Dear Care and Feeding,
Is there ever a time when telling a preteen about a parent’s lack of child support/refusal to get a decent job is appropriate? My ex and I share an 11-year-old daughter. My husband and I moved halfway across the country a year and a half ago for a rare and great job opportunity. I have paid to fly us back to visit her dad about every three months, with one longer span when I took her on a holiday trip instead. As my ex only ever had minimal visitation rights, the transition was not super difficult, with the exception of when he cries to her about not seeing her.
He tells her that “he’ll see her when mom books tickets,” or that he’s “trying to save up” for a plane ticket (but doesn’t). He guilts her and asks her when she’s coming to see him, and then she cries. It puts a lot of stress on my daughter. When he doesn’t do this, she is a happy, well-adjusted kid, and is perfectly fine with the every three month timeframe.
I’m very frustrated with this. Our very bitterly fought custody agreement says I don’t have to fly back unless he pays child support. He, predictably, stopped paying support the second we signed the agreement. He has only ever paid when under threat of court. I continue to pay to fly back because I understand that her having a relationship with her dad is important to her well-being.
I’m at wits end. These trips are not cheap. And I am frustrated that I have to shoulder all this burden myself. I’ve never spoken a bad word about her father, nor is she aware that he doesn’t pay required child support (she comments how “child support is expensive” so I can only imagine her dad tells her he’s such a good guy and pays it). But I almost slipped up last night. She cried to me that he is struggling and poor. It’s not his fault, etc. But, without going into the details, it is his choice. I feel confident in my decision not to have told her about these issues when she was young. But I’m not sure this facade is still serving a beneficial purpose now that she’s older. She’s crying over a false narrative—and I’m sure she’d be angry if she knew. I don’t want her to be manipulated like this. But I also don’t want her to start hating her dad. I just want her to be able to effectively deal with his pity party without it hurting her. What is your recommendation on how to help her through this?
— Not the Bad Guy
I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It’s sad and so frustrating that your ex is unable and/or unwilling to prioritize his relationship with his daughter, it’s criminal that he hasn’t paid child support, and it’s awful that he lies to her. No matter what you do and no matter what you tell her or don’t tell her, she will eventually realize that her dad has failed her as a parent. There are probably some ways she’s already starting to understand this. She might be testing the waters with you, wondering whether you will contradict things he’s told her that, on some level, she knows don’t jibe with reality.
I think you can begin to cautiously, calmly tell your daughter about why it’s hard for you to afford the trips to see her dad. Without going out of your way to badmouth him, and without going into too many details, describe the financial choices you have made to prioritize her welfare. Let her know that you see her dad as someone who is doing the best he can, but who has limitations as a person, and one of those is how he deals with money. He has made choices that affect his ability to see her. If you keep it simple, you can avoid either lying to cover for him or explicitly telling her that he has lied to her. She is old enough to start putting the pieces together.
She might be angry, and because you’re the parent who takes care of her every day, she will probably take that anger out on you. Stay the course and be present with her and listen to her. Most of all she needs to know that her parents and stepfather all love her, and that she has a solid foundation of trust and care with you. You can’t control your ex’s parenting or his financial mistakes, but you don’t have to compensate for his bad choices.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My son is a 6-year-old first grader who is about to be held back a year on recommendation from his charter school’s administration. If I had known what 2020 would end up being, I would have delayed his 2019 Kinder start. He only made the age cutoff for our state by a couple of weeks, making him the youngest child in the school. Coupled with zero preschool experience, he started at a major disadvantage. We had a meeting with his teacher in early March of 2020 where she let us know they were considering “retention” if he didn’t get his grades up and make significant progress.
Cue global pandemic and our school, like most, never returned from Spring Break. Online school was absolutely brutal, with tears shed on both of our parts almost every day. The silver lining was that the school said that every student who participated would get an A for the last quarter. We, stupidly, looked at it as our free ticket to first grade and we tried SO hard to learn all of the material. However, even with an A for the last quarter, his grades over the previous three were not good enough so we had to do online summer school to enter 1st grade. Online summer school was not effective in any way except to increase my desire to drink. The first few months of first grade were remote and when in-person classes opened up in September we nervously sent him to school with heavy duty masks and tons of Lysol wipes for the classroom while hoping for the best.
