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,
My daughter “Taryn” (age 7) has a friend “Jade” with a serious illness. As Jade’s mom explained it to me, she will have periods of stability and periods of severity throughout her life. When she’s well, she can do 90 percent of the activities the other kids do, but when she’s sick she’s often hospitalized. Unfortunately, Jade will also likely live a shorter life than many people, and there’s also a significant chance that she could die in childhood. Taryn lost her paternal grandfather a few years ago, and Nana Upstairs Nana Downstairs was really helpful for us then. Taryn grieved in a normal way for her age, and definitely knows what death is.
But I don’t know how to approach this situation about Jade, which has a lot of uncertainty. Jade (hopefully) will live a long time! But should I be preparing Taryn for other possibilities? Our community is pretty small and even if they don’t stay friends, they will be classmates up through high school. My husband believes our daughter is too young to understand the situation, while I lean more towards saying something. What’s right here? If we do talk about it, are there good books or resources for that age group? How do I keep her from badgering Jade about it, if we do discuss it?
— Hopefully it won’t happen but….
In this situation, I would recommend splitting the difference and speaking with Taryn about Jade’s illness, but not about the possibility of death. If Jade takes a turn, then that will be the time to get into that, and certainly it may come up naturally—or Taryn might connect the dots—as the girls mature. The sad reality is that any kid may die in childhood, and while Jade’s chances are higher, it’s not enough of a foregone conclusion that Taryn needs to attach that specter to her friend.
Before you talk to Taryn, I’d first talk to Jade’s mom about how much she and Jade are comfortable with kids knowing. When you do talk to your daughter, emphasize the things she can do to be a good friend to Jade. Brainstorm things she can do when Jade’s illness flares up, like visits to the hospital, get well cards, homework help, or a welcome home playdate. If the illness might open Jade up to teasing or ostracization, encourage Taryn in ways to be a friend and ally at school.
Most importantly, emphasize that although Jade is ill, it is just one part of her identity and doesn’t need to impact how they play or hang out most days. I do think it’s a good idea (if Jade’s mom gives the green light) to let Taryn ask Jade about her illness. Kids crave information, and things being off-limits can often make them seem bigger/worse/scarier than they are. Jade may very well see her illness as simply a fact of life, in which case questions from friends would not necessarily be unwelcome.
To get to the heart of your question, I think giving Taryn more information not only helps her understand what’s going on when Jade does have a flare up, but also will help her see Jade in these times less as a “sideshow” and more like the friend she knows and cares for.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I grew up as the middle child in a home where I was treated very differently than my two siblings. My parents did the minimum required to feed me and keep me safe from death, but they badly abused me, both emotionally and physically. They called me things like lazy, unlovable, and a liar, even when I was just a toddler. My dad frequently called me fat when I was actually underweight. When I was an adult, my dad (rather happily) informed me that I wasn’t really his daughter, though his reason for believing that was completely illogical.
I came close to cutting my parents out of my life several times, but they did try to make amends and helped me out financially quite a bit when I was in my 20s. Now I’m in my 50s and my elderly parents seem to have forgotten the amends they made. My mom, for example, recently told me that I was so lazy as a toddler that I would wet the bed on purpose rather than walk to the bathroom. She denied that I had a severe disabling phobia of bathrooms, even though my siblings remember it well. She also recently accused me of planning to drown my sick kitten. I am quite active as a volunteer for animal rescues, and yet her opinion of me is so incredibly low that she thinks I am capable of such an atrocity. My dad only seems to remember my mistakes in life (not a new development) and reminds me of them often. He still believes that I am not his, but his brothers finally got him to shut up about it.
I know that both my parents came from abusive upbringings. I know that my dad has delusional disorder and is likely a narcissist. I also know that they are quickly becoming demented, though they are physically healthy considering their age.
What responsibilities do I have to be there for them in their old age? My siblings can take care of them for the most part, but if they ask for help, I will have a hard time saying yes. I don’t think my parents deserve my help. I don’t want to help. But should I try to forgive my parents to keep the peace and help my siblings out? I should mention that I don’t have the best relationships with my siblings either, though I am still on speaking terms with all four family members. If they weren’t family, I would not choose to be around them, and I am quite certain that the feeling is mutual since I am the black sheep, an atheist, child-free, and on the autism spectrum. My extended family, including nieces and nephews, often exclude me when socializing, even posting their get-togethers on social media where they know I can see that I wasn’t invited.
I feel guilty about two things: wanting to abandon my family when they need me most and wanting to stick around solely to make sure I am left in their wills. While my parents are not rich, I could end up with maybe $150,000, which would help me out tremendously. They have never threatened to disinherit me, and perhaps they wouldn’t, but it’s literally the only reason I maintain all four relationships. What should I do? I know that blood is thicker than water but where do I draw the line?
— A Burned-Out Black Sheep
The answer to your first question is that you owe your parents nothing. Helping you in your 20s does not give them a guaranteed assist today, not with this kind of relationship they have cultivated. You are within your rights to draw the line somewhere, whether that is cutting them off completely or offering financial help while leaving the legwork and nurturing to your siblings. (And if the siblings protest, you simply state that this is the most you are able to do right now).
If you were simply writing in about your family dynamic, I would tell you to cut your family ties. Your parents are perpetuating their emotional abuse, you do not have a good relationship with your siblings, and the extended family are, at best, indifferent to you. From what you have told me in this letter, your family adds only distress to your life. But of course, there is a financial angle at play here, and while neither you nor I want to be that cynical here, it’s hard to deny that as an important factor to consider.
