Care and Feeding

My Ex’s Poor Judgment Has Left Me Completely Burned Out

A woman looks stressed and puts her hand on her forehead.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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,

I love my kids very much, a fact which I think isn’t going to come across at all in this letter. I have two daughters, ages 10 and 11. I have historically had a great co-parenting experience with their dad “Brad” as well as with his second wife for the duration of their relationship. We split time with an every-other week system, which worked really well for me both as a parent and a professional.

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Brad married a third time, to “Stephanie,” a few months ago and things have shifted dramatically. Stephanie has sole custody of her son from a previous relationship: “Josh,” who’s 15. Josh is separated from his sisters (who live with their dad) due to inappropriate and violent behavior—a fact I didn’t learn about until after he’d already been exposed to my kids. Brad does not seem to be concerned about our kids around Josh, and I was shocked that he hadn’t put them first. Stephanie also seems very unwilling to negotiate around this.

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One revision of custody later, and I have the kids full time; Brad comes over for regular visits. He’s completely unfazed by this and was the one to suggest it at the custody hearing. I know it keeps them safe, and I know it’s the right thing to do, but I hate it so much. I hate having them all the time, I never have enough time for them or to parent the way I used to, I’m behind at work, I hate that Brad’s poor choices lie on me to fix, and I hate that he didn’t choose our kids. Usually I let Brad’s bad decisions just come home to him without intervening, but of course this cannot be one of those times. How do I move forward here? This feels unsustainable, but it also seems to be the only way.

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— Suddenly Full-time

Dear Full-time,

You can love your kids to death and still not want to be responsible for them 100 percent of the time. That isn’t a question of love, but of needing to feel like an autonomous and unique individual sometimes.

When Brad comes over, what are you doing? Do you leave the house and go attend to your own needs? If not, that would be my first move. Grab your laptop and go to a coffee shop to catch up on work, or run errands or get a facial—whatever it is that will either take a little off your plate or give you a break before you’re back with your girls. If you already do this, or if it’s not possible for some reason, then can you find a babysitter who can stand in for you once a week or once every other week? It can feel so frivolous to prioritize ourselves, and it’s way too easy to think of hiring a babysitter as something we do only when we have plans or appointments. (I am still learning this lesson for myself as a recent widow.) But we are allowed to want—to need, even!—time to ourselves. And it is OK to sacrifice a little bit of the quantity of time with your kids if it increases the quality of time you have with them.

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Clearly, though, it’s not just the claustrophobia of solo parenting that is causing you stress. It’s horrible to feel like you are always cleaning up someone else’s mess, or like you have to put in 75 percent because they only put in 25. But I think you do need to try to program your logical brain to take the wheel when your emotions start to spiral in this direction. For example, is it really fair to say that Brad “didn’t choose [your] kids?” Consider that 15-year-old Josh has no alternative home; your daughters do/did. Could Brad have seemed unfazed simply because he knew that this decision kept all three kids safe and secure? I know I don’t know Brad, and I don’t know the specific history here pertaining to Josh. But I wonder if a lot of your anger here has less to do with the decision Brad made and more to do with old patterns and feelings from the relationship that this new arrangement reminds you of.

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The fact is that unless you want your girls to be around Josh more, this is the arrangement for the next 7 years. It is not perfect, and you’re allowed to feel frustrated about that. But I would spend more time trying to work out a “life hack” that gets you more of what you need and less time being angry at your ex for patterns you can’t change.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Sunday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son and older daughter, who are 9 and 8 respectively, are really, really close. At home they always play together and rarely fight. My daughter is very shy and has trouble making friends. We had her screened for anxiety a few years ago and were told she probably doesn’t have an anxiety disorder. She also saw a therapist for a while but had to stop due to insurance changes (and also that therapist seemed to be encouraging my daughter to rely more on her brother for support). My daughter has one friend at school who is Indian-American and spends a large portion of the summer visiting her relatives in India. Outside of that friend, her brother, and a cousin who lives fairly far away, she has a lot of issues interacting with other people her age.

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This year, we sent both of our kids to the same camp for the whole summer. (Not a sleepaway camp, I don’t think my daughter could survive that.) They have different programs focusing on nature, agriculture, ecology and other scientific concepts that both of my kids really enjoy. Some of the programs are for kids going into third and fourth grade, and some are only for individual grade levels, so she was in some programs with her brother and some programs without.

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In every program she didn’t share with her brother, my daughter completely shut down. It sounds like they had a lot of fun activities planned (like dissecting owl pellets and playing a game where different groups were animals that were hunting each other) that I know my daughter would enjoy, but she just wouldn’t participate. The other kids in her camp have generally been really supportive and inclusive and have tried to become friends with her. The counselors have also been very caring and make a lot of effort to get her involved. Yet, half the time I’ve picked her up from camp, she’s been in tears. The counselors told me that there have been a few days where she only talked to the counselors, never to anyone else. At one point she told me she couldn’t go to camp because it was hard for her to get around (even with glasses she has 20/50 vision), but those issues magically went away the next week when she was in a group with her brother (and it’s not like he was guiding her around or anything). She’s made some progress as the summer has progressed, but new programs/activities cause her to reset, and it seems that only in the presence of her brother is she comfortable enough to participate.

