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.
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?
—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.
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.
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.
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 grew up in Ireland, where we weren’t allowed to speak our language or participate in our culture in any way by English law. I went to America for college and married an American man, and am now pregnant. I suggested to my husband that I speak Irish and he speak English to the baby, so they grow up bilingual. He said the baby won’t be speaking a language he doesn’t speak.
I’m heartbroken, since he knows how hard it was for me and my family to be so disconnected from our culture, and how hard we fought—and Irish people still fight—for our language not to die. When I tried to explain this, he rolled his eyes and said his family is descended from French and Italian as well as English, so by my logic we should teach the baby four languages. 1) He only speaks English. 2) We could learn as much French and Italian as we can before the baby comes if it’s important, which I told him. 3) His families immigrated here more than 100 years ago, and I’ve never heard him talk about those cultures before now.
I’ve tried to discuss this calmly over the past few days, which has only resulted in worse and worse fights, until he finally yelled that I’m white and I should stop acting like I’m special, or the baby’s going to think white people are oppressed. I’ve never compared our occupation with what people of color go through in America, or any country. Since moving here my husband and I have participated in protests and political meetings for racial equality, and never once has he mentioned that my desire for connection to my culture is offensive or even related to the fight of oppressed people in America. I don’t understand why he is offended at the idea of our child having the freedom to know this part of their culture, which is so important to me since I know the pain of it being illegal. Is this inappropriate in America? Is it giving up solidarity with people of color if I teach my child my language, when many people face racist violence for not speaking English?
—Erin Go Wha?
Dear Erin Go Wha,
No, of course teaching your child to understand and appreciate their Irish heritage—through language and other means—in no way conflicts with your wish to be in solidarity with people of color in the U.S. Your husband’s comment about teaching the baby French and Italian, and the out-of-left-field accusation that it is somehow … racist(?) of you to want your child to speak your country’s language, is a clear example of derailment. The bottom line, I suspect, is that he doesn’t want his child to know something he doesn’t, and he might also fear being left out in some way if you and your child share a language he doesn’t understand. Both these things strike me as regrettably small and petty of him, perhaps springing from some insecurity (about himself, or his potential to be a good parent, or both), and I’m sorry you’re dealing with his attitude as fallout.
I think it’s wonderful that you want to share a language and other cultural knowledge and traditions with your child. They also have a right to their heritage. While it would be ideal to have your husband’s understanding and cooperation, you do not actually need his permission to teach your child about their roots or the culture the two of you will share.
It really sounds like there has been a communication breakdown, given both his accusations and the fact that he yelled them at you. I think he’s the one at fault, and I find his behavior to be a bit of a red flag. Both of you might benefit from some marital counseling if you find you cannot communicate about or work through this on your own. I hope that your husband starts being more reasonable and more generous—to both you and your future child—and that you can get on the same page before your baby arrives.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 14-year-old daughter, “Anne,” from my first marriage. Her dad and I met when he was in a monogamous marriage to someone else, which I knew. We had an affair, I got pregnant, and he divorced his wife and married me. Anne doesn’t know any of this; she thinks we just met through work (which is true!) and her dad was already divorced, but I’m starting to think I should tell her. For one thing, her much-older cousins know, and I’m worried they’ll let it slip one day. For another, I don’t want to lie to her anymore, even by omission—she’s too old.
The issue is, Anne is very concerned with justice and right and wrong. She’s a smart kid, but has little understanding of nuance in cases where someone did something “bad,” and I’m worried she’ll think badly of her father forever for having had an affair. (This actually came up when a character on a TV show had an affair, and she was completely unforgiving.) The complicating factor is that Anne’s dad passed away when she was 6, so he’s not around to speak to her or “redeem” himself. How do I have this conversation?
—Shades of Gray
Dear Shades of Gray,
You’re right, you need to tell your daughter the truth. You absolutely do not want her hearing about the affair from another relative. It’s also not the kind of thing you want her bringing to you; it should be the other way around.
