Care and Feeding

I Had an Affair, and Now My Kids Won’t Forgive Me

A dad looks deep in anguished thought.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by laflor/iStock/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 had an affair—a choice I recognize was a hurtful one, but was born out of a really difficult time in my soon-to-be-former marriage. My question is how to get back on track with my kids, who are angry and refuse to speak to me, six months into the divorce process. They’re old enough to have input into their own custody decisions, and it seems like I will have to pay while never getting to really see them.

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My wife wasn’t careful and had an oops pregnancy. We already have a teenage son and daughter. The pregnancy was complicated and she didn’t do much around the house, leaving a lot of extra work in my hands, and we stopped having sex. I was stressed, underappreciated and exhausted, and caved when a younger coworker approached me. The affair became a lifeline when my wife lost our son at birth and then didn’t recover well, including two weeks in the hospital where I was forced to manage the household and our kids alone, while also grieving my lost son.

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I was stressed, grieving and it led to taking bigger risks, until I took a much too-big-risk, and my kids walked in on my girlfriend and me. They panicked and called my wife, and she went straight for a lawyer. The kids are in counseling, and I show up to see them every weekend, but they still won’t talk to me. I suspect my wife is badmouthing me to them, but can’t prove it. How do I get things back to normal? Everyone makes mistakes, and they should be old enough to know that fidelity and marriage are complicated, but they are unwilling to listen.

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—“Bad” Guy, Good Father

Dear BGGF,

Before I address the substance of you letter, I am incredibly sorry for the trauma that you and your wife experienced in losing your son. That is a terrible experience for anyone to go through, no matter the circumstances.

I can understand how a strained marriage or a big loss can lead to choices like infidelity. You were frustrated, hurting, and looking for relief. But, you chose to seek comfort for yourself rather than finding it with, and providing it to, your family. We humans are all selfish from time to time, but you completely unraveled your kids’ world at a time when they, and their mother, needed you most. You betrayed your children and abandoned the family. The feelings your children likely have about that betrayal do not fade easily, and even if your children do eventually forgive you, you might need to accept that things may not be the same between you.

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It is not your kids’ responsibility to forgive your actions simply because marriage is complicated. It would also be inappropriate for you to share the details of the difficulties in your marriage. And even if you did, letter writer, I’m not sure you would come off that great. Examine the language you use in your letter. You characterize the pregnancy as your wife’s fault, but it takes two people to create a baby. (Did you get a vasectomy, or wear condoms during sex? If not, your actions also contributed to an oops pregnancy.) You seem to feel wronged that you had to pick up the slack around the house, though you say your wife had a difficult pregnancy. And then to say you were “forced” to manage the household alone while she was recovering in the hospital. These words might be the result of hasty letter writing, but they read as entitled and selfish. You seem to want absolution from your children, but from what I am reading here, you have a long way to go before that can be possible.

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There is no option but to give your kids the space they need. It seems to me that you created the circumstances that got you into your current situation. At the risk of using the obvious cliché, you made your bed and have to lie in it. With time, and probably a lot of therapy for you and them, I hope you and your kids can one day reconcile.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband died a few months ago, leaving me with sole custody of my stepchildren, 8- and 7- year-old girls. We were married for about eight months and had dated for about two years. His first wife died about a year after their youngest daughter was born. The kids consider my adult son to be their brother but call me their aunt, which I am totally fine with. My husband’s parents died before he did, and his first wife’s family was never in the picture. So, my son and I are the girls’ only remaining family.

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My husband was Indian and spoke to the girls exclusively in his native language Telugu in the hopes that they would become fluent, and they have. They also go to a Hindu “Sunday school” of sorts, which focuses on culture and language. I think it’s important that they stay connected to the culture that their parents belonged to.

My main issue is that I can’t understand Telugu, and they constantly communicate with each other in Telugu. It is really frustrating when I ask them to do something and the older one just rolls her eyes and says something in Telugu to her sister. There are times when I know that they are scheming or plotting behind my back, like when they worked together to steal all the cookies from under my nose while I was cooking dinner. Since my friends aren’t Indian (though many of their school friends are), whenever I have my own friends over the kids just gossip about us in front of us. At the same time, they have a really strong sibling bond. They have been through a lot of turmoil and hardship in their young lives. As frustrating as it is, I wouldn’t want to damage that bond.

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While we were dating, my husband tried teaching me some Telugu, but it isn’t related to English (the only language I know) so it was very difficult for me to grasp any of it. I would love to learn, but there aren’t that many resources for people wanting to learn Telugu and I don’t have enough time to learn anyway.

Am I making a big deal out of nothing? I know I shouldn’t discourage them from learning or using a different language, but is there anything I could do to deal with the trouble it causes?

— Monolingual Stepmother/Auntie

Dear Monolingual,

First off, it sounds like you are doing a great job. Aside from the fact that you are raising these girls without their dad—something that I am sure you didn’t envision—you’re doing everything you can to keep them connected to their heritage and each other. Not everyone would be so thoughtful or compassionate.

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As to their behavior, I don’t think language is your central issue here. Kids make up their own languages and code words all the time to speak in ways that adults or peers don’t understand. The fact that they are fluent in Telugu just makes the central issue—a lack of respect toward you—easier to pull off.

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Let’s be clear: your stepdaughters have gotten a rotten deal out of life so far, and that would be the case even if you and they had the most loving relationship. It’s completely understandable that they would bond closely to each other, even to the detriment of other relationships. But, whether they wish it or not, you are their family and they need to treat you with a baseline of respect and kindness.

