Care and Feeding

My Mom Is Subjecting My Son to Her Toxic Behavior

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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 have an interesting relationship with my mother. I know she loves me; she has done all the things she was required to do (fed me, clothed me, housed me) and more (came to my performances, let me have friends over). But she doesn’t like me. When I was little, she told everyone I was her “ball and chain.” She only offered praise when I played the same way she did. And once I was in junior high, she started criticizing my weight. She ruined every special occasion I had by yelling at my dad for “continuing to feed me” when I was already so fat or harassing me to wear clothes that made me look thinner. When I look back at my high school photos, I realize I never had a weight problem. It was all in her head.

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To this day, I don’t eat around her.

I now have a son. He’s 12 and a really wonderful kid. He is smart, funny, silly, and a talented cello player. He suffers from anxiety because my ex-husband abused and neglected him, but he works hard in treatment. I’m so proud of him.

But my mom doesn’t like him either, and it’s breaking my heart. He’s got longish hair and he likes it that way, but my mom told him (and continues to tell me) that it was terrible and he should cut it or he won’t have friends. If it’s not the hair, it’s something else. He was bullied badly this year, so much so that next year he’s transferring schools, and my mom keeps harping on me to take him for social skills training so other kids will like him instead of bullying him. And even though my son does not have a weight problem, she’s starting to harangue me about his weight and how I need to make him be active lest he become fat.

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I’ve told her to stop. I’ve argued against her points. I’ve insisted that he’s fine and wonderful the way he is. I’ve told her she’s hurting my feelings. Her reply is that I’m just too sensitive, or can’t I see she’s trying to help because she loves us so much?

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How can love hurt so much? I can take whatever she throws at me, but my poor son asks why Grandma doesn’t like him as much as she likes my sister’s kids. And I don’t know what to say.

My parents provide child care for me since I’m a nurse working the night shift. I can’t afford overnight child care, and I do need my job for the shift differential and the benefits. What do I do?

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—Loveless in Lubbock

Dear Loveless,

You asked how love can hurt so much, and my honest answer is that this doesn’t sound like love to me. This sounds like a toxic relationship where you have been bullied, gaslighted, and made to feel small by the person who should make you feel safe. And now that toxicity is affecting your kid, who is already in a highly vulnerable state thanks to his dad and his school bully.

It’s time to erect some serious boundaries between your mom and you/your son. I understand your current financial limitations, but if there is any way to switch your schedule around and make it work (a pay increase by moving to a different hospital, switching to a different sector of nursing, or pivoting to working for an insurance agency), I would encourage you to strongly consider it. Perhaps even asking your son to get a job at age 14 in order to contribute to the household expenses is an option; I know it’s not the kind of thing we want to ask of our kids, but you wouldn’t be the first or the last parent to need to make that ask. And if you involved your son in the decision, it might be a choice he would be willing to make, given how his grandmother is making him feel.

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However, if that is truly not possible, then set your sights on the future. You say your parents provide child care, and it sounds like your son is an only child. I knew a nurse who was a single mom who worked the night shift when her son was in high school. Do you think you’d be able to trust your son in that scenario? While 14 may seem a little young to contemplate this big step, it might be worth it to start teaching (and testing) his independence now so that he can be ready by then. It doesn’t help the immediate problem, but it is a way to give yourself a light at the end of the tunnel while keeping your current pay and benefits.

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Once you are free of needing them for child care, establish an ultimatum. Either they stop speaking to you and your son in these ways about these topics, or they are cut off. No excuses. You do not want to subject your son to the same kinds of injuries you sustained any longer than you absolutely have to. In the meantime, pour as much love and support and acceptance into your kid as you can.

It isn’t fair when the people we love do not treat us with love back. I’m so sorry you both are experiencing this.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How do I make my life more diverse? Specifically, how can I help ensure my kids grow up in a racially and economically diverse community, when our actual community is anything but? For context, we are moving at the end of the summer for my husband’s job, from a huge East Coast city to a smallish Midwestern one. It’s obviously been an insane market to try to find a house, and I’m thrilled that the one we landed on has great public schools and is the most diverse of the decent public schools in the city, but it’s still 84 percent white. There are Black and brown people in the city, but not many in our immediate neighborhood.

