Care and Feeding

I Always Thought My Partner Handled Crises Like I Did

A recent emergency taught me otherwise.

An ambulance.
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, 

Can boundaries be established when people have a shared experience and completely different expectations of support in that situation? My family’s default setting is to help when asked, and my partner’s family’s is do without asking. I knew they were close, but I didn’t really understand this mismatch until some recent examples. Our son had a medical event in the middle of the night that was serious enough to require an ambulance in case of complications during transport (there were none). My thought was to wait until I had real info for share with my family, especially since no one would be able to do anything because of COVID-19 restrictions, and because I didn’t want to be distracted with/by my phone while we were at the hospital. Once we knew it was a one-off, manageable situation and had a plan in place, I waited until the next morning to contact family. If we had needed something any of them could do, even just providing support over the phone, I absolutely would’ve reached out right then.

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My partner took a different approach and called their family immediately after the ambulance. They showed up and (understandably) were balls of anxiety, then followed us to the hospital to sit outside the entire time we were there (we did not ask for this), texting for updates all along. This is the most recent example of what has happened a few times where they take a situation that I feel isn’t about them/doesn’t involve them directly and made it into their own personal experience. My partner is just used to this, I am certainly not. Is this something where I can ask to set a boundary limiting their involvement, or since my partner seems to want it, do I just need to accept it and give up my privacy?

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-I’ll Update When I Can/Want To

Dear IUWIC/WT, 

I think your issue has less to do with how your partner’s family shows up for difficult situations than it involves the difference between how you and your partner want to engage with your respective families. It sounds like your partner looks to involve their family in scenarios in which you’d rather not, which is certainly reflective of how these two somewhat different tribes operate in general. You can definitely establish boundaries with your partner’s family, but not without your partner’s cooperation. The two of you should talk about the difference in how you each chose to engage with your families regarding your son’s medical emergency, and you can explain why you feel passionately that you’d rather have handled things as a household that night without involving your loved ones. You should also point out other instances in which your partner’s family has sprung into action without you being on board with their involvement.

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Hopefully, the two of you can reach some sort of agreement about how to these things in the future, but you must take into consideration the fact that your partner called on their family during that emergency for a reason. It could be that they are simply used to having their close-knit family involved in all major events, but it could also be that they want to involve them during these moments. If that is the case, you are going to have to compromise a bit. Try and be empathetic. Do your best to communicate why you prefer to handle things otherwise and how you’d like to try and move forward. Good luck to you.

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week

From this week’s letter, I Gave up My Room to My New Stepsister. Now She’s Made Some Absurd Demands: “She treated me like her personal maid.”

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

I am a mom of thirteen kids—6 sets of twins under 14, plus one 12-year-old daughter, “Olivia.” All six sets are really close and spend loads of time together, but Olivia is always left out. She ends up reading a book on her own while the other kids play in the paddling pool, stuff like that. The other kids don’t really talk to Olivia or ask her to join them. Olivia doesn’t ask to join in though. It feels like some unspoken rule prevents Olivia from playing too. She often doesn’t go on outings, she stays at home with me or her Dad. Sometimes it seems like the other kids don’t know she’s there. She shares a room with the 14-year-old and 13-year-old twins, and the twins stay up til all hours chatting and texting and playing video games. Olivia doesn’t join in, doesn’t talk to them, and goes straight to sleep. She doesn’t seem as happy as the other kids, and she’s definitely not as sporty or active. I signed her up for a basketball team hoping she’d make some friends, but she just wants to sit on the side and read, like at home. All the other kids have done basketball, and none of THEM have complained! (I haven’t shared this analogy with Olivia, it’s always bad to compare your kids) I don’t want to sound annoying, but I honestly think she’s wasting her childhood and one day she’ll look back and regret that she never joined in with basketball. Enough about basketball, though, Olivia never joins in. How do I help her?

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–The Unspoken Rule

Dear TUR, 

Sometimes, children in large families struggle to find a comfortable place among their siblings; Olivia has a natural disadvantage as the only child who was not born with a twin. Every other child in the household shares a special bond with at least one other sibling that dates back to the womb, in addition to how they can relate to one another as fellow twins. I can only imagine how isolating this can be for Olivia who, by the way, may feel further left out if basketball is something that all the other kids have enjoyed, but it leaves her cold.

