Care and Feeding

My Dad Loves His Cats More Than His Kids

Older man's hand petting a kitten.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by iagodina/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 father is technically a responsible parent and he is still married to my mother, although they lead parallel lives: He stays in and watches TV, and she visits her kids in other locations, goes out every day to exercise, does crafts, etc. But he doesn’t really have a relationship with any of us. He never calls us to chat and is not expected to know anything about our lives. For example, he couldn’t tell you my current job and still misspells my primary school age kid’s name, and my kid’s name has four letters. He and I have never had a single real conversation. (I’ve tried; he just shuts down.) He has no friends. His only real companions are his cats.

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My mother claims (in his earshot) that he’s like another child—but even so, she defers to him. This drives me crazy. It seems to me that he should be more involved in our lives. It’s like he does the job but is indifferent to the work, and that irritates me, especially when I see him with his cats. The depth of his affection for them when he is so uninterested in us is infuriating. When I was growing up, it didn’t even occur to me to tell him important things, and he never asked even the usual questions, like, “How was your day?” But he would gather up his cats and kiss and hug them and ask them how their day was going.

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Sometimes I want to make him mad, just to get a reaction out of him, even though I know there’s no point. My husband says to let it go, some people have kids only because they are expected to, and points out that my dad is a perfectly good father as far as fulfilling his obligations to us goes. This is true. So is there a way to help me overcome my need for him to clarify how he feels about me? To be honest, I’d think about it less if he weren’t so in love with his cats. Watching him with them, I see that he is capable of love and affection and a strong sense of connection. I’m glad for his sake that he has his cats, but I don’t see why he can’t also love his grandkids or his kids.

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—Jealous of Cats

Dear JoC,

I’m sorry your father isn’t able to connect with you the way you wish he could—sorry, in fact, for both of you (indeed, for all of you). Your dad’s life is immeasurably smaller than it would be if he were able to truly be a father, a husband, and a grandfather, not to mention a friend. Does it help you at all to know that he isn’t doing this on purpose? That if he could offer you the love and affection and concern he lavishes on his cats, he would? I hope so for your sake, because I believe that if you can find it in your heart to feel sorry for him—look how much he’s missing out on!—you might be less angry and resentful, and these feelings (which I hasten to say are perfectly legitimate) are no doubt making your own life harder, smaller, and more difficult.

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The trouble is, even if you can find a way to let go of your frustration and fury, you won’t be any less sad. I think you are going to have to live with this sadness to some extent. Most of us do live with sadness of one kind or another, and often it has to do with what our parents couldn’t give us of themselves. The best help for learning how to live with this is therapy. You are not going to be able to simply let this go by reminding yourself that your dad provided for you when you were growing up, or that he “technically” continues to fulfill his obligations to you (whatever that means). You have been longing for the knowledge of—and expressions of—his love for you your whole life. They are not forthcoming. Learning to make peace with this is worth the effort it will take.

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As to your dad: I can’t tell you what his problem is, but I do know it isn’t your problem to solve. He would have to want to get help—he would have to recognize that something significant is missing from his ability to experience the world. This doesn’t seem to be the case and, from what I can tell, your mother may be enabling him—but this is a problem between the two of them. It’s something else that isn’t yours to try to fix.

