Care and Feeding

My Stepdaughter Shared Something in Confidence

How can I get her to now tell her dad?

Two people hold hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andrey Grigoriev/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 married into the most wonderful family, and my stepdaughter is very close with her dad and me. She sometimes comes to me with stuff she doesn’t tell her dad, but has never explicitly told me not to tell him something until recently, when she came out to me as a lesbian. I celebrated her and thanked her for sharing this with me, but was surprised when she told me she wouldn’t be telling her dad for now and asked me to keep her secret. I’m assuming she told me because she knows I’m bisexual, and it’s sometimes easier to talk to people in the community instead of cishet allies. But I’m wondering if I should facilitate some kind of conversation between her and her father so that she feels totally supported and safe talking to him.

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Although he’s not part of the LGBT community, he is staunchly in favor of our rights, and he is a safe person for her to come out to. Obviously I’m not going to out her, or hint at what she told me, but I would like to help her feel comfortable coming out to my husband so that she can have the foundation of support from her whole family. Should I talk in general with my husband about him being more vocally expressive about his support of lesbians? Bring up lesbian rights in a conversation with him while she’s in the room, to give him the opportunity to express his support, so that she feels sure that she can count on him to support her? Or should I calm and not do anything, trusting their relationship? I understand that she is in control of her own coming out, but I can’t bear the thought of her not having both of our support.

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—Rainbow Stepmom

Dear Rainbow,

You haven’t mentioned this, but I can’t imagine that it’s not a factor in your unease: you hate keeping a secret from your husband. I am guessing, too, that you are thinking about that future day when your stepdaughter does come out to her dad and he learns that you knew she was gay before he did—and kept it from him. Are you afraid that this will damage your relationship with him?

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I’m not suggesting, by the way, that the reason you give for your anxiety is a rationalization—that is, I believe you when you say you want your stepdaughter to have her family’s full support, not just yours—but this really isn’t your call to make. You’re aware that it would be wrong to out her to her father when she’s asked you not to, but since you have no idea why she’s made the decision not to tell him what she’s told you, the only move I would make, if you feel you must do something (see my first paragraph!), is to initiate a conversation with her in which you ask her, gently and with kindness, why she doesn’t want her dad to know the truth about her identity. (I would add, “If you feel comfortable telling me that, of course. If you don’t, I understand—I don’t mean to put any pressure on you.”) I can think of many reasons she isn’t ready to talk to her dad about this.

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But the best course of action would be to—as you say—calm down. Let her be. This is not so much a matter of trusting their relationship; it’s a matter of your trusting your relationship(s)—both with your stepdaughter and your husband.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Herman Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Mother-In-Law Claims She Wants to Babysit—But Refuses to Actually Care for My Child: “She’s not comfortable doing anything other than sitting stationary with him after he is placed in her arms.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

How can I move on from the massive amount of guilt I have from letting screens raise my kids, especially my younger son, during the pandemic? During lockdown, I was so tied up with getting my 6-year-old, Sam, through virtual school that my 3-year-old, Pete, was really kind of cast aside. He’d ask me to play with him, but I rarely did. I was either legitimately busy with virtual school, cleaning up the various messes of four people being home all day, or just so burnt out from the stress and sensory overload that I would push him off onto YouTube or iPad games, over and over again. I feel like I spent the third and fourth year of his life avoiding him. It’s a terrible feeling, and one that, if I’m thinking clearly, is probably not entirely accurate. I know we also did lots of fun stuff at that time, and Pete is now an incredible, funny, loving, and kind 5-year-old who’s enjoying kindergarten and for whom those lockdown days are likely a distant memory. He does default to screens as entertainment more often than I’d like, but we’re working to fix that. I make sure I say yes to one-on-one time with him as often as I can, but now that he’s in full-day school, those opportunities are few and far between. I know I can’t change what’s already happened, but I’m not sure how to deal with the guilt and sadness I feel about not being the mom I wanted to be during those long lockdown months.

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—Post-Covid Mom Guilt

Dear PCMG,

I feel for you. We all have regrets about what we have and haven’t done where our children are concerned—at least if we are honest with ourselves—and it is painful to think about what we perceive of as our “failures.” The pandemic, as it happens, gave every parent more than ample opportunity to feel like a failure.

None of us is the mom we want to be 100 percent of the time. You did the best you could under extremely trying circumstances. Remind yourself of this every time your guilt comes rearing up. Making peace with then while doing exactly what you’re doing now is the best medicine—along with contemplating the lively, happy child you have right there in front of you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is in her mid-30s, married, with two wonderful kids and a great career. I’ve always been proud of her, and I’ve often told her so. But I’ve recently learned that my pride—and even my love—is unwanted (or unneeded, to be more accurate).

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I was a bad mother, an alcoholic with a mental illness, for much of her life. I never abused her, but I was neglectful in many ways. When she was 9, I took her to her father, from whom I was divorced, and told him I couldn’t take care of her any longer. I was soon to be homeless, living in my car, and planning my own death. I was damned if she was going to go down with me—that’s why I gave her to her dad. I stayed in touch, but I was incapacitated several times during her teen years.

