Care and Feeding

I Learned a Horrible Truth About My Brother. Should I Tell My Kids?

A woman looks sad and upset.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by VSanandhakrishna/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,

How do I talk about a complicated death with my tween/teen children? My brother and I lived in the same large city, and I believed he was a happy and devoted husband and dad to his own family. I was saddened and shocked by his sudden suicide, but even more by his wife’s news that he had been physically abusing her and that she had been in the midst of trying to get a divorce when he died. Her pile of police reports was painful to read.

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I feel like I’ve lost my brother twice: first by his death and then by the death of the person I believed he was. I’m trying to get a therapist for myself, and my husband and I are distancing ourselves from my parents’ grief, which is making things harder for me (it rocks back and forth between “we raised a monster” and “our son did nothing wrong”). My kids (12 and 14) have picked up that something more is going on than grief over this death, and my older kid is angry we’re not spending more time talking about how much we miss his uncle. The funeral was short and impersonal, and unfortunately, they know that’s not normal. They knew my brother as a loving uncle. I was honest with them about the way he died, which felt complicated enough. I don’t know how to share the rest of this with them, or how to otherwise explain the way the family is reacting. Twelve seems really young to learn the truth, but I don’t think this is healthy as a secret either.

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—Grieving and Confused

Dear Grieving,

I’m sorry for your loss—for both losses. My heart goes out to you for the complex and confusing sorrow in the wake of these losses. But I think you need to be completely honest with your children. Twelve is young, yes, but it’s not too young to learn that people are more complicated than they may appear, and that someone who was kind and loving to you can be monstrous to someone else. I don’t think it’s too young, either, to learn that grief itself can be complicated, and being honest about your own confusion about what you’ve learned is important, too. We sometimes think our kids need to see us as all-knowing and in control of everything (and certainly, when our children are very young, they do need to believe that we can shield them from harm, always), but by the time children are 11 or 12 they are beginning to see the adults in their lives as flawed human beings who sometimes make mistakes (and definitely do not know everything). It’s not a terrible thing to confirm that.

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I’m not suggesting that this will be easy for you, or for either of your children. Both kids will need a lot of help processing this—help from you for sure, and perhaps professional help as well. But your instinct about secret-keeping being unhealthy is one you should be paying attention to.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I know being judged as a parent comes with the territory, but I am struggling with how to respond when people (both IRL and online) label a parenting choice I am making as abuse. Before we had our son—after years of infertility—my husband and I carefully budgeted for an overnight doula for the first four months. We both are high-need sleepers and predicted that this first stage of parenting would be the toughest for us. The doula was a huge help, and we also thought we’d been blessed with an amazing sleeper. We were wrong. The four-month sleep regression hit just as we had our last doula session. Our son would not sleep without being held.

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Bedsharing was never an option for us. My son never nursed well, plus I am a random sleep-thrasher. We had nothing left in the budget for overnight help because we’d incorrectly assumed the “fourth trimester” was the worst for sleep. My husband and I gritted our teeth through sleeping shifts for six weeks, but after a solid sleepless week sent me into a mental health spiral, even with my meds, we decided to sleep-train with the Ferber check-in method. It’s been a month so far, and aside from a few bumpy nights, it’s been wonderful. My husband and I get six to seven hours of sleep, and we even have a few hours each night for bonding and hobbies.

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However, anytime I go near a moms’ group of some sort (in-person, online), the topic of sleep-training pops up, and an overwhelming number of people say what I’m doing is abuse. They say it’s breaking our son’s trust, we’re “selfish” parents, we’re denying our son’s natural biological rhythm, etc. I felt deep regret over not being able to breastfeed, and these comments fill me with intense guilt and shame on top of that. Short of just never going near other parents, I can’t seem to avoid them, though. And their comments ring in my head every time my son makes a small noise at night, when I’m tempted to pick him up and hold him again, despite how hard that was on my mental health. I want my son to feel loved and safe and that he can trust us. Is my parenting choice the wrong one? Am I selfish?

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—Selfish Sleeper?

Dear SS,

I’ll cut to the chase. I myself dislike the Ferber method. It’s not how I dealt with my own troubled sleeper, and I could not have used it even if I had been tempted to—it’s just not a fit for me and my family. But that doesn’t mean I think you’re selfish. If you’ve found something that works for your son and works for you and your husband, you’re making the right choice. This is no one’s business but your own.

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Why do people judge other parents’ choices? Why do they think it’s any of their business? Because every parent is insecure. Because every parent isn’t sure that what they’re doing is the “right” thing—and nothing helps to soothe self-doubt more effectively (if temporarily) than expressing certainty that you’ve got it all figured out.

