Care and Feeding

My In-Laws Think I Play Favorites With My Family

Sad woman sitting with her elbow on her knee, resting her head in her hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Prostock-Studio/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 am a parent to two very young children—thus too young to be eligible for a vaccine—so we are trying to limit their exposure to COVID, sticking to gatherings only of vaccinated people. I am completely aware that it is a personal choice to be vaccinated, and that I cannot infringe my preferences on anyone else. But things have become complicated. In my large family, everyone has been vaccinated; in my husband’s (an only child) small family, his parents have elected not to get the vaccine. Because of this, we now see my family regularly but have not seen his family in person since the beginning of the pandemic and don’t plan to until either our young children or they are vaccinated. This is a decision that both my husband and I are on board with—we made these boundaries together as our children’s parents. I think you might be able to see where this is going. His parents are getting very upset with us as they feel we are “choosing” my family over his. It doesn’t help that even pre-pandemic my husband’s family was just not as close or interactive as mine. We have continually offered them virtual venues to interact with us, but his parents have been declining them (perhaps out of resentment?). This is extra loaded given that one of our children was born during the pandemic (so my husband’s parents have never met this child in person). Any tips about what to do with this growing difficult dynamic? Especially considering that we will likely have to navigate the holidays this year without a vaccine for our children?

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—Antisocial Until Antibodies

Dear AUA,

I don’t agree that being vaccinated against COVID should be a “personal choice,” though I recognize the politics around this misguided idea. It exhausts me to have to say yet again that a vaccine against a deadly disease that has killed 3.81 million people (and counting) around the world, and that has already proven to be effective at preventing more deaths, is one everyone should avail themselves of unless they are unable to for other health reasons—period. But I get it (I guess): you are trying to appease your in-laws by being understanding of what they insist is a “choice.” I am doing my best, too, not to be angry with people I know and like who refuse to be vaccinated as a matter of (what they believe to be) principle. But then I don’t have children too young to be vaccinated. If I did, I would keep those children far away from them.

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I’m sorry to say—because I know you were hoping for some magic words—that I have no tips for you beyond urging you to tell them (one more time?) something like this: “Our first responsibility is to keep our children alive and healthy. And since anyone who isn’t vaccinated may be able to infect them with COVID, even if they don’t know they are infected because they are free from symptoms of the disease, I’m sorry to say that we’re not going to be able to see you in person. This makes us very sad. We wish we could get them vaccinated now so that they could interact in person with their unvaccinated grandparents! Since we can’t, the only possible solution is for you to be vaccinated.” That’s their personal choice: if they want to see their grandkids, they’ll have to step up and do the right thing. If they can’t bring themselves to—if seeing their grandchildren isn’t important enough to them to override whatever ideas they insist on nurturing against all logic, good sense, and science—well, they’ve made that choice. You’re not “infringing on their preferences” (or “rights,” in the tiresome language I keep hearing). You’re asking them to decide between a stand they’ve taken and the opportunity to spend time with their son and his family.

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I wish you luck and fortitude. And the hope that vaccine trials for children 2-11, which have now begun, bring us good news before the holidays.

• 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,

I am at the end of my rope with my parents. Both my mom and dad have high risk conditions which make them extremely vulnerable to COVID, but they’ve bought into the hoax conspiracy theories and refuse to get vaccinated or take any precautions at all. I am vaccinated, but I won’t visit them until they get vaccinated too because I cannot handle the guilt if they died from a virus I exposed them to. They think I’m letting politics affect my relationship with them (again), but I think it’s the other way around. If I stay on the phone with my mom longer than 15 minutes, it turns into a political rant not only about COVID closures but parroting really racist, xenophobic, and homophobic Fox News topics. My dad is more hardcore in his beliefs, but we don’t really talk except to exchange holiday greetings. (And, for reference, my parents are white, and I am not.) I cut my parents off after the 2016 election when they voted for Trump, on the condition that we only reconnect if they understand why that was not only generally wrong, but why it hurt me personally. After three months of silence, my mom apologized (my dad never did), and I thought they (or at least she) valued me more than their political beliefs, but they voted for Trump again in 2020.

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All of our conflict was compounded by me asking them about a year ago to apologize for siding with the person who sexually assaulted me as a child. They both denied that it ever happened, and ignored my wish for no contact with that person. I should have cut ties with them then, but my mom was undergoing serious medical issues at the time, and I felt obliged to see her through them. My much older sister cut them off almost 20 years ago and chose to be homeless rather than live with them, and I understand her choice better every day. This COVID business might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It hurts to admit it, but they have a right to their own opinions, and they’ve clearly chosen not only their opinions but their delusions over me, right? Am I giving up on my relationship with them too easily? Or am I deluding myself that they’ll ever choose differently?

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—Ready to Give Up

Dear RtGU,

This letter breaks my heart. If you gave up on your relationship with them, it certainly wouldn’t be giving up “too easily”—it’s clear to me that you love them and want to have a relationship with them, or you wouldn’t still have one. That sense of obligation to help your mother through her medical challenges last year? I don’t think you would have done that if you didn’t want to keep your mother in your life.

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But as strongly as I feel about vaccination against COVID, I don’t think that should be the final straw. What I mean is, you shouldn’t use it as the last straw. And for me there’s a little red flag in the specific nature of your concern: that you wouldn’t be able to handle your “guilt” if you unknowingly exposed them and they died. The chances of that are infinitesimally small, we now know. And if you can’t shake the idea that you, despite being vaccinated, might expose them, you can always insist on outdoor get-togethers; you can even wear a mask and stay six feet away. I just don’t think that’s the point, even though it’s the point you’re focusing on.

