Dear Care and Feeding,
I’ve been married to my husband for 10 years; we have a 9-year-old daughter together, and he has two kids from his previous marriage, “Cathy” (17) and “Bill” (15) who live with their mom in another state during the school year. My husband tries to be as involved as possible: We speak with them on the phone frequently, they live with us every summer, and we’ve generally had a good relationship as a family. In fact, I was the one who had the menstruation talk with Cathy because her mother refused. Their mother is incredibly self-centered and has a tendency toward emotional abuse. She has always babied the son, while blaming everything on his big sister. Because of this, my husband has a very strong bond with his daughter and is fiercely protective of her.
After the kids left at the end of the summer, we discovered an empty bottle of sleeping pills in Cathy’s room. She had taken them from our medicine cabinet. (We rarely use them, which is why it took a while to discover their absence.) She’d been sleeping in super late every day, but we just chalked it up to her being 17. She’s always been a good hardworking kid, and we figured she just needed to rest over the summer—but obviously more was going on. And it continues: Cathy called her dad the other day, and confessed that her mom has been letting her drink hard lemonades.
I think that it is critical that my husband let their mom know ASAP that Cathy had been taking sleeping pills, and may still be using them, especially if she’s consuming alcohol (which is its own area of concern.) He’s worried that if her mom finds out about the sleeping pills, she’ll go off the rails and will make Cathy’s life miserable to an unfair degree, so he refuses to confront Cathy while she’s in her mom’s house. I counter that he’d be livid if he found out that her mom knew about the pills and didn’t tell him. He also refused to make a stink about the alcohol because “what can he do from here?” and then Cathy would “just stop telling him things, and what would that solve?” We’ve reached a stalemate, and I feel helpless. The plan is to wait and have the discussion in person when the kids are with us for Thanksgiving, but I just can’t shake the feeling that this issue is more urgent than that. Even so, I feel like it’s not my call to make. Do I need to back off and trust my husband’s judgment on this?
—Worried but Helpless
It is your job to beat this drum until your husband wakes up and realizes how dangerous casual sleeping pill usage and alcohol can be for a teenager, especially considering that this young woman has a contentious relationship with her mother. What happened when you discovered the sleeping pills? Did she claim to have trouble sleeping, and if so, what did you two do to figure out why she’d need help falling asleep at an age where kids are known to sleep through any and everything? Did she admit to abusing them, which means using them for any reason other than the inability to fall asleep? Actually, if these were prescription pills and/or pills not to be used by persons under the age of 18, her usage of them would necessarily qualify as abuse. Did you talk to her about the potential consequences for her, physically and legally? Did you check in to see why she would want to do such a thing in the first place?
Is she depressed? What sort of outlet does she have, with regard to her relationship with her mother? You say you speak frequently; how often is she having meaningful conversations with you and her father? Not just “And how is school, and did you have a good weekend, and are you being nice to your mom” check-ins; I mean the sort of heavy conversations you’d have with a kid who lived with you. You had the period “talk” with her, but that is a series of dialogues. My mother and I have been talking about my period since the 1990s; it won’t stop until the blood does.
What I’m saying overall is that this girl really needs you two to be as active as possible in her parenting, because there is great reason for concern. The mother is being ridiculous, and violating the law, by allowing your stepdaughter to drink. Your husband needs to have a serious conversation with her about both the pills and the alcohol, and he must let her know in no uncertain terms that she is not to continue to allow her daughter either of those things. Has there ever been a conversation about a custody change? It sounds like your stepdaughter may be happier and safer with you; would your son say he feels the same? Her mother allowing underaged drinking may give you an advantage in a custody case: Perhaps that should be on the table considering that, well, your unhappy child is being given booze by her self-involved mom.
Sure, yeah, plenty of other cultures allow teens alcohol at home, but that means nothing to the laws of this land, which kick “good girls” asses all the time, depending on who you are. No, hard lemonade isn’t hard liquor, but imagine telling the kid who was given hard lemonades not to graduate to the next level of imbibing, which is what many of us who had to take more drastic measures to get those sugary malt beverages as teens still eventually did before the age of 21. If this is one of those “I’m intentionally allowing this because I can’t stop it” moves, I find it curious that this woman choses alcohol with which to be progressive, yet doesn’t recognize the “raise your daughter, love your son” trope she’s fallen into. All this to say, you need to be a thorn in your husband’s side until he gets it together for his kid, because it sounds like she’s struggling and he’d hate for something tragic to happen knowing that he could have intervened—and so would you.
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From this week’s letter, “I Walked in on My 12-Year-Old. I Can’t Believe He Was Watching … That”: “I didn’t even know what that was until I was in college!”
Dear Care and Feeding,
So, my 4-year-old is a bit of a baby asshole. She recently called another mom at the playground “soooo fat!” I was humiliated and shocked, especially since we make a point to not use those types of words in our home. She says rude things like this regularly. How can I teach her to express kindness with others?
—Mean Girl’s Mama
Dear Mean Girl’s Mama,
Your daughter may have figured out that certain words can provoke a big reaction or is perhaps simply repeating language that she’s heard from somewhere. Check to see what the source of this stuff is—perhaps another relative, or a television show—and provide her the proper context for what she has said when she makes a rude remark. Often, we focus on discouraging a behavior without truly making sure our kids understand just what’s wrong with it to begin with; it isn’t enough to know that you don’t say these things or don’t want her to say them, because you aren’t her only influence. Explain why you don’t use these words and emphasize how people feel when someone does. Her empathy will increase with her understanding, and children have great capacity for both.
• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a gay woman, single mom by choice with two daughters, ages 6 and 1. Their biological father is a gay friend of mine, “David,” who lives nearby with his longtime partner, “Frank.” Frank was on board with our family plans from the beginning and is “Dad No. 2” to the girls. There have been some hiccups over the past few years, but we worked well together as a family—until recently—and the girls are happy, confident, and kind kids.
Frank had an affair with “Marco,” and the ensuing ups and downs have absorbed most of David and Frank’s time, leaving little for the girls. I thought the relationship was going to end, but now it seems that Frank and David have decided to stay together and are now in a triad relationship with Marco. I don’t think it’s a fair and functional triad; there is lots of fighting, drama, threats that one or the other will move out, etc. But between the fights, there are periods of many days or a few weeks where all three seem to get along.
My problem is with how this impacts the kids, especially the 6-year-old; David wants Marco to be a big part of her life, like a third “dad” or at least a close uncle figure. I don’t want to draw her into their storm. The triad is new and unstable, and I see lots of potential for her to get confused by the ups and downs and by Marco’s role in the family. I also don’t like Frank and David modeling infidelity and (dysfunctional) threesomes to her, which I realize might sound bonkers because we have such a nontraditional family structure to begin with. Is it unfair of me to ask Frank and David to keep Marco a secret from the kids, or at least not to flaunt their relationship to the kids until it has been stable and drama-free for a while?
—Two Dads Was Fine
Dear Two Dads Was Fine,
It is totally fair for you to have the same WTF face I made reading this letter on a regular basis, as what David and Frank (and Marco!) are doing, at least with regard to your child, is absolutely ridiculous. It would also be ridiculous for a straight parent to introduce a new-ish partner (with whom they are in a stormy relationship!) as a parental or aunt/uncle figure. Keep your boos, baes, and situationships away from your fucking children people, my God. Date who you want, but stop acting like everyone deserves a place in your child’s live. That is pure madness, and it happens too often! End rant, sorry.
Remind David and Frank that you entered parenthood with the agreement that it would be the three of you, and while it is not your place to cap the number of persons with whom they chose to couple, your child will not have infinite fathers as a result. As would be the case for you and your partners and friends, people should be introduced once they have a stable, reliable place in a parent’s life. Introducing a triad will change your children’s concept of relationships; why not spend some time making sure they understand family beyond the models they’ve seen and that they feel stable in the existing family structure before introducing something on such shaky ground? Involving the children is something that should be approached with the utmost seriousness, whether a relationship is two, three, more deep; hell, as a single parent, you need a healthy relationship with yourself. Kids need stability, which is not the same disorder on a regular basis, but rather order and harmony on a constant one. I hope these men are reasonable enough to understand why Marco needs to be a “special friend” who is rarely seen and rarely heard until they have demonstrated that they can live as a triad without chaos. Keep chaos out of your children’s line of sight as much as possible; that is our job as parents.
Speaking of jobs and parenting, your most urgent task is to remind David and Frank of their duties as parents and let them know in clear and certain terms how they have abdicated their responsibility since the Marco era began, and how you’d like them to step back into their roles as dads—something that absolutely takes precedence over introducing someone who may or may not be around in six months.
One more thing: Why are the dads and Marco pushing a relationship with your eldest? Is it because the youngest is too young to do “fun” stuff? I just found that curious. Are the dads not as involved with care for the baby because they’re so small? I would inquire how you feel about that, but maybe the papas aren’t perfectly positioned to take on toddler care right about now? However you need this relationship—these relationships, rather—to work, you have to let these guys know and be firm about it. Your kids don’t have time for these games. Wishing you all the best.
P.S.: I am admittedly very interested in an update should you chose to provide one!
For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting
Dear Care and Feeding,
My stepdaughter, 11, recently came to live with my husband and me. Her mother has fallen on hard times, so instead of summer visits and some holidays, she’s now with us full time. With this large shift in her life, I’m trying to be very present and understanding, but she and I are struggling to connect. How can I support her during this time and ensure she’s comfortable staying in her new home?
—Suddenly Stepmothering Full-Time
Dear Suddenly Full-Time,
Create one-on-one time with your stepdaughter, find out what her interests are, and let that guide you along the way. She’s at an age where she’s going to be experiencing some emotional and physical transitions that may find her desperately needing the support of an adult woman and that is likely to be your role now, so there needs to be some real communication between the two of you that allows her to feel safe looking to you as such. Let her know that you are there for her, that you want to be a meaningful part of her life, and that you are committed to doing what she needs from you to make that happen. Children deserve to hear affirmations about their care from the adults in their life more often, truly. Be sensitive to her relationship with her mother—don’t disparage her, be empathetic to her plight, and help to facilitate a long -distance bond between mother and daughter—while still showing up as the maternal figure she needs. Wishing you lots of luck.
More Advice From Slate
My 5-year-old daughter is the joy of my life. She is smart, funny, kind, and adorable—but she is a terrible singer! I mean, dogs will howl when she sings. But for some reason, she thinks she is a great singer and insists on doing it often and at the top of her lungs, which annoys me to no end. Obviously, this is a 5-year-old quirk and I have just learned to accept it. But I am worried about when she is older and wants to try out for singing things because no one had the courage to break her heart early and say, “No, darling, your singing sounds like two cats fighting in a cloth sack; you can’t do it.” My husband thinks we should just encourage her. But I can’t stand the idea of my daughter getting hurt over something that could have been stopped early.