Care and Feeding

I’m in a Spring Break Travel Standoff With My Pandemic-Flouting In-Laws

Is it really time to let the kids travel?

Two children sit cross-legged facing each other with masks on next to a suitcase.
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.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My in-laws (fully vaccinated) have offered to take my two children (6 and 10) for spring break, and proposed flying them to Florida to take them to one of the theme parks for the week. My husband (will be fully vaccinated) and I (no vaccination in sight) are currently at a standstill, as I am not comfortable with them traveling that far. My husband says that since the case rates are lower in Florida, I’m being irrational with requesting that they don’t travel. My kids have been going to school full time since the fall, and the rules for travel have always been to follow state travel guidelines, which just removed the mandatory quarantine for travelers.

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Once the kids are in my in-laws’ hands, I will not have control over their choices—my in-laws have been doing indoor dining throughout the entire pandemic, and just attended a 20-person indoor St. Patrick’s Day party. The last time my kids stayed with them, there were social events daily. I had requested to limit gatherings while there to outdoor only and/or not have them, but my husband did not follow through with making those requests, and I do not see that changing for this trip. My in-laws still blame me (though my husband was the one to tell them) for not letting them come for Christmas after they refused to not go to any indoor maskless gatherings for five days prior to their visit and get tested.

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Honestly, I know that the correct decision is to keep the kids home with us, but I don’t have enough time off to entertain them the entire break, and was trying to avoid additional accusations of keeping the kids away from family. Since the kids and I are the ones who will be at a greater risk for any COVID-related complications, I asked my husband to support me and turn the trip down. He informed me that he would not, and that I was irrational, controlling, and hypocritical (because the kids go to school, I have to go into work one day a week, and we are letting my fully vaccinated parents fly in for Easter—although they are minimizing contact for 10 days before coming). Do you have any advice on how to end this standoff?

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—Spring Break Standstill

Dear SBS,

If I were in your position, I would put my foot down and not let the kids fly until they’re vaccinated. Remember, it’s not just the risk to them that matters—it’s the risk to every other person they come into contact with. Listen to your instincts here; you said it yourself: “I know that the correct decision is to keep the kids home.”

I don’t think your in-laws’ wishes matter nearly as much as your kids’ safety, your right to feel comfortable with the risks your family takes, or the overall public good and the responsibility we’re all meant to share. It’s also worth noting that just because you accept one risk (like your vaccinated parents coming to visit—and that is a risk, potentially to others even more than anyone in your family, can’t deny this fact) doesn’t mean that you have to or should accept all the risks. Piling different risks, one atop another, increases the overall risk to you and to everyone. Some things are harder or impossible to avoid—work, school, medical appointments, etc.—which doesn’t mean you ought to say, “Oh, in for a penny, in for a pound,” and act like the pandemic is over. It means you should do whatever you can to avoid or mitigate other risks.

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I wouldn’t agree to this trip if I were you, though I recognize that it sucks to be the one saying no—especially because you are being kind of vilified for it—and that it might well seem inconsistent to your husband and his parents, given that yours are coming for Easter. Whatever you and your husband decide to do, I don’t think it’s good that he leapt straight to personal attacks—calling you “irrational, controlling, and hypocritical”—instead of calmly and respectfully talking with you. That points to what might be a larger communication and/or respect issue, one I think you’ll likely need to address in order to productively discuss and make not just this but any fraught decision. In any case, neither your husband’s accusations nor his parents’ guilting should force you to give in if you’re not comfortable with letting your kids fly. As parents, you both have to feel OK about your kids’ travel plans and the risks they are assuming.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two bio kids, 7 and 9 years old, and I also foster. Right now, I have a 6-year-old and 4-year-old sibling-set placement. These two have been with us for about five months. My MIL basically doesn’t acknowledge their existence. She comes over for visits at least once a month and always brings presents, but just for the bio kids, so my foster kids will have to watch their foster siblings open presents while they get nothing. I have asked her many times to bring something for all the kids, but she says she’s only going to shop for her grandchildren, not for foster children. She tries to exclude the foster children from outings, too, but even when I insist that she take them, she doesn’t quite include them—for instance, she’ll take them out for ice cream after a trip somewhere, but only buy ice cream for the bio kids. She won’t even include them in pictures she takes of my bio kids—she’ll insist the foster kids get out of frame before taking the picture.

