Care and Feeding

My Manipulative Mother Is Now a Manipulative Grandmother

An older woman holds and smiles at a toddler who does not look happy
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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 mother is a difficult person. Someone who only met her briefly might be struck by how bubbly and sweet she is, but I overdosed on that long ago and have seen the manipulative person behind the mask. My wife and I recently had our second child, a daughter whom we’ve given a very feminine name, but we mostly call her by a short, ambisexual nickname (along the lines of Sam for Samantha or Max for Maxine). My mother, however, keeps referring to her by a different and more feminine nickname, one we dislike. I realize that children will accrue different names over time and that it’s not that unusual for a grandparent to have a different pet name for a grandchild than the name the parents use, and I also know that this is not a very high-stakes matter. But I do think it’s a low-key example of her being controlling, and in this case doubles as policing gender norms. I might feel differently about the use of this name if it were coming from a different person (or even just a different grandparent). How justified would I be in insisting she use the same nickname we do?

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—Nickname Troubles

Dear NT,

I think you can insist all you want, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that it won’t make a whit of difference—unless by “insist” you mean telling her that if she doesn’t use the nickname you’ve chosen, she will not be granted an audience with the child. It’s possible that would work. But since you haven’t mentioned this nuclear option (which I hasten to say I do not recommend—unless what you are looking for is “justification” to cut your mother out of your life … in which case you might try a more direct approach), I imagine you are only looking for permission to wrest control from her.

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Here’s the thing: This is a losing battle for multiple reasons. For one, you can’t control a controller—or, if you do manage to in one narrow area, it will pop up elsewhere and continue to madden you (it’ll be a game of control whack-a-mole). Really, when it comes to you and your mother, this is a proxy battle—or, at least, it’s both about the name and about your relationship with your mother. So even if you win on this front, you are going to continue to be angry and on high alert. It may be time to deal with these issues around your mother head-on.

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Meanwhile, if you hate the name your mother uses, tell her that: “Mom, please don’t call Max ‘Maxinetta.’ We hate that name! We call her Max, OK?” Repeat as necessary. Mom may argue that Maxinetta is a much more beautiful nickname than Max. Are you “justified” in saying “Haha, not to us”? Sure. Knock yourself out. You might win this battle. But what about the war?

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And keep in mind, as you wage the nickname battle, that you’re not going to get to control (for long) the name your daughter is called by others anyway. Or for that matter what nickname she decides to use once she’s old enough to talk and have opinions of her own, so you might as well steel yourself now for that, too.

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, I’m Worried What My Toddler’s Horrible Behavior Now Means for His Future: “I’m starting to have visions of him as the adult who won’t take no for an answer.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My spouse (she/her) and I (he/him) are tangled up in our 21-year-old daughter’s hair. She’s a college senior and generally doing well, except for one knotty issue: She’s headed to the stylist for a severe haircut for a college theater role (think Captain Picard in Star Trek). One of us feels youth is a good time for experimentation and notes that people, including women, can sport shaved heads if they like (after all, hair grows back). The other parent is certain that shearing her lovely locks is a serious mistake our daughter will deeply regret. (She’ll be looking for a social services job soon. What, this parent wonders, will interviewers say about a candidate whose scalp is reminiscent of Sir Ben Kingsley?) Please don’t brush us off. Help us get to the root of our problem.

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In all seriousness, one of us is losing sleep over the situation.

—Hair Squabble

Dear HS,

You’ve come to the right person: I don’t brush anyone off, and I love detangling a knot that’s keeping someone up at night. I’m betting that one strand of this problem is only the latest outcropping of an ongoing conflict between you and your spouse (sorry; I have a limited store of hair references; plus I get tired of puns fast). The two of you have very different ideas about how much a parent’s opinion matters past a certain point and how involved you’re supposed to be in your grown-up child’s life, as well as (I’m guessing) a longtime conflict about what’s “appropriate” deportment, attire, and style—i.e., one of you is much more conservative than the other.

