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,
I’m a SAHM to two under 2 (19 months and 3 weeks old). Since having our new baby and my husband returning to work, my MIL has made it abundantly clear she is available nearly every day to come to the house and help if I’d like her to. Every time I see her, she reminds me to just call if we need anything, she can come right over! She texts me regularly to let me know if she’s going to be out, but that she’s available any other time. She also talks to my husband to make sure he knows she’s available and asks him to remind me. It’s all a bit much, in my opinion.
She has pretty strong (unmanaged) anxiety that causes me to not find her presence overly helpful/calming, so I’m not going to choose to invite her regularly when it’s not necessary. While my husband would choose to have her come by regularly if he were the one at home, I’m much more comfortable home by myself with the kids. I’ve told her that I appreciate that she is ready to help, but that on most days I feel comfortable, confident and happy home alone with them. Both my continuous acknowledgement of her offer and promise to use it if needed and my polite declinations to both my husband and MIL have done nothing to reduce the constant offers of help. Is there a more effective way to stop this barrage and get her to understand I prefer time alone with my kids?
— No Help Needed Today, Thanks!
Dear No Help,
Congratulations on your new baby! I really understand where you are coming from; with both my kids, I much preferred being in my house alone trying to figure things out to having company. I could be as gross as I wanted, the house could be trashed, and I could just focus on my kid(s). So, it’s perfectly reasonable to either not need or not want the extra help—especially if the “help” adds emotional or logistical work to your plate.
That said, MIL sounds like she very eager—desperate, even—to be useful in this moment. I can understand why; she has a brand-new grandchild to get to know, and her lived experiences or those of her friends have probably taught her that moms in your situation can get easily overwhelmed.
My default position in situations like these is to side with the new mother—we should all take our cues from the person in the trenches, so to speak, and help only in the ways and times she wants it. But I also think that you shouldn’t necessarily be dying on that hill because being really rigid about refusing help might cause you more fallout than having MIL over now and then. Even if you don’t want her help, accepting it sporadically might be your better defensive move. Find some opportunity for your MIL to help out, but be very clear about what you need. If being in the house while she is there is going to cause you anxiety, grab a book or a friend and head to a café. Or ask her to take one kid for a walk while you get one-on-one time with the other. Be clear with her about how long you’ll want her to stay and find a kind way to ask her to leave when the time is up.
I’d also encourage you to think about your verbiage when you are declining her help. Are you telling her you don’t need it, or are you telling her you prefer to be on your own with the kids during this time? Those are two different messages; the first implies that you’re putting on a brave face trying to “do it all,” while the second communicates that you are proactively fostering time for just you and your kids to bond together.
Remember, too, that even if your husband wouldn’t make the same choices that you are (mine wouldn’t have, either) it’s still his job to be supportive, and some of that involves “translating” you to other family members. Ask him to step in and help explain your feelings to his mom so that you don’t have to feel like you’re on the defensive all the time. At the very least, he can ask her to tone down the number of offers she is making. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
After having kids, my husband and I had a discussion of who we’d prefer to take care of our children if we die before they are adults. We decided that his sister would be a better choice to expose our kids to his native language and culture, but that we would like my brother involved in managing any money we would leave to them.
A few incidents have me seriously second-guessing my SIL’s judgement. They visited several years ago at Thanksgiving with their kids, and my SIL freaked out when I suggested that the kids (then almost 4, 5, and 7) watch the 1966 How the Grinch Stole Christmas movie, convinced her children would have nightmares and that it was way too much screen time (it’s 26 minutes). We had her kids sleeping in my son’s bedroom, and she is vehemently against night lights, so—without consulting me—she took his nightlight out of the bedroom. He woke up screaming at about 2 a.m. because he was afraid of the dark, which we had told her. Then, when taking the big kids on an outing, she wanted to avoid having to take two cars. With five seat belts and six people, she suggested that one child ride on an adult’s lap. I made it clear to my husband, in no uncertain terms, that neither of our cars would move unless all children were in adequate safety restraints.
This year, they took the 10-hour drive down here with neither of their kids (now 8 and 11, both under 4-foot-9-inches) in a booster seat, which is against the law in our state. Furthermore, their kids had active fevers. I was seven months pregnant, and a few days after they left, I got sick: bedridden for three days with a fever and a heart rate so high I was sent to the ER for a CT scan to make sure I did not have a blood clot.
