Dear Care and Feeding,
We just found out our 18-year-old son’s girlfriend, also 18, is eight weeks pregnant. They just graduated high school. Our son is set to attend an excellent university in the fall, with us paying his way debt-free. His girlfriend has no college or career plans. They want to get married and raise the baby together. Should our response be:
A. “You’re an adult, and it’s your life. We’ll always love you and support you emotionally, but financially you’re on your own. Good luck.”
B. “You’re an adult and it’s your life, but we still want to help you succeed as much as possible. Go ahead with your plans, and we’ll support you and your family to the best of our ability.”
C. “You’re technically an adult, but you’re too young to ruin your life. If you can’t convince her to choose abortion or adoption, we’ll pay to support your kid until you’re able to, but you are not getting married at 18 and you are going to college this fall, otherwise you’re dead to us.”
My instinct is A, my wife’s is C. B feels like the thorniest option. What, if any, degree of financial and logistical support should we give these kids?
And how would we keep our son’s twin sister from feeling like we’re rewarding him for his bad decisions, while she heads off to an even more prestigious and challenging university after doing everything “right”? They’ve always had a contentious and competitive relationship. Our daughter already feels like our son is favored because he’s required a lot of time and attention over the years because of his learning disability and mental health struggles, while success comes relatively easily to her. She also hates his girlfriend, who bullied her when they were a few years younger, and is extremely distraught over the possibility of her becoming part of our family. Any advice would be appreciated.
— Unready Grandpa
If we were to rephrase you options so that they focused on your coming grandchild rather than your son, they would read something like this:
A. We’ll always love and support our grandchild emotionally, but we will not help provide for his or her basic needs if his parents fall short.
B. We have no idea how our kid will manage school and/or work and a child, but to the extent that we can pitch in, we will do so for our grandchild’s sake.
C. We will help provide for our grandchild’s basic needs so long as our adult son lives the life we have decided is valid, and if he doesn’t comply, then our grandchild is dead to us.
When you reframe it with the baby in mind, I hope you will agree that both A and C seem like pretty heartless options.
I understand that you are deeply disappointed and mourning the loss of the dreams you had for your son. You have a right to those feelings. It is also fair for you to feel resentful of this unexpected obligation (financial or otherwise) that it puts on you. But, life happens. Disease, disability, and, yes, unexpected pregnancies set us on new paths all the time, and they are hard and messy. That doesn’t mean you get to walk away. You need to be focusing on this baby and what you want your relationship with him/her to be, and what you want your moral legacy to be. I strongly urge you to choose path B. That doesn’t mean it has to remain murky and amorphous; you can work with your son and his girlfriend—perhaps with the help of a family counselor—to discuss terms each of you can live with. You might ask that he at least attempt a couple semesters, or you might want to set your financial contributions not to exceed a certain amount. You might ask them to draw up a plan for how to manage work, school, and parenting, and offer your time as childcare if you are able and interested. The point is, you can be an active participant in sketching out what a path forward looks like. But you also need to be willing to let that path change as life evolves. Your criteria for continuing to help your son and his family should not be College-or-Bust, but rather whether he is putting steps into place to be able to live a successful, contributory life and take care of his kid(s).
Your daughter is going to feel how she feels; any resentment she has about you helping your son is her issue to sort out, and not your responsibility. If she already feels resentful at you for giving your son the extra support his disability and mental health required, nothing you can do in this instance will change her mind on how she chooses to feel, so do not even try.
There are plenty of movies and TV shows with grandparents who withheld financial support and a relationship from their grandkid because they took umbrage with the actions of their child. Hint: those grandparents are never the heroes of the stories. Do not let your wounded pride lead you down a path you cannot undo.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am 24 and six months pregnant with a baby girl. The pregnancy was unplanned but not unwanted. I’m in a poly relationship with “Eric,” who’s 39, and “Anna,” who’s 47, and who are legally married to each other. We all live together and plan to raise our daughter as three equal co-parents. Eric and Anna are well-off and can give her an infinitely better life than I could alone.
However, they share some opinions I feel are overly strict. For example, they’re determined our daughter will never own a single toy, book, or anything made by the Disney corporation. I understand their dislike and would be fine not pushing Disney on her, but if someone else gives her a present I’d be okay letting her keep it; if she sees the movies at a friend’s house, it’s not the end of the world; and if she begs for Disney stuff I wouldn’t want to completely deny her. I grew up poor and had painful experiences being told I couldn’t have things I longed for.
They also don’t want her to wear anything pink, frilly, or overtly feminine. I’m okay with that while she’s too little to have preferences, but starting at maybe 2 years old I would want to provide her with all kinds of clothes, from fancy dresses to overalls with dump trucks on them, and let her choose day by day. But Eric and Anna seem to think there is something sexual about skirts and dresses, and want her to dress exclusively in pants at least until puberty. Some little girls would be fine with that, but I would have hated it as a child.
How can I stand up for my own preferences as a parent in this situation? The possibility it will always be two against one feels unfair, considering I’m the one carrying, giving birth to, and breast-feeding her. I realize we’re an unusual family, but I’d really appreciate some open-minded advice.
