Care and Feeding

Should I Care for My Loved Ones, or Live the Life I Want?

A farmhouse in Maine.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by KenWiedemann/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 husband and I live in LA (where I grew up) in a small single-bedroom rented house. Our two young children sleep in our former dining room, and we have two dogs, too. After the harrowing fire season of 2020, we impulsively took a leap and bought (sight unseen) a 12-acre homestead with a three- (the luxury!!!) bedroom house in Maine, in an area I know and love from spending many magical childhood summers there. At the time it felt like an insurance policy against the climate risks of California in an imagined distant future, but as we’ve visited the homestead in the years since our hurried purchase, we’re more and more inclined to move to Maine full time, ideally in the next few years (before our older child starts elementary school).

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It would be a big move, requiring us to learn new skills and probably necessitating changes in both of our very urban careers, but we feel ready and excited. The problem? I’m a member of the sandwich generation and the elder half of my sandwich wants me to stay in LA. My father is in his 70’s, living alone in the four-bedroom multi-story house that I grew up in, and my godmother is in her 80’s, living alone in a four-bedroom multi-story house. Neither has any intention of downsizing, leaving California, or creating any infrastructure to age safely in place, despite having the financial means to do so. Neither has any living family or much of a support system in town beyond me (my sister lives in Northern California and is not the caregiving kind).

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I’m the on-call person to take them to appointments, arrange repairs and maintenance for their houses, help with technology and paperwork, make grocery runs—you name it—plus weekly social visits with each of them. I’ve gently asked them both if they’d consider moving with us if we “ever” moved to Maine. The answer is a resounding “No thanks.” What do I do? We want to make a new life for ourselves and our children, but I can’t imagine leaving them behind to fend for themselves. I know by the way they react whenever we leave town to visit Maine that they would consider the move an abandonment or a betrayal and may even (this is awful to voice, but of no small consequence) punitively change their estate planning to punish me for moving.

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On the other hand, as my therapist pointed out to me, if I postpone the move indefinitely to care for them, I might become resentful of them for stopping me from living the life I want to live. This would make my caretaking less sincere and put my relationship with them at risk, regardless of my proximity. Worth noting: they both moved across the country from their parents at 18 and never looked back. I wish they wouldn’t hold it against me for contemplating a move in my early 40’s, especially when I would look back (and visit!) lovingly and often.

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—Stuck in a Sandwich

Dear Stuck,

Live your life—move to Maine. Your father and godmother will manage. Either they will finally downsize or employ helpers as needed (or both)—or they will decide to move to Maine along with (or soon after) you. They have choices. They are not helpless (old does not mean incapable, incompetent, or without agency). You are not condemning these people you love to a life of lonely desperation; you are neither abandoning nor betraying them (and if they feel you are, that’s for them to deal with, not you—and if they tell you that you are, you need to steel yourself against being manipulated).

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The only part of your letter that gave me pause was the bit about their “estate planning.” Here’s a good rule about how to live your life: do not make important life decisions based on whether people you love will or won’t leave you their money when they die. If you stay in California because you fear being cut out of their wills—and/or if they use their bequests as leverage in their relationships with you—then we are talking about a financial arrangement, not ties of love and a sense of duty. I understand (reading between the lines) that you have been counting on their money. Please don’t. It’s distasteful.

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, Ugh, I Think I’ve Infected My Kid With My Worst Fear: “I feel terrible. It seems clear to me that I must have not concealed this fear or dealt with it as efficiently as I thought.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My very close family members have made different parenting choices than we have about sugar and screentime. Their toddler drinks pop, eats Pop-Tarts for breakfast, and gets rewarded with candy—and has a tablet and often watches TV on their cell phones (and there is almost always a TV on in their house). My wife and I are aligned on our screentime and sugar approach. We plan to wait until our kid is 2 years old for screentime. We want to have limits on sugar but not ban it (so far, we let him have some of our dessert, but no pop or candy).

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I don’t think our kid has noticed the difference yet. (He does notice the TV on at their house, but he looks at it for a second and goes to play.) When he does start to notice, though, what do we do? I’m imagining that at some point the difference between our parenting choices and theirs is going to seem unfair to him. How do we navigate that without our kid hating us? Sometimes I just want to yell at these family members, “Give your kid some limits!” But I know that won’t work and I know I can’t control anyone else’s behavior. Plus I feel guilty for judging them, because we do have more resources and less trauma than they do. Besides, parenting is hard for everybody. So what do we do? We’re worried that our relationship with our child will be negatively impacted by his feeling deprived of things he sees someone else getting as much of as they want.

