Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My Sister-in-Law’s Latest Transformation Is Going to Mess With My Girls’ Heads

How do I keep them from getting the wrong message from this?

A place setting with holiday decorations.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by VeselovaElena/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the mother of two girls, 10 and 12, both of whom are currently living in larger bodies, as am I. I’ve struggled with body image, low self-esteem, and chronic food restriction for nearly 35 years, and with a lot of work, I am finally, truly happy with myself and how I look in the mirror.

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I have enforced iron-strong boundaries with my in-laws and family of origin. One mention of weight, diets, calories, etc. and we’ll leave without looking back. It’s taken some time, but they finally understand that yes, we will rudely embarrass everyone and ruin the dinner/holiday/whatever at the first sign of weight talk.

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My sister-in-law has dropped a good deal of weight in the last year, likely intentionally. Although I’m confident no one will mention her weight loss at the next family gathering (and we will leave if they do), I can’t stop my daughters from noticing her much smaller body. How can I deal with this in a positive manner, while still sticking to my anti-diet ideals?

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— Riots Not Diets

Dear Riots Not Diets,

It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to create a space for your children that is relatively safe from diet culture and the pressure to adhere to societal standards around size. However, your children should be aware that the size of people’s bodies can change and that there are people out there who may choose to lose or gain weight at some point in their lives. They are also old enough to start understanding the culture that you are attempting to protect them from in the first place.

If you haven’t already, you should talk to your children about the fact that our society privileges thin bodies and often associates fatness with negative behaviors and traits. They shouldn’t be blindsided by fatphobia at school or popping up on a TV show (and if you allow them to watch, say, Nickelodeon classics or any other sitcoms from the 1990s, there is a good chance they will stumble upon fatphobia in entertainment). You should tell them the truth about the unfair hierarchy that exists around weight so that you can point out how it is flawed, how it pits people against one another for no reason, and why it is important that they reject these standards and norms wholesale.

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Your daughters also need to be able to speak honestly to you about their own bodies and how they feel about them. As you avoid indoctrinating them with certain attitudes about weight, it’s important that you don’t make them feel as though they can’t talk about these things, or ever feel frustrated or confused by them.

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You can mention to them in advance of the next family gathering that their aunt has lost some weight, and that this change has made no bearing on her beauty, nor her value as a person. You can talk about the fact that society is sometimes kinder to people who are smaller and that she may have felt pressure to change, and why it matters so much for them to love and value themselves at any size. Don’t disparage your SIL, just be clear that she made a choice for herself that is different from what you would chose for yourself, and let the kids know that as they get older, they will make decisions about how they want their body to look and feel. And then do your best to help them feel as confident as possible about the bodies they have. Wishing you all the best.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 47-year-old grandmother; my youngest has a 2-year-old. She recently split from the baby’s father, and is on her own. She gets the baby three days a week, and she works nights. The other four days, the baby is with her father, who is currently unemployed. The baby is currently sick with COVID. My daughter says she can’t be around her because she doesn’t want to get COVID or take it to work. So the father has been the primary care source. I am concerned on how this will affect the child not having that “motherly” care. I do not live close (two hours away). However, I did offer my help in caring for her if dad needed a break, which he declined. I’m concerned. Will not having her mother care for her affect her?

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— Worried Grandma

Dear Worried Grandma,

I am so sorry that your grandbaby has COVID; I know that must make you feel terrible. However, I don’t think you should be overly concerned about the separation from her mother. It sounds like Mom and Dad are effectively co-parenting your granddaughter and have found a schedule that works for them. As your daughter is the only one working, I’m sure that she is reliant upon every dollar that she makes and that the idea of getting sick and being unable to get to her job may seem very scary. It’s not ideal for a child who usually sees their mother half the week to have to go without seeing her, but it’s also not uncommon. Illness separates children from their parents all the time. What matters is that her father is able to provide safe and adequate care when it’s his turn to have the baby, whether that’s for a scheduled visit or for an extended amount of time under extenuating circumstances.

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You can offer your support to the child’s father once again. But ultimately, barring something that wasn’t mentioned in your letter, I think it would be best for you to accept that your child will be dividing their time between their parents for the foreseeable future, and that they will be used to being separated from their mother for periods of time. This is likely different from how you functioned as a mother: As a parent whose child divides the week between my home and her dad’s, I can attest that my mother had a harder time making peace with these circumstances than anyone else. Trust that your daughter is doing her absolute best and that your grandchild is lucky to have not one, but two parents who love and care for her.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve got a kind of philosophical question. When I was a kid, my brother molested me (he’s a year and a half older). I’m not totally sure when he stopped, but there was non-touching behavior that made me uncomfortable into high school. I’ve been working through this with a therapist, but something that has me stumped is that he was also basically a kid when this happened, so it doesn’t quite feel right to hold him as responsible as one would hold an adult who molested a child. I’ve got my head on straight about my own boundaries as they involve him, but this is part of the reason why I’m having trouble thinking about telling my parents. It was a bad thing that he did, but to my knowledge, he never did anything like this once he was an adult (although I’ve gotten weird vibes from him around women and my much younger cousin, but I don’t know if that’s my own experience coloring things). It just feels much greyer than the standard “I was molested by a relative” narrative. What do you think? Does it make a difference that this happened when we were both kids?

