Dear Care and Feeding,
My kids are always looking on the negative side of things. They come home from an outing and share all the bad things that have happened, and it’ll only be later that I’ll find out in some sideways way about good things. I can’t tell if they need to vent or if they’re just the kind of people to see the negative in everything, but it is driving me crazy! They have so much privilege and are so loved! They go to a good school, have activities they choose themselves (but not too many), get a reasonable amount of screen time, have friends, eat treats often enough, and want for nothing. And yet all I hear is, “Camp is boring!” “This one annoying boy is always following me!” “Suzy Q got her ears pierced, so why can’t I?” “It’s too hot.” “I hate going to the pool.” Etc. Last weekend we went to the beach (a beloved activity) and had a lovely time. No bumps or problems of any kind. When we got home, my kid told her dad the beach was “meh” and whined about the sand in her shoes. If that’s her attitude, I’m not going to take her again! I’ve tried “Rose/bud/thorn.” I’ve tried re-framing family conversations around asking the kids to share something “interesting” about their day. I’ve modeled focusing on the positive while acknowledging the challenging things. What else can I do?
—Gloomy Gus and Gustina’s Mom
You can say, “Oh, really? That’s too bad,” and move on to other subjects. Don’t indulge them in their complaints, don’t debate them (“But it looked like you were having fun!”), and don’t be petty and punish them (“You complained about the beach? NO MORE BEACH FOR YOU!”). My guess is that they know this gets your goat and that’s why, or one reason why, they focus on the negative and never tell you what they have enjoyed or how much they enjoyed it. But this is likely also a phase they will pass through (and pass through it faster if you don’t engage with it). In any case—and the more pressing matter, as far as I’m concerned—you need to find a way not to be so unhappy about their (professed) unhappiness. They feel what they feel, they say what they say. Don’t take it so personally. They’re kids. Kids are weird. They go through a lot of weird phases. And beyond their phases, and beyond their efforts to press their parents’ buttons (also normal), they also have their own personalities. Maybe they are both glass half-empty types (that is, maybe this is early evidence of that, and they will grow up to be pessimistic Eeyores). There are plenty of people like that in the world (Readers, I married one). So what? You do you, Mom, and let them do them. (I promise you, though, that whether this is a negative phase, a case of button-pushing, or a matter of personality, your efforts to fix it are backfiring and making them dig in harder.)
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From this week’s letter, I Do Not Trust My In-Laws to Babysit Our Child: “There’s no way I’m ever leaving my kid with my in-laws overnight.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My mom is an expert on children: she has multiple degrees in child psychology. For 45+ years, she prided herself on being an excellent mother. Except she wasn’t. She didn’t beat us or let us starve, but she was absolutely not the mother she claims to have been. When my dad screamed horrific things at my sister and me, she did nothing to protect or defend us. I was bullied at school for 12 years and my mom’s counsel was not to raise a stink, to ignore it. Once, after she read a note encouraging me to die by suicide, she threw it away and advised me to think “happy thoughts.” My sister and I separately had suicidal ideation before the age of ten, and neither parent took action.
I have let all of this go unspoken for many years. But I don’t know if I can anymore. I am a journalist, and when an investigative piece of mine went viral recently, my mother had the audacity to say, “Daughter gets that rebellious, brazen quest for justice from me!” I was too stunned to say anything. I got all that in spite of my very sexist and abusive upbringing, not because of it. I have a young child myself now, and I look at him and wonder how she could have let me suffer the way she did and tell herself what a great job she did. I’ve unpacked a lot of this in therapy, and I mean to give my kid insight into his grandparents’ legacy as he gets older. But I am increasingly resentful of my mother’s pride, her passionate devotion to #MeToo, and her embrace of fourth wave feminism. Is there a way for me to move forward without crushing her? She was a victim too, but she had a lot more agency than I did.
—Mom Takes Undeserved Credit for My Success
“Moving forward”—as we are all urged to do (along with “getting closure”)—sounds so simple. But it rarely is. I wish I could offer you a recipe for letting go of your pain, resentment, and anger so that you can move on (with or without “crushing” your mother). I am guessing you are hopeful that confronting her will free you from your unhappiness and rage, but fearful that the cost to her may be too great. Is it worth it?
A conversation with your mother is long overdue. You do need to tell her how much you have suffered from the abuse and neglect of your childhood. You need to tell how much it hurts you that she has never acknowledged or begged forgiveness for this, and that she takes undeserved credit for your having turned out so well, despite her failure to parent you as you deserved to be parented. You may want to tell her how much it angers you that she wears a mantle of feminist piety. I think you should say everything you have been bottling up all these years.
This conversation, which will be heated and frustrating and enormously upsetting to both of you, will be freeing in some ways for you. You need a release valve (we all do), and there is no reason on earth for you to participate in your mother’s pretense. Still—I must warn you—it will not miraculously dispel your fury or your pain. That is a long, hard process; it’s one that many of us spend decades on. While I absolutely believe that telling your mother how you feel and what you think is crucial to this process (as is your continuing therapy), it’s not a silver bullet. As to “crushing” her? I would argue that indulging her in the pretense and persona she’s built ultimately does her more harm than opening up the possibility of a frank and honest accounting of her life. Somewhere deep down (who knows how deeply buried?), your mother knows what she did—and didn’t—do. I’m not suggesting that it will be easy for her to hear or even acknowledge (at least at first) any of this. But it is way past time for her to begin her process toward healing and wholeness. I think you would be doing her a favor, even if it doesn’t seem that way to her in the moment.
