Care and Feeding

Do I Really Have to Bond With My Mom’s New Husband’s Family?

A woman puts her hand to her head as she sits next to an older woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Motortion/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 am an adult daughter in a blended family situation. My mom remarried a few years ago, and all of the children on both sides are adults, some of whom have small children of their own. My mom constantly tries to get us all together, but none of the children have any interest in this. While we are (mostly) supportive of my mother and her husband’s relationship, we feel no need to be “family.” We were not raised together, have very little in common with his family, and we have no interest at this point in our lives in creating a new family dynamic (for context, neither we nor our “stepsisters” have another parent; both our father and their mother passed away). My sister and I are close, and my “stepsisters” are close with each other, but when we all come together we have nothing to say to one another. Our lives are totally separate unless my mom and her husband force it. These gatherings are awkward and exhausting. How can I make my mom understand that I love her, but I cannot sit through these forced “family get-togethers” anymore?

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—We Aren’t Family

Dear WAF,

How often do these gatherings occur? You say your mother is “constantly” trying to get you together, but what does this mean? Once a week or a few times a year? I ask because if your mother and her husband are insisting that their grown children come together for family dinner every Sunday, when none of you want to, then your complaint is fair and it’s time to have a talk with Mom. But if what’s happening is that your mother wants her husband to be a full part of her life—and that means including his grown children in it—and wants to be a full part of his (ditto, vice versa), and the result is her wanting you all to have Thanksgiving, her birthday, and, say, Mother’s Day, together, then it’s a bit churlish of you to refuse that. We all “sit through” some things we don’t especially relish. Doing so for the sake of someone you love, whom you want to make happy, is a kindness—a gift, let’s call it, for your mother. Decide how many such gatherings you can bring yourself to attend (may I suggest that this number be more than one but fewer than five per year?) and stick to it. If you’re sure that your mom’s husband’s daughters feel exactly the way you do, maybe talk to them and make a plan together. And who knows? Over time you might even find you have something in common with him. Besides loving your respective parents, I mean, and not wanting to disappoint them.

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And if by “constantly” you really do mean multiple times each month, tell Mom you’re too busy and suggest an alternative, single, date (and rinse and repeat, as often as it takes for her to get the message). And if the between-the-lines complaint here is that you and your sister no longer get any time alone with your mother, without the presence of her husband or his kids, invite her for an outing, just the three of you. There’s no need to tell her you have no interest in getting to know her beloved’s family: there is nothing to be served by that but hurting her. That’s not what you want, is it?

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• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single mother with a 12-year-old son with whom, thankfully, I have an excellent relationship: he happily talks to me about everything. My question concerns his annual physical. He has been seeing the same wonderful pediatrician since he was a baby, and he is very comfortable with her. Last year, I thought it might be time for me to give him privacy with her during his check-up (the doctor is very thorough!), so I told him to go on ahead while I remained in the waiting room; after the exam, the three of us sat in her office and talked.

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I was planning on doing the same thing this year, but when I told him I’d made the appointment, he asked if I would go with him into the exam room this time. Apparently, the office has a policy of requiring a chaperone during genital exams, and since I was not there last time, a nurse came in and observed. He said he was embarrassed by her presence. This was compounded by the fact that the doctor is, as I’ve said, very thorough and doesn’t try to hide what she is doing from whoever else is in the room. My son says he’d be much more comfortable if that observer were not a stranger. I am trying to decide what to do. I’ve asked friends for advice, but they are split. Some say go ahead and go in with him—do whatever makes him comfortable; others say that I should continue to give him his privacy as he is growing older, even if he says he wants me to be there.

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—Turn and Cough Conundrum

Dear TaCC,

Your son didn’t ask you to give him privacy last year—you decided it was time for it. Which I understand (so much of parenting is a guessing game!). But it turns out you were mistaken on several counts: he did not want privacy (from you), he did not in any case have privacy with his doctor, and (I am sorry to have to be the one who tells you this) he does not talk to you “about everything.” He kept silent for a whole year about how embarrassed he was at his last appointment. Since he isn’t quite as forthcoming as you supposed (and maybe this has changed as he’s grown older; maybe he used to tell you everything that was on his mind and his reticence is a signal that he is growing up), you may have to ask more questions.

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Don’t be surprised if he isn’t always willing to answer, or answer fully. But my guess is that he will let you know when he wants the privacy you offered a year ago. I remember the first time my daughter turned to me as her name was called in our pediatrician’s waiting room, and I reflexively stood up, too, as I had all her life. She was matter-of fact about it: “I’m OK to go in by myself while you wait here.” (You are way ahead of me, because this took me by surprise.) But I will also mention this, gently: Are you sure it was your son you were trying to protect last year? Your mention of the doctor not hiding “what she’s doing” makes me wonder whose discomfort is really at stake. Avert your eyes during any part of the exam that makes you uncomfortable. But do accompany him into his exam this year, if he says that’s what will make him more comfortable. Don’t make any assumptions about next year. He’s moving into a time in his life when things change rapidly.

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From this week’s letter, “Mealtime at Our House Is About to Become a Battleground: “I want to be truthful, but not make Dad out as the bad guy for eating animals.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 3-year-old son, “Riley,” has been very curious about gender in recent months. When I tell him his bedtime story—one I’ve made up and have been telling him for a long time, and in which he is the star—he always asks me to change the pronoun for his character to “she” and clearly gets a ton of joy out of this. He loves his hair bows that I bought when he expressed curiosity about hair bows, and his preschool teacher recently told me that during dress-up time he put on a dress and wouldn’t take it off. This didn’t surprise me because he also likes to call his sleepsack his “sleep dress” and is always interested in what I wear, especially if it’s extra-dressy. Plus, we’ve been talking about Halloween costumes, and the ones he’s expressed interest in are all princess/fairy costumes.