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—Sugar and Screens

Dear Sugar,

Unless one lives in a closed community in which there is never any contact with the outside world, all parents eventually have to have the conversation (in multiple iterations, usually) with their kids about how different families have different ways of doing things. I promise that your relationship with your kid won’t be “negatively impacted”—unless you imply to him, as you have implied a little bit in your letter, that he is being deprived of something you believe in your heart of hearts is truly desirable. (This makes me wonder about your relationship with screens and with sugar—because I’ll tell you right now that if you model lots of TV-watching [for example], he will definitely find it appealing.) If you model the behavior/attitude you want to instill in him, then when (if) he asks why his cousin is allowed unlimited screen time or drinks Coke and eats Lunchables, your different-strokes-for-different-folks response will make good sense to him. (But here’s the tricky part: raising your kid to have healthy habits without being judgmental about others’ behavior. That’s important too, so tread lightly. You want your child to grow up with healthy habits—sure. But you don’t want him to be a prig, either.)

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a son, Benjamin, who will be 5 in a month. My raising him was something of an unplanned event. I was helping a couple conceive who could not on their own, and my sperm was manually produced and then inserted into the mother. But the couple broke up during the pregnancy. Neither “Nora” nor her ex- wanted the child but Nora didn’t want to abort, and so I wound up with him. And while it was not what I expected to happen, my life is much enriched by Benjamin, who is a wonderful child. But, as noted, fatherhood caught me by surprise; even before he was born I was asking friends for advice. A now former friend, “Adam,” suggested the name Benjamin when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to name my son. I liked the sound of it, and that’s what went on the birth certificate.

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I recently discovered that “Benjamin” means “Son of my right hand,” a rather nasty joke that is completely in line with Adam’s so-called sense of humor. Now I can’t think of his name without burning about how it’s a slight against his conception or a joke played on me (and him!) for years. I want to change the name, but he’s old enough to know that’s his name and likes being called it. I’m not sure if it will affect him to change his name all of a sudden, and explaining the reason for it won’t do at all. But I’m also worried that it will affect me and my ability to parent him if I don’t. How can I get out of this mess?

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—Naming Issues

Dear Naming,

It’s not a mess. Snap out of it. Benjamin has been in the top ten of baby names for years. There will likely be many Benjamins in his (and your) life, none of whom ever thinks about the “meaning” of the name. If your friend really was making a stupid, sneaky joke, that’s on him. But why are you making a big deal about the “meaning” of the name now? If its meaning meant that much to you, a simple Google search before your son was born would have revealed it, and you could have scolded Adam then—or, better still, rolled your eyes at the sophomoric joke—and either used the name anyway because you liked it, or picked another name because the joke irritated you. Changing your son’s name now would be—how shall I put this?—a ridiculous overreaction.

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(By the way: my own name means “who is like God,” so you should definitely take my advice as the final word on anything and everything.)

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,

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My husband and I are expecting our second child in the next few weeks (our older child will be 18 months old by then). We are very nervous about how we will juggle the needs of both, especially once my husband is back to work after his three weeks of leave and it’s just me during the day. My MIL lives nearby and would like to come over and replace my husband during the day once he’s back to work, at least at first. While I wouldn’t mind occasional visits and recognize that I may end up needing much more support than I’m anticipating, I’m really not a fan of this plan. First, I’m a rather private person and just want to feel as comfortable as I can during the uncomfortable-no-matter-what-you-do time of postpartum recovery, and having another person who isn’t my husband in my house while I’m trying to breastfeed and just generally recover will not allow me to do this fully.

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She says there’s no need for me to do anything special or make a fuss over her coming, but she doesn’t seem to understand that just because she wants me to be that comfortable around her doesn’t mean I am. Having a guest in my house sets me a bit on edge; certainly I don’t feel I can sit around with my shirt off. Second, she has pretty severe anxiety. Based on my experience with our first child, I know there will be very few tasks she will feel confident completing on her own, either with the baby or with the toddler, which means I would just end up getting called in constantly to help and/or supervise and reassure her (i.e., she won’t actually be much help!). How do I turn down her offer when the reasons I don’t want to accept it cannot be acknowledged?

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—Would Rather Be Home Alone

Dear WRBHA,

You can say no—everyone has the unalienable right to say no—without explaining why. “Thanks for the kind offer, but we’ll be fine. I’ll let you know if I need anything, of course.” That is all you have to say. Repeat as necessary. Do not buckle under pressure. And make sure your husband backs you up on this (he should be saying, “Thanks so much, Mom. We’ll let you know if we need help.”)  Be kind, be firm, and don’t let anyone tell you that you are required to elaborate on your response.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I are parents to an amazing 20-month-old boy. Before I became pregnant, my husband and I went out weekly with co-workers after work. My husband still attends these and ends up getting sloshed. I love staying home, and I’m over these get-togethers, but my husband insists I need to get out more and should come along. What should I do? 

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