Care and Feeding

My Nonbinary Teen’s Bathroom Choice Makes Me Uncomfortable

Do they have to make this such a big deal?

A gendered restroom sign.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by PamWalker68/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,

I have a 14-year-old who came out to us as nonbinary/genderfluid about a year ago. They usually present androgynously, with occasional forays more masculine or feminine. I’ve long been a staunch liberal and ally, and my spouse and I have done all we can to be supportive, accepting, and loving. But I won’t deny that this parenting path has been difficult and confusing for me. My kid came out in the midst of the pandemic, so we don’t leave the house a lot. When we do, my kid uses the restrooms opposite their birth gender. They told their younger brother that they feel like people look at them less suspiciously in that bathroom. This has been really hard for me; it bothers me a lot. I haven’t said anything to my kid about it, as questioning in the past has made them shut down, and the last thing I want is less communication with my teen now that they’re finally engaging with the family again.

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Now that the end of the pandemic is in sight, I’m thinking ahead to family trips. My parents are relatively socially conservative—they’ve been inching left since Trump, but they aren’t there in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance. They know my kid is out and still treat them well, but they use my kid’s old pronouns. I DREAD what will happen when we go somewhere and my kid uses the “wrong” bathroom. I don’t know how to defend my kid because I don’t agree with it! I’ve thought of asking my kid to use their birth gender bathroom when we’re with my parents, but part of me thinks that’s unfair to have them use one they aren’t comfortable with to avoid conflict. On the other hand, if they’re genderfluid, can’t they “flow” that direction for a bit?

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—Not the Mama Bear I Thought I’d Be

Dear Not the Mama Bear,

It’s absolutely unfair to ask your 14-year-old to use a different public bathroom—a bathroom they feel less comfortable and safe in (!)—for the sake of either placating you or avoiding conflict with your parents. Please don’t do this! Your child’s identity, their well-being, their right to be not just accepted but affirmed in who they are, is several orders of magnitude more important than whatever discomfort you or your parents feel.

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Your concern over having to have a potentially awkward conversation with your parents is not the only stumbling block here. You also seem to be dealing with a lot of your own discomfort, too, mentioning how your child’s coming out has been “difficult” for you, how you’re “bothered” and find it “really hard” to see them use a certain restroom, how you all-caps “DREAD” what will happen when your parents witness it. I’m sure you are having feelings about all of this. Therapy is the ideal place for you to acknowledge and work through those feelings. But you shouldn’t make your issues or struggles—or those of anyone else in the family—your kid’s burden. Nor should you be obsessing over what anyone else will think of the bathrooms they use, or allowing them to be repeatedly misgendered by family members in your presence.

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This is your child. Your job is to be on their side. Your parents should be, too, if they love them and want to be in their life. Understanding, education, acceptance, full support from your relatives might not happen overnight. It might not happen at all, in some cases, unfortunately; you cannot control how your child’s grandparents or anyone else reacts.

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But you can control what you do and say, and whether and how you choose to see and support your kid. You call yourself an ally. So be their ally, not just when it’s easy or comfortable for you. Otherwise, the communication “shutdown”—perhaps a form of self-preservation on your kid’s part—that you say you don’t want will almost certainly return, and could even give way to a more serious and lasting form of distance.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am currently expecting my first child, and along with all the usual stresses and worries of impending parenthood, I find myself especially struggling with one I didn’t really see coming: I’m so self-conscious about my decision to become a stay-at-home mom. This is something I’ve always wanted, and my husband and I made many of our lifestyle and career decisions over the past decade based on the understanding that this was the plan for when we have kids. Unfortunately, since starting to share more about this decision, I feel like I’m getting judgment from all sides. Some of my working mom/planning-to-be-working mom friends have made comments about how they believe their kids will be more well-rounded for having gone to day care and that they “don’t connect” with stay-at-home moms (I guess the implication being those women’s children are their whole worlds and they don’t have much else going on). Those are definitely fears I share myself, so I don’t begrudge them that perspective at all, but the comments touched on a sore spot.