I will say one more thing. I know that there are many people who would urge you to cut ties with your mother (and perhaps I have I misread your letter; perhaps when you asked about a way to move forward without crushing her, you were asking if there might be a way to sever your relationship without doing her irreparable harm). So, to the voices (others, or your own) who insist that the only way for you to get on with your life is without her in it, I must note that that is not a silver bullet either. Whether a parent who has failed us is still in our lives or not—indeed, whether that parent is alive or dead—we still have to reckon with the damage done. It does not disappear when the parent does.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My parents named me Dia (pronounced dye-uh), after my mother’s great-grandmother. All was well until I hit kindergarten and the other children promptly christened me Dia-ria. I hated it, of course, which only made them love it more. Because I went to a K-12 school, the nickname stuck all the way until I graduated from high school. Once I got to college, I changed my name, first by introducing myself to everyone as Diane and then legally changing it when I turned 25. It’s what everyone, including my now husband, knows me as, and my parents and grandparents are the only people left who call me Dia. I thought I had put all of that behind me. But now that I’m pregnant with my first child, I find myself consumed with worry about how whatever name my husband and I give her could be bastardized by mean schoolchildren. I know logically that children bully each other in plenty of other ways, but I still want to help her avoid what happened to me. What am I supposed to do, hold court with my elementary school age cousins and make them brainstorm mean nicknames for every possible baby name I pitch?
—Stumped in South Carolina
I’m sorry your perfectly lovely birth name caused you so much grief at the hands of your classmates, and that your pregnancy has stirred up that unhappiness again. Not only do small children sometimes bully each other in a myriad of ways, but no name is immune from being contorted into a mean nickname. I know that pregnancy (and the early days of parenthood, too) get us thinking about all the bad things that can happen to our children, and in particular about all the bad things that happened to us as children and thus might happen to them. It’s only natural to want to do everything we can to protect our kids. But you cannot pick a name that is mean-nickname-bulletproof. Pick a name you and your partner love and that pairs nicely with your child’s last name (that’s hard to enough to come up with, to judge by the number of letters fretting over it). And focus your attention, instead, on thinking about how you will teach your child to stand up for themself if other children are mean to them (about anything—name, size, looks, taste, brains, etc.). That’s a greater gift to your child than a nickname-proof name.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My spouse has a heart condition, and early in the pandemic his cardiologist told him that he had a 1-in-3 chance of dying if he contracted COVID-19. Naturally, this was terrifying! So our whole family—he, I, and our now 14-year-old daughter—have been vigilant about masking, social distancing, etc. We’re all vaxxed and boosted, and at this point the cardiologist says his risk level is no longer that high, but the guidance remains, “You should really avoid getting it.” And so we have continued not dining indoors at restaurants and so on. That’s fine—none of us mind.
But as masking requirements eased over the last year, our daughter gradually became the only kid in eighth grade who was still masking at school. She skipped a couple of school and Girl Scout camping trips to avoid uncomfortable situations around masking in cabins overnight. She has been accepting and stoic about our family’s cautious approach to the pandemic. She is very mature and also quite introverted, so she hasn’t complained, or clamored to go to parties, but the restrictions around school and Scouts has been hard on her, I know. Now she’s about to start at a new high school, and there’s an overnight retreat for ninth graders coming up. I’m struggling with how to navigate this, and generally with how to support her having a normal life. My spouse’s vigilance remains super high (variants, variants, variants). I know that he doesn’t want our daughter to suffer or feel socially isolated any more than I do, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to discuss with him whether/how we might start accepting some level of exposure without it seeming like I’m being callous about his survival.
I think you are going to have to take the bull by the horns. Tiptoeing around one’s spouse is never a great idea, and if yours responds to your reasonable concerns about your daughter’s wellbeing by accusing you of not being sufficiently concerned about him, then you and your spouse have some work to do. (I’m not judging you! Virtually everyone and their spouse still have some work to do! I’m just saying: don’t let that stop you from talking to him about this.)
I’d open up this conversation with complete honesty (my favorite thing!). “I’m worried about Jane. She’s had nothing like a normal childhood these last few years, and now that she’s starting high school I’m afraid she may suffer long-term, even permanent harm, if she doesn’t start interacting with kids her age.” That’s honest statement number one. Number two is: “But of course I worry about your health, too.” I would come armed with a (mental) list of ideas about how you might loosen things up (“I was thinking that we could…”), which means you will have to do some work preliminary to this conversation. Perhaps you’ll suggest that after the retreat, she will test for Covid, then isolate in her room and continue testing until you can be sure it’s safe for her to be in the same room as her dad. Perhaps you’ll suggest that he isolate for a bit after she gets home, while she continues to test. (Or maybe you can offer him the choice.) Going forward, you are going to have to have a plan. You know very well (and he must know too) that she can’t go through high school in a bubble with her parents and emerge from that psychologically unscathed. These days we are all taking on some level of ongoing risk. The questions for you to hammer out with your spouse are 1) what level of risk he is willing to take on for the sake of his child, and 2) how to minimize risk without jeopardizing her mental health. But the best way forward here—as usual—is to be straightforward, open, and honest.