Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a single father to a 15-year-old son (Ben) and a 17-year-old daughter (Beth) and recently became engaged to my girlfriend of five years, Kate (who moved in with us two years ago). Ben and Beth’s mom left us when Ben was a year old. Beth is a junior in high school and has been looking at colleges. We’ve done some virtual and in-person campus visits, and she has a list of schools she’d like to attend and has talked extensively to her guidance counselor regarding the best path forward for her. Her high school has a program with the local community college where students can take classes at the college and receive both high school and college credit. Beth will graduate high school with three semesters of college completed. Always the planner, she has been crunching numbers for her chosen schools and looking at what scholarships and work-study programs are offered. She came to me recently and asked if I would consider putting off marrying Kate until after she graduated from college, as once we are married, Kate’s income will factor into what financial aid she would qualify for. In short, with two kids and my income, Beth qualifies for grants, but once Kate’s income is factored in, she no longer qualifies. I told her I would talk it over with Kate but didn’t see any issue with it. But, oh boy, Kate has an issue with it. She is offended Beth would even ask us to delay our marriage for three years. She’s angry that I would consider it. We’ve had one rational conversation about this followed by some research and both of us meeting with my brother, who is a financial advisor, to discuss it. He verified that Beth is correct, that she wouldn’t qualify for these grants if Kate’s income were factored in.
To me, this is a no-brainer. Even with two incomes, we can’t afford to send Beth to (even) the in-state schools she is looking at. We could afford to send her to the same community college she is attending while in high school, but they don’t have her program—and even if they did, I want my daughter to be able to have the full college experience she is dreaming of. Her goal is to become a physical therapist, and she knows she will mostly likely have to take out loans for her PT program; she would like to avoid adding debt by taking out loans for undergrad. She has plans (she really is a planner!) to be a resident assistant in the dorms beginning her second year, which will help out with or eliminate the cost of room and board, and she means to work part-time too, so it’s not like she won’t have any skin in the game herself.
This whole thing has caused a lot of tension in our house. Until now, the kids and Kate have had a great relationship. But now Kate hardly talks to Beth. Beth is feeling really sad that she upset Kate but can’t understand why she’s acting this way. Ben is mad at Kate for being icy to his sister. And truthfully, I’m upset with Kate for not being more understanding and for not being supportive of Beth’s future. It all came to a head recently when Kate told me I was choosing Beth’s future over our own. I told her that I wasn’t, but if it came down to it, I would always choose Beth and Ben and what was good for them over anything else. I’m the only parent they have! And since Kate and I already have a life together, I don’t see how being married will change anything. If I am being honest, I feel like Kate is being selfish and it makes me fear for our future. I know some of this is due to the residual trauma of my first marriage, so I am trying to view this rationally. But I’m not sure how. Is this a red flag? Ben has planned on going into the military since he was 8, so I am pretty confident that it will only be the three years that Beth is in school that we have to postpone our wedding. But Kate is immovable, and now part of me wants to just take back my proposal. Is there something I am not seeing because I’m blinded by what I feel is “fatherly duty”?
—It’s Just Three Years
Let me stipulate at the outset that there are a couple of things you’re not seeing. One is that Kate really, really wants to be married. That you don’t feel anything will change is immaterial; she does. And I think the other thing is related to this. You note that you are your kids’ only parent. But once you and Kate are married, they will have two parents again. It’s no small thing that Kate will become their stepmother, and I have a feeling that your failure to acknowledge this is something that is making your fiancée anxious—that she fears that she will never fully be a part of your life with your children, and that she has the (mistaken!) idea that marriage will magically solve this problem.
I think this is why she freaked out when you asked her to wait three years. I think she is uncertain of her role in your life; I think she doesn’t feel she’s as important to you as she wants to be (and as you are to her).
So while I too agree that it’s a “no-brainer” to postpone a wedding for three years, so that Beth is eligible for the grants that will allow her to attend college without incurring debt—and I have to take a second to decry a system that puts people in this position!—I don’t think Kate’s distress is about what it appears to be about. In other words: I think you are exactly right to put Beth’s needs first, I think it is no big deal to wait a bit before tying the knot—and I think you and Kate have a lot to talk about. If I were you, I’d make haste to a couples counselor, to help the two of you get at the root of what’s going on. Because even if Kate reluctantly agrees to postpone the wedding—and even if you don’t take back your proposal—there is a central issue here between the two of you that’s going to undermine this marriage before it begins. The two of you need to get on the same page.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am the single parent of two children now in their twenties. I raised the older one, “Jen,” on a tight leash: strict rules and discipline, lots of structured time, and warnings about what would happen if she took the wrong path. This was due to my untreated anxiety. She got a scholarship to college and has had a highly successful, if anxious, life since then (law school, fancy job right out of law school, etc.). I sought therapy and medication for my anxiety and took a very different approach with my younger daughter, “Priya.” She had more unstructured time, learned through trial and error, and generally had more freedom to explore the world. She is a much less anxious person than Jen, but she’s been diagnosed with ADHD and struggles with executive functioning and finding a steady job.
The result of these very different parenting dynamics is that Jen and Priya are seemingly locked into a frustrating adult dynamic. Jen is type-A, rigid, and extremely prescriptive about how Priya should live. She comes down hard on Priya in a way I find distressing. Priya, understandably, has set boundaries with Jen, announcing that she will not participate in our family Zoom calls for the next two months until Jen learns how to “live and let live.” Jen tells me that Priya’s behavior makes her extremely anxious and that it hurts to see her 23-year-old sister so “off the rails.”
