Care and Feeding

My Daughter Has Very Little Going for Her in Her Life

A woman puts her head in her hands and looks sad.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monkeybusinessimages/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,

Against my advice, my 26-year-old daughter went to grad school immediately after college because she didn’t know what else to do. She had no idea what kind of job she wanted, and I suppose this path seemed easier to her. Her graduate degree is in a very niche humanities field where the only career path is basically academia. She took on nearly $100k in student loans and is now underemployed and working part-time as a library assistant. I have always tried to be hands-off and pushed her to make her own choices, but I’m having a hard time believing this was the right choice when I look at where her life is now. She lives in a small-town apartment she gets rent-free through a friend of a friend; she has no friends or family in her town. She has a boyfriend overseas whom she sees roughly once a year. She spends nearly all her time alone, participating in online communities and social media, while leaving the house only to work her part-time job. She is trying to get a book published (but has had no success with that). It’s not clear to me how long this rent-free arrangement will continue, and she barely makes enough money to pay for her food and her student loan payments. She has no car or other assets. The net effect of all of this is that she has very little “going for her” in her life.

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If she were perfectly OK with all of this, that would be one thing, but she’s not. She seems depressed and withdrawn. She often talks about how life has sort of passed her by and she can’t believe how unhappy she is. I tried to give her money to see a therapist but she refused. I get anxious when I think about the milestones she’s missing out on (building a career, starting a life with an in-person significant other, building some kind of financial cushion) so I try not to discuss these things with her. Basically, she is in sort of a “failure to launch” situation and all I can do is watch it happen from afar. My husband seems very laissez-faire about the situation but I’m really struggling with it. Do you have any advice on how to help my daughter, or even just learn to be OK with her life as it is, rather than what I wished it could be?

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—Mom in Massachusetts

Dear Mom,

I have so many thoughts about this, it’s hard to know where to begin. I suppose, because I too am the mother of a daughter in her 20s, I should begin by offering my sympathy: it’s hard not to worry about one’s grown children, hard to shake the old habit of having a say in what they do and at least a certain amount of control—and utterly impossible to shake the habit of worry. (An aside here: When my own daughter was a baby, I remember asking a much older friend, whose children were grown and living far away, when I would finally get a good night’s sleep again. His response: “Never. Welcome to parenthood.”)

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But you do have to shake it, or at least quiet it. She’s a grown woman, living her own life. Has she made some not-great choices? Sure. (I’m fully on board for “niche humanities” graduate programs, by the way—and I also know for a fact that a graduate degree in any field can help one get a job, even if there’s not an obvious connection between the academic discipline and the job itself—but taking out $100k in loans for grad school is a terrible idea. In my own “niche” field, creative writing, and in other arts disciplines as well, I advise students to only consider grad programs that will support them with full financial aid packages—there are plenty of them. I know that in some fields, such programs do not exist. But I do not know of any area of the arts or humanities that fall into that category.) In any case, she has made her bed. Like countless other young people, she will figure it out. But it is her problem to figure out, not yours. And she has most assuredly not “failed to launch”: she is living on her own, away from her family (for her, this may not be the sad thing it is for you: I see that it appears on your list of her troubles). She has a long-distance boyfriend (for all you know, she likes it that way). She has written a book! (Getting a book published is indeed difficult, but writing one is even more difficult, and you glide right over that accomplishment.) And she is only 26. The milestones you mention all still lie ahead for her. That she hasn’t yet built a career (or at least one you recognize as a career) doesn’t mean she won’t. She has plenty of time for that. Just as she has plenty of time to “start a life with an in-person significant other” if that is something she wants to do (she may or may not, and that too is for her to determine: you don’t get a vote). As I say, I know it’s hard not to fret. And she isn’t helping matters if she’s constantly telling you how unhappy she is and how she can’t believe it. But she’s venting—which a grown child is allowed to do to her mother. She isn’t asking for advice, is she? So just listen. And make sympathetic noises. And tell her you love her and have faith that she’ll figure it all out. And when it comes to the latter, I know that deep down you’ll mean 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 sure you get a lot of these types of questions now, but I really need some help. Despite significant political differences (my immediate family leans conservative and I lean liberal), we have remained a close-knit, loving unit of four. Of course, since the ascendency of Trump, the differences between my brother and me have been increasingly hard to navigate. Still, one thing I thought we had (and would always have!) in common was caring for each other’s welfare and for the welfare of our elderly parents. My father is terminally ill with heart failure and leukemia and has been hospitalized several times during the pandemic; my mother has twice been treated for cancer, most recently in 2017. They are both in their 80s. I’m sure you know where I am going with this.

