Care and Feeding

I Don’t Know How Much Longer I Can Keep My FIL’s Past a Secret From My Son

A mother reading to her toddler.
Photo illustration by slate. Photo by PeopleImages/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,

My 3-year-old son is learning about families in preschool, which is cute and wonderful. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to answer his questions about his estranged grandfather. He has one set of grandparents, my parents, that we see all the time. However, his other grandfather is a convicted sex offender with child-related offenses, so we are not in contact with him. Our son will ask questions about his other grandpa and we don’t know how to respond. What makes this more awkward is the fact that this grandfather’s sex offender conviction is not well known in the extended family; the close family prefers to keep it quiet because it is both painful and embarrassing to them. So, we sometimes get well-meaning but uninformed relatives, like great aunts or cousins, talking to our son about his grandfather or asking him questions about his grandfather not knowing the background.

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I don’t want to completely keep my child ignorant, because sex abuse flourishes in family secrecy, and I worry what would happen if I passed away (my own family are unaware and would probably want to push a relationship between the other grandpa and my child). Do you have suggestions for how we can talk to our child in an age-appropriate way? Maybe a gradual strategy? This conversation is also stressful because our son likes to ask a million follow up questions and parrot back his new knowledge to strangers, and I don’t think my spouse could emotionally handle him telling the daycare about his grandpa being a bad man or sex offender.

— Family Secrets

Dear Secrets,

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This is a very difficult position for you all to be in, and I understand the family’s desire for discretion. I think it is ok to honor that, within reason (more on that later). But I do want to state the (hopefully) obvious that if any child is, or might be, put in a situation where they would be alone or have extended contact with grandpa, the family wish for privacy immediately goes out the window. Embarrassment is not an excuse for child endangerment.

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With that critical caveat out of the way, let’s assume we all agree that, for various reasons, the secret can ethically be maintained. My suggestion is to sit down with the family closest to grandpa, who know the truth, and share with them what you wrote in this letter. Figure out a messaging plan for the extended family with language you all agree on; it could be as simple as “Grandpa doesn’t have any contact with [spouse] or their family, and the reason why is a private matter. In an effort not to confuse [son], we’d appreciate it if you refrained from talking to him about Grandpa.” This could be proactively shared in an email or kept in your back pocket for when it comes up. Follow up questions answered very firmly and vaguely. (“Everyone is safe, we are not mad at [spouse], thanks for your concern.”) The family might not enjoy this plan, but your first responsibility is to your son; hopefully the family can respect that you need a new approach to this situation.

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To your child, I would start by explaining that not families are the same, and not everyone sees all members of their family. Some people have died, some people live far away, some people aren’t close and do not choose to spend time together. From there, though, the answer might depend on the child’s age; you say he’s in preschool, but that could mean 3 years old or 5, and there’s a big difference between the two. If he’s on the younger scale, I think it’s OK for now to leave it vague—especially if you’re afraid he’ll share without understanding the context. If he’s older, maybe you can go into more details about how “grandpa broke some very important rules and hurt some kids, and we do not think he is a safe person to be around.” Once you can trust your son’s social discretion a bit more, then it’s probably time to tell him more of the story. I would suggest finding a family therapist or social worker, who could advise on age-appropriate language for both explaining his grandfather’s past but also guiding your son on that balance between disclosure and privacy. You’re right that you don’t want this to turn into some deep dark secret, and being honest about it within your family is one way to avoid that. But you also want him to understand how widespread sharing might hurt others who are grappling with this situation. Your husband would do well to see a therapist, too, so that he can be OK while he participates in these conversations with your son.

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Two final thoughts: I do think you need to bring your parents into your confidence. If there is a chance that they will ever be responsible for your child, they need to know the critical details of your family. If it were me, this would be non-negotiable. Which leads to my second thought: if you have not already drawn up a will, please do so now, not only identifying the people who will care for your son in the event of your and your spouse’s death, but also stipulating (either in the will itself or supporting documents) that your son is to have no contact with grandpa. These guardians should also be told, either now or upon taking guardianship, of grandpa’s conviction so that they can faithfully enact your instructions, if it comes to that. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the mom of two daughters, 15 and 6. My husband passed away three years ago, so I am currently a single parent. I was recently diagnosed with life-threatening cancer, and the doctors say I only have a month or so to live. Because I am having to spend more and more time in the hospital, my MIL (my parents died when I was a kid) is looking after my daughters. My MIL is OK-ish, but we have very differing views. She won’t let my daughters wear trousers or shorts, and when they try to do so, she smacks them. My daughters don’t own any skirts or dresses. My oldest daughter is very into football and my MIL denied her access to practices, so now she isn’t allowed to play in any matches for a month (they have a rule where missed practices bar you from matches) and this month is one of the most important—there’s 10 matches. My daughter is heartbroken. She won’t let either of my daughters spend time with any boys their age—even my youngest. My MIL has also made many, many references to “when they are grown up and have husbands and children…” My daughters don’t want children or husbands. My oldest has come out to all our family as a lesbian. When I die, this is the woman who will become responsible for them. How do I get my MIL out of the picture?

