Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a happily child-free woman in my 30s, and I have a group of dear friends I’ve been close with since college. Why am I writing to a parenting column? Because I suspect one of this group will soon be the first (only?) of us to have a child, and I’m dismayed to say the least. I realize I have no right to feel that way, and I will try to hide it from my friend, but still, I feel the way I feel. So, my question is, how can I be a good, supportive friend, when this is something that is so not my cup of tea? I find the idea of pregnancy and birth horrifying, and I do not like children, particularly babies and toddlers. I don’t want to cut off my friend, but I suspect she and this child will be a package deal for quite some time, so I need to learn how to coexist with this potential creature.
Are there books on how to interact positively with small humans? I’m very good with animals, but I don’t think those skills translate. My usual tactic is to just ignore the kid and focus on the person I’m interacting with—is that OK, or is that rude? If I make plans, to what extent do I need to specifically include or make accommodations for a child, versus do things as usual and let her figure out a way to make it work? Are there particularly offensive things that I should not do or say, either to or about the kid? Do I need to moderate my own behavior? (I’m not especially crass, but the occasional bad word or off-color remark will come out.) How do I keep my cool if there’s a tantrum or other super annoying behavior? Assuming there is a pregnancy announcement soon, do I fake happiness and excitement like I’m supposed to, or is there a way I can express ambivalence without being rude or dismissive?
—Trying Not to Be a Jerk
I don’t think this has to present a huge problem for you as long as you’re not, you know, actively mean to your friend or her maybe-future-kid. If and when she tells you that she’s having a baby, all you have to say is “congratulations!” without making any sort of weird face (I’m saying this as someone who just always generally has to watch to make sure I’m not making a weird face that’ll be misconstrued). You can express your ambivalence about it, yes, to other people.
I’m afraid I don’t have a good “What to Expect When Your Friend Is Expecting and You’re Horrified” book to recommend, but in my experience, you interact with small humans much the same way you do with bigger ones: with basic kindness, honesty, and respect. (Oh, and less swearing, ideally, I grant you—at least until they’re much older.) I think you’ll be fine as long as you don’t, say, start a running feud with them—which should be easy to avoid, since they’ll be a baby when you meet. It would be rude to completely ignore/never acknowledge your friend’s child at all, especially once they are old enough to actually say hi to you. But it’s not like you need to split your attention 50-50 between your friend and her child either.
I would try, as much as possible, to keep an open mind, as every kid is different. There are kids I personally like hanging out with and kids I really don’t like hanging out with, and you might find that you like this particular child if you get to know them. That said, you never have to be their favorite babysitter or honorary aunt. As for accommodations and planning for social things, I’d start by letting your friend tell you what’s going to work for her. I think it’s OK to just reach out and kindly ask her whenever you’re unsure—you should still be able to discuss when and where and how you hang out, just as you would if some other situation or life change had an impact on your needs and availability. Let your friend worry about pregnancy and childbirth, what she can and cannot do post-baby, how life will change with kids, her child’s tantrums and annoying behavior, and any and all other parenting matters, because she will be the parent. And take heart: You’ll still have all your other child-free friends to commiserate with.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I adopted our oldest daughter when she was 9 months old. We’ve had her since she was 3 days old. We adopted her through foster care. My daughter never had any grief or ever wondered about her biological family. She mentioned many times that my husband and I are her only and real parents. She had no desire to look for her biological family or have a relationship with them, and has said more than once that she doesn’t care about them. Her birth mother is an addict, and her birth father is a convicted felon.
My daughter is 22 years old now. She’s married and recently had her first child, my first grandchild. I can’t help but feel upset that my daughter established a relationship with her biological mother. My daughter chose her birth mother to be her support person in the delivery room, so I couldn’t watch my first grandchild be born. Our grandchild’s middle name is her birth mom’s first name. When our daughter referred to her birth mom as “Grandma” and me as “Nana,” I sobbed and felt a knife going through my chest. My heart is broken. If I ever hear my daughter call her birth mom “Mom,” I don’t think I could ever recover from the pain and trauma. I don’t understand how a woman who lost her kids to the foster care system and chose drugs over her children gets to be a mom and grandma. My daughter’s birth mom didn’t earn the title of mom or grandma. Giving birth doesn’t make a woman a mother. I don’t know what my daughter sees in her birth mom that she doesn’t see in me. Her birth mom has never been involved. Now she gets things she didn’t earn.
