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,
I’m a single mom of an amazing 6-year-old boy. I asked my best friend if she would be his guardian if anything happened to me, and she said no.
She’s always said she didn’t want children, but she’s so great with my son that it really shocked me when she turned me down. I’m not close to my family, and I wouldn’t want them raising him because of our different values. My son’s father has never been in the picture; he would have absolutely no interest in raising my son, and I wouldn’t want him to. My friend has babysat my son and even had him for weekends, so I know how good she is with him and he loves her. She is a great person, but not conventionally attractive, and she’s never been in a relationship. I think she’s always said she didn’t want children because she knew that wasn’t in the cards for her. Maybe it has become such a habit that she actually believes it now. I think she would make a wonderful mother.
She’s the only person I want to raise my son if I’m not around, so I’m thinking I have two options: 1) Work on convincing her. She always comes around if I keep at her long enough. Or 2) Drop it for now, and express my preference in my will and leave a sealed letter detailing why she’s the only person I trust with my son. Which option is best? Or is there a better way to convince my friend that she should take my son? I’m not ill or dying, I just want this sorted out for my peace of mind.
—Please Be My Son’s Guardian
Both of these “options” are absolutely appalling! Don’t attempt to pester or guilt your friend into changing her mind, and don’t just make her de facto guardian without her consent! NEITHER. NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. I think you might be working from a very strange definition of “friendship”—perhaps it’s worth stopping to ask yourself whether you’re really this person’s friend. Do you respect her and what she says? Do you genuinely value her as a person and care about what she wants? Or are you only interested in getting what you want from her?
I’m not even going to go into your bizarre, condescending theory that she only said she doesn’t want children because … she’s not conventionally attractive??? Instead, let us focus on the actual facts: Being good with your kid, babysitting him on the occasional weekend, even caring for and loving him, is not the same thing as being his parent. Your friend has told you that she doesn’t want to be your son’s guardian. Even if you are right that she would be a wonderful mother, that is not what she wants. You asked; she said no; that should be the end of it. Respect her, respect her decision, and make a different guardianship plan.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My adult daughter and son have had a fraught relationship for many years. My daughter is an extremely bright, confident, and driven individual who has achieved a great deal of success. She is a very kind and generous person, but has little tolerance for people she believes aren’t willing to work as hard as she does. My son, on the other hand, is bright, kind, and very empathetic, but lacks confidence and, until recently, direction. He graduated from college four years ago and, until the pandemic, worked in a job/field that he disliked. He has now finally moved out, identified a career path, and will soon begin grad school in pursuit of that future.
My son has always looked up to his sister and, in many ways, she has been very, very good to him; however, the one thing that he genuinely needs and wants from her is her sincere interest and acceptance—and that is something that she has struggled to give him. He has told her that she often makes him feel belittled and that she seems uninterested in a real relationship. She scoffs at this and believes that he’s just immature. These feelings, while not completely off base, may, in part, be a result of the residual resentment she feels regarding their childhood. My son was a difficult, generally uncooperative child who often made life in our home challenging. He was finally diagnosed with ADHD at 19 and is currently in therapy, but unfortunately still struggles with many of the same issues he faced in childhood, particularly impulse control and anger management. My husband and I are encouraged by his progress and proud of how much he has grown and matured. He still has more work to do, but we (and he) are confident that he is finally moving in the right direction.
Recently, we were celebrating my birthday at a family dinner hosted in my daughter’s home. After cake, my son was trying to recount a story to us as my daughter interrupted him (or turned away from him to speak to someone else) several times. He called her out on it good-naturedly, and while she did apologize, she continued with the same behavior. He finally blew up, screamed obscenities at her, and demanded that we leave. We sent him out to the car (we had driven together) and left shortly thereafter. When he had calmed down, we told him that while his sister’s behavior was insensitive and rude, his reaction was unacceptable. He acknowledged this and promised to do better next time.
