Care and Feeding

My Mom Is Trying to Shut My Half Brother Out of Our Lives

Two brothers in Paris.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tim Roosjen/Unsplash and shubham sharma/Unsplash.

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 found out my parents had an open marriage 10 years ago during my sophomore year of high school when my parents sat me down and told me that my dad’s girlfriend was pregnant. It seems that their method of birth control failed, she’d decided to have the baby, and my parents opted to stay together. My two older brothers (who apparently found out about the open marriage before I was told about it—when they walked in on my mother and her boyfriend) and I are close to our little brother, “Andy.” He is a great kid, and we enjoy being around him. Our dad is really active in his life, but my mom less so.

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She doesn’t mistreat him but is mostly indifferent to him. She doesn’t attend any of his activities, and a lot of the time when he stays over at my parents’ house, she will use that time to visit extended family in a different city or have dinner with her friends or hook up with her boyfriend. She also declined to go to Disney World the year we took him. I have heard her say that she raised her kids and Andy is my dad’s, not hers, and she is glad to be done with the little kid years. I can’t really blame her for feeling that way, as my parents are in their 60s, but I think Andy is suffering because of it, which makes me uncomfortable. For instance: As a Christmas gift, my parents are taking my brothers and me to Europe next year. My aunt and grandfather live in France, and we will be celebrating my middle brother finishing his residency and my grandfather’s 90th birthday. When discussing the trip at dinner, my brothers and I were talking about all the things we were excited to show Andy, and my mom interrupted to say that Andy wasn’t going on the trip “this time.” My dad’s face showed that this was a sore spot for them. I asked why Andy wasn’t being included and my mom said that she thought it would be “too hard” to have a 9-year-old around, that the rest of us are all adults and he’d probably be bored; that if he were with us, we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things she had planned.

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My brothers and I are outraged by his exclusion from an (otherwise) whole-family experience. My oldest brother, sister-in-law, and I said that we don’t want the gift if Andy isn’t included. We talked among ourselves and decided that we would pay for our own trip, and split the cost to bring Andy with us. We would meet up in France with the rest of the family for the party only but would do our own stuff with Andy the rest of the time. My middle brother supports us but can’t afford to pay for his own trip, and can’t boycott the trip because part of it is to celebrate him. Our dad is touched by what we’re doing, but our mother is livid. She says we are choosing Andy and our “other family” over her, and says we’ve never cared about how hard this situation is on her.

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Later, at Thanksgiving dinner, my aunt (Mom’s sister) took me aside to try to get me to see things from Mom’s point of view—that she just wants to enjoy her retirement and has already raised her kids. I told my aunt this was b.s., since soon the rest of us will start to have kids and there will be kids around, and I was sure she won’t mind them. I pointed out that none of this is Andy’s fault, that his birth was a consequence of my parents’ own choice to open up their marriage, and that my mom needs to deal with that and stop acting like he doesn’t exist. My aunt told me I was being cruel and said I needed to give my mom more grace. I disagree. Am I being a jerk?

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—I Love My Baby Brother

Dear ILMBB,

I think it’s wonderful that you love your little brother, but I don’t think it’s reasonable of you to make demands of your mother where he’s concerned. Your parents’ open marriage is their business, not yours, and “dealing with the consequences” of it is something for them to work out without interference from anyone else, including the children they have together. I can’t help thinking that you want to punish your mother—that your fury is not only about her disinterest in her husband’s son (though I’m sure it is about that, too). It seems to me that your parents’ offer to take their adult children—the three they’ve had and raised together—to Europe for a celebration is generous. Accept it or don’t. If you and your brothers want to take Andy on a trip, to Europe or elsewhere, go for it. (And yes, this whole situation is of your parents’ own making, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your mother grace, as your aunt suggested. Everyone deserves that.)

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Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I just learned that my older brother, “Pat,” and his husband, “Dylan,” have an open marriage, and I confess, I’m shocked and disappointed. I’m 26 (my brother is nine years older) and I have not only looked up to him since I was a kid—he really is the best person I know, wise and kind and compassionate and generous—but I’ve looked up to his marriage, too, and hoped that my own, someday, will be as strong as theirs, which has seemed to me the gold standard. (They are loving and attentive and respectful and have lots of fun together.) Maybe I was wrong to have put Pat and Dylan’s marriage on a pedestal—maybe no one could live up to that?—and maybe I’m wrong to be judging them. But I did and I am. And this is complicated by two things. First, they have an 18-month-old daughter, my niece “Alison,” and I adore her. I’m worried about the effect on her of her parents’ fooling around with other people. Second, I found out about their arrangement in kind of a horrible way. A friend of mine who’s on Grindr mentioned that he was surprised to see Pat and Dylan on there (separate profiles, both saying they’re in an “open marrriage”). When I refused to believe it, he showed me their profiles. So now along with being shocked and dismayed, and worried about Alison, I also feel guilty because I’ve seen something I shouldn’t have. Can you help me sort through all this?