Finally, I hope you won’t mind if I gently point out that it isn’t that you are longing for him to “clarify” the way he feels about you; what you want and deserve, and he is unable to give, is his love. Please know that his ability to be “close to” his cats is no reflection on you—nor does it suggest that if he only wanted to connect with you, he could. He can’t. It is much easier to love pets than it is to love people, who are complicated and have needs of their own that can’t be met (only) with food and strokes and babytalk. The one-way street of talking to his cats appears to be the closest he can come to approximating a connection with another living being. This seems to me a tragedy. It makes me sad for all of you. But you must take care of yourself as best you can.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I both grew up poor. When we got married, we agreed that we would do whatever we could to make sure our kids didn’t grow up the way we did. We worked very hard and are now very comfortable. Apparently this is “sooooo embarrassing” to my 14-year-old daughter. She says she’s embarrassed to live in a “nice” part of town and doesn’t want to invite her friends over to our “big” house. She actually suggested that we rent an apartment in another neighborhood and pretend we live there when her friends come over. She insisted on taking the bus after we bought a new (mid-range) car. Last year, after my husband and I (anonymously) paid the school’s lunch debt and field trip fees, my daughter overheard us talking about it and claimed to be “mortified.” She won’t let us go to the mall to buy her new clothes even though her shoes have holes in them and her pants cut off at her ankles.

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I will add that although money is no longer a concern, we still retain the values we grew up with. We do volunteer work and we always spend wisely; we are not ostentatious. I recently bought a new car only to replace my 20-year-old one.

I was always the kid who was embarrassed to have friends over because I lived in a one-bedroom house with six siblings and we had no heat or air conditioning and rarely any food in the fridge. My daughter knows this! How do I make her see how good she has it?

—Eat the Rich

Dear EtR,

You can’t make her see how good she has it. For one thing, she has never known anything but this level of financial comfort, and although she knows about your past, it’s the sort of ancient history to her that might as well be a fairy tale. For another, at her age it’s practically her job to be embarrassed by you and to reject pretty much everything you tell her/think/stand for. This will pass. When she’s older, she will understand all of this much better.

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And life will insert itself soon enough, too. Right now she may be among the most privileged of her friends—but this will not always be true. I often think about the whiplash experience my own daughter had. As a public high school student at a magnet alternative school in which 96 percent of the students were free-lunch eligible, she was considered to be “rich” (“I can’t believe how nice your house is!” “How many people live here?”). And she felt rich—and was self-conscious about it, though as the daughter of a writer/college professor and a self-employed artist, I assured her she wasn’t. A year after she graduated from high school and landed at an elite liberal arts college (where, thanks to our household’s definitely not-rich status, over 80 percent of the cost of her attendance was covered by financial aid), she was among the “poorest” of her cohort. Suddenly she felt poor. These things are relative, and your daughter will learn this soon enough.

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Meanwhile, I know it’s hard for you to see her wearing raggedy clothes, and it’s immensely frustrating that she’s ashamed of what you’ve worked so hard for. Plus, sure, she’s being a brat. But try to cut her some slack, because this madness is temporary—a developmental stage, just like the tantrums of toddlerhood. If you ignore her complaints (I mean literally ignore them: simply do not respond to them in any way) and roll your own eyes when she makes ridiculous requests of you—and stop offering to take her shopping (if she wants to wear ragged clothes and shoes, so be it)—this period will pass with a lot less stress and misery for you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

When our daughter, “Kate,” was 3, we enrolled her in a baby ballet class at a local studio. She ended up really liking it, so at the suggestion of her teacher, we enrolled her in level one ballet and tap classes. However, within a few years, her classmates started to audition for competitive teams. Kate asked us to audition, but her dad and I decided we weren’t fond of the idea of her spending hours in a studio most days, so we told her that if she still really wanted to, we would let her audition in seventh grade, because we thought that by then, she would be able to make a smart decision about whether dance was something she really wanted to do. Until then, she continued taking advanced level recreational classes.

