Dear Care and Feeding,
My two kids and a neighbor (all aged 5 to 8) spend four hours, three days a week at a local playground with a babysitter we hired late in the summer. We live in Brooklyn, and our school has barely been open, so this situation has been an absolutely lifesaver. The babysitter is amazing, and we pay her handsomely because we don’t want to lose her. And we are happy to do it! The problem is that there is a child in one of my kid’s classes who often comes to the same playground. This child is brought by a parent, but invariably, the parent needs to run home to get something or has to leave before the other parent can arrive, and so they ask our babysitter to watch their kid for a few minutes (usually 15 to 30). We don’t know what to do about it. They haven’t offered to pay our babysitter or chip in to the money that we pay. Our babysitter doesn’t seem bothered by it—she didn’t even mention it—we learned about it from one of our kids. But this babysitter is so important to us and our remaining shreds of sanity that we really don’t want her being taken advantage of. Are we just being ungenerous? Or should we put a stop to this?
—Barely Hanging On in Brooklyn
Dear Barely Hanging On,
This boundary-stomping playground parent is taking advantage of your sitter, and it’s not OK. Your first move should be to talk to the sitter and confirm that this is happening as your kid described it. Then, ask her how she thinks you should approach the parent, and what she’d ideally want the outcome of the situation to be. She may request that you let sleeping dogs lie, and if that’s what she wants, you’ll have to step back and let her handle the situation herself however she thinks best.
But if the sitter gives you the OK to advocate on her behalf, you’ll need to get in touch with this parent and ask them to stop leaving their kid in your sitter’s care unless they’re interested in hiring her. Maybe they’ll be sufficiently shamed to either cut it out or arrange to compensate her for her work. If they demur, then keep asking for favors from someone who isn’t in a good position to say no, it’s time to find a new playground.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 11-year-old son signed up for a Reddit account—without permission—to join a group called Roblox Tiddies, whose content is cartoon boobs created to titillate (pun intended). So, the easy question is, is it OK to tell him he can’t create accounts online without permission until he’s 13? Much tougher question is how I can make sure he knows there’s nothing wrong with being boobs- and nudity-curious while warning him (and sharing my value judgment) that Reddit and the rest of the internet is filled with terrifying, filthy, exploitative content that is not appropriate for minors. I don’t want to embarrass him, but I think it’s important that he knows there’s nothing wrong with being curious and wanting to see body parts you don’t have!
—Boob Guy’s Mama
“Son, you may only experience boobies via the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art!” is how I plan to handle this moment when my own children join Roblox Tiddies without permission. Just kidding. Oy! What a vexed conundrum. Of course you don’t want your kid to feel like his natural curiosity about bodies and sexuality is a source of shame, but warning him away from the cesspool aspects of the internet seems bound to shame him somewhat. Also, it seems likely to backfire—“terrifying, filthy, exploitative content” probably sounds like an advertisement to an 11-year-old boy. Click!
Your son will inevitably see some terrible things online, no matter how hard you try to restrict his consumption of Roblox Tiddies et al. Barring him from creating accounts without permission until he’s 13 will just keep him feeling like he has to sneak around, probably. As long as you keep any deliberate shaming or anger out of your conversations, though, you have a shot at doing the most important thing, which is keeping the lines of communication open. You might try kicking off your next horribly awkward conversation by talking about your own childhood and some of the confusing, fascinating stuff you came across while first doing independent research about bodies and sex, whether this was online or via dogeared V.C. Andrews paperback, and how old you were and how it made you feel. If he doesn’t run screaming, you might start having an interesting, honest conversation. He’s still a kid, and he does need your help to navigate the barrage of information and images that will come his way. But you can do this best as a guide, not as a gatekeeper.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a woman in my 30s. This last year has been super tough for me and my family. (In brief, my dad had brain damage from COVID, my best friend died very suddenly, and my beloved sister-in-law lost her baby shortly after birth.) My mom has required a lot of support throughout all this, which I’ve found very difficult—she’s always been draining and toxic to deal with, and this year she’s just gotten worse. I handle my parents’ finances and try to provide emotional support, but I’ve been hit very hard by all the stuff that’s happened this year, and I know my mom thinks I don’t do enough for her.
Recently she’s been telling me that I need to have a baby because it will bring some joy back to the family. I’ve never wanted kids, but I don’t know how to pull my mom back from pressuring me about it without unleashing more stuff about how I don’t care about her or my dad. Even if I did want kids, I’m really tired and sad right now and can’t think about the future. But she keeps on talking about it like it’s a sure thing that I’ll have a baby soon, and I don’t know what to do. Please help.
