Care and Feeding

How Do I Shake My Working-Mom Guilt?

A boy puts his head to his knees. His backpack lies beside him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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 have recently accepted a new job that will necessitate a move across the country. This is a good thing in many respects (closer to family, higher pay, more stability and lower stress), but I am concerned and feeling very guilty about how it will affect my kids, ages 7 and 9.

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I don’t normally experience working-mom guilt, but this one is hitting me hard. I will be working remotely until next summer, so we will not have to move schools mid-year, but it will be a big shake up. We also have a lot of other stress, as their grandmother is dying, and their dad has been gone off and on to try to help his father deal with this. He is the stay-at-home parent, and his absences have been hard on all of us.

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We also changed schools locally for the 2020/2021 school year, so the kids had the challenge of starting a new school in the middle of the pandemic, and they missed out on the last few months of in-person school with their old school friends. We have not told them about the move yet, since the job starts in January, and it has only recently become official. How do we cushion them and help them with this big and difficult transition in the midst of family grief and loss? I am particularly worried about my older child, who is more sensitive and emotional, and had a lot of anger around the school change two years ago.

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—Moving With Worry

Dear Moving With Worry,

It sounds like your kids are getting quite a few early lessons about how often life requires us to make swift transitions. It’s not ideal for anyone to have to uproot themselves from familiar surroundings and routines to start over again in places unknown. It’s particularly inconvenient to do so on a timeline that feels disruptive, like mid-school-year or when a grandparent unexpectedly takes ill.

Transitions are unpredictable and unavoidable, and while it’s unlikely that a 9- and 7-year-old will have an easy time accepting that, they’ll learn it by continuing to go through it.

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You may be able to lessen the impact by researching extracurricular activities or social groups they may enjoy in your new city. Discuss your plans and their feelings about them as often as feels appropriate. Help them identify at least 2-3 things about your new surroundings that interest them—things they can look forward to exploring, like a local zoo or aquarium, visits with those family members you’ll be living closer to, an unusual landmark, festival, or theme park, or even a simple change in weather. Consider whether there are small decisions about the move they can have a say in. Maybe they can choose the paint color for their new room, help decide which neighborhood they move to or which church to attend, or research local activities they may want to join. Acknowledge that while a lot of things are changing, other facets of your family life are steady and reliable. Remind them that those things will come with you when you move.

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Try to let go of the guilt you’re feeling. It sounds like you’ve made your decision to relocate based on its long-term potential benefits, not just for you but for the whole family. You’ve made a solid choice and you’d do well to remind yourself of that, as you gear up for another bumpy ride.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

More than a decade ago, my wife’s and my prayers were answered when we were able to adopt a beautiful baby boy. We were told his birth mother was Navajo and had willingly surrendered him for a no-contact adoption, so we found the nearest Navajo reservation and drove him regularly to participate in community activities and ensure he had a connection to his culture. This week, his birth mother and a team of Hopi tribe lawyers showed up on our doorstep. His mother had been assaulted as a young teen, had chosen to keep the baby, and after giving birth at a hospital had never seen him again. We’ve heard many stories like this on the Navajo reservation and from other native friends, and a DNA test proved her to be his birth mom.

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I’m not sure if the Navajo story we were told was just government incompetence or a lie to keep her from finding him, but she had not willingly given him up and has been searching for him for his whole life. My wife and I are devastated, and we are now faced with an impossible dilemma. The law is technically on our side to keep him, but that’s only because it was built on racist colonization ideals (we are both of Asian descent but American citizens). If the law was just, we would never have had him in the first place. On the other hand, we’ve raised him for 11 years and love him as our son, and he loves us and is so scared by all of this that he’s regressed to sleeping on our bedroom floor so that he can make sure we’re still there as soon as he wakes up.

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His birth mother, understandably, is not warm towards us and bluntly said that she wants to take him back to her reservation and raise him as she wanted to, without us at all. Even when we proposed moving near the reservation so that we could see him regularly, she told us he wouldn’t be ours any more, and the lawyers said that we wouldn’t be allowed on their land. Because of this all-or-nothing scenario, my wife, also understandably, wants to refuse and only allow his birth mother contact with us in the room, and although my own maternal instincts want to do anything to keep from losing him, I understand his birth mom, who is traumatized and has been fighting to get her son back from people like us for years. It’s hypocritical to have spent years protesting for indigenous rights only to hide behind the law when it benefits us—but this is our son. We had no idea he was stolen from her, but we still contributed to her losing him, and now we can’t bear to lose him the same way. We love him more than anything in the world. Please tell us what to do.

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—Do We Have to Give Up Our Son?

