Care and Feeding

My Son’s Plump Wife Is Waging a Food War

A fast-food burger, fries, and soda
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ValentynVolkov/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 need some advice addressing a parenting conflict that arises between my daughter “Kate” and daughter-in-law “Tammy” every time our family gets together. My husband and I and our two kids are all lucky to be thin without ever worrying about what we eat. Our daughter married a very athletic man, and they have three kids. Their family is quite active and puts a high emphasis on healthy eating, only allowing cake, soda, and such on special occasions. Our son, on the other hand, married a mildly plump woman who gained a large amount of weight after having their two kids, and instead of getting on the weight loss bandwagon has decided to embrace it as a positive. Tammy brings sweets, snack food, and fast food wherever she goes for herself and her kids, who are already visibly plump despite being typically active kids. All five grandkids are between 3 and 8 years old.

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When we get together, Kate always warns her kids against accepting junk food from their cousins, which being kids they don’t always obey. Tammy takes offense at this and retaliates by sneakily pushing such foods on Kate’s kids. This has led to more than one blowup with Kate criticizing Tammy’s eating and child-feeding habits, Tammy in tears, my son yelling at his sister for upsetting his wife, Kate’s husband in turn defending her, and so on. Kate says she feels bad about this and would prefer to let each family set its own rules without making it a topic of discussion, but feels her first duty is to raise her kids healthy and that Tammy forces the issue by trying to impose her family’s habits on Kate’s—similar to if Kate were to take Tammy’s kids’ sugary and salty snacks away and replace their ever-present Capri Suns and Mountain Dews with reusable bottles of water, which she has talked about but never actually done.

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The only solution I can think of would be to see our son’s and daughter’s families separately, but that would mean fewer weekends for us to spend alone as a couple. And apart from the parent-driven conflict over food, the kids all really enjoy playing with their cousins. Do you have any suggestions?

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—No More Food Fights!

Dear Food Fights,

Tammy is absolutely in the wrong for sneaking her nieces and nephews food that their parents don’t approve of. It’s not her business nor her decision. Her behavior is inappropriate, and she is possibly putting the kids in a difficult position with their parents, which isn’t fair to them.

As I read your letter, though, what I wonder about is whether she is doing this because something in the family dynamic makes her feel like her choices and lifestyle are being tacitly judged and disapproved of by the rest of you, and this is her form of silent rebellion. You may need to do some introspection about what kinds of signals you, Kate, and possibly others are sending her. (Are Kate’s warnings obvious, public, and full of subtext, for example? Are the two women or the children praised or treated differently because of their weight or food choices?) It’s possible you aren’t doing anything, and these are just Tammy’s own insecurities coming into play in a really negative way. But the tone of your letter leaves me feeling like there’s some judgment floating around the family. Things don’t need to be said out loud for others to know they are being thought. You might consider asking your son about what Tammy is feeling in all this (if there’s a way to do so that doesn’t feel like you’re talking behind her back—and I’d do so only if you’re acting out of genuine concern to make her feel more included). If she feels slighted, or like the black sheep of the bunch, he will know, and from there you can work out some next steps. If you want to make sure you’re setting both women (and all the grandkids) up for a happy future as one big extended family, both Tammy’s actions and family attitudes need to be on the table for a heart-to-heart conversation.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is in second grade and hasn’t had the easiest time in school due to having ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. He is in therapy, and he has a 504 plan. Generally he is a bright, funny, and sweet kid. Recently he lashed out at his teacher, yelling at her and then hitting her in the face when she tried to calm him down. He hasn’t hurt anyone during his outbursts before other than his father and me, and it’s been over a year since he’s done that with us. My son has written an apology letter to the teacher, and the school seems to think that that—along with a day of in-school suspension—is sufficient. However, I am mortified and am wondering if there’s anything else I should do to express how badly I feel about the incident. Any thoughts?

