Dear Care and Feeding,
Growing up, my sister and I were regularly verbally abused by my father. We are talking fits of rage, unimaginably nasty swearing, and a general sense of walking on eggshells whenever he was around. At times I stopped speaking to him for weeks or months in the aftermath of a verbal attack, and finally, after a shower of abuse in front of my friends when I was 17, I told him that the next time he raised his voice to me would be the last time he ever spoke to me at all.
He knew I meant it, so he hasn’t since, and in recent years additional boundaries have forced him to play nice with me, even as therapy has helped me find the strength to tell him to his face some of the things that had haunted me for years. His reactions to these revelations have been a mix of gaslighting and faux remorse.
One thing I had always been clear on was that I would not allow my future children near him unsupervised and would limit interactions between them to the absolutely essential. Earlier this year, I became a mother for the first time. I quickly learned that many of the parenting decisions one makes before and during pregnancy go out the window the moment the baby arrives. But “no alone time with Grandpa” is one policy I am never going to revise. My father has repeatedly demonstrated his unwillingness to change by shouting at my 8-year-old nephew and making hurtful comments to him. Honestly, even if he had changed (which he hasn’t), he is a garbage person in general (views, manners, interests, etc.), so he would be adding no value to my daughter’s life. I have two questions:
1) For a variety of reasons, my sister has resigned herself to reacting only when things get particularly acrimonious and otherwise prioritizing “free” babysitting over her son’s safety. All I can do for him is defend him when anything even remotely out of line takes place, and make sure he knows I am on his side. Social services only get involved in cases of extreme physical/sexual abuse and then, it seems to me, only to make things worse. What else can I do?
2) When the inevitable questions come, what do I tell my child about why she can’t go for a walk with Grandpa or join him and her cousin on a day trip? I don’t want to lie, but I also don’t want her to be afraid to visit the rest of the family, and the only way to see them is to visit my hometown.
—It Would Be Easier if Grandpa Were Dead
I think the “variety of reasons” your sister is a party to this arrangement is worth exploring with her, and gently challenging her on, if you have not done so already. If she cannot afford to pay a sitter and you can afford to help her, I think it’s worth making the offer. (At the very least, that will make her see how seriously you take this, how deeply concerned you are about here leaving her son in your father’s care—and perhaps that will get through to her, if nothing else has.) If she will not budge, if her other-than-financial reasons make no sense to you but she will not be talked out of them—or if there’s absolutely no way you can provide financial help—I’d say you’re doing the best you can. The only further thing I would suggest is to spend as much time with your nephew as you can, given the constraints in place. (I take it your sister and nephew live in your hometown, at some distance from you and your daughter. Can you invite him for frequent visits? Take him for at least part of the summer, or on his school vacations?) The more time he has with you, the better.
As to question #2: Tell her the truth. Both about her grandfather and about the rest of your family. She should be wary of your father, and there’s no reason for her to be afraid of her other relatives. Be clear with her about both of these things. She’ll have a lot of questions. Answer them all truthfully but in an age-appropriate way. And if she asks you something you don’t know the answer to—like, “Why does Aunt Sarah let my cousin Sam spend time alone with Grandpa, then?”—be honest (also in an age-appropriate way) about that too: “I don’t understand that myself. I wish I did.”
More Advice From Slate
I feel like I am in crisis. I have three wonderful, adorable young children. For years, I have been unsatisfied in my marriage for very typical reasons. My husband and I have no physical and little emotional intimacy, though we do have a low-conflict household. I carry the bulk of the labor in our household concerning all domestic and child care responsibilities, despite the fact that I work full time at a stressful career. My husband is impatient with the kids and does not seem to like being around them. I can’t help but feel I’d be happier divorced. What should I do?