Care and Feeding

My Teen Discovered a Painful Period From My Past

A teenager looks at a laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Several months ago my 13-year-old daughter snooped in my old emails, trying to find out the identity of her biological father. What she found out, instead, was that my father tried very hard to convince me to have an abortion when I was pregnant with her. I was 19, working part-time and attending community college, and had just moved in with a friend after my father and mother threw me out. I would only communicate with them by email, and the exchange got pretty heated and nasty. But I stood my ground and had my daughter as a single mom.

Advertisement

I’m pro-choice but could never abort a child of my own. My parents, on the other hand, are pro-life Christians. This was the only abortion they’ve ever been in favor of, which made it extra hurtful. But we repaired our relationship after my daughter was born, and when she was 3 I married a man who adopted her and has raised and loved her as his own. We also have two younger biological kids. My husband feels terribly hurt that our oldest daughter felt the need to search for a man who never cared about me or her. Even worse, my daughter now refuses to have anything to do with her grandparents, especially her grandpa. She locks herself in her room when they come over and won’t accept gifts from them, not even money, because she feels like they wish she had never been born. She’s also convinced this is because she is biracial, which to be honest I’m sure was part of what freaked my parents out at the time, though neither of them would ever admit it. How can I talk to her and convince her that her grandparents do not wish her dead? Should I force her to be civil to them, or let her come around in her own time? And how can I explain her behavior to my parents, who think she’s just being a spoiled brat?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Painful Past

Dear Painful,

And people wonder why I relentlessly push for honesty and openness. There is always trouble down the line when we aren’t as truthful as possible, even with our children.

I am so sorry about all of this—I truly am. I think I’m going to have to take this one item (and issue) at a time. First: your daughter’s snooping. She absolutely shouldn’t be (and yet so many kids this age do!). Given the awfulness of what she found out, though, I wouldn’t punish her for it. Still, make sure you let her know firmly that this was unacceptable, and that if she ever does it again, she will be punished. And for godsakes change your password and make sure it’s one she can’t guess (and don’t let your computer or phone fill it in for you, unless you plan to keep your devices under lock and key at all times, because she will find a way, especially now that she knows you keep big secrets from her).

Advertisement

You are going to have to take the bull by the horns now and deal with her honestly and directly about your parents. You can’t “convince” her that they don’t wish she were dead—she knows this, anyway; she has known them for thirteen years and knows they love her: she is just trying to figure out how to reconcile this with the new information she now has. Tell her the truth—tell her everything you’ve just told me. I wouldn’t leave out a single detail. It’s going to take her a little while to process all of this, and she’s going to need your help doing that (this will no doubt take more than one big conversation; it’s going to require a series of them). Do not force her to be civil to her grandparents (by which you seem to mean, “come out of your room when they come over”). If she needs to stay away from them right now, let her. If she doesn’t want their gifts, why force her to accept them?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

How do you explain all of this to your parents? By telling them the truth, too. Why shouldn’t they be aware that those chickens have come home to roost? Perhaps they’ll want to talk it over with her too. Perhaps they’ll want to write her a letter (if she won’t see or speak to them in person or on the phone), acknowledging that they felt as they did when you were pregnant, but that everything changed for them after she was born. It’s not a bad thing, either, for them to look their own hypocrisy in the face (think of this as the bonus good that comes out of this mess).

As to your husband, I’m afraid he is going to have to face up to the fact that children (and adults too, for that matter) sometimes do feel a need to know their biological parents. Thirteen is an age when children are figuring out who they are, and if you have kept all facts about your daughter’s origins a secret from her, it’s not surprising that she felt moved to find out for herself what they are. (Even if you had told her something about the circumstances of your pregnancy, she might be curious at this age; she might want more information—his name, for instance. There isn’t a thing in the world wrong with that. And you may decide to withhold that information from her, but if you do, tell her why.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

And now we are back to the snooping part. Tell her that if she wants to know something, all she has to do is ask you. And you’ll tell her whatever she needs to know, except when there is something that you believe would be harmful to her. Do you believe that it would do her harm to know who her bio-father is? Is he dangerous? Or do you fear he’d try to take her from you? Or do you fear that he would be incurious about—uninterested in—her, utterly unmoved to hear from her if she tried to reach out, and that this would hurt her deeply? Tell her that.

Advertisement

Being honest with everyone concerned would go a long way toward straightening all of this out.