Last year, when she was in seventh grade, she decided she wanted to audition. So, in March, we took her to the auditions for the 2020-2021 school year, and she made one of the teams. However, Covid hit shortly after, and the studio decided they were going to take a “technique year,” which meant kids would take technique classes with their teams, but wouldn’t participate in any competitions or conventions. In some ways, the team has been great: The studio has been amazing about taking Covid precautions, and since my daughter is doing school remotely, her dance classes provide a way for her to socialize with some of her close friends in a fairly safe environment. However, I think she has been spending way too much time in dance classes! She has two to three hours of classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, as well as an hour of beginner’s pointe and ballet strengthening classes on Saturday. Kate says she loves this, and has in fact asked us if she can also take classes on Mondays. But I feel like this is too much dance for a 13-year-old, no matter how much she says she loves it. In addition, the students haven’t even been learning competitive routines this year. That will add at least two more hours a week to her schedule next year—and more if she wants to learn a solo or duet—as well as monthly competitions, which can take the whole weekend. My husband says that if my daughter really likes dance, she should continue on the team. However, I can’t help thinking she’s going to look back and regret devoting so much time to dance. Auditions for next year are rapidly approaching, and I’m torn on whether to allow her to audition again. Should I let her audition again despite thinking she might regret it later?

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—Reluctant Dance Mom

Dear Reluctant,

Oh, do let her audition again! She loves dancing—she has made that clear to you. When our children love doing something—and it’s not something that’s unhealthy or dangerous—we need to listen to them. Who knows? Perhaps she will end up becoming a professional dancer (if so, this demanding schedule not only makes complete sense, but it’s essential). But even if—as is far more likely—she doesn’t, if dance is something that gives her pleasure and offers her structure, purpose, and focus, as well as friendship and camaraderie, that’s plenty. If she begins to resent putting this much time and effort into it, she will let you know (and/or you will see it for yourself), at which point you can offer her an out. But don’t try to predict the future—to protect her from the possibility that many years from now she will look back and think, I should not have spent so much time dancing. She will not regret something that gave her joy at the time.

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We don’t always understand the things that are most important to our children. And we don’t have to. We just need to allow them to pursue what they love—what matters to them. That’s something neither she nor you will regret later.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I would really value your opinion on my situation. When I was in high school, I had a problem with suicidal ideation and it left a few prominent scars. My 6-year-old daughter wants to know how I got these scars, and I can’t bear to tell her. Not wanting to lie, I say I’m not comfortable talking about it, and I’ll let her know when it’s a good time for us to talk about this. But I can’t keep putting her off, and at this point I’m stupidly increasing the mystery surrounding these damned scars. But I just can’t figure out what to say to her. I don’t want to put the image of me self-harming in my girl’s head—I think it will make her unnecessarily sad and worried, and what if she someday decides that since I did it, it’s OK if she does? I fear it may be more damaging to tell her the truth than to lie in this case. But you often say that we should never lie to our children.

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—What Should I Say?

Dear WSIS,

I do often say that, and this is probably as good a time as any for me to clarify exactly what I mean (and don’t mean) when I tell parents not to lie to their kids. A commitment to being truthful does not include telling our children things they aren’t ready to hear. It makes good sense—and is good parenting—to hold off telling them such things until they are old enough, and mature enough, to be able to absorb and process them in a safe and healthy way.

You recognize that it would harm your daughter to learn the truth about your scars right now. Listen to your instincts. And trust that your instincts will also let you know when it’s OK to tell her—when indeed it might be helpful to her to know. (And it may be that she will figure it out herself as she gets older, that she won’t ask about them, and you’ll have to make a judgment call about when—and whether—to bring this up yourself, and make sure she isn’t glorifying or otherwise mythologizing what happened to you.)

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I think what you’ve told her at this point is just fine. You can remind her, if necessary, that there are in fact a lot of things she has to wait to be old enough for—learning to drive, for instance, or going out on dates—and that there are plenty of things in life that can only be properly understood with age. If she is the sort of kid who is relentlessly persistent, you can firmly (and cheerfully) tell her that there are simply some things you’re not going to talk about, then change the subject to one you know will fully engage her.

Your instincts are serving you very well. Keep listening to them.

—Michelle

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My MIL lives several states away, so we see her just a few times a year. My 10-year-old daughter is her one and only grandchild. When she spends time with my daughter, she always insists that she spend time with her alone. This behavior seems very odd to me—what should I do?

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