My daughter is my world. It hurts to know she doesn’t see us the same way. She made me a mom. My husband and I struggled to conceive. We gave her a good life and a good upbringing, and she herself said that she doesn’t care about her birth mom, and we are her real parents. I don’t know if that was a lie, or if she changed her mind, or if her birth mom is brainwashing her. Everything came crashing down on me. I never expected to feel betrayed by my own daughter. She chose her drug-addicted birth mom over me. I try to keep calm because of my grandchild but I’m hurting inside. I don’t know what to do. I hope my daughter can see how damaging this is to me and her grandchild. My grandchild might grow up confused and traumatized. How do I get my daughter to see her birth mom for who she is? How do I keep my daughter’s birth mom away from her and my grandchild? How do I get my daughter to cut off her birth mom so we can all be happy again?
—Hurting and Heartbroken
If you don’t want to be called “Nana,” I think you could tell your daughter what you’d like her child to call you instead, and see if she agrees. I understand why you were hurt not to be in the delivery room when her birth mother was. But your daughter likely had all kinds of reasons for asking her birth mother to be her labor support person, and in any case, it was her decision to make, as was her child’s name.
It’s not uncommon for adopted people to keep quiet about our adoption loss/grief, or to say that we don’t have much interest in our birth families. Sometimes it’s true; sometimes we understand that it’s what many people (including, sometimes, our adoptive families) want to hear. According to Meshan Lehmann, a social worker at Adoptions Together, “kids learn pretty quickly, ‘if I express interest in my birth parents, my mom gets upset.’ They learn that the ‘right’ answer is to say they don’t care.” Your daughter might not have cared, of course, until she did—that’s what it means to change your mind, which we are all allowed to do.
Your identity as a parent is not and should never have felt dependent on your child having no relationship with her birth mom. That’s a really harmful, reductive way of thinking about this—as if there’s only so much love your daughter is capable of, and the more she cares for anyone else, the less she can care for you. She didn’t become any less your daughter when she got married or had a child, after all. Asking adopted people to choose between our biological and adoptive identities and families sets up a false dichotomy, and a cruel one. As Lehmann noted, “parents are never expected to choose which child to love.”
You’ve written a great deal about your feelings, but you have not acknowledged the trauma or pain that adoptees and birth parents can and do experience. You repeatedly refer to your daughter’s birth mother as an addict, as if that is all she is or can ever be. Addiction is a disease that can be treated, and even if she is struggling with addiction or recovering from it, that alone doesn’t make her undeserving of love or any sort of relationship with her child. It is definitively not your place to try to get your daughter to cut off her birth mother—her birth parents are the only people in the world who can answer certain questions for her, share certain parts of her history and heritage. As Martha Crawford, a psychotherapist and adoptive parent, put it: “There can be more than one ‘real’ mother. You are real, and so is your child’s biological mother. There is room for both of you to be essential in your child’s life—and the more people that love and support her, the better.” The connection your daughter is building with her birth mom may be helpful and healing to her, to both of them, and right now it is something they both seem to want and feel is important. You shouldn’t want to take that away.
You talk about love and family relationships being “earned” or not, as if your child owes you gratitude or fealty that can only be demonstrated by cutting off the person who bore her—someone who is a part of her. Your letter reads as though you expect her, an adult and a parent in her own right, to remain like a little child for your sake. Our children, adopted or not, are neither our possessions nor our puppets, forever wanting precisely what we want for them and nothing more. Nor do they exist to affirm us, to make us feel good as their parents. You are not supposed to be your daughter’s “whole world”—she is a grown adult, with a family and an identity that is informed but not entirely defined by the fact that she was raised by you. She gets to make her own choices about whom she wants in her life, and her child’s life, and what those relationships look like.
If you truly want to feel more at peace with this, if you don’t want to further harm your child or your relationship with her, Crawford, Lehmann, and I all think it’s very important for you to find a therapist who has extensive knowledge of adoption (here’s an article you might find useful; here is a directory). Lehmann noted that you might also try talking with other adoptive parents whose children are in contact with their birth families, so you can better understand open adoptions and how those relationships can look. You are at a crossroads right now, and I think we should be very clear about your options: You can work on your own issues and try to reframe your thinking, unlearn the fear and entitlement you have regarding your daughter, let her know that you respect and support her and her choices—or you can continue pressuring her to swear off both her birth mother and her own biological roots, which, as Crawford said, “risks sawing her in half.” I urge you to seek the professional help you need to be able to offer your daughter the understanding she deserves before you hurt her further or drive her away completely.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I live in Europe, where the vaccine rollout has been much slower than at home. I gave birth to my daughter literally just before the start of the pandemic after six years of IVF and multiple miscarriages. We were lucky that my parents were able to travel to meet her before everything locked down last March. However, we have not been able to see them in person since. We have weekly video calls, which are becoming a source of stress for me. My parents are disappointed that my 14-month-old does not play with them more. She will spend the first few minutes waving and smiling at the screen, but then gets bored and goes off to play with her toys. I try to keep the camera on her so they can see what she’s doing, but she barely sits, still resulting in Paul Greengrass–esque shaky cam. They keep saying to me that they have missed her babyhood. She is the only grandchild they are likely to have. While they have been vaccinated, my husband and I are unlikely to be before the end of the summer. Due to medical treatments they are receiving, they will not be able to travel here anytime soon, so they are pressuring us to travel to them. I am not comfortable traveling before all of us are vaccinated. I feel that if the video calls were more satisfying to them, they would stop pressing us. Do you have any suggestions as to how to get a young toddler to interact more with her grandparents over Zoom?
