Care and Feeding

I Can’t Believe What I Read on My Granddad’s Phone

Teen girl looking sad and staring at a cellphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Daisy-Daisy/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 17-year-old girl, and recently, when I borrowed my granddad’s phone for a minute, a message popped up on it from a woman he’s known for over 20 years. It was about how she wanted to have lunch with him at the next car show they were going to (they’re both ex-mechanics who go to car shows periodically) and ended with her saying she loved him and calling him “darling.” I have to admit it … I snooped. I scrolled through their whole chain of texts. While some of their messages were about car shows, a lot of hers were about how she missed him and ended with “Love you,” as did some of his.

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My grandparents have been happily married for over 50 years, and this completely shocked me. I keep trying to find a way to rationalize it (maybe it’s a friendly “I love you”? Maybe it’s because they’re from a different time?) but I just can’t. I know telling this to my mom (their daughter) would destroy her, and it’s already changed the way I see my grandfather. I wish I’d never looked on his phone, but now there’s no going back and I can’t unsee those texts or tell anybody about them. What do I do? How can I get over this?

—Distraught Granddaughter in SD

Dear Distraught,

You are a wise 17-year-old indeed, aware that you can’t go back and unsnoop and can’t (should not!) tell your mother what you learned. Don’t be too hard on yourself about the bad decision to scroll through that text chain. Yes, it was bad, but it’s also only human—and despite the maturity you’ve evinced otherwise, you are only 17. I feel confident you’ve learned a lesson here (don’t snoop on other people’s phones, no matter how tempting). Now the problem is how to live with this unsettling information.

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It’s unsurprising that it’s made you distraught, and of course it’s changed the way you see your grandfather. If you were older—if you were an adult—I would tell you to keep this information to yourself, to remember that it’s your grandfather’s life and thus his own business, that you can’t know what really goes on in your grandparents’ marriage, that it’s always best not to insert yourself into the complexities of other people’s lives and relationships. And I will add that if you can take that grown-up advice, then great—do that. But I also think that’s an unfair burden to put on someone who is not all grown up. And because you are so upset about this—because I think it may well have turned your world upside down, which isn’t fair to you (even if you did bring it on yourself by peeking—the punishment of your distress doesn’t fit the crime)—I am going to suggest that you speak to your grandfather, privately. You can tell him how sorry you are that you read the texts (which is true, after all). And how upset you are—and everything else you have just told me. In other words: dump it all on him. You’ll feel better for having talked about it, and the problem will be his to solve.

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The fact that he handed his phone over to you, unlocked, so that you could use it—knowing full well there were incriminating texts on it, and that a new one could pop up at any time—makes me think that he 1) deserves being called out, as this was incredibly careless (and maybe even cruel) of him, 2) is not in fact keeping this a secret from your grandmother and doesn’t care if you or others in the family find out, or 3) is neither careless/cruel nor in an open marriage with your grandma but wanted to be caught.

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From this week’s letter, “I Can’t Believe Where My Husband Wants to Send Our Daughter Next Summer: “I don’t want to pay $3,000 for my kid to be miserable just so his mom isn’t offended.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I form a blended family: He has three kids from his first marriage, I have one from my first marriage, and we have a 2-year-old together. For the most part, things are great. However, now that our 2-year-old is starting to talk, I have a question about grandparents (and nongrandparents). My husband’s parents divorced when he was a child, and his father died over 20 years ago, so none of our children knew him. His mother speaks freely of her affairs during, and since, their marriage. For the last 15 years or so, she has had an on-and-off, apparently platonic relationship with a man named Tony. They see one another about once a month. She sometimes brings him to family gatherings, but not always. Last year, my mother-in-law decided that she was “too young to give up on romance” and began dating. She had brief but passionate relationships with two other men (she openly shared details with me and with the older children) and didn’t mention Tony all year. Now that those relationships have fizzled out, she has started bringing Tony around to family events again.

