Dear Care and Feeding,
My two younger brothers and I had a lousy childhood, with shared (awful) experiences that helped us develop a close, unconventional relationship in which I took on a maternal role. Flash forward to today: I’ve recently had a baby of my own, and my brothers want nothing to do with my child (and thus, by extension, me). The younger of the two, “Dalton,” who just got his master’s degree and has struggled to find a job, has always been a little self-centered, but lately things have really ramped up. He gets annoyed at even the mention of my daughter during our daily phone calls. He does not ask about her and has even gone as far as complaining about my sending pictures of the baby in our family group chat (so I stopped). He begrudgingly met her once at a family event a month ago, and it was very uncomfortable. He lives four hours away, so he used that as an excuse for not seeing her or visiting me during my recovery (although he certainly had the time and resources to do so).
My other brother, “Davey,” moved to be closer to me two years ago (in fact, moved in with us); then we had a conflict over his girlfriend that contributed to his moving out of our house (he now lives with her). I honestly thought things were getting better between us until my daughter was born. I make an effort to invite him to something every week, and every week he declines or says he’ll be there but then blows me off at the last minute. He briefly came to see us in the hospital when she was born, but since then hasn’t asked about her and has made no effort to see her.
I am indescribably hurt by both situations. I have always been there to cheer them on. But now that I have something to celebrate, I feel abandoned by them. They are my only real family, and I feel like my baby is going to grow up not knowing either of them. And as I try to navigate new motherhood, this feels like a black cloud hanging over me. My daughter is so sweet, snuggly, and amazing, it pains me to think that anyone, much less two people I really love, want nothing to do with her. Her birth should not have been a surprise to them: my husband and I had wanted a child for years. Now I’m at a loss for what to do about Dalton and Davey. Take a step back? Cut them out entirely? Keep trying to make contact? The situation has me feeling very hurt and isolated.
—New Mommy, No Family
I’m truly sorry you’re feeling so hurt and isolated. But feelings—and relationships—are complicated. And the sort of relationships you’ve had with your younger brothers are especially complicated. If your role in their lives has been a (the) maternal one, your becoming an actual mother—yes, even if they have long been aware that you wanted to—might feel destabilizing, confusing, and even painful to them. For now, anyway. I think you’re jumping the gun, worrying that your daughter won’t know her uncles, or that you’re losing the only family you have (other than the one you have created yourself, right?). Give this some time. It seems there had already been some growing pains with Davey around his shifting his primary alliance to a girlfriend; if I had to guess, I’d bet there have been some tricky moments between you and Dalton, too, as he began to shift from being a kid you felt responsible for to an adult with a life quite separate from yours. Parents and their children have to deal with these issues, and perhaps it will help you to have perspective if you think for a moment about Dalton and Davey as your grown children, feeling displaced by a brand new sibling (who is all you want to talk about when you talk to them!). I’m not saying that what they’re doing isn’t hurtful—or suggesting that they are your children rather than your siblings—but only that your expectation that they act like “ordinary” uncles, full of uncomplicated delight about their sister’s new baby, was probably always unrealistic.
If you give yourself the space to imagine how they might feel right now (honestly, even if neither of them is fully aware of what he’s feeling or why), it may help you feel less gutted by what seems to you their lack of interest in the baby, or in you as a mom. What looks like coldness, I suspect, is just the opposite, in disguise. I know you’re hurt and angry, but please don’t cut them off, for your sake as well as theirs. Still, I wouldn’t be in constant contact either—not right now, anyway. Those daily phone calls with Dalton (who is calling whom? I wonder) should stop: they are only causing you distress (and I bet they’re distressing him too). It’s also time to stop inviting Davey to do something “every week.” Let him suggest getting together when he’s ready to.
Our expectations about how others should feel and be—and what they should say and do—so often lead to heartbreak. We’re only human: we are full of expectations. But see if you can redirect your energy right now and let go of what you wish your brothers would feel. I am going to go out on a limb and say that as time passes and they get used to the new order, they will become more engaged—especially if you can ease up on your demands (even if they are unspoken, your brothers can sense them). Enjoy your daughter. And maybe—I’m going to tiptoe out on another limb, OK?—leave some room for the possibility that becoming a mother has stirred up some stuff in you, too, from your harrowing childhood. Parenthood has a way of doing that.
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From this week’s letter, I’m Worried Our Unique Family Structure Is About to Cause a Big Problem: “This all seems very confusing, especially for a toddler. What should I do?”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I work at fulltime at a daycare and there is one child (11 months old) I care for every day whom I also sometimes babysit on the weekends. His parents are fond of me and trust me with their child; they often express that. The child are I are very close, and he often clings to me throughout the day and is unwilling to be cared for by the other caregivers in the room—which is perfectly fine (I’m never going to complain about a baby being clingy!). Today at pickup, though, when I was giving Mom the baby, he started screaming and clung to me. And when his mom managed to get him in her arms, he cried and reached for me. Is this a bad thing? Are we too close? Will he get confused and think I’m his mom?
—Worried the Mom Will Take This the Wrong Way
He will not get confused; he does not think you are his mom. But he has become greatly attached to you (thank goodness! If he were in your care all day long five days a week and also on some weekends and were not attached, it would be terrible for him). The moment of transition to his mother can be interpreted any number of ways, but I am going to resist the temptation to interpret it at all, both because I am not a mental health professional and because it’s not the baby’s mom writing to me, worried. Just keep doing what you’re doing. If Mom “takes it the wrong way,” she’ll let you know (either directly or otherwise—for example, by not asking you to sit for him on weekends anymore … or by changing daycares). But for all you know, as soon as they walk out the door, Baby relaxes into his mom’s arms and forgets all about you, troubled only by the transition itself.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 5-year-old daughter, Sidney, who is terrified of getting shots. I know this is a common fear among kids (and adults, too, for that matter), but her panic around this seems extreme. For her first Covid vaccine, we did everything we could think of to lessen her fear. Without making too big of a deal of it, we were honest about what would happen and what it would feel like. We practiced in advance. We brought a special lovey and promised a special treat afterwards.