Our school year is less than 6 weeks from completion, and our son’s teacher has formally let us know that the school wants to hold him back again. I asked for testing for ADHD and ASD due to many factors a couple months ago, but the school denied my request stating that he didn’t meet the criteria for testing due to his age, COVID, and also making a point to state that they teach a grade level ahead as a charter school, so he doesn’t warrant any testing because he’s at what his current grade level should be if he were not in an accelerated school.
The issue is that I want to pull him from this school and explore other options. Our local public schools are very comparable to the charter schools in both test scores, teacher quality and diversity. However, my husband wants him to stay at this school and do first grade again. While not opposed to repeating first grade, I don’t want him to do it in the same school and have to see all his friends going on to second grade. For what it’s worth, he is short, slim, and a bit sheltered for his age, all of which his teacher brought up as a factor for considering holding him back. I am not opposed to holding him back in general, but I’d like to switch schools to give him a fresh start, in addition to the fact I’m finding that some of this school’s values don’t line up with my own (i.e. 1+ hours of homework for a 6-year-old, which I find insane.) Should we not hold him back at all and attempt to get him into an “easier” school for second grade? Or stay the course for another run at first grade in the only school he knows and loves?
— Should We Stay or Should We Go?
Your son will be fine no matter what you decide. It’s a confusing situation, made even more muddled by COVID. But my main takeaway from your letter is that you have a choice between several perfectly okay options. If repeating first grade in the same school doesn’t seem like it will bother him, then the choice is even simpler: You are choosing between first grade at the accelerated school, which assigns much more homework than you’d like but is familiar, vs. repeating first grade at a comparable public school, which might be “easier.” I’m not sure why you’d want to go for option three, which is to send him on to second grade at a different school; even if it’s “easier,” and even if he was doing work at that grade level already at his accelerated school, it would probably be nice for everyone to take some time off from cramming. It doesn’t seem like he’ll be bored or unchallenged, since these are all good schools.
Now that the choice is just: repeat first grade at his school or transfer to first grade at school B, you and your husband can each argue your cases and come to a consensus. The amount of homework at the current school is a big deal, and it will only get worse. Do you two take turns supervising homework time, or does one of you usually do it? If the latter is the case, I think the person who oversees homework should get the tiebreaking vote.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 6.5-year-old boy has developed a fear that is causing disagreement with him and my spouse. Our routine for bed has not changed in years—bath, reading time/snuggling, in bed and several songs, there is a night light and a turtle that casts stars on the ceiling. We leave the door partially open so that light flows in to his room from the hall. We then go upstairs to watch TV and spend some time alone before bed. He had been great for literally years just staying in his room and going to sleep. Sometimes he would come up and we would put him back to bed. However, since the new year, he won’t be on any level of the house alone any more, day or night, but mostly at bedtime. He insists that we stay close until he falls asleep. He melts down if we try to leave. I feel it’s a phase that we can lean into for a while longer. It is not biggie to me to sit in my own bed and read a book for a bit while he falls asleep. However, my husband wants to really start weaning the little guy off this. My son starts talking about this around midafternoon, showing real anxiety about being alone at bedtime. Please help! Is this a normal phase? Will it pass, and should we just wait or be more active in cutting it off?
— Sleepless in Seattle
Sadly, I am here to report from bitter experience that any bedtime/sleep struggle will never, ever, just “pass” if you wait. I mean, that might have happened to someone, somewhere, in the entire history of parenting, and I’m sure that person will probably write to me now and let me know. Congratulations to them. What is far more common, and what is about to happen to you, is that the bedtime struggle will get gradually, incrementally worse, without your noticing it exactly, boiling-frog style, until you one day you notice that your son requires you to sit in a chair in his room with your phone at a specific brightness setting, singing the same two bars of Hamilton over and over again until he falls asleep. (Not that this has ever happened, or may currently be happening, to me).