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Here’s where things get tricky: When she introduced Tony to our 2-year-old son for the first time last week, she introduced him as “Grandpa”! And she was quite insistent about it, too, actively teaching our son this word/name, coaxing him to repeat after her as she pointed at Tony. I didn’t say anything at the time, but the more I think about it, the more uncomfortable this makes me. Tony is a kind and generous man, and I have no problem with him coming over to our house or spending time with my mother-in-law, but as we have seen in the past, Tony might disappear from our lives at any moment. I really don’t want my son to call him “Grandpa.” Does the fact that there isn’t another paternal grandfather in my son’s life make a difference? For what it’s worth, my husband’s older kids do call Tony “Grandpa,” but they are all over 10 years old and can better understand the nuances of adult relationships. My son from my first marriage calls him “Tony,” not “Grandpa.” Should I let this go, or should I ask my mother-in-law to choose another nickname for her special friend?

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—What’s in a Name?

Dear WiaN,

I kind of want to just lob your own question back at you: What is in a name?

I mean, if your mother-in-law so badly wants your son to call her “special friend” Grandpa—and your three stepchildren call him Grandpa—what or whom would it hurt if this were the name by which your 2-year-old addressed him? If he has another grandfather (you haven’t mentioned your own parents in this letter, but I am going to go out on a limb and guess that your father is already Grandpa—to both your youngest and the son who’s the product of your first marriage—and you’re worried about hurting his feelings or diminishing his relationship with your kids by bestowing this title upon Grandma’s friend), how about the compromise of “Grandpa Tony,” to clearly distinguish Tony from your dad? What’s the harm in this?

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I find myself wondering if you’re concerned that the very idea of grandparenthood is sullied by invoking the name in this case. Honestly, I’m not sure there is anything sacred about grandparenthood or the titles that go with it. (As a child, I had one set of grandparents I loved very much—and no doubt they loved me even more in return—and one set I didn’t love at all. My paternal grandmother was by turns nasty, dismissive, viciously critical, and chilly. Calling her “Grandma” took nothing away from my other grandmother. I knew that the name referred to two different kinds of relationships. It’s just a name, after all.) And if Grandpa Tony drifts in and out of your son’s life—or eventually disappears from it altogether—you can explain that to him in an age-appropriate way when (if) that time comes.

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Or is this not about any of the above? The way you talk about your mother-in-law suggests the possibility that you so deeply disapprove of her you simply don’t want to give her the pleasure of acceding to her request. If this is what it comes down to, ask yourself if this is fair. She is living her life as she pleases—and why shouldn’t she? She doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone. Her love life, and her openness about it, is hers to make decisions about, no? Why not live and let live?

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-year-old stepdaughter wears crop tops, miniskirts, bike shorts, and tied-up T-shirts to school (which recently updated its dress code), and I think she looks great in whatever she wears; I’m happy her school lets its students express their personalities through their clothing. But recently I noticed that whenever she was preparing for a weekend at her mom’s house, she packed only baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirts. Last week, I asked her if she’d like to pack some of the new clothes we’d just bought and she said no, her mom no longer lets her wear these kinds of things—Mom has told her they make her look “gross” and says that too much of her “sticks out” when she wears those clothes. My stepdaughter is a size 6/8, which is perfectly healthy, and her mom’s comments made my husband and me furious. We don’t know what we can do about it, though. He doesn’t have the best relationship with his ex. I am civil with her, but we don’t talk much (and she’s gotten upset with me before for “trying to take” her place in my stepdaughter’s life—in that case, it was because I helped plan her 13th birthday party). How should we handle this situation? I want my stepdaughter to feel at home in her body and be happy and confident at any size. Her mother seems to be determined to do the opposite.

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—Body-Positive Stepmom in Santa Fe

Dear BPSiSF,

It’s not entirely clear to me that your stepdaughter’s mom is body-shaming her for the size of her body (although of course she may be). The comments you report seem to me just as likely to come from another (also awful) place: Is she disgusted by her daughter’s sexuality—or fearful about it, or for her? When she calls her “gross” for wearing clothes she “sticks out” of, is it about her “exposing” her body? Or is it about what you think it’s about?