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It’s really, really important to me that my kids grow up around families that don’t look like ours, but I don’t know how to begin when it won’t be as easy as befriending families in our neighborhood school. I also want to authentically befriend other moms and not be a crazy white lady driving around asking Black moms if they want to hang out sometime. Do I just try to enthusiastically embrace the families at school who fall into the other 16 percent and try to organically let it grow from there? Look for book clubs in other neighborhoods and hope I meet people? (This is also tied into the fact that, in general, I have no idea how to make new friends as an adult, aside from friends of friends, who in my case are all white.) I also, of course, don’t want to make anyone feel pressured to be friends with us, or to feel like I only want to be their friend because they’re not white. Am I overthinking this? I just worry if I don’t make a concerted effort, my “path of least resistance” will end up with only white kids and families in our lives, and I want more for my own kids.

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—Delicately Seeking Diversity

Dear Seeking,

Your letter reminded me of a chapter in one of my favorite parenting books, NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The book investigates many of the strategies, assumptions, and “common wisdom” of parenting and turns some of it on its head. One of the things the authors discuss is what they term “the diverse environment theory,” or the idea that if you are surrounded by diversity, your kids will automatically see an integrated world as valuable and normal. What the book demonstrates, though, is that being in an integrated environment gives you, as one researcher put it, “just as many chances to learn stereotypes as to unlearn them.” Explicit conversations, exposure to diverse media, and, yes, genuine friendships make much more of a difference than school demography.

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So, on the one hand, you can cut yourself a break on your neighborhood choice, because a more integrated town and school wouldn’t have been an automatic panacea for racism for your kids. On the other hand, you have a more homogenized local sample from which to find new friends, which is the predicament you’re in.

I am no expert on this, but I would first make sure you’re doing the simple things: make small talk with Black and brown folks in line at grocery stores, etc., so that your children see you interacting with lots of different people as neighbors and community members; read books written by nonwhite authors; visit the African art wing of the fine art gallery in addition to the Picassos. In these small ways (and there are many others), you are both demonstrating and living a life in which the perspectives of others are integrated and valued similarly to white ones. You want your children to see the nonwhite experience as similarly valid to the white experience, so that you can build conversations off that.

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Then, to your point about joining clubs across town to make nonwhite friends, I would suggest that, despite your efforts not to, you’re running the risk of tokenizing—finding clubs with people of color so that you can befriend them to show them to your kids. If you truly want your children to grow up valuing people of color in a deep and meaningful way, I think you might want to spend your extracurricular time getting directly involved in anti-racist advocacy groups and causes. Not only are you bound to meet nonwhite people (whom you may in time form true friendships with), but you’ll be doing so while also working to dismantle the very systems that got you (and all the rest of us) into this situation in the first place. This is something that Ibram X. Kendi writes about in his book How to Be an Antiracist, so you might find some continued inspiration there.

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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,

My son “John” was a loved and happy only child, and so was his daughter “Amelia,” my wonderful, sensitive, gifted 9-year-old granddaughter. My daughter-in-law “Marie,” however, always wanted more children, and seemed to go a little crazy when that didn’t happen. Eventually John agreed to becoming foster parents, which meant having to work longer hours when Marie quit her job to be a full-time foster mom. They’ve had over a dozen children pass through their home, from infants to early teens. Amelia is having a hard time adjusting. She hates sharing her room, has had prized possessions destroyed, and reports feeling like she doesn’t matter anymore, that her dad’s never home, and her mom loves the foster kids (especially the babies and toddlers) more than her. So, I try to take her out every couple of weeks to the mall, zoo, art museum, or movies for some special one-on-one time.

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John told me Marie was upset by this and insisted I either take the foster kids too or not see Amelia anymore. The one time I tried, it was a nightmare. They had two brothers, a 3-year-old and 8-year-old, staying with them, and Marie mentioned they could use some new clothes, so I took them to the mall. First thing, the 3-year-old bolted across the parking lot and I would’ve been helpless to stop him if Amelia hadn’t run after him; both boys kept shouting curse words in public; they pulled clothing off the racks and scattered it on the floor; and when I took them to the indoor playground to blow off steam, the 8-year-old pushed a little girl off a slide and got me screamed at by her mother. We were even asked to leave Amelia’s favorite store before she could get anything.

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I hate not being able to give my granddaughter any special time. Marie remains adamant that the foster kids need to be treated exactly like my grandchildren. Amelia wants to go back to the art museum, and I shudder at the thought. But her mother is grumbling about forbidding me from even texting or Zooming with her if I don’t comply. John feels caught in the middle, but has always gone along with whatever Marie decrees. What should I do?

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—Feeling Forbidden Favoritism

Dear 3F,

Your intentions are good here, but I can also see where Marie is coming from. It sounds like she wants to ensure that the children in foster care feel included in family activities and the larger family network. You, on the other hand, aren’t trying to set up family activities; you’re trying to find ways to specifically support Amelia through what is seeming to be a bit of a tumultuous experience for her. I think therein lies the crux of the conflict between you and Marie (and to some extent John).

