Dear Care and Feeding,
I started dating my boyfriend “Benny” less than two years ago. After six months together, he revealed a huge secret: he has FIVE children! He explained at the time that he hadn’t told me sooner because in the past, women he’d just started dating took the news badly and walked away before anything could develop between them. And I’ll admit that if I’d known, I would have done the same thing. I had reservations about dating men with kids, and five of them would have seemed way too daunting. However, because I’d fallen for him by the time he broke the news to me, I decided to give him and his kids a chance. Now, after a lot of soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is indeed a deal-breaker. Ever since the reveal, our relationship has pretty much revolved around his kids.
We haven’t gone on a real date in months because he wants us to bond. While I don’t hate his kids (ages 7 through 15), I’m not particularly fond of them, especially the preteens and teenagers, who seem to resent me. His ex-wife doesn’t like me either, and I’m no fan of hers. I’m worried about my future because I may want kids of my own some day and Benny (obviously!) isn’t fully on board for more kids. And I suppose the bottom line is that, frankly, I don’t see myself as a stepmom. The stepfamily dynamic doesn’t appeal to me, and I fear I might show favoritism towards my own children if we did have them, which would lead to issues for all the kids, not to mention in our relationship. But how do I end things with Benny? He might know the real reason I’m breaking up with him—no matter what excuse I give him—and a part of me thinks this is his fault anyhow for not telling me sooner.
If you don’t see a future with Benny (and it’s obvious you don’t), don’t beat around the bush. Don’t make up an excuse about why you’re ending the relationship. Tell him the truth: You can’t see your way clear to being involved long-term with a man who has five children. Period.
Telling him the truth does not mean be unkind. If he asks you to elaborate on—or wants to debate with you over—how you feel, don’t participate in that futile exercise. “I just can’t, I’m sorry” is sufficient “explanation” given that anything else you say will not be constructive. Don’t offer a parting shot about how this is all his fault anyway, and that he could have spared you both a lot of heartache if he’d told you sooner that this was a package deal (he knows that; he’s been there). Don’t be cruel about his children (it’s probably clear, anyway, both to him and them, that you’re not fond of them).
I’m sure on some level he knows he should have told you sooner than six months in. Unfortunately, the lesson he is most likely to take from this is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” But he should be eliminating potential romantic partners, early on, who are not interested in participating in the raising of his children. That would be the sane, smart thing to do, even if it means that he’ll remain single for a long time to come. His kids are his priority, and they should be. And who knows? He may one day meet someone who is as open to falling in love with his kids as to falling in love with him. Stranger things have happened.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’ve raised my 16-year-old daughter to be well-mannered, kind, and caring. I’ve also taught her to be strong and independent and not to care what other people think—and, for the most part, this has served her well. Unfortunately, she’s taken it further than I expected. She refuses to read her audience (swearing in front of her grandparents, for example, or dressing ultra-casually for a wedding). She says I brought her up to be her own person, and if people don’t like her, then it’s their loss. I agree … to a certain extent. While it’s her choice how to respond to the feedback she receives in everyday situations, I do worry that she’s turning people off with her “take me as I am” attitude. But I’m especially concerned about what will happen once she’s in “the real world,” when there are going to be real consequences. I feel like I somehow missed giving her an essential part of the message as she was growing up. Is there a way to dial back what I’ve taught her so that she doesn’t ruin her chances for jobs, college admission, or other important opportunities?
—Missed the Mark
Is it any consolation to you if I tell you I was a “take me as I am” kid, insisting on wearing a flannel shirt (with the top four buttons undone, to boot) for my high school yearbook photo? And while I don’t recall swearing in front of Grandma, I was airily dismissive to her—the person I loved most in the world—during this thankfully brief period of horribleness.
This is all by way of saying that if you raised your daughter to be kind and caring as well as independent, this ugly period will pass. My best counsel is to ignore it (because calling her out, or, worse, getting sucked into an argument with her, will definitely prolong the behavior). She’s 16, not 6: she can take the heat herself from whoever she offends. If her grandmother doesn’t like her cursing, let Grandma say something, in the moment—don’t have a talk with her about it later; if she dresses for a wedding in jeans and t-shirt, don’t make her go back into her room and change—let her go to the wedding dressed as she pleases and let natural consequences take their toll. I know this (at least the latter) sounds cruel—she’s likely to feel terrible and I know you don’t want that for her—but it addresses the real issue. Which is that at 16 she’s old enough to be responsible for her own behavior, and to deal with the results of it. I know you feel it’s a reflection on you. You’re going to have to let that go.
I am 99 percent sure she knows exactly what you meant when you taught her the value of standing up for herself and being independent and strong. I am also 99 percent sure that what she’s up to right now is intentionally doing what she can to get under your skin, pushing your buttons and getting you where she knows it’ll hurt most. She’s also testing the boundaries of what it means to “not care” what anyone around her thinks in a pretty low-stakes way.
Try not to worry about the future and all those important opportunities you fear she’ll miss out on. Now is exactly the right time and way for her to be acting out. She’ll get it out of her system, just as I did. (And if my dad had managed to pull off what my grandmother did—coolly not taking the bait—I bet I would have buttoned my shirt sooner.)
