Care and Feeding

I Can’t Believe What My Mom Included in Her Christmas Letter

Christmas cards.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

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,

Every December, my mother, who is in her 70s, starts talking about one of her pet peeves: when people send out Christmas letters and include updates on their grown children or grandchildren. “They’re not part of the immediate family, so why are they broadcasting news about them?” And yet, this year, she devoted a paragraph in her Christmas letter to my 17-year-old son, who has been fighting a life-threatening illness since he was 10. This past year brought a major medical procedure with an unexpected outcome, a brain injury, that will affect him for the rest of his life. Before this setback, he already had permanent deficits. We have never hidden that, but we also very intentionally advocate for his privacy and are careful about how much information we share with the world. I was shocked that my mother decided to write about his health struggles this past year, and perhaps what most pained me was that she made a false claim that “in a year he’ll be fully recovered.”

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I emailed her to express my concerns. I told her it was not her place to discuss our son’s medical journey and that it concerns me that she seems unaware of how serious his medical condition is. (This has been an issue in the past, as she’s told me I need to “get over it” and “it’s time to move on” on more than one occasion.) I spelled out that he will have a lifetime of medical care and further surgery. I (re)explained that he has new diagnoses since this past year’s surgeries, which are not temporary issues, and that he’s dependent on a shunt in his brain in order to survive—that as much as we all wish he’d have a “full recovery,” he will not.

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I feel she owes our son an apology for violating his right to privacy. She never asked me, his dad, or him if it was okay to include information about him in her letter, which went out to 45 (!) people. My prediction was that she would ignore my email and text me as if nothing was wrong. I was correct. She sent me a text the next day asking a benign question about a recipe she’d sent me–to which I replied, “No. Did you ever get a chance to read my email from yesterday?” Her reply was one word: “Yes.” I haven’t heard from her since. Am I wrong for expecting her to address my concerns?

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—Suffering in Seattle

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Dear Suffering,

So often people write in demanding to know if they are wrong to expect others to behave differently—to behave the way they want them to. And I know that what they want to hear is that they’re not wrong, of course the other person should do better. And almost always—as in this case—the person who has disappointed them should do better. And who can blame the letter-writer for being hurt or angry?

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The trouble is that this isn’t the right question to be asking. It isn’t even the question you mean to be asking. What you wish is for your mother to be more sensitive, self-aware, loving, realistic, empathetic, and thoughtful. You wish she listened better. You wish she understood how extraordinarily difficult it is for you to see your son suffer; you wish she understood what he has been through and will continue to go through. You wish she’d stop pretending and be there for both of you.

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Apparently she can’t. I can’t tell you why. But it’s clear that the steps you’re taking to let her know how you feel aren’t working. I think it’s time to stop texting and emailing. Pick up the phone—or, better yet, make arrangements to see her in person. Talk to her frankly about how you feel. I can’t promise it will make any difference in the way she behaves going forward. In fact I think it probably won’t. But you will feel better if you get this all off your chest and she has no choice but to respond. (If she responds by hanging up on you or walking away, that will confirm that she simply cannot respond as you wish her to.) And once you have let her know, directly and honestly, what you need from her—what you so badly wish for—it’s time to reckon with the fact that she will most likely never be able to give that to you.

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One of the hardest things to do in life is to make peace with what we (still! despite being all grown up!) feel we need from our parents that they have never been able to give us and never will. But it’s an essential part of moving forward with our lives.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week 

From this week’s letter, I Can’t Stand How My Sister Is Taking Advantage of Our Mother: “She says she doesn’t mind, but I know she’s exhausted, sometimes frustrated, and increasingly overwhelmed.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost a year, and we’ve done all the landmarks of a serious relationship: meeting each other’s parents, moving in together, etc. His family was welcoming and kind, his friends were fun and chill, and I thought I’d hit the jackpot.

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Eight weeks ago, I found out I was pregnant and I was really happy about it—I thought life couldn’t get any better. But we were at his family’s place the other day, talking about Christmas, and they were showing me pictures of traditional Dutch Christmas traditions they were excited for our child to experience. I was horrified to see that one they still engaged in was “Black Peter,” which involves white people in blackface!