I just can’t stop thinking that my SIL’s priorities are way out of whack, but my husband was dismissive (“Everyone makes bad decisions sometimes”) when I said we should reconsider who would raise our kids if we died. I can accept disagreements on screen time and night lights, but freaking out about screen time just stands in such sharp contrast to not taking car safety seriously. Also, showing up with sick kids, with no notice, to visit a pregnant woman in the middle of the “tripledemic” of respiratory diseases fits with somewhat of a pattern of not caring about others’ well-being.
But, the repeated willingness to put kids in cars without adequate restraints is the biggest issue. There is a right and a wrong, with no ambiguity. I even would be OK with good faith mistakes in installation or usage, but I’m not OK with not even trying. My husband just doesn’t seem to think it is as big of a deal as I do.
— Restrain the Children!
My stance on car seats is pretty on par with yours; if the powers-that-be told me to wrap my kids in bubble wrap once they were buckled in, I’d do it. The bottom line is that if you and your husband both don’t feel comfortable with your children’s prospective guardians, you should not pick those people for that role. That’s the whole point in naming a guardian in the first place—so that you can ensure your kids are well looked after. I can appreciate that you want the kids to maintain a connection to your husband’s culture—that is not a trivial matter—but to me, that’s third in line behind physical safety and emotional well-being.
I sense your husband is reluctant to remove this responsibility from your SIL. Have you already told her she is the named guardian, and he is concerned about the prospect of now telling her she’s “fired,” or does he truly think she is the best choice? If the first, I agree it’s going to be awkward, but you can phrase it so that it’s presented as a difference in approach rather than an outright condemnation of her parenting. If the latter, maybe you can ask the SIL to be the official tutor on the family heritage or give her some other role in the children’s lives. There is also no rule that the guardian has to be a family member; if neither your SIL or brother are palatable to you both, you and your husband can agree on a friend to serve in this role. And while, no, technically you don’t have to tell the SIL she’s been replaced, I would hate for any confusion from her about guardianship to play out in front of the kids—that could cause unneeded upheaval at the worst possible time.
Whatever you do, please make sure you get your guardian wishes properly and legally notated, and while you’re at it ensure your living will and power of attorney are up to date. And make sure your family(ies) know what these plans are and where the documents are. Doing so will make a difference for all involved, if it ever comes to that.
Final thought: it is never easy to reconcile different parenting approaches within a close friend or family circle, but for your husband’s sake, I do hope you’ll continue to try. Siblings don’t grow on trees—neither do cousins to spend childhood with, for that matter—and if your husband wants to keep his brother and his family in your lives, you’ll have to find ways to not sweat the small-to-medium stuff, and politely agree to disagree on the rest.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I are older parents, both in our 50s. We have one child, an 11-year-old daughter. I had a tough upbringing: My father was orphaned before he hit puberty. He was deeply scarred, and it affected our whole family. We also were dirt poor, and my parents fought a lot until finally divorcing. All this left a mark on me, although I went to college and won a fellowship to an Ivy League graduate school. But my wife had it so much worse. She was physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by different family members, and bullied at school. The stories she’s told me about her childhood are horrifying. Despite all that, she managed to get through college and two master’s degree programs.
But then life kicked her in the teeth again: My wife developed an autoimmune disease. It’s common for her to have weeks of real pain that affect her in every way. I also think she suffers from depression. I see her catastrophize and suffer through anxiety attacks, and she is prone to mood swings and angry outbursts. In addition, a mental health professional has described her as “borderline OCD” when it comes to germs and cleaning.
This brings me to the issue at hand: my wife is incredibly hard on our daughter. She criticizes our daughter for failures of cleanliness and grooming. She also has very high expectations for our daughter’s academic performance; she has very low tolerance for B’s on a report card and is quick to lose her temper when our daughter makes mistakes, particularly in math.
Our daughter is an exceptional kid: president of her elementary school student council, in the school’s gifted program and medal-winning swimmer on our community swim team. But she is struggling. She’s going through typical tween changes but also says she feels unlovable—fat, ugly, illogical, lazy—and she doesn’t believe us when my wife and I say we love her, or any adults when they say they are proud of her. She’s starting to catch adults in lies (Santa Claus being Exhibit A) and is starting to mistrust everyone.
When my wife heard that our daughter feels unloved, instead of recognizing it as a cry for reassurance from a confused prepubescent, she took it as a personal attack. She spent half an hour ranting about how unappreciated she is for all that she does, and canceled plans to spend a day on mother-daughter activities. I tried to get my wife to focus on why our daughter may feel unloved, and how we as parents should help her, and got my head bitten off for “intellectualizing” and trivializing my wife’s emotional response to the mean thing our daughter had said.