—Very Tired and Sad
Dear Very Tired,
I’ll start by stating the obvious: Bringing joy back to your family is not your job. It’s terribly unfair of your mom to put this pressure on you right now. You’re doing so much to care for your parents, doing the difficult but necessary work of handling their finances, and it’s wrong and hurtful that your mom doesn’t seem to appreciate the energy you’re expending on their behalf. This is energy you don’t have to spare right now: You need time and space to grieve the loss of your best friend, as well as the other losses and tragedies in your life.
Can you take a step back from the care work you’re doing for your parents, even just temporarily? I don’t know if there’s anyone else in your family you can ask for help, but maybe you could rally your network of friends and relatives to give you some time off from your mom and the responsibilities associated with your parents, both emotional and practical. Your own needs must take precedence now so that you can begin to heal. You can’t pour from an empty cup, et cetera! Once you’ve had some time to take stock, without your mom’s voice in your head, you might be able to imagine a future where your extended family figures out how to distribute their resources more equitably to care for your parents. Your not wanting kids is totally irrelevant to all of this, and you can feel free to simply refuse to engage with your mom on that topic, full stop.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am from a big family and so is my husband. When we decided to have a baby, we were hoping to reap some of what we contributed over the years—meals cooked for the new parents, visits to hold the baby and change her so we could shower or nap, outings with grandparents, holidays where during the harried first year the new parents could contribute just the basics. We intentionally decided to live close to our families so we could have reciprocal child care, and then the pandemic hit right as we found out we were pregnant. Our families were not keen on public health guidance and so we struck out as new parents more or less alone, without their help, and are still doing everything for our new baby alone.
We can afford basically enough hours of a nanny not to get fired from our jobs. Aside from our hurt that no one would consider quarantining to help us, we are exhausted. No date nights, no respite care, nothing but basically being on an island with a newborn while we both work full time. I had four weeks of maternity leave that didn’t even cover my full C-section recovery. Our baby is a rough sleeper, will hardly nap (we did all the things, the sleep consultants, the books, the pediatrician, she won’t nap), had feeding issues, and is now miserably uncomfortable teething. We have not gotten to be adults other than at work, which we do in our home, in months. We fight all the time about whose “turn” it is to do x or y. We are burnt out and while we love our daughter desperately, we cannot sustain this.
I know we are not the first couple to embark on parenting without a lot of support, but we just never pictured this and so never really had conversations about how we would handle it—how we would get time to ourselves, how we would recharge, how we would tend to our mental health, how we would get sleep, etc. I would love some advice for those who have been in our shoes with a newborn and no family or community support—how did you make it work without losing your minds? How did you keep a young baby entertained by yourself without falling into bad habits like screens just so you could wash some dishes? So much of the advice I read encourages me to delegate and engage friends and family and right now, we can’t. How do we keep going?
You’re in a really bad situation, and I think you need to start taking some calculated risks. You are in a better position than I am to judge how dangerous it is to start letting your COVID-unsafe big families back into your lives, and there are so many variables at play that I understand if it seems simpler to keep your lives completely locked down. But the reason there’s no advice out there other than “delegate and get more help” is that there’s nothing else that will make a tangible difference in your lives. If your choice is between risking COVID at this point in the arc of the pandemic and risking having your marriage, work, and health fall apart, the relative risk of COVID—managed and mitigated as carefully as you can, of course!—is probably the better option.
You have likely already tried everything else I would possibly suggest, but just in case: You and your husband need to prioritize your sleep above all else. Sleep is mental health. Getting uninterrupted blocks of night sleep, specifically, is the only way you will be able to continue to function. Find a new sleep consultant who will continue to work with you until your daughter is sleeping, at least, through the night. This is possible, and it’s your No. 1 priority. “Bad habits like screens” are fine for now—whatever gets you through until you can be vaccinated and return to a semblance of normality is fine for now.
Finally: You are holding on to resentment about not having gotten what you feel you were owed, in terms of family help. It’s time to let that go. Having transactional relationships is poison, in general. “It’s your turn to do x” is also not doing you and your husband any favors at the moment. Help each other because you need each other’s help, and take care of each others’ needs because you care about each other. If you’re only giving because you expect to get back, you will always be disappointed by the care you receive.
More Advice From Slate
My sister has two children from a man in a different state who does not pay child support, mostly because she refuses to file the necessary paperwork. (She seems to equate it with giving the father some rights to see his children, whom he’s never met.) I have done everything I can short of physically dragging her to the courthouse, including contacting him myself. That is how I learned he’s getting married soon and that his fiancée knows nothing of his children. I can’t get my sister or this man to alter their behavior for the better. Do I owe it to the fiancée to out this man to her before the wedding? Child support obligations never go away, and this could come back to haunt them.