Even with all of that, the shot went in her arm only after an hour and a half of crying, screaming, and kicking that ended with my husband holding her still in a bear hug. It was awful for everyone. Weeks later, she is still upset about it. Now we have her second Covid shot, a flu shot, and a regular vaccine booster all coming in the next two months, and I am a wreck. I feel like we’re doing something horrible by forcing her to get a shot she fears so much—but at the same time, we can’t just let her get polio, right? How do we help her manage her fear around this? Would a few sessions with a therapist help? Is this a normal part of childhood that we just have to help her through as best we can?
—Scared of Shots
To get help with this one, I turned to a physician friend, who has practiced general medicine for nearly 40 years. Dr. Jose Angel points out that, according to the CDC, fear of needles is present in two out of three children. He recommended that you take a look at the CDC’s page on the subject of needle-fear, which is quite good. He also offered this further advice:
• Do not dismiss or minimize your child’s fears (“There’s nothing to be afraid of!”). At the same time, a child needs to know that the shot they’re going to get is something that’s good for them. They need to know that the adults in their life feel it’s essential to keep (or make) them well—and they need to know they can fully trust those adults.
• Don’t reflect the child’s fear back at them; this will only feed it. Project calmness for them, and confidence that this is going to go well.
• Do not hold your child down. “Sometimes a different person holding the child, with the parent or guardian nearby, can be helpful,” he says. “And remember that this can’t be a negotiation. The shot is something that needs to happen—that has to be clear.”
• Use distraction. (He likes to administer shots to children in an exam room with a TV on, or engage the child in conversation about something that’s interesting to them.
• “A treat afterwards is fine but is not to be considered payment to the child for doing the right thing.”
These are all ways to intervene with a fearful child before a true phobia has set in. How can you tell if your daughter has already developed a full-fledged phobia for which she needs treatment? Ask yourself: Is your child’s fear affecting her day-to-day life? (Is she constantly thinking of an upcoming vaccine or playing back the last one, having nightmares about needles, or not enjoying activities that she used to?) If so, it is indeed time to seek professional help for her. Not because you are pathologizing her fear, but to give her a chance to learn strategies to manage her anxiety. If you do seek out a therapist, make sure to have her see someone who specializes in treating children and who can tell you how they plan to work with her around this phobia.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Five years ago, my husband and I adopted his cousin’s children, whom we call our niece and nephew, when they were 3 years old. They are twins. They both have very old-fashioned first names and two middle names that are a bit less old-fashioned (think something like “Doris Daisy Elizabeth [Surname]”). Although I never met my husband’s cousin (we were living in the Netherlands until she died, when we moved back to the U.S.), I have the impression that she regretted giving them such old-fashioned first names, as she was the one who started using their middle names instead. (It should be noted that both kids absolutely hate their first names.) At home, we call them by their first middle names. Last year, we moved to a different state about halfway through the schoolyear, where it turns out (we only recently learned) their classmates and teachers knew them by their second middle names (which presumably they asked them to) even though they continued to use their first middle names for and with each other.
This summer we got a complaint from their camp about the name confusion (it seems they have continued this practice: they use their first middle names for each other—and continue to at home—but they want everyone else to use their second middle names!). My husband doesn’t think we need to do anything about this. He thinks this is a response to the teasing and name-calling that they endured at their first school. (Before we moved, they were both called very specific alliterative nicknames referring to the fact that they wear glasses and the fact that one has “lazy eye,” or amblyopia.) I want them to be called what they want to be called, but at the same time using two very different names that only certain people are allowed to call them can become very confusing for everyone involved. Should we do anything about this, and what would be the best way for us to approach the situation while keeping in mind their right to be called what they want to be?
—A Mom With One Given Name
Oh, my goodness! These kids have come up with a strategy that works for them. Let them use it. They have been through hell of multiple varieties, and if this bifurcation of their names is useful to them in any way, rather than demanding (however “nicely”) that they cut it out (for other people’s benefit!), why not embrace this opportunity to gently open a new line of communication with them? (But let me be clear: I would not tie that conversation with a request that they pick one name apiece and stick with it.) Shame on the summer camp for “complaining” about this (if indeed they were complaining! Were they? Or—and I will cop to being a bit of a Pollyanna, ever-optimistic about people’s intentions, firmly on the side of allowing for the benefit of the doubt—were they perhaps giving you a heads-up, apprising you of something they weren’t sure you were aware of, and, like me, thinking you might use it to initiate a meaningful conversation with them about how they’re doing/feeling?).
You might keep in mind, in any case, that lots of people are called by different names by different people and in different situations, particularly when it comes to intimates (themselves, their immediate family) versus the rest of the world. It’s not “confusing for everyone involved.” (If it makes you feel confused or uneasy, I urge you to spend some time thinking about why.)
More Advice From Slate
A colleague has left town and asked me to care for her cats, which is a terrible inconvenience as she lives really far from me. However, I said I’d do it out of guilt. I got to her place only to discover that she and her fiancé live in total squalor in one room with four cats and four rats, and it smelled like urine. I later found feces on the wall. The cats themselves are well cared for and healthy, but clearly in an unhygienic environment. Do I need to report her? What do I say when she returns—your place is disgusting and you’re mistreating your cats?