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When I tried to talk to my boyfriend about how we needed to discuss this “tradition” for what it is (racist) instead of the funny costume his family seemed to think it was, he got offended and said I was being disrespectful of his culture. I believe in respecting and learning about your own culture and heritage while understanding and breaking the cycle of its prejudices (and we’ve talked about this extensively, as I’m a Filipino immigrant and have worked very hard to unlearn the racism and prejudice I grew up with). I tried in several ways to explain how this applies to every culture, but he shut down and wouldn’t hear my arguments. I am hurt and shocked because he was so incredulous to hear about the Asian obsession with lightening our skin and the anti-Black history in the Philippines, but he is offended by the idea that his culture could have any prejudices he might have to unlearn. I can’t imagine bringing an innocent child to a celebration with blackface at all, let alone never talking about the history and cultural context of it. Honestly, if I weren’t pregnant, his refusal to even think about the racist connotations of this would probably make me leave him. Am I overreacting and being culturally insensitive to half of our baby’s heritage, or is this something I should put my foot down about, as is my first instinct?

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—I’m Dreaming of a (Non-Prejudicial) Christmas

Dear IDoaNC,

I don’t think you’re overreacting or being culturally insensitive. I also don’t think putting your foot down is going to budge him. I am concerned that you have already made the calculation that you would break up with him over this if only you weren’t pregnant—that doesn’t bode well for your future. It suggests that your pregnancy is all that’s holding the two of you together at this point, and this is not sustainable (not with happiness, anyway) for either you or for your future child. I think you need to make another (and another) effort to get through to him, if you plan on staying with him and raising a child together. To this end, you will have to make educating him a priority. If you believe he is not irredeemable, then maybe he isn’t. Give him a chance to see this clearly for what it is. Go slow and give him time to think. But if he doesn’t budge, I’m afraid I must tell you that you shouldn’t stay with him. As Maya Angelou famously said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” (What Angelou actually said was, “believe them the first time.” But I’m willing to give your boyfriend a little grace. A little—no more than that.) See if it’s possible to get through to him. If it isn’t, you will have to walk away. Staying is not your only option.

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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 5-year-old daughter, Audrey, loves the stories my wife tells her about when we were first dating. My wife, Jade, is a colorful storyteller, and she has included many (G-rated) details in these stories. Now I’m wondering whether Audrey has gotten the wrong message from them. When Jade and I met, I didn’t know I was gay. I also thought I wasn’t interested in dating because I was so focused on being top of my class in law school. Jade patiently stayed in my life as I figured out that I WAS gay, WAS interested in love, and was NOT cut out to be a lawyer, which I’ve always seen as her balancing me out and understanding me. Audrey, however, has come to her own conclusions.

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Recently she declared, “Why would you want a job when you could be in LOVE?” and she kept scrunching up her face and shaking her head when I tried to explain that both are important and that I didn’t give up on law school in order to get married. Audrey also seems to have taken my not being interested in Jade at first as proof that women who say they don’t want romance or do want a career are wrong and need someone to love them to show them how they really feel. When I pointed out that Jade is also a woman and didn’t have to be “convinced,” she parroted what Jade had said about knowing she wanted to be with me right away. Jade, for the record, just kept laughing while I tried to explain the nuances to our starry-eyed 5-year-old, and she thinks this story will just reinforce in Audrey the way she deserves to be loved when she is old enough for romance.

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I remember growing up surrounded by the idea of romance as the only worthy thing a girl can achieve, and I think we need to actively fight against this, and expose Audrey to other options. I don’t want her to look down on romance, but I don’t want her to think it’s more important than she is, either! I know she’s only 5, so she’s not doomed to sit around waiting for her prince or princess forever, but she seems pretty fixated on it in a way she’s never been on any of the other kinds of stories we’ve exposed her to. Is this something serious enough that we need to stop telling these stories until she’s old enough to understand the nuances of them?

