Care and Feeding

Why Can’t I Handle This Totally Basic Aspect of Motherhood?

Two toddlers sit together looking upset.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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 feel like the most naïve and unprepared mom writing to ask these questions but here goes: How do I bring my kids out to do things? I am having trouble bringing my two toddlers (3 and almost 2) out in the world for seemingly everyday things. We have had basically no practice living life in public thanks to COVID. Trying to bring them to a zoo or a beach frankly overwhelms me. Helping one in a bathroom while towing the other who needs a snack, diaper change or wants to run in another direction gets me frenzied and my anxiety runs high.

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What are practical tips for taking two young children out and about while solo? Stroller or no stroller? Carrying a bag with snacks, diapers, extra clothes and carrying one child while holding hands with the other is physically exhausting, but I have no idea what to do with a stroller during a bathroom run. It seems like I see so many photos on Facebook of moms having a blast with their kids, spending all day at places and always on the go. My kids are really good kids and generally well behaved but are still toddlers who get cranky, hungry, want to go left when I go right, etc …

And what about bedtimes? Adventures usually end up with them asleep during the car ride home, which leads to a horrible night’s sleep and cranky kids the next day. (They thrive on very predictable sleep schedules.) I am usually a type A, organized person but am at a loss with this. I even get overwhelmed if we take a rare trip inside a grocery store, and I can’t find a cart that holds both kids. It feels so silly to write this but it has me questioning whether I am a good mom if this stuff doesn’t come naturally to me.

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—Trying to Make It Work

Dear TtMIW,

Parenting in public can be hard in the best of times, especially when your kids are little and unpredictable. Add COVID and the related morass of rules and issues and inexperience with outside adventures to the mix and you are dealing with a real obstacle course. Outings were a source of huge anxiety to me when my first kid was an infant, and I mean anxiety, not stress: I had panic attacks. Was everyone staring at me when he cried? What would I do if I ran out of diapers? What would I do if he needed to eat and I was stuck someplace where there was nowhere to sit and feed him? Would everyone understand that I had no idea what I was doing?

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Recently I was at the playground with both my kids, now 3 and 6, and the younger one pooped unexpectedly. I had no spare diapers, so I left the older kid playing tag with his most unpredictable acquaintance while I canvassed the playground asking strangers for a pull-up. I didn’t break a sweat while all this was going down and that is because of a combination of factors: I have been doing this for a while now, and I have some baseline confidence built up. Second, a prescribed SSRI has turned the volume wayyyyyy down on my brain’s once-incessant shrieking about how everyone was judging me and everything was about to spiral dangerously out of control.

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Make of that what you will; I am not diagnosing you with clinical anxiety so much as saying that anxiety is a natural response to the situation you’re in and it would be completely understandable if you were experiencing it. If you are, there are lots of options for treatment. Talk to your doctor or a therapist.

In terms of practical tips, I can offer this: stop imagining that the Facebook/Instagram moms are sailing smoothly through their hikes and trips to the zoo. They most assuredly are not, or if they are, they have help in many forms. Take it slowly and set achievable incremental goals. Practice taking both kids to someplace familiar and nearby at a moment when everyone is fed, rested, and in happy moods. Leave before things have a chance to get hairy; you can even set a timer. It’s always, always, always better to quit while you’re ahead. Pick places that make you feel safe and calm; I like being around animals, for example, so petting zoos and animal sanctuaries help ground me when I’m feeling overwhelmed by being my kids’ solo cruise director. You determine the version of this that will work for you.

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Stay alert to your own feelings and needs and let them take precedence over your kids’ whims. Don’t hesitate to strap everyone into a double stroller or carseat as needed so you can take deep breaths, eat a snack, use the bathroom, or call an adult to touch base.  I know it’s corny and clichéd to say put your own oxygen mask on first, but sometimes people repeat advice over and over again because it’s good advice.

Last, remember that there are many different types of parents for many different types of kids. Some parents are happiest when taking their toddlers water skiing, cliff diving, spelunking, or road tripping in an RV, and some are better at taking a trip to the local library to pick out a pile of books to read at home for the rest of the week. It may not feel that way right now, but you’ll find your way and figure out what outings suit your style.

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• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have wonderful in-laws that enjoy spending time with my kids and are open to helping out with kid logistics when they visit. The issue is that communication in my partner’s family is very indirect and people go to great lengths to accommodate others and not offend anyone. This means that being direct can be off-putting or be seen as putting others in an unfair position. Most recently, my in-laws were visiting for a week and called to discuss our schedule. Our kids have camp and school and a few other activities. My in-laws enthusiastically offered to take care of camp pickup for my oldest and two other chunks of time that my partner and I had previously planned to be away. Prior to their offer we had babysitters lined up for everything.

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As we got closer to the week, we got the sense that they weren’t sure they could do all of what they offered, but again, it was not because they told us, it was because my partner inferred it from their tone and language. My partner is the one who communicates with his parents and finally heard from them that they could not do one of the days that he and I had plans, but it was only after gentle questioning on his part and agonizing on theirs that he got them to say they couldn’t do it. We were not mad, we just needed time to find a sitter. So, we set out looking to rebook a sitter. We could not find a sitter and resigned ourselves to taking the kids with us to the event. It was not a big deal to us, just a slight inconvenience. Over the course of the week, my MIL kept checking in to see if we had booked a sitter. Each time my partner said, not yet, he could tell she felt guilty.

