Care and Feeding

I Think My Career-Focused, World-Traveling Sister Would Make a Bad Mother

She’s considering getting pregnant on her own at 38. Should I talk her out of it?

Two women hold hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andrey Grigoriev/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,

Recently, my sister “Janie” and I were together at a restaurant, and she told me that she’s thinking of inseminating herself to get pregnant. She’s 38, highly successful in her career, more than financially stable, and has always had the plan to have at least one child. I am a mother of three, so she was open to hearing my advice. I gave her the basics, but didn’t dwell on the matter because I didn’t want to say what I actually think: I doubt Janie would make a good mom.

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I feel terrible just writing this, although there are several reasons why I feel the way I do. For starters, Janie’s lifestyle is not one that would make motherhood easy. She loves her job and especially traveling. In the last five years, she has lived in eight cities across the states, using her job as a way to do it. Being a mother would mean she’d have to significantly scale back, and I feel she’d be bored and resentful over it. Secondly, she is not good with kids. Janie’s the person who would complain if seated next to a baby on a plane and roll her eyes if a person with small children came into a restaurant. She’s turned down taking family vacations in the past because she feels it’s “backwards” to take a vacation with kids. One of the reasons she has trouble with relationships is that she doesn’t want a guy who already has kids because being a stepmom is not for her; she feels she has to have a blood connection to the child.

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That said, she has little interest in her nieces and nephews. The most she’ll do is send them gifts on their birthdays and Christmas, which would be fine if not for how mismatched they are to the child she sends them to, showing she doesn’t know them well enough to know what they’d be interested in. Add to all this the fact that she’d be a single parent, and I have no idea how she’d manage it without a lot of help from the family—and she might take advantage of it, I’m afraid to say. To be clear, these aren’t just my thoughts alone; our siblings and parents have commented on how despite claiming to want kids, she’s never prioritized it.

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I don’t think it necessary to tell any of this to Janie because I don’t think she’s all that enthusiastic about the idea anyway. I believe that she’s just always been so confident that she would be married with children that it’s hard for her to reconcile that she doesn’t have as much interest in either as she thought. Given her age, I suspect she’s in a last-minute panic. It’s not my business if she does or doesn’t do it, but if she wants my opinion, what is the gentlest way I can tell her that motherhood might not be for her? Should I just hope that whatever happens, it will end well?

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— Doubtful Potential Aunt

Dear Potential Aunt,

It sounds like your sister hasn’t been a very involved aunt. But aunt and parent are two very different jobs, and I just don’t think performance in one role necessarily predicts performance in the other. Plenty of people who wind up being very good parents aren’t great with other people’s kids; it’s really our kids who teach us how to be their specific parents (sorry, kids).
Yes, there are plenty of challenges inherent to single parenting, but there are challenges with any type of parenting, and it strikes me as rather unfair to assume that Janie being unpartnered is yet another strike against the possibility of her being a good parent, or that her getting help from the family would be “taking advantage” of the rest of you—after all, it’s your choice how much to help, and she can’t take what you don’t offer! At this juncture, I just don’t think you need to be worrying about whether your sister having a child will have some adverse impact on your life.

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I agree with you that Janie has to be certain that she wants a child and ready to put them first and roll with the many ways her life will change, but prioritizing her own wants before kids doesn’t mean she is incapable of prioritizing a child once she has one. I’m also just not entirely sure what you all mean by the claim that Janie has “never prioritized” having kids—are you suggesting that her interest in parenting isn’t real because she didn’t start this process before the age of 38? Because she likes moving around the country and traveling without kids? Couldn’t it be that she spent her twenties and most of her thirties taking child-free trips partly because she knew those things would be harder if she ever had kids? I think that’s often kind of the point of waiting to have children until one feels ready, yes? It’s for her to decide if she’s okay with any sacrifices involved in becoming a parent, including but not limited to decreasing her travel. And she might not be totally ready or willing for those sacrifices and realities, in the end, but for now I think these are points to consider, not evidence to assemble against her potential to parent.

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You say that she’s always said she wants to have children—this didn’t come out of nowhere. Of course, I don’t know your sister as you do, and cannot tell you that she’ll be an exceptional parent. There were things in your letter that made me go “hmm,”  but before I became a parent there were probably things about me that made a few people wonder if I’d be a natural, too. Maybe your sister’s attitude toward kids in nice restaurants and on planes has changed (or will, when it’s her kid). I realize it would be easier for you and your family to picture Janie as a parent if she’d demonstrated consistent tolerance toward or interest in children all along, but again, she wouldn’t be the first person to change her thinking.