The other thing I know for sure is that making a change will really suck and will totally ruin your evenings for at least a week, if not longer. But then after that it’ll be okay for a while, until you have to change something again, to combat some new habit that starts out nice and turns problematic. You can do a radical, cold-turkey approach: You are going to be on a different floor, and he just has to deal with it. Or you can promise incremental check-ins until he falls asleep, spacing them further and further apart. Either way, he’ll cry and freak out and talk about it a lot. This is an opportunity to get to the root of what’s bothering him: Is it some new anxiety? Does he need a longer wind-down time with you or your husband? Some kids are extra worried about the world right now for panoply of great reasons. Still, at the literal end of the day, getting enough sleep is important for their mental health, and having alone time with a fellow adult is important for yours. See if you can start a new bedtime ritual where he can unload his worries, then transition from being with you to listening to an audiobook or podcast. It doesn’t have to be this exactly, but anything new in the mix will break his habit of needing to ensure that you’re on the same floor as he is.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have been married for three years, and we’re at an age where all of our friends and family are beginning to have kids. When my husband and I got married, we were both only 22, so we agreed together that we’d wait until we were older to decide on children. My husband is a trans guy and I’m a queer cis woman, so having that control over our reproduction and knowing for a fact we could not get pregnant the old-fashioned way gave us a lot more options than your average cisgender-heterosexual couple. However, in the past year, I have developed horrible baby fever. I read this column religiously, take every opportunity to hang out with and babysit my friends’ kids, and am even listening to a parenting audiobook at work. I’m even having dreams about being pregnant and having my own child. I was ambivalent on kids before, but now I feel very strongly that I want to have one of my own, specifically to adopt from foster care.
The problem is, for most of my husband’s life, he was very strongly against wanting to have kids, primarily because he couldn’t see himself carrying and giving birth to a child as a “mother.” (He came out as trans shortly after we got married.) He says now that he can be a dad, he is more open to kids, but still unsure if he’d be a good father. For the record, anyone who’s seen him with kids can tell he’s fantastic with them, so many of our loved ones think we’d be excellent parents.
I’m nervous, however, that because I’m having these feelings, he’ll agree to have a child when he doesn’t truly want one, then either resent me for pushing the issue and divorce me. He has a history of going along with things because I want them also: More than once, when he was in the process of transitioning, he told me that he wouldn’t transition if it meant we couldn’t be together, because I identified as a lesbian at the time. Obviously, I would never ask him to do that and actively supported his transition, but it put a fear in me that he holds my opinion in such a high regard that he’d deny himself in such a major way. We also got a dog that was, in retrospect, a bad decision, but he went along with it because I really wanted it, and I thought he did too. We’ve grown and changed a lot in three years, and I know he’s a lot less likely to feel that way now, but I’m still incredibly nervous. He knows I have baby fever because it’s basically oozing out of my pores at this point, but I keep telling him this is a two yeses, one no situation, and that I don’t want to bring a child into our home without an enthusiastic yes from him. I’ve been trying to suppress the baby fever around him, but I’m not very good at keeping things bottled up, so I’m nervous I’ll put him off it that way too. I hope you can give me some guidance!
— Making a Mess in The Baby’s Room
Dear Making a Mess,
I’m not saying that your desire to become a parent isn’t a valid, real feeling, and I’m not telling you to quash it or keep it to yourself. I do, however, think that as you work through the complexity of your feelings around babies and children, you will come to accept that adopting or fostering a baby is likelier to be a long-term goal for you than a short-term one.
You and your partner are both in a life stage where you’re growing and changing a lot, all the time, andyou need to give your evolving selves as much time and space as they can possibly have before introducing anyone else into the mix. The intensity of your pull towards parenthood is a sign that something is missing in your life, but I don’t think that what’s missing is necessarily a baby. For everyone who has been socially conditioned as a cis woman, we are taught to channel our impulses towards care into motherhood; it’s the simplest, most easily understood expression of that kind of energy. This traps a lot of energy in the closed circuit of the nuclear family. What if, instead, we could channel more of that energy into community care? What are some places in your community where your energy could make a difference? Or maybe it’s not that at all! Sometimes, wanting a child can be a way of deferring or rechanneling a creative or professional ambition that you’re not ready to confront head-on yet.
I’m not saying you and your husband aren’t allowed to have a baby! I do think, though, that spending some serious time interrogating your baby fever, alone or with friends or a therapist. What you find might be painful, or it might be joyously surprising. No matter what, it will only make you a more conscious, prepared parent down the road.
More Advice From Slate
How do you manage working at home when your toddler knows you’re in the house?! We have a nanny so my 2-year-old is routinely at home. I work from home three days a week. On the two days that I’m in the office, she is fine with the nanny all day. On the days I’m home and in a different room, she’s a complete wreck. Having to leave the house to work in a different location seems to defeat the perk of working from home. Any suggestions?