Care and Feeding

My Daughter Was Very Unplanned

Should I ever share this with her?

A woman looks worried.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Yurii Yarema/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,

Your recent column on a daughter discovering the complicated issues surrounding her birth have made me question how much kids need to know about the circumstances of their conception. I have been committed to always telling my kids the truth, but I have also considered some details irrelevant or simply unnecessary to share. My first child was born when I was in my late 20s; my then-boyfriend and I had been on the verge of breaking up when I realized I was pregnant (after the initial shock, I was thrilled; he was not) and after struggling throughout my pregnancy with the decision about how much he wanted to be involved in the baby’s life—which left me feeling alone and unsupported—in my ninth month he finally made up his mind and we moved in together. The plan was to take care of our child together, and in the process of doing that, things actually worked out between us. A year later, we got married, and eventually we had two more kids together (on purpose).

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I have always figured that my firstborn will eventually figure out the timing and conclude that we weren’t married when she was born. When she does, I can honestly answer that we weren’t trying for a baby but that I was thrilled when she came along, that I consider her one of the best things to ever happen to me. The messier backstory seems irrelevant, given that I am now married to her father, but you’ve made me reconsider. How much detail do I really need to share?

—Honesty or Unnecessary Detail?

Dear Honesty,

Honesty with our children does not mean providing them with every detail about our lives. (Honesty with anyone does not require this.) When I speak—as I so often do—about the importance of not lying to our children, and the consequences of dishonesty, I have never suggested that we tell them everything.

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Parents are entitled to their privacy. Is it hard for some people to determine the difference between privacy and secrecy? Evidently so. But you seem to have it well in hand. You haven’t mentioned how old your eldest is, but I’m guessing she’s younger than twelve or so if she hasn’t yet done the math. Your planned response is just right, but be prepared for further questions. My own kid was deep into her reading of problem-heavy YA novels when she did our math—I think she was around ten?—and came to me weeping, declaring that she had just figured out that she’d been an “unwanted child,” a “mistake,” because she was born six months after her father and I married. When I said, “Sweetheart. Look me in the eye. Have you ever for a single second of your life felt unwanted in any way?” she calmed right down. Then I told her as complete a version of the truth that seemed to me appropriate to share with her, which included the fact that neither her dad nor I had ever been much interested in marriage, but that once I was pregnant with her—and over the moon about it—we suddenly became interested in that old-fashioned institution (as we saw it). Did I tell her the whole story of our relationship, or how it was that I got pregnant, or every thought that went through my mind during my first trimester? No, ma’am. (­­And I’m not going to tell y’all either.) We all may draw the line at what is “private” in a different place (and in different places with different people). You can be honest with your daughter without crossing that line.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, Our Family Vacations Are Starting to Get a Little Weird: “I love my family, but I don’t feel great about all of us together like this anymore.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I became a single mom early last year in a pretty horrible sequence of events, and now I have sole custody of my kids (1 and 4.) They’re bright, and they’re a handful. At the tail end of the year, a good friend and her now-almost-3-year-old moved in with us as her marriage was going through its own bad ending. She and her ex- are still mired in an expensive, painful custody battle. I was happy to open my home to her, and I prefer having others in my house to just me and the kids. However, her son is a bit harder to handle than my kids are. When he’s alone with his mom, things are usually OK. I work from home, and I don’t mind him having almost-daily 10-minute temper tantrums because he wants to wear sweatpants when it’s 90 degrees or whatever. I drop my kids at daycare, and I’ll come in to him scowling because Mom cut his toast wrong: another 10-minute tantrum. He frequently refuses his food, and has a total meltdown if his mom offers it to my kids so it doesn’t get wasted.

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But the heart of the issue, and why I’m writing, is the way he acts when my kids are home, especially the toddler. He doesn’t like it when she touches things he doesn’t want her to touch. Sometimes it’s a toy he likes. Sometimes it’s just a spoon. My younger daughter will now often drop things and run away as soon as my friend’s kid opens his mouth. Both my friend and I generally try to encourage him to stop and ask a grown-up for help. I’ve had conversations with his mom about all this, and I realize now that my unsolicited advice (including suggesting play therapy) were frustrating her. She doesn’t like to think of him as “behind” for not using sentences or pronouns yet, and I know she is comparing him developmentally to my girls. I now think the talks I’ve had with her did more harm than good and contributed to her feeling overwhelmed. She tries to parent very peacefully and acceptingly, trying to explain to him why he can’t do or have things, even though it rarely does any good. I accept that she’s the one who chooses what behavior issues to work on, or which ones need working on.