At some point, I believe, I will need to have a conversation with my daughter about the state of her mother’s mental health. I wanted to wait until she was a young adult and better able to understand. This latest blow up has me wondering, however, if waiting for adulthood would be too late, and if our daughter will be better able to cope with her mother’s behavior if we have this talk now.
— Much Rather Talk about Birds and Bees
Dear Much Rather,
You need to take a careful look at your daughter’s behavior and feelings and try to discern what is attributable simply to puberty and what is not. It’s impossible to be sure from a single letter, but I’m getting strong vibes that your daughter needs more than an explanation for her mother’s conduct—she needs professional help coping with it, STAT.
Your wife’s approach is obviously concerning, though; your letter said it all when you said she took your daughter’s words as a personal attack, and it seems like your wife may be creating a hostile home environment for your daughter. Moreover, you state that she has markers for a mental health disorder, and that she’s been described by a mental health professional, but you do not say whether she is currently in treatment. If she isn’t, she needs to be, also STAT.
So, yes, I think you do need to have a very honest and frank conversation with your daughter about your wife, but I also think you need to listen as much as you talk, because I don’t believe that explaining why mom is the way she is will be enough. I think you need to be aggressive in addressing this, or you may be risking some severe consequences for your daughter.
I also think you need to be open to the possibility that you are contributing to the situation, too. Your household seems to be rather achievement-focused, from what I can see in this letter. I understand that, for you and your wife, those are markers of overcoming extreme hardships in your past, and there’s no reason not to be proud of them. But those kinds of achievements are merely one path towards a fulfilling life, and your daughter needs to know that those aren’t required of her in order to be successful and loved. I wonder whether both you and your wife might be inadvertently teaching your daughter that the only way to receive love is by being exceptional and perfect.
Ultimately, your job as a parent is to protect your kid and give her the tools to thrive in the world. Honesty with your daughter is an important first step. I am just not sure the work ends there. Good luck.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have been arguing with my dad on and off for many years. He comes and goes; sometimes I see him lots and then other times not so much. When he is around we generally get along, but he is very flaky, canceling last minute or not turning up at all. He can also be manipulative and very dramatic to get my attention. He is the only person in my life I ever really argue with. I tend to keep him at arm’s length and enjoy our time together but do not expect much in between. I am happy to go along like this, but he wants a more meaningful relationship.
The last two years have been tough, I lost my mum and two other close family members, plus I have a new baby and a toddler to look after. When my mum died, my dad (no longer a couple for many years) was really intense and constantly asking after my well-being, despite me telling him I was OK and to back off. It felt suffocating, attention-seeking and not genuine, because he ignored any help I actually asked for. It was like he was upset that I wasn’t running to him for help. Fast forward a year, and my aunt has just died. My dad is demanding to know about my feelings again, and I just feel so emotionally tired and have two young children and a job to deal with. I don’t have the time for it.
Now, he is guilting me because I have set boundaries. He is telling everyone that he is lonely, and I’m starting to feel resentful that he won’t just leave me alone. We are currently not talking, and I’m stuck with the guilt. Am I awful for ignoring him because I haven’t got the headspace? Is there a way to tell him to back off without leaving him feeling so terrible?
— Is It OK to Ignore my Dad?
Dear Is It OK,
Yes, if you’ve been clear about what you need, and he is not making an effort to deliver it, it is OK to ignore your dad.
Take whatever time you need in order for that feeling of being emotionally drained to dissipate. It took me a long time to realize (and I’m still learning it) that I’m not obligated to make myself uncomfortable in order to save someone else discomfort. To put it another way, why was I prioritizing others’ feelings over my own? I’m not advocating always putting yourself first, but I am here to contend that putting yourself first sometimes is a legitimate choice.
Zooming out, I think you need to decide what you want from this relationship long-term before reestablishing contact. Maya Angelou famously said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Do not expect your dad to be anything other than what he has shown you he is. If you can make a place for that in your life, then, by all means, do. I’d advise you to craft some go-to responses to use when your dad is going off the emotional rails. Phrases like “That sounds really hard” and “I appreciate you asking, I’m fine. But tell me about…” allow you to respond to his grievances and solicitous check-ins without expending your emotional labor.
If, however, you cannot accommodate that energy in your life and you want to cut contact, then it is time to stop the ghosting and give him an honest come-clean conversation or letter. I don’t necessarily recommend that—and I know my colleague Michelle Herman has had lots of columns where she has expressed similar hesitancy to cut parents out of one’s life—but at the end of the day, you are the architect of your life.
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