Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Our baby was born early and small six months ago, requiring a seven-week NICU stay.
She is now home and thriving, but it was a stressful start that has caused some continuing family strain for me. Due to COVID restrictions, for the first two weeks in the NICU, only parents can visit. After that, they loosened a bit to allow each parent to accompany one other person, but capped the daily visitors at two still (so basically my husband and I could both visit in a day, or one of us could accompany a second person). We decided to name each of our mothers as the designated visitors. My husband’s mother was understandably very excited and asked to do a weekly visit on Fridays. When I explained the change to my mother, she told me that despite wanting to meet her granddaughter immensely, she couldn’t imagine one of us not being able to see her for the day, so unless there was a time my husband actually couldn’t make it in, she would wait until she was home. I felt immense relief from an anxiety that I hadn’t even known was there when she said that and thanked her, but didn’t feel I could ask the same of my MIL, nor did my husband since my MIL was so excited and anxious for the baby.
The first time they had their visiting day (meaning I couldn’t visit), I laid home in bed and cried nearly the entire time and it hardly improved after that. I’d pull myself together in time for my husband to come home, but he always knew how difficult it was for me and would apologize and always do something special for me that day or encourage me to go do something for myself. My MIL would profusely thank us and talk about how special and meaningful the time was, and I know she meant it, but it just made me feel bitter to hear her talk about it being so special, thinking that she must be aware that special time was given to her because it was essentially taken from me (she was aware of my mother passing on visits and the reasoning). Since our daughter came home, I find myself still struggling with difficult feelings towards my MIL due to this, especially when she asks/offers to take my daughter when I’m holding her, etc., even if I do need both my hands to do something else. How do I get past this and see her as a loving, doting grandmother she is and not someone stealing my time with my baby?
— She Means Well, I Just Can’t Take It That Way
Dear She Means Well,
I am so sorry that you had to go through such a challenging time, and that missing those days with your baby hurt you so badly. I can imagine how hard they must have been for you. It’s tempting to tell you that you need to work to forgive your MIL, because ultimately, you and your husband allowed her to visit the baby when you could have decided that only the two of you were going to see them, that she would only get to see the baby once or twice, or at least that you and your husband would take turns accompanying his mother. Your MIL was given that time, and while you may have wanted her to be thoughtful enough to give it back to you, it was not unreasonable for her to believe that you were okay with allowing her to have it.
However, logic and reason have little to do with how we feel, and right now, you are navigating a time in your life where your feelings are, perhaps, as big as they have ever been. It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong, what matters is that you are still feeling sadness related to those moments in which you didn’t get to see your child. I think it would be a good idea for you to talk to a professional. The post-partum period is so deeply complicated and filled with emotions that can easily overwhelm; you had to deal with a traumatic start to motherhood, including extended periods of absence from your child. It would be helpful for you to have someone to help you navigate those feelings and to work past thoughts that make you feel resentful of your mother-in-law.
In the meantime, I will encourage you to remember that your MIL loves your baby and that she is an important part of their village—no substitute for you, of course, but a towering figure all her own. You want her and your child to have a beautiful relationship for the remainder of your MIL’s life. She is not seeking to replace you. She is not looking to take anything from you. She has a profound love for the child of her child, as you, too, may one day experience if your own child becomes a parent. The grandparent-grandchild bond is a sacred one that deserves to be honored in its own right.
I don’t know much about your relationship to your MIL, so I don’t know if she’s someone you can talk to about your feelings. If you all are generally close and she tends to be an understanding woman, then perhaps you can let her know that it was really hard for you to miss that time with the baby during the hospitalization period and that you’re still battling those emotions now. If she’s not someone you can be so open with, perhaps talking to your husband about what you’re experiencing will be helpful. Again, I’m strongly urging that you seek the support of a professional, but no matter what, you have to talk to someone about this. You can’t keep these feelings to yourself. You need to be heard, and you deserve to be heard by someone who can understand.
If you all had it to do all over again, I think you would approach the visitation situation differently. Going forward, advocate for yourself if there are moments in which you need to do so. If Grandma has been holding the baby for quite a while and you want them back, get them back (and don’t wait until you’re feeling upset about it to ask). But try your best not to let normal interactions between them make you feel as though something is being taken away from you. Grandma provides love and care that only grandmas can give, but you are Mom. Your place is secure.
