Care and Feeding

My Kids Are Revolting Against Mean Aunt Ruth. Do They Have to Talk to Her at Thanksgiving?

A woman wags her finger.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by drbimages/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 younger sister, “Ruth,” is childless and deeply unhappy. She has a negative and sarcastic outlook on life that’s driven aground many relationships, romantic and otherwise, in her 40 years on this earth. I personally struggle to be around her negativity at times, but I also know that Ruth dealt with a lot of childhood trauma I escaped by leaving as soon as I was able to, and I feel so bad that this trauma has indelibly impacted her life.

Advertisement

Here’s the problem: I have three kids (ages 12-16) who, like many others in our family, can’t stand to be around Ruth. She needles them about their clothes and makeup, misses social cues when she brings up topics they don’t want to discuss (like boyfriends), and makes them uncomfortable by gossiping about other family members. I’ve usually insisted they give her five minutes of conversation at Thanksgiving each year, because that’s a basic level of courtesy. This year, however, they have informed me that they collectively refuse to engage with her at all. I don’t know what to do. On the one hand, I think they’re being harsh and overreactive (Ruth doesn’t say things that are racist/sexist/homophobic, just socially clueless and sarcastic.) And I think my kids need to learn to extend basic courtesy even to people they don’t enjoy spending time around. On the other hand, I don’t love the idea of forcing my kids to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t treat them very well. I worry it could send the wrong message (I’m of course worried about future abusive partners or even toxic friendships). What should I do?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Dad in Dayton

Dear Dad,

I don’t love the idea of forcing your kids to be in a relationship with someone who treats them badly either. Indeed, it’s a terrible idea. It not only “sends the wrong message,” it will drive a wedge between you and them. While I’m all in favor of teaching children how to deal with unpleasant people (they will have to do this their whole lives long, as we all do), demanding that they put up with someone they see regularly who repeatedly treats them in this manner tells them that you don’t care how this makes them feel. And since their union of three has not voted to strike—they will all be present on Thanksgiving, right? They just won’t talk to mean Aunt Ruth—I would strongly suggest going with the flow. If you’re worried that your unhappy sister will feel neglected, go ahead and talk to her enough to make up for their silence. (And who knows? Maybe their pointed refusal to respond when she says something unpleasant to them will send her a message about basic courtesy.) I respect your compassion for and (it would seem) devotion to your sister despite how difficult she is. But insisting that your children passively accept the way she talks to them—criticizing the way they look and so on—seems to me a bridge too far.

Advertisement

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Niece’s Visits Are Becoming a Big Problem: “I want her to know I care about her, but that there’s a limit to how much time I can spend with her.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I need a sanity check. After noting rising cases of flu and Covid in our area and reviewing the CDC guidelines, my husband and I decided that all houseguests and caregivers for our 5-month-old daughter need to get a flu shot and the bivalent Covid booster. My in-laws, who live across the country and will visit us for Thanksgiving, responded with good grace and are making plans to get the booster before their visit. My mom, who lives three hours away and visits for a weekend once a month, did not: she said that she would get the flu shot sometime in the beginning of November and was silent about the bivalent booster. Recognizing the evasion, I asked if she had plans to get the booster and she said that she did not. So I said, “It’s your body and your decision. We’ll see you at Christmas, when our daughter is old enough to be vaccinated herself.” This did not persuade her—she has canceled her next planned visit.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My query is twofold. One, is this vaccination policy unreasonable? I don’t think so, but my husband is waffling. (He always prefers to avoid conflict.) I think it’s our job as parents to mitigate risks to our daughter’s health while her immune system is so vulnerable. Am I overdoing it? I know others aren’t as draconian. Two, is there more I should be saying or doing with my mother? The backslide in her view on Covid vaccines has been very dramatic. She proudly received the original series when it was first available and the first booster last year. Since then, she has been staunchly anti-booster. I am not entirely surprised by this, since it is part of a larger obsession and a regression in her political views as she falls more into what I refer to as “the black hole that is the right-wing media landscape.” We can’t even talk about this—not reasonably, anyway—because our last political discussion ended with her angry and defensive and me in tears.

