Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have a 26-year-old daughter, “Taryn” (and a younger son, but our daughter is the focus of this letter). She’s been through a spate of breakups over the past few years and has sought therapy, which of course we support because we want her to be happy and healthy. Well, this therapy has now uncovered a host of issues that Taryn has blamed us for. It seems she is “anxiously attached” in relationships because she was bullied and left out repeatedly as a child, particularly in middle and high school, thanks to our frequent moves around the country. My husband is high up in the corporate world and we moved roughly every two years so he could take on new roles that resulted in much higher income for our family. We knew Taryn was introverted and struggled to make friends but didn’t realize she felt so ostracized and friendless for most of her teenage years.
Our issue now is how to move forward. At the advice of Taryn’s therapist, we’ve talked with our daughter frequently about our role in her unhappiness and how sorry we are that we weren’t more attuned to her needs. At the same time, I think it’s appropriate that we did what we felt was right for our family, our kids were always loved and cared for growing up, and Taryn has made many choices as an adult that she has yet to take responsibility for (other than blaming us for her anxious attachment). I’ve now read about attachment, and the idea that Taryn would be so affected by switching from one fancy school to another fancy school seems absurd—but again, I’m really trying to meet her where she’s at. So I guess my question is: Now that Taryn has named us as the cause of her anxious attachment, where do we go from here? Even if we apologize more, would that help her move forward in a healthy way? Should we take all the therapist’s cues? Please advise.
—Taryn Us Apart
It’s good that you’re asking the question: where do we go from here? Because that’s really all you can do now that you know. You can go on from here. All of you. Of course, first you do have to truly recognize (and not just give lip service to) Taryn’s experience of her childhood. Defensiveness about it, doubts about it, rationalizations about your own choices—none of that will help any of you move forward. And one heartfelt apology is way more meaningful than multiple not-entirely-sincere ones. You did what you felt you had to do, you didn’t realize that it caused your daughter pain, you deeply regret the pain it caused her and continues to cause her. Repeat this (to yourself) as necessary, until you really feel it, until it means something to you beyond “I’ve apologized! What more do I need to do?” I think there is a good chance we all do our children harm without meaning to—sometimes even when we have the very best intentions. That doesn’t mean we’re terrible people, or terrible parents. But it also doesn’t mean that the harm we unintentionally caused isn’t real. So, bottom line: if you have told her you’re sorry and you mean that you are sorry, stop apologizing.
The way to move forward is to be loving, warm, supportive, and there. What’s done is done. But you have the rest of your lives to be a family. When Taryn is in pain, listen. If she asks for advice, feel free to offer it (but make sure to offer only what she asks for, and nothing more global than that—and do not offer any unsolicited advice, ever). If all she wants is your ear, give that to her. Tell her you love her. Show her you love her. And if she and her therapist uncover more issues that she brings home to you, try your best to rise to the occasion and grant your daughter the respect of taking her experience and understanding of her life seriously. I know this is one of the hardest things a parent can be asked to do. But for the sake of your future relationship with her, I can’t overstate its importance.
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From this week’s letter, “People Won’t Stop Prying Into Our Family’s Tragic, Violent History”: “My husband, whose family was wealthy, was brutalized, starved, and beaten, and no one ever tried to help him.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
Six months ago we welcomed a homeless 16-year-old into our home. They were a friend of a friend of a friend we connected to through Facebook. They have lived with us for nine months. We have provided room and board and all manner of support, happily. But at a recent family party they told my sister that they are not a part of our family—that they are not our kid. We are just their landlord, they said. I feel hurt. I know I should not make my feelings the responsibility of a teenager, but should I say anything? How can I tell them that I want them to think of me as family without negating their tenuous relationships with their biological family (who have a myriad of problems with addiction and stability)?
—Want to be a Mom-ish
I’m sorry you feel hurt that the child you’ve welcomed into your home six months ago doesn’t think of you as family—and I’m glad you know you shouldn’t make your hurt feelings the responsibility of a (traumatized) teenager. I hope you more than know this—I hope you really will keep those hurt feelings to yourself. And I hope you know, too, that not every harsh thing a teenager (any teenager!) says is heartfelt. That is to say: they may not think of you as their family (yet?), but they also may not think of your as (exactly) their “landlord.” That statement might have been bravado, pride, self-protection, or protectiveness about the family that has failed them but that they still love and feel very much a part of. In other words: take what your sister reported with a tiny grain of salt.