I think you should take Olivia to a therapist or counselor with whom she can share her feelings about her rather unique upbringing, and who can perhaps help you better understand what she is dealing with. She may not feel comfortable talking to you or her siblings about her role within the family, but I imagine that she probably has a lot to say about it. You should also be talking to your other children about how they engage with Olivia, and take steps to ensure that they are treating her with love and kindness. If her siblings see her as an outsider, they may be behaving as such, which could have a tremendous impact on how she feels within the large family dynamic.

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Though I can imagine this may be difficult, I also think Olivia would benefit from some one-on-one time with you. It’s entirely possible that basketball just isn’t her thing, unlike the other kids (which is yet another reason for her to feel like an outsider), and that there’s some other activity that would spark something within her, but you need to hear from her to find out what that is. She also should hear from you that she is an important member of this family, that you love her deeply, and that you are committed to making sure she’s as happy as she can possibly be. Give her the space to communicate with you about how you can make that happen. Remind Olivia that she is special and that there’s always going to be room for her with you, I think she really could stand to hear that. Wishing you and her lots of luck.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding, 

I’m nineteen and my parents died two years ago. I have a 14-year-old sister “Asha” who I look after as a result. I don’t mind looking after Asha as she mostly does what I tell her to. About ten months ago, Asha announced that she was pregnant and now that the baby is born I have to look after it too. I don’t mind babysitting, but I can’t handle looking out for a 14-year-old and a baby at the same time! Both need my attention almost constantly. I’ve suggested to Asha that the baby live with her boyfriend instead (I know that he has two financially stable parents who would be more than willing to look after it if he couldn’t). Asha won’t even let me hire childcare to look after her baby when I’m at school. Our grandparents have said that the baby can live with them but Asha refused. The baby must live with her. And the thing is she never spends any time with her baby anyway, she just coos at it when she gets home from school and then leaves me to get on with it. I’ve had to take loads of time off school to look after it, and the thing is I don’t want to look after her child. What happens when the child is five and they want to know why their Mommy doesn’t spend any time with them? I DON’T WANT ANOTHER KID TO DEAL WITH. I didn’t get a choice in raising Asha and I’ve done my best but she can’t keep having sex and dumping the end result on me. Thank you so, so, so much in advance.

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–I Didn’t Sign Up for This

Dear IDSUfT, 

I am so sorry that you are in such a complicated, draining situation at a time where you should be able to focus primarily on your own life and preparing for your own future. You need to decide what you are (and are not) willing to do for Asha and her baby, and you need to put your foot down accordingly. Asha should not be able to decide that you can’t hire childcare for the hours when each of you are in school. Furthermore, if you are unwilling to care for and house Asha and her baby anymore, then you should be honest about that and start making plans for them to live elsewhere. But you can’t waver somewhere in the middle; you either have to take responsibility for both these kids, or figure out who else will.

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Be firm and honest with Asha. Let her know that you love her dearly and wish to be supportive, but that you do not have the capacity to raise her child for her. She also should hear from you that she needs to be more hands-on with her baby. Alas, as Asha is but a child herself, there is the possibility that she just doesn’t have the maturity to engage with her little one the way that she ought to as a mother; some teen parents step into this role more easily than others. But so long as Asha requires significant support with childcare (which she will as long as she is a student and unable to earn a living), she is going to have to understand that she will have to deal with the support that is available to her. That may involve going to live with her boyfriend’s parents, or allowing you to pay for childcare during the week, or making an arrangement with your grandparents.

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I don’t think you should expect Asha to be in a situation where she lives separately from her child, which could be devastating for both of them. While it sounds like there is much to be desired from her parenting thus far, there is still an important bond between a baby and mother, and I think you should want to strengthen their relationship, not tear it apart. You and Asha should work together to figure out a situation that you both can live with. She has to take responsibility for getting pregnant and how it has impacted you both, that’s not something you can allow her to skirt any longer. Be firm, but fair. Remain in her corner, while setting boundaries that allow you to feel comfortable with your own life. All the best to you.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

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

Dear Care and Feeding, 

Three months ago, my dad asked me (non-pressuringly) if I could move out so there was room for his girlfriend and her daughter who I had never met. I gladly agreed, as I am 22 and had been looking to move out for a while then. I moved into a nice one-bedroom apartment and am loving it so far!

