Care and Feeding

I Don’t Know How to Answer Questions About My Son’s History

A man talks to a woman over a fence.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by JackF/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 am a foster parent to a 3-year-old boy, whom we intend to adopt. We took him in at 10 months in the first week of lockdown, so in his first year and a half with us, he was introduced only to our immediate family members and a few close friends and neighbors. His legal situation is messy, and we don’t expect it to be settled for at least another year. It has been a terrible experience for us as foster parents, as we have struggled with everything from finding safe childcare during the pandemic to navigating visits with the antivaxxer biological grandparents, to making choices about how much we talk to people about our situation. It has been a traumatic experience, but we love him so much that we cannot imagine our lives without him. Now that the world is opening up again, we are faced with growing social engagement with people unaware of our situation. I feel strongly that we will always be honest with our child about his origins, in age-appropriate ways, but I feel equally strongly that details regarding his origins are his to share with the world if and when he wants to, and only with those he trusts.

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We have told his preschool teachers about his situation only because there are ongoing safety concerns around the biological family and because he has some behavioral issues related to abandonment. We have been careful not to share any information about him with those outside of our trusted circle and have asked those people also to not share information about him (other than to brag about his large vocabulary and precocious desire to be “a pilot in the stars” when he grows up).

My question is: How do we handle conversations with casual friends/acquaintances who don’t know our situation but ask pointed questions? Recently, we took our son to a classmate’s birthday party in the park. We knew none of the parents prior to this. The moms were all standing around talking about their pandemic struggles. One mom asked me if I had continued to breastfeed throughout the pandemic. Another asked why we were letting his hair grow so long (we can’t legally cut it until his parents’ rights have been terminated). A third asked how we’d picked his name. I had no answers to these questions, and I admit I had not considered in advance how I might address them. I don’t think it is fair to my son to tell them he is not my own (and he looks weirdly like us, so no one would guess), but giving vague or evasive answers feels icky, too. Please help! I want this child to live a full life, free from stereotypes and the bullying foster and adoptive kids often face. How do I help him navigate this growing social circle with grace if I am struggling to do that myself?

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—Ready to Drop the “Foster” Part of Mom

Dear Ready,

I think this is a more complicated question than it appears to be—more complicated than you yourself recognize. For starters: I do understand your eagerness to drop the “foster” part of Mom, and your fervent wish to extract your foster child from the painful circumstances that led to his being removed from his original family. But there is an enormous amount of trauma associated with this, for him (no matter how young he was when this occurred—and 10 months is certainly not too young for him to have been severely traumatized not only by his experiences during this early period of his life, but by the separation itself). As impatient as you are for those connections to be legally severed, there is a reason this isn’t done quickly or casually. (I know you know this. I want you to feel it, too. As hard as that is. The circumstances that have brought him to you are terrible ones. And while it is a wonderful thing for both him and you that you now have each other, I implore you to be mindful of his early life and experience, which cannot be erased.) I say all of this because I have the distinct sense that you would like to make this background—and back story—disappear. You note that you want to share it only with the closest and most trusted acquaintances, and that this is for his sake. I’d like you to interrogate that assertion. There is no shame—not for either him or you—in your relationship having begun in this way. If you establish, this early, that your having fostered him as a baby and toddler is something to be kept a secret from others, you will be implicitly suggesting that there is something shameful about it. Why would frank acceptance of the way you became a family mean that he wouldn’t have a chance to have “a full life”? What if, instead of carefully guarding this as a secret, and letting him know he should choose carefully who to share this secret with, you were open—and modeled openness for him—about the love and loving home you provided long before you were able to adopt him?

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Forget the rude and nosy parent-strangers in the park for a moment (I’ll get to them soon). What if you normalized your family’s situation? What if, when talking about your child, when questions came up in the course of ordinary conversation—and they were not rude/intrusive/inappropriate but arose naturally during the discussion at hand, as parents shared stories/complaints/joys—you answered honestly, “He’s been ours only since he was 10 months old, when we began fostering him, so I don’t know”? Or, if there’s an exchange of labor and delivery battle stories and you’re asked for yours: “I didn’t give birth to him. He became my foster baby at 10 months”?