Advertisement

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Lovely Husband Transforms in the Worst Way Around His Parents: “When we go to their house, he becomes the most obnoxious person I’ve ever met.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My idiot husband is trying to ditch his child, and I feel like I’m going crazy. He cheated on me with “Elise,” eventually getting her pregnant, and I knew nothing about any of this until Elise slapped him with a lawsuit for money covering pregnancy costs. His lawyer says she doesn’t have much of a case until the baby’s born, but you’d better believe I’m going to do everything in my power to get him to pay up every cent she’s asking for, before and after the baby comes. He thinks he can help create a whole new person, and it’s not his problem because the baby’s not inside his wife? I’m so angry he was going to abandon this kid with no remorse that I haven’t even started processing how I feel about the affair yet. The really bizarre thing is that he’s a fantastic, loving, involved dad to our two kids, and I never would have expected him to be able to leave behind a child of his like this. I am disgusted with him. I keep fantasizing about leaving him, squeezing every last penny out of him I can in a divorce, and legally marrying Elise myself so that she and her kid are guaranteed to have the same access to his funds that my kids and I do. I don’t know if it’s fair to my kids to blow up our family like that, so I’ve tried talking this through with friends. But they are shocked that I’m angry at him for abandoning Elise and the child. I get their point that she’s “the other woman,” but she’s not the one who cheated on me, and (most importantly) the baby is innocent and is his child as much as our children are! He thinks ghosting her is a commitment to making our family and marriage work; he regrets the affair and knows now, he says, that he wants to be with me, which is not the point. I realize this is kind of a stream of consciousness, but I’m hoping for some outside perspective on why I’m apparently the crazy one in this scenario.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Paternal Pandemonium

Dear PP,

You are in a rage, but you’re not “crazy.” I do think you are probably displacing some of your fury at his betrayal of you, but so what? You have so many good reasons to be angry! And being angry with him for planning/hoping to abandon his not-yet-born child must feel way more righteous and, well, an act of goodness on your part, than the messy, ugly, confusing business of his cheating, which carries with it the unfair burden of your feeling duped and sad and hurt and perhaps even pathetic (I’m just guessing). Forget what your friends think. That’s of no consequence.

You say you don’t know if it’s fair to your kids for you to “blow up” your family, but you are not the one blowing up the family. He has already done that. He has shown his true colors. In your shoes, I’d divorce him, yes. But your fantasy of marrying the woman with whom he had the affair—and joining forces with her to ruin him financially—is a symptom of your pain and rage. Let Elise handle her own situation (it sounds like she’s doing exactly that). If you want your children and their future sibling to have a relationship, fine (if Elise is OK with and interested in that); if you want to befriend Elise once the dust has settled, or ever offer your support now—fine, too, I guess. (Though I think I would carefully think through my motives if I were you. Are you concerned about her and about the child she’s carrying? Or are you determined to make your husband’s life as miserable as you can? The latter will only prolong your own misery, I’m afraid.) As to your friends’ puzzlement that you aren’t angry with Elise—well, I’m with you. She’s not the one who betrayed you. But that doesn’t mean you ought to marry her.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Read another take on this letter in Dear Prudence.

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’m a 29-year-old woman married to a 29-year-old man. We’ve been together for seven years and married for five. What I want to know is: How do people know if they want/are ready for kids? We’ve both been ambivalent about it our entire relationship, but lately we’ve started to seriously consider having a baby. We just bought our first home in a safe neighborhood with good schools, and both sets of our parents live nearby (my parents are literally our neighbors) and have effusively said they would help with childcare. We’re also lucky to live in an area with availability at different daycares. I work from home and my work provides generous maternity leave. My husband has been at the same company in steadily progressive roles for the last ten years—and together we make three times the average household income for our area.

Advertisement

But I just cannot shake off the way I hear other people talk about having kids. Pregnancy and childbirth sound horrible (and there’s a family history of postpartum psychosis on my side, which my mom, maternal grandmother, and younger sister all experienced). I have a serious health condition that requires I get at least seven hours of sleep a night. I’m freaked out at the prospect of the changes to my body after childbirth, to the point that I get nauseated when I think about it. My younger sister has a 2-year-old and seems perpetually exhausted from balancing part time work and parenting, and there’s no way I’d give up on the full-time career I’ve worked really hard at and got a master’s degree to pursue. People keep telling me, “You should only do this if you’re 100 percent sure,” and I’m not 100 percent sure. But I keep imagining a life not just with a baby, but with a toddler, preteen, and teenager. I feel really drawn to the idea but just can’t tell for sure if it’s a good idea. I’ve talked to my doctor, a midwife, family members and friends with children, my therapist, and my husband, and even so I have just sat here waffling about this decision for over a year. Help!

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Maybe Baby

Dear Maybe,

We are rarely 100 percent sure of anything, so that advice is not terribly useful. Yes, some people know they want to have kids (I absolutely knew I wanted one, and just one—but I also didn’t absolutely know I wanted one till I was in my late 30s, and it came as a surprise to me) and some people know they don’t, but most of us do the best we can with the information we have available. I do know that having kids because the circumstances (all those many excellent cirumstances you mention) or because you feel you’re expected to or because it’s just “the next step” at a certain point in your life (and marriage) is not a good reason to do it. Children are a lifelong commitment. Children change one’s life forever (seriously: forever). Being “drawn” to the idea of life with a baby, toddler, etc. is insufficient, I would say, to nudge you toward this big decision. Especially since there is no rule that says you have to. Especially since not everyone needs to. And especially given all the challenges you list.

