Care and Feeding

My Daughter and Her Fiance Are Rejecting My Post-Op Help

A young woman sitting in bed holds water and some pills.
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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,

My 25-year-old daughter, “Jenny,” needs surgery in a few weeks. It’ll be a quick procedure with a one-night hospital stay to ensure her pain is controlled and that she can walk before she is released. Her fiancé, “Kurt” (also 25), has been very attentive to her in the weeks leading up to surgery. Kurt works full-time from home and has been able to take time off to drive her to pre-op appointments, cook dinner for them, etc. As Jenny is my only child and has never had surgery before, I’m extremely concerned about the upcoming procedure. I offered to fly to Jenny’s city—about a four-hour plane ride—and stay with them for a few days so I can take care of Jenny while Kurt focuses on work. Jenny and Kurt talked it over, and Jenny told me that while Kurt appreciated the offer, he felt it would add more stress, as they have a one-bedroom apartment and I’d be sleeping on the couch. He also told her it would stress him out to feel like he was “hosting” me in addition to taking care of Jenny. I was really hurt by this. I’m concerned about Kurt’s ability to provide full-time care for Jenny, and also frustrated that Jenny is allowing Kurt to veto my visit. My husband has been reminding me that this is not about me and my wishes, but it still stings. What is the general protocol for taking care of adult children and medical issues? Should I approach Kurt directly? We’ve always had a fine relationship, so I’m confused about why he seems to be icing me out. Thank you for your help.

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—Medical Mama

Dear MM,

I know this is hard. I would be beside myself if my 28-year-old daughter—my own only child—were having surgery in a distant city. So I say this with all the empathy and sympathy in the world: stay away.

Your presence in the days after the surgery, sleeping in their living room, all three of you at home in their small apartment (which doubles as Kurt’s office!) 24 hours a day, would for sure be a cause of stress at a time when that’s the last thing they need. You’re not being “iced out.” These two adults are just living their life.

I know you’re certain you would be no trouble at all, and that Kurt’s sense that he would be “hosting” you is painful—you’re Jenny’s mama, you’re no guest!—but now that Jenny has a home and partner of her own, you have no place in this arrangement. I wish that Jenny hadn’t put it to you the way she did; I wish she’d said that she and Kurt had talked it over and decided they could manage on their own, that she felt confident that he could take care of her and that it would be easier on both of them if they were alone in their home during this period. I wish she hadn’t put the burden of this on her fiancé. My guess is that she made a calculated decision to “let” you be angry with/hurt by him (this sounds like conflict-avoidant behavior to me, but only you know if Jenny has a hard time standing up to you or is afraid to take the chance of hurting your feelings). If she genuinely wanted you to be there to take care of her, if she didn’t feel that Kurt could do this on his own, I would hope that she’d be mature enough to tell her fiancé that (and I suspect if this were a matter of his “vetoing” what she truly wanted, she would tell you that, since she is not unwilling to throw him under the bus in the service of her relationship with you).

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Your husband is being wise. Listen to him. Do not approach Kurt directly about your wish to be there—that is a terrible idea. If you want to help, send them a generous Postmates/DoorDash gift card, some good board games, a great book for Jenny to read while she’s recovering. Tell her to call you anytime (and do not repeatedly call or text her) and, for good measure, send Kurt a note telling him how glad you are that Jenny has him in her life and can count on him the way she does. You have already let the two of them know that you’re available to be there if you’re needed—you need not (and should not) repeat this.

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And then you are just going to have to suffer through the surgery and its aftermath, I’m afraid. That is the “protocol” for taking care of adult children and their medical (or any other) issues. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I feel your pain. But you’ll get through it, I promise.

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From this week’s letter, “Our Family Is About to Suffer a Heartbreaking Loss. How Do I Prepare My Child?: “I’m just not sure what the least traumatic way to handle this would be.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

When we were pregnant with our first, our families seemed to be upset with us about every decision. We didn’t find out the gender, didn’t share our name selections, and didn’t want visitors at the hospital (which they refused to acknowledge, so we ended up not telling anyone we were in the hospital until the baby arrived and we were about to be discharged). We also got extremely frustrated with the never-ending comments, for a good eight weeks, along the lines of “this baby better arrive soon, I can’t stand the wait” and “do the doctors think the baby will arrive early?” (which no one can accurately predict). We tried telling them to stop asking (no one listened; they told us to “lighten up”). We finally stopped answering the multiple daily text messages and phone calls. Now that we’re expecting baby number 2, I’m anxious about history repeating itself. How do we get our families to respect our decisions and understand that their questions and demands are not helpful?