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However, my 15-year-old step-sister “Elisa,” got my old room (obvs) but demanded she get my TV as well. I refused, as I paid for the TV myself, but I was met with a temper-tantrum. My dad stepped in and told me “The move has been hard on Elisa, and you are being selfish not to give her your TV.” I said no, so he replied that he was giving Elisa the TV anyway, and that I’d be sorry I’d ever been born if I treated Elisa “this rudely” again. WTH?! So my dad basically stole the TV and gifted it to Elisa.

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Elisa then demanded loads of my other stuff, and my dad and stepmom forced me to surrender it. To make matters worse, my dad and stepmom forced me to come to Elisa’s birthday party, and Elisa treated me like her personal slave. She didn’t even call me by name. Just “Step-sister.” When I told Lauren and Dad about this they said that it was Elisa’s birthday so it was her rules. There have been so many more other incidents, too. But two days ago they invited me to go on holiday with them. I turned them down, but apparently I have to go because “Elisa needs me.” They’re leaving in a week and have said they’ll force me if I refuse. A little advice?

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—Stepsister’s Slave

Dear SS, 

Your father, stepmother and stepsister are being wholly unreasonable, and I am so sorry that you are going through this. At 22, however, you are at a point where you can and should determine just who gets to be in your life, and in what capacity. I don’t know what your relationship was like with your father before he got with your stepmom, but he has shown you that, for whatever reason, he is inclined to put their needs before yours. Perhaps in his desire to please his woman, he has decided that you should be as accommodating as possible and sacrifice yourself to humor a child whom you barely know. This is unfair and really shitty parenting, and I think he’s left you but no choice but to erect some serious boundaries between you—at least as long as your dad is behaving the way he has been. Let your dad know that you’re disappointed at how he has chosen to prioritize Elisa over you, and by how she has been allowed to get away with treating you. Explain that you have no desire to travel with people who do not treat you with respect, nor is it your responsibility to cater to your 15-year-old stepsister.

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You have to stand firm. Don’t allow your dad or his new family to bully you—refuse the trip. Let them all know that you are happy to spend time together if you can count on being treated well during that time. Otherwise, none of them will see you anymore. Hopefully, your words will serve as a wake-up call for your father, but if they don’t, you have to be strong enough to remove yourself from the equation accordingly. Wishing you lots of strength.

Dear Care and Feeding, 

I am a college student who spent this summer working at a small in-home daycare before the school semester began. A week before my time would have been up, I was fired for a mistake. My coworker/employer told me there were no other mistakes or faults of mine that contributed to her decision.

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My mistake (and it was indeed a mistake) was to lift a 2-year-old from prone to standing by grabbing his shirt between his shoulder blades. In the moment I was harried and trying to get something else done. My employer confronted me almost immediately and I acknowledged my mistake, and it’s definitely something I’m going to learn from. She confronted me again later that same day, having decided to fire me.

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I know tugging on kids’ clothes is a bad childcare practice, but is it really a fireable one-time offense?

—Confused Caretaker

Dear CC, 

Short of rescuing someone from danger, I cannot imagine any circumstances at any job in which you’d be allowed to get away with grabbing someone by their shirt. You are lucky that this child’s parents did not see fit to come grab you by your shirt, as I would imagine some would be inclined to do in a situation like this. I know it may not feel like the biggest mistake you’ve ever made, but it was an inappropriate way to touch a child, and touching a child inappropriately is often times a ‘one-and-done’ sort of mistake. You don’t have to cause some sort of great physical injury or trauma to get yourself removed from a job with our most vulnerable population. Forgive yourself for what cannot be undone and move forward more cautiously if and when you work with children in the future.

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—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

Our daughter (17F) sat us down last night and explained that she was in love with the (16M) neighbor next door. Instead of being delighted, as we’ve known the boy since birth and they’ve been friends almost as long, my husband threw a fit and forbade her from seeing him ever again. An argument ensued and our daughter accused my husband of being racist (we’re Filipino and the neighbors are Black.)

When he shared his reasons for reacting the way he did, my world changed forever. And I don’t know what to do with this information.

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