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A friend of mine once gave me very useful advice about fraught disagreements between people: When you don’t see eye to eye with the person you are arguing with, stop making statements and start asking questions. I don’t have any experience as a foster parent, nor am I versed in best practices for how to care for kids in foster care. But presumably, John and Marie are. Have you sat down with them and asked how you can support Amelia? Are there ways to rephrase your concerns as questions that invite them to guide you? All three of you love Amelia and want what is best for her, so perhaps John and Marie have ideas for how you can best fit into the puzzle. These ideas may be born out of their own experiences or the guidance they are receiving from the foster agency.

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Equally important, however: Have you asked how you can also support the other children in their care? John and Marie have agreed to welcome these children into their homes with love and compassion, and they need the rest of their proverbial village’s support in that. That might be what Marie wants most from you, and it might be what is causing the rift where Amelia is concerned. I know you personally did not sign up to be a foster parent, or even a foster grandma, but have you spent any time thinking about what it is you can give these kids while they are with your family? Not presents or outings, necessarily, but time, listening, patience, calm, etc. Just like you are trying to see Amelia’s needs and meet them, you might find fulfillment in putting that same watchful eye on the children in foster care. A member of my extended family has fostered and fostered to adopt and has biological children. What she has said to me is that children in foster care often don’t have the skills or strategies to work through the extreme trauma in their lives, but as adults, we do, so we must carry that burden for them if we can.

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Perhaps, rather than digging into the Amelia puzzle from the jump, you can first seek John and Marie’s guidance about a training program or resources for you about bringing kids from foster care into your family. That might provide you with some ideas or solutions that you can use to give Amelia the stability and attention she is craving, while still providing John and Marie’s other children with acceptance, equity, and love.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m in my early 30s and have been in a relationship with my partner for a little over five years. We’ve had many conversations over those years about wanting to be married to each other and wanting to try to have biological children, and while it’s still a bit down the road, we do intend to start a family.

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A few weeks ago, I went to dinner with my mom and a family friend, “Emily,” who is my age and got married to a great guy a few months ago. My mom is incredibly close to Emily—her father was my mom’s best friend, and Emily also moved to my hometown after college, soon after my siblings and I all moved away.

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Before the dinner, my mom and I talked about my desire for kids and marriage, which we’ve discussed before. At the dinner, Emily told us that she had just found out she was pregnant. The first thing my mom excitedly blurted out was “I’m finally going to have a grandchild!”

It felt like a knife twisting between my ribs. I of course kept that to myself and congratulated Emily sincerely. I knew I wanted to say something about this to my mom eventually, but I was waiting until the next time we were alone.

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Tragically, Emily found out about a week later that the pregnancy wasn’t viable. Now, it just feels petty to bring up an offhand, excited comment to my mom. If I were still in therapy, I could process this with my therapist, but I haven’t found one in my new city. I don’t want to talk about it with my partner because I don’t want him to feel pressured—he once confessed that he felt like I was in “a race” to be married before my sister and best friend. I’m not, but neither of them want children, so of course I have more of a timeline than the two of them!

So, my question is: What do I do? How do I swallow my jealousy and my shame at being jealous of someone who subsequently experienced a heartbreaking loss and move on? Do I talk to my mom about this? Or am I just projecting my own issues onto this one comment?

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—Replaced Daughter

Dear Replaced,

It’s hard to feel in competition for a mother’s love or affection, and it’s even harder and weirder when the other parties don’t know you’re in a competition! But I think it’s still OK to talk to your mom about this, if you have the kind of relationship where you can be open and vulnerable. You can acknowledge the horribly sad outcome of Emily’s news while still telling your mom how her initial reaction made you feel. In fact, I encourage you to do so, since this sounds like just the beginning for you and Emily on the road to building your respective families. And while I hope the future events are all happy ones, no matter the circumstances either one of you faces, issues of comparison, competition, and jealousy are sure to surface again.

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It’s important in this conversation that you acknowledge your mom’s relationship with Emily and her right to feel excited about a new baby (eventually) for her, and you don’t want her to feel like she can never discuss Emily or Emily’s family with you. So you may want to think ahead of time about one or two specific guardrails you can ask your mom to observe around you. Maybe she reserves the term “grandma” only for your kids, or maybe she tries to avoid directly bringing up Emily in the same conversation discussing you and your parenting journey. You’ll have to feel out the dialogue and what feels right to you. Just try to remember that while you have a right to feel protective of your relationship with your mom, she has a right to develop close relationships with others. Hopefully, open and vulnerable conversation can help you both maintain that balance.

—Allison

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