Care and Feeding

Why Are People Weirded Out by Mothers and Sons Who Are Close?

A mother hugs her adult son.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joe_McUbed/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 a single parent of a son I have raised by myself since he was 4. He’s a good-natured, well-adjusted college student and Division I athlete; he has a lovely girlfriend with whom he attends college out of state. Not long ago, while he was home for a visit and his girlfriend was across the country visiting her family, I was invited to the wedding of a work friend. Since the invitation offered me a plus-one—it even said “bring the family!”—I asked my son to join me.

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This seemed like a reasonable idea. I’m not dating anyone (and in fact I’m not interested at this point in my life in pursuing a relationship—I’m happy on my own) and my son is my entire family. He and I had a good time at the wedding, since (unlike his mother) he enjoys socializing and meeting new people. He and I didn’t dance together—I danced in groups with work friends, and he danced with lots of people—but we sat together, of course. On Monday, many of my co-workers mentioned how much they’d enjoyed meeting him, and the bride was lovely about it, but a few people made snide comments about him being my “date.” This was not said in a joking or friendly way—it was definitely mean, judgmental, and disapproving. Another single co-worker attended with her teenage daughter and no one called that daughter her mom’s “date.” Several married couples came with their college-age children.

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Since then, I have been thinking about this a lot and noticing that, in popular culture, a woman attending an event with her adult son is considered weird. When a married couple attend an event with their mutual children, no one says it’s a “date”—it’s a family outing; when a father and daughter are out together, it’s “cute”; and when it’s a mother and daughter, it’s “girls’ night.” Mother-daughter “girls’ trips” or family vacations with college-age children are not considered weird, but god forbid an adult son and his mother take a vacation together!

I’m not using my son to fill a space in my life. If I wanted a date in that space, I could get one. Obviously, when my son marries or lives with someone (or even if his girlfriend weren’t on the other side of the country), I would not expect him to leave her at home and accompany me. But I resent that he and I can’t do things as a family anymore without people calling it out. My problem or theirs?

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—A Family of Two

Dear AFoT,

The patriarchy is real—and ugly—for sure. And I am sympathetic: it is unfair that mother-and-adult-son pairs are subject to teasing or even outright mockery and disdain in a way that other matchups of adult children and their parents aren’t. But your stewing over the stupid remarks made by “a few people” (when most were kind) and your leap to “he and I can’t do things together as a family anymore”—not to mention a whiff of “thou dost protest too much”—are what concern me here. When something people say about us bothers us to this extent, it suggests that it’s tapping into something we are worried about. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what other people think about your relationship with your son (if in fact they think anything at all about it). Are you concerned about it? (Or rather: are you sure you’re not concerned about it?) Is he? Is his girlfriend?

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The answer to the question you ask me is (obviously, I think) if “people” don’t like it when you and your son show up places together, it’s their damn problem. But the thing is: if their reaction bothers you this much, it’s your problem, too. Cursing the patriarchy is one of my favorite activities, and I encourage you to go ahead and do that—and don’t just curse it, fight it. But while you’re at it, I’d take a closer look at why you feel so bad, and whether you are being completely honest with yourself about your son and his role in your life … and your own needs and expectations.

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Husband Has Some Pretty Wild Ideas About Being a Stay-at-Home Dad: “I want to be supportive, but I don’t want to come home to a dirty house every day.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My younger son, Evan, recently started his sophomore year in high school. I was stunned when he was suspended for a week over an assignment he’d turned in. One of his classes called for an essay to analyze a plan that went wrong, starting with why the plan was adopted, what flaws were inherent in its assumptions or execution, the consequences of the failure of the plan, and how the plan could be improved.

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Evan chose to wrote about his school’s zero-tolerance for fighting policy. He thinks the policy was adopted because the school’s administrators are stupid and wanted to rid themselves of trying to figure out who’s responsible when an incident occurs. This policy, Evan says, increases violence, since if a kid can get suspended for even being near a fight, they might as well be violent once a fight starts. He points to several kids who were suspended, and one expelled, for being in the vicinity of a fight—or even attacked—and notes that this is both unjust and damaging to their education. His suggestion for fixing things involves giving the school staff brain transplants from the principal’s cats, which he declares would enhance their intelligence.