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Finally, the day before the event, they said they actually could care for the kids during that time. We are always grateful for their help, but it is so hard to function in this anxious place of indirect communication. My partner is concerned that if he had said, “We need to know by Thursday morning if you can watch the kids on Saturday,” then they would feel pressured to say yes and be put off (but not tell us!). The time spent time looking for sitters and seeing if friends were around to take one or both kids is not difficult, but mentally time consuming. We both recognize that we can’t control how they react to his words, but still feel trapped by managing their feelings. It also creates extra emotional work for us that can weigh down our own communication. Does he just need to bite the bullet and be direct for the sake of family planning sanity at the risk of offending his parents? Or, should we not look a gift horse in the mouth? Help!

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—Passive Polite Predicament

Dear PPP,

Just reading about the scheduling and rescheduling dance that your in-laws put you through gave me a headache. Yes, for heaven’s sake, your husband needs to bite the bullet and communicate directly with his parents. This clearly goes against every fiber of his and their being, and is not how he was raised, but that has got to stop now, at least as far as your family is concerned. They can suffer through some minor hurt feelings, and you can all get to a place where you’re more comfortable being honest and open with each other. Maybe practicing clear communication with low-stakes things like planning and babysitting will help when the time comes to make bigger decisions together, which is an inevitable part of being close family.

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This “gift horse” thing comes up for many families who get child care support from in-laws or other close family members. It can be truly wonderful to have relatives to help care for your kids, but I’ve found it always, always has some hidden cost in hurt feelings, logistical issues, or differences of opinion when it comes to judgment calls, just to name a few possibilities. In an instance where grandparents are special guest stars and not in the regular child care roster, why even bother having them take care of the kids if it comes with inconvenience or agita? Instead, spend time together in ways that everyone enjoys, or let them take care of the kids in a spontaneous way that suits all of you. Whatever is going on here is simply not worth the hassle.

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For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner and I recently found out that we are expecting our first child in March of 2022. Both his and my parents are divorced, and we both have living grandparents, so naturally, timing the announcement to each individual set of family members is tricky and important. My mother, Charlene, figured out the news and confronted me about it before I was ready to tell her. She immediately shared it with her boyfriend of two years, Michael. Michael is not someone who my partner or I get along with or particularly like, and we were stunned to learn that he felt that it was appropriate to pass along the news that we were expecting to his family. My mother relayed this story to me excitedly, even expressing her delight at how he referred to himself as my child’s grandfather. In the moment, I nodded along, but later on, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and annoyed. My partner and I barely know this person, and what we do know of him, we do not find particularly pleasant. However, as a child of divorce, I understand that having more people to love a child is never a bad thing. That said, he is not someone I want to be very involved in my child’s life. Is it worth having a conversation with my mother about our discomfort with Michael thinking of himself as our child’s grandfather, or should we just let it go?

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—Disgruntled by Grandpa

Dear DbG,

Your mom’s telling people you were pregnant before you were ready to let them know was a huge violation of trust, and in my book, her excitement isn’t a great excuse for doing that. You need to steer this relationship back into territory where you feel safe and in control, and that means setting some clear limits with Charlene about how you want this relationship to unfold. Be honest with her about how uncomfortable that made you feel, and if she responds in a negative way, let that guide the way you share information with her from here on out.

Even though it feels icky, I don’t think that it’s a huge deal for Michael to be referring to himself (privately) as your kid’s grandfather to be.  If it comes up again in the future, you can have a tactful but firm talk with your mom about how you’re reserving that title for your husband’s dad, or whatever the case may be. Kids follow their parents’ lead about that stuff, and if Michael is far from a parental figure to you, your kids are unlikely to consider him a grandfather. Telling you about that was just another boundary test from Charlene. In general, as you prepare to become a parent, surround yourself with the support of people who you can trust and count on, whose feelings you don’t have to manage, and keep a safe distance from friends and relatives, even close ones, who stress you out.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a nanny to two siblings, 3 and 5. I love the kids and my job very much. Any issues are minimal and “normal” and for that I am grateful. My problem is with their dad. I am definitely a fan of the authoritative style of parenting, while he is extremely permissive. Like, never says no, won’t set any boundaries except maybe in cases of danger. If they cry, they get what they want. If their request is impossible, he bribes them to stop crying with the promise of a new toy. In the past this wasn’t too much of a problem for me. For one, their dad and I were never home at the same time. Also their mom is more authoritative (I feel like she and I are much more on the same page), and they understand that some adults have different boundaries and expectations, and they act accordingly.

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But now, with him working at home, within earshot of whatever we do, it has become kind of a nightmare. The kids are keenly aware that their dad can hear us, and they know how he operates. Situations that would have been resolved before with calm conversation are now full on meltdowns. If one of them cries, I don’t even get the chance to resolve it myself because he is immediately in the room making it worse.

Then, when they stop crying, they want his time and attention, which he can’t give because he is working. He leaves, and then they’re disappointed and grumpy and I’m left cleaning up his mess. It’s an emotional roller coaster for all of us. If he would leave it to me, these situations wouldn’t even reach the point of tears. His reactions reinforce bad behavior, leave me feeling undermined, and leave the kids bummed their dad can’t hang out with them. I know I can’t tell him how to raise his kids. But I’m also (majorly) helping to raise his kids, and I in fact spend more time with them than he does. Is there any appropriate way to say, “Hey, could you please butt out while I’m here, because you make my job much harder?”

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—Nanny Seeking Harmony

Dear NSH,

To the extent that you feel comfortable being blunt with this dad without putting your job at risk, you need to say to him: “Hey, could you please butt out while I’m here because you make my job much harder?” He needs to hear exactly that, probably in the same patient tone you take with his little kids. Give examples and tell him straightforwardly how far away he needs to be, and how you will signal to him if and when you need his help. If he doesn’t respond well to this, or if he keeps butting in despite your explicitly asking him not to, it’s time to look for a new job, as tough as I know that is. This is the kind of situation that gets worse, not better, without clear communication and a clear course correction.

—Emily

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