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I believe it’s worth one more explanation to them about how much they have hurt you and continue to hurt you. I’m a great proponent of putting this sort of thing in a letter, though I know that’s not everyone’s jam. A letter gives its recipient a chance to absorb the message and takes away the opportunity to lash out, in the moment, in response to it. A letter can be read over and over again until its message sinks in.

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If you do write to them, it should be directed to both of them, not just your mother. And if you can’t write a letter—if writing isn’t a comfortable way for you to express yourself—I urge you to have this conversation in person (again—outdoors, if you’re worried, but somewhere private, since there will probably be yelling and tears). If there’s going to be a “last straw,” it should be their response to a bigger and longer-standing problem.

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And if they cannot bring themselves to prioritize their relationship with you—to prioritize you—you will need to make a hard decision. I recognize that this decision would not be equally hard for everyone—that I have readers who are at this moment thinking, NOT HARD—CUT THEM OFF PRONTO. But as I say, you would have done that long ago if it were that easy for you. You may decide that this relationship is too hurtful to continue, and I would support that. You may decide to keep it in a very constrained way (certain topics off limits; brief contact only at specific and limited times), and I’d support that too. The only decision I would not encourage is that you keep things going the way they have been. It’s not healthy for you. So give them one more chance—and then decide how to proceed if they disappoint you again. Which I fear they will but very much hope they won’t.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Before schools shut down in spring of 2020, the parents of my 9-year-old daughter Evie’s best friend, Casey, suggested we create a learning pod. We have been splitting kid duty ever since, and I don’t know what my family would have done without this arrangement. When we started this, the kids loved it and referred to each other as sisters. But now here we are, 14 months later, and their relationship has become strained (which I knew might happen). My daughter is sick of spending so much time with Casey, and she hates when people talk about them as a unit. Casey does not seem to want to ease up on the friendship, but Evie is done. Every day at the dinner table there is an unloading of all that Casey did or said that was annoying.

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I’m not pushing Evie to remain close to Casey, only to be kind. I know childhood friendships don’t always last, but I hate that forced proximity has damaged their once warm relationship. Is there anything I can do to help undo this damage, or is it too late? How can our families remain friendly (we adults are good friends and have taken family vacations together) if my daughter needs distance?

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—Disappointed in DC

Dear DiD,

You can’t undo the damage, and I don’t think you should try. Children change as they grow older, and they can change at different rates and in different directions. This friendship might have come apart naturally even if the two kids had not been together all the time for over a year. But that’s neither here nor there. If your daughter doesn’t want to be Casey’s friend anymore, so be it. I applaud you for insisting that she be kind, but be careful to spell out exactly what you mean by “kind” (it isn’t clear to me), so that Evie understands that you aren’t pushing her to remain in a relationship that makes her unhappy.

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If you are still in a pod, still sharing child care, it’s time to put an end to that. Forcing Evie to spend any time at all with Casey is a terrible idea (and of course it’s possible that if she isn’t forced to, Casey’s charms might become obvious to Evie again). As to the question of how the families can remain friendly: the adults can continue to be friends. Leave the two 9-year-olds with (vaccinated) sitters and go out to dinner, for heaven’s sake. Being parents doesn’t mean you forfeit the right to have friends of your own choosing. Don’t make a big deal out of this to the kids. (If Casey’s parents have no interest in being friends with you and your partner if Casey and Evie are no longer friends, they weren’t your friends to begin with. And if they are angry with you for allowing your daughter the autonomy to make her own decisions about whom she wants to play with, are they really the right friends for you?)

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Dear Kair and Pheading,

I have a problem that is an utterly bizarre variant of the old dibs-on-a-baby-name issue. My twin sister and I got pregnant around the same time with our now 7-year-old daughters. My daughter was born first, and I named her after our grandmother “Penelope” (for the sake of example, not the actual name). Twin was dismayed because she wanted to name her daughter Penelope, but I told her it was totally cool with me if she gave her daughter the same name. It’s not like they would have the same middle name or last name, plus maybe sharing a name would make them closer. So she also named her daughter after our grandmother—but with an outlandish spelling along the lines of “Pinnellapee.” This is pretty on-brand for my sister, whose son is named something with the same energy as “Inkjet Prynter.”

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My issue is not with Twin, but with my parents and older siblings and their spouses, who refer to the girls in writing as “the Pinnellapees.” For example, in a group text someone will ask if “the Pinnellapees” want some used books someone found at a yard sale. They do this both to irritate me and to poke fun at my sister (who has never objected), because they could just as easily refer to them as “the P’s” if it were really too onerous to write “Penelope & Pinnellapee.” Is there a way to make them stop this nonsense without letting on how much it bothers me? My husband’s family, who follow this saga like it’s an HBO drama, has suggested I start referring to everyone in my family by a misspelling of their name and just wallow in the weirdness.

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—Pinnellapee’s Aunt

Dear PA,

Wait, wait I have questions. Why do you want to make them stop without letting them know it bothers you? Will they make fun of you for being bothered? Is your whole family 10 years old? Why does it bother you? Why on earth do your in-laws find this interesting? In the name of all that’s holy, tell your family to knock it off if it bothers you so much. Or just get over it because, seriously, who cares?

—Michelle

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Recently, my 7-year-old called out to my husband right before falling asleep. He said: “Daddy, can I tell you something I haven’t told anyone? The world is really hard, and sometimes I think it would be better off if I wasn’t in it.” Is 7 too young to be diagnosed with depression? What should I do?

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