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Unless you have some much larger and more serious concern about Janie’s potential parenthood that you haven’t shared here, I think there are probably ways you can gently raise issues of concern with the goal of helping her consider this decision, as opposed to outright telling her that parenting isn’t for her (this will be an easier conversation to have, of course, if the two of you are close and often discuss serious issues like this). You could respectfully ask her questions about why she wants this and why it’s so important to her. You could ask what she’s expecting, what she’s most excited about, what she’s most anxious about, what gives her pause, and what makes her want to have a child anyway. You could be very up-front about the reality of parenting, and how it’s changed your life and priorities (as it does for everyone). And by all means, hope for the best, whatever she decides. In the end, only Janie can choose whether motherhood is for her.

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From this week’s letter, “Our Teen’s Teacher Says He Needs Counseling Because of a Dark Story He Wrote:” “I think that’s too rash, especially since this is the only warning sign of something deeper.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a woman in my early forties, and I have three kids: 13, 10, and 8. My 13-year-old daughter has GAD, ADHD, some misophonia, and traits of OCD. All of those things have made school very difficult, but now we are dealing with a new problem. When my daughter was in kindergarten, she couldn’t be in assemblies when people came in and played music because it was too loud and made her stomach hurt. When she was in second grade, her father took her and her siblings to the circus, where she spent the first few minutes crying from the noise. We love going to the movies, but it is difficult with her because I always have to ask them to turn it down, and even then, she will spend the first 20 to 30 minutes covering her ears. In July, we went to a fireworks show, and she spent most of it having an anxiety attack—her mask got huge tear stains on it. When we are out and about, she will just cover her ears when there are loud noises.

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School is the problem—in P.E. they will often play extremely loud music when they are supposed to be running around, although she doesn’t really participate much, so she is able to cover her ears at certain times. Choir is 40 minutes long, and she says she doesn’t really sing, as she spends most of her time trying to calm herself down so she doesn’t have an anxiety attack. She is okay at lunchtime. They also sometimes have loud videos in classes. Her ADHD diagnosis was recent, so we are still experimenting with medication and do not have a 504 accommodation plan yet. We have not yet found her a therapist. She feels embarrassed about covering her ears in choir and P.E. What can I do?

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— Noise Problems

Dear Noise Problems,

I’d recommend having a meeting with your school as soon as possible, even if it’s not (yet) a 504 discussion, because your child is in clear distress and can’t wait. Your available options, pre-504 or -IEP, will depend on how understanding and flexible the school is, given that they aren’t yet required to be so on paper. But I would really hope that reasonable, caring educators would be willing to listen and work with you even if you’re not at the detailed planning stage yet regarding accommodations.

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Also, experimenting with ADHD medication doesn’t mean you cannot concurrently have a school meeting to determine eligibility for a 504 or IEP—with a diagnosis, you can definitely start that process now. It’s rarely as speedy as you want it to be, so if you and the school haven’t begun yet, I strongly urge you to do so: It’s important to start documenting needs and discussing supports and accommodations as soon as possible. And find her a therapist!

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Another practical thing I want to suggest to you is a good pair of noise-reducing headphones or filtering earplugs, if she is willing to try that during choir and gym. I realize she might feel the same embarrassment she feels covering her ears, but maybe she’ll really like the headphones if she gets to help pick them out? Or earplugs, since they’re less visible? And at least this way, her hands will be free! She can use the headphones or earplugs at home as well, or when you go places that might be loud or overwhelming.

It’s hard enough for her to get through school; do what you can to make home and family time as low-anxiety as possible for her. Make sure there’s a space at home that’s hers, her room or some other spot, where she can retreat when she needs a sensory break or needs to be in control of her environment. Let her decide if she wants to attend loud events with the family.
If you’re somewhere like a movie or fireworks show and she’s having an anxiety attack so severe that her stomach hurts or she is crying, I’d get her out of there if at all possible—don’t force her to endure it. I know you want the whole family to be able to do these things together, and you certainly never want to exclude your daughter, but it’s important for her to get what she needs right now, and sometimes that might mean skipping these loud events. You can try to gradually reintroduce things like movies (look for sensory-friendly movie showings in your area) once she’s doing better and school is less of a struggle.