After several days, my son reached out to his sister to try to reconcile, and learned that she had blocked him. When she finally unblocked him and they exchanged texts, things deteriorated significantly. At my daughter’s request, I also shared my feelings with her regarding the fight. She became very angry with me for “coddling” her brother and “taking his side.” I maintained that neither handled the situation well, and that I did not want to get in the middle. She is still quite angry and has canceled plans to see us. Obviously, we love both our children very much and are aware of their individual strengths and challenges. We want them to have happy, fulfilling lives, preferably while also having a good sibling relationship. We are at a loss with how to proceed and could use any advice and guidance you can offer.
—Sad and Frustrated Mom
Dear Sad and Frustrated,
This is tough, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot you can do that you have not already done, other than encouraging both your kids to get whatever additional professional help they might need to work through things: anger management on your son’s part, and perhaps just a whole lot of therapy on your daughter’s. I don’t understand how she can be at once “very kind and generous” and so intolerant of “people she believes aren’t willing to work as hard as she does,” nor do I see how you can claim she has been “very, very good” to your son while also admitting that she has never accepted him—acceptance seems like a fairly baseline requirement for a relationship! Without that, what do they really have? How can they move forward? When one person wants respect and acceptance from another person who insists on withholding it, they are at an impasse.
I recognize that long-standing family patterns and dynamics can be hard to break free of, and I don’t know what’s happened between your kids in the past. Of course, some things are genuinely unforgivable and may lead to permanent estrangement. But if we are going to choose to remain in people’s lives, we should ideally be able to allow for and recognize their growth and change, just as we would want them to recognize our growth. It sounds like your son has been working on impulse control and anger management for some time, and his outburst proves why that’s still important and ongoing work to be doing. However unacceptable his reaction (and it was unacceptable!), I do also see how a lifetime of enduring your own sibling’s open derision and judgment—when all you want is their respect and acceptance—would wear a person down. I can imagine few things more frustrating or soul-wearying than spending time with someone you love who refuses to even try to see the person you are now.
Rereading your letter, I got the distinct impression that your daughter might be getting something out of treating your son this way, goading him into a reaction that she then gets to blame him for. She probably knows she can push him right back into a place that he is working hard to move on from, and then she gets to feel self-satisfied and tell herself that he hasn’t changed at all and she’s right not to respect him, without examining her own contribution to this unhealthy dynamic. I’m sure, if this is the case, it’s coming from a place of pain, and she has every right to her own feelings. But if she truly has so many unresolved issues from their childhood that she cannot be with him without seeing him in a bad light and treating him with scorn, it may well be better for the two of them not to be in contact right now.
Their dysfunctional relationship could be making it harder for your son to work on the things he still needs to work on, and it’s obviously not helping your daughter acknowledge or deal with her issues, either. For now, I’d probably just focus on encouraging them to get the help they need, separately, and not try to actively force a reconciliation they might not be ready for. In the end, there is very little you can do if one or both of your children would rather hit pause in their relationship—and as you told your daughter, you don’t want to be in the middle. Hopefully this won’t be a permanent break, and they’ll both do what they need to do to be able to resume communication in time.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My sister-in-law is pregnant with her first baby. I am a mom of two, pregnant with my third. My SIL and BIL have mentioned many times how they don’t want their life to change, how they enjoy their freedom, and how they are making certain choices in order to maintain that freedom. My SIL is of the opinion that as long as they don’t “spoil” her, their baby will adapt to their life, not the other way around.
Since I have gone through this twice, I know that that doesn’t usually happen. I don’t want to be pushy and offer advice just because I have two kids already. Every family is different, every kid is different, and what they choose to do for their baby is really none of my business. I am worried, however, that my SIL and BIL are in for a rude awakening when their daughter is born, and that they will not handle it well. I went through a difficult transition with my first when I realized how much babies change your life, and I know my SIL doesn’t want her baby to change her life. We live a state apart and she doesn’t have a strong support system. How can I let her know I’m available without being pushy? At what point do I need to advocate for my niece’s care?
