This column is part of Advice Week, Slate’s celebration of all things advice.
Sometimes, all you need is a different perspective. This week, our columnists have swapped fields of expertise. In this edition, Rich Juzwiak, a How to Do It columnist, handles your parenting questions.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I live in the very lonely overlap of a Venn diagram, and I need help figuring out how to fix it. To keep it short, I’m a mom who was on the fence about having kids, so I’m not a very ‘mom-y’ mom. My kid isn’t my life or my identity, and while I think I’m a caring and attentive parent, I’m not the primary parent, and I like it that way. I lost most of my non-parent friends when I had my kid. However, my appearance and interests still very much scream “non-parent.” My kid is off-putting to the people most like me (many are overtly judgmental), but my looks and lifestyle are off-putting to other moms (for example, I prioritize my appearance, have a lot of tattoos, and value my work). This has left me very lonely and isolated. Finding friends as an adult is so hard, so please don’t suggest “finding my people” as I’m very extroverted and have been trying to make new friends for years. It’s not working. If I’m honest, I think my childless friends think I’m stupid for having a kid, while my mom acquaintances are jealous of my appearance and judge my choices. It really sucks.
—The Worst Venn Diagram
Dear Venn Diagram,
That does sound sucky. I wish I knew more about what these judgements looked like