—Far From Home
Dear Far From Home,
I do think it’s slightly unrealistic to expect a 14-month-old to sit still and be “interactive” with faces on the other side of a screen. But there may be ways you could try to make the video calls more fun for your parents, and potentially less tedious for your kid. Have they tried reading a simple book to her, holding it up so she can see the pictures? Songs are another option, maybe with accompanying signs, even if she’s too young to sing or sign along—I remember my kids’ grammy teaching and entertaining them with songs and rhymes on Skype long before they could have real conversations.
If you can keep the camera steady, I agree it would be nice for your parents to watch your child play, naturally, the way they would if they were visiting in person. In the weeks before my mom died, when we couldn’t be with her due to the pandemic, I’d often park my laptop or tablet on a table so she could watch my kids draw or paint or read books and comment on what they were doing, just as if she were sitting next to them.
I do hope that your parents will try to remember a) what 14-month-olds are like! and b) that while of course it’s hard to miss so much of their grandchild’s babyhood, it is also (hopefully) only a season. There is all the time still ahead of you, and I hope they can remember that and stop pressuring you to travel abroad before you feel safe doing so.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Last year, we moved into the same neighborhood as my friend Ruth’s daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. Ruth and I have been friends for 20 years, and when my husband and I moved into this neighborhood, we had her daughter and son-in-law over for dinner a few times. We are on friendly terms, but not truly close friends. Their daughter (Ruth’s granddaughter), “Jen,” is a senior in high school. Jen has taken a liking to me. At these dinners, she frequently confided in me about her anxieties/stressors in school, worries and goals for the future, and more. I listened nonjudgmentally and was a source of general encouragement.
Fast-forward to now: Jen has grown more and more fond of me, often requesting we go for walks where I serve as a sort of mentor/sounding board. Two weeks ago, she showed up at my doorstep in tears after getting rejected from her dream school (she hadn’t even told her parents about it yet). We went for a masked walk, I talked her down, and she thanked me and left.
I feel uneasy. I’m happy to help Jen, but it seems like she should have someone else in her life—whether a parent, mentor, or therapist—to help her with these issues. She’s attached herself to me in a way that feels over the line, considering how little we know each other. Two questions: First, is my continued mentorship of Jen appropriate? Second, could her neediness be a red flag that she doesn’t have other folks in her life she can talk to about these issues? Should I bring it up with her parents or with Ruth? Please advise.
—Apparently a Mentor
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going for walks and talking with Jen, outdoors and masked. I also don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with her telling you about being rejected from her dream school—I get why you were surprised, but sometimes sharing big news with others can function rather like an audition before we tell the people we’re closest to. A mentor need not be and often isn’t a close friend, especially at first. As Jen is about to graduate, most of her mentor figures going forward will likely be people her family members don’t know well, if at all. (It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but if I recall correctly, other adults’ close proximity to my parents did not exactly make me more eager to confide in them.)
As for whether her attachment to you is a “red flag” indicating that Jen is lonely, unable to talk with her parents or other adults, in need or otherwise struggling in some deeper way—of course, all these things are possible. I think loneliness is especially likely; even if she’s going to school in person, school in pandemic times doesn’t seem like it’s always the most satisfying social experience, and she is probably spending a lot less time with her friends than she would in a typical year. I don’t know if you’ve observed any other red flags that suggest she might really be struggling and/or not have anyone else to confide in—reading between the lines, maybe you have, and that’s the source of some of your discomfort?—but if you’re really concerned, you could try asking her whom else she talks to. If her answer worries you, you could talk more about that with her and/or think about having a confidential chat with her family if it seems warranted and appropriate (a note, though: such an intervention might draw you further into their lives).
All that said, you don’t seem to feel entirely comfortable with being in this role, and that’s something to note. I don’t think you necessarily have to proceed if it means overriding any doubts or discomfort you have. If you want, you can make yourself less available to Jen, tell her that you’re too busy, and/or have a franker chat about how you think she should ideally be getting this kind of support from people she knows better. You can also let your conversations come to a more natural pause once she starts college. You’re under no obligation to continue in this relationship if you’re too uneasy with it.
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