Care and Feeding

Should I Feel Bad I Still Co-Sleep With My 4-Year-Old?

The feet of a woman, a man, and their child, as seen from the foot of their bed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ideabug/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,

My 4-year-old sleeps with my husband and me and has been doing so for maybe a year and a half. It works very well for our family, and I don’t really have any complaints. But I do feel tremendous pressure from Western society in general to get him into his own room. My husband and I have set a goal to have him in his own room by kindergarten, mainly because we feel like that’s appropriate. The problem is, neither one of us is very motivated to make the change because honestly, we love the way things are now! You might even say we are reluctant. So my question is: How badly have we messed things up by letting this happen, and how do we go about making this transition when we don’t even want to?!

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—Content to Co-Sleep

Dear Content to Co-Sleep,

You haven’t “messed things up” at all. Your child is still young, and if this arrangement has worked for your family in the past year and a half, that’s great. I’d encourage you and your husband to assess what you find as the benefits to co-sleeping for the two of you and for your son. Also ask yourselves if there are any current downsides.

In many co-sleeping situations, there comes a time when parents, children, or both “outgrow” the arrangement. It tends to happen organically. Sometimes parents find that they miss the privacy, space, and intimacy of being alone together in bed. Sometimes, as kids grow, they feel squished between their parents and want a bit more space. It’s OK to wait for an organic shift. If the kindergarten goal you set for yourselves doesn’t feel quite right, it’s OK to amend it.

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Of course, eventually your child will need to transition to his own room. It will be beneficial to him in the long term to know how to self-soothe and put himself to sleep at the end of a day—and, when he’s a bit older, to problem-solve around waking up in the middle of the night. Sleeping alone can be hard at any age (even as adults), but one thing that can make it slightly easier is practice. Figure out how best to afford your son that practice.

The transition may be tough for all of you, so it should be made gradually. Make a plan specific to your family’s needs. Maybe you’ll want to start with just one night a week or with weekends. Maybe you’ll want to give your child a bedtime ritual to look forward to: story time, tuck-in, a daily nighttime conversation about things you’re grateful for. Find what works best for each of you, at a time that feels right for you. Good luck!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My mom is so wonderful in many ways, but she’s chaotic and disorganized. I’ve wondered in recent years if she has undiagnosed ADHD; I know it’s not fair to armchair diagnose anyone, but I can tell she’s always tried her hardest but gets overwhelmed by what most people consider simple household and organizational tasks and is very sensitive to anything she perceives as rejection. She had difficulty with this when I was growing up, too, and I’ve worked through understanding why I took on the role of managing her feelings when I was very young. I did this by following up to make sure bills were paid on time, cleaning, and eventually in therapy to ensure I could manage my feelings and have a healthy relationship with her in adulthood. She’s fun and loving, so she’s a fantastic grandmother to my kids.

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My son is graduating high school this year. My mother lives in a big city with a top-rated college program in what he wants to study, which we’re thrilled to say he’s been accepted to! My mom wants him to move in with her for free while he attends college. Admittedly, this would save us a lot of money and would be ideal for COVID, and he loves his grandmother very much. My problem is, her approach to life is just as chaotic as when I was a child. Since I’ve moved out, her house has become more and more cluttered and messy, and she never has groceries in the house. It’s not unsanitary or dangerous, just very reflective of her “fly by the seat of your pants” approach to life.

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I worry that my son, who I’ve worked very consciously to ensure has a developmentally appropriate childhood, will take on the parentification role I once took if he lives with my mom. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure and stress on him when he’s just starting to figure out adult life. She’s always told me to lighten up, even when I was the one keeping the lights on, so I worry that I’ve gone too far the other direction. My husband doesn’t like my mother, so his opinion is biased. Am I being unreasonable to think that my son (older than when I was taking care of her but still young) should be kept away from being responsible for her, or am I projecting too much on a 20-year-old issue that’s not part of my son’s relationship with my mom?

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—Parentification Pattern?

Dear Parentification Pattern,

Grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren are, necessarily, different from parents’ relationships with their children. It sounds like your mother had a tacit expectation that you would pick up her “slack,” as it related to finances and organization. I can understand how overwhelming that must’ve felt for you, and I empathize with your worry that your son will experience something similar.

There are a few key differences in what you experienced and what your son might. First, his living arrangement with your mom is temporary. They both understand that it’s only meant to last for the years he spends enrolled in college (and maybe not even that long, if he decides to find a different living arrangement during his tenure). A potential four-year living arrangement between an adult child and his grandparent is nothing like the 18-year (or more) experience of living in a home you cannot leave. Your son would be going into this situation with options you didn’t have. He should be encouraged to exercise them if he feels overwhelmed.

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Second, your son may not be spending a lot of time at home. He’ll be a college student, after all, and he’ll have academic and social commitments that will keep him away from what you consider to be the “chaos” of your mother’s home more often than not.