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I am beside myself that Evan could be so disrespectful and insulting to his school’s administration. But no matter what sort of discipline I apply at home (he’s been grounded for the foreseeable future, and I’ve started monitoring his internet usage), he remains stubbornly defiant that the policy is terrible and the principal et al. are idiots. My husband has been absolutely no help at all—not going quite so far as to openly agree with Evan, but making it perfectly clear that he does in fact sympathize with him. I don’t know how to regain a handle on this situation.

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—Furious Mom

Dear Furious,

Look, he’s been suspended for a week (for what it’s worth, I am in agreement with Evan that suspension from school is an inherently destructive punishment; nevertheless, he has been punished). I don’t think your grounding him for the foreseeable future is going to do anything useful in this situation—in fact, I think your overreaction is probably making matters worse. (I think the school’s suspending him has had the same effect, but that’s another matter altogether.) Have you had a conversation with him about what he wrote? Are you throwing the baby away with the dirty bathwater (as his school has)? I don’t know what his father is thinking, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he were proud of Evan for his gutsiness in using this assignment to critique a school policy, however flawed his logic may be.

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Between your overreaction and your husband’s underreaction—not to mention the school’s knee-jerk, counterproductive suspension policy—I don’t see how Evan is going to learn anything from this experience. Instead of piling on the punishment, have you considered having a real conversation with your son about what he wrote?  I’m curious about whether you disagree with his premise (that the school’s zero-tolerance policy is a failed one), and whether you can have a conversation with him about the challenges his school faces in dealing with violence, and what ideas he has about what would help. Lecturing him about respecting his elders (and authority) will get you nowhere. As will punishing a high school sophomore for his literally sophomoric sense of humor.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Friday’s column, read it here.
Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are expecting a baby in about a week—this will be my parents’ first grandchild—and we’re very lucky that my mom lives close by and wants to help. For years, my mother has insisted that she will be a childcare provider for our kids, and she has been consistently excited and involved since day 1 of my pregnancy. The problem is that our family breaks down across (what has become) the usual battlefield around Covid. While everyone in this story is vaccinated, we weigh the risk of breakthrough Covid differently. My younger siblings and my parents are basically living their normal indoor-socializing lives again; my husband and I are avoiding indoor dining/bars/big parties because we really don’t want to get breakthrough Covid while I’m pregnant or while we have a tiny infant.

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Given that I’m about to give birth and we are relying on my mother for childcare, I asked my mom to pause on the indoor dining for a little while, just until the baby is 2 months old and can get his shots/develop his immune system. She thinks I’m being unreasonable, and that we all still have to “live in the world” even though I’m having a baby. I think her reluctance has to do with my siblings. My parents often see them over meals out, pausing indoor dining would mean she would see less of them. (For my siblings, my request is a total nonstarter.) I’m just asking her to curb the basics: indoor dining, indoor concerts, indoor bars. I’m not asking them to stop socializing altogether. But they all think I am being totally crazy, given that they’re vaxxed and that babies seem not to be particularly vulnerable to Covid; they think I’m trying to use my pregnancy to control their lives. To be honest, I’m hurt. It upsets me that they consider “meet my baby / support me when I give birth” and “have dinner inside at a hot restaurant” equivalently important—or, really, that they consider dining out to be more important.

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I want your honest take. Am I being unreasonable?

—Crazy about Covid

Dear CaC,

I don’t think your desire to protect your baby is unreasonable—I think it’s natural. But people have wildly different levels of risk tolerance around Covid. If you don’t feel safe engaging in the activities you mention, don’t engage in them. If you don’t want your baby around anyone who is engaging in what you consider to be risky behavior, then don’t have your baby be around them. That’s not “crazy,” totally or otherwise. Where you run into trouble is when you make demands on others (yes, even your own family) about what their risk tolerance should be, what their priorities should be, and—overall—how they should live their lives.