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But how do I handle his behavior one-sidedly? Since I took a step back, I’ve become more vigilant about stopping him before the tantrum progresses to hitting. Yet in the past month, my toddler has been shoved to the floor multiple times (sometimes terrifyingly close to the top of the stairs.) He’s punched her in the face, hit her, and thrown things at her many times. Now that I’m often blocking him when he runs at her angry and yelling, he has started to hit/pinch/bite me. I feel his mom is frustrated with ME because I intervene so frequently.

It’s not a great time to renew the conversation about changing his behavior. But I’ve bought a house after years of renting, and we just moved into it. I don’t want to make them feel unwelcome, or make my friend ashamed of her son’s behavior. Are there better ways to approach this?

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—Confused Non-Coparent

Dear Confused,

I understand that you want to be a good friend. I also understand (well, I don’t “understand,” exactly, but I hear you when you say) that you prefer having others in your house to being alone with your children, without another adult to talk to. But this situation is untenable. You can’t and shouldn’t handle his behavior “one-sidedly”—it simply isn’t your place to do so (even if it is your place he and his mother are living in).

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I can’t tell what’s going on with your roommate’s almost 3-year-old (much of what you describe sounds like a child in need of therapeutic intervention; but some of it sounds like pretty ordinary tantrums for a child this age—pitching a fit because he wants to wear sweatpants and his mother points out that the weather is wrong for them, or because his toast isn’t cut the “right way”—especially one who is in the midst of a traumatic divorce and custody dispute) but it’s clear that his behavior is upsetting your younger child and enraging you. And I guarantee that even if you don’t speak to your friend again about her parenting, or offer her advice she hasn’t asked for, she is aware both that you disapprove of the way she is handling his behavior and that you have developed a great dislike for her child. She already feels unwelcome and ashamed; she is putting up with your disapproval and displeasure because she is dependent on you.

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I think your determination to make this unworkable situation work is doing harm to all concerned. You haven’t even mentioned the effect on your 4-year-old but surely she is affected too (if nothing else, by the distress of her sister and her mother). I would say it is long past time for your friend to make other arrangements. If you can help her do this in any way, by reaching out to your own contacts or helping out financially or doing anything else to make this transition easier for her, you would be a very good friend indeed. (And you can always advertise for another roommate!)

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents divorced when I was a teen and my mom went on to remarry someone with kids from a previous marriage and to have additional children (all much younger than I am). My step- and half-siblings all seem like perfectly nice people, but we didn’t grow up together and they’ve all made it clear that they’re not really interested in a family-type relationship with my kids and me. And believe me, I’ve tried reaching out. It’s fine—we all have our own lives to lead. The problem is that this means my mom and her husband are completely uninterested in a relationship with my kids. She says that my step- and half-siblings prefer that holidays be family time, which means my kids and I are not invited to the big Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Fourth of July parties at my mom and stepdad’s house. (I’ve come out and asked my mom if we can come and she’s said no, she just doesn’t feel comfortable with that given my step- and half- siblings’ feelings about this.) My mom and stepdad regularly host the other grandkids in the summer and have never expressed any interest in doing this with my kids (who are the same age as their cousins). Again, I respect that it’s their life and their choices; I don’t get to decide how they’re going to spend their time or live their lives. However, once every six months or so, my mom texts me that she’ll be in town visiting her other grandchildren and has an hour free to have a quick lunch with my kids. These invitations make me furious since they (in my mind) underscore my kids’ second-class status. But if I say no, I feel guilty that I’m depriving my kids of the only relationship with their grandparents that’s available (all other grandparents are no longer alive or in very poor health). Should I suck it up and just accept the occasional lunch invitations? My mom’s behavior and choices won’t change, so how do I stop feeling so rejected?

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—Red-Headed Stepchild

Dear RS,

I’m sorry your mother has abandoned you and your children in favor of her “newer” children. I cannot imagine what would make a mother treat her child this way. If you have made repeated efforts to be a part of her life and have been repeatedly, callously dismissed—your mother shamefully blaming her cruelty toward you on your siblings (for even if they have expressed this “preference,” it has been her choice to go along with it)—then it’s time to throw in the towel. I am a big fan in general of children having relationships with their grandparents, but there are some grandparents, I’m afraid, with whom a relationship cannot be had and is not worth pursuing.

