Care and Feeding

My SIL’s “Baby” Might Endanger My Actual Baby

A dog looks forward.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by GlobalP/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 cannot stand to be around my sister-in-law’s dog. I love dogs, and I even love this dog. I was her frequent caregiver for the first few years of her life, and she was at that time very well-behaved, if occasionally barking in overexcitement or chewing something she shouldn’t. But lack of discipline over the last few years has taken its toll. The dog bites another elderly dog in the family multiple times during each visit, so that dog is understandably terrified of her. She barks at a shrill level for up to an hour. She has bitten multiple people in the family multiple times and resource-guards food. She no longer understands the word “no” and is never chastised for her behavior, only placated. In other words, she is the very definition of an incredibly spoiled small dog.

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The issue is that I am now pregnant, and I don’t trust this dog around my baby. And not only do I not trust the dog, I don’t trust anyone in the family to intervene appropriately, since they clearly don’t consider her a threat. I care about this dog! I think it must be miserable for her to be so poorly behaved, and I know if she ever bit anyone outside the family she’d be put down, which would be terribly sad for everyone. But my in-laws seem to see discipline (just normal boundaries and training, not anything punitive) as being mean to the dog, whereas I see it as fundamentally kind. It makes me concerned about how they will treat my child, frankly. And while I treat this dog just as well as the other dog in the family, I refuse to reward her when she’s bitten someone or is barking at top volume. I’m tired of being treated like the bad guy when I know this specific dog is capable of behaving well when she has someone around to set limits. Any advice, or maybe a script? The dog is everywhere anyone in the family is because the dog is my sister-in-law’s “baby,” and I’m very sympathetic to that, but I’m also very concerned for my actual fragile human baby.

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–At the End of My Leash

Dear AtEoML,

There are several different issues here. Let’s deal with the actual fragile human baby first. If you don’t feel that your baby will be safe around your sister-in-law’s dog, do not bring the baby to any gatherings where the dog will be present. If this means you have to stay away from all family gatherings, so be it. Your family will be angry and tell you you’re being overprotective (I assume), but that’s nothing compared to keeping your infant safe. And you can absolutely make a rule that the dog is not allowed in your home. If your sister-in-law refuses to visit under those circumstances, that’s her prerogative (and, once again, if this causes a family crisis, they—and you, of course, because I’m not suggesting this will be easy for you—will just have to deal with it).

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But then there is the matter of the dog. You don’t mention how old she is, or how old she was when these troubling behaviors first kicked in. You don’t mention how serious these bites are, either. And you conflate barking and biting, which are troubling behaviors of entirely different orders—and you are suggesting that a dog who bites just needs a firm hand and a stern talking-to, which has not been my experience. Whether this dog’s problematic behavior is the result of being “spoiled” (a term I admit to disliking, whether we’re talking about dogs or children; in this case let’s agree to call it “poorly trained”) or the late onset of a previously hidden genetic predisposition to aggression—or a combination of the two—your sister-in-law needs to consult a veterinarian who specializes in animal behavior and to work with a trainer recommended by the behaviorist. If she refuses to—if she continues not to take her dog’s problems seriously—this is going to end in tragedy, just as you say. And in the meantime—also as you note yourself—even if she and others in the family continue to accept the dog’s biting as part of the ordinary course of events, the dog herself must be miserable. Happy dogs don’t bite.

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All you can do is lay this all out for your sister-in-law—you can’t force her to do the right thing. I don’t have a “script” for you, because I think what you say and how you say it will be shaped by your relationship with her (which I get the sense from this letter is not great). I also don’t see any mention of how exactly it is that this sister-in-law is related to you: is she married to one of your siblings? Is she married to one of your partner’s siblings? Is her spouse someone you might be able to talk to? Is yours a possible intermediary? If you have no choice but to talk to her yourself, I would avoid any mention of “spoiling,” lack of discipline, placating, or any other judgment-laden terms. I would focus on how unhappy the poor dog is, how much you love her (please do not wax poetic about how much better-behaved she was when you had a role in her care), and how you dread the possibility of her biting someone outside the family, which—if serious enough to require medical attention—would automatically generate a police report and might well result in her being euthanized without anyone she loves, and who loves her, present. That might be enough to shake up your sister-in-law.