— Mommy vs. Mama and Daddy
Congrats on your coming baby! It’s wonderful that your partners are as excited as you to welcome this little person into the world, and I wish you all nothing but the best. You are right, though, to be concerned about a possible power imbalance that would leave you at odds with your partners as you all try to effectively parent together.
I strongly suggest you work together to create a co-parenting agreement. While these are typically done for divorcing parents or co-parents who weren’t married and do not plan to be romantically involved, it’s really the best way to help keep you all together and ensure all of your interests are protected. For example, it allows your wishes to be codified so that you do not need to be constantly confronting Eric and Anna in a two-against-one scenario. But it also protects Anna who (I think, I’m not a lawyer) has the fewest legal rights here but who, I infer, is going to love this baby as their own child. And it could save Eric a few headaches if he ever feels stuck in the middle of a disagreement. Amazon has several books that walk you through the process and provide template forms, but since most are probably written for two separating partners, you might want to enlist the help of a family attorney who can craft a customized plan with you. (To save money, if that’s a concern, you could start with the books and get as far as you can, then bring the attorney in.)
Try not to fret too much just yet about their current rigidity regarding media and clothing. I think many parents have had ideas they thought they’d be firm on when expecting a baby, only to loosen up or completely reverse themselves when their child began growing into a person. Parenting philosophies ebb and flow, and while Eric and Anna might stay firm on these approaches, they might not. All the more reason to establish open constructive conversation among you three, which a co-parenting agreement can help jumpstart.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have been married for more than 20 years and we have a 10-year-old son, in addition to adult children from previous marriages. My husband has been moody for years but as he gets older and his health declines (he’s 30 years older than me) his moodiness has become emotional abuse. When he’s unwell, he is cruel to me and our son. We love him, but he’s making life absolutely miserable. Our son is starting to act up in school, to a greater degree after his dad’s “angry days.”
I can’t imagine leaving him, since he is so old with nobody else to care for him, and I would need (and want) to financially support him anyway. But our son is learning the worst habits and is becoming a mean and unhappy little boy. I do not want him to become his father, and I am entitled to be happy. All I want is for us to be a cohesive family that does not scream and argue daily, but he does not want to put in the steps for fixing his problems (and he says I’m never going to change and that my son and I are part of his problem). What should I do?
— Conflicted in Connecticut
You get out—possibly temporarily, possibly permanently. Like I said to a previous letter writer, your obligation is to the child first. Having a household full of conflict and demeaning attitudes where your son is thought of as “part of the problem” isn’t a healthy home for him, and if your husband won’t address the problems, then you must act.
You say your husband has no one else, but where are his adult children in all of this? Presuming they are not estranged from their father, they should be active partners to you in addressing your husband’s problematic behavior, and/or stepping in to help support their dad when you and your son do leave. Ideally, they have seen their dad’s behavior and none of this will come as a shock, but know that your decision to leave could put them in a difficult situation and you need to be prepared for a variety of reactions on their part. As his half-siblings, hopefully they will want to safeguard your son’s well-being, as you do. If that’s too rosy a hope, though, and they accuse you of “abandoning” their dad, you might just have to live with that, and take it as a sign that you haven’t left your husband completely alone.
None of this has to be an absolute severance though. You can move out and still try to pursue therapy/treatment and reconciliation, provided your husband makes the necessary effort. I also want to mention that, doing the math here, it sounds like your husband is upward of 70 years old, at least. There can definitely be a correlation between anger/negative emotions and declining physical health. Conditions such as Alzheimer’s and hearing loss have been associated with changes in a person’s mood, simply because they are more disoriented and isolated due to these conditions. Even a UTI can manifest with significant mood changes in older adults. So, in addition to pursuing therapy, if you can arrange a physical work-up for him to rule out these possibilities, that would be an important step forward.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My sister has always been obsessed with weight and appearance, both her own and her 15-year-old daughter’s. She’s a single parent, so I’ve been a surrogate father figure to my niece for much of her life. My niece is a smart, socially awkward kid who doesn’t always measure up to her mom’s expectations. She’s also an aspiring comic artist with a whole world of colorful imaginary creatures. I was browsing her online art portfolio when I came across a subfolder that alarmed me. In more than 100 drawings and comic strips, her beloved characters are depicted as hugely obese or overeating to such a state, sometimes so large they can’t move. Sometimes they’re shown overeating with gusto, sometimes (more disturbingly) they are physically forced to by other characters. This seems clear evidence her mom’s harping on weight and food has generated some unhealthy thoughts. I’m worried it may even point to an eating disorder. Should I speak to my niece about these drawings, or alternatively, bring them to my sister’s attention and offer my assistance in dealing with whatever problems are brought to light?
— Concerned Uncle
Don’t go to your sister about this just yet. Start with your niece, and ask her about the art. It’s quite possible that this is simply your niece’s way of coping her frustrations about her mom—by channeling it into her art. If that’s the case, it seems to me it could be a healthy strategy for her. Keep your tone neutral and calm, and ask open ended questions that invite her to speak freely without fear of judgment or freaking you out. If you do hear something in the conversation that causes more alarm, then you can decide when and how to approach your sister.
I’m admittedly not an expert on eating disorders, so I suggest you check this advice with the professionals; the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a list of warning signs and symptoms you can review and a hotline you can call to speak to a trained volunteer.