Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Our son-in-law’s business took a major hit from the pandemic, so he’s selling his four-bedroom, 4000-square-foot house to pay off debt and downsizing his family to a 160-square-foot “tiny house” on wheels—i.e., a glorified camper trailer. They have an 8-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter who will have to share a sleeping loft smaller than one full-size bed directly above their parents’ bed, with no walls anywhere. I can tell my daughter is not happy, but she’s the type to stand by her husband no matter what. My grandson seems to think of it as a camping trip—the permanency doesn’t seem to have sunk in yet.
But my granddaughter is throwing nonstop, screaming, crying fits: partly because she won’t be able to keep her huge collections of books, shells, figurines, etc.; partly because she has always had her own bedroom and bathroom, has gotten fanatical about privacy in the last few years, and is outraged by how close the one tiny bathroom is to the whole rest of the house, having no private place to change clothes, etc. She’s threatening to run away or kill herself rather than live in the tiny house. This may be dramatic exaggeration, but regardless, we’ve offered to take her in until her parents can get into a more traditional living situation. My daughter sounded somewhat positive when I brought up the idea, but my son-in-law has put his foot down and decreed that his family stays together. My daughter is unlikely to stand up to him, so I’m at a loss how to make my granddaughter’s life more bearable. Is there anything else we can do?
— Tiny House, Big Problem
Dear Tiny House,
You can present your offer to your son-in-law again, mentioning his daughter’s concerns about how her privacy and belongings will be impacted, and you should do so, though it is probably unlikely that he will be okay with her being separated from the family (which you can certainly understand, difficult as the circumstances in the tiny house may be). You should also talk to your daughter and her husband about your concerns over her emotional well-being; even if she’s being dramatic, threats of suicide are not to be waved away.
I think the best way you can support your granddaughter, however, will be by offering to store some of her things and by making yourself available as someone she can turn to during this period. Perhaps her father will be okay with her making more frequent trips to come visit you, and either way, you can remain in constant contact with her in the meantime and be someone she can vent to about what’s going on. It may be very helpful for her to have you to talk to, and perhaps to share feelings she doesn’t feel comfortable expressing to her parents. There is no easy solution to this situation, and it seems likely that your granddaughter will have to move into this home. But your advocacy for and bond with her can be of great use to her during this time.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m in a very uncomfortable position with my father-in-law. To go back to the beginning of the story, my husband and I dated when we were in our late teens. Our moms, who were friends, introduced us, and we hit it off instantly. Within a year or so, his mother sadly passed away of cancer. It was just him and his dad left to figure things out. I tried to help them by doing little things his mom would do. Within a few months, his dad was making awkward comments towards me, and trying to hold my hand; when I tried to brush it off, my then-boyfriend would brush it off as him just being lonely. Then one night everything came to a head: His dad got me alone, wanted to give me alcohol, and told me that when I turned 21, we were going to be together and “share his bed.” I of course was shocked and appalled, and got out of there as quickly as possible. I went to tell my boyfriend what happened and that he needed to get his dad help, and things went horribly. My boyfriend blamed me for being immature and accused me of making up lies for attention. We ended up never speaking again for a decade. I struggled with so many emotions after that and spent a lot of time in therapy working through everything that happened.
Ten years later, I get an out of the blue message from my ex saying that he owed me an apology. I sat on it for a while before I agreed to speak to him, as I thought it might bring some closure to the situation. Turned out not to be closure, as the spark between us had never died. We began dating again and he filled me in on all of the struggles he has had with his dad and his actions over the years. He asked if I could ever forgive him. I did agree to forgive, though his dad never took any responsibility, and we all just acted as if it never happened. Things were friendly for a year or so, at which point my husband and I were planning our wedding, when I noticed some of the uncomfortable comments coming back. The wanting, lingering hugs. The awkward staring. I recognized the writing on the wall, so I simply told my husband that his dad was making me unconformable, and I was going to not make a big deal out of it, I just would not be around him much. Well, his dad caught on and tried to spin the narrative that I was out to get him. My husband’s response was that I should just be the bigger person and get over it.
That didn’t sit well with me; I did forgive his dad, which took a lot of my part, but this man clearly cannot respect me.