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In the school year, my daughter and her best friend will be in the same class again, and I know my daughter will be fine, like she was last year. But I am worried that when it comes time for summer camp next year, she will have the same issues again. She loves this camp and wants to go back next summer, but next summer there won’t be any groups where she can overlap with her brother. Her friend might be able to do one or two weeks but will probably spend most of the summer visiting relatives in India again. How can I help my daughter have a more positive experience at camp even if she is in a group without someone she knows?

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— An Unhappy Camper

Dear Camper,

As a person in charge of a summer camp, let me assuage you a little bit in saying that we see a lot of kids who have trouble making friends or finding their way in camp. Yearning for their bestie or sibling is not too uncommon. However, what we want to see is our shyest campers enjoying the activities of the camp, even if they aren’t making solid friendships. It sounds like that’s not happening for your little girl, which is too bad.

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I would spend this school year practicing making friends. In school, have her identify one or two other kids that she likes, and see if she (and you) can arrange a play date. You can watch the dynamics between the kids to get a better sense for how your daughter relates to her peers. Outside of school, head to a playground and coach her through the process of meeting and playing with kids. Break this down into tiny, isolated chunks of new experiences: the first challenge is just to say hi to a kid; then 3 kids; the next time, she has to give a kid a compliment; next, ask a kid to join her in a game, etc. I think you need to help guide her through the practical skills of how a person even makes friends before you ask her to actually do it.

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With these building blocks hopefully in place, start the next camp session by having a conversation with her counselors or camp director. They may be able to offer some ideas of ways they can keep supporting her—asking a gregarious kid to take your daughter under her wing, continuing this pattern of small challenges, etc. Most camps put a big emphasis on inclusion, and judging by your letter I bet you’ll find the staff game to help you.

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Finally, I suggest talking to her teacher this coming year about whether social skills training is something that the school social worker offers; there are also therapists who offer social therapy. While it sounds like your daughter’s first therapist might not have been a good fit for your goals, I wouldn’t give up on the concept entirely.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister is a single mother to the sweetest 8-year-old girl. My niece was hit by a car a few years ago and had her right limbs amputated. She usually uses a prosthetic leg, though sometimes she uses a wheelchair. She is a very quiet and shy kid. Since they live just down the street, my niece stays with us a lot—sometimes overnight (my sister travels for work), and sometimes just for the day. My niece and my own kids (9-year-old twins) are very close and love playing together. My niece feels really comfortable with us and is able to be herself at our home. But when we go out, my niece feels really uncomfortable by how much other people stare at her or treat her because of her disabilities. My sister has said some things which I think are less than helpful, such as, “Them staring at you is their way of complimenting how cool you look,” or “When people ask you questions, that just means that they’re curious. You should feel happy that people are so interested in you.” She told my niece that we should celebrate her differences, but the way my sister said it made it seem a bit dismissive of the fact that people really are making her uncomfortable. These statements do nothing to help my niece, and actually make her feel worse because now she feels guilty about how much it bothers her when other people stare at her.

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My niece has recently expressed to me that she doesn’t want to go out to eat, not because of COVID safety, but because she doesn’t want strangers to notice the way she eats with one hand. My kids were also really concerned when, recently, my niece refused to wear her glasses to summer camp because she wanted to be more like other kids, even though she is so nearsighted that people in her camp group had to guide her around. Earlier in the summer she expressed displeasure at wearing shorts or skirts outside despite temperatures going into the mid-90s. She wanted to hide her prosthetic leg from strangers. I’ve brought up some of these incidents to my sister, but my sister hasn’t really changed her attitude towards people staring. What can I do to help my niece?

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— Amputee’s Anxious Auntie

Dear Auntie,

I’m really glad your niece feels comfortable talking to you about her experiences and feelings; it’s important that she feels heard and validated. Especially since, unfortunately, the staring isn’t likely to go away.

It sounds like your sister is trying to make her daughter feel empowered, and to see her disability as a strength or “no big deal.” But instead, she’s downplaying the very real experiences your niece is having. Your niece isn’t oblivious; while these tactics might have worked while she was younger, she is now astute enough to recognize that the staring is not a compliment. I am not ready to label your sister as dismissive or glib, however. My gut says that part of what might be behind this is the fact that the stares also hurt your sister, and she’s hoping that by glossing over them, she can shield her daughter and herself from that discomfort. She’s trying to be protective—she’s just done a clumsy job of it.

