Care and Feeding

I’m So Sick of My Sister Ignoring Me—Except When She Needs Something

A woman holds her phone and looks annoyed as she reads a text.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/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 woman in my early 30s. My sister, whom I’ll call Elizabeth, is five years younger. We live in different countries. We have a third sibling who lives in yet another country. For no apparent reason, Elizabeth will drop out of contact with everyone in the family for weeks or even months at a time, popping back up only when she wants something. To say that this is frustrating is an understatement: I am constantly fielding calls from my parents, who are worried or hurt when she doesn’t acknowledge a Christmas present or entirely ignores an email about the death of a family friend. My wedding is coming up later this year, Elizabeth is supposed to be one of only two bridesmaids, and she has ignored all correspondence about it beyond originally saying that she would be happy to be a bridesmaid. I don’t even know if she’s taken time off work for the wedding! And we have some shared family assets that I would like to sell, about which she is, once again, ignoring all calls, texts, and emails. I vacillate between being worried about her and being upset and angry. She is an adult, and she isn’t behaving like one. It isn’t my job to deal with our parents when they’re upset about her silence, and it’s very hard for me to read this as anything other than selfishness and laziness. I can’t force her to engage (which she usually does when she decides that she doesn’t want to be alone for a holiday or the like, generally at the very last minute) but this situation feels untenable and unfair. What do I do? What can I do?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Saddened Sister

Dear Saddened,

Patterns are hard to change, I know. But since there’s nothing you can do to change your sister’s behavior (there’s nothing any of us can ever do to change anyone else), your only way forward is to change how you respond to her—and for that matter how you deal with your parents when they come to you, distressed about her. Elizabeth is who she is. Is she lazy and selfish? Maybe. But maybe she’s just not interested in being close to any of you. Maybe she thinks of herself as carefree and unencumbered. Or maybe none of this is true and instead she is depressed and anxious; in other words, maybe she procrastinates responding to you all for reasons having nothing to do with either selfishness or easy-breeziness. In the end, it doesn’t matter how you read her behavior but only what you do about it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In your shoes, I would not have asked her to be a bridesmaid at a formal wedding planned well in advance (presumably with a set of expectations around dress and bridal party duties). You know her M.O. Did you expect her to do a sudden about-face because you’re having a wedding? If you want a bridesmaid who will fulfill the role in the way you envision it, send her one more text: Since you haven’t responded to my multiple texts/calls/emails about my wedding, I’m assuming you’ve changed your mind about being in the bridal party. I hope you’ll come to the wedding, though—please send your RSVP! And then move on. Ask a friend, or have just one bridesmaid. If Elizabeth responds to this message—or gets in touch with you a month or more from now—and is upset, hurt that you have moved on without her, you can tell her the truth: “I wish I hadn’t had to.” When your parents express their unhappiness about her failing to respond to them, tell them firmly that you are not your sister’s keeper: they’ll have to take it up with her when they finally do hear from her.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Elizabeth may change, as time passes, or she may not. But the best way to cope with an untenable situation is to get out of it. I am not suggesting that you cut her off—only that you change your expectations of her (your parents would do well to do so too, but you can’t change them either; you can only tell them that you won’t participate in their pattern with your sister).

Dear Care and Feeding,

What should I do when my child misgenders someone? My son is 4 years old and has twice misgendered trans men. Once at school he asked if a teacher he didn’t know very well was someone’s mother, and once at a party he insisted a man was a woman. I didn’t want to make a big deal about it in the moment because I didn’t want to make the person he’d misgendered uncomfortable, and because, at 4, my child seizes on anything he can sense is getting a rise out of me and was likely to get louder in his insistence. But I do want to convey my apologies in these situations and also teach my son that men and women sometimes don’t look the way he expects them to. How should I deal with such situations in the future?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Apologetic Mom

Dear AM,

There’s nothing wrong with a brief, no-big-deal, genuine apology to someone who has been misgendered by your child. Just say, “I’m so sorry—he’s 4.” And to your child, in the moment, be efficient too, and matter-of-fact: “No, that’s not Billie’s mom, that’s Mr. James, who teaches fifth grade.” But in private? If you want your child to know more about gender presentation and expression than you did, growing up—and good for you, wanting him to grow up with a broader perspective and understanding!—then make sure what he learns at home is more than the same-old same-old. To the collection of picture books from which you read to him, why not add in Being You: A First Conversation About Gender, Julián Is a Mermaid, It Feels Good to be Yourself, and Red: A Crayon’s Story? Planned Parenthood also offers a thoughtful discussion about gender for preschoolers that can help you find a starting place for conversations with your child.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I will confess to a little bit of curiosity, though, about your ID-ing these two men as trans. Were these guesses on your part, based on “clues” you believed you had picked up on? Or were both of these men who had disclosed to you that they were trans—or who were public figures in some way who speak about being trans as part of their identity? If the latter—cool. If the former: you might need to spend some time educating yourself too, because while your intentions are obviously good, you might have some unpacking of assumptions about gender expression to do. If you’re interested, PFLAG has a very good reading list.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