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And when it comes to intrusive questions from strangers, why not answer them the way any parent—foster, adoptive, or biological—should? Look the nosy person in the eye and say, coldly, “Why do you ask?”, which puts the onus back on them. The only possible answers to that question, from someone you’ve just met who has asked you why your son’s hair is so long, or why you gave him that name, are the anemic “I was just curious” (which is code for “I am just nosy”) or “Because I disapprove of his long hair/that name.” And asking a mother you have never met before if she continued breastfeeding—or, for that matter, if she had breastfed at all—is just bananas. These are not people you want to be hanging out with.

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I don’t see why you should be thinking of the parents of the toddlers your foster child is in preschool with as “his growing social circle.” It isn’t. These are just the parents you are forced to tolerate (if and when you do adopt him, there will be many such parents ahead for you; you don’t have to be friends with them). You, and he, will meet plenty of other people that will constitute a growing social circle. Concentrate on forming healthy, authentic, honest relationships with people you choose to have in your life. Trust your intuition about who is actually interested in you and your child, who you genuinely want to befriend. This takes time for any new parent. But I would rethink the position you have staked out about secrecy. I don’t believe that over time this will serve you—or your son—well.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Daughter’s Prestigious Internship Just Exploded in Her Face: “My husband and I are at a loss as to where to go from here.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 16-year-old daughter has a common name with an uncommon spelling—think “Ashleigh,” but even a little more unusual. I didn’t do that just for funsies and to be different. The spelling has sentimental meaning for me, which she is aware of. But recently, she told me that she wants to start spelling her name the common way, because she’s sick of having to spell it out all the time. I told her to take some to think about it, and she snapped back that she’s been thinking about it for 16 years. I told her to wait until she’s 18, then she can go legally change her name, and that even though it’ll hurt me, she will be an adult then and can do whatever she wants. She is insistent, however. I really think this is just a passing teenage rebellious phase, but I’m also hurt that she doesn’t want to keep the sentiment! How can I deal with this?

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—Let Me Spell that for You

Dear LMStfY,

The way to deal with this is to manage your hurt feelings on your own, in private. She can start spelling her name any way she wants—she doesn’t need a legal name change to do that—and, to be honest, I think it’s remarkable that she hasn’t simply started doing it, without asking for your permission. If what she is asking for is a legal name change now, it seems to me it’s fine to say that you don’t feel comfortable with that—that if she still wants to when she’s in a position to do it herself, that’s another matter—because I always advocate honesty with one’s children (and you aren’t comfortable with this).

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But seriously, there is nothing to stop her from using a different spelling. People do this all the time. I’d tell her, “Go ahead, knock yourself out—it’s your name, not mine.” Will she change her mind later? Maybe, and maybe not. If she doesn’t, and if she does decide to change it legally, I would urge you to remember that it is her name, not yours, and that whatever she does with it/to it (just like whatever she does with her hair and her body) is no one’s business by her own. The “sentiment” attached to the unusual spelling, after all, is yours, not hers. You can’t make her feel it. And it’s unreasonably controlling to try to make her honor it forever.

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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 husband and I are expecting our first son later this year, and have been arguing about what to name the baby. My husband wants the middle name to be “David,” after his brother. I love my brother-in-law, but he has Tourette’s Syndrome, with coprolalia symptoms, which results in frequent outbursts of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks. It is often jarring and shocking, but I know it is not his fault. However—and I realize this sounds horrible—I’m worried that my son may be confused or embarrassed, as he gets older, by having been named after David. My husband is interpreting my reluctance as rejecting his brother and is doubling down on choosing this as the baby’s middle name, since he is letting me have my top choice for the first name. I would appreciate your perspective and advice on what I should do.

