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,
When I was pregnant, my mother-in-law expressed a strong interest in providing daily childcare. My husband and I weren’t sure if we wanted family to provide daily care as we didn’t want it to become a burden or expectation, but the local daycare did not have an opening for the first two months that I would be back at work, so we spoke to her about using that as a trial period. One of our criteria for her providing care was that we would pay her as we did not feel comfortable accepting the care for free. At first, she said she wouldn’t accept money because it would be such a joy to watch her grandchild and be so involved in her life, but after we told her it would be a requirement for us to accept the care, she agreed to half of what we would pay at daycare.
The two months went very smoothly, and we gave up our spot at the daycare. Immediately after we gave up the daycare spot, MIL stopped cashing our weekly payment checks. We spoke to her about it, and she went back to the same reasoning as before—she didn’t want to accept payment because caring for her granddaughter was such a joy and brought her such purpose. We reminded her that payment was a requirement for us in this arrangement. We switched to paying cash so that she couldn’t refuse to cash our checks.
A month later, I ran into a friend of MILs who told me it was so nice of my MIL to give up her weekly hobbies, meetings with friends, etc. because we needed her to care for our daughter. She had apparently told her friend group that we told her we needed her to watch our daughter, rather than that she offered to watch her daily. Then, yesterday morning getting ready to leave, I found multiple wads of money (the money we’ve given her) shoved in the bottom of the basket we keep our winter hats and gloves in. We spoke to MIL who again said she absolutely can’t accept payment for childcare. We told her we would then no longer be able to use her for childcare since the main boundary we established was disrespected. I called the daycare and thankfully they have an opening next month, and my husband and I will use flexible scheduling and time off from work to care for our daughter until then.
Where do we go from here with MIL? We’re both very angry that she disrespected our boundary and also did it in such a manipulative manner, waiting until we did not have a daycare spot to fall back on, which feels very planned. She already texted my husband asking if we’re coming to the normal weekly family dinner this weekend and is otherwise acting like nothing happened between us. If we do go to that dinner, we would expect an apology for the way she has acted, however, she does not seem to think she needs to give us one.
— The Money Savings Isn’t Worth It
Dear The Money,
Let’s set aside the line that she fed her friends—it’s likely that she just would rather see her granddaughter than them (for whatever reason) and was trying to be kind to them, or she wanted to appear indispensable to you and your husband. Either way, that is between her and her friends.
Regarding the argument over money and childcare, you are never going to convince her of your position, and she will never convince you of hers. If I’m being honest, I think you and your husband should have probably let this all go when the disagreement cropped up a second time or found a middle ground you were all comfortable with, like putting her on your family cell plan or something like that. Grandparents like to be needed—by their grandkids, but also by their kids. They want to know that they are pitching in, because it means that they are still needed, that they still have a role to play. What’s more, they get the joy of a second go-around of the fun parts of raising kids. These are rewards themselves. In insisting that her caregiving be transactional, you are treating her like an employee instead of a beloved member of your daughter’s life, and “paid caregiver” is clearly not how she wants to be thought of. So, while you are justifiably upset at her duplicity, you also need to spend some time thinking about what messages your ultimatum might have sent.
Where do you go from here? You sit down together and hash it out. You apologize for not respecting her boundaries, and you also express your hurt feelings and ask for an apology from her for the same. Will it irritate you to apologize? Yes. Are you and she equally culpable? No; you were up front, and she was not. But I just don’t think this is the hill to die on. Find a way to move on, and just know what you are getting into the next time you all disagree.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a mother of five adult boys, ages 32 to 22. After many years of growth and finding themselves, most of them are living on their own with their families. My youngest, however, is still growing in maturity. Over the summer they came out to the family as non-binary and pansexual. We excepted them openly and willingly. The problem is the job they had as an auto mechanic no longer suited or supported them as a non-binary person. They quit the job. We have, as a family unit, understood they will need time to adjust and find a job they will like and feel comfortable with. It’s been nine months and my husband and I have financially supported them the whole time. Frankly, we feel it’s time to move on; however, if anyone, including their brothers, mentions getting a job (even part-time) they are triggered. They can’t talk about it yet. They get angry and depressed. They do have a therapist, but they see her sporadically. I worry that in our kindness we have enabled them. I have a brother (in his 50’s) who never held down a job, and my mom always had excuses for him, and I don’t want to turn into her. What can we do, as parents and as a family, to help them move on? Can we help them or is this just a growing up thing?