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— Confused in Calabasas

Dear Confused,

I am so sorry that this happened to you, and I am glad that you are receiving the support of a therapist; I also hope that you have put this query to them, regarding how age contextualizes (or doesn’t) your brother’s behavior. While there may be a difference between what an abusive adult and an abusive child might know about what they are doing wrong, what matters more is the impact on the person they harmed. You may feel that your brother is less accountable than, say, someone who was 40 at the time of their abuse, but his age does not lessen the weight of what he did to you. Furthermore, unlike a stranger, your brother is someone you were supposed to be able to count on. Older brothers are supposed to protect their younger siblings, not harm them. The violation he committed is a significant one, and his youth should not protect him from accountability for it.

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You write that your brother continued to make you uncomfortable through high school and that you’ve gotten a strange feeling from him around other women, including a young family member. I don’t think you should assume that he has left his abusive tendencies behind him. I also think, if you feel safe doing so, that you should tell your parents what happened; you deserve their support and you should not have to carry the burden of what happened to you alone. Your silence may be enabling him to be predatory towards this young cousin, or towards other women and girls who find themselves in his company. I don’t want to burden you with the pressure of feeling responsible for what he does, but I don’t think you would want something to happen knowing that it could have been prevented. In consultation with your therapist, I strongly encourage you to open up to your family about what occurred, to warn that cousin or her parent about how your brother is, and for you to put any barrier that you need to between you and him for your own sanity and protection.

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It doesn’t sound as though your brother has done anything to atone for his crimes against you. He hasn’t apologized, and you don’t mention anything about him seeking professional help. Do not let his youth at the time lead you to believe that you need to forgive and forget.
It is entirely possible that your brother is still dealing with whatever issues led him to harm you in the first place. You should do what you need to do to take care of yourself first and foremost. I think talking to your parents is an important step, if for no other reason but to prevent any expectations of being in the same room with your brother and behaving as though nothing has happened between you. Wishing you lots of strength as you continue to search for peace.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

My stepson is 20 and this summer, he got his girlfriend pregnant. Unfortunately, we live in a state where the recent Supreme Court decision made abortion illegal, and the nearest abortion clinic is several states and over a day’s travel away. He told us in the fall and said that they’d spent a few months trying to gather the funds and arrange travel to get an abortion, but it hadn’t worked out. When he told us, it was past the point where some states even offered abortion anyway, and she personally didn’t feel comfortable getting one that far in the pregnancy. My husband and I are upset that my stepson didn’t tell us sooner; we would’ve gladly paid for the poor girl to get an abortion out of state, and I would’ve driven her or flown with her myself if she needed me to. But we can’t do anything about that now.

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So, we have a grandchild coming in a few months with two young, unready parents. My stepson has many wonderful qualities, but he is less mature than the average 20-year-old. I don’t know his girlfriend that well, but she is dating him. I know she’s doing community college part time. I hope they’re both able to rise to the occasion, but I know that even if they’re giving 100 percent it’s still going to be hard.

How do we balance offering a lot of financial and other support without giving the impression that we’ll take on the lion’s share of it? Knowing my stepson, there’s a real danger of responsibility creep, where we gradually end up doing more and more stuff that is supposed to be done by him. We are ready to be a regular source of childcare, but we can’t do it for all the times the parents are at class or work. Especially for financial support, I don’t want my stepson to think that our contributions in any way lessen his financial obligations to his child. I also don’t know if money from us legally counts as part of his share of support money. Do we need to see a lawyer about this?

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— Future Grandma

Dear Future Grandma,

Congratulations on the upcoming birth of your grandchild! I know these may not be ideal circumstances, but let’s be as optimistic as possible about these two young people rising to the occasion and making parenthood work. As your stepson and his girlfriend get ready to welcome their child, you and your husband should let them know just exactly what kind of support you are prepared to offer. You should also set your boundaries as well, and make them abundantly clear. Explain to your stepson and his partner that you all are not raising this child, and that while you are committed to helping out in the ways that you can, that ultimately, it will be the two of them who are responsible for this child’s care.

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As far as contributing to child support, you’ll need to check local laws to see if money or items purchased by you will go towards any legal agreement reached between the couple, if they choose to involve the authorities in the first place. I think the most important thing for you is to clearly establish what you will and what you will not do, and to make that as plain as possible to these two before the child is born. Things may change or evolve over time, but you should have a general idea as to what you can provide and what you can’t.

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It will be especially important for you and your husband to let your stepson know that you are not picking up any slack for him, and that your efforts are not to be a substitute for his own. This is his child and he is responsible for them. You all are helping because you can, and because you care, but you all must not be expected to do his job as a father. Encourage him, let him know that you believe he is capable and that he can step up and do what needs to be done. You may need to hold his hand a bit, but don’t take on his part of the responsibilities. Good luck to you all.

Jamilah

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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