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If it’s any consolation to you, any parenting choice that anyone makes is subject to harsh criticism. You’re not breastfeeding? Shame on you. You’re still breastfeeding your toddler? Shame on you. You’re not co-sleeping? You’re cold-hearted! Your baby sleeps with you? You’re not giving that baby a chance to learn to self-soothe!

You have got to tune out all the noise and listen to yourself. I know that’s difficult. But keep working on that. And in the meantime, no, I don’t think you need to avoid all other parents in the world. But maybe quit all that online stuff, where people spout off without feeling any sense of responsibility for what they say and whose feelings they hurt. And if you meet other parents IRL and you “confess” to using Ferber’s method, and they give you a hard time for it, why not say, “It’s working well for us” and leave it at that? Or—here’s an idea—keep it to yourself, if you know it’s not possible for you to have a conversation about sleep with other parents without your feeling bad about it.

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I wish you and your family the best. You have about a million choices still ahead of you, and plenty of them (if not all of them) will be challenged by others. Do what is right for you.

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, Our Son’s Planned Trip to Our Homeland Has Us Very Concerned: “This is difficult for us, as it goes against what we have taught him, but the risk of violence is real.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 16-year-old girl who is lucky enough to attend a diverse high school with a wonderful inclusion program for disabled teens. One of my classes this year is combined with special needs kids around my age, and I’ve become friends with several of those kids over the course of the class. However, I’m struggling with one aspect of my relationships with these new friends: physical touch. Due to some recent trauma, I really struggle when other people touch me without asking (I hyperventilate and feel myself retreating emotionally, and it’s even brought on panic attacks), and quite a few of my new friends want to hug me or engage in other forms of contact with me. Yesterday, I ran away from a hug, and I badly hurt someone’s feelings. I feel terrible about it! How do I explain my behavior to them? What do I do when I find myself in this kind of situation?

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—Can’t Touch This

Dear Can’t,

I sometimes get tired of hearing myself say this (dear readers, you must be tired too?), but the best possible way to handle almost every situation that comes one’s way is with honesty. Tell your friends exactly what you’ve just told me. Tell them you like and value them, that you’re glad they are your friends, but physical contact is extremely uncomfortable for you. Suggest some other ways they can demonstrate their affection for you. Go talk to the friend you “literally ran away from.” It’s amazing how much good telling the truth can do.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

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I’m 14 (they/them) and I want to be a writer someday. In the meantime, I’ve been writing some stories to pass the time in class. But the other day I left my notebook at school, so I asked my mom if I could buy a new one. She said yes but asked me why I needed it. I made the mistake of telling her that I’d been writing stories, that I’d even published one on Wattpad, and now she wants to read them. But the thing is, my writing is a little … mature. My Wattpad story is about a romance between two high school girls, and there is some language my mother wouldn’t like, and some dirty jokes. I do not want my mom reading that. And my most recent story is about a girl who committed suicide, and if my mom reads that, she’ll immediately jump to the conclusion that I’m suicidal (I’m not). The trouble is, it’s not like I keep my writing a secret. All my friends have read my stories, and my mom knows that too. How do I tell her no without telling her why?

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—Not for Mom’s Eyes

Dear NfME,

Well, you’re in a pickle, aren’t you. If you didn’t want your mom to read your stories, it would probably have been better not to let her know you’re writing them, right? Because moms are notoriously interested in whatever their kids are up to (which is not a bad thing, at least not when you’re your age). But as you know (and if you didn’t know before, you certainly know now), I am the president of the Honesty Fan Club. So I’d tell Mom the rest of the truth (or a gentle version of the rest of the truth, as I am not opposed to gentling the hard facts if that will shield the truth-teller from embarrassment and the truth-hearer will be spared both the clutching of her pearls and unnecessary worry). Tell her the stories you write are not for adult eyes, that you consider them private in a way you’re comfortable sharing only with friends your own age. Remind her that at 14 it’s not unusual or worrisome for you to need some privacy. And promise her that as soon as you write something you believe she would enjoy, that you’d be proud to share with her, you’ll be positively eager for her to read it. (Also, as long as I’m here: maybe don’t “pass the time” when you’re in class by writing stories? Pay attention. And write stories before and after school, on the weekends, and all summer long.)

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—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My daughter has always been an independent soul, from the time she was a tiny baby. In grade school she loved to sneak out and sleep in her treehouse, and she’s done every Outward Bound–style activity she can get her hands on. Now she’s in her last year of high school and has just presented me with an extremely detailed plan she has concocted to spend the summer planting trees in the Canadian wilderness, which is apparently a thing you can do? For money? I’m worried that this is a terrible idea and she’s more likely to fall out of a tree than arrive at university intact. Should I shut this plan down?

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