I imagine you’ve been thinking about how to have this conversation with Anne for years. As you consider what to say now, focus on her and her feelings and what you believe she’s capable of understanding. Think about all the questions you would have if you were in her position, and then try to address them without defensiveness. You might begin your talk by acknowledging that, at 14, she is old enough to have more complicated conversations about relationships and personal ethics. I understand you’re worried about what she’ll think of her late father (and perhaps what she’ll think of you, too), but I think she deserves to hear the truth in all its complexity—and hear it from you, specifically.
She may have a strong reaction when she learns about the affair. She may feel angry and hurt—over what happened, and/or the fact that you didn’t tell her earlier—and if so, there’s no getting around that. Even if she immediately accepts what you say about the complicated nature of life and love and adult relationships, that won’t necessarily make those feelings go away (nor should it). The goal is not to try to talk her out of her feelings, because she has a right to them, but to give her the truth about her family. Be as open as possible, given her age and maturity—whatever the situation was, I doubt it was simple or straightforward for anyone involved, and you can try to explain that to her. If you acknowledge that it’s complicated but have no regrets, you can tell her that, and why; if you do wish anything had happened differently, you can be truthful about that, too.
This will be a hard conversation, but remember that it’s an ongoing process, not a one-and-done. You don’t have to express everything perfectly the first time, and Anne doesn’t have to get it all resolved in her head and heart in one sitting, either. She might want to talk about and process this with someone else—a friend or trusted family member or therapist—so make sure she knows that it’s OK for her to seek support from anyone she needs to. Remember that you’ve had many years to think about and reckon with everyone’s choices, but your daughter will only be beginning that process now. Be honest, be patient, try to put her feelings and needs before your own, and give her whatever time and help she needs to come to terms with this.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My children (10, 8, 6, and 5) have been attending school virtually since March. Our 5-year-old misses his friends and the in-person nature of school, but has been doing very well in long-distance kindergarten. He’s always been a little bit behind (within normal parameters) for self-regulating and similar skills, but he’s not regressed too much.
My mother-in-law moved in with us in August, for the foreseeable future, and my partner and I have noticed that she treats the 5-year-old differently than she did the others at the same age, especially when it comes to discipline. He is generally happy, though definitely not an easygoing child. However, she is much stricter with him in what we feel is not an age-appropriate manner, and she doesn’t deny treating him differently. It’s because “all she sees is an angry child who’s headed down a bad path and needs serious help NOW.” He’s a 5-year-old who misses his friends and school. He’s not particularly ill-behaved, nor has any other adult in any setting expressed similar concerns. His reaction to her discipline is to escalate his upset behavior.
My partner and I are very upset by both the way she treats him differently and her analysis of the situation. We’ve tried to speak with her, individually and together, and have not gotten anywhere. We have tried to tell her to call one of us in to discipline him, but she does not do so consistently. Any advice on how to deal with this divide?
Dear Seeking Fairness,
Of course your child is upset and angry—a member of his family has chosen to be obnoxious to him and him alone! Yes, there are grandparents who play favorites and even grandparents who are downright hostile, but to have this daily negative impact on his life, in his household (at a time when he cannot even get out and go to school for part of the day!), is just an impossible, unsustainable situation for your kid. Even if your MIL were right about him needing more help or support, the course would then be for her to discuss this calmly and respectfully with you, not try to intimidate him into being whatever her version of an ideal 5-year-old is.
She needs to hear and understand how seriously upset you and your partner are about this, and that it is unacceptable to specifically target your youngest child and discipline him in ways that you, his parents, don’t find appropriate. Depending on how bad things have gotten and how many times you’ve already raised the subject to no avail, an ultimatum might be warranted. Your house, your kids, your rules—your MIL can treat all your children with basic decency, or she shouldn’t be sharing a roof with them. I don’t know what her inappropriate “discipline” looks like, but if she has ever struck your 5-year-old, of course you shouldn’t allow her to be around him. If what she’s doing has escalated to emotional abuse, that could also damage your son’s behavior and development, his self-esteem, and his ability to feel safe and loved. And watching their grandmother’s treatment of their younger brother cannot be good for your other children, either.
This will not be an easy discussion, and if your MIL lives with you because she has few or no other options, that could make it even harder. But your obligation to your 5-year-old child, to his mental and emotional health and well-being, outweighs your obligation to a grown adult—even a parent.