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

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· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have, after a long search, found my birth mother. Unfortunately, by the time I found her, she was deceased, but had had another child. I searched for and found this child, who is my half-sister. I reached out to her through Ancestry, but she hasn’t signed on in more than a year, and I don’t know if she’s even seen my message. I would like to reach out to her again, but I’m not sure which platform to use to do it. I have a phone number and address for her, or I could message her through Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn, or email her at one of her work emails (however, I noticed she said on Instagram that she’s been unemployed since last July). I do want a relationship with her, so I don’t want her to feel like I have been stalking her. Do you have any advice on which way I should approach her?

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— Adopted in Avon

Dear Adopted,

I’d avoid the work email and try a Facebook or Instagram message first. As an added bonus, Facebook and Instagram messaging apps show you whether the recipient has actually seen your message.

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I’d suggest keeping your first note on the shorter, more straightforward side, so your sister has a chance to read, consider, and ask for more information if she wants to. And try to give her plenty of time to respond, though I know it’s hard to be patient when you want something so badly—she will likely be surprised and may need time to process before she writes back. As an adoptee who was once where you are, trying to reach out to my birth family, I know it can be really tempting to lay everything out, share your life story, be very vulnerable—maybe because you think your relative(s) will be curious, or because you’re hoping vulnerability on your part will encourage them to offer the same, or because you’ve just been anticipating and hoping for this moment for so long. All of your feelings are valid; just remember that it’s okay to take things slow, and doing so might prove better or easier for you, too. The closeness and quality of your connection to your sister does not necessarily hinge on the detail or intimacy of your very first exchange. And of course, you and she might not want the exact same thing for this relationship, in the end, and that’s also something you’ll have to be okay with if you write to her.

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My most important piece of advice to any adoptee thinking about reaching out to their birth family is to have your own existing supports ready, because you’ll almost certainly need them no matter how things go. Who are the close friends or family who can be in your corner, available to listen and help you process whatever happens? Do you have—or can you try to find—a therapist with specific knowledge of adoption, including searches and reunions? Are there fellow adoptees you can speak with, perhaps in some kind of community or virtual support group, who’ve been through something similar? (Your mileage may vary, of course—but if I have one regret from my own search and reunion, it’s that I let so few real confidantes in, at a time when I really could have used the support.) I hope you find all the care and understanding you need as you take this next step in your journey.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I just finalized a divorce from my emotionally abusive ex-husband of nearly 17 years. We share custody of our 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. Leaving him was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took nearly two years to fully get away from him. I employ the “parallel parenting” strategy because amicable co-parenting with him was not healthy. Since I moved out, he has begun being more overtly abusive to our daughter, so I am working on a family court process to gain more custody since he will not consent to a change. It has been really tough on the kids, but I try to give them an open and stable and loving home. They are afraid of their dad, but they are also very angry, and I want to validate their feelings and experiences without demonizing their father. It’s a delicate and private experience. The clear boundary that I maintain between me and my ex gives them comfort and a feeling of safety when they are with me, particularly for my daughter.

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When not-as-close friends and acquaintances ask about why we split, I generally just say that we weren’t good for each other anymore. I have been surprised at how many people have been lecturing me about how important it is for me to have a better relationship with my ex for the sake of the children. It makes me so angry because the distance we have was so hard-won, and it actually is in the kids’ best interest. I usually get defensive when responding to these people despite my best attempts to stay calm. I don’t want to get into details, and I want to protect my children’s privacy, but there has to be a satisfactory response after all we have been through!

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— I’ll Stick to Therapy, Thanks

Dear Therapy Thanks,

These people who don’t know you well should not be nosing after the reason you and your ex split, and I’m so sorry that they are. I don’t blame you for getting angry or defensive. There’s a way for people with minimal knowledge of the situation to ask if you or your kids need anything, or offer genuine understanding and support, without nosing for intel or telling you what you should do. Honestly, these people can all get something I would type if Slate would print it.

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You’re perfectly within your rights to refuse to discuss your family’s situation with any of them, which is what I think I’d do in your place. But if you do feel inclined to give some kind of brief answer, and understandably don’t want to go into any details about what you endured, you could try to keep the focus on what you wanted—to borrow some of your own words: an open, stable, healthy home—as opposed to what you didn’t want—your husband and his emotional abuse. These are unassailably important things to want, worthy of prioritizing, and they are things that anyone should recognize are also crucial for your kids and their wellbeing.

— Nicole

More Advice From Slate

Please settle this battle between my 16-year-old and myself. She wants to put a lock on her bedroom door. (Her younger brother does, admittedly, bust in on her a lot.) I just don’t like the idea. I don’t like the idea of locks in my house, I don’t think she really knows what she’s asking for, and it’s causing a lot of fights.

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