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To make things worse, I tried to open up a little to some of my closest friends about feeling self-conscious about this decision, and their (mildly exasperated) response was that basically every mom wishes she could stay home with her kids and I’m just so lucky it’s feasible for me. These friends don’t have children yet, but I know they want to eventually and are bummed that staying home probably isn’t going to be financially viable for them, so maybe it was insensitive of me to express a negative feeling about being in a position they envy. I’m worried I came across as spoiled and ungrateful for this incredible luxury available to me, but also frustrated because I think they are fundamentally wrong that most women would stay home if they could only afford to! I swear that all of the friends in these examples are kindhearted and supportive people; I just think we are very much each in a position of seeing this issue through the warped lens of our own personal choices, regrets, and insecurities … this is such a fraught topic! I don’t want to spend the next however many years feeling defensive or apologetic every time I share a joy or a hardship of stay-at-home parenting with my friends. Do you have any advice about how to better frame this stuff, either in speaking to my friends or in my own mind?

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—Sad Soon-to-Be SAHM

Dear SSSAHM,

You feel like you’re being judged because you are being judged a little! You’re about to be a mom, so it’s going to be like this for—I’m going to go out on a limb here—the rest of your life, quite possibly. I’m not saying that it’s right, or that you can’t feel a way about it. But if I knew of some airtight argument that would keep parents, especially mothers, from being blamed for whatever decisions they make in a sea of imperfect/often unjust and undersupported options, I’d be rich and/or famous—or at least blissfully free from judgy people myself.

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While you are making this particular choice from a privileged position, that doesn’t mean you can’t have complicated feelings about it. I think genuinely kind friends should be able to realize this. Maybe a few of yours might prove more sympathetic down the line, if you really feel like taking the time to explain where you’re coming from while being as sensitive as you can to their situations (and perhaps acknowledging that you’re fortunate to have a choice at all). If not, I believe it’s likely that you’ll find other friends, eventually, who will be there for such discussions.

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That said, while it might be ideal if we were able to share all of our feelings, worries, and insecurities with all of our closest friends, I don’t actually think it’s terrible or unusual to have certain friends you go to with certain feelings and problems, and others who hear about entirely different things. I’m blessed with a few people I can talk to about literally anything, but plenty of my friends don’t understand or care about writer problems, for example (and frankly, there is no reason they should), so I tend to take those to fellow writers. When I need to share some frustration or get advice about my child’s supports and accommodations at school, I have go-to folks for that as well—because with others, even many people I’m close to, I’d have to spend so much time educating/explaining that I wouldn’t get much in the way of actual support. And then there are all the people I mostly text with about my work and/or my dog, who might forget that I have children at all if I did not occasionally mention them.

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Any conflicted feelings you’re having are 100 percent OK, and they don’t necessarily mean you’re making the wrong decision (although of course they could mean that it’s worth reevaluating what you really want). No one, no matter how supportive, will be able to make it easier for you to own the decision to be a SAHM if you yourself aren’t fully comfortable with that choice. It’s natural to want to be heard, of course, and to want your friends to get how you’re feeling. That said, this is one of many, many parenting questions you’ll have to decide without unanimous understanding or approval. I would try to focus on the fact that you’ve made the decision that feels best for you and your family right now, and—as much as possible—let whatever feelings of peace and security there are to be had flow from that.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My children, who are in first and third grades, met their aunt for the first time over the holidays. “Aunt K,” my sister-in-law, had been in recovery from a decadelong addiction to opiates for most of 2020—the longest stretch ever—and asked if she could meet our children. We said yes, with some boundaries in place. Our children loved her; after only a few days, Aunt K became the favorite. Fast forward and Aunt K has relapsed, and is out of contact. Her past struggles include being unhoused, overdosing, etc. What do we tell our children? And if Aunt K dies or causes someone else’s death under the influence (an actual possibility given her driving record), what do we say? Aunt K made a lot of verbal promises to our children, which isn’t helping our current answers to the question “When can Aunt K come over?”