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From this week’s letter, My Shy, Straight-A Kid Just Got Caught Doing Something Horrible at School: “Is this just a good kid pushing the boundaries as she enters “tweenhood” or a cry for help?”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a question that won’t become relevant for a couple of years, but is currently consuming a lot of my brain power. My father recently, and very suddenly, died. One slender silver lining in my grief is that my daughter is only 9 months old and thus isn’t experiencing this great loss. While I’m heartbroken that she won’t remember her grandfather, I’m grateful I don’t have to explain his death to her … yet. It has occurred to me that one day she’s likely to ask where my dad is, or why she has two grandmas but only one grandad. I’ve seen other parents deal with this by explaining that “grandad is in heaven,” but I’m not religious and neither is any of my family. We don’t believe in an afterlife. I can’t even say that he was very ill and didn’t get better, because he wasn’t! He just dropped dead one day while making a cup of tea, and obviously I can’t tell a small child that! How will I explain his death to her?
—Bereaved in Blighty
I am very sorry to hear about your father’s sudden death. Losing a parent one loves is a terrible blow at any time, but for someone who is still young it is especially hard to bear. I want to gently suggest that worrying about how you will be able to explain this death to your (future) toddler is not really about her at all. It’s just the form your grief is taking right now. I imagine that thinking as much as you are about this “problem” is partly a way of deflecting some of your overpowering sadness and partly a way of rephrasing the unanswerable question you have—the question we all have when someone dear to us dies—how could this have happened?
There are no good answers to this question. Those of us who don’t believe in heaven can’t comfort ourselves with the image that the people we’ve lost are still somewhere waiting for us, that we’ll see them again someday. We have to do the hard thing and find a way to accept that everyone dies—that there is no life without death—and that we must go on anyway.
That is, of course, too stark a message for a child if delivered plainly. The question of how to talk to small children about death will be answered in stages and in multiple ways at once. As you point out her grandfather in family photos, as you tell stories that feature him, as you keep the memory of him alive in your day-to-day life, the fact that he does not walk among us will be obvious to your daughter: She will ask where he is, and you can tell her matter-of-factly that “sadly, he died when you were still a baby.”
Some children latch on to the idea of death and won’t let go (I’ve written about this before), and some don’t start to seriously ask questions about it until they are much older. Let your daughter take the lead in these conversations. I can tell you that Tomie dePaola’s Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs helped me talk to my then 2-year-old about death. And a book I have mentioned frequently in this column, Maud Hart Lovelace’s beautiful Betsy-Tacy, handles death in a graceful, artful way for those a little older. Best of all is E.B. White’s masterpiece of a children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web.
Right now, the thing to do is take care of yourself. From one fatherless person to another, I can tell you that although you will miss him for the rest of your life, the sharpest pain of this loss will dull with the passage of time. Be gentle and patient with yourself. I send my love.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I (we’re both women) are at a crossroads when it comes to figuring out allowance/budgeting/car stuff for our oldest son, who just turned 15. We have two younger children, and it would really make life easier if the 15-year-old would be able to help with carpool, after-school sports chauffeuring, etc. (in addition to getting himself to/from school) next year when he gets his license. I am of the opinion that we should get him an old-but-still functional car and build in “non-negotiables” like safety rules and helping out with family carpooling. My wife has a totally different idea. She thinks we should pay him for doing these errands, but have him pay us each month for a “car payment”—obviously much less than an actual car payment, but just enough to get him into the habit of doing this so that someday, when he has real car payments to make, he’ll be used to it. I hate her idea. I think it’s super capitalist and seems very transactional. I’d prefer he do the carpooling because he is a member of this family and needs to contribute to its communal welfare. I also think it sends the wrong message if we pay him. After all, couldn’t he just opt out of carpooling if he believes we’re not paying him enough? Who’s to say he couldn’t just decide his own time is worth more than the money, leaving us back at square 1?
Needless to say, this argument is also exposing some differences in our values. My wife works in finance and is committed to what she considers pragmatism, while I’m a social worker and would prefer to develop our son’s character habits completely separate from a financial incentive. What say you?
—To Pay or Not to Pay
For what it’s worth, I agree with you (with one caveat: whether your teenaged son is being paid or not, he may “just opt out” at some point; it may be wishful thinking to be certain that he’ll be so committed to his daily contributions to family welfare that he can be relied upon to fulfill all obligations without complaint). But my agreement with you—or rather, the fact that in your shoes I would opt to do things your way—is in a sense beside the point, since this is a matter about which, as is oft said, reasonable people may disagree.
The more pressing (and it will be ongoing! I’m amazed that it hasn’t come up before now) matter is that you and your wife, both reasonable people, have different worldviews, if not values, and you are both digging in hard right now. The ruling from an advice columnist about “who’s right”—which reflects nothing more than my own particular worldview (and probably my own shortcomings, too) is not going to help you come to terms, which you need to do. You two have got to sit down and have a good long talk and figure out together how you’re going to navigate child-rearing going forward.
Begin from your place of agreement—your shared values and goals for your children. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that your wife, in addition to wanting your son to learn financial management skills, also wants him to grow up to be a good person and to have a sense of responsibility toward his family and community; I am guessing, too, that you, along with wanting him to contribute to family welfare and participate in the daily work of your family’s life—to build character and help him become emotionally and psychologically mature—also want him to learn how to handle and manage money. Character-building and money management skills—goodness as a human being and financial wellness (as they call it at my university, where it is taught to sophomores in an excellent opt-in program)—do not have to be mutually exclusive undertakings. Nor do teaching social responsibility and pragmatism—or emotional intelligence and fiscal acuity. As all three of your children grow up, don’t you both want to set them on a path toward all of these? Surely you and your wife can work together to figure out how to do this.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I want to have our first kid soon. Before we start trying, we need to figure out how to handle my mother. We aren’t close at all. But she’s learned that there will probably be a kid eventually, and she’s become obsessed with moving near me and being “Grandma’s Babysitting Service,” which I don’t want at all. What should I do?