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—No Middle Ground on Middle Name

Dear No,

My perspective is that you are overthinking this and projecting your own feelings onto your future child (who is unlikely to be either confused or embarrassed by this), that you’re being unloving toward your husband and his brother, the future uncle of your child whether you like it or not, and that your ungenerosity about this is shocking. I am going to take the high road and ascribe this to raging pregnancy hormones, which are scrambling your normally kind, loving, generous instincts. My advice is that you should tell your husband: “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking! Of course our child’s middle name should be David.” (And if, at 16—or before—he decides to drop his middle name, or change its spelling to Davyd…or to drop the first name you got to pick, or to change its spelling … well, see the advice above. Once he’s born, his name[s] are his, to do what he chooses with.)

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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 younger sister, “Maddy,” has always been a bit boy-crazy. One thing she does when she dates someone is take on traits that she thinks will impress/better her chances with the guy. For example, when she had one boyfriend who had a penchant for blonds, she dyed her hair. She only went back to her natural color when their relationship ended after four months. For a different guy, she cut her hair because he preferred short hair, growing it out only after that relationship ended. On another occasion, when she began to date a man of French descent, she tried to learn the language so they could have conversations in French (I’m sure by this point she barely retains any of it). This behavior has always made my parents and me roll our eyes, but we’ve never said anything because these changes, besides being or short duration, were never harmful or had serious consequences. Obviously it doesn’t hurt to try a different hairstyle or learn a new language.

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However, her latest suitor has caused a change that definitely impacts her life. “Terrence” is a good guy from what I’ve seen of him. But what concerns my family is that he’s made it clear he doesn’t want children. He says he enjoys his life the way it is, and raising kids is of no interest to him. (I actually get the feeling he doesn’t like kids, given interactions with younger members of the family.) To be clear, I don’t consider this a negative thing. Parenting isn’t for everyone, and it’s not a bad thing that he knows what he wants. The problem is that Maddy does want kids … or at least she did, until recently, when she announced that she had changed her mind. In other words, Maddy is willing to give up on having children to be with Terrence, despite the fact that she had always shown interest—more than interest, a real investment—in the idea of motherhood.

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My parents and I have no idea what to say about this, if anything. This is the first time that a capitulation she’s making for the sake of a boyfriend could lead to huge ramifications. If they were in the early stages of their relationship, we might stick to the usual eye-rolling/silence. But they have been seeing each other for nearly a year—the longest of her relationships yet—so we’re worried. A part of me thinks that if Maddy could change her mind about having kids so easily—and just for a guy, at that—then she must not have really wanted them so badly to begin with. But I’m not sure, and any questions I’ve asked her so far have been shrugged off. Our parents are more upset than I am, but they are simply hoping the relationship will end. Do I need to push the question harder with her, to make sure she understands what she is giving up for the sake of this guy, or just accept that if Maddy stays with him, and later does come to wish she’d had kids, it will be the result of her own actions?

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—Lovesick Sister

Dear LS,

Ah, the woman who changes herself to suit whatever man she happens to find herself with. It’s a tale as old as time (or at least as old as the wonderful 19th-century short story by Anton Chekhov, “The Darling”). It doesn’t matter how hard you push, how many probing questions you ask, or how worried you are, there is not a thing you can do about this. Do you really believe that Maddy doesn’t know that she has a long history of making changes for the sake of whatever boy or man she’s with? This is her M.O. It’s one that you don’t understand—it’s one that I don’t understand. (I’ve tried so hard to understand it that I once wrote a contemporary retelling of the Chekhov story, for my own edification; and while writing it didn’t help me understand my “darling’s” behavior any better, it did move me from disdain—which came with plenty of eye-rolling of my own—and frustration and even fury, to pity.) Your sister’s life is hers to live. You can’t keep her from making mistakes she may regret later: you have no choice but to accept them. The fact is that no matter how mystifying—or frustrating, or even pitiful—someone else’s behavior may be, we don’t have the option to do anything about it, no matter how much we love them.

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—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

When I was young I was married briefly. I did not want children, and thought I’d made that clear to my husband. I accidentally got pregnant, and he was thrilled. Against my better judgment I had the baby, with the understanding that he would take care of it. I did not like motherhood and when the girl was 2 years old, I divorced her father and moved out of state. I paid court-ordered child support until she turned 18. I had thought that was the end of my interaction with her, but I recently got a letter from her saying she would like to meet.

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