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I think the final issue is that of your relationship with her and with “the family,” as you describe it: everyone ganging up on you, you being the “bad guy.” Which is likely to get much worse when you ban the dog after the birth of your child. Is there anything that can be done about this? Can you all sit down to a conversation to clear the air and talk honestly with one another about the ways in which things have devolved? Or is this a situation that requires distancing yourself, or even cutting off contact? Only you know the answer to that question.

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From this week’s letter, “My First-Grader Is Saying the Strangest Thing About His School Friends:” “Is it a bid to get more of my attention? Is it a sign of something else?”

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our second child is now 9 months old, and she will likely be our last. I’m still breastfeeding her, though she eats well and takes a bottle when she’s at daycare. I love the time we spend together when I’m feeding her and would be happy to continue until she loses interest. The problem is that my libido has been less than zero since the baby was born, and it’s starting to take a toll on my marriage. Before kids, we were pretty hot and heavy, and that was an important part of our relationship. My husband hasn’t pressured me to stop breastfeeding, but he has a high enough sex drive that I know our very occasional and unenthusiastic fumblings are not sufficient for him, and things have been a bit tense between us. I think he’s feeling rejected despite my explanations about hormones, etc. So I feel like I have to make a decision. Do I give up breastfeeding to bring sexy back? I know (or maybe just hope?) that sexy will eventually come back, but breastfeeding never will, so it feels a bit unfair for me to have to choose.

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–Lactating and Libido-less

Dear LaL,

I think it’s more than a bit unfair. And I think you and your husband would benefit from a heart-to-heart. I know the dimensions of this decision look like you’re choosing between your baby and your husband (and I’m guessing there are plenty of armchair advice columnists reading this who will think you’re playing with fire if you don’t pay more attention to your marriage), but it seems to me you’re just plain right to want to continue nursing your baby until she loses interest. You love the time you spend feeding her this way (and I can guarantee that she does too) and the health benefits of continuing to breastfeed if you can—and you want to—are significant for both you and the baby (immune-boosting and nutritional benefits for her, and for you a reduced risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and diabetes). Tell your husband all of this. Don’t just refer vaguely to hormones “etc.”  And if he agrees that all of that is important but doesn’t understand why it precludes hot sex, answer him honestly. Are you feeling “touched out”?  Are you exhausted? Are the demands on you pulling you in too many different directions at once? (I will also note that while breastfeeding is no doubt contributing to your low libido, your exhaustion is most likely a big contributor too, and weaning your daughter may not help as much as you think it will.) Do you need some time to just be, and does sex right now feel like nothing more than another item on a list you have to check off? Do you too miss the sex you used to have—and believe/hope you will again? Can you commiserate with him? Can you remind him how much you love him and reassure him that the relationship the two of you have is important and strong enough to weather a period of “fumbling”? I don’t know which of the above is true for you—and I’m guessing there’s a longer list to be made, too—but I do not think that putting your needs and your baby’s ahead of his right now is a death blow to a marriage. Not if it’s a marriage with a solid foundation.

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Now, if what you want is advice about how to keep your husband sexually satisfied while he waits this out—as long as it takes—you’ve come to the wrong columnist. Try How to Do It with that question.

• 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,

As a child, I was heavily involved in amateur theater and was a regular cast member in performances put on by a local theater troupe. My parents drove me to and from rehearsals but wouldn’t come to performances, saying that they found musical theater boring and knew they wouldn’t enjoy it. After a lot of begging—and maybe some tantrums—on my part, they did attend one show, but during intermission they texted me to say they were going to leave and get dinner. I ran out of the theater in full costume and begged them to stay. It was humiliating.

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After-show meet-and-greets were particularly awkward and painful for me: on opening night, everyone else’s parents would arrive and wait for them after the show, often with flowers and chocolates. My parents were never there, so I hovered around the parents of a friend until my own pulled up in the car park to collect me. Their attitude wasn’t limited to my theatrical productions, either. It extended to school awards nights, talent shows, debate meetings, sports, and anything else that involved their attending as part of an audience.

