Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
We have 10 kids and love our family very much. However, our extended family, as well as random passersby, often feel the need to offer their opinion of having a large family. It’s annoying when it’s my husband and me, but usually we have our kids with us wherever we go, and people will say unprompted opinions about having large families in this day and age around our kids. This obviously upsets the kids and has started some of the older kids worrying aloud about “taking up resources” and other things people have mentioned. My husband and I say some version of “That’s rude, our kids are very wanted and loved, and please don’t comment on our choices” whenever this comes up, but this doesn’t stop commentary and makes us look like the bad guys. What should we say to protect our kids from rude, unsolicited comments?
— Leave Our Kids Alone
Dear Leave Our Kids Alone,
As the white mother of a Black son, I am well aware of the invasive questions and comments strangers feel compelled to hurl at people whose families they perceive as nontraditional. (A white woman on a Brooklyn playground once asked me if my then-toddler son was “domestic or imported.”)
In this modern age of overpopulation and an escalating climate crisis, do I personally understand bringing almost a dozen fresh new children into the world? Maybe not fully, but I respect your right to make your own choices, and I’m certainly not going to accost you on the street with my opinion in full earshot of the living, breathing human beings who are, in fact, not just hypothetical statistics. I honestly cannot understand what makes any person feel entitled to comment on someone else’s family structure; like commenting on other people’s bodies, it’s just shockingly rude.
Setting a boundary with an overstepping stranger or even family member does not make you the bad guy, particularly if the unsolicited comment you’re responding to is one that might make your children feel upset or ashamed. Your sample response above is pretty perfect, but you could also try: “Wow, that’s a very personal thing to say to someone you don’t know,” or even the time-tested banger “That’s none of your business.” The important thing is that your kids get the message loud and clear that they are, as you say, wanted and loved, no matter what anyone else thinks.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 2.5-year-old, A, is going through a huge mommy phase right now. My husband and I have generally been able to cut down the tantrums over when it’s his turn to do childcare things like bath time or getting dressed by explaining that “Mommy and daddy love you so much, we have to share taking care of you. If Mommy did it all the time, Daddy would be sad,” and our kiddo now accepts that we alternate who does bath every night, for example.
This strategy has not at all worked when it comes to taking A to the potty, and it is only getting worse. When it’s “daddy’s turn” to take A to the potty, she usually has a full-blown tantrum. If he picks her up and takes her to the bathroom or sits her on the toilet, A immediately gets up, says she has gone, and then five minutes later says she has to go again and it is my turn now.
We have tried roleplaying with the characters in her dollhouse how parents take turns with potty time, and it can be hard for the toddler, but it is OK—which helped for maybe a day, and now we are stuck again. We try to adhere to “daddy’s turn” as much as possible—especially when I really can’t take her, like if I’m in the middle of cooking dinner or going to the bathroom myself—but we are unsure how much to insist because we know potty training can be so fraught and don’t want to give A any sorts of complexes. (We just potty trained her over the summer, so it is still somewhat new, though we haven’t had any accidents.)
Until recently, our theory was that, as A has gone to more public bathrooms and asked questions about why there are doors between toilets, etc., she has become more conscious about the need for privacy while peeing / that boys and girls generally don’t go potty together. But telling A that my husband will turn around, or shut the door, doesn’t work.
Now, this week, there have been a few occasions when A has balked at our nanny taking her potty and knocked sobbing on my office door asking me to take her to the bathroom. As I write this she is crying to our nanny that “I want to wait for mommy” even though she clearly has to go. This isn’t sustainable. What do we do?!
— Potty Time Pitfalls
Dear Potty Time Pitfalls,
Oh man, you just gave me an instant flashback to navigating the ever-shifting allegiances of a fickle but extremely passionate toddler. My kid’s dad and I would say “Mom’s in fashion” or “Dad’s in fashion” whenever our son decided he wanted absolutely nothing to do with one of us, which happened frequently and without warning.
These phases can definitely disrupt the balance of childcare labor, which is frustrating; but for us, things evened out when our mini-tyrant’s allegiances inevitably shifted to the other parent. Or, if A requires you at potty time, maybe Dad can take over a comparable task full-time for a while.
Because this is a change in behavior, and because it potentially involves discomfort around clothing removal, I don’t think it could hurt to have an age-appropriate conversation with your child regarding inappropriate touch. RAINN has some guidelines here on what to ask if you are concerned about the possibility of sexual abuse. Given that you’re not having issues at bath time, especially, this may feel like a reach, but better safe than sorry, and these are conversations that need to be happening anyway.
That said, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a child becoming reliant on one caregiver during training. You may want to try to increase A’s independence by walking her to the bathroom or helping her get her clothes off only before waiting outside the door, or by offering a small reward for every time she uses the bathroom without you. (Bribery is an underrated parenting tactic, IMO!)