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I am at the end of my rope. These kids are part of my family for as long as they are here, and I can’t stand that she is treating them like they don’t matter, especially because so many people treat them like that. My husband has talked to her many times and so have I, but she just won’t change her behavior. I am starting to consider cutting contact, but my husband is very against that. How do I navigate this?

—Foster Kids = Bio Kids, Grandma!

Dear Foster Parent,

Wow, I can’t remember the last time I wanted to yell at a stranger this much. This is deeply harmful and completely unacceptable behavior on your MIL’s part. Kids in foster care are already dealing with so much; they don’t deserve to have foster relatives judging, targeting, and/or excluding them. It is terrible—if also entirely believable and no doubt unfortunately common, given the stereotypes and stigma that youth in foster care often face—of your mother-in-law to single yours out for poor treatment.

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This cannot be allowed to continue. As I’ve said before and will say again, given the choice between other people—even extended family—and your kids’ well-being, you have to prioritize your kids. Yes, I understand that the children you’re fostering are not (and may never be) permanent members of your family. But as you say, while they’re with you, they are part of your family. It could be seriously harmful for them to have to endure such petty viciousness on top of the specific and individual traumas they have experienced. As you’ve already tried talking to your mother-in-law many times, I’m assuming she isn’t providing any possible rationale for this behavior that could be worked through, either privately or with a family therapist. In which case, I believe it may be one-last-ultimatum time: She can choose to treat all of the children in your household with basic kindness and respect. And if she won’t, she is choosing not to see any of them.

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I understand that your husband is hesitant to pause or break off contact with his mother over this. But I’d strongly encourage you (and him) not to think of it as cutting her off. You would be perfectly glad for her to see your kids if she were operating at a basic level of kindness toward all of them. She’s not, currently, despite multiple requests to do so. And so she is the only one who can determine whether or not she will do the decent human thing and remain in contact with all the kids in your family. If she won’t, she’s the one cutting herself off from all of you. I hope she makes the right choice.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I live in a small apartment and space is always an issue. I’m working hard to cut down on clutter, but it seems futile. I have two kids, ages 5 and 1.5, who seem to acquire an ever-increasing pile of stuff. My 5-year-old hates getting rid of things, even broken things, and resists getting rid of the boxes that things come in! If it were simply a question of toys, I would convince him to donate some, but most are not even donate-able (think paper hats from birthday parties, paper airplanes, a guitar made from a tissue box). I personally have always struggled with getting rid of sentimental items. My husband was raised to keep everything in case you might need it one day. I’ve tried photographing things before throwing them out, but he doesn’t find this to be a workable solution. The sheer quantity of this is staggering and it keeps coming. What can I do?

—Drowning in Paper

Dear Drowning,

I think you may just have to bite the bullet and get rid of some of the things that are broken, unused, and/or unlikely to ever be used again. Another option, as a short-term solution, would be getting a storage unit—if you can afford one, and if you actually want one. But that would only provide temporary relief, because eventually the storage unit would fill up too. Perhaps you could use it as an emotional waystation? If an item is out of sight and not missed in, say, six months, out of storage and into the bin it goes.

For what it’s worth, the steady flow of art and papers from school slows down as your kids get older. I confess I do like to hang on to special school art projects myself, and have a giant box for each kid from their preschool/kindergarten years when stuff used to come home several times a week. (That said: Have I even looked in those boxes in the last five years? Do I even know where they are? … No. But I still have them, in the basement.) I also took pictures of some artwork and then eventually tossed it after a few weeks on the refrigerator, because again—you cannot keep everything.

