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,
We recently made a trip to visit my in-laws. The whole time, it seemed like they were criticizing my parenting. A lot of it was unintentional, I realize. For example, we took the kids to the pool, and I was watching them swim while my MIL and the rest of the adults in the family were chatting or reading. But every 20 minutes or so, she would suddenly rush over to the pool to check on the grandkids. If one of them was off in the bathroom or otherwise not in her sight, she’d freak out and yell “Where is ___?!?” It was like she felt that SHE was the one watching them swim instead of me, and she kept talking about how hard and stressful it was to keep track of them. Except … she wasn’t! I was!
Other criticisms were definitely intentional. When we were at a park, my 6-year-old was climbing up a rope ladder on the play structure. My father-in-law said, “Aren’t you worried about her?” I said I was not, and he said, “Well, you should be!” I knew better than to respond, but it was frustrating nonetheless. And the entire weeklong visit was just variations of the in-laws acting like they were the only people standing between my kids and certain death. My father-in-law told the kids to be careful every. single. time. they went up or down stairs (they are 6 and 10! They know how to go up and down stairs!).
My in-laws have always been anxious people, but their fearfulness has clearly reached a new level and it is unbearable to me. Now they have announced that they are coming to visit us later this summer. I feel like I might snap when they inevitably tell the kids to be careful when they are walking up the stairs in their own home. Or act as if my husband and I are not supervising them well enough when they’re playing. Neither of us can think of any productive way to address this. I think if we tell them it bothers us, they will take that as additional evidence that we are not sufficiently cautious when it comes to the kids. Should we try to talk to them or just do our best to ignore these constant remarks? (For what it’s worth, the 10-year-old is also fed up with this, because she feels that they treat her like she’s a toddler. So if we don’t say something, she might!)
I know it’s maddening to have people, particularly in-laws, second-guess your parenting. My in-laws did it too—not about matters of safety (I think they thought I was the one who was absurdly cautious: when I expressed concern about, say, trampoline-jumping without a net in their yard, they dismissed it), but about everything else. I spent a lot of time on those visits keeping my lips sealed, which is not easy for me.
Everyone has opinions about other people’s parenting. How we keep them safe, how much risk we’re willing to allow, how and what we feed them, how we “let them talk” to us, how we dress them and how we address their fears, sleep troubles, behavior, etc. If you pay attention to this stuff, you’ll be driven mad by it. Ignore it. Whether it’s truly criticism or your in-laws are just so anxious they can’t keep themselves from worrying (no matter how absurd the particular worry is), you can’t make them stop. If you’re really desperate (and your husband is on board), you can try, though I don’t have much hope that telling them their constant comments bother you will have any effect. The best thing to do is not engage. When they say “Aren’t you concerned that Sam is going to get hurt/get lost/drown/fall down the stairs?”, just say, “Nope.” Cheerfully. And move on.
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From this week’s letter, My Grandmother’s Attempts to “Get Closer” to Me Are Starting to Freak Me Out: “I know that I can’t ignore her forever, and I know that I don’t want her sending me things or knowing where I live.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
Last September, my brother sent me the sibling equivalent of a “Dear John” letter, telling me I am a terrible person and a bully who has treated him and his wife badly, so he wants nothing to do with me. I was very upset and then very angry about the baseless claims and meanspirited nature of the letter. I did not reply (there’s no point in trying to have a rational conversation with irrational people) and decided I will not spend any time with them. I told my parents about the letter and it turns out my mom knew he was writing me a letter but she had been led to believe it was intended to bring about a reconciliation. After she read it, she agreed that was clearly not its intent. They agreed to my request to split the holidays, so I got Thanksgiving and my brother got Christmas.
The problem is that my parents have refused to say anything to my brother about the letter, even when he brought it up to them, it turns out, and despite the fact that they told me they thought the letter was awful and unwarranted. I feel like they’ve taken his side and are implying that what he did was okay. Their refusal to confront him has made a bad situation worse. When I talk to my mother about this, she discounts my feelings. I’m not asking them to cut him off or disown him, but am I wrong to want them to call him out? Is it too much to expect your parents to have your back when you’ve been unfairly attacked—even if it’s by a sibling?
—Betrayed in Brooklyn
I am very sorry about your brother’s letter. Twice in my life I have gotten such letters—from people I had thought of as close friends—and both times I was baffled by the “charges” and the decision to cut me off (and even though many, many years have passed since then, it still pains and puzzles me when I think of them). I should think it would be a great deal harder to receive such a letter from a member of one’s family. So you have my full-hearted sympathy.