Don’t feel guilty for how you’re feeling. You’re dealing with so much right now, you deserve endless grace and understanding. I hope your family can provide that for you, and I hope that you’ll seek out a professional to help you find your way back to some peace. Wishing you and your sweet little one all the best and lots of uninterrupted cuddles.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My third grader has her first opportunity to go on a field trip since COVID; her last one was in kindergarten. We live in the South, and the field trip is to a local plantation that played an important role in our area’s history. From the plantation’s website, I don’t think it has been preserved in order to honor those who were enslaved and tortured there. The website shows aspects the slave owners’ lifestyle and highlights the site’s historic clothes, tools, and architecture. The website mentions slavery, but it is not clear how honest or complete the plantation’s presentation of slavery is. I have talked to my child a little about slavery, but not much. She hasn’t learned about slavery or local history in school yet, so she doesn’t have much context for what the plantation might show.
Are plantations worth visiting as a field trip for elementary school kids? I don’t want to ignore the horrors of our country’s past, but I’m not sure what is the right age or the right setting to teach my kid about them.
— Not Sure About This Trip
Dear Not Sure,
My rule: If a child is old enough to have been enslaved, they are old enough to learn about slavery and if your third grader was Black during the days of chattel slavery, they would have likely been toiling for years at this point. However, I don’t think a plantation tour that focuses on “clothes, tools and architecture” without talking about the true horrors of slavery is the right way for a child to get that education, and taking children there under such circumstances is truly irresponsible.
Of course, we know that this is how and why the horrors of slavery are hidden from most children in this nation. Many plantations that offer tours do so in a way that almost pays tribute to the old slavery system rather than exploring the devastating crimes that took place at those sites. What sort of value would this experience provide your child? It is unfortunate that she hasn’t been on a field trip in years, but she’s joined by kids across the world in having missed out on them. Do you want her to be introduced to slavery in a way that glosses over how terrible it was? If it were me, I wouldn’t let my kid go anywhere near a plantation unless I knew they were going to hear some serious, painful truths about what happened there.
Regardless of whether or not you decide to let her go on the trip, the fact that it is on the table at all has given you an important opportunity to talk to your child about slavery in more detail. Many Thousand Gone is a beautiful book that can help you explain this important history and how African Americans have been impacted. Your daughter, like all children, deserves to know the truth about how this nation was built and the racism that has continued to power its operation. I hope you pass on the field trip because plantations shouldn’t get to be cool historical sites that elementary kids get to enjoy; they should serve as living monuments to the indignities that took place there and allow us to learn more about the truth of this nation. No matter what you choose, it’s time for some truth-telling on your part. Good luck.
Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week
From this week’s letter, We Let My Adult Son Move Back Home, and Things Have Gotten Weird: “I love him so much and I don’t ever want him to feel unwelcome, but his behavior shows me that he doesn’t care either way.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My ex-husband “Ryan” and I co-parent two kids: 11-year-old “James” and 10-year-old “Julia.” Both of them are very kind and nurturing kids, which is good because they have four younger sisters. My husband and I have a 3-year-old daughter, and Ryan has a 5-year-old stepdaughter, “Olivia” and 2-year-old identical twins. Olivia recently had eye surgery. It wasn’t a major procedure and is apparently done all the time, but the family was understandably stressed. James and Julia were very worried in the week leading up to the procedure. Ryan’s wife was at the hospital during the surgery and was becoming distraught, so Ryan left the kids at home and went to the hospital to join her. The kids had the day off from school that day and the usual babysitter was busy, so James and Julia were left at home to take care of the twins for more than five hours until Ryan came home. While they were home alone, Ryan checked in on them over the phone about once an hour to make sure they were okay.
I am angry. I know the circumstances weren’t ideal, but there were so many ways he could have dealt with that without leaving the kids at home with their little sisters. Ryan’s sister could have easily taken the twins. I would have been fine watching them, if nothing else. I wish that Ryan would have discussed this with me first. While James and Julia are old enough and responsible enough to be left home alone or with each other for a few hours, I don’t think they should be left alone to take care of toddlers, especially for that long. Even though they are responsible kids, it’s still a major safety concern. I didn’t even find out about this until they came to my house once their week at Dad’s was up.