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If you’ve managed all these years without this difference in worldviews (and child-rearing approaches) causing a serious rift, then you two must be very good at balancing affection and respect with opposing viewpoints (I’m impressed). But now that your daughter is most definitely no longer a child, perhaps you can retire this particular sort of conflict. Which brings me to the second part of my response, which I shall state frankly: It is absolutely none of either of her parents’ business what your daughter does to or with her hair. Nor is it for one of you to concern yourself with what “interviewers” will have to say. (My own guess is that many if not most of them—if they are accustomed to interviewing young people—will be well used to seeing a variety of personal styles among them, hair- and otherwise.) Your daughter can decide for herself if this is a concern for her.

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As to the anxious parent: Get some sleep. This young woman will be out in the wide, wild world soon enough. If her decisions about her hair are keeping you up, just wait till you have to swallow her choices about where and how and with whom to live. Get used to being on the sidelines now and beat the Christmas rush.

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,

I have a nearly 2-year-old daughter. We were lucky enough to receive piles of hand-me-down baby clothes, accessories, and toys from friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Most were not given but lent to us, on the explicit or implicit assumption that we would give them back once we were done with them. I’ve been carefully photographing everything, sorting it, and returning it as we finish with it. It’s a lot of work keeping track of everything, but I am grateful for all the generosity, so it’s the least I can do. I’d now like to “pass it forward” and lend out the things we own, and that my daughter has outgrown, to friends/family. However, I do want it all back afterwards, either for another child if we decide to have one or to continue to lend to other friends. But so far my experiences of lending things have left me very annoyed!

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One friend of a friend moved back to her home country and left the baby clothes randomly scattered amongst various people who’d lent them to her. We still haven’t tracked ours down. We gave my husband’s cousin our daughter’s newborn clothes, and my husband stressed that we’d like them back and asked her to take photos to remember which things were ours. Her baby is now a year old, so we started pressing for the clothes back … and she eventually told us she has no idea what’s ours and what isn’t. I sent her the photos I’d taken of all the clothes we gave her, at which point she said she didn’t have time to fish these things out from among all of her child’s outgrown clothes, and if we wanted them back we had to go to her house and find them ourselves.

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Is it naïve of me to think that other people will take as much care of borrowed clothes as I did? Should I accept that I should only give out things I’m prepared to not see again? Or is there a way to politely but firmly tell people that I am very happy for them to use things for as long as they want, but please remember which things I gave them, and give them back to me afterwards?

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—Would-Be Generous

Dear Would-Be,

It is naïve of you to think that other people will take as much care of borrowed clothes as you did. You should accept that you should only give out things you’re prepared to never see again. And finally, instead of politely but firmly telling people that you’re very happy for them to use things for as long as they want, but please remember which things you gave them—among the no doubt many things others have passed along to them—and return them afterward, I would strongly suggest you stop this madness. Most people with babies are not going to make time to create the sort of database you did.

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I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with your having done it (you do you! I am in awe!), only that it’s not reasonable to suppose that others will follow suit. (I still feel just a little bit guilty about the sweaters someone gave me for my daughter nearly 29 years ago with the caveat that they’d want them back—because I have no idea what happened to them—and even more grateful to the many people who gave me hand-me-downs without any such strings attached … and I am also ruefully amused at my own long-ago self, who once passed along a fabulous black diaper bag, when such things were in rare supply, with a request that it be returned when it was no longer needed. What was I thinking?) Either give hand-me-downs freely or don’t hand them down at all.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

After many years of longing, I met my wonderful husband at the age of 38. We knew pretty quickly that we wanted to be together and that we might want to have a child, but we were not willing to rush into parenthood without knowing each other better. So we visited the fertility clinic. The first thing I was told was that my ovarian reserve was so low I’d probably never get pregnant naturally. Three rounds of IVF later, we had frozen three embryos. By then we were ready to try to get pregnant and figured we might as well give it a shot the old-fashioned way. And lo and behold, I got pregnant naturally and delivered my amazing daughter at the age of 42. Yay! But the embryos created a possibility and a dilemma I never expected to have.