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I know it’s hard not to be hurt that everyone in your family doesn’t feel that your baby is more important than anything or anyone else in the world. But you might as well absorb this information now: you and your husband are the only people who feel this way. Your parents are excited about their impending grandchild—and your mother is committed to helping out with him—but there is more to their lives than the baby (and supporting you). They take pleasure in the company of their other children at least as much as they take in yours; plus, there is the considerable pleasure of being out and about, especially after such a long period of being shut in at home. They are entitled to that. Your siblings are entitled, too, to value the experiences that give them pleasure. None of this means they don’t love you. It just means that you—and your child—are not the sun they revolve around.

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You’ll have to gracefully put off your mother’s help until you feel comfortable. Tell her regretfully that you’re sorry, but you don’t feel good about her helping out early on if she carries any risk at all—that you wish it were otherwise, but you’ll let her know when you do feel it’s OK. You do not have to force yourself to accept a level of risk that feels unacceptable to you, but you do have to accept the strictures and losses that go along with this.

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Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

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People always say when it comes to parenting that you should pick your battles. We have two teen boys and I can’t honestly tell which battle is right to fight anymore. Do I fight over the values that I think are important? What both parents think is important? The one that involves health and safety? School? Food? Sports? Laundry? What if two parents choose different battles? How the heck do you untangle that? I try to apologize when I know I’ve picked the wrong battle. I have one son who accepts the apology, and I have another who used my apology against me (a sub-battle?). Layer social media and a pandemic over all of this, and I honestly think that I’m in the upside down most days. I read the parenting books, but they make it seem so easy. I’ve got a therapist and friends, and both are helpful. But in the end, I wonder if I’m the only parent who seems to be consistently picking the wrong battle on a daily basis. Do I stop battling and hope for the best? Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

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—Battle Fatigued

Dear BF,

You are definitely not the only parent who is fatigued, struggling, and feeling like a failure. I would venture to say that parents of teenagers who claim to be living an entirely conflict-free life are delusional.

Take a deep breath. This miserable period won’t last forever. There’s not much you can do to make things go really well right now. The first part of my advice is to accept that the baseline of life with teenagers is going to be much lower, in terms of household peace, your peace of mind, and general OKness, than you’d hoped for, or than it ever was before (and will be again, I promise! Teenagers grow up!). The second part is to keep in mind that every family works out their own set of which “battles” are important enough to fight. (And maybe it would help if we stopped thinking of them as battles and started thinking of them as essential principles to uphold.) Take another deep breath and sit down with your husband and ask yourselves this question: What matters most to the two of you where your kids are concerned?

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I’m guessing that one thing you can agree on is your kids’ safety, even though you may disagree about what this means in practice. Do your best, together, to whittle this down to its purest form: what do your kids need to stay alive and in one piece? Every item on your list should be scrutinized this way. For example, when it comes to school, what matters, what doesn’t, and why? Make sure you can fully explain to yourself (and to each other) before you talk about it with your kids. Don’t settle for vague, fuzzy answers (“because getting good grades is important!”) or platitudes; don’t worry about the “commonly held” opinion. Same with sports. Same with food. (I don’t know what kind of issues are coming up around food, but if you’re engaging in battles about it, I feel almost certain they’re not worth having.) Come to an agreement with your husband about what which “principles” you can let go of  (what the kids wear, for example). You may end up arguing. Some things you consider unimportant may be a very big deal to him, and vice versa. Do your best to get on the same page, but if that’s impossible, I don’t think it’s terrible for kids to know that their parents sometimes have vastly different opinions. This is, after all, the period in your children’s lives when they are practicing for and preparing for adulthood.

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I wish you fortitude, and luck. For what it’s worth, there will likely come a time when you’ll look back on these battleground years nostalgically (and with a sense of humor). Now: one more deep breath, and into the breach.

—Michelle

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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I can’t believe I’m asking this question, but I’ve become super-duper anxious all of a sudden. I was invited to a wedding of a longtime, but not close, friend. I was given a plus one, which just says “guest.” I want to bring a friend, one whom the couple has met a few times. The couple has no idea whether I’m dating anyone, they don’t know my orientation, and they gave me a plus one anyway. The internet seems dead set against bringing anyone other than a date, but I can’t imagine that these people, who are queer-friendly, are super into conventional, couple-centric etiquette. So, can I bring my friend? Should I calm down?

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