Dear DWHtGUOS,

I can’t tell you what to do. This is an incredibly difficult position for you, your wife, your son and his birth mom to be in. I’m sorry you’re all going through this. It must be terrible to discover after 11 years that everything you thought you knew about the circumstances surrounding your son’s adoption is false. It must be even harder to contend with how much the lies you were initially told are now threatening your adoptive rights.

I’m not sure what a judge will decide in this case. And it sounds like you will definitely need a great deal of legal intervention to reach any sort of compromise here (and you—and your son— may want the help of a mental health professional, too, to sort through the emotions of it all). But apart from the legal implications of your case, I’d encourage you to further consider a few points you’re already raising in the letter you’ve sent.

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First, you shouldn’t feel guilty about what you didn’t know when you filed for adoption. But you should hold yourself accountable for the decisions you’ll make now, in light of everything you’ve learned. You can no longer proceed as though you’re unaware that your son has another parent who’s been fighting to reunite with him for his whole life. That has to be considered as you and your wife figure out how to proceed. Your son also knows that he has a birth parent who did not willingly terminate her parental rights. Though he may not want to be removed from your home, as it’s the only home he’s ever known, how might his feelings change in the years to come? Will you be able to justify a decision to keep his interaction with his birth mother limited and supervised as he grows older and better understands the injustice he and his birth mom have suffered?

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Second, you have had 11 wonderful years with your son. His birth mother, who has lived without knowledge of her child’s whereabouts for just as long, cannot say the same. If you refuse to help her facilitate a relationship with him now, you will be knowingly contributing to the harm she’s endured. I’m not sure how heavily that should weigh in your choices about how to proceed. Only you and your wife can figure that out.

It’s within your power to grant your son’s birth mother the custody that was stolen from her. Doing so wouldn’t make him any less your son, at least not in his eyes. You’ve raised him through his formative years and built a familial foundation with him that is not likely to be completely severed, even if you can’t reach any sort of visitation or custody agreement with his birth mother, while he’s still a minor. There’s always the possibility of re-establishing a relationship with him when he’s old enough to choose that for himself.

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However this resolves, my heart goes out to you all.

• If you missed Sunday’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,

Can a white child use a Soul Cap? Soul Caps are swim caps for those with especially “voluminous hair.” We are white Hispanics, and my daughter has very long curly hair. This is a superior product but I don’t want to appropriate a product for Black swimmers

—    Not Enough Space in Regular Swim Caps

Dear NESiRSC,

A superior product is a superior product, even if you’re not one part of its target marketing demographic. Cultural appropriation is adopting cultural practices and/or wearing clothing, jewelry or hairstyles that originated within a specific culture, without acknowledging those origins or their significance. Buying a swim cap designed with Black natural hair in mind is not the same thing—especially since the company website itself says that the cap is for anyone with big hair. Your daughter can use it and swim with a clear conscience.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our neighbor’s young daughter died suddenly a few days ago. We live in a cluster of townhouses backing onto a shared backyard, so we know them fairly well, mostly by our kids playing outside together. The neighborhood has been supporting the family as much as we can: bringing easy-to-reheat meals, running errands, childcare for their son, or company anytime they want it (though any suggestions for what they may need would be welcome). Their late daughter and my daughter happen to have the same name. We all usually call our kids in for dinner by name, but as I went to shout for my daughter I realized that hearing her name like that might be a knife in the chest for the other parents, even if they realize it’s not their daughter. I went out and talked to my daughter instead, but I’m wondering if I should avoid calling her name in communal spaces for the time being? Should I maybe use a nickname? Or is this the least of their worries with the constant grief they’re living with? I can’t even imagine their pain and don’t want to contribute to it in any way.

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—Name Neighbors

Dear Name Neighbors,

I’m so sorry for your community’s loss. The sudden absence of even one member of a close-knit neighborhood can feel seismic. Right now, the grief is so fresh that it makes sense to think of as many ways to support the bereaved as possible. Refraining from calling out your daughter’s (and your late neighbor’s) name, at least for the time being, is a thoughtful gesture, and your instinct that it may be painful for them to hear their daughter’s name called out daily at dinnertime is enough of a reason not to do it, in the immediate aftermath of their child’s passing.

—Stacia

More Advice From Slate

My daughter has always been an independent soul, from the time she was a tiny baby. In grade school she loved to sneak out and sleep in her treehouse, and she’s done every Outward Bound–style activity she can get her hands on. Now she’s in her last year of high school and has just presented me with an extremely detailed plan she has concocted to spend the summer planting trees in the Canadian wilderness, which is apparently a thing you can do? For money? I’m worried that this is a terrible idea and she’s more likely to fall out of a tree than arrive at university intact. Should I shut this plan down?

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