Care and Feeding

My Periodic Retreats From My Family Are Making My Kid Upset

How do I explain that my weeks away are not optional?

A person stands with their back to the camera, one hand resting on a suitcase handle.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by SbytovaMN/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 was on the fence about having kids before our marriage. We figured out that with my chronic illness, I probably needed to take some time off to recharge every so often. That turned out to be correct and now, every 3-to-4 months, I take a week off and go to a friend’s cabin.
Screen time can be really draining for me, so I only text my husband once a day to make sure everything is okay, and then it’s pretty much just me, nature, and some good books. Everybody helps my husband out when I’m gone, and my husband gets a couple days off when I get back, which he sometimes uses to go camping or to have a fun time out with his friends. It’s a setup that has worked wonderfully for our family.

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The problem is, my daughter is starting to realize that something about this is weird. She’s 12 and has some friends whose parents occasionally travel for work. They, however, call very frequently. My daughter has started asking more and more questions about where I go and what I do. She always seems somewhat upset with my answers. I’m worried that I’m giving her abandonment issues. Do you have any advice on what to do?

— Worried About Time Off

Dear Worried,

It can be particularly hard for mothers to take time away from our children, regardless of how valid the reasons may be, and unfortunately, media and pop culture don’t provide us with rich examples of moms doing such a thing for work, health, or any other reason. It’s very easy for kids to think that a woman who isn’t around 24/7 is somehow falling short of what the whole mom thing is supposed to be about.

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Your daughter is old enough for a bit of transparency about the nature of your trips. You don’t have to disclose more details of your illness than you want her to know, but she should understand why you need this time, have a general idea of how you are spending it, and, very importantly, why you cannot speak to her at length during these times. Though your retreats may not be as frightful as a days-long hospital stay, you should help her to regard them with the same seriousness—they are not optional—You require this time away for your health, you require it to be the mom she knows and loves, and though you’d probably prefer to be at home if it were up to you, it is not.

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If she isn’t able to receive this over time (and even if she is), you may want to consider therapy for her. Knowing that your beloved parent, the person who cares for you, is unwell can be very scary, and she may need some help processing this information and making peace with the fact that your time away is necessary. Do what you can to be reassuring, but give yourself some grace as well; you are living with chronic illness, caring for a family, and managing a child’s emotions about your recurrent absences. You may need to speak to someone, too, about this tremendous load you’re carrying. Kudos to you and your husband for making your retreats a thing to begin with; a lot of moms wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to care for themselves so radically. Wishing you well.

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From this week’s letter, “My Teen’s Soccer Drama Is Ruining Our Lives:” “One day she’ll come home after practice excited to show off her new skills in the backyard, the next she’ll come home sobbing because she got subbed out in the scrimmage.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question that’s been on my mind for a while. My son is going into eighth grade this year. Last year, we were lucky enough to have in-person school available all year due to fairly low COVID numbers. My son’s public middle school even ran some clubs, including Student Council, which he participated in. Student Council was run by one of the school’s teachers, “Ms. Patton.” According to my son, Ms. Patton made most of the decisions on Student Council. One of her ideas was to start having (socially distanced) school dances during school hours, rather than after school. The idea was that more kids would be able to participate this way, which sounded good to me. However, Ms. Patton also wanted to turn the school dances into fundraisers. She created a system where each student had to donate $3 to “Pandemic Relief Funds” to be allowed into the dance. Student Council members had to collect the money and keep a record of who had paid. Then, they had to stand guard at the doors to the dance. If a student who hadn’t paid tried to come in, they would be turned away and sent to the “homework room.” Again, this dance was DURING SCHOOL HOURS.

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This system seemed wrong to me, since the very kids who needed the “Pandemic Relief Funds” and therefore couldn’t donate to it were the ones being excluded from the dance. I don’t see anything wrong with asking students to donate if they can, but it should be very clearly optional. Apparently, several of the kids on Student Council, including my son, voiced their objections to this plan. My son said Ms. Patton told them that $3 wasn’t very much to ask for and that this was for the good of their community. Seems the administration saw nothing wrong with it either because it continued all year. To be honest, I was simply too overwhelmed during the last year to take this on, but I feel like I should do something if Ms. Patton tries to pull this stunt again. This system is crazy, right? What, if anything, should I do if these school dances/mandatory fundraisers continue?

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— Student Council Chaos

Dear Council Chaos,

From field trips to book fairs, school is often a site for experiences that separate the kids who have and those who have not in really uncomfortable ways: a preview of how capitalism will categorize them for the rest of their lives. However, this is a particularly insensitive way of doing things, especially considering how tenuous social activity has been for children in the past three academic years. I think you should speak to the administration about the fact that these dances can make kids feel bad for being in the very need that the fundraiser seeks to address, and suggest either other ways to raise money for the community, or perhaps other ways for kids to earn attendance if they aren’t able to pay the fee. Hopefully, school leadership has simply been focused on other things, and no one stopped to think about how these parties could be doing more damage than good. Sometimes, a thoughtful parent can make all the difference in the world just by speaking up, even if it feels a little daunting. Good luck to you.

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· If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

Hi, I’m a 16-year-old gay guy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t sit well with my parents, who are extremely homophobic and religious. A year or so ago, they caught me doing makeup, and forced me to come out. When that happened, my dad called me a faggot, and my mom refused to look me in the eye or talk to me for six months. I also had my doors taken off, and I’ve celebrated one year of not having them this August. I’ve begged them to take me to therapy, but they always say they plan an appointment and then it never happens. What can I do to improve my life? I’ve tried almost everything and I’m just hopeless at this point.