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—Everyone Knows an Addict

Dear Everyone Knows,

I don’t think it’s a bad thing that your kids ask about their aunt; it’s perfectly understandable. You want them to feel safe and OK talking with you about this. I think you should tell them the truth, sensitively and in an age-appropriate way, with lots of space for any questions or feelings they have. I don’t think first or third grade is too young to start talking about addiction or the fact that it’s something a lot of people struggle with, including their now-beloved aunt.

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I might start by telling the kids that one way to think of addiction is as a very tough disease—so in a sense, Aunt K is ill, and sometimes she’s in treatment for it. I’d stress that her addiction does not make her a bad person, nor does it mean that she doesn’t love your kids, or that you all don’t love her. You can say that you hope Aunt K gets the help she needs to get better and see them again. As for the timing of that visit, or whether it ever happens, I think it’s OK to tell your kids that you aren’t sure—I know that may not be an easy thing for you to share or for them to hear, but again, it’s the truth, and it’s preferable to changing the subject or guessing at a timeline that might not come to pass.

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What to say if you get even worse news one day will depend on exactly what it is and how old your kids are then. Whenever you discuss this with your kids, my advice is to be as honest and as clear as you can be, given their capacity for understanding; don’t try to manage their reactions, and always let them share their feelings and ask whatever questions they have. Even if Aunt K is in and out of your lives, discussion of addiction will have to be ongoing in your family, and some or all of you might eventually benefit from talking with a family therapist about your specific situation. You can also look for support groups designed for family members of people struggling with addiction.

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Want more advice? Check out Pay Dirt, Slate’s newest column tackling thorny questions on money and relationships. Read the first column here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

At the beginning of the pandemic, when my office in the city closed, I moved back in with my widowed mother in the suburbs of another state, and so did my brother and sister-in-law and their 2-year-old. I was able to work from home full time and the others couldn’t, so I’ve spent a good portion of the past year taking care of my nephew, who is an absolute joy: the funniest, sweetest little kid, whose face lights up whenever I enter a room. Now they’re moving out, and I know that I will soon need to return to my life in another city (and to my long-term, long-distance partner, who has been wonderfully supportive of my unconventional living situation), but I’m utterly heartbroken that I’ll no longer get to see my nephew every day. I also worry it’s weird to be this sad about it—I’m his aunt, not his parent, but I can’t imagine loving my own future children more than I love my nephew. How do I get a grip and live my own life again, instead of trying to be my nephew’s bonus parent?

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—Agonized Auntie

Dear Agonized Auntie,

I don’t think you need to borrow trouble here by worrying that you love your nephew too much. It makes sense that this would be hard for you—you’ve spent over a year seeing him every day, helping to raise him, being one of his main caregivers. As is so often the case, I don’t think there’s any way through your feelings about this except to feel them. Telling yourself they’re weird, or that you need to “get a grip,” will probably only make it tougher for you—your feelings aren’t wrong, and it’s important to acknowledge them and let yourself be sad! I’m sure your nephew is going to miss you, too.

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This may have nothing to do with it, so please disregard if that’s the case, but I do want to acknowledge that many people are experiencing some complicated feelings and even anxiety around “reentry” and post-vaccination life. A ton of things are about to shift for you, personally. Changes don’t have to be bad for us to find them scary or jarring or complex! Your understandable sadness over the fact that you’ll soon be missing your nephew may just be one part of all this.

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While you acknowledge your own emotions and make room for your nephew to share his if he wants, try to remember that you are both going to be OK. It seems like you recognize this, deep down, as heartbroken as you are that this time sharing a household is ending—you are, you say, returning to a life you want to return to. I hope you and your nephew can cram a lot of fun quality time into the days remaining, keep in touch, and plan regular visits. Hopefully, the close relationship you’ve built over the past year-plus will be a strong foundation for a lifelong bond.

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—Nicole

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