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—Expecting Trouble

Dear ET,

Ah, if only there were a way to get people to do what we want (and need) them to do. I am so sorry to tell you that there isn’t, most of the time. We can try. But in the end we cannot change other people; we can only change the way we respond to them.

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So go ahead and explain (again?) that you aren’t interested in finding out the gender of your baby ahead of time, that you will not share the baby’s name with anyone until after the birth, and that you will be glad to entertain visitors (if indeed you will be) after you get home from the hospital—and sure, tell them why, thoughtfully and precisely. And tell them that the end of the third trimester of pregnancy can be rough going, that it doesn’t help to have people asking when on earth it’s going to be over—and maybe tell them what would help, too. In other words, while you are giving them a list of all the things you don’t want them to do, throw them a bone and let them know what you would welcome from them. If the answer to this question is I WANT THEM TO STAY SILENT AND STAY AWAY AND LEAVE US ALONE, I think we’re veering into another subject altogether—which is the question of how to cut your families out of your lives.

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If that isn’t what you have in mind, though—if you love them and want them to be in your and your children’s lives—then after you have stated your case, if they say and do all the same things again this time around, you are going to have to find a way to deal with it. Prepare some stock responses. Or decide in advance that anytime anyone asks you something you consider intrusive/annoying/upsetting, you will respond with a non sequitur (Them: “When’s that baby gonna be born already?” You: “Have you seen the latest episode of ‘Ted Lasso’? It was fantastic”). Or make a joke. Or pretend not to understand the question! Do anything other than let them get under your skin. And please do not waste your breath saying, “I told you I didn’t want to hear that.” Your stock response/change of subject/bafflement/joke will be sufficient to remind them of this—or it won’t. The main thing is that your own blood pressure will not rise. If you learn to shrug them off, their intrusiveness will cease to be a problem. In the immortal words of Taylor Swift: Shake it off.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner and I have a beautiful 14-month-old boy, Jason. My partner likes music (who doesn’t?), but she also harbors a severe intolerance for children’s music. She refuses to sing, play, or listen to anything but adult songs at home or in the car when our baby is there too. I’m uncomfortable at the idea of Jason being exposed to swear words and non-kid-friendly messages, and I thought this was the strongest angle from which to approach my wife. But when I said this, she looked at me like I was nuts. She said that while she’ll carefully avoid explicit lyrics as Jason learns to talk, there’s nothing wrong with playing “normal music” when a baby is present and there’s no reason to let kids’ music “take over our lives.”

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But she’s wrong; Jason’s language acquisition is kicking into high gear right now, and from what I’ve read, basic children’s songs, such as the ABCs, have considerable benefit to childhood development. What I think is happening is that she still has some unresolved issues from growing up: She’s one of the oldest in a big family, and she has previously told me that while she loves her siblings, it was hard for her to be a teen in a house of under-10s she had to babysit almost every day. But now, with her own baby, I’m really surprised that she can’t even find a little tolerance to play the kind of music that will be best for him instead of what she likes. We’re both supposed to make little sacrifices as parents, but how can I open a discussion about changing our playlists to more child-appropriate music with someone who says that “hearing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ for the millionth time makes me want to tear my ears off”?

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—Baby DJ

Dear BDJ,

There are plenty of parents who can’t abide kid music, and to be honest I think you need to pick your battles, because this is not an important one. Of course you are both expected to make sacrifices (both little and big) for the sake of your child, but I don’t think listening to “adult music” is going to hurt your son. Many, many children—including my own, back in the day—are present when their parents play whatever music they’re into, and I’ve never heard of one whose “development” was harmed by it. I think if it’s important to you to make sure he is exposed to plenty of music designed especially for kids, then you can and should do that. Surely the three of you aren’t together all the time? Surely there is some time when you are alone with your son? Play and sing all the ABCs etc. then.