I’m at a loss. I want my daughters to be happy, healthy, and independent, not forever locked in this dynamic that I feel horrendously guilty for unintentionally causing. The pandemic has accentuated the emotional distance and loneliness in our family system. I want to get the girls into family therapy but they live on opposite coasts and therapists are unwilling to provide therapy to people in multiple states at once. What can I do to help the girls mend their relationship?
While I am practically the poster child for mothers who hold themselves responsible for their children’s troubles (that is, I have blamed myself—I literally wrote the book on this subject), I am also aware, and feel honor bound to tell you, that not everything that goes wrong with or challenges or troubles our children is their mothers’ fault. Yes, I’m sure that the fact that you raised Jen and Priya differently accounts for some of what you describe about their lives and personalities; some of it, however, is a matter of who they are—the gifts and burdens they were each born with. It seems to me that we can exacerbate or lighten the burdens with which our children come into their lives—and nourish or fail to help them embrace and hone their gifts—but we cannot make them other than what they are (try as some parents may). So, for starters, see if you can get out from under that boulder of guilt. And now that both of your daughters are adults and responsible for their own lives, they need to work out how they are going to live them—and they need to do this without your assistance or interference.
Especially when it comes to their relationship with each other! I’ve talked before in this column about parents letting go of their expectations about the relationships between adult siblings, but I do need to add a note about your wanting to get these women into family therapy with you. They are not children: they are adults who live on opposite coasts. You don’t mention whether Priya, at 23 and unable to hold down a steady job, lives on her own or with you (I’m guessing that “family Zoom calls” means all three of you live in your own separate homes)—but even if your younger daughter is still living with you, you can help her to become more independent and responsible by treating her like the adult she already is. And I know this will make you sad, but the answer to the question of what you can do to help your daughters mend their relationship is stay out of it. Let them work this out on their own, and encourage them to do that by saying, “Why don’t you talk to her about this?” when one complains to you about the other. If the very thought of this makes you feel lonelier, this is something to take up in your own therapy. I urge you, too, to make and strengthen connections with friends, as I hope each of your daughters are already doing. As your daughters move into their thirties and beyond, the primary relationships in their lives are likely to be with others—the new families of their own that they create. You need to be prepared for this, too.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
We have a somewhat peculiar quandary (which is pretty uncommon for the U.S.). We have a 10-year-old daughter and a nearly 6-year-old son. We used to have them take baths together when they were younger, and as my daughter got older (around 8) she stopped wanting to do so, which we thought was pretty natural. Her (then 3-year-old) brother, who thinks his big sister hangs the moon, would beg her to, and we always said, “It’s up to your sister.” Once in a while she would say yes—and when she did, they would use the large soaking tub in our master bath, bring their toys in, and have a grand old time.
Over the pandemic they have obviously spent more time together and she says yes more often when he asks—perhaps once every few weeks. She is a young 10, very petite for her age, and not at all into clothes or makeup yet. They get along pretty well for the most part, have some common interests (Pokémon, dinosaurs) and when they take a bath, I am usually around. They bring our Alexa speaker in, have it tell them fart jokes, play with bath toys, sing silly songs loudly, and seem to have a lot of fun. I know I could stop it by telling my kids they are too old to do this even if it’s just once in a while. But I am not sure if I should? I should add we are not from the U.S., have never made a big deal of nudity for either child, and have talked to them about dressing appropriately (for example, don’t leave your room without pants on if your grandparents are visiting). I am pretty sure this will end as soon as they are back in school, or as my daughter’s body changes. Is it OK to let that happen naturally or do I need to put a stop to it? I don’t want to make a big deal of it if they are both unselfconscious about it. But I also don’t want this to be something that damages their psyche or they find weird as adults. What is your advice?
I don’t think bathing together is going to damage their psyche, but I do think you dropped the ball on this two years ago, when your daughter first said she didn’t want to do this anymore. It was up to you at that point to back her up, instead of letting her fend for herself every time her little brother asked her. If she had let you know, as you say, that she didn’t want to anymore, why would you have left her to deal with the entreaties of your 3-year-old (especially when it’s clear that you didn’t want to have to face the music yourself? Because you know firsthand how hard it is to say no to a determined toddler). Still, what’s done is done: you can’t turn back the hands of time. What you can do, since it seems to me your daughter is still humoring or giving in to her brother some of the time, rather than consistently doing something she wants to do, is have her back now. Not because of some abstract principle—or because “this is the way people do it in the U.S.” (which isn’t monolithic, by the way)—but because your daughter has already let you know her wishes.
If you want some abstract principles, though: I think 10 is getting to be too old for baths with bath toys and screaming out song lyrics, with or without Alexa and fart jokes. This has nothing to do with nudity among siblings and everything to do with next-phase childhood. It seems unlikely to me that if she were taking a bath on her own she would be doing so accompanied by these games. And she is more than old enough to be bathing on her own—indeed, to be taking showers, all by herself. In fact, your nearly 6-year-old son is old enough for showers on his own too, so if he objects to the end of sibling bathtime complete with silly songs and a tubful of toys, I suggest you tell him to take a shower, too. He will complain at first, but I suspect in the end he’ll enjoy not being treated like a baby.
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