Also, I want my kids to have a good relationship with their sisters. In large families, older siblings often end up being forced to watch their younger siblings and grow resentful of them. I know based on the way James and Julia act around and talk about their sisters that they love them dearly. I can attest to the resentment angle though. I am the youngest of 8, and my oldest sister detests me for being my mother’s child but being her responsibility growing up. I know Ryan well enough to know that even though this time it was an emergency, it can quickly escalate into a regular occurrence.
My husband thinks I’m freaking out over nothing and I have nothing to worry about. They love their sisters, are both very responsible, and Julia at least knows enough to know when her dad is asking for a one-time favor and when he’s pushing boundaries. He thinks my personal history might be clouding my opinion on this. Ryan gets very defensive at any slight criticism of his parenting, so I don’t want to needlessly bring up small issues. Is my husband right, or is this really a big deal? Should I approach this with Ryan?
— All Alone
Dear All Alone,
I think it’s fair for you to voice your concern about the kids babysitting their younger siblings, but that you also should try and dial back some of your fears here. Your husband may be right that your personal experiences have left you sensitive to this sort of thing, and rightfully so. But there doesn’t seem to be any other indication that Ryan and his wife are going to make the children become regular babysitters or that they’d leave the children alone under normal circumstances.
Your ex might not have thought of you as someone who’d be willing to care for his other children for a few hours, even if you have an amicable co-parenting relationship. Let him know that you were a bit worried at the idea of James and Julia having such a big responsibility, and that if an emergency like this were to come up again, that you’d be down to help out. Explain that you just don’t think the two of them are ready to be caregivers to toddlers, and that while you know it was an emergency situation, you wish that they had let you know or perhaps tapped his sister instead. And then leave it at that. I don’t think there’s any reason to get into a whole thing about your fear that James and Julia will become overextended babysitters the way your sister was; wait until this actually becomes an issue before making it one. Let Ryan and his wife know that you believe the kids will be capable occasional babysitters once they reach a certain age, and that you’d like to have a conversation about what that would look like when the time comes.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 13-year-old sister has been cheating at a family board game. These are big, obvious cheats; she tries to hide it, but she’s definitely looking through the cards to sneak the best ones, adding things to her board between turns, etc. Being lightly called out sometimes results in her sulking or leaving in a huff. She’s cheated or become frustrated with competitive games since she was little, and we’ve often stuck to collaborative games, but our family recently discovered this competitive one that we all love, including her.
She’s the only child in the family—my other siblings and I are in our 30s and live in other cities. (We usually play the game virtually, adapting the rules a little for not sharing the same physical set; this also makes it harder to tell when she’s cheating, so it’s usually our dad who’s best positioned to catch it.) She’s also been dealing with some mental health issues for a while, and her parents want to be gentle with her. However, it’s increasingly annoying to watch her rack up wildly impressive scores that we know she didn’t earn fairly, and we don’t like the idea of her thinking this type of thing is okay. We’re not sure whether to let the cheating slide and figure it’s just a phase and we’re adults and can handle not winning a board game, or take a stand on it. I’ve considered telling her I won’t play with her unless she stops cheating, but this would take away something we all like doing together, and with such a big age and geography gap, there aren’t that many ways that we connect. What do you think we should do?
— Frustrated Big Sister
Dear Frustrated Big Sister,
I understand how annoying it can be to play a game with someone who is obviously cheating, and 13 is certainly old enough to know better/be held to an ethical standard. However, considering that your little sister is navigating a mental health issue of some sort, I think your efforts would be better spent figuring out how you can support her and your parents through that, as opposed to demanding a solution to the cheating problem. You can let your father know how much the cheating is bothering you, but I don’t think you should make a big deal about it in light of whatever else is going on. Your parents are navigating something difficult right now, and I think it would mean a lot to them to know that they could count on their adult children to be supportive. Your sister’s mental health should be everyone’s primary concern. You can worry about winning board games later.