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,
About a month ago, I had to have major surgery and stay in the hospital overnight. As my husband was taking me to the hospital that morning, I hugged my 3-year-old and told her “Mommy has a boo-boo. I’m going to the hospital and the doctor is going to make me all better! I will be home tomorrow!” She had a great day, and my husband was home by 7 p.m. to put her to bed. (I’ve put her to bed and gotten up with her every day since her birth, so this was definitely a change for her.) When I got home from the hospital the next day, she saw me and curled up in the hallway with tears streaming down her face. I told her to come lie down with me and asked her what was wrong. “I didn’t know where you were!” she said and burst into tears again. I asked my husband if he had reminded her that I was spending the night at the hospital, and he said, “No, you already told her you would be gone overnight, so I didn’t mention you at all so she wouldn’t be sad you weren’t here.”
Things have been a mess since then. At first, she was clingy all day long. Then, while the days became okay, nights were still awful. She would panic if I tried to put her to bed in her room. She’d scream, “Mommy! Where are you? Can’t you hear me crying? Please don’t leave me alone! I’m SCARED!” Also, when I tried to leave her in her bed, she started picking at stuff. Slowly tearing off covers of books, pulling the decals off the wall, biting her nails, biting her lip until it bled. She had never done any of that prior to my surgery.
She had always slept by herself—never in our bed. But after seeing how upset and anxious she was, I made the (wrong?) choice to bring her into my bed. She had to hold my hand to fall asleep the first night, and then she slept wonderfully. But I got up to go to the bathroom and she woke up while I was in there and freaked out. “Mommy! Where did you go?” And this is how it always goes now. Last night, I decided to bring her mattress into my room so she could be near me but not holding me in a death grip all night. She sobbed and sobbed. After 30 minutes of this, I finally went over to her mattress and she hugged my arm hard and fell asleep. I was able to extricate myself and get into my bed—and when I woke up in the middle of the night, she was in bed with me.
How do I get her back to her room? It makes me incredibly sad to see a formerly happy, well-adjusted kid full of panic and anxiety every night. Do you think this all stems from my husband not explaining where I was? I’m totally (silently) blaming him, though he thinks he did nothing wrong. Therapy seems like a stretch for a one-time incident, but do you think that’s necessary? Or will she just grow out of the clinginess?
—Was Hoping It Would Take Longer Than Three Years to Screw Up My Kid
I wouldn’t call this a one-time incident, since her anxiety is now ongoing. So I’m going to cut to the chase, and say I don’t think therapy is a stretch. At the very least, a good pediatric psychologist will be able to offer you some strategies specific to your child and your family that will work to help her through this, and may possibly be able to offer you a fuller explanation of what I’m about to suggest.
When a 3-year-old becomes this panicky, there’s something underlying it. It might not be that big a deal—it might be something you can change fairly easily once it’s been identified, and just making some small changes in the day-to-day business of being a family will make a profound difference. But something is going on. A good therapist will meet with your child (and play with her: young children reveal what’s going on through play, not by explaining it—and of course chances are she can’t explain it because she has no idea why she is suddenly so panic-stricken) and also meet with you and your husband to talk about what goes on at home.
I am not letting him get off scot-free, by the way. What he did the night you were gone wasn’t great: it shows a pretty poor understanding of how children process things, and probably in particular how this child, whom he should know very well, processes things. But I don’t think it’s what he did (or didn’t do) that one night that turned things upside down—I think it just tripped the wire. And the fact is that if you’d never been apart from your daughter, your one night away (no matter what her father said or did while you were gone) might have been enough to trip the wire.
I’m not judging you. I too was an always-present mother who never missed a bedtime or wake-up-time. My own kid suddenly developed a terror of the dark when she was 3, when that had never been an issue before. I’m willing to believe that some part of your daughter’s nighttime hysteria is developmental. But as a mother who got some extraordinarily helpful practical help when her own child developed a serious anxiety disorder at 6—and who quickly saw the benefits of a handful of changes in what we did at home—I cannot recommend a good therapist highly enough. Try if you can to think of it as a tool in the greater parenting toolbox.
And consider this: it takes way less than three years to screw up one’s kid.
I’m not saying you have, mind you. I’m just saying it happens before you know it. And bringing that extra parenting tool into the mix when a crisis like this occurs may well mean your daughter won’t need (that much) therapy later. (My father joked, when my daughter was born, that I ought to think about putting her in therapy immediately: save her the trouble later. I was grateful that when I did need to make that therapy appointment for her six years later, he didn’t say I told you so.)
• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!
Dear Care and Feeding,
Sticky situation. I don’t have kids, but my cousins that I am close to do have them. Maggie has a toddler and a 9-month-old. Amy has a 6-month-old. Recently, Amy made a comment about Maggie’s toddler being a “terror” and said that she (Amy) and her husband were unwilling to host a family event because of that. Maggie became upset and vented to me about it. I didn’t say anything at the time, but to be honest, what Amy wasn’t vocalizing was that whenever there is a family event, Maggie and her husband dump their kids and don’t watch them. At ALL. And therefore let their toddler act like a little terror. Dozens of examples come to mind of him about to create a huge mess/break something/be rough with something and people (who have their hands full with another kid or hot food, etc.) calling out for Maggie and her husband … who just sit there and shrug. They seem to expect people to act both as host to an event AND their personal babysitter (this was occurring pre-pandemic, and has continued now that we’re all vaccinated and getting together more). For me, it is an easy out on hosting now—”Oh, my house isn’t really set up for little kids”—but other family members are pretty frustrated. Do I speak up next time she takes offense at people refusing to host because of her kid? Or let them all work it out?