Fast-forward to our daughter’s birth: I feel so uncomfortable with her being anywhere my husband’s father. Every motherly instinct makes me want to keep her from the person how caused me so much pain and clearly has no respect for me. This, of course, causes huge tension in my marriage. Am I being unreasonable for limiting contact with my daughter and father-in-law?
— Over It in Michigan
Dear Over It,
I am so sorry you are going through this. You are correct in stating that your father-in-law obviously lacks respect for you (as well has for himself and his son), but I am more concerned by your husband’s inability to take this situation seriously. He seems to have forgotten that his dad’s behavior kept you apart for 10 years, and he certainly doesn’t seem to understand why his dad’s actions are so incredibly vile. This is sexual harassment, and under no circumstances should anyone be forced to endure that in order to exist as a member of a family.
It is beyond reasonable for you to want to keep your daughter away from this man. You were little more than a child yourself when he began sexually harassing you. Who is to say what the limits of his predatory behavior might be? The only way your relationship with your husband is going to survive is if he changes his approach towards his father. I strongly encourage you to seek out a family therapist or counselor who can both provide a space for the two of you to talk these things out and help your husband work through whatever is leading him to be loyal to his father in spite of all the evidence against him.
In the meantime, let your husband know that you are 100 percent unwilling to be in the presence of his father, unless absolutely necessary (say, in the case of a family funeral) and that you are also unwilling to allow your child to spend time with him as well. This man is abusive and unrepentant; he has terrorized you on multiple occasions and you do not deserve this. I am pleading with you. Please, cut this man all the way off, and if your husband cannot make peace with that, then you may need to give some serious consideration to the future of the relationship. Your husband is supposed to be a source of peace, comfort, and safety; you can’t have those things as long as his father has access to you, and as long as your man continues to make excuses for how his father has behaved. Sending you lots of love and hoping you can summon the strength you need to defend yourself accordingly.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I was in an abusive relationship with my ex-wife. When I finally was able to get the help to leave safely and build a case against my ex, our child had to go into foster care. It took me years and the support of incredible people to rebuild my life, but I’m proud to say that I am recovering, have a good job with financial security, and have remarried an amazing woman and started a family. We couldn’t ask for a better life. However, the child who had to go into foster care from the abusive first marriage just aged-out of the system and therefore was able to find me. I am doing much better than I thought possible back then, but a lot can still trigger me, and I struggle with guilt around being abused and being made to feel that things are my fault when they aren’t.
This young woman has not done the work I have and is replaying patterns from years ago, and her invading my family feels like I have my abusive ex back. She will not take polite or direct requests to leave us alone, and shows up at our house with no warning, seemingly only to talk about problems from years ago just to get a rise out of us. She’s even told my kids (who are only 5 and 9!) that I am not to be trusted and to “watch out” for signs that I’ll “abandon them.” She seems to blame me for the abuse my ex committed, and only scoffed when I tried to kindly point out that she was perpetrating the myths about men being abused. My kids are distressed about these violent and false accusations that I’ll abandon them, but I can’t see a way of getting rid of her short of getting a restraining order. She won’t leave us alone, or stop coming back, no matter how politely or angrily we tell her to.
I can’t tell if my past abuse is preventing me from recognizing that I have to take action against her. Is there a less extreme way to protect my family, or has she already brought us to the point of legal intervention?
— Abusive Ex: The Next Generation
Dear Next Generation,
This is an incredibly difficult situation. While you have to do what it takes to protect your young children and to care for yourself, I urge you to try and summon some empathy for your eldest. As you speak of her in this letter, it sounds as if she’s some random person who has ill-will towards you for no good reason. You are surely aware of the heartbreaking set of circumstances she has had to navigate throughout her own life; it isn’t surprising that she, your child, has not “done the work” that you have been able to do towards your own healing. Furthermore, I would imagine that from her perspective, you should have cared for her on your own instead of allowing for her to be funneled into the foster care system.