—Learning Our Pronouns
You can help them, but I think the only person who can tell you how to do that is your child themself. Have you been able to have a conversation where you have asked, “How can we help you?” I think we often feel like in order to be helpful to someone we love, we should also automatically know what to offer—it makes the help feel (to us) more genuine. But your child is in a very complex place in their life and seems to have trauma surrounding their past job. (Do you know if something bad happened at the past job? If so, timelines mean very little if the trauma isn’t being addressed.) With those particulars at play, I’d really encourage you to start out by asking more questions than offering ideas.
That said, I think there are some concrete next steps you can ask that they take, and the fact that you are financially supporting them gives you some leverage here. Therapy needs to be a regular appointment, hands down. Once that step has been reached, then I would work together on a mutually agreed-upon timeline for when they will have a job. It can be part time—it could even be a weekly volunteer position if that feels like a better way to dip their toes back into the workforce. From there, you all can work on additional scaffolded steps to keep your child moving forward in both healing and independence.
You’ll need to read the room, but it might not be a bad idea to share your concerns regarding your brother’s history. You don’t have to be heavy-handed about it, but explaining that you’ve seen this pattern play out long-term and you don’t want that life for you child may help them understand your concerns—and underscore that your worries have nothing to do with their gender.
I hope your child finds a path forward that fulfills them. You may find additional resources on how to help a member of the LGBTQ+ community at pflag.org.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My older brother passed away suddenly a few years ago, leaving behind a wife and 11-year-old daughter. I (a childless, gay man) was very close to my brother; he brought me into his business, and we worked successfully together. His estate plan (discussed with both his wife and me) provided his wife with a generous life annuity and left the rest of his estate to a trust for his daughter, with me as trustee. My SIL has never been good with money, and I have always been close to my niece. The arrangement worked well (regular distributions from the trust and occasional extraordinary requests, all of which were reasonable and promptly approved). Then my SIL met and married “Bob.” Bob moved in with his two sons. Suddenly, there were requests for money for things that seemed to have more to do with Bob than my niece: tuition for his kids to go to same school as my niece, money for a bigger house, and (most cheekily) money to help Bob start a new business. None of this conforms to the terms of the trust, and I had to refuse. My niece does not like Bob or his kids. She has asked to either live with me or go to boarding school. Her mother (I suspect under Bob’s influence) has said she won’t agree to it unless I agree to release the money she wants from my niece’s trust. I can’t do that.
However, in recognition of all my brother did for me, I am considering giving an equivalent amount of my own money to get my SIL to agree. Luckily, I can afford it, mostly due to the success I owe in large part to my brother. Is this overstepping? My niece seems genuinely miserable. My brother would not want to see her in an unhappy situation. If I go ahead with this, should I keep the deal secret from my niece? As badly as her mother has behaved, I don’t want to blow up their relationship. But on the other hand, I hate to keep a secret from her.
— Uncle Ransom
Dear Uncle Ransom,
Considering your SIL is basically using your niece’s unhappiness to bully you into releasing the trust funds, I would say we are way past any fear of overstepping.
If you want to do this for your niece, and she is truly unhappy and not just pouting à la teenager, go for it. My only suggestion is that you first talk to a lawyer about whether there is any risk in exchanging money for niece’s custody, if that’s the route you and she choose. I have no idea if there would be, but it seems prudent to be extra careful here. For example, would living with you automatically make you the guardian, and what would that mean financially and legally? These are things you’ll want to be sure of before exchanging any money. I hope no shenanigans would occur, but I don’t trust SIL’s and Bob’s intentions, and the last thing I’d want is for you to be on the legal or financial hook unexpectedly.