I want to say this next part very gently, because there is absolute goodness in what you have done, and I do recognize and honor that. But it isn’t reasonable to expect this child to embrace you as their “family” as quickly and enthusiastically as you have apparently decided they are to you. For this 16-year-old, no matter how many and how troubling their “biological” family’s problems may be, this matter of loyalty and devotion is much more complicated than you are making it out to be. It may take years before the teenager you’ve made room for in your home—and life—thinks of you as family. And it takes a whole lot more than providing room and board, as I imagine you know. If you are still unwaveringly there for this young person as they grow up and begin their own adult life, perhaps with a partner and children of their own, they may indeed come to think of you as the family who helped get them to that point, and of their own children as part of your family too. But you can’t rush this. You can’t—or rather, you shouldn’t—tell them that you “want” them to think of you as family. You can show it to them, every day and in many ways, for years to come. And you mustn’t say or do anything to undermine their connection, however tenuous, with their family of origin.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
My first wife died after a relapse into alcoholism when our son “Sam” was four, just days after I had hired a divorce attorney. Because I was already done with the selfishness and pain she brought to our family, I was ready to move on quickly. Three years later I married my now-wife, and she adopted Sam. They bonded quickly. I’ve always felt that she’s talked too much about his birth mom. Now, as he’s entering his teens, he has tons of questions about her. This year, he asked us to take him to her grave for Mother’s Day, and I’m angry. I haven’t been to her grave since the funeral, and I have no reason to go. He has a wonderful loving mother to spend the day with, and no reason to ruin it remembering someone so selfish she couldn’t even put down the bottle to see him grow up. My wife offered to take him, and we got into the worst argument we’ve ever had. I don’t see any reason to waste time on her memory, since neither of them knew her the way I did. How do I resolve this?
—It’s in the Past
I think you may need professional help resolving this for yourself, since hanging on to this rage is poisoning you. Your bitterness and fury may also end up poisoning your relationship with your current wife, or with your child. I am not going to “waste time” trying to persuade you that alcoholism, or what is now called alcohol use disorder, is a disease, and that your son’s mother’s inability to “put down the bottle to see him grow up” was more complex and awful and deeply sad than it was “selfish.” But I will tell you that your second wife has handled this entire situation with enormous grace, sensitivity, and love, and you would be wise to be grateful for this. Of course your son has questions about his mother! Of course he wants to find a way to remember her. I understand that it infuriates you that neither he nor his second mother appear to sympathize with you for what you went through, and that you want them both to be as angry and hurt as you are. But what would be gained by this? More love trumps more anger. And while you don’t have to find it in your heart to forgive (or even to allow a tiny glimmer of compassion to color your feelings about) your late first wife, it would lighten your own burden through the rest of your life if you found a way to work through your anger. And not demanding that your wife and child carry that heavy burden with you would be an act of great love for them.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
A teacher told my son’s class that if we are nuked, the missile will be aimed directly at their school. My son’s friend confirmed that the teacher said this. The reasoning the teacher offered: the school is supposedly the exact halfway point between two high-value targets. We are indeed halfway between two large cities, but I’m not savvy enough to know whether the school is at an exact midpoint, or how that would even be calculated. This at best sounds like speculation. Maybe the teacher heard it somewhere, but I am quite upset that he is telling students this. I would talk to the teacher and/or the principal, but my son doesn’t like it when I interfere. Should I let this go?
—What the Hell is Wrong with My Kid’s Teacher?
Dear What the Hell,
I would not let this go. I get that your son doesn’t like it when you interfere—my daughter didn’t either—and I’m all for not interfering as a rule, both because it’s important to be respectful of our kids (so that when they express a reasonable wish, the fulfillment of which won’t cause them harm, we should grant it) and because letting them work things out at school on their own is excellent preparation for college and beyond. But when teachers do or say anything that is clearly out of line, that is harmful in any way to the children for whom they are responsible and who look to them for accurate information about the world—I believe it’s time to override a child’s desire to have their parents stay out of their school lives.
I would begin by talking to the teacher, calmly and reasonably. It doesn’t matter if he “heard this somewhere” or if he came up with this theory himself. It’s cruel (and certainly not educational) to tell such a thing to children. When you talk to him, go ahead and give him the benefit of the doubt (“I’m sure you didn’t realize how much this would frighten the children”) but be prepared for him to dig in his heels. If he does—if he insists that he is only sharing facts, which is his job, or that the kids need to be prepared for the world’s harsh realities—you should be prepared to tell him that there is nothing factual about his speculation, that telling children such a thing is absolutely not a part of his job, and that if he does such a thing ever again, you’ll take action. That should make him think twice next time.
Meanwhile, you can reassure your child that this was nothing other than crackpot speculation, and that even teachers sometimes make mistakes or have opinions that are wrong. That too will help prepare him for college and beyond.
More Advice From Slate
We have a very smart, creative 13-year-old daughter. I recently read the texts between her and her first boyfriend—something she knows I do—and was surprised. She tells him that her life is screwed up and that she feels unworthy and unloved. This does not seem to describe our relationship. Should I talk to her about this?