Dear Care and Feeding,
Over a decade ago, my husband had an affair that produced a son. Every adult in the situation, including me, hails from a highly dysfunctional family. I mention this detail because even now, my husband’s family still tries to pressure him to leave me for her so that my stepson “can have his parents together.” I have spent years trying to work through the anger and resentment I have for how badly I have been treated in this dynamic, including what I had against my husband to create and enable this situation. He spent years choosing to stay silent as his parents disrespected my place as his wife and favored his son, often at the expense of the children we have since had together.
I have tried to shield my kids from noticing the disparity. As of late, however, they have begun to pick up on it outside of my control. I chose to tell them that their grandparents are selfish people who are mad at me and treating them differently because of it. This led to a shouting match during one of my stepson’s recent visits, where he called his 10-year-old sister the ‘B’ word for complaining about the favoritism and went on to insist any problems are fabrications on my part. I tried to speak with him after, and it’s clear he believes I am why his parents are not together, an impression I have no doubt his mother and paternal grandparents have fueled. I’m torn between telling all the kids the truth so that my kids know that the discrepancy is not their fault and continuing to bear this burden, so my stepson doesn’t feel lesser. Either way, some kids are going to be hurt, and their father looks bad. What do you advise?
— Confused in California
I am so sorry that other people’s actions have forced you into such an untenable situation. These children do not need to know the specific details of your husband’s relationships with you and your stepson’s mother at the time of his conception—and perhaps shouldn’t until they are much older.
However, if my interpretation of your letter is correct, the relationship that produced this boy was not merely an affair, but perhaps a loving relationship in which this woman came to know your in-laws. I am not attempting to minimize the crime against your heart or the violation of your marriage vows, but to acknowledge that your husband was (seemingly) in two serious relationships at one time—which is something his children ought to know. As things stand, it seems the kids have been left to sort out timetables on their own and have only your incredibly cruel in-laws (and a woman who feels that she should be his wife?!) to provide clues, making you a target.
Yes, even a sanitized version of events will position your husband as the bad guy, and guess why? Because he WAS. He had two entire women at one time, and while there are any number of possible versions of what that looked like (the boy’s mom may have known everything, or nothing, about your marriage), ultimately, the person who had a child with his girlfriend while married to his wife is the one who has to bear responsibility for what comes of that. At the very least, the kids should be told that your husband saw you both while his son was born but ultimately chose to commit to you. When they are older, you can decide what else you may wish to share, with regards to your husband’s infidelity, and work together to talk about the best way to share that. You may even make that choice independent of him when they are adults, and you have every right to do so.
This revelation won’t hurt his little boy any more than he is already (naturally) bothered by these complicated circumstances. The kid whose mom didn’t end up with his now re-partnered Dad (or vice versa) is apt to go through the process of grieving the relationship he wishes his parents had. He has to be guided through that process with support and affirmation from all of the adults involved so that he understands that he is not loved or valued any less just because his dad has other children and a wife; the level to which he is made a part of this family is crucial.
If your in-laws prevent you and your husband from doing the sort of co-parenting that you need to do with his ex and your stepson, then you need to talk to your husband about managing that relationship better. They should not be allowed to carry on this way, and if they continue to do so, you must directly confront their behavior to all of the children. Your husband should be leading this charge. He should defend you and protect you from suffering any ramifications from his selfish actions, not let you be a martyr. That he is not trying to help you out is troubling. That his family is still championing a relationship with this woman may be a red flag.
Do you interact with this lady? She is enabling her son to feel that she was somehow left behind in this situation—to be entirely fair, if your husband was bringing her around his family and impregnating her, it stands to reason that he may have also promised her a future that he never delivered on—and that needs to be addressed directly. Keep your head on a swivel with all these people, and prioritize protecting yourself and these kids over any of these adults in your world. Make your husband do the work of fixing this mess he made and that includes repairing things with you, which he clearly has not done, or else he would not leave you to deal with all this drama. Wishing you all the best.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
COVID is slowly receding where we live, and our kids are getting invited to birthday parties again. What is the proper etiquette for gifts at a children’s birthday party? If the invitation is silent on the subject, are we expected to bring skills? Is it rude to ask to clarify? Has the pandemic ruined whatever social sense I once had?