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I get that it might not be easy for everyone in your household, especially your 5-year-old, to start letting go of some things. And if deep anxiety over this and/or hoarding is an issue for all/any of you, you should talk about and try to work through that, potentially with a professional. I do think 5 is a good age to start learning the lessons—excellent ones for life in general!—that space is a limiting factor when it comes to how much stuff we can hold on to, and that neither our households nor our world can revolve around what we personally want in every instance. I do hope you can find a way to keep the things that matter most to all of you; I just don’t think you want to let your kid’s desire to hold on to unused or broken objects force you to drown in clutter indefinitely.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents are pretty intense people. They love long hikes and bike rides, extended daytrips, anything adventurous and extreme. My younger daughter is on board, but my older daughter (age 14) hates this. She dreads forced physical activity and long periods of socializing—she’s pretty introverted. My parents have a “no screens” rule, which they instituted to keep people present and enjoying in-real-life time with one another, but this makes my daughter feel cut off from her friends when she visits her grandparents. Last week, she requested to go on a shorter bike ride. My mom acquiesced—but then refused to turn around after the agreed-upon distance, and my daughter ended up riding for a total of three hours, when she only wanted to ride for two. My daughter spent the rest of the day in a funk and has now refused to go over to her grandparents’ for any future activities.

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My husband and I are torn about what to do. On one hand, my parents need to respect my children’s boundaries. I don’t want to force my kids into unenjoyable activities solely for my parents’ sake. On the other hand, I do think part of growing up is realizing you do not get to be the sole arbiter of these decisions; you will occasionally need to do activities you wouldn’t personally pick for yourself, because branching out is uncomfortable and necessary to build relationships. How can we respect our children’s activity preferences while still helping them build a relationship with their grandparents? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

—Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck,

Ah, the experience of having and spending time with intense, activity-focused family members is, shall we say, not entirely theoretical to me! You are 100 percent correct that growing up and also just being part of a family means occasionally going along with a plan we may not personally be wild about, and that this can also help us discover activities or hobbies we will grow to independently love. I don’t think your parents are at fault for wanting to share their love of hiking and cycling and adventure-seeking with your kids—that all sounds really great (I say, as I sit here in my pajamas on a Saturday morning, staring out the window while sipping my third cup of coffee).

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But I do think you should pay attention to that word you yourself used, which is “forced”—it is obviously less than ideal if your 14-year-old’s wish for more chill visiting time or fewer active activities is constantly overridden. And I think she probably must have felt railroaded more than once, not just on that regrettable bike ride, to take the extreme step of refusing to go to her grandparents’ house. Some people might read that and accuse her of being difficult or bratty—I don’t know all the specifics, obviously, but I wonder if, to her, refusing to go felt like perhaps the only way she could be heard and not steamrolled?

Your kids, like all kids, must be changing so fast, and it’s important for your parents to understand and appreciate them for who they are (i.e., not little carbon copies of them, with their exact interests and personalities). When visits are all about activities and busy-ness, it can be difficult to take time to just be with and talk with and listen to one another. I think, as with many other family conflicts, there’s probably some happier, calmer middle ground you could try to seek here. It sounds like most of the compromise, so far, has been on your child’s side. So while you continue to talk with her about what it means to be part of a family, and the importance of occasional compromise and spending time with her grandparents, I’d also talk with your parents about this, and ask them to be a little more tolerant and understanding of your kid’s stated wishes and preferences.

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—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

I have a very dear friend, now close to death, who I am helping out almost daily. Eighteen months ago, my daughter blessed us all with a beautiful baby boy, and I have been able to watch him for a day or three every week since he was a month old. This has involved my friend and my grandson getting to know each other, and they have grown quite attached. Now her time is running out, and the hospice social worker wants us to have a coherent plan on how we deal with the fact of her death with my grandson. I am at a loss as to how to account for her absence. He is being raised with religion, so maybe “gone to heaven” is enough for now?

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