Care and Feeding

My Kids’ Incessant Guilt Trips Are Really Getting Me Down

Woman looking off bored while a boy dressed as a super hero looks at her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Photodjo/iStock/Getty Images Plus and shironosov/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 6- and 7-year-old have started complaining on a daily basis that I never play with them. They get very upset, sometimes to the point of tears, as they tell me that I’m always working, never have time for them, don’t care about anything except making money, ask why I had kids if I didn’t want to play with them, etc. I end up feeling like a horrible, neglectful parent. I pick them up from school every day. We read books together. I watch them put on “performances” for me on a near-daily basis. I eat at their pretend restaurants. We bake together. On weekends we’ll do a family board game. It is true that a few times a week I have to do another hour or two of work after getting home; I’m an English teacher with many papers to grade. But I don’t think their assessment of the situation is really true or fair. I thought it was just them saying they weren’t feeling connected enough to me, but I carved out some one-on-one time to spend with each of them regularly, and it has done nothing to stop the complaints. Anytime I say no to playing with action figures or playing Minecraft, the cries about how I’m an awful mom who never plays with them start all over again. What gives? How do I get them to stop the guilt trip because my free time doesn’t entirely revolve around them?

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—Guilty but Exhausted

Dear Guilty,

I’m on your side here, but perhaps you should look at this a little differently. Instead of feeling like you’re a horrible parent for being guilted into believing you’re not spending enough time with your kids, you should feel good about the fact that they love you so much and want you to spend all of your time with them. That’s not sustainable or reasonable, of course—and you shouldn’t apologize for doing what you need to do in order to survive.

Usually I see this behavior from one-child families because those kids have no other humans at home to play with, but that’s not the case with you. Your children have each other, and you should use that to your benefit.

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Being organized and firm has helped me handle my two young daughters’ demands for my attention. As an anti-racism facilitator in America, you can imagine how busy I am these days—but no matter how much work gets thrown in my direction, I designate at least one hour a day to give my girls my undivided attention for playtime. Email-reading, texting, and social media surfing are not allowed.

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However, once that designated time is up, I tell them that they have to find other ways to entertain themselves as I continue swimming in my deep sea of work. When the whining and complaining follows, I tell them as an adult, life can’t be all about play. I have to work in order to put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs. Even as kids, they have to do “not-so-fun” stuff like chores, learn about long division and adverbs in school, etc. I also know that even when I don’t have work to do, I’m entitled to some time to myself to sit alone in peace watching basketball on television.

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As far as you’re concerned, you can start with some daily uninterrupted playtime with your kiddos for 30 minutes, an hour, or whatever works for you—and set the expectation that they will be on their own afterward. If they give you a hard time, calmly repeat, “I love you very much, but right now I need to do some adult work. You two can play by yourselves and when I’m done, I may join you.” Not to mention, I wouldn’t allow them to continue shaming you as a mom. You are doing an amazing job, and part of that work is letting your kids know that they cannot monopolize your time.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My long-term partner and I (both women) have been on the fence about kids for a while now. We both love spending time with our nieces and nephews, and we’re financially stable enough to afford having a baby. But the problem is we’re both very squeamish. Diarrhea, vomit, blood, etc. make me very nauseous, even if it’s just in a movie. I was visiting a friend whose baby had a massive blowout while I was holding her, and I had to go sit in the bathroom for several minutes to do breathing exercises and almost threw up. My partner is the same way, although to a lesser extent. I know that for a long time, a lot of having a kid is dealing with dirty diapers, stomach flu, and accidents, and I don’t want to be perpetually holding a barf bag for several years. I’m also a neat freak with an extremely organized home, and this combined with our weak stomachs makes my partner and I think that maybe we’re not cut out to be parents. But we also love kids and feel like aside from the neatness and nausea issues we’d be good parents. What should we do?

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—Nauseous in NYC

Dear Nauseous,

I love this question, because quite frankly, I was just like you before I became a dad. I had never changed a diaper prior to my oldest child being born—the thought of cleaning up poop and the accompanying stench of it was enough to initiate my gag reflex. But here’s the funny thing about parenthood: When you welcome children into the world, the things that you thought were gross aren’t nearly as bad when it comes from your tiny human.

Yes, you may get poop under your fingernails, or puke in your hair, or pee on your favorite shirt—but I’ll bet it won’t drive you to the point of needing a barf bag every time it happens. Why? Because when you look into the eyes of your innocent baby who doesn’t know any better, you’ll be so overcome by love that none of it will even matter. Unconditional love is truly the most powerful force in the universe, and it would make almost any parent stand in front of a speeding train if it meant saving the life of their children. Handling blowout diapers and projectile vomit pales in comparison, trust me.

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I’m glad you mentioned how much you love children, because if you said something to the effect of, “Kids annoy the hell out of me and I can’t really think of anything positive about them, but should we have children anyway?” I’d definitely advise against it. But in this case, I think you’ll be fine.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 6-month-old daughter, my first. At the onset of the pandemic, I was at the end of my first trimester—of a very hard-won pregnancy by any measure—and I gave birth in September. To say that my wife and I lost our community when we needed it most would be an enormous understatement. The two couples that we are closest with are my sister and her wife, who live three hours away, and our dearest friends, who live 30 minutes away. None of these four people plan to get the COVID vaccine. Socially, morally, I am horrified. Personally, I am hurt.

