Care and Feeding

Should I Tell My Daughter’s Father My True Feelings?

A woman, seen from the side, puts her hand on her chin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by panic_attack/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the mother of a lovely 2-year-old girl. I’m a younger parent (pregnant at 20), and she was unplanned. Her father is my best friend of many years. Our relationship was never sexual with the exception of one night. Afterward we both decided that we did not want a relationship with each other and that we’re better off friends. A few months later I found out I was pregnant. We both agreed that we would co-parent the child platonically and we have for the past two years. We both have similar parenting values and have remained friendly toward each other. We even spend important days together like her first Christmas, her birthday, etc., so neither parent has to miss out. Despite our less than ideal circumstances I think he’s a very good father to our daughter.

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Lately some of our interactions have felt more than platonic. We’ve been hanging out more frequently without mutual friends or even without our daughter once or twice and we’re more physically affectionate toward each other (hugging, sitting close to each other, “accidentally” brushing up against each other, etc). Some of our mutual friends have also confessed that they think he sees me as more than a friend. I’ve known I had feelings for him for a long time but had accepted that I needed to put those feelings aside for my daughter. I don’t want to complicate our relationship or interfere with our parenting because my daughter is always my priority. But now that I believe he feels the same way I can’t help but want to see where our relationship could go. I feel guilty for even thinking about acting on my feelings. I feel like it would be selfish of me to risk the stable routine and family situation our child is used to. But at the same time, I want so badly to find happiness in a relationship, something I haven’t done since before my daughter was born. Is it worth it to risk my good co-parenting setup for the chance of a romantic relationship with my child’s father?

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—Misguided Mother

Dear Misguided Mother,

It’s very natural to want to pursue a romantic relationship with the father of your child, especially when you already seem to get along as well as you do. It’s also natural that more-than-friend feelings may have developed during the course of the two years you’ve spent sharing bonding moments with and without your daughter present. None of this is selfish, so be kinder to yourself.

It doesn’t hurt to have a direct conversation with your co-parent. Consider it a grown-up, parents’ version of: “I like you. Do you like me?” If what you suspect—that your growing feelings are mutual—is true, then you both have a decision to make. Can you be as mature about slowly transitioning into a romantic partnership with the same grace that you’ve handled co-parenting? If necessary, could you break up and resume the same sort of relationship you’ve enjoyed till now?

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You may find that you both think it’s worth a try. You may find that when you’re being honest with each other you don’t think the risk is worth it in the end. But you won’t know until you’ve both laid your cards on the table.

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Wishing you all the best.

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From this week’s letter, “My Child’s Birth Caused a Shocking Revelation About Who I Am:” “It feels like I’m living in this alternate reality from everyone else.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

When my daughter was 5, our next-door neighbor’s 100 lb dog escaped their yard and came into ours to play. The dog chased my daughter around the yard several times before she ran inside, screaming and crying, convinced the dog was going to “eat” her. I know the dog was playing but my daughter was genuinely traumatized. Fast-forward five years. My daughter is now 10 and continues to be terrified of dogs. We don’t have any pets (not 100 percent due to her fear, but that is a large part of it if I’m being honest).

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The problem is with my in-laws. They adopted a puppy during the pandemic and we have recently resumed visits with them, now that all adults are vaccinated. But every visit so far has fallen apart when the puppy tries to play with us. My daughter freaks out and starts crying, and my in-laws get upset that my daughter doesn’t want to play with the puppy. They then try and convince her it’s safe, she continues crying, and then we give up and leave because the visit just isn’t fun anymore.

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Both my husband and I have asked his parents several times if they’d consider putting the puppy behind a closed door when our family visits. They get extremely offended (“He’s our fourth child! We wouldn’t put a baby behind a door!”) and then start criticizing us for not getting our daughter therapy. I’m annoyed that rather than take a small step to benefit our daughter, my in-laws are turning this into a philosophical debate about animals vs. humans. Can you help us adjudicate this? Who’s right?

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—Done With the Dog

Dear Done With the Dog,

This isn’t a matter of “who’s right.” It’s a matter of mediation. Your daughter has a justifiable fear of dogs, rooted in early childhood trauma. Your in-laws want their dog embraced by the family, because they feel like he’s a family member. If you’re ruling out therapy for your daughter, which is your right, of course (though it may become a good idea in the future if this fear becomes even more debilitating for her), then it’s likely you may have to reapproach how you engage with your in-laws. They don’t seem open to keeping the puppy at bay when your daughter’s around. Can you and your husband do the work of distracting the puppy from jumping on, chasing, or licking your daughter during visits? Can you have another lower-stakes conversation with your in-laws before your next visit to negotiate what might work best for your daughter before you introduce her into the fear-spiking environment of their home again? If neither of those are viable options, you may have to stick to Zoom visits for a bit. Let the in-laws see how serious you are about not forcing your daughter to interact with the puppy before she’s ready.

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As an aside, if you like pets enough to be amenable to owning one, were it not for your daughter’s phobia, it may be safe to assume that your attitude about dogs is more positive than your daughter’s. If you’re interested in helping her overcome her fear—and it’s fine if you’re not; not everyone has to like dogs or want to be around them—I’d like to offer a suggestion. Plan a trip to a local shelter. Before visiting, explain to the workers that you’ll be bringing your daughter who’s afraid of dogs. Ask if they have any dogs you could introduce her to that may be less active/excitable. Explain to your daughter that you’d like to see if she might be able to overcome her fear of dogs if she and the dogs themselves are in a controlled environment where she doesn’t have to fear unwanted physical contact with one. Ease her into the idea that not all dogs will chase her and not all dogs have the same temperament. It’s OK if this experiment fails, but if there’s a chance that she could move forward without a debilitating fear, without the intervention of a counselor or therapist, it might be worth a try.