There is no clear answer, so I will offer you a few questions. Is the potential (I put that in italics because who knows if they plan to give you this much, given their behavior towards you) payout upon their deaths worth it to stay connected to them? Not knowing their age, they might be around for several years; can you withstand this level of hurt for that long? You say $150,000 would help you out tremendously; is that likely to still be the case five, 10, 15, or even 20 years from now? Or would the dollars matter less by then?
There’s a quote I’ve seen around, “are you running away from death…or running towards life?” Death or illness can come for us any day, so what a waste if we didn’t enjoy the time we had. As I read your letter, I think about a different version of that quote: emotionally, are you surviving…or are you thriving? If you feel you are mostly surviving, but cutting ties with your family would let you thrive, then I think you need to prioritize your happiness above any family obligation or potential payout. If, on the other hand, you are truly thriving in the non-family areas of your life, then you need feel no guilt over sticking around until the distribution of assets. Considering the stuff you’ve dealt with, it seems like a few grand would be well earned.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m four months pregnant with my second child and, well, these last few weeks in America have happened. I’m terrified for the future my kids may have. I also find I am wracked with guilt about even having a baby right now. It feels callous to be happy when so many are having their very right to choose taken away. On top of that, many of my friends are not so much pro-choice as they are anti-natalist, and they’ve been loudly condemning anyone having children at all since the overturning of Roe, stripping of indigenous rights, and the gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers. My husband points out that people are scared, and us having a small family is not the main cause of climate change, is not adding to systemic racism, and won’t hurt persons who find themselves pregnant in anti-abortion states, but that does little to take away from my constant sadness over this. I am currently in therapy, and that hasn’t helped much either. I feel like a monster for bringing another person, even (especially!) one I already love so much, into this world. I don’t want to even tell people I’m pregnant. How do I make any kind of peace with this?
There are days I could have written much of this letter. First, your husband is correct that your small family is not going to be the domino that collapses the system. Second, if your friends are making you feel like a monster for having a child, then you need to find new friends. Third, you are totally right that things are really messed up right now, and as a mom with two young children I share your existential dread about the world I am asking them to inherit. Some days it is almost too much.
BUT…what if your child, and my children, and a couple others too, are the ones that help solve all of this? What if, by raising them to hold our values and be positive forces, we bring enough good to the world that it outweighs the resources we might have saved by not having them? And what if you and I use our fierce love for our children as an impetus to donate, volunteer, and fight now for the world we know they deserve?
I’m not saying your child or mine are destined to be messiahs or anything, nor am I trying to tell you that the solution to your angst is to work harder and put more of the burden on yourself. I simply mean that the solutions to the world’s problems aren’t as simple as “just don’t have kids.” Use your love for your child and your despair at the world to galvanize you to action, but also remember this is a marathon not a sprint, and it is ok to pace yourself. It is OK to fight like hell for voting rights one day and take your toddler to Disney World the next. And you are allowed to be joyful. Joy is not the absence of despair; it is resistance to despair, and that can be powerful.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have health issues that restrict my diet significantly. I have to make all of my meals at home from fresh ingredients, portion out my meals and snacks with a lot of math, and can’t ever eat any processed food including chocolate or chips. I’m very thin because of my hormonal and digestive issues, not any dieting or exercising, which people usually assume due to my strict diet. I spend a lot of time thinking, planning, and worrying about getting enough calories into my body and how the food I eat will affect me.
I’ll be moving in with my 13-year-old niece for at least a year while her mother, my sister, serves time in jail. I’m worried that my very strict diet will be a negative influence on her. Usually when we see each other it’s out somewhere, like at a museum or zoo or something, and I’m not sure she’s ever seen me eat. I’m not a parent, but I remember from health class in high school that disordered eating can form easily during stressful times where the child feels like it’s the only thing they can control, and it’s hard to imagine a more stressful time for a 13-year-old than her mom going to prison and having to adjust her whole life. We’ll be living in her house, so she’ll still have her friends and school, but she’ll still be going through a stressful time and her sole legal guardian will be counting almonds and checking labels.
It doesn’t bother me to have food in the house that I can’t eat, so I’m thinking of buying her snacks so that I don’t give off the impression of “good” and “bad” food, but I don’t have a choice in how I eat and how much time I spend on it. How can I approach this so that I don’t model disordered eating habits for a vulnerable teenager? Should I bring it up to explain the difference between clean eating for me and healthy food in general, or should I not even put the idea in her head? Should I make her separate meals so that she can eat all the things I can’t? I know some adult friends have a hard time seeing me deal with food since it triggers their insecurities and unhealthy patterns around eating, and I’d appreciate any insight into not being a bad influence on my niece.
— Clean-Eating Aunt
Dear Clean Eating,
I think the best thing you can do is talk to your niece right off the bat about what you are doing with your food and why. Go into enough of your health issues and give her key details so that she understands unequivocally that these are medically necessary practices that she will be observing. And yes, provide enough of her favorite snacks and make her meals that she enjoys so that she is less likely to read into the things on her plate or in her pantry. If there are foods you make for yourself that are “normal” enough for her to enjoy, I think sharing some meals is fine, and you can simply offer her larger portions, etc.
It does seem like it might be wise to restrict some of the snack measuring activities to times when she is in bed or out of the house. Consider portioning out your snacks in bulk so that throughout the week you just need to grab a snack bag rather than get out the kitchen scale, etc. I would also encourage you to speak to the social worker or psychologist at your niece’s school, if you haven’t already. As you said, this is going to be a tumultuous year for your niece, and these professionals can help not only with the concerns you expressed in this letter, but also with the other stresses she is experiencing.
I wish your family well; your niece is fortunate that you can step in and care for her. Just remember that talking about something directly is almost always more effective that skirting around it. The more open communication you can foster between you both, the more successful this time together will be.