieving,

I’m so sorry for your loss. Two thoughts that may seem contradictory:

The first is that seeking professional help—in other words, checking in with a good therapist—needn’t be a last resort (for our children or ourselves). The question of whether to consult a therapist is so often framed as “if what’s happening isn’t normal,” but if you have the means for therapy, it can help a great deal even when something that’s happening is in the “realm of normalcy.” As you instinctively know, grief, while “normal,” is also hard. And it’s particularly hard for a child this young.

The second thought—which comes down hard on the side of “normal”—is that children are often able to express the kinds of feelings that adults experience but don’t/can’t talk about. The truth is that it is hard to get out of the bath (or eat your dinner, or brush your teeth, or make small talk … or go to work) while you are deeply grieving. We grown people continue to go about our business, doing the things we are expected to do, suffering in silence. I think your son’s insertion of Grandma in his every conversation is a matter of his saying out loud what you and others are feeling.

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Still, what could it hurt to get him some help as he processes this? (What could it hurt any of us to get some help as we process … anything?)

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I have bipolar I disorder, aka manic depressive illness. When I sail into a hypomanic state, it doesn’t always look like big, impressive madness. I lose a lot of filters and boundaries, and irritability and anxiety reach high levels, too. Compound that with perimenopause, and it can be rough on my husband and son. My moods aren’t some bump in the road that might disappear if only I did enough yoga. They’re serious, chemically based business. I talk with my son openly about this, but those close to me say I should be more private about it. What do you think?

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