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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,

My 3-year-old daughter is energetic, bright, and highly verbal—and she’s also been through a lot in the last 18 months (the pandemic, which is very much ongoing where we live, potty-training, a new sister six months ago, and a new classroom in day care about six weeks ago). She is doing a lot of boundary testing, which my husband and I generally address with short timeouts and/or temporary confiscation of a toy for repeated or more serious offenses (e.g., hurting a pet or her sister). But there’s one area in which I’m unsure of how to respond. In the last couple of weeks, she has been very clingy and rough with me physically—climbing on my body, poking my face, grabbing me, then sobbing when I detach myself and put her in time out. I’m torn, because part of me thinks that this could be a moment to start teaching her about consent and touching other people’s bodies. But I’m also worried that she is trying to express a need that I’m not meeting—like most parents, I’ve been pretty stressed and anxious the last 18 months, and I am sometimes impatient and occasionally raise my voice with her. What if she’s doing this because she really, really needs me, and I’m not meeting her needs? How can I thread the needle of supporting her while also making it clear that she needs to respect my physical boundaries just like other people need to respect hers?

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—Reassuring or Enabling?

Dear Reassuring or Enabling,

The part of you that thinks this is a teachable moment is the part that should win out here. Your daughter is going through a ton of transition. She’s a new big sister and a student in a new classroom. She’s potty-training, absorbing the pandemic anxieties going on all around her, and she’s 3, an age where acting out is an appropriate response to the ever-mounting challenges of becoming a big girl.

It’s reasonable for you both to lose your patience from time to time. It’s not OK for her to be violent. Not with you, your household pet, or her baby sister. No matter what needs she has, no matter how they’re being met (or not), she has to be taught that she can’t respond by poking, grabbing, or otherwise hurting anyone.

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If you feel like she is acting out because she wants attention—a very understandable reaction given the new baby on the scene—try to channel that attention-seeking in more positive ways. Set aside some time for the two of you to bond alone—it can even just be while the baby is napping. Spend some time truly focused on her—reading together, playing a game, going to the park, getting a hot cocoa, it doesn’t require much. Sometimes even 10 minutes will do the trick.

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But please understand that this isn’t the time for mom guilt. You have to stay the course you’ve already set and maintain a household where respect for boundaries and personal space is shown and expected. When your daughter is clingy, be intentional about redirecting her attention. When she’s poking and grabbing, firmly remove her hands and let her know that what she’s doing is wrong and there will be a consequence. Follow through on what you’re showing and telling her. Remember that what she’s feeling is temporary, that it’s likely in response to the many changes going on around her, and that it isn’t your fault. If you raise your voice with her in a way that makes you uneasy, it’s appropriate to apologize, but you don’t have to capitulate any further. Even if on occasion, you want to try spending additional one-on-one time with her in response to her frustration, you don’t owe her more proximity or attention when she’s acting out. You owe her a model of what good boundary-setting looks like.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My fiancé and I are trying to decide whether we’re going to have children. I want them, but I also don’t want to have them if he isn’t fully on board, and I’m OK if he decides he isn’t (though I will be disappointed, and he knows that). He’s torn. He likes the idea of having a legacy and helping to guide a young person’s life, but he absolutely hates spending time with kids. They make him anxious and uncomfortable. He hates how much attention they suck from the room. He hates interacting with them. He just can’t stand kids! Once they hit 9 or 10 he’s fine, but until then he’s miserable.

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Everyone says it’ll be different if they’re his kids, but he’s understandably concerned … what if it isn’t? I’m totally stumped. Obviously I’m biased and I’d like to figure out a way to get him more comfortable around kids, but mostly I just want to help give him tools to make this decision and not regret it either way. How can he possibly know if it’ll be “different when they’re his”? Is there some unexplored reason why he hates kids so much that could be resolved? Any ideas?

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—To Kid or Not to Kid

Dear To Kid or Not to Kid,

It doesn’t seem like your fiancé is torn. It sounds like he doesn’t want to raise children. If his only points in the Pros column are abstract concepts like legacy and guiding a young person’s life, and all of the points in his Cons column have to do with the hands-on care of and interaction with children, this isn’t as tough a decision for him as you’re hoping it is. Generations of well-intentioned friends have tried to reassure reluctant people that “it’ll be different when they’re your own kids,” but that is inaccurate far more often than it’s not.

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It’s great that you and your fiancé are exploring these questions before a pregnancy. Many couples don’t deeply consider their attitudes toward day-to-day life with kids until after.

It sounds like a childfree life isn’t a deal-breaker for you, so here’s my suggestion. Ask yourself this: If your husband’s attitude toward children doesn’t change after you have one with him, would you be OK with his misery and taking on the hands-on work of parenting, near-solo, for the first eight years of the child’s life? How would you begin to integrate your partner into the parenting process after he’s avoided spending much time with the child before it reaches an age he can tolerate? Bear in mind that I’m framing these questions this way only because your fiancé’s current attitude toward kids has already painted the picture. He’s told you what you have to look forward to in the event that his position on small children remains unswayed after fathering one of his own. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how amenable he would be to change after the fact. And though you could try to explore how he reached his current opinion on children, knowing the root cause still won’t change his present resolve. He’d have to want to change that. On his own. Please make your decision about procreating with him accordingly.

—Stacia

More Advice From Slate

I am a 34-year-old woman in a same-sex marriage. Four years ago, we went through several rounds of fertility treatment. After the third try, we were terrified and delighted to learn that I was pregnant with twins. Unfortunately, I had a lot of complications during my pregnancy and we lost one of the twins. I gave birth to a happy, healthy baby girl. Should we try for a second child?

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