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Honestly, this sounds like a power struggle to me. It’s a struggle you need to set aside even as you two (together) figure out what this argument is really about. Do you want to listen to your favorite music (and is this really about music?) and resent that she is doing so while you’re stuck with “Twinkle Twinkle” for the millionth time? Do you feel like the two of you should be suffering through kids’ music together? Do you feel like your partner is making fewer sacrifices than you are—or that she isn’t taking parenting as seriously as you are?

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Whatever is going on beneath the surface of this battle, keep in mind that there will be plenty of things that one or another of you will do with your child that the other won’t. My daughter read Bible stories, played basketball, made paintings and collages, and built things with her dad; she played elaborate let’s-pretend games and made up stories and sang through the entire scores of Broadway musicals with me (not an inclusive list, but you get the idea). There will be plenty of important things about which you and your partner will need to be on the same page. This isn’t one of them.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 13-year-old son goes to a progressive, inclusive public school that encourages children to be themselves. My son recently told us that he had a “girlfriend” but that his girlfriend is nonbinary and uses they/them/their pronouns (for the record, it was they who decided to use the term girlfriend). For me, it’s whatever. I have friends who use all sorts of pronouns and many who have changed pronouns. The problem is that my son is close to and spends a lot of time with my parents. My parents are accepting overall, but they have argued with me in the past about how they can’t be used by a single person since it is a “plural pronoun.” The last friend I had who used they/them pronouns, my parents just kept calling “she” because they present more as female (even when I told my parents that if they couldn’t bring themselves to say “they,” my friend would prefer he over she).

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My son has said he is concerned about telling his grandparents anything about his girlfriend or introducing them because of the whole pronoun issue. He doesn’t want to upset his girlfriend! Plus he knows they’ll default to the she/her because of the whole “girlfriend” aspect. He is pretty torn up about the whole thing. Is there some way to make my parents see reason on this? Or is he going to have to hide from his grandparents any nonbinary or trans person who uses they/them pronouns for the rest of my parents’ life?

—It’s Just a Pronoun

Dear IJaP,

Well, you know, it’s not just a pronoun. The pronoun is a stand-in for one’s identity, for the way one sees oneself and wants to be seen by the world. Using the correct pronoun is a way of saying, “I respect your humanity and see you for who you are.” Since you say that your parents are “accepting overall,” I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are misguided about their policing of “correct grammar” (like many people, especially those who are older) and misinformed about the expression of gender and its meaning. Misguidedness and misinformation are not permanent conditions.

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Certainly your son doesn’t have to hide his relationship from his grandparents, who are old-fashioned and having trouble, even outright resisting, changes in English language usage. Will they ever be able to make that leap? Maybe, if the younger people in their life keep calmly and gently explaining why it makes perfect sense to—and if they continue to encounter nonbinary and trans folks, thanks to their child and grandchild continuing to introduce them to their friends. And while it’s not your son’s girlfriend’s job to educate your parents—or anyone else—the fact is that it’s in all of our best interests to spread the word and help to educate those who are stubbornly clinging to the habits of their own generation: this will help pave the way to a more just, fair, and open society.

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The bottom line is that I don’t think there’s any reason for your son not to tell his girlfriend about his grandparents’ recalcitrance, so that the girlfriend is prepared for it. I cannot imagine that this will be the first time they will have been misgendered, even if they do attend a progressive school—but if it is, it will (sadly) likely not be the last. Nor will it be the last time they will have to figure out how to firmly and politely speak up for themself, which is a useful life skill for any 13-year-old—including, by the way, your son. He can practice on his grandparents now by telling them, in advance of their meeting them, that he is dating someone who uses they/them pronouns and would appreciate their effort to use these pronouns, as a sign of respect to both of these teenagers. If your parents tell him they will do no such thing and give him a lecture on what they insist is “correct grammar” (as if language were not ever in transition!), your son might tell them how sad this makes him, and let them know he won’t be coming around with this special person in his life, then. That might help to wake them up.

—Michelle

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I am the mother of 8-month-old twins. My husband is as involved as he can be, but he also travels for work three to five nights a week while I am left to care for the kids. When he is home, I know he is trying to help, but sometimes I really question his parenting techniques. What should I do?

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