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To offer the very condensed lay of the land: My sister and her wife, who is a medical professional, have bit on anti-vaccine propaganda and their two sons are not vaccinated; one of our two closest friends grew up unvaccinated, but is very light touch and nonconfrontational on the issue; and our other friend feels dually that the COVID vaccine was developed too fast and that she can bolster her immunity in other, “just as effective” ways, like “several hours a day outdoors.” (I feel it’s worth noting that none of these four people are members of an ethnic group that might have reason to be deeply skeptical on matters of public health sanctioned by the U.S. government, though all four are queer. It’s also worth noting that none of them, as far as I can tell, are looking at how the government handled, say, the AIDS crisis and are skeptical for that reason.) As much as I vehemently disagree with these anti-science, anti-community stances, especially during an all-out crisis, I know better, rationally, than to expect the people close to me to make choices based on my child. But I don’t know how not to take this personally, how not to be hurt, how not to wish that they might consider getting vaccinated in order to touch and hold and play with and properly know our daughter. I know that if they don’t get vaccinated, that bonding won’t be on offer until it’s safe for my baby to get the COVID vaccine, and who knows when that will be. Please help.

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—Crestfallen in the Catskills

Dear Crestfallen,

It’s almost as if you read my mind, because my first question was going to be if they are Black (which they are not). As you know, there’s an ugly history in America of how Black people have been taken advantage of by medical professionals, so that would’ve offered some insight into their perspective.

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I’m not going to engage in general debate about whether individuals should or should not get vaccinated in an advice column. But I will happily share what I would do in your situation.

I believe in vaccines, and I believe in science. I believe in them so much that I participated in the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine trial in December of 2020. As a Black man, I received a lot of hate mail from people telling me that I don’t know what I’m getting myself into, which is silly because I’m an anti-racism facilitator for a living, and it’s my job to know the history of mistreatment Blacks have faced at the hands of racist doctors.

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I did it because I know people who died of COVID. I know people who had to say their last goodbyes to their loved ones dying of COVID over a Zoom call. I know COVID survivors who are experiencing such horrific side effects from battling the disease that one of them told me she wished she died from it instead of suffering as she has for the past seven months. Sorry, but I want absolutely no part of that in my life, and I couldn’t sign up fast enough to join the trial study. I also wear a mask whenever I leave the house, remain socially distant, and I constantly wash my hands and sanitize.

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If I had some anti-science, anti-vaccine friends or family members (thankfully I don’t), I wouldn’t take it personally or be hurt by it, because they are doing what they believe is best for them, not me. So, in turn, I would do what’s best for my family and me by ensuring my kids aren’t touched by or in close proximity to the people in my life who choose not to be vaccinated. It’s really that simple.

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I know that just because the solution is simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement—especially because you love these people. But if you are strong in your convictions about vaccinations, you may arrive at the difficult conclusion that some people are best loved from a distance greater than 6 feet (aka, virtually). Or you may take a softer approach and ensure your family only hangs out with your inner circle outdoors in a socially distanced manner. Only you can decide what works best for you. One thing you should definitely consider is branching out a bit to expand your circle of friends to include those who feel the same way as you about this polarizing topic.

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The good news is the world will eventually get back to its “pre-pandemic normal,” but the journey to that day will probably be a little bumpy.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife has, on multiple occasions (twice in the last two weeks), yelled at our kids to the point that they start crying. This is usually out of frustration. I feel this is severely impacting our kids’ confidence right now, and it will impact their confidence as adults. It is something I have mentioned to her multiple times, but those conversations never go well. The last time she made our 10-year-old son cry, she was frustrated with how distracted he was during online school and not following directions. The time before that was because she caught him still up and using his phone after bedtime. To me these are very minor issues, and the fact that her approach with him resulted in him crying makes me think it was her fault but she doesn’t see it that way (or at least won’t admit it to me). Our arguments about this are really impacting our marriage and it has been like this for years. Is this a difference in parenting styles as she says, or is this as major a problem as I think it is?

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—Confidence Crusher in California

Dear Confidence Crusher,

I think we can both agree there’s a big problem if her behavior is (or even borders on) emotional abuse. It’s also an issue if it’s impacting your kids’ mental health and your marriage. In those cases, find a good therapist. But from what you describe, and without knowing a thing about your wife, your wife does not sound like a hot-headed jerk who flies off the handle for no reason, and I want you to be aware of some potential blindspots. Is she overwhelmed? Is she getting the emotional support she needs at home and elsewhere? Does she feel appreciated? What part of this are you responsible for? These are important questions to answer to get to the root cause of the problem, instead of just viewing her as the bad guy.

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I know many moms who rarely receive a “thank you” or an emotional check-in from their spouses, and oftentimes it drives them to the point where your wife is now. I would start with talking to your wife and genuinely asking her how she’s doing. No finger-pointing, no accusations of bad behavior, etc.—simply offer a heartfelt inquiry into her mental and emotional health. It can be as simple as, “Hey honey, I’m just checking in on you. How are you feeling today? Is there anything I can help you with?” Don’t say, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’re on edge…” because that will put her on the defensive. Remind her that you’re on the same team, and you’re in this together.

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After she (hopefully) shares what’s wrong, then you can address how snapping at the kiddos isn’t the best way to go about things. From my vantage point, this sounds like a cry for help from a mom who wants her feelings to be validated. If you do that and step in as an equal parenting partner, I bet outbursts directed at your children will become few and far between.

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However, if you’ve tried everything and it isn’t working, then don’t hesitate to bring a therapist into the equation. I have a feeling it won’t need to go that far, but it’s definitely an option if you need it.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

We recently had a picnic with another couple and their 15-month-old. My 2-year-old son did something cute, so I pulled out my phone to get a quick pic. The other baby came toddling up behind us to investigate, and I thought it might make her smile too, so I held up the phone for her and did the “look at that cute baby!” routine. Her father immediately (but politely) asked me not to do that because they are a zero-screen family. I apologized and put the phone away, feeling crass and ignorant, like I might as well have puffed cigarette smoke in her face. Was I in the wrong?

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