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You might consider encouraging your niece to write a letter to her mom, explaining how she feels when the stares are dismissed or ignored. She can ask her mom to acknowledge the stares and their hurtful impact, and you can help her brainstorm ways she’d rather her mom act. Your niece is young, but she is old enough to self-advocate, and it would probably do your sister good to see her daughter in that way. After all, one of the most important things we can give all our children—but especially our children with disabilities—is the means to be independent. I suspect your sister needs a little encouragement to see her daughter as someone who needs support and validation more than protection.

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You can also help your niece decide how she wants to handle the staring. Some people with disabilities invite people to ask them questions about their condition, while others find that intrusive and burdensome. Some folks prefer to confront starers by either staring back, waving, or verbalizing to the starer. Does one of these approaches make your niece feel more emboldened about going out in public? Go out in public together with the express goal of trying different responses to see what feels right to her.

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In a camp or school setting, she may want to consider something more proactive. Lots of times, the staring is about curiosity, rather than pity or malice. People try to figure out the causes, diagnoses, and adaptations that come with disability—it’s intrusive and annoying (and no one’s business but the person’s), but it is natural. Your niece may find that addressing the elephant in the room on Day One makes the stares and awkward behaviors from her peers go away a lot quicker than if she keeps her “story” private, and it might make things like wearing shorts less scary. However, I want to stress that that should be completely up to your niece, and there is no right or wrong way to go about this. Just because some people tell their disability story to others does not mean she needs to.

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No matter what your niece decides to do about starers or peer environments, the most important thing she can have is a support system full of people who acknowledge her experience and have her back so that the stares impact only a small fraction of her daily life. She has this with you and your daughters, and I’m confident that, with a little help, she’ll also have that with her mom.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have always taught my daughters that they are in control of their bodies and can wear clothes that fit their style. We talk about body positivity and how patriarchy shows up in repressing women’s and girls’ autonomy. The problem is that my 14-year-old daughter loves to dress as skimpily as possible. Not my preference at all, but I’m trying to walk a middle path with her. She’s darling and loves the attention from boys. However, she also gets called a slut and whore at school, which I assume is because she wears few clothes and lots of makeup. She doesn’t seem to understand the connection between her style choices and the negative feedback. I also suspect girls steer clear of her; she doesn’t have a ton of friends. I’m at a bit of a loss with how to help her. I have gently explained what I assume is going on, but she’s indignant and feels like she’s fighting the patriarchy with every exposed midriff. When I have tried a bit more forceful “no you can’t go to school in leggings with holes in them” she often will pull the classic “change clothes at the bus stop” routine. She’s insecure (what 14-year-old isn’t) and the shaming comments definitely bother her. Would love some help guiding through this (hopefully) phase.

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— Toppling the Patriarchy with Every Halter Top

Dear Toppling,

If you were writing in just to complain about your daughter’s style choices, the question I would ask you is: at the end of the day, why does it matter what she wears? School hallways are the places to see and be seen at her age, and clothing is one of the few means for a teen to stand out from the crowd in the day-in-day-out homogeneity of middle and high school. I’d also remind you that 14 is still pretty young in terms of teenager-hood, and more than likely, her style will even out as she matures.

However, your letter indicates that your daughter is getting a lot of negative feedback from her peers. Unfortunately, boys/men are not the only ones who perpetuate the patriarchy; female peers can be just as culpable when it comes to policing women’s appearances and expectations. So, she might be fighting the patriarchy, but she’s also falling victim to it at the same time.

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I could spend a lot of my response here giving you advice for your teen: how Heidi Klum used to always say on Project Runway that you should either show off the chest, arms, or legs, but never all three, or about how women are often told to put their jewelry on for the evening and then remove one piece—because editing a look is just as important as creating it in the first place. However, it doesn’t sound like your teen is ready for practical advice from you just yet. Until she is ready, anything you say will fall on deaf ears.

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I would suggest taking a hiatus from any conversation about her clothes—you can do this quietly, or you can proactively tell her you’re going to chill out on the fashion feedback, if you think you need to do some damage control on the relationship. (I would have responded well to that as a teen.) Spend the time instead really looking at your teen’s fashion landscape: the influencers she follows on social media, the clothing available in the stores where she shops, the others girls at school, etc. Educate yourself on where she’s getting her sense of style from; you might find she’s not so far off from her peers, after all. If and when she does open up to you again about hurtful comments being said about her, ask “Do you want me to listen, or give advice?” And stick to whichever she prefers.

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If she does eventually ask for advice on clothing and makeup, then maybe you can check out some of those influencers or clothing stores together, and you can provide some gentle suggestions. But, you’re still her mom, and your advice might still not be welcome, even if she asks for it (fun times for parents of teenagers!). An aunt, trusted college friend, or cousin could be a better ringer to bring in if she truly wants some feedback on her look.

—Allison

More Advice From Slate

My son “Michael” is 15 and may or may not be exploring his gender and sexual identity; the majority of his friends are LGBTQ+ but he has not yet self-identified as anything other than straight and male. He has a “best friend” who is a straight girl, and I am beginning to suspect she may be wanting something more from this relationship and that he may be cluelessly or unintentionally leading her on. What should I do?

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