Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
My sister and her husband are updating their will and have asked my husband and I to care for their two sons if they die unexpectedly. On paper, we’d be happy to take on this role—we are parents of three kids ourselves, we’re close with my nephews, and have similar parenting approaches and values. Lurking under this is money. We’re raising our three kids (one of whom was an unexpected twin) on a frugal budget. I’m a teacher, and my husband has complications from early 2020 COVID that limit him to part-time work at best. I have a second job and am attempting to find a better paying career, but at this point, my health insurance is essential. We worry a lot about money, especially our medical debt.
My sister and her husband aren’t much better off—they earn more but have even bigger student and medical debt. Their younger son “Travis” was an NICU baby and has incredibly expensive medical and support needs now as a toddler. Many of them fall into the category of “not fully covered by insurance but painful and miserable if not accommodated.” We love Travis, and absolutely believe the supports he has are necessary. Nonetheless, we straight-up can’t afford to care for him if his parents pass away. How do I talk to my sister about this? It’s heartbreaking. The foster system would surely be worse than us, but I can’t figure out how we could afford my nephews.
— Empty Pocket Aunt
Dear Empty Pocket Aunt,
While I hope that you never have to face this situation, it’s important to pay attention to the anxieties the planning is bringing up. In updating her will, your sister is trying to provide as much support as she can for her sons, and I think part of that support extends to making sure their caregivers are prepared and supported. To that end, you should have a conversation with your sister about what care would look like and how you all can set things up now to keep it from being untenable in the unlikely event of their deaths. It’s clear that financial stress is weighing heavily on you, and it’s not unfair to simply say that and to talk through how you’d make this plan work should you need to. For example, ask your sister if she and her husband have life insurance and how much. Ask them if they’d feel comfortable with you taking out life insurance on them as well. This might feel awkward, but I think you both know how much of care involves a clear understanding of finances. It’s in everyone’s best interest to know exactly what’s possible when doing end-of-life planning.
My husband and I recently flew with our 2-year-old cross-country on a budget airline to attend a wedding. My daughter sat by the window in her own car seat. All things considered, she did incredibly well on the flight. Due to the small quarters, my daughter’s feet lightly touched the tray table of the seat in front of her when at rest. When she moved, the tray table occasionally knocked open as there was no latch to keep it shut. Already flustered from the balancing act of traveling with a toddler, preventing meltdowns, and worrying about what everyone around us thinks of our parenting, we tried our best to fix the situation whenever it would happen without drawing too much attention to it—and thus, making it ten times worse if my daughter were to fixate on it. Yet the woman seated in front repeatedly swiveled around to shoot us many dirty looks, eventually asking us to use this as an opportunity to teach our 2-year-old manners and being respectful of others!
I was so angry; I told her my daughter is 2 and asked what more would she like me to do about this? The looks continued, making us on-edge all flight. My husband eventually called the flight attendant and asked if she had any suggestions given the woman in front of us was so upset. She obviously did not, and that mostly shut the angry woman up for the rest of the flight, but it was incredibly awkward. Were we in the wrong here? Shouldn’t she have asked to move if she was so upset? Did she really think we could reason with a 2-year-old not to move for four hours?
— Flustered Flyers
Dear Flustered Flyers
Every once in a while, a supposedly feel-good account from a plane ride goes viral telling the story of parents who hand out ear plugs or gift bags or apology notes to passengers flying the not-always-friendly skies with them and their toddler. While I admire the sense of hospitality, I often despair over the preemptive guilt these parents feel. True, being stuck on a plane for a prolonged period of time with anyone who is caterwauling is a trying experience, but so is being a child. Compassion is in short supply everywhere and that’s especially true on planes, where people often become the worst versions of themselves due to stress, fatigue, entitlement, or whatever it is they put in those little packets of pretzels. I’m not sure there was much more you could have done to appease the woman in front of you, short of switching seats with your daughter so that she was tapping the table of a different passenger. Many people have back issues that get exacerbated by tiny airline seats and are made much worse by the innocent tapping of children, so I understand her frustration. She could have asked to move as you suggested, but as you found, the flight attendant didn’t have available options, including moving her. So it sounds like it was just a tough situation for everyone. But you all got there safely, your daughter won’t be 2 forever, and hopefully the next plane has tray table latches that work.
I lost my job just before the pandemic and can’t find employment. Though I have considerable savings, I’ve found it necessary to take a roommate to make ends meet. “Tracy” is smart, dependable, kind, and with the exception to two issues, quiet and considerate. Her rent pays for most of my mortgage, and we split bills and household chores 50/50.
The two issues:
1. Although young, she’s developing a mass in one eye which makes it hard to see things like hair, crumbs, or spilled water on counters. She’s not as neat as she used to be.
2. A transplant from the other coast, she works from home and has a weird schedule. Being unemployed, I find it necessary to stick to a firm, traditional schedule. Everyone knows that morning is for chores, afternoon for projects/desk work, and evening for social things, but she does desk work in the morning and chores in the afternoon. Worse, she insists on making family phone calls during the day because her relatives are “older and live on the east coast.” This is complicated by the fact her father is hard of hearing, so she can be loud. To her credit, she tries to do this outside, but the weather doesn’t always permit.
I want to make a trade: I will do all the cleaning in exchange for her keeping a normal schedule. But I’m afraid this offer might come across as rude. For the record, we consider each other to be friends, and I need her financially. What should I do?
— Normal Schedule, Happier Household
Dear Normal Schedule,
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of the “normal schedule” as defined in your letter. Which isn’t to say it’s wrong, simply that every house has its own definition of normal. One of the things that those of us lucky enough to work from home during the pandemic learned is that the domestic world and the professional world can make strange roommates, and what works schedule-wise for one person won’t work for another person. You included an addendum to your letter, not printed here, that clarifies that Tracy gets up at 5 a.m. to work East Coast hours for her job, while you get up at 7:40 a.m. and do your housework duties. It sounds like both of you are making the best out of your situation, considering your other responsibilities and things you can’t control, like time zones. You certainly can ask Tracy to switch her schedule, but bear in mind that it might be placing a burden on her that isn’t adequately offset by you doing additional cleaning. Her work hours are predicated by when her job is open, I presume, so there may be only so much switching she can do.
You should also make sure that the expectations of the arrangement are clear and still work for both of you. You’re splitting house-cleaning duties, but I wonder if you’ve had a conversation about what an ideally clean house looks like. As she’s dealing with a medical issue, her observation skills may be diminished, but her capacity may also have changed. Make sure you’re not holding her to a different standard than she’s holding herself to.
One last thing: As you’re still searching for new employment, it may be helpful to amend your schedule a bit to avoid the parts of the shared day that disturb you. Is it possible for you to do your desk work/projects from a coffee shop? Or might you take on a part-time job in another field that will add some variety to your days and also help you make ends meet?
More Advice Care and Feeding
My (white) 3-year-old daughter approached me this weekend and asked me to put her hair in “five ponytails.” I didn’t think much of it until she said, “Like Lola!” She has two of the Lola books, Lola at the Library and Lola Reads to Leo.* For the uninitiated, Lola is a little Black girl who wears her hair in small buns…