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—Ashamed

Dear Ashamed,

It sounds like you and the school are doing everything you should be doing right now to give your son the tools he can use to be comfortable, successful, and secure in the world. Even so, there are bound to be backslides or bumps along the way. Your son is not the first kid with ODD and/or ADHD to have made this kind of misstep, and he won’t be the last, and it sounds like the teacher and the school know that. I don’t think there is a reason to feel mortified, but I can understand why you do. If it would make you feel better to check in with the teacher, you can consider dropping her a line with a simple (and brief) apology and an invitation to talk if the teacher notices any more of this kind of behavior (or anything similar). Alternatively, you could write a note to the teacher and/or principal to thank them for their forbearance and for being your partners in raising and educating your son. Take comfort in the fact that these educators have probably seen everything when it comes to diagnoses, and they want the same thing you want for your son.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a primarily stay-at-home mom with two kids and a husband with a good job that covers everything we need. I do some work very part-time, from which I make $2,000 a month. We have savings, but we don’t own our home. If something happened to my husband, we’d have to adjust our life quite a bit, and I’m not sure how successfully I could fill in what he makes currently, especially if I had to maintain the volunteer and community work that I do to ensure my kids are active citizens.

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I give all of this background because it relates to my dilemma. Currently most of my income goes to a service that redistributes money directly to families in other countries in need of a financial boost. The service is very good, most of the donations go directly to needy families, and you can exchange letters with the families as a means of ensuring the money gets to where it is going. Now I’ve found another good charity that pays for former Afghan refugees to bring their families over to the U.S., and I am thinking about adding it.

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My husband is a bit concerned. He never tells me what to do with my money, but he points out that if something happens to him, we might be in a difficult financial situation. He suggested I put some money and time towards upskilling with the idea of enjoying learning while also building a foundation should I ever need it.

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What he has trouble understanding is that I can’t shake the idea that I should be contributing more. I have always been deeply troubled by the idea that people are struggling unnecessarily in a world where billionaires own private planes. The idea of spending money on a scenario that might happen instead of spending it on what is happening now actually keeps me up at night. It seems very important to share what I have right now, and I always feel guilty about not sharing more.

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Is there a way to balance this successfully? How do I justify planning for a potential future (and what percentage is appropriate) versus sharing right now? I am really worried about providing for my own family but also terrified that I don’t share enough with others who are demonstrably needier.

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—What’s the Best Formula

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Dear WtBF,

There is a reason flight attendants on an airplane tell us to put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others. In an emergency, you might be compelled to ensure your child gets the mask on because they are the most vulnerable, but the crew knows you are no good to your child if you pass out in the process. I think you need to think of that scenario as a metaphor here. If the unthinkable happens to your husband, and you are not able to adequately care for your children and home, you will regret it deeply. So, while you are doing a noble and honorable thing by sharing your wealth with others who have so little, it is also both responsible and ethically OK to ensure your family’s solid footing first.

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There is no magic formula that I have heard for what to save versus what to donate, because everyone’s goals and definitions of financial stability are different. You and your husband should find a financial planner that can help you figure these things out. They can help you articulate what it is that you want to have in place by when, and identify the steps to get you there. This might include anything from cash investments to IRAs to life insurance. Going back to school to earn additional credentials is certainly one option, but it’s not the only one that can provide you and your husband some peace of mind.

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To share some personal experience, when my first child was born, my husband and I began working with a financial planner to secure life insurance that would replace our incomes in the event of our deaths. He also helped us do the math on how much in savings and 529 education plans we would need in order to pay for college tuitions, and how much we needed to put away monthly to retire at the same income level we were at then. We put all of those plans into place with automatic monthly contributions so that we knew the money left over was ours to do with as we please, whether that was vacations, donations, or whatever.

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Today, I am a widow and I have been able to keep myself in my nonprofit career, instead of immediately seeking a higher-paying job, precisely because of these plans we enacted seven years ago.