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The next time your mother calls and offers up “a quick lunch” with your kids in the midst of her extended visit with her other grandchildren, decline the invitation on their behalf. You don’t even have to give her a reason—she does not deserve that courtesy. If she doesn’t get the message after repeated invitations (I’d hardly call them that if what you describe is an accurate depiction of what’s happening), she never will. And if she does get it, and finally carves out some time for your kids—and for you!—then you might consider giving her another chance.) As your children get older, they may wish to try to have a relationship with her. If they do, don’t intervene. Perhaps they’ll get somewhere when you have been unable to. And when they are old enough, be honest with them about why they have been estranged from her: let them make of that what they will, once they have all the relevant information.

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But to address your final question—how can you stop feeling so rejected?—I am sorry to say that there is no easy answer to this. Being rejected by one’s own mother may the most painful rejection any of us can suffer, no matter how old we are. A good therapist will help. So will relationships with friends who may, in the aggregate, fulfill that motherly role in your life. And the grandmotherly role in your children’s. (As a substitute or alternative or “extra” mother to many, and at-the-ready substitute/extra grandmama to the future children of some of my dearest friends, I know firsthand that these relationships can help a lot.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 23-year-old woman who grew up with abuse from my mother, who was violent to my dad and me. That has resulted in my having little contact with my mother now, but I’ve kept up a cautious relationship with my dad. He keeps me up-to-date on family news, including what he and my grandparents refer to as “gossip” from his sister’s side of the family. That “gossip” recently included him telling me about my uncle being violent with his 13-year-old (they have two kids, 9 and 13). The 13-year-old had tried to leave the house to meet friends, but my uncle didn’t like those friends so he forbade her. When she tried to leave anyway, he shoved her into a wall, then dragged her upstairs, shut her in her bedroom, and held the door closed for three hours while she screamed and cried. My aunt related this to my dad in the context of, “I’m so stressed with all the fighting between him and the kids right now.” She did not try to help, call the police, or do anything else to protect her kid. My uncle has been abusive to my aunt for years, sometimes openly at family gatherings, and everyone just kind of shrugs their shoulders as they did over my mom’s abuse of my dad and me.

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I asked my dad if he was going to do anything, like drive over and see if the kid was OK (he lives nearby) or phone CPS, and he said I was overreacting. When I hung up, I phoned CPS myself. I related everything I knew about the situation (my uncle’s longstanding violence towards his wife, the incident my dad described, etc.) and the people I spoke to were helpful and said I’d done the right thing calling. I gave them my aunt’s address when asked. I didn’t know what else to do—I live in a different state and am terrified of my uncle, but couldn’t bear the thought of my cousin being abused, with the whole family knowing but no one doing anything.

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Now I have learned from my dad that my aunt has been phoning everyone in hysterics, demanding to know who “betrayed” her to CPS after she had a visit from social workers and (when injuries were seen on my cousins) the police. There is talk of her kids being taken away from her. The family is in an uproar, with people accusing each other of being “the traitor.” My aunt suspects my grandparents, my dad suspects my mom (who finds this whole thing “funny” because she hates my aunt), and my grandparents accuse my dad. They don’t suspect me because my dad keeps quiet about how much he and I talk to avoid conflict with my mom. When I last spoke to my dad and he was relating the “traitor” accusations to me, I heard my mom say in the background, “It’s her. She hates the whole family.” My dad reassured me he didn’t think this because he knows I’m “too decent a person to do something like this” to my aunt.

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I’m terrified I’ve done the wrong thing. When I called CPS, I was thinking about how much I yearned for someone to help me when I was my cousin’s age and how much I wanted her safe. I didn’t mean to hurt my aunt—I wasn’t thinking of her at all. Now I don’t know if I should confess to my dad that I made the call. Can you offer any advice on what to do with this horrible situation moving forward?

—Family Traitor

Dear FT,

You did the right thing. You should not confess. (My guess is that your dad knows anyway.) You owe nothing to any of these people—the ones doing the hurting and the ones doing nothing to protect the children being hurt. My advice is to stay away from all of them while quietly letting your cousin know—if this is possible for you to do without endangering her—that you’re there for her if she needs you.

For what it’s worth: I’m proud of you. You did a hard and brave thing.

—Michelle

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My aunt died recently. She was in her late 80s, it was in her sleep, we’re all at peace about it. Here’s the problem: In her will, she left my 14-year-old daughter her horrible bird. It’s a monk parakeet, which the internet tells me can live from 15 to 20 years. What do I do?

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