Well, now is certainly way too early to advocate for your niece’s care, as your niece has not been born yet. I think you might be preemptively and overly concerned about this. Do your SIL and BIL fully understand what they’re in for? Probably not, but few first-time expectant parents do. It often falls to our first kids to teach us how to be parents.
I don’t think you have sufficient evidence to conclude that your SIL and BIL are uniquely ill-equipped to handle this, and your instinct that their general parenting choices and approach are not your business is absolutely correct. Of course, postpartum life and especially the transition to parenthood can be rough, as you yourself experienced—and I think it’s OK to be honest with them and share a little about what it was like for you, if you think it would be welcome and you have that kind of relationship. You can also just gently remind them that you’re there for them, always available to listen or chat (or listen to them scream/cry) if they need it, and hopefully they’ll know there’s an open door should they want to seek advice or support from you.
I do want to point out that even if you hold your peace, every other person they come into contact with is probably already giving them unsolicited advice and saying ominous things like “enjoy your hobbies/free time/travel/sex while you can!!!” So trust, they are likely getting the undeniable message that having a baby will change their lives. If they still believe that they are somehow the lone exception to the general rule that kids turn everything upside-down, bless; they aren’t the first parents to think this. It doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t adjust or be good parents to their kid.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have been together for 10 years. We both have children from previous marriages (me: two 14-year-old boys, him: a 12-year-old girl), and we now have a toddler together. I am now a stay-at-home mother, and my husband is the primary provider. He makes a very good living, and we are comfortable. My ex also pays a pretty penny in child support, which primarily goes to the boys’ sports, name-brand clothing, weekend fun, etc.
My MIL is always making comments about how her son “carries the weight of our family,” or “how great is my son for providing for kids that aren’t his, while you get to sit home all day?” The other day she saw a receipt for things I bought for my boys and said, “Does my son know how much you spend on your boys? Do you spend that much on his daughter?” I explained that my ex pays for these shopping sprees that the boys go on, and we provide equally for all of our kids. I have tried my best to remember that this is his mother and she deserves respect, but I am so close to losing my cool and telling her to mind her own business! She is not an easy person to have a rational conversation with and will hold a grudge FOREVER if she is called out. Please help!
—Running Out of Honey
Dear Running Out,
Well, I personally believe people should get the respect they deserve. But it’s not disrespectful to point out when someone is crossing a line, as your MIL clearly is! She’s being rude and disrespectful to you—and also to your sons, insinuating that you’re all some kind of burden to your husband. You shouldn’t have to just passively sit and take this treatment. She needs to be told to mind her own business (perhaps in a more tactful way, at least initially, but if she keeps it up, the gloves can come off). The thing I don’t understand is why you’d need to be the one to lay down the law with her when she has a son and you’re married to him? I don’t know where he’s been while she has been making these inappropriate comments to you, but it is way past time for him to step in.
Your MIL doesn’t have to love you or be your best friend. She does need to treat you with a basic level of respect. Your husband, ideally, is the one who should tell her this—because a) she should know that her behavior is jeopardizing her continued relationship with all of you, including her son; and b) she probably doesn’t care what you want or think at all (sorry to say it). A boundary can be a beautiful thing, and you’re all in need of one here. If your MIL gets mad and decides to hold a grudge against you or the whole family, I guess that’s just how it goes; maybe that means she’ll stay away and out of your hair for a while. My guess, though, is that she won’t want to cut herself off from her grandkids, so for better or worse, you’re probably stuck with her.
More Advice From Slate
I have been with my husband for five years. I have a daughter from a previous marriage who is now 10 and a 4-year-old daughter with my husband. Every year, his parents and other extended family acknowledge my younger daughter’s birthday. Last year on her birthday, when an aunt asked for our address so that she could send money, I requested that she not send anything because our children are noticing and it causes hurt feelings. We requested they treat the girls the same because they are sisters. She promised to include my oldest. Well, that didn’t happen. Again, we are sent a card and money for our younger and my older had received nothing. I would like to cut these people from our lives, but my husband feels torn. What do I do?