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I live about an hour away from them and visit as often as I can. When I do, I wear a mask despite the fact that all three of us are vaccinated (I made sure to help my parents get vaccinated as soon as they were eligible) and I work from home and observe all Covid precautions. Cut to my most recent visit: my brother unexpectedly showed up with his girlfriend from Peru, whom we had never met before, and neither one of them was wearing a mask. At first I said nothing, though I was very upset, and tried to remain as civil as possible but I could no longer hold my tongue when my brother began to tease me for wearing a mask, mockingly asking me if I had been “mandated.” I told him he had no right to mock me for taking seriously the well-being of our parents. He proceeded to lecture me about how Biden and Fauci are liars. At that point I had to excuse myself.

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I privately told my mom I was leaving and encouraged her to dismiss my brother and his girlfriend from the house if they refused to take precautions. Shortly after I left, I believe my brother and his girlfriend left. But the damage is done. I am not sure either of them is vaccinated, and I have no certainty of the levels of precautions they take in their daily lives to know how high a risk they are to my parents. My question to you is this: How do I tell my mom to put her foot down with my brother? She wants to keep the peace and see her children. I don’t want to deny her that. However, if my brother is prioritizing his political views and balks at mask-wearing and taking other precautions to protect two people who are among the most vulnerable to the worst effects of this virus, I feel he needs to be barred from seeing them. What can I do?

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—Frustrated Sister

Dear Frustrated,

I’m sorry—so sorry—that the bizarre politicization of a matter of public health has infiltrated the peace and harmony of your family and driven this wedge between siblings who had formerly managed to keep their political differences out of their relationship (no small thing!). You’re right: we get questions about family breakdowns around the politicization of Covid all the time. It makes absolutely no sense to me that anyone would not take Covid seriously given the scale of devastation we’ve seen. And despite being an advice columnist, I’ve been no better-equipped than anyone else to navigate relationships with people who refuse to take the threat seriously (I have tried and failed).

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What I can tell you with certainty is that you will not be able to persuade your brother to see things the way you do (and you seem to be resigned to this) and that you cannot make your mother banish him from her home or her life. You can, of course—and you might as well—sit down with your parents and remind them of the risks they are taking with their lives if they spend time indoors, unmasked, with anyone who might infect them. Make sure they understand what we now know: that even fully vaccinated people of their age, particularly those with the other risk factors your parents have, are at risk of a dangerous “breakthrough” infection (younger, otherwise healthy people, if fully vaccinated, while at risk for breakthrough Covid, run only a very small risk of serious illness). Remind them that it would be much, much safer to spend time with your brother outdoors. But you are going to have to leave it at that. Your parents are capable of making their own decisions: being in one’s 80s doesn’t mean one has lost that capacity or right. And they love your brother and want to spend time with him. If they decide that taking this risk is worth it to them—as long as they understand the risk—you must let it be.

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If you want to give it your all—because they may not be able to stand up to their son even if they decide they would like to impose some restrictions on his visits for the sake of their own safety—write a heartfelt letter or email to your brother. If you’re not sure what to say, you might try something along the lines of, “I understand that we have very different thoughts and feelings about Covid, but I’m worried about Mom and Dad, and they are worried about themselves. If you’d rather not wear a mask, I’m hoping you’ll consider visiting with them outdoors, which would be much safer for everyone.”

I will tell you ahead of time that I’ve tried something like this—with someone I considered a friend—and my effort failed miserably. I was naïve to think it would work. And yet—even so—if I had it to do over, I’d do the same thing. Because what choice do we have? We have to try.