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I would suggest looking into family counseling for the three (or four) of you so that you can develop a means of relating to each other that is less adversarial. Their therapist would likely be able to refer you to someone if they themselves cannot facilitate it. I also think it would be reasonable to make a rule of no Telugu in front of you or your brother until the relationship improves, though you should discuss it with the therapist first. Make it clear that you encourage them to use whatever language they want when together or with their friends, but that it is rude when with other people not to use the language everyone knows—especially when it leads to deceit or meanness. Will that stop the behaviors? No. But it will reduce it, and it will make things less maddening for you. Remember, kids can bad mouth their parents behind their back in their parents’ language too. Extinguishing the behavior across the board isn’t the goal. Rather, putting boundaries on it is.

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Finally, I am a widow too, and I know how few minutes there are in the day. But it may go a long way for you to make the effort to get to know this part of your daughters’ lives more. You might consider reaching out to the organization that hosts their Hindu program to see if they have suggestions for developing your cultural and language competency. Or, can you forge relationships with the girls’ friends’ parents? If you want them to treat you with respect, you want to minimize the amount of “othering” you do. It’s great that you’re keeping them connected to their cultural roots, but you need to take an active interest and participation as well.

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Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents are getting rabbits to breed for meat. How do I tell my 7-year-old daughter that, yes, Yaya and Poppop are getting bunnies, but they’re also going to kill them and eat them? I’m a widowed, single mom and they help me out so much, so we see them quite often. My daughter will inevitably fall in love with these bunnies, and I’m a little scared she’s going to disown my parents when she learns what the bunnies are for. I know it’s going to be hard for her to learn regardless, but any tips on how to explain this to her in a way that won’t scar her for life?

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— Flopsy, Mopsy, and Sunday Dinner

Dear Sunday Dinner,

How have you addressed meat eating with other foods? For example, does your daughter know that chickens on a farm and chicken in the chicken nuggets she eats are one and the same? If so, rabbits probably will not be too far a leap, and this can be a reference point you use when discussing your parents’ new pursuit.

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I would approach this in a matter of fact way. Explain very succinctly that the grandparents are getting rabbits, but they are not pets; they will be used for food. Much like farmers raise cows, pigs, and chickens for food, Yaya and Poppop are doing the same thing with the rabbits. If she is aghast, you can read some books about the food chain to help her understand that it is OK that animals, including humans, eat other animals for the nourishment they need. The animated version of The Lion King has a scene where Mufasa explains this concept to Simba that you might reference. You might also check out some books about culinary traditions around the world. Many animals that are not traditional in our cuisine are widely eaten in other international settings (guinea pigs and kangaroos come to mind).

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Practically, I would discourage your daughter or parents from naming the rabbits—it’s much easier to conceptualize eating “a rabbit” than eating “Peter.” If she is especially sensitive about the whole ordeal, you might work with your parents to ensure that her contact with the rabbits is minimized, or that when she does have contact with them, the context is more about the husbandry of the animals and less about affection. And certainly tell your parents to refrain from serving rabbit to her until she is more comfortable with the situation.

Depending on where you live, you might also consider a local 4H group or the state or county fair. It sounds quaint, but there’s no better place to see farming and husbandry normalized than a setting like these. The fact is, humans depend on animals in a lot of ways, and personal farms and private ownership can often be a lot more humane than the factory farms where most of our animal products come from. While you don’t need to get into those ethics with your daughter, she can learn that raising an animal for meat can be a very caring, respectful practice despite the way it ends.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I skipped two grades in elementary school, and I will be 16 years old when I start college in a few days. They had us watch some videos before coming to campus about consent, alcohol, and campus resources, which led me to think about statutory rape. Since I’ve been with this age cohort since I was quite little (it definitely had its challenges!). My clothes, cultural references, etc. match those of 18-year-olds, and I know it can be hard to guess the age of a young woman like me. My school is in a state where sex with anyone under 18 is statutory rape, with a three-year Romeo and Juliet law. So, I could have sex with someone who is 19, but not 20, and this will continue to be a problem for two more years. I know some people who took gap years might turn 20 as a freshman or might be nontraditional students, so I can’t just make a rule about only sleeping with someone in my class if I decide to have sex. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. How should I go about telling people and when? My friends will obviously know, but I don’t want to be weird and advertise that I’m 16 all the time and seem immature.

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— Cautious in California

Dear Cautious,

I am not a lawyer, and I highly encourage you to seek the advice of one who specializes in sex crimes and laws in the state where you will go to school. As you’ve found, most states have nuanced laws about the legalities of sex between a minor and an adult.

Once you are certain of the laws in your school’s state, then my advice would be that as the younger person in this situation, it is your responsibility to be diligent about any potential partners and ask them their age first. And unless you can be reasonably certain that they are being truthful with you (no drunken joking around answers, no flings with strangers), you need to abstain from sexual contact. It would also be the responsible and respectful thing for you to disclose your age to these partners. Legality aside, some (many?) partners will not be comfortable engaging in a sexual relationship with a minor, and that is a valid position. I know you are likely mature for 16, but you are still just 16. If you cannot take the time to discuss your age with a partner the same way you’d discuss birth control and STIs (and you are discussing those things, right?), then you should consider whether you should be having sex with that person.

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No rite of passage or weekend fun is worth putting someone else in a jeopardizing position.

—Allison

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I have a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old. We have a wedding coming up, and I’m torn about whether or not we should make the six-hour drive with our kids. As it’s a kid-free wedding, we’d need to find a local sitter, plus I’m breastfeeding (and struggling to figure out the logistics of keeping the baby fed while we’re gone as well as pumping during the wedding). The trip would also be expensive. What should we do?

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