Either way, as I say, it’s bad. But I think it would be useful, as you work to counter what(ever) your stepdaughter’s mom is shaming her about, to know for sure what you are countering. And the way to find out is to ask your stepdaughter directly. “What is it your mom dislikes about the way you dress?” is a reasonable starting place for discussion. “How do you feel when you mom says these things?” is a legitimate, helpful question to ask. And “I like to dress in a way that makes me feel good, in clothes I’ve chosen because it makes me happy to wear them” is a perfectly fine thing to say (if it’s true!).

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But the person to be talking to about all this is the kid, not her mother. You can’t do anything to change the mom’s behavior (and criticizing her for the way she talks to her child is a surefire way of turning your relationship with her into a battleground, which I guarantee will only make things worse for your stepchild), but you certainly can offer an opposing perspective that bolsters her confidence, clarifies things for her, and may (if not now, then eventually) enable her to take on these subjects directly with her mom. Your job—and your husband’s—is to raise this child well; it is not part of your job, I’m afraid, to police her mother’s questionable parenting tactics.

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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,

I am 24 and was lucky enough to be raised in a loving household with parents who cared about my well-being and always tried to give me every opportunity they could, including summer camp, private school, and college admissions counseling. I am grateful for all of that. The problem is that my parents also raised me in an incredibly sexually repressive atmosphere. This was not because they were super religious or anything like that; they were just uncomfortable about sex. We never used the anatomically correct words for body parts; I once got in trouble as a little kid for having my hand vaguely near my private areas (my mom thought I was touching myself, which hadn’t even occurred to me); and I was taught that boys are “bad,” so of course I didn’t date, or even have male friends, until I was in college. Once I finally started to, it was awkward and difficult for me because I was so inexperienced.

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I’ve tried to talk to my parents about this, but when I do, they say things like “Are you really complaining about a childhood where you got everything you ever wanted?” It’s clear they are still very uncomfortable with any discussion of, or even hint about, sex. They aren’t open to listening to me tell them how my life and mental health would have been improved if our family was more open about sex, or even what I need from them moving forward. They view this as whining, they think my complaints are unwarranted, and they insist that in fact I’m wrong—that I didn’t experience any childhood trauma, that I’m making this all up. Who’s right? Should I give up on this conversation? Why are they so defensive? I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall.

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—Frustrated by Parents

Dear Frustrated,

I’m sorry your parents weren’t able to do better by you when it comes to matters around sex, and certainly they are wrong to tell you that you didn’t experience what you experienced (I mean, that’s gaslighting) or that the material things they provided mean you “got everything you ever wanted.” There are plenty of things human beings want—and need—that money can’t buy. I’m sure they know this (deep down, anyway), even if they can’t admit it to you or to themselves. I’m sure that’s why they are so defensive. But what’s to be served at this point by telling them how much better your life would be if they had raised you differently? What is it you are after from them, now that you are an adult? An apology? That does not appear to be forthcoming, and I wonder if it would satisfy you even if they could find it in their hearts to offer you one, sincerely. I shouldn’t think it would—an apology does not undo the past. I know you say that you want them to know what you need from them “moving forward,” but instead of expecting them to change (or even just hoping they will) and provide you with what you feel you need from them at 24, perhaps it’s time to move forward without their help.

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I’m not saying this is going to be easy, and I fully recognize (because I remember!) that in one’s early to mid-20s it is not uncommon to desperately want one’s parents to admit to the damage they’ve done. So you’re not alone in this. But that doesn’t mean it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Let it go, and use that energy and effort to work on your own life and find your way as an adult.

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—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My 11-year-old granddaughter has been determined not to view The Nutcracker since she was very young. We have no idea why, and as long as it never was an option to take her, it wasn’t an issue. This year she will be visiting during the time the ballet will be presented in my town. Her mother and I both are happily looking forward to going. My granddaughter simply refuses to discuss it. Is it wrong to purchase a lovely dress for her to wear and tell her that her going with us is what we would like as a Christmas gift from her this year? It would be a dream come true.

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