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But that’s all you can do: try. And then you have to step away, because the rest of it is out of your control. I wish you—and your parents—the very best.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner and I are trying to have a baby. We (both women) have a healthy relationship and communicate well. After a lot of research and discussion, we finally chose an anonymous donor from a sperm bank. We know the ethnicity of the donor, as well as the kind of religious upbringing he had, although this information is not important or relevant to us and did not factor into our decision-making. The problem is that my partner’s parents (who immigrated to the U.S. and are very proud of their particular heritage) have often spoken of their hope that we would use a donor who shared their (and my partner’s) ethnic background. This was not a priority for either my partner (who will be carrying) or me, and we ended up with a donor who is decidedly NOT their preference. We know that they, along with many other curious relatives and friends, are likely to ask about our donor, along with various other intrusive questions. What do we tell these people? We both feel that it is nobody’s business to know anything about the donor, but how do we kindly let them know this?

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—Mamas Minding Their Own Baby Business,

Dear Mamas,

“This is not something we’re interested in talking about.” And for people you are really close to like the child’s grandparents, add, “I’m sorry if that’s disappointing to you.” This has the advantage of accurately representing how you feel, yes? You are not interested in discussing this matter, and you are sorry to disappoint your baby’s future grandparents. (When you and your partner say this to them, you might even add, “You know how much we love you and how excited we are that you’re soon going to be grandparents!” This costs you nothing and goes a long way toward kindness.)

The bonus, as you practice these sentences again and again—in particular the first sentence—is that it will prove useful to you for many years to come, when family and friends ask other intrusive questions or offer intrusive, unasked-for advice of many kinds (and they will—it comes with the territory, alas). When it comes to unwanted advice, I like to follow up with, “But thanks for your input!” Or, with people I dearly love (but still wish would just shut up), “But thanks for caring!” And then, in every single case, change the subject. You are under no obligation to enter into a conversation with anyone about anything concerning your child. It is not unkind to make that clear.

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From this week’s letter, “I’ve Had Radical Change of Heart About Having Children:” “Do you have tips on how to either kill or manage my desire?”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 4-year-old nephew I adore. He has a vivid imagination, and I love playing with him when he and his mother come to visit. I see him for several hours at a time, usually once a week, and he engages in what I would assume are typical 4-year-old behaviors: he gets upset when it’s time to stop playing, doesn’t want to go home, and wants me to come home with him and continue our games. I explain that I have to stay at my house, that I have to work, etc., but of course that doesn’t register with him at his age. The thing is, I’m a supersensitive person, and when other people cry, it makes me cry. I find that when my nephew gets upset, it makes me upset, too. It’s like the childlike part of me can relate to his feelings of sadness when playtime is over and it’s time to go home (if that makes sense). There are times when these sad feelings linger long after my nephew and his mom have left. Do you have any recommendations for how not to take these little, perfectly age-appropriate upsets of his to heart?

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—Sympathetic Crier

Dear Sympathetic,

Ah, so you have sympathetic sadness syndrome (I just invented that—it’s not a thing). When I think about all the adults who react to a child’s (as you say) age-appropriate bouts of sadness and distress with impatience, annoyance, frustration, and even anger, I just want to reach through the internet and give you a hug and thank you for taking your beloved nephew’s “little upsets” seriously. For empathizing with him. For—also as you say—still being in touch with your child-self, and vibing so hard with this actual child.

I know it must feel bad—and weird … and embarrassing?—to react so profoundly to what all grownups know is a passing moment (and even the grownups who don’t get irritated may still sometimes inwardly roll their eyes at what they perceive as the child’s “drama”), but feels truly awful to the child experiencing it. But what if, instead of trying to not take this child’s sadness to heart, you just accepted it into your heart and didn’t try to fight it off. It’ll pass either way, of course. But if you could let yourself see this as a precious gift—your compassion, your insight, your ability to enter into the child’s experience—the passing sadness might not be so hard to bear. Supersensitivity gets a bad rap, I know. We live in a hard world and we’ve all been told we have to be tough. But in fact we don’t have to be. In fact Sympathetic Sadness Syndrome™ might just be your superpower.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I am a single mom to an 11-year-old daughter. Up until around age 7 or 8 we were pretty physically demonstrative and would hug and kiss, and I would pick her up and carry her around. That slowly tapered off as she grew, and now we almost don’t touch at all. No hugs and kisses. We don’t avoid touching but don’t initiate at all. I miss this closeness—what should I do?

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