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—Little Sister Whose Brother Has Fallen Off Big Pedestal

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Dear Little Sister,

Apparently it’s Open Marriage Day at Care and Feeding—and my first such questions, too. And since I’ve never been in one (I confess: to me this sounds exhausting, and more trouble than it’s worth), I am really going to have to play this by ear.

My first observation is that open relationships are far more common than some of us imagine, and that, for many couples, opening their marriage is a positive change. My second … well, I wouldn’t call it an observation, exactly—it’s more of a feeling—is that, weirdly enough, I think I sort of understand how you feel. It is disappointing when our role models turn out not to be what we think of as “perfect” (and it’s not their fault! And really it’s not so awful that you put them on a pedestal, either—it’s a natural human impulse: we are all looking for that “gold standard,” and not only for marriage). But pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and give Pat and Dylan a break. They’re entitled (we are all entitled) to have the marriage they want—the one that makes their life fulfilling. As to their child: It’s up to Pat and Dylan how to handle this in regard to her. You have no idea how they will (or whether they will—or even whether they’ll continue to keep their marriage open as Alison gets older) balance their open marriage with childrearing. Let’s hope they are more thoughtful and graceful about it than the parents of I Love My Baby Brother were. (If Pat’s the best person you know, in possession of all the traits you mention in your letter, my money’s on him and Dylan.)

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Herman Each Week

From this week’s letter, I’m Worried Our Bilingual Dreams for Our Kid Could End in a Mess: “Is it worth it to try to teach our son what we do know of our languages, or will we hamper his development in English?” 

Dear Care and Feeding,

Over the holiday, I took my son to see Strangeworld. It was a cute movie with an openly gay character (yay for normalizing being a gay teenager!). About halfway in, as the character is talking about his crush and using he/him pronouns, my 6-year-old son turned to me and asked if the character was a boy or a girl. I told him it was a boy and he said, “Boys can like other boys? Like be boyfriends?” I was confused by this, as I thought we had been very open about sexuality, and he has at least two friends with two moms, and one of his godmothers is bisexual and has had a girlfriend for most of my son’s life. I told him that yes, just like girls can be with other girls, boys can be with other boys. He said “oh” and continued watching the movie.

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A couple of days later, however, he brought it up again. I answered his questions, still confused that this had somehow got missed in our discussions and his life experiences. He then told me that he thought he might like a boy, one of his friends at school. Now, he has always seemed particularly into this boy, more so than any other friends he’s had. He talks about him a lot and thinks he’s the coolest kid ever. He asked me if he should tell him and asked if I thought he knew boys could like other boys like that. I didn’t know what to say to this. I feel like 6 is a fine age to discover that you’re gay, but I don’t really like the idea of my son confessing his feelings to another child, boy or girl. I’ve always been on the side of not declaring two kids in daycare are boyfriend and girlfriend because they like to play together or hug each other or hold hands. It’s always seemed creepy and not cute to me, and it seems that discouraging this is par for course for me. But I don’t want to seem unsupportive or like I don’t want him to because it’s another boy, although I do worry about how the other kid will respond and whether my 6-year-old is ready for any resulting homophobia. How should I proceed and how should I advise my child to proceed?

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—Six is Too Young for Romance (Isn’t It?)

Dear SiTYfRII,

Okay, it’s storytime. When my daughter was your son’s age, she told me she had a crush on a boy in her class and that she wanted to let him know. I told her that I sympathized, that these kinds of feelings are big feelings and it’s hard to keep them inside, but that her friend was unlikely to know what to do with them if she handed them over to him—that they were awfully young for this, and that it would be wiser to wait, not to share these big feelings with the boy in question, and if she needed to talk about them, to talk about them only with me.

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Of course she didn’t listen (why do we think our children will?). She wrote him a letter. The results were predictably disastrous. But—the bottom line, I guess—both kids survived this huge (at the time) embarrassment and unhappiness. They’re still friends, in fact (he was a guest at her wedding last summer).

I tell you this for a few reasons. First, because I think it is unwise for kids this young to make declarations of love. The object of your son’s affection is unlikely to handle it “maturely” (even if he feels the same way, which is hardly guaranteed). Gay or straight, 6 is definitely too young for romance. That doesn’t mean a 6-year-old can’t feel something akin to love—but acting on it in any way? That’s a hard no for me.

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I’d like to take the issue of homophobia off the table, while I’m here. If your son is in fact gay, I hope very, very much that he never encounters it—that’s my dream for the future—but I would certainly do nothing to introduce him to the idea of it now. Tell him what I told my own kid. (But maybe be more convincing. I hope it works! Mine was—and still is—pretty stubborn.) And if he refuses to do as you suggest (sigh), just be there for him for the fallout. And keep in mind—and remind him, too—that whatever the fallout might be, it will pass.

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—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I work in a day care where I observed teachers teasing and laughing at a 16-month-old little boy because he only wants to wear a diaper. He takes off all of the rest of his clothes and, I was told, “He’s always done this.” Apparently, the behavior stopped for a while, but now has reappeared. Last week, he was taken from the young toddlers’ room, placed with the infants, and told he had to stay with the babies unless he kept his clothes on. I am very concerned about humiliating a child in this way. What to do?

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