But I am afraid I have to add that it is too much to expect your parents to have your back. They are parents equally to both you and your brother; they love you both and want and need to do whatever they can to support you both. If they were to “confront” him, they might lose him (he is evidently willing to cut family members out of his life). Calling him out will not change his mind, will not convince him to reconsider his grievances or to issue an apology—surely you don’t believe your parents have the power to do that—so what purpose will it serve other than to persuade you that they love you more than they love him? As to their apparently discounting your feelings: I want you to consider whether they may be walking this same line when they talk to your brother—i.e., trying not to get involved in what’s going on between the two of you, trying not to encourage either one of you in your anger and hurt. I know that this seems terribly unfair, as you feel unjustly attacked (and I’m willing to believe that you were unjustly attacked) and your brother is the aggressor in this situation. But evidently he feels that you have done him harm. Perhaps your parents didn’t say anything to your brother about the letter when he brought it up to them for the same reason they aren’t agreeing with you that he is awful: they are doing everything they can to remain neutral in what must be, for them, an extremely painful situation. (I hear from enough parents of adult children who are embattled to know how dreadful it is for them.)
If you want your brother to be called out, I suggest you do it yourself—that you reconsider your decision not to respond to his letter. Don’t leave it to your parents to fight this battle for you. Go ahead and have a furious argument with him if you want him to know how “awful” his letter was. If you can’t bring yourself to do it in person or over the phone, write your own letter. Offer your counterargument to every one of his grievances. If you don’t want to—if you’d rather just write him off at this point—that’s your decision, and I blame you no more than I blame myself for giving up on first my friend Barbara, then my friend Peter, when I was in my 20s, too hurt and shocked to respond to their attacks on my character. But don’t ask others to tell him off for you. Especially not the parents you share.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I went to a high school that wasn’t technically a “magnet school,” but it was one of those schools that people move to the neighborhood for because of its high academic ranking. Unfortunately, it was a toxically competitive environment. I kid you not, students used to compare the number of hours of sleep they got, and whoever had more than seven was “a community college kid” (community college was seen as a fate worse than death). Everyone talked about neglecting their health (mental and physical) as if it were an honorable sacrifice to make for the ultimate goal of getting into an elite university and eventually raking in tons of money. You were expected to load up on AP courses (regardless of whether you were interested in them) and do tons of extracurricular activities. Some of the classes at this school were far more difficult than many of the classes I’ve taken in college thus far. Of course, in order to get good grades in these hard classes, people cheated—which was kind of an open secret, but no one really talked about it. I’m proud to say that I wasn’t a cheater, but I also didn’t have nearly as many extracurriculars, and I “only” took seven AP courses, which apparently meant I was inferior.
I am now a rising junior in college, and I still get severely anxious whenever my course grades are even at a low A. I also struggle with my self-image. In high school I was thought of as “stupid” because I didn’t fit the super-student image that was pretty much universally expected, and so now I’m always worried about what people think of me. On top of that, I’m dealing with what I suspect might be depression (the extent of which I won’t reveal out of concern that it might be triggering), which I think is a result of the environment that I was in in high school. And while I know I need to start taking better care of myself, it was so hammered into me that neglecting my physical health for the sake of my academic performance is the right thing to do that it’s second nature at this point. I remind myself to take care of my body (sleep more, eat well), but then I don’t actually do it. Then I end up berating myself. Clearly, that mindset also hurts my mental health.
My dad thinks I should’ve moved past my horrendous high school experience by now. Whenever I mention my grade anxiety or mental health concerns, he dismisses them. He also likes to tell me that I shouldn’t complain, because I’m lucky to be able to even have access to the opportunities I have. (This is true, as my family isn’t struggling financially.) While I agree that I’m lucky to be in the place that I am today, and I agree that there are many problems in the world that make what I’m describing seem about as traumatic as spilling a glass of water, I don’t think that means I should just suck it up and ignore my mental health struggles. In fact, I’d love to devote more time and energy to dealing with big social issues, but I feel too drained due to my own issues to focus on much of anything other than schoolwork (and sometimes, not even that).
It especially hurts because I’ve always had a close relationship with my dad, and I feel like he’s invalidating my experiences. It’s incredibly frustrating and I have a feeling that without support of some kind, my mental health will only get worse. I feel burnt out, sort of gaslit, and lost. I know that’s a lot, but: is my dad right? Is it ridiculous that I am still suffering over what I experienced in high school? Am I being melodramatic about my mental health, or is it a reasonable concern? Basically, what’s the best way for me to approach this?