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—After Happily Ever After

Dear AHEA,

Well, stopping the storytelling now would be a shutting-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-has-bolted scenario, wouldn’t it? (And I guarantee that Audrey will keep asking for a repeat of those stories, and that Jade’s refusal to retell them—if you can convince her to quit—will only make them more precious and enchanting to her.) But I don’t think it matters, honestly. Exposing Audrey to all kinds of ideas about what makes up a fulfilling life—including meaningful work, good friends, good deeds, kindness and generosity and empathy, and (yes) romantic love—will help her figure things out as she grows up.

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Right now she is fixated on romance. A lot of children fall in love with the idea of romance. I know I did! For years of my childhood I avidly read DC romance comics (to this day I am nostalgic for them, even though I know how absurd the message they offered was). Even now I love a good (or even a not-so-good) Hollywood romcom above all other movies. This hasn’t stopped me from pursuing a career (several simultaneous, equally demanding careers, in fact). I also figured out the difference between romantic fantasy and real life. Audrey will too. I think the real issue here is that there is something in the way Jade tells the story of how you two got together that makes you uneasy. Are you two due for a conversation (out of Audrey’s earshot) about how you each see your relationship origin story? Are you due for an honest reevaluation of the choices you made about your life/career? I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with your marriage, or how your relationship with Jade began, or that deciding not a pursue a career in law was a mistake (that’s never a mistake!). It’s how you feel about all of these that’s probably worth thinking about and talking with your wife about. Especially if she’s laughing when you’re stressing.

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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,

Help. I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. My husband, whom I adore, “doesn’t believe” in Covid. I don’t actually know what he means by this, since it seems pretty clear it’s real, though I agree with him that the threat for a healthy young person like him, or me, has been exaggerated. I am vaccinated because I had to be, or I would have lost my job. Otherwise I probably would not have been, because he feels so strongly about this (he is self-employed and not vaccinated). We have a 9-year-old son and have chosen not to vaccinate him, and we live in a part of the country that doesn’t have a mask mandate. We have all been well throughout this whole crazy period. The problem is that my parents, who are in their 60s, invited us for Thanksgiving, and when we arrived (we live within a couple of hours’ driving distance), my husband and son were asked to wear masks except while eating. My husband flipped out and insisted we all leave, and we did. My son, whose favorite person in the world is his grandpa, has been inconsolable ever since. My husband is furious at my parents. I love them all, and I have no idea how to navigate this—but I do agree with my husband that my parents should have told us in advance that masks would be required. Now we’re not planning to see them at Christmas either. I feel awful about the whole thing.

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—Who Am I Supposed to Choose?

Dear Who,

You are in a terrible situation. I will spare you the argument that I assume you know I want to make (if you read this column, you know where I stand on vaccination and masking; you know that I think people like your husband are ignorant and ill-informed, at best). I will concentrate instead on the problem of your wanting to stand beside your husband, whom you love—even when he is being ridiculous (even if you don’t think so; trust me, he is)—and your wanting to spend time with your parents and allow your son and his grandparents to continue their relationship.

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By now I know that people like your husband cannot be convinced that they are wrong—this is a losing battle I have given up fighting. And your parents are quite rightly not willing to take the chance of being around an unvaccinated, unmasked person. Your husband cannot have been shocked by their request—he must be aware that it is common practice for unvaccinated (and even vaccinated!) people to be asked, or required, to mask.

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If your husband refuses to mask, and you want to spend time with your parents, see them without him. If he insists this is an act of disloyalty to him, do your best to explain that loving him does not mean forsaking everyone else you love.

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I wish you would insist on vaccinating your son, for his own protection and for the protection of all of those he comes in contact with, including your parents. But if you continue to refuse to do that, he too should be masked when he visits your parents, of course. I hope you can find it in your heart—for his sake and for your parents’ sake, for I am sure they are heartbroken—to arrange for him to visit with them, whether you are present on these occasions or not. I very much hope your family will not be a permanent casualty of the Covid culture wars. I wish you all luck navigating this thicket, and I hope that if you cannot be with your parents on Christmas Day, you and your son will visit soon before or after, to celebrate with them safely.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My 9-year-old daughter claims she is mostly friendless and describes a rough, heartless situation at school. When I’ve asked the teacher for her perspective, she sees a well-liked girl with friends, full stop. She’s a kind, creative, dramatic kid with good grades, but she is a first-class complainer. How can I help her?

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