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Eventually I got sober. I got a job, a place to live, and the help I needed for my other problems. I thought we were OK now. I’ve apologized again and again for my failures. But recently she told me she’s never really thought of me as a parent, that she doesn’t think about me very often, and that she doesn’t need me to be in her life much. She said a lot of other tremendously hurtful things, and I had no idea how to respond, other than to acknowledge her feelings. She says she doesn’t want me apologizing anymore, and she doesn’t want me to call her so often. I am heartbroken.

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Although we have spoken since this diatribe, and she was somewhat friendlier—she even invited me to a renewal of her marriage vows and the celebration after—I’m devastated. I don’t want to go, I am so hurt and sad. But I miss my grandkids! I don’t know what to do. I feel completely broken, and I know there isn’t anything I can do to change my relationship with her.

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—In Pieces

Dear IP,

Sure there is. But you are going to have to be very, very patient. There is nothing you can say, I imagine, beyond what you’ve already said, if you’ve told her how much love her and how sorry you are that you weren’t there for her when she needed you. So say no more. As to doing, though: slow and steady wins the race. Go to the renewal of her marriage vows and to the reception afterwards. Love your grandchildren and be available to them. Be available to her without throwing yourself at her. Give her space. Why don’t you ask her how often she’s comfortable with talking to you or seeing you? Maybe she’d rather be the one to initiate contact; maybe she has something specific in mind (like, it’s OK with her if you call once a month). Follow her lead. Stay in the background as long as you need to, but don’t disappear. Don’t give up hope, but don’t force your hope on her. If thing seemed to be OK until now, it sounds like something triggered what you’re calling her diatribe. It is probably worth thinking through what that might have been.

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But she has not closed the door on you. The important thing is for you not to try to force it open any wider than she’s ready for. Letting her know through your actions—not words—that you are there if she needs you, that she can count on you now though she couldn’t then, can go a long way toward changing things between you over time.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband is an atheist and I’m agnostic. Our 7-year-old daughter decided a few years ago that she is an atheist like her dad. We haven’t done anything to convince her otherwise (because how could we without being hypocrites?), but we have taught her that most people in the world do believe in God in some form or another and that it is important to respect everyone’s beliefs, and we’ve sought out and read books about major world religions.

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But we live in a majority-Christian neighborhood, and she says that kids at school have been asking her whether she believes in God, and when she says no, the conversation goes downhill quickly. Kids say she’s going to hell, that they won’t talk to her anymore. She gets defensive and says things like, “What proof do you have that God IS real?” (When she reported the latter to us, we talked to her about the concept of faith and how that is an important aspect of most religions, that “proof” was beside the point.) Obviously, second graders aren’t equipped to have casual theological debates, and (to be honest) being an atheist is a social liability, at least where we live.

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I’ve tried encouraging her to just not engage in those conversations at school. If asked directly if she believes in God, she can say, “I’d rather not talk about religion at school.” I’ve also given her a script if that doesn’t work (“I don’t believe in God, but I know you do, because different people believe different things and that’s OK!”). But, you know, they’re 7-year-olds. Even adults have a hard time navigating these conversations. Short of telling her to lie because she has unpopular religious beliefs, how can I help her get through these conversations without a) her getting told she’s going to hell, or b) her defensively saying disrespectful things to her classmates who do believe in God?

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—Godless Parents, Godless Child

Dear Godless,

It sounds like you’ve done a great deal to help her navigate the world she lives in, and I think the script you’ve provided is a pretty good one (especially because “I’d prefer not to discuss religion in school” is definitely not going to work with second graders). I’m a little puzzled why she’s being asked at all if the default assumption in her school, and in your neighborhood, is that everyone does believe. Do the kids check on each other to make sure everyone is in lockstep—or has your 7-year-old atheist already made herself clear in subtle ways, and they are prodding her to come out with it?

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Well, perhaps she has. Perhaps they know very well where she stands and because they are 7-year-olds, they want to hear it again and again—because it is so astonishing to them. But if the other kids all know by now that she’s not a believer, and she’s having to relitigate this over and over again, it’s time for her to say, “You already know the answer, so why are you asking?”

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Unless she doesn’t want to.

Have you ever asked her how she would like to respond to these questions? And how she feels when she’s told she’s going to go to hell (a place she doesn’t believe exists, I assume)? Is she afraid she is going to go to hell? (Is that threat making her doubt her [non]beliefs?) Or does it make her mad? Or does she think it’s silly? If it doesn’t frighten her, if she thinks it’s nonsense, she might want to say cheerfully, “Oh, I don’t believe in hell either.” If it does frighten her, or otherwise shake her up, that’s a conversation worth your pursuing with her.

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In any case, unless you’re planning to move, she’s going to be dealing with these kinds of challenges for at least the next ten years, so she might as well learn how to. Please don’t ever suggest that she lie (about this, or about anything). And don’t just give her a script: practice and role-play these conversations with her. Let her try out different responses and learn how they are likely to be met. You can’t keep other kids from saying lousy things to her, but you can help her prepare herself for when that happens, and you can use this whole situation as a way to teach her about respectful disagreement, standing up for her own beliefs, and not getting dragged into ugliness. This will all serve her well.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

We have a very smart, creative 13-year-old daughter. I recently read the texts between her and her first boyfriend—something she knows I do—and was surprised. She tells him that her life is screwed up and that she feels unworthy and unloved. This does not seem to describe our relationship. Should I talk to her about this?

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