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— They Don’t Want Husbands

Dear TDWH,

I am incredibly sorry for the losses you have endured as well as your heartbreaking prognosis.

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Does your MIL have to be the one to take care of the children? Do you have a best friend, sister, or cousin who would be willing to do the job? I realize you are putting someone in a very difficult position if you ask them for this from your deathbed, but if this magical unicorn of a person does exist in your life, I encourage you to take that option. I would also discuss it with your oldest daughter to see if she agrees with living elsewhere, you don’t want her to be blind-sided, and removing her from family (even terrible family) could be difficult for her even if it’s the best thing to do. If she agrees, get a lawyer ASAP to draw up the documents. It would be kind to tell your MIL the plan so that she doesn’t have to find out from the lawyer after your death, and it would (possibly) save your unicorn friend from having a direct confrontation with grandma. It would also be kind to stipulate that regular contact with grandma be maintained.

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Perhaps you have already considered all of this and do not have another guardian possibility, but in case you do, I am giving you permission to give your daughters to someone else. There is no rule that grandparents or next-of-kin must care for orphaned children, and MIL’s pattern of behavior and antiquated gender roles certainly feels like reason enough to place them elsewhere.

If you cannot place your daughters with someone else, I would do everything in your power to imbue them with all the love, support and affirmation that you can. Write letters that teach your daughters your values and empower them to be themselves—and love themselves—regardless of the messages they receive from others. I would plead with friends and relatives who share your values to look out for your girls, spend time with them, and teach them the lessons you will not be there to teach. This may not be “enough” in your heart, but it is something. I wish you and your daughters peace in the coming weeks and months.

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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 husband and I had an extremely unexpected and premature birth with our first baby, followed by a long NICU stay in a hospital two hours away from home. It was a difficult few months, to say the least, but she is now a healthy toddler doing all the things toddlers do! Because of the early birth and chaos after, we cancelled our baby shower and did not reschedule. Many people expressed disappointment at this, but we didn’t have the time, energy, or interest in doing it. We still don’t regret the decision two years later.

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We are now expecting our second baby this fall. Close family members on both sides have asked if I want a shower this time, and I told them all no because we have kept everything, and thus have 98 percent of what we need (even clothes through 2 years of age, as three people have offered theirs up!). We also don’t have an overly big house to be holding an excessive number of extra things. Once I said no, they each privately went to my husband and told him he needs to convince me to let them have a shower or plan a surprise one for me, because everyone wants and deserves a chance to celebrate our baby since they didn’t get that last time, and because “buying for a baby is so much fun.” My husband, being the treasure that he is, told them “absolutely not” to the surprise shower idea, and despite reiterating our wishes, we get asked about a shower every time we see anyone.

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We aren’t against getting together with everyone and have suggested doing a big cookout at our house where everyone can play with our toddler, see me pregnant, and bring some food to share. But we feel our reasons for not wanting it to be a baby-related event are very valid, and everyone seems set on turning anything we do into a gift-giving party for the baby. They seem to be taking our lack of interest in baby gifts as a personal insult; many refer back to the fact that they didn’t get to give us our last gift at an actual event and had to just send it to our house instead. Honestly that little jab just makes me angry because we were spending all our time sitting in the NICU worrying—it’s not like we chose to jet off to somewhere tropical to inconvenience them. Any suggestions on how to get everyone off our back AND not overrun our house with stuff we don’t need? I understand everyone wanting to buy us gifts is a very privileged problem to have, but it really will be a challenge if everyone shows up with a case of diapers and the hottest new baby accessory.

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— Your Presence is Present Enough

Dear YPIPE,

Why do people insist on making other people’s life events about them? I could go on about this, but I’ll stick to the highlights. One, most people who have a second child do not have a second shower, for the same reasons you do not want one. Two, anyone who uses the past trauma of a premature delivery as a reason to feel sorry for themselves needs to take a long look at themselves. Three, the whole point of a shower is to help the parents-to-be—not boost the quarterly earnings for Buy Buy Baby. You have made it clear that a shower is the opposite of help, and that should be the end of the discussion.

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How I answer your letter, though, depends on whether your objections truly are about the accumulation of needless stuff, or whether deep down, the trauma of the first birth is making you want to lay low on celebrating the new baby just yet.

If it really is just about the stuff, could you give in just a little on the baby-party idea, so that your loved ones still get a celebration but you don’t get 80 baby blankets? Maybe you host that backyard cookout idea, and each household is asked to bring one baby supply that you need to replace anyway—like pacifiers, bottles, teethers, etc. They could also bring a baby outfit that can be donated to a local women and children shelter, and these outfits can be put on display at the party before being donated. I agree with your desire to avoid dozens of layettes and board books, but I also want to acknowledge that folks want to celebrate (even if the way they’re pestering you is off the rails).