Advertisement

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 30-year-old man with no children who has recently begun seeing a single mom, whom I’ll call “Laura.” Laura has a 5-year-old son, “Andrew,” and even though I’m not currently a dad, I would be open to being a father figure for him if Laura and I become serious. I’ve met Andrew once and he’s a sweet kid; however, I don’t know if the way he and Laura interact is normal, and it gives me pause. I’ll preface this by saying that I don’t have that much experience with kids, so I could just be out of touch, but Laura and Andrew seem inappropriately close. When I told Andrew that I liked his mother a lot, Andrew said that he did too and he “wants to marry mommy when he’s big.” I also know that Laura changes in front of Andrew, helps him bathe, kisses him on his cheeks and head, and calls him “her little prince.” I don’t know if it’s healthy for Laura to be creating such an intimate dynamic with her son, because from where I’m standing, it looks a little creepy. I told Laura that she’s awfully affectionate with Andrew, and she replied that she just wants her son “to know that his mother loves him.” Am I right to be concerned about Laura and Andrew’s interactions, and is it a red flag?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—“Here Comes the Son”

Dear HCtS,

He’s 5. It’s fine. Nothing about this seems creepy in the least to me. (You think it’s weird that a mother kisses her son “on his cheeks and head”? What sort of affection does seem appropriate to you?) If she’s still bathing him when he’s 10, that’s another story. (And a whole ‘nother story: If I were Laura, and a guy I’d just started dating let me know that he disapproved of my showing affection to my 5-year-old, I’d break up with him so fast his head would spin. So consider yourself lucky she’s so zen about it.)

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,

I’ve been a vegetarian for about ten years. And although most of my friends and family are very accommodating, my home culture’s cuisine is pretty meat-based. I’m in an age bracket where many of my friends have become parents, so lately there have been a lot of social occasions with young kids attending. My question is: What should I answer when a young child asks me why I don’t eat meat? It has happened to me twice in the last couple of weeks. Both kids were about 5. I was worried that if I started talking about the wrongness of eating animals, climate change etc., I might upset them, plus their parents might not appreciate my talking about this stuff to their children. So I just said, “Because I don’t like it.” But lying doesn’t sit right with me either. What do you think? Should I give kids more credit and tell them why some people choose not to eat meat?

Advertisement
Advertisement

—Don’t Want to Ruin the Barbecue

Dear Don’t,

I think this is a question that needs to be kicked back to the parents. I wouldn’t want to lie either (as regular readers know, I have a deep aversion to lying to children—or anyone else, for that matter—about anything) but this is a big subject for little kids. Some kids this age don’t even know yet that pork comes from pigs and hamburgers and steaks from cows. I remember my own daughter, when she was very young, being shocked that chicken (the farm animal) and chicken (that we ate) weren’t homonyms (and if you’re shocked that she knew what a homonym was before she knew where meat came from, you obviously didn’t grow up with a parent who was a writer and English professor). I think it would be very reasonable to say that some people eat meat and some people don’t, and you are one of the ones who don’t. If they press you (and some young children certainly will), I also think it’s perfectly reasonable to tell them that different people have different reasons, and that you choose not to eat meat for ethical reasons (and then when they ask you what “ethical” means, tell them it’s “what seems right and good”)—or, if you’re the kind of adult who doesn’t like to use big words when you speak to kids (I do! I like introducing new words and ideas to other people’s kids! I do it all the time!), say, “I don’t eat meat because I just don’t feel right about it.” Either way, they will ask why, and that’s when it’s time to pass the buck. “That’s a big and complicated question. You’re smart to be asking it! But big, complicated questions are for kids to talk about with their parents, at home.” (And if the parents are at a loss for how to talk to their kids about this, they’re welcome to write to me, too.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I love my husband. We’ve been together for 14 years. The issue is before we were together, I had an avid sex life. He has never really cared about sex. We haven’t had any in five years (he has a bad back and no sex drive). I’ve tried talking to him; we’ve tried therapy. No changes. Last year, I started sleeping with someone else. It’s amazing. Husband has no clue. My issue is that I don’t feel guilty. I don’t want to leave my husband, but I refuse to live without sex. Am I a bad person? I sleep with this guy about once a week, and to be honest, I’m much happier now and a better wife because I no longer am resentful.

Advertisement