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If you haven’t already, talk to your son about your worries and let him know that he shouldn’t feel obligated to take on more than his share of household chores and that he should feel no responsibility for organizing or maintaining your mother’s finances. Make him aware that he may be tempted to fill a sort of “rescuer” or “savior” role if the problems he witnesses in home are ones his own organizational skills could easily fix, but that isn’t his role to fill. Let him know he’ll have to do the same work to buy groceries and feed himself that he would in a typical dorm or housemate situation—and that may extend to buying a little extra, in the event that his grandmother eats the food he buys (consider this a kind of “rent” in an otherwise rent-free situation).

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Above all, let your son know that it’s OK to leave the situation if he finds it untenable. Be prepared to help him transition to another living arrangement, if that becomes the case. In the meantime, I hope your son and his grandmother enjoy each other’s company and that your son has a great transition to college life!

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I just got my license and prided myself on being a responsible driver, but I made the worst mistake and someone else had to pay for it. I was driving, with my older, pregnant sister in the passenger seat, and at an intersection another car ran a light. We crashed before I realized what happened. My sister was pregnant, and she had a miscarriage due to the trauma from the crash. She’s distraught and doesn’t want to speak to me. My mom said at the hospital to give her space, and now no one in the family can even look me in the eye.

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Maybe it’s not fair for me to want to apologize, but I don’t know what else to do, and I can’t stand my whole family hating me. What does my sister need from me right now? I would do anything to help her. I’ve never been pregnant, so I can imagine she’s mourning but I know I don’t really know how she feels.

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—Feeling Helpless

Dear Feeling Helpless,

I’m so sorry this happened. It sounds like it’s been devastating for you, your sister, and the rest of your family. I’m also sorry that members of your family seem to be distancing themselves from you in the aftermath of this. It’s a common emotional response, as you all process the trauma and loss. But you shouldn’t have to absorb what happened in isolation.

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I don’t know what your sister may need from you right now. It’s possible that your mother is right; she may just need time and space. You’re not being unreasonable for wanting to talk to her and to apologize for being the driver in a crash that resulted in tragedy. You also don’t seem to be at fault for this crash, so it’s unfair to be treated like you’re somehow to blame for another driver running a red light.

I’d encourage you to talk to a grief counselor or therapist about what happened. I hope your sister is doing the same. If a professional deems it appropriate, consider writing to your sister and expressing your feelings, with the understanding that it still might not result in reconciliation just yet. You’re right that she’s mourning. You’re mourning alongside her, and it may help her to know that. You lost an opportunity to be an aunt. You’ve lost connection with your sister. Your family is uncomfortable around you. And you were the driver in a tragic crash. Be gentle with yourself right now, even if those around you are unable to. If possible, find a way to let your sister know that you’re there and will be there, whenever she’s ready to talk. At this point, that’s all you can do. Wishing you all the best.

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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,

My daughter recently lost her husband to cancer and then lost her stepdaughter that she’s raised for seven years, due to the biological mother taking her back. She jumped right into a relationship not even a month later. This man has physically, verbally, and emotionally abused her. Things are bad! She already suffers from depression and anxiety and is bipolar. She has drastically changed and is cutting off all family members and friends that try to help her. She has two young children and her decisions are starting to affect them. Prior to this she was a good mom but now I see she is struggling.

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What can I do as a parent and grandmother? I’ve reached out to the police and CPS because I’m starting to see abuse to my grandson as well. My daughter has covered it up and won’t seek help even though she has come to my home all beaten up by this man. She keeps saying he needs help, that he’s sick and he’ll get better.

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—Desperate Mother and Grandmother

Dear Desperate,

I’m so sorry that you have to bear witness to this abusive relationship. You are right: Your daughter needs help. Make sure she’s aware of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and has their number at the ready, as they are equipped to provide her with practical and emotional support to get her out of this relationship. Unfortunately, your daughter needs to take this step herself. You can’t force her to. I also hope that given her mental illness she is in therapy and regularly seeing her doctor.

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In the meantime, you have an obligation to your young grandchildren. It sounds like you’ve already taken steps to begin documenting what you’ve witnessed. If your daughter was able to “cover up” the abuse she and your grandson experienced, I’m assuming you were unable to provide hard evidence of abuse to the police or CPS? A potential next step is to try to acquire that evidence. Record what you hear and see, in hopes that it may support your case. If you or another trustworthy family member is capable of assuming temporary custody of the children, let officials know this, and begin to take the necessary steps to begin that process. Continue to let your daughter know that you’re there for her, if or when she chooses to leave her relationship. Provide her with numbers to call for safe emergency housing, if she needs it, as well as the hotline I provided above. I hope things get better.

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—Stacia

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

More Advice From Slate

What is your take on expectations of women these days? I can’t tell if I’m a total dud or normal, but I feel exhausted by the expectations of me. I am a mother of a young child, and this is my main priority. I do all the parenting (literally), and my husband’s only expectation in this area is to say hello to our child when he gets home. You could argue that this dynamic is my fault, but among my friends it’s actually pretty common that the mom does the lion’s share of parenting.

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