Advertisement

I had always respected my mother, and it wasn’t until that conversation that I realized I don’t/can’t anymore. I have spent the last few months mourning the “loss” of my mother (or at least my idea of the type of person she is) and trying to navigate our new, more distant relationship with kindness and respect. But this new development has me stunned. I never believed that she would let political views come between her and her daughter and her granddaughter. But here we are.

Advertisement

I don’t know how to be a good daughter in this situation. Is this political decline something I should continue to watch and say nothing about? I love my mother and want to respect her autonomy, but it’s heartbreaking to watch her lose herself and our relationship over politics.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Disheartened Daughter

Dear Disheartened,

There’s nothing unreasonable about your vaccination policy. But I’m afraid there isn’t anything to do about your mother other than what you’re already doing. In fact, I admire your restraint. For what it’s worth (and I doubt that it will be much comfort to you), you are not alone: many, many people find themselves in pretty much the same situation. I fear things are going to get worse, too, as your daughter gets older and you have to make choices about what she’s exposed to beyond contagious viruses. I’m sorry. Steel yourself.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have reached an impasse about Thanksgiving and have agreed to a third party (you) ruling (I’m lucky he’s a fan of the column because I literally don’t know what we’d do otherwise). We have two daughters, one of whom is married, with children. In the case of the married one, we alternate holidays with her in-laws, and this year it’s our turn to have them for Thanksgiving.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The problem: last year at Christmas there was a major blow-up because her husband is not only anti-vax, he is also anti-mask—I guess these usually go together?—and of course he’d have to unmask while eating anyway. Apparently he is a Covid-denier of some kind: he seems to believe it “exists,” but that it’s “not as bad as they make it out to be.” I’m not sure who “they” are. At all events, last Christmas was a disaster, and my daughter’s family left before we sat down to Christmas dinner. They have made it clear that nothing’s changed since last year. He remains entirely unvaccinated, the children are not vaccinated, my daughter got the first two shots but balked at being boosted so she is essentially unprotected too. My elderly father lives with us and even though he’s fully vaccinated, as my husband and our younger daughter are, I worry about him (to be honest, I worry about all of us). My husband says it would be a crime against nature to ban our elder daughter and her family from our Thanksgiving table, and that it would irreparably damage our relationship with her, not to mention our relationship with our grandchildren. But do I put my father and us at risk to “save” our relationship with our daughter, who has married an idiot?

Advertisement
Advertisement

—Torn in Denver

Dear Torn,

Ah, so it’s Covid week again (we had a good run, didn’t we?). Since I’m writing to you from my sickbed (on Day 3 of isolation, and feeling pretty lousy but aware that I would be much, much sicker without that thick layer of vaccine protection … and no doubt Covid would not still be circulating if everyone who was physically able to be vaccinated would have done so), I’m in no mood to side with your husband. Not that I mean to make light of his concerns. Yes, you run the risk of alienating your daughter—which is awful to contemplate. But spending time indoors with your daughter’s family puts you all risk. And not everyone who’s vaccinated and exposed ends up with a mild case. There are still people dying of Covid. Your unvaccinated son-in-law is very lucky that so far he has not been one of them. It’s he who’s putting your relationship with your daughter and her children at risk. And it’s your daughter, too, for going along with his entirely counter-to-fact views. I am so sorry for all of you. But I’m afraid that unless you can figure out a way to host Thanksgiving outdoors—and in Denver this does not seem very likely to me—I’m with you: forego their company. And hope that things get better later.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

Nearly two months ago, I met a guy on Tinder, expecting nothing more than a casual hookup. However, we ended up clicking really well and have gone on a lot of real dates since then. I think I’m falling in love with him (and vice versa), and we are exclusive. There’s just one little problem: I never told him I have a kid. I’m a single mom, no dad in the picture, and my child is 3. I didn’t think to mention it initially, not expecting to enter a relationship, and since then I’ve just never found the right moment. I totally know this is wrong and my fault, but at this point I’m not sure how to break the news. We can’t keep on seeing each other only at his apartment or when my kid is at Grandma’s, and I really want my child to meet him. How do I get out of this mess?

Advertisement