Whether you tell your niece the whole story is less clear. In this case, I’ll invoke the wisdom of another advice giver, radio personality Bernard Meltzer, who is credited for the phrase you see on many a classroom wall: before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. Ultimately, I don’t think that telling your niece of the bargain you made with her mom is kind or helpful for their relationship, and while it might become necessary at some point, I don’t think it is now. Focus instead on your niece and what she needs to feel happy, safe and loved. Good luck!
Dear Care and Feeding,
My younger sister, “Jenny,” is in her 30s and has three children. About a year ago, she had a very big wake up call. Jenny’s husband was an alcoholic. After a night of drinking at home, he and Jenny got in an argument. She presented him with evidence of two DUIs he received while she was away on vacation. She said he couldn’t drink around the children anymore and couldn’t leave them home alone. He got angry, shoved her aside and drove away (to go to a bar). She had no choice but to call 911. He was intoxicated and driving, and Jenny feared for his safety. He was given a fine and escorted home. Jenny called me later that night (around midnight) and told me she had to get out of the marriage. I supported her decision.
Fast forward a month: she bought a house two blocks away from mine and got a contract job as a nurse. The children go up to their dad’s on the weekend. My concern is the children. My daughter is very close to the eldest of them, “Flora,” and she has been telling me some concerning things that Flora’s father has been doing. He feeds them endless sugar, lets them stay up past midnight, vapes inside the house, and watches inappropriate television around them—plus, Flora keeps finding stashes of empty vodka bottles. The youngest kid even cut his foot on a shard of a broken bottle. From what I hear, Flora (who is 12 years old!) has been playing mother to the two youngest. She is the one who gets them to bed, makes sure they eat well, regulates TV time, and is even the one who spends HER OWN MONEY on sunscreen for them. I don’t know if I should intervene or try to help Flora through it.
— Concerned in California
This is a safety concern, and you must absolutely intervene. The bad TV and bedtimes are one thing; hiding evidence of alcohol consumption and neglecting parenting duties (as suggested by the sunscreen anecdote) bring it to a different level. A child getting injured can happen anywhere, but it sounds like Jenny’s ex is engaging in behavior that makes those odds increase.
If it were me, I would probably start by talking directly to Flora—maybe host a cousin sleepover and talk to her one-on-one in the morning. See if you can get information about what, if anything, Flora has shared with Jenny. My guess is that both Flora and Jenny have some knowledge of what is going on in the ex’s home but aren’t overtly speaking to each other about it; they may be trying to protect one another. You and Flora can decide together how to proceed—whether Flora wants you to talk to Jenny directly or have you be present while she talks to her. But Jenny definitely needs to know what is going on. Be prepared that Flora may feel as though your daughter betrayed her trust; you will need to drive home the point to Flora that you love her, that your daughter loves her and that your job as family is to come together to keep Flora and her siblings safe.
If Jenny hasn’t already contacted a lawyer, please help her do so now. She may need to start building a case for custody, in which case documenting what she, Flora and you see from the ex’s behavior may be important. However things move forward, be compassionate with Jenny and strategize with her how you can help—and make sure you follow through without judgement or strings attached. Be a safe home for Flora and her siblings to come to, and be an aunt that can be confided in. All of this can help your sister and her kids in innumerable ways. Good luck.
More Advice From Slate
I’m 30 years old and very much feel physically, emotionally, and financially ready to start trying to have a baby. My husband says he’s about 70 percent on board. Up until recently I thought having kids with him would be amazing. But the more I’ve examined our lives and started planning for the realities of having a baby together—the more I realize that my husband is truly incompetent and unfit to be a parent. What should I do?