A final thought: You seem deeply anxious about your ethical role in helping others, and I fear you may be carrying an unhealthy amount of guilt and obligation around this issue. If your financial advantage over others is truly keeping you up at night, and if not donating terrifies you, you might want to find some outlets (therapy, books, etc.) to process that. What you’re describing sounds a lot to me like compassion fatigue; we see this phenomenon a lot in trauma careers, conservationists, veterinarians, and others, and it can get really dark if not addressed. Please make sure you look out for your own mental and emotional well-being in all this. No amount of money you donate will ever feel like enough, so finding a way to be at peace with simply being one of the helpers in this world is important.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

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Our 7-year-old daughter will be 8 in a few months and still struggles with potty training issues. She has even had a kidney infection and multiple UTIs as a result. We have tried many tactics, including rewards, timers, ignoring it, etc. Our pediatrician advised us not to talk about it, and says that she will be potty trained when she’s ready. However, I am concerned about the UTIs (I’m a former RN) as well as the effect it has on her socially. We are home-schoolers, which is possibly part of the reason she is not trained yet. She has been in tears at times saying “I will never be potty trained.“ Her siblings often tell her that she stinks, and I need to tell her to change. She will not change her clothes on her own. She does not seem to do very well with hygiene/wiping. We provide baby wipes for her to use, but she will not let me help her. In fact she will not discuss any of this with me as she is extremely embarrassed and frustrated about it. If we tell her to change, we have to whisper it so she won’t be embarrassed around the other children. If we remind her to go to the bathroom, she’ll get angry and tell us that she doesn’t “need to go.”

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She does very poorly at transitions but does not have any other symptoms of developmental or neurological issues. In all other respects she’s a typical 7-year-old. I’m at my wits’ end about this! Should I switch to a firmer tactic and tell her that she has to go on a schedule? Or is that wrong? I know that it’s unhealthy to be punitive with regards to potty training, so I am not sure this is a good idea. However, it seems like the only tactic I haven’t tried. Or should I just wait it out?

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—Worried in Virginia

Dear Worried,

I agree with your concern here. This isn’t just a case of bedwetting or poor wiping habits; it sounds like there are also issues with sensing when she has to go, and shame and cover-ups about accidents. In short, you have a pervasive challenge with all aspects of bathroom habits and hygiene. I think it’s time to go beyond the pediatrician and have her evaluated by a urologist (due to the frequent UTIs and also possibly to assess any muscle control issues). I also think it might be helpful to see a neuropsychologist if your insurance covers it or you can afford it, to see if there is some kind of sensory processing disorder or anxiety at play here. If something does come up, then you’ll be able to work with occupational therapists or other specialists to start correcting these habits and set your daughter up for success.

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In the meantime, I would suggest enacting the potty schedule you mention. It isn’t a punitive tactic (and please don’t present it to her that way). The schedule will not only help her avoid the situations she is embarrassed about, but it will also help train her bladder. Some kids truly can’t feel when they have to go until it’s too late; others might have poor muscle control and thus experience consistent leakage. The schedule can help train her body about when to release urine. You should also have a conversation with your daughter about what hygiene standards need to be met—again, not because of any kind of punitive reaction, but because this is a health and safety issue, and your job as her parent is to keep her safe. Invite her into that process by deciding together how you will check that she is clean, and how you will intervene if she is not. Be sensitive to her embarrassment, but know that it’s OK to prioritize her physical well-being in this case.

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The other thing you need to address is her siblings’ behavior. It sounds like your daughter has a lot of shame and embarrassment around this issue (not changing clothes might be a manifestation of her avoiding the problem—“if I don’t address it, then it means it didn’t happen”). They need to stop calling her stinky and making her feel bad about this issue, full stop. If it’s not kind to tease someone because they can’t walk, it’s not kind to tease someone because they can’t master toilet habits, end of story. I wouldn’t be surprised if their actions are compounding her anxiety around this issue, so they need an attitude shift ASAP.

—Allison

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