Definitely speak up if you want to make your cousin Maggie turn the full force of her (probably overwhelmed and thoroughly exhausted) wrath on you. It would be a generous act of self-sacrifice on behalf of those in your family who do have children and are reluctant to voice the full truth.
If such self-sacrifice isn’t your thing, though, I’m not sure why you’d want to wade into this mess. Is it that you believe you have a unique relationship with Maggie that would make her pay attention to you (“Oh, my god! You’re right! I need to be responsible for my own kids when I’m visiting someone else’s house! Thanks so much for telling me!”)? Do you think she doesn’t know that she’s supposed to wrangle her own toddler?
I think the only reason for you to “speak up” is if you’re willing to say, “I tell you what, beloved cousin. I know how exhausted you are, caring for a baby and a toddler, and I know you could use some time off. So how about if, when we’re all at someone else’s house, you let me be in charge of my adorable little cousin?” And then you could let whichever family member is hosting know that you’re the designated toddler-wrangler for the day. That would kill two—actually three—birds with one stone: the hosts don’t have to worry about their house, weary Maggie gets a break, and adorable terror gets someone’s complete attention, which he’s craving.
If this doesn’t sound appealing, I would suggest you keep staying silent.
Help! How can I support Slate so I can keep reading all the advice from Dear Prudence, Care and Feeding, Ask a Teacher, and How to Do It? Answer: Join Slate Plus.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a 37-year-old single woman. I have for the better part of the last five years been actively working (financially, mentally, professionally) on preparing myself to become a single mother by choice. Now that moment has come … and I’m not sure I want it anymore. I like making more money, I like sleeping in and being lazy when I want to, I like traveling and being spontaneous. It’s not that I don’t want to be a mom; it’s just that I know that all those things go away with a baby, and I’m not sure anymore that it’s worth it. The rose-colored glasses have been off for a while and I’m not delusional enough to believe that I’ll be able to do it differently from my friends who have children and seem exhausted and spread thin. I would absolutely love to have a baby. I really, really would. But I’m scared of losing the things about my life that I love and am having a hard time talking myself into the sacrifice, not knowing if it’s worth it.
—Should I or Shouldn’t I?
It’s not that you don’t want to be a mom, you say. In fact, you would absolutely love to (with two “really”s). But what I wonder is … why? What was it that made you decide five years ago to start actively working toward single motherhood? And whatever it was, is it still operational? Being a parent is not a requirement for having a fulfilling, interesting, joyful, meaningful life. For people who want to do it, the sacrifices it requires (and yes, there are lots of them) are worth it. If you don’t, deep down, really, really want to bear and raise a child, why do it? Because it’s true that sleeping late and being lazy when you feel it and having spontaneous adventures do come to an end (not forever, but for years) once you have a child. Please don’t talk yourself into the sacrifice of motherhood! Instead, take a deep look in: Is this what you want out of your life, or isn’t it? There’s no shame in deciding that it isn’t.
Dear Care and Feeding,
This may seem silly, but I’d love to get your take. We have a sensitive but very sure of herself 5-year-old daughter, “Riley.” About five months ago, she started calling herself “Sunshine Riley” (not exactly this name, but you get the idea). She introduces herself to strangers, unprompted, as Sunshine Riley. She signs her name “S Riley.” She’ll still answer to “Riley,” but usually with a reminder of her “correct” name. It doesn’t look like this is going away anytime soon, unlike a lot of her other passing interests. But I have such a difficult time when kids laugh, or when parents look at me like, “Sunshine, really?”
Do we just call her Sunshine Riley now? Do I have to correct people when they call her (just) Riley? And what do I do about her name in kindergarten in the fall? Is this more of a me-problem than a her-problem (since it seems to be tapping into some part of me that wants this to go away so I can avoid embarrassment)? I swear that if this kid were trans and had renamed themself, I would call them by their new name!
—Sunshine’s Mom, Really?
Oh, come on—you know perfectly well that this is a you-problem and not a Sunshine-Riley-problem. Sunshine Riley is enjoying her new name; she isn’t embarrassed (or so I assume, since you mention your having a hard time when other children laugh about the name but no concern about this on her part). If adults look askance at you (and are you sure they are—sure you aren’t projecting?), shrug and say, “Yup, that’s what she wants to be called” or even, if you want to throw your complete support behind your confident, brave kid, “She has renamed herself!” Say it proudly. Your little girl is imaginative, inventive, and experimenting with the idea of being in control of her choices, her destiny, herself.
What would it hurt to call her by the name she currently prefers? It probably won’t last (even if it’s lasting longer than previous interests, which I’m guessing weren’t quite so personal), but I’d place a bet on the fact that she will try out other versions of her name—maybe even an entirely new one—before she settles on what she wants to be called for the long haul.
As for what name to use for kindergarten, I’d stick with her legal name and let her teacher know what she prefers to be called (people do this all the time with nicknames, or children who are called by their middle names). If your daughter changes her mind about being Sunshine Riley by the first day of school, it doesn’t sound as if she’d have a problem calmly letting the teacher know that.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I have a frequent disagreement on our 3-year-old and her love for dresses and all things pink! For the first two years of her life, she was constantly mistaken for a boy because she wore gender-neutral clothes. We direct her towards books and other media that do not represent traditional gender roles. However, our daughter adores the color pink. My husband thinks we should discourage it, but I think it’s fine. What should we do?