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As an adult, I can now understand that many of the things I asked my parents to attend probably would have been boring for them. But I assume, too, that that’s kind of what parenting is, and that my childhood friends’ parents were doing what good parents do, which includes doing things that are not your cup of tea, to support your kids and because it’s the right thing to do. What galls me is that my parents seem to have figured this out—too late for me, but just in time for my niece. They attend all her school events. They’re first in line at any assembly in which she has even the smallest role, and they talk endlessly about how talented she is. My niece is great and I don’t begrudge her this attention at all, but I can’t help feeling slighted. Don’t my parents remember repeatedly rejecting me when I asked for their support throughout my childhood? Why have they changed their tune now? Can I bring this up constructively, or is it my lot to deal with it and let it go?

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–Thespian

Dear Thespian,

I am truly sorry your parents were such jerks when you were a kid. And I’m glad for your niece, and for your niece’s mother or father (I assume your parents didn’t attend your sibling’s shows, games, debates, and other events either—that it wasn’t just yours they blew off), that they seem to be trying to make up for it now. Or at least that they’ve figured out that it’s important to children to have the adults in their lives show up for them.

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It’s possible, of course, that they haven’t figured anything out. Maybe as grandparents it’s just easier for them (being a grandparent is easier for a lot of pretty bad or just mediocre parents, who do a much better job when the heat isn’t on them). Or maybe they have a lot more time on their hands now. Maybe they’re so bored that doing something they know will bore them doesn’t seem so bad to them. Or maybe they really have changed their tune, as you say, and learned how to be a loving, supportive presence in a child’s life.

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You’ll never know unless you ask them. Do I think this conversation will go well? No, I must tell you that in fact I don’t. They will almost certainly dislike being called on the carpet. They will be insulted. They will be defensive. They may think—they may say—that you should get over yourself: that you’re all grown up now and it’s ridiculous for you to be holding on to these old grudges.

Be that as it may, I think if it will make you feel in the least bit better, you ought to tell them how you feel and ask them why they couldn’t bring themselves to show up for you. Even if it gets you nowhere but into an argument—or leaves everyone in tears—you will have gotten it off your chest. I am a big fan for getting things off one’s chest.

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But in the end, yes, it is your lot to deal with it. Letting it go won’t be easy, but it can be done. A therapist would probably be a great help with that.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mom, and I can’t afford a lot of extra stuff. My sister, who has no children, offered to take my son on a last-minute vacation to one of those happiest places. She told me I did not need to pay for anything or give him any spending money. Which I didn’t. When my other sister learned about this, she flipped out. She said it was rude of me—she couldn’t believe I hadn’t sent him off with some cash, at least—and accused me of taking advantage of our sister. She was appalled that I’d relied on “someone else to feed [my] child every day.” I did send him with some snacks of his own, but now I’m embarrassed that I didn’t also give him some money for meals. I wish I had! Should I offer to reimburse my sister at least some of the cost of feeding him by paying her over time? What is proper in this kind of situation?

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–Don’t Want to Take Advantage

Dear DWtTA,

What’s proper in this kind of situation is to thank your son’s lovely and thoughtful aunt for this generous gift. She wouldn’t have made the offer if she didn’t mean it, would she? Is there any reason to believe that she felt cornered into taking her nephew on an all-expenses-paid trip?

One isn’t “taking advantage of” someone when one gratefully accepts a gift. I hope your son had fun, thanked her himself, and will remember this experience forever. I hope your sister had fun with him. I can’t tell you why your other sister is being so awful now, whether this is out of character for her or just par for the course—whether she has children of own and is resentful that their auntie hasn’t offered to take any of them to Disneyland, whether you and she have a long history of sibling rivalry or your sisters do, or all three of you have some ongoing issues that this somehow stirred up. Or maybe this has nothing to do with you at all but set something off in her. You have nothing to be embarrassed about, you did nothing wrong, and you most certainly should not offer to reimburse the sister who told you she would be glad to pay for everything. I would not engage with the angry sister on this subject at all. If you must say something—if she keeps bringing it up—try, “Thanks for your input,” and then change the subject. The truth is that this is none of her business.

—Michelle

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