— To Gift or Not to Gift
It is customary in many communities to bring gifts to a child’s birthday party; families who feel otherwise will often indicate in the invitation if gifts are either unnecessary or not welcome. However, parents who choose to throw birthday parties should also accept that there are people who are unwilling or unable to abide by this tradition; they should practice appropriate social behavior with someone who arrives “arms swinging,” and must avoid allowing their children to see them react with annoyance as well. If the invitation says nothing about gifts, and you are able, you ought to get one.
· If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
When I meet up with my friend “Amy” (which is about three or four times a month), she forces me to look at an over-the-top number of pictures and videos of her 2-year-old niece. Can I stop pretending to be interested? We’re not talking about a few pics and a cute 10-second video. We’re talking twenty or thirty pictures at a time (almost all of the same thing) and videos that are at least a minute long of completely mundane activities, like her niece singing “The ABCs” for the hundredth time, or playing with her stuffed animals. I know I sound awful, but it’s way too much!
— I Get it, She’s Cute
It depends on the nature of your relationship with Amy. Are you one of her besties? Does she force everyone she knows to sit through these baby worship sessions, or are you one of the few people with whom she can do this sort of thing? If it’s the latter, then I think you ought to swallow your annoyance and indulge her in the very normal experience of being so overwhelmingly in love with her little nibbling that she needs to share it with someone she cares about. However, if she can experience this joy with lots of other people, then silently give her a 2-to-3 minute time limit when she gets to gushing and then change the subject. Remember, you, too, were a little bitty thing once; honor the circle of life—and your friendship!—by stifling your eye rolls for the length of a music video a few times a month.
For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am Chinese and was adopted as a baby by two White parents. My sister was also adopted very young, but is White, and is married to a Black man. She and her husband have a 6-year-old daughter, who I adore. My niece loves Disney princesses, but the actual Disney costumes are apparently overpriced, so my sister has found clothing at secondhand stores, and sewed them to look like Disney costumes. I feel uncomfortable about several of them; her Jasmine costume is Indian clothing to which my sister added rhinestones, and in all of the pictures she’s let my niece use makeup to draw a bindi on her forehead (which I’m confused about since I don’t remember Jasmine as Indian). Her Mulan costume is basically a homemade kimono but made with fabric from Chinese clothing, and my sister let her wear what I assume is supposed to be Mulan’s makeup, but what looks more like stereotypical “geisha girl” face paint, and her Moana outfit is a grass skirt and tank top made from a Hawaiian shirt, nothing like the Polynesian attire from the official costume. I admire my sister and brother-in-law for making costumes on a budget, but isn’t this cultural appropriation? My brother-in-law and I aren’t close, and I don’t see my sister much (I saw these “costumes” on Facebook), so how should I tactfully address this with them without offending them?
— Uncomfortable with the Costumes
There is definitely something uncomfortable about your White sister making this stuff you described for her biracial Black daughter to cosplay as characters of other ethnicities, and you should tell her that. Explain that you love her creativity and how she’s making her daughter’s princess dreams come true, but politely note which parts of her creations were offensive and why. It’s a shame that neither your parents—nor his, though that is a whole lot more complicated and a topic for another column—didn’t teach her how to respectfully celebrate someone else’s culture without being gross and racist, but as we all know, having non-White children has never been a commentary on White folks’ cultural competencies on these matters. I’m sorry that you have to educate a grown-ass adult about something like this. It’s not fair, but she must hear it, if for no other reason than to save her poor daughter from being out here looking the fool and not even knowing it.
More Advice From Slate
I was recently asked by a professional acquaintance to be the best man at his wedding. I’m very surprised by the request, as he and I only talk once or twice per year about work, and I do not consider him to be a personal friend. I would feel gross while pretending my way through a wedding I have zero personal investment in. But I also wonder if this person had no one else to ask. I think of how awful that must feel and wonder if going might be a random act of kindness for a relative stranger. And to a lesser extent, I worry about burning a bridge that could be useful for me professionally in the future. Can I say no? And if so, how?