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— Hopeless Homo

Dear Hopeless,

I am so sorry this is what you’ve found yourself dealing with by NO fault of your own. Your parents are literal garbage, you are a treasure, and you deserve better. I wish I had a kinder way to say that, but I don’t have empathy for people whose religious and/or social programming can overtake their feelings of love, care, and responsibility for their children. I don’t care if they don’t understand or agree with what they undoubtably misjudge as a choice, they do not get a pass for failing to treat you the way you deserve to be treated. What they are doing is wrong, and I hope you always remember that.

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I want you to understand that it is not your job to convince these people that you deserve respect and dignity, nor to correct their views. Your only responsibility is to yourself, which means surviving the remainder of your time in their care to the best of your ability, planning to leave as soon as you safely can (ideally once you’ve completed high school and only once you’ve secured safe, stable housing), and being as gentle with yourself as you possibly can the entire way.

Your parents may worry that a therapist will (rightfully) support your right to identify as you have; there’s also the possibility that the sort of “professional” they’d want for you would be one who’d have an anti-gay agenda along the lines of conversion therapy. Are you comfortable speaking to an adult at school about your desire to get some counseling? There should be a school psychiatrist available, or someone on staff who can help you connect with a counselor. If you have a teacher that you trust, speak to them for assistance.

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There are national organizations like The Trevor ProjectIt Gets Better, and Everyone Is Gay that provide support for queer and trans youth, and they may also be able to help direct you towards local groups as well. The support of the friends and classmates who accept you for who you are is also something to be treasured; you may find over the course of your life that you’ll be building a family for yourself, identifying people who love and care and fit into your world without the bigotry of your parents. You will likely come to understand that family is not about who is assigned to us, but who we choose to consider close to us in that way.

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The world is larger than the smallness of your parents’ views, and it has so much to offer you. Please try and remember that you are everything you should be, and that there is nothing wrong with who you are. The life you deserve awaits you, and no, it’s not fair that you haven’t been able to enjoy it from birth, and no, there’s nothing noble or aspirational about having to struggle to survive your teen years. But you are worthy of all the goodness that is out there, and the only way to get to it is to make it through these last few years at home. I urge you to remember that, to focus on a future when your current home is a distant memory, and to do what it takes to get there. Sending you lots of love and wishing you the easiest, shortest conclusion to your time there possible.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I don’t even know where to start. I have been seeing someone for seven years and on most fronts our relationship is very stable/settled, but I feel like I have been waiting for at least four years to “be in a position” to make my case for having children. I am now 42, and I worry that it’s already so unlikely that I could conceive naturally that it feels overwhelming even to begin talking about it. My partner is older, some would say too old; in general my life has been fraught with so many issues holding me back from things I’ve wanted that I just feel lucky and blessed to even have found someone I want to be with forever, and I feel like giving up on that if he decides he really doesn’t want any more kids (he’s the divorced parent of adult children) is unbearable.

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I feel like a coward and a cheat for not pushing the issue sooner, but previous conversations around it were always based on the fact that I could not financially offer a child a good life on my irregular, mediocre-paid seasonal work, and he would be going into retirement and could also not afford to give a child what he thinks one needs and deserves. That, and he also was worried about leaving a child behind in the world without both parents too soon, since he lost his mother at 16 and his father in his twenties, and felt alone in the world after that without strong extended family support. I have recently become stably employed. How do I live with myself if I give up my partner for my wish, when I don’t even have the time necessary to be sure of a new partner? What compromises can I offer to make this feel manageable to him when he mostly looks forward to less work in older age and not starting all over with toddlers?

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— Feeling Hopeless

Dear Feeling Hopeless,

I am so sorry that you are in this position. I don’t know that there is anything you can do or say that will make this situation more ideal to your partner, for his concerns about dying while his child is young are not merely valid, but informed by what may be the greatest devastation of his own life: the loss of his parents. Furthermore, for someone who may have already raised children, the idea of still doing the difficult work of childcare during retirement age is understandably unappealing to him, and the joy of love and family may not be enough to change that.

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Dating someone who does not want children is a tremendous risk for a person who wants them, especially at a time when you do not feel that you have years of guaranteed fertility in front of you. You took that risk, and you accepted the heart of someone who seems to have been honest about how he felt about having children; now, both of you are at risk for heartbreak if you determine that your desire for a child supersedes your desire to remain in this relationship. You need to be honest with him now. Tell him you understand how he feels, but that you’ve kept this to yourself because you didn’t think it was feasible, and it’s haunting you. Talk about how you think the two of you could make things work and why you want to do this with him—do you definitely want to do this with him?—but be prepared for however he may respond, and think about what your next move will be either way.

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There are a lot of ways to become a parent, and if that is what your heart desires more than anything, you have time. It may not be the easiest, simplest journey, but there are so many children in foster care who could use someone with the love you have to give, for example. There are also men over and under your age who’d love to become a dad. But don’t keep this person dangling on any longer than you need to, because if moving on is what has to happen, you both deserve to do so as soon as possible so that the healing (and, perhaps, family planning) can begin. Wishing you all the best.

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— Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

My second-grade daughter today told me she and two other little girls in her class were gently reprimanded by a specials teacher for wearing tank tops (not spaghetti straps, two fingers’ width). I didn’t get a call to bring her new clothes or a note home or anything, so I checked the dress code and according to the student handbook, yes indeed tank tops and muscle shirts are both prohibited. There’s a few other items I take issue with—bans on bike shorts, short skirts, “clothing that advocates disobedience to society.” How would I go about challenging a school dress code? Just from talking to a few other moms, I think I would generally have support from the community, but it’s a conservative suburb in the South so ideas about “modesty” and “tasteful” run deep.

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