Try again to speak to your daughter, one-on-one, about the experiences that you had with her mother and the choices you made regarding her care. Ask her to understand and consider forgiving you. Acknowledge that this situation was difficult for you both, but that it was not your intent to “abandon” her, only to put an end to the violence that was taking place in your home. Let her know that it’s okay for her to feel hurt, angry, and neglected. Let her talk to you about what her life has been like and what she experienced since leaving your care. She has a right to be upset, and it’s understandable that you are the target of much of that. Offer her time with you, see if she’s willing to meet up once a week, or once a month, just to talk.
It is possible that she’s not going to respond favorably and will continue harassing you. If so, you have no choice but to seek out an order of protection and to do what you can to keep her away from the rest of your family. However, I think you owe it to her to try and make amends, to try and build a relationship with her. Can you honestly say that you’ve opened your doors with love to your daughter? That you went out of your way to find her before she found you? That you’ve let her know that what happened to her wasn’t her fault?
She has a lot of healing to do and hopefully, she will get the opportunity to do so; however, I think it’s important that you address the sense of detachment from her that you seem to have and remember that she’s not a stranger, and she’s not your abusive ex. She is your own child, and she doesn’t have much reason thus far to believe that you love and care for her.
Try to let her know that you do, and prove it. Wishing you all the best.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am an uncle to a 12-year-old boy, and I am beginning to worry that he has inherited a bad trait from his birth father. My sister separated from her husband for a while, and she started dating this guy who no one in our family liked. One big red flag was his compulsive lying. His lies were so obvious it was almost comical. Well, that guy didn’t last long and bailed when my sister got pregnant. Thankfully she reunited with her husband, who has been a wonderful father to my nephew.
When my nephew was younger, I noticed that he tended to exaggerate and fib, but chalked it up to regular kid activity. But that trait has only gotten worse. He is mostly a great kid, but loves being the center of attention, and he will often parrot other people’s conversation topics, and then when he runs out of those, he will make up stories/flat-out lies. It is great that he wants to be social, both with his people his own age and older adults, but I fear he has inherited a compulsive lying gene, if such a thing exists, from his birth father. In high school there was a guy in my group of friends who was a compulsive liar, and while it may have taken us a year or two to realize his stories were all fabrications, once we did, we started to distance ourselves from him and exclude him from things because we didn’t like being around him and his constant lying. Not my finest moment, but at the time “ghosting” this guy seemed the best option.
I fear something similar is in store for my nephew. His parents and his grandmother either don’t notice his lying or just ignore it (I suspect the later as it fits family tradition to ignore a problem until it’s too late). If I hear him telling a bit fat one, I point it out and he will hedge/correct or try to imply he was joking. What is the best way to fix this behavior and get his family on board? (Side note: I’m not even sure if my sister has told my nephew about his birth father so I fear even comparing his behavior to the birth father will create strife.)
— Liar, Liar Pants on Fire
Dear Liar, Liar,
I wouldn’t worry as much about a possible source for these lies as I would simply focus on trying to get your nephew’s parents to take the habit seriously. Bringing up the birth father isn’t necessary; it’s entirely possible that your sister has already made the connection between him and her son’s tendency to fib—or not! Either way, that dude isn’t really a factor here and reminding everyone about that drama is unlikely to do any good.
Let your sister know that you are concerned. Point out examples and talk about how long this has been going on. If your nephew can’t discern the truth from fiction, that’s a serious problem. If he can, then there’s a reason that he is choosing to be dishonest; perhaps it’s for attention, maybe it’s the result of feeling insecure. Whatever it is, your sister and her husband need to get to the bottom of it sooner rather than later so that your nephew doesn’t end up in the same boat as your former high school friend. Explain to her that you are fearful of a future in which people choose to separate themselves from your nephew under similar circumstances. Encourage them to consider bringing their son to a professional therapist or counselor, who can help to get to the bottom of this behavior.
In the meantime, when you engage with your nephew, ask him about his dishonesty. Point out the next lie he tells and ask him why he feels so often that he has to communicate in such a way. Let him know that you find it disappointing, that it’s hard to trust him, and that you don’t like feeling that way about someone you love. Explain that there are other ways to be funny, charming, or interesting that do not involve telling stories. Tell him about the boy from high school, and what happens to people when they are known for lying. He’s old enough to hear about the stakes for this sort of behavior. Hopefully, his parents are ready to do the work of taking his fibs seriously so that he begins to experience some consequences for his actions from them as well.