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If your resistance to the party has more to do with those echoes of the past, then you need to stay firm and find a way to tell them they’re insistence on a celebration is disrespectful and hurtful. You can do this in a way that still thanks them for their anticipation and love, but that is unequivocal in what you and your husband need from them. In these cases, where you want to get the words just right, a group email is the route I would probably take. But let them know that, for you, the idea of the party makes you more anxious than loved. How they react to that perspective will be quite telling.

Good luck to you, your husband, and your little ones.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband Dave and I have three daughters: 14-year-old Natalie, 11-year-old Emily, and 5-year-old Chloe. Dave owns a restaurant and is quite busy; he usually works at least 60 hours a week. He used to be great about splitting his time at home between the kids evenly.

In May, as the school year was ending, Emily discovered her love of cooking. Dave had been a chef for a long time before he bought the restaurant, so he decided to take her to his kitchen on a day when the restaurant was closed to teach her some of the basics. Emily came back home with everything above her neck, including her hair and glasses, covered in a fine layer of flour, and everything below her neck, including her nice new shirt, covered in various sauce stains. And she was super excited and couldn’t wait to do it again. It was fine at first—a new way for dad and daughter to bond.

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As the summer progressed, Dave insisted on spending more and more time with Emily in the kitchen, either at home or at his restaurant. It’s gotten to the point now where Dave expects to be able to spend all his free time teaching Emily how to cook. He barely spends any time with Natalie or Chloe.

Natalie has grown resentful of Emily. They had a loud fight resulting in Natalie calling Emily a “flour-faced bitch” and Emily insulting Natalie’s lack of creativity in coming up with insults. They used to be very close, and I don’t think they’ve talked for three weeks. I have been told that drama is a normal part of having multiple tween and teen daughters, but I don’t have any sisters so I wouldn’t know. It has been stressful for the whole family.

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Chloe hasn’t really noticed that dad is spending so much time with Emily. All she’s noticed is that dad isn’t spending any time with her anymore, and she’s upset.

Emily doesn’t want her sisters to be this upset, and she feels uncomfortable that she is now clearly dad’s favorite. She told me she’s also worried that David might have the wrong idea; she doesn’t want to be a chef when she grows up, she just enjoys cooking. She would rather be an elementary school teacher or a wildlife conservationist. She doesn’t want to tell him because she’s worried about hurting her dad’s feelings.

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I have tried talking with Dave about how he isn’t really being a father for all three kids right now, and Dave either makes some empty promises or gets very defensive and talks about how I sometimes do things with Natalie, like helping out her speech and debate team—but I feel that’s different because I manage my time so that I spend quality time with all three kids.

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I know Emily should work on becoming confident enough to talk with her dad about this situation, but also Dave should know that this situation is not working. How can I get Dave to spend time with all his kids?

— A Chef’s Wife

Dear Chef’s Wife,

Teen drama is certainly normal but from your letter it seems clear that there are some real hurt feelings here. You mention that Emily should be more confident about talking to her dad, but that is really hard to do. I’m 40, and I still don’t like the idea of disappointing my parents! But I do think she could be the key here, especially given her suspicion that he hopes she’ll take over the family business. Would she feel OK talking to her dad with you present and moderating the conversation? Maybe she’d be more comfortable writing him a letter that he could then discuss with her.

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If Emily isn’t comfortable participating in those conversations (which is fair), then you may need to sit down with Daniel again and get much more concrete about Emily’s desires and Natalie and Chloe’s feelings. If he doesn’t believe the huge imbalance in time spent with his daughters, I wonder if he’d be open to you tracking his time? Maybe that sounds a little over the top, but it’s possible quantitative data could convince him. If he compares himself to you again, be clear that this isn’t about you. Point out that if the girls came to Dave with similar grievances about you, you’d expect him to talk to you about it. I suspect he’s feeling like you’re trying tell him how to parent, which is not quite the case; you’re trying to be the family smoke detector warning him there is a fire. Parents need to be able to do this for each other; it’s one of the benefits of raising kids in a partnership.

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If none of that works, you might have to see if Emily can be a bit scarce on these free days—maybe at a friend’s house or school club. It’s possible that without Emily to focus on, Dave can rediscover the bond he has with the other two girls.

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—Allison

More Advice From Slate

When I was young I was married briefly. I did not want children, and thought I’d made that clear to my husband. I accidentally got pregnant, and he was thrilled. Against my better judgment I had the baby, with the understanding that he would take care of it. I did not like motherhood and when the girl was 2 years old, I divorced her father and moved out of state. I recently got a letter from her saying she would like to meet. When the young woman visits I intend to introduce her as a niece. What do you think?

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