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I have no idea how much of this is typical 3-year-old behavior and how much is meaningful and specific to Riley. Do all children explore gender norms this way? Or do I need to pay closer attention to see whether my child knows something about his gender that I don’t know yet? I live in NYC, so I’m in a pretty liberal part of the country, with parents in my child’s class who are in the LGBTQ+ community—but I grew up cis and heterosexual and sheltered in a more conservative Christian community, and I do still attend church. I guess I mention this because I know I will get a ton of pushback from that part of my world if I let my child’s gender curiosity blossom. I also have some trans friends who say they have always known, since as little as toddlerhood, that they had been assigned the wrong gender at birth—so I am probably on higher alert than the average mom. I ultimately want to do right by my child. I have been thinking about this nonstop and could use some guidance. My husband thinks it’s probably just typical toddler behavior. Am I reading too much into it? Or do I need to try to nurture this side of my kid that wants to look like a more typical girl or be called “she”?

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—My Son’s (or Maybe Daughter’s?) Mom

Dear MSoMDM,

There are certainly cis boys Riley’s age (and older) who prefer princess costumes and like to wear dresses and hair bows and are fascinated by their mothers’ clothes. And with your generation’s—at least in some communities, as you recognize—fuller and more complex and nuanced understanding of gender, many more children are being given the freedom to explore the possibilities of gender expression, and I think what we can call “typical” behavior is changing (in a good way!). I don’t think it’s climbing too far out on a limb to suggest that, in a world in which old entrenched ideas about gender are being challenged, and parents of toddlers aren’t enforcing the rigid “rules” that once governed (and policed) gender “norms,” kids who are given the freedom to play in the way yours is will grow up to be kinder, gentler, more empathetic and open-minded, open-hearted people, gay or straight.

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You want to know if it is possible that your toddler is in fact a girl. Yes, I would say that this is certainly a possibility. But if so, Riley will let you know that—you won’t have to guess. A trans child I know was still in preschool when she told her mother that “I know you and Daddy thought I was a boy all this time, but I’m actually not.” When her mom asked how long she’d known this about this herself, she said, “Always. But I didn’t used to know how to say it because I was still a baby.” There’s nothing you can or should do to rush this process if indeed that turns out to be what’s going on here. Please try not to think about this nonstop (I know that’s hard, but make the effort, won’t you? For your sake as well as Riley’s). Follow your child’s lead. As your grownup trans friends can confirm, I’m sure, it makes all the difference in the world to have parents with whom children feel certain they can be honest—parents from whom they don’t have to hide themselves, and with whom they can be themselves. Indeed: for all children, queer or straight, this makes all the difference in the world.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 7-year-old son, “Dylan,” is in second grade after doing his entire first grade year virtually. He was in a Montessori classroom when he was three through his kindergarten year, so this is his first time being in person in his much larger public school. He’s doing well academically, but his social/emotional adjustment has been much more difficult.

In particular, he is really struggling over making decisions. For example, he can’t even decide whether he wants to be driven to school or take the bus. He stresses over every choice, going back and forth endlessly. We have tried having discussions at different times of day; we’ve talked him through various options. We’ve also reassured him that any choice will be OK. But he keeps coming back to the same anxiety over choice. One night he even had what I think was an anxiety attack about it, hitting himself in the head and talking about how frustrated he was. We’ve tried to get him into a regular routine, and we avoid giving him too many choices, but choices in life are inevitable. Do you have any suggestions for how we can help Dylan find some peace with making decisions?

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—Undecided in North Carolina

Dear Undecided,

Dylan may have a predisposition toward anxiety (I do wonder if this is the first evidence you’ve seen of it), and I don’t think it would be a bad idea to make an appointment with a pediatric psychotherapist to see if there’s something here that you’re missing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the guidance of an insightful therapist can be critical; ours was when it came to helping my own anxious child. In the meantime, I also think you can make things easier for Dylan. Yes, decision-making is a part of life, and he will have to learn how to make choices without falling apart over them, but why not start small? The bus vs. car decision you mention is actually a pretty significant one for a child his age. Deciding whether to be driven to school by a parent (in his first year of in-person public school) or ride the school bus on his own is no small thing, and it’s not a standalone decision—inherent in it are all kinds of complicated ideas. Will he feel like a baby if his parents drive him, and others in his class are riding the bus? Will he feel left out? Does he feel like he should be “a big boy” and ride the bus? Does he believe deep down that you’d rather he did it one way or the other? (I could go on, but I won’t. You get the picture: bus/car may well be a metaphor.)

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Why not make this decision for him and tell him it will be revisited at a later time—after winter break, perhaps. Or even next year. But do make sure you’re offering him the opportunity to make small, unladen decisions every day. Does he want to read this book or that one? Listen to this music or that? Have an apple or a pear? If these straightforward choices send him into a tailspin, that therapy appointment is a matter of urgency. But if you can make sure he is faced with a couple of unproblematic, without-consequences choices each day, you can up the ante later.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My son “Michael” is 15 and may or may not be exploring his gender and sexual identity; the majority of his friends are LGBTQ+ but he has not yet self-identified as anything other than straight and male. He has a “best friend” who is a straight girl, and I am beginning to suspect she may be wanting something more from this relationship and that he may be cluelessly or unintentionally leading her on. What should I do?

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