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From this week’s letter, I Want to Cut Off My Father Completely. My Wife Is Holding Me Back: “Moving on as though nothing happened doesn’t really feel like an option for me.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I keep coming across this concept that we shouldn’t consider foods good/bad or healthy/unhealthy, and I have no idea what that means or how to apply it to what I teach my children about nutrition. I would like to think that I am not motivated by fatphobia, but I realize how deeply rooted it is in every aspect of life so maybe it’s more of a factor than I think?
For me, when I talk to my children about “healthier” options, I am thinking of micronutrients, fiber content, preservatives, pesticides, heavy metals, the impact of food on mental health, and so on. I am not thinking “Oh, the calories on this are off the charts” but rather “My kids really like cookies so I should start baking more to make sure what they eat is made with the best ingredients.”
Also, in my culture food is a source of pleasure but also a form of affection, so it is hard not to have any value judgments. Again, the subtext is not so much “This dish is really healthy and you can enjoy it” but rather “I spent an hour preparing this dish because I love you and I wanted you to have the opportunity to taste it.”
Am I setting my kids up for a problematic relationship with food? I want to be open-minded here, so if your ruling is that I should accept store-bought cookies as equal and interchangeable with homemade ones, I will work hard to understand your reasoning and do better.
— Nom Nom Mom
Dear Nom Nom Mom,
Hark! What’s that I hear in the distance? Oh, it’s the sound of the drum I’ve been beating in so many of my previous columns!
I’m not surprised that you find this line of thinking counterintuitive, as our culture’s messages about food and health are deeply programmed into us. But so many of these ideas are in fact based on fatphobia, rather than science, research, or even logic.
The good-food, bad-food binary is eschewed by many nutritionists because it can lead to developing fear or anxiety around certain foods or food groups, which can lead to food restriction, which is a lynchpin of disordered eating. Obviously, there are differences in the kinds of nutrients provided by different foods, and we need different foods to provide our bodies with different things. But the problem comes when we place a moral value on these differences. All food is fuel for the body. There should be no emotional weight assigned to choosing a carrot versus a cupcake.
Most people eat a diet made up of a range of foods, and having say, ice cream, as part of a varied diet, is not going to negatively impact your health. Taking pleasure in eating foods of all kinds is one of the peak human experiences and shouldn’t be accompanied by guilt. I think it’s beautiful to bake cookies for your kids full of ingredients that will nourish their bodies. But those cookies are not morally superior to the store-bought version, and both have their place in a balanced diet.
For a deeper understanding of these topics, I recommend the work of Virginia Sole-Smith, whose newsletter Burnt Toast navigates fatphobia and diet culture through a parenting lens. And nutritionist and mom Emily Dingmann gives practical advice on how to create a morally neutral food environment for kids as @myeverydaytable on Tiktok. It’s not easy to unlearn our biases or to swim against the tide of diet culture in our society, but it’s worth it to raise kids who have that all-too-rare healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am the parent of a delightful 4-year-old and married to a loving husband. I always wanted to be a mom and pictured myself staying home with four or five kids. We are now experiencing secondary infertility, and I’ve accepted that our daughter will probably be an only child. Lately, I’ve found myself checked out of parenting. I still enjoy my daughter sometimes and do all the necessary things, but my heart just isn’t in it. My husband is so active as a parent I don’t think he realized at first that I was slowly withdrawing. I’m sure I need therapy, but we’re busy. I work full-time and am active in other community activities. My husband has expressed concern that I seem detached. I tried to act like nothing is wrong, but he is right. I feel like a horrible mom. I love my daughter, but there is no joy. Is this normal? Can I change?
What concerns me most about your description of your mental state is your description of yourself as “joyless.” This is also called anhedonia, and it’s a common symptom of clinical depression. It is perfectly appropriate for you to be experiencing feelings of grief and loss as a result of infertility and having to revise your life plan. But if you find yourself unable to experience pleasure from activities that you once enjoyed, it’s a big sign to get yourself to a mental health professional forthwith. If you are struggling with a chemical imbalance, a doctor may need to prescribe medication to get you back to feeling like yourself again.
Trying to parent a child through depression or other mental health issues is no joke.
Getting some help is the classic scenario of “putting your oxygen mask on first” so you can be the mom you want to be for your child. But beyond the fact that you’ll be a better parent once the oxygen is flowing, you absolutely deserve to breathe the fresh air for your own sake.
It really is hard to rally your time, energy, and resources into getting help, especially when you’re feeling bad. Instead of hiding things from your husband, let him assist you in finding a therapist or psychiatrist, or you can even start by talking to your primary care physician. Busy or not, you shouldn’t have to live like this.
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I have three young kids (10, 9, 6) whom I adore. Due to life circumstances, they live mostly with their dad for the school year. (I see them often, and they live with me and their stepdad during the summers and breaks.) My husband and I are very liberal, and my kids’ dad is very conservative (like, Trump-supporter conservative). In my time with the kids, I talk politics a lot, and do my best to instill my values, while also being VERY careful not to say anything bad about their dad or his beliefs. But I can tell that their dad isn’t exactly reciprocating…