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I hadn’t thought in advance that I might want more than one child, but I have loved being a mom. My daughter brings me so much joy that I’d love to experience it all again. But I am now 45. My husband is 43. And he feels differently. But this is not (quite) the story of “husband doesn’t want another child.” He simply can’t decide. He loves being a dad and says he likes the idea of another child, but is worried about the impact on his career (which is very demanding), our marriage (we have had some issues in the past), and his own happiness. I’m not willing to make a deal and say I’ll do all the work, since I also have a career and I know I’d resent it if I were essentially single-parenting while married.

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He says he is really thinking about it, but that giving him a deadline is only going to backfire and deny him the chance to decide for himself. Every time I bring it up, we end up fighting. He feels like I am pressuring him; I feel like he is stringing me along, and I worry that because we have these embryos, this crazy limbo can go on forever. We have been through couples counseling, and I have seen my own therapist, who says that my husband clearly does not want a second child.

I feel like I should mentally and practically move on, with gratitude for all that I have. Give away the baby stuff. Enjoy my daughter and live my life. But we have those embryos! And he doesn’t want to destroy them either! (Indeed, we keep paying not insignificant storage fees for them.) Finally, there is the issue of my age, which really weighs on me. I had mentally set 45 as a limit for myself, but now I find myself wondering if that is an arbitrary endpoint. How old IS too old? I am healthy, but I worry about not being around for my kids later in their lives. I guess the only options are to make the decision myself that we are not going forward because I’m too old (set my own boundary) or be zen about his indecision (why is that so hard for me?). I’ve tried mindfulness and meditation. It helps some, but I still feel stuck.

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—Embryo Limbo

Dear EL,

First, I’d say that you need to think hard about whether you really want to have another child, and what you think your life might look like if you did. I think you are on your own in figuring this out, because while I don’t know if your therapist is right—if your husband has already made up his mind and is unwilling or unable to tell you this hard truth—it doesn’t sound as if you two are getting anywhere talking about it. It may be that having another child is so important to you, and that you are so certain you will regret it if you don’t try, that you will decide you need to push ahead—whatever that ends up meaning for your marriage (and you’ll get no judgment from me if this is what you conclude).

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But I have a strong feeling that you need to think this through fully, as I say, all by yourself, and from every possible angle. I remember going through a period of desperately wanting a second child (I had been certain I wanted only one) for the very reason you mention—plus, my daughter was a toddler, and as much as I adored her, I just plain missed having a baby. I was over 40 by then, and I was really struggling with this (for many reasons that included but were not limited to my career and my husband’s feelings about a second child).

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I spent months wrestling with this, and one of the things that happened was that the longing passed. I’m not suggesting that this will happen to you (or that it would happen to anyone else)—I’m just saying that this was what happened to me. It was one of the things that happened. I also realized that the deep pleasure I took in being a mother was going to be fulfilled for the rest of my life in many different ways with my one and only child (I was right: She’s 28 now and I am still enjoying it very much). And I remembered why I had been so committed to stopping at one. In other words, the fever passed, my cooler head prevailed. I have never once been sorry about my decision.

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You may have a very different path. But only you can determine that. Take the time to turn it over in your mind. Try to picture yourself when a second child is, say, 3 as well. Or even a third! Will you feel the same mournfulness—so common among mothers—that you feel now? Maybe what you’re longing for are the special baby moments that have passed, knowing that they are once and for all done? You might feel this—it sounds like you will feel this—whether your last baby is your first child or your fifth.

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And I will say this: I don’t think you can be “zen” about it. You’re asking too much of yourself if you believe that you should not think of this as a big, life-changing decision. I also don’t think you ought to simply tell yourself you’re too old. If you’re going to decide not to go forward with this, don’t decide that based on something you have to persuade yourself of. And yes, I understand that your situation is complicated by the existence of those frozen embryos—that you have a decision to make about them, too. But do try to work through this one question at a time. I think you will be able to have a more productive conversation with your husband once you have more clarity about your own thinking and your own feelings.

I’ll be thinking of you and wishing you well.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I’m a 35-year-old single woman and last year I began to have a panicked feeling that my time was running out to meet someone and have kids. I have been seeing a counselor since last September about it, and she has helped me sort through my feelings and look at my options. I now know I want to have a child on my own, but I know my family will disapprove. What should I do?

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