—Definitely Didn’t Peak in High School
There’s nothing ridiculous about suffering. You are not being melodramatic. Your dad is not the right person for you to be talking to about any of this, since he apparently cannot offer you the support, kindness, empathy, and help you need. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, and it doesn’t negate your relationship with him. But he is just plain wrong about this. There is no automatic expiration date on the effects of experiences that wound us, affluence is not a panacea, being lucky enough not to have financial worries doesn’t mean you have nothing to worry about, and your anxiety and depression should not be ignored. Get yourself to campus mental health counseling. I don’t know of any college or university that doesn’t have counseling available to its students. Do it now. You may be put on a waiting list, as many colleges are stretched to their limits in this area (which in itself should tell you that you are not alone). While you wait, if you have to wait, utilize other resources: for example, this site, which offers information on a wide variety of struggles that young people face and connects students with additional resources to decrease mental health stigma and help themselves, and guided mindfulness exercises. Also ask your campus mental health services for additional resources and community referrals—there may be free or low-cost options off campus that will allow you to access them without asking your father. If your only option is to get help for which you’ll need financial assistance, your father should be your last resort (as the conversation with him about this is likely to be very difficult for you). But that’s not because what you’d be asking for is unreasonable, I assure you. If you have access to funds he does not control, or if you have other family members or adult friends whom you trust, these are the people to confide in now. Do not try to muscle through this on your own. I am crossing my fingers for you that you’ll be able to get help soon. You deserve it.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 3-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, and for the last year or so my son has been interested in wearing dresses. Not all the time, and not insistently, but he sees his sister’s comfortable everyday dresses and wants to wear them because, I think, it seems to him they’re simpler than shirts and shorts. Or he sees her dress-up (costume) dresses and wants to play, too. Or it’s just a matter of: dresses are pretty, and he wants in on the action sometimes. At home or with friends, we’re fine with it. And if another child (or my mother) says, “Boys don’t wear dresses,” I say, “It’s true that many boys don’t wear dresses, but boys can wear girls’ clothes and girls can wear boys’ clothes.”
But practicing what I preach in public is daunting. We are in a blue bubble in a red state, so I’m not actively worried about his being harassed, but if he wore a dress to daycare it would certainly attract questions from the other children—questions I can’t answer for him because I’m not there. I don’t want to send my little one into a situation where he’s made to feel like he’s done something wrong. We let him wear stuff with hearts and butterflies, which he loves, and his favorite color is pink. That’s all fine; it’s just the dresses that I can’t get on board with, because he doesn’t understand that it would read as transgressive. And I don’t want to use my 3-year-old as a pawn in the larger ideological battlefield about gender identity. His requests to wear dresses out of the house are infrequent, but they are frequent enough that I’m writing to you. He doesn’t seem to have gender dysphoria. Except for role-playing situations where he pretends to be his favorite TV girl character, he identifies as a boy. So what do I say when he wants to wear a dress to school? So far I’ve just been ignoring, redirecting, or saying stuff like “maybe later.”
—Feeling Like a Hypocrite
What if, when someone says, “Boys can’t wear dresses,” you responded, “Why not?” instead of the rather tortuous response you’ve been giving? And what if you not only modeled this response for your child, but actually taught him to question that assumption? Because why shouldn’t boys wear dresses if they feel like it—for whatever reason? You mention a number of them in your son’s case—some of them contradictory—even as you take pains to reassure yourself that it’s not a harbinger of anything. And it very well may not “mean” anything. Lots of little boys will play dress-up in dresses if given the opportunity, until they are told they mustn’t. And I know a few boys who so far—as young teens—seem to be straight as well as cis “even though” they were allowed to wear dresses whenever they wanted to as small children. But it also may turn out that your child is not a cis straight boy. It’s just too early to know, and I would suggest that if you’re worried about being a hypocrite (or even if you’re really not) you begin by trying to let go of all those defenses and assumptions you have in place.
Parenting from a position of patience, discovery, and unconditional acceptance and love will take you a long way, allowing you to be unwavering in your support as your child finds/figures out who he is and lets you know. Meanwhile, he wants to wear dresses. I would let him wear them. I think you might be surprised by the reactions of other children in your “blue bubble in a red state” (if my own little blue bubble of a neighborhood in central Ohio is any indication). I wouldn’t be so “certain” that this will attract questions from other 3-year-olds (I think you’re projecting), but even if it did, it seems to me that the conversation that might result would be healthy. (You could even roleplay it with your kid if it would make you feel better.)
Other Child: You’re wearing a dress? Boys don’t/can’t wear dresses!
Your Child: Why not?
OC: Because they just don’t/can’t.
YC: Well, that’s silly. And it’s not true, either. Because here I am, wearing one.
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