Advertisement

For example: the only chance you’ll have of getting seven hours of sleep at night when your child is an infant is if your husband takes on ALL the nighttime duty (and even then—even if he’s the one getting up and feeding and changing and rocking the baby back to sleep multiple times a night, which is just the way things are at the beginning—if you’re a light sleeper, you may not get as much sleep as you need to stay healthy). You would have to have a firm plan in place about this. And if you do get your seven hours every night—if you think that’s realistic (if you sleep, when you sleep, like the dead, the way my husband does)—then you would both need to recognize that he will be a zombie during this period. Even with parents taking turns getting up at night, or with one parent doing all the “work” (I nursed exclusively, so I did all the nighttime feeding myself), often the other parent is up too, for moral support and an extra pair of hands, and both end up zombies. Or, as I’ve said, the comings and goings of the on-duty parent disrupt the sleep of the parent who’s supposedly off-duty. So consider yourself warned when it comes to sleep.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The maternal history in your family is obviously another concern—a serious one—and I would strongly suggest you consult with your OB-GYN about this. You will also want to have a strong support network in place in advance (it sounds like you already have the makings of one, that you recognize it takes a village)—but first you would need to dearly want to have a child. The other stuff? Your dread of pregnancy and childbirth, the fact that it makes you sick to contemplate the way your body will change as a result of both? These may be dealbreakers. (For what it’s worth, I loved being pregnant. Some people do. I don’t think anybody loves childbirth. And no one loves the way one’s body changes after having a child, just as no one loves the way one’s body changes with age: it’s the cost of doing business, so to speak.) But if so much about this fills you with unhappiness and anxiety, why are you considering doing it? I think that’s where you’ll find the answer to your question—which isn’t really “How do people know they want a child?” but is “How do I know if I do?” And the way to work toward the answer to that question is to ask yourself why you might want to. If you don’t have a good answer to that question, I’d strongly advise you to hold off, and perhaps to skip this experience altogether. It may seem like it’s for everyone, but that’s only because so many people enter into it by default. Make a real choice.

Advertisement

Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

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

Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

Low-stakes question here—sorry—but it’s making us nuts. I’m a father-in-waiting; my partner is eight months pregnant. She and I spent a long time and a probably ridiculous amount of energy on picking out a name for our child. The full name we’ve decided on includes both of our last names, hers and then mine (only because we think it sounds more mellifluous that way) without a hyphen, plus a first and middle name. Trust me when I tell you it took a lot for us to come up with first and middle names that worked nicely together, that we both liked, and that sounded pleasing with both of our last names (which, by the way, are quite common—think, for example, “Johnson” and “Walters”). The first two names are more unusual, by our careful choice, to make up for “Johnson Walters” at the end, and even nicely unisex, because although we know what the baby’s (bio) sex is, we are proud millennials who understand that this may not turn out to be our child’s gender.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

So what’s the problem? The other day we were startled to come across this exact same name—yes, all four names in a row, in the same order. The only difference is the spelling of the first name (a y instead of an i). This person (a newborn child!) is not someone we know. The name popped up on Facebook, which we rarely use, but my partner just happened to be on it the other day, checking in on some friends from high school she’s mostly lost touch with, and she saw a random birth announcement—the birth of the niece of an acquaintance. Now what do we do? Jettison the first and/or middle name and go through the whole process again to find another we love? Switch the order of the two last names even though we don’t like the way they sound that way? Or accept that in a world of billions of people, this sort of thing is bound to happen? I know this must sound like a stupid problem to be asking advice on (as I type it, I find I am embarrassed), but it really upset us.

Advertisement
Advertisement

—What’s in a Name?

Advertisement

Dear WiaN,

I would neither jettison one (or two!) of the names you love nor switch the order of your last names (I salute you for thinking about sound; not enough people do, if you ask me). I would indeed accept that in a world full of people, name matches are inevitable. True, the match of all the names, in order, in a name as long as your soon-to-be child’s is rarer than a first-name last-name match, but really, is it so important to be the only one to carry a particular name? (I say this with some humility, for when I first discovered the existence of another writer with the same name as mine, I was genuinely distressed. But I got over it. And so will little—or not so little—Rylan Ellys Johnson Walters.)

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My son just turned 2 in January and was moved into the 2-year-old room at his day care. He has been in this new room for about a month. Recently, his new teacher has told me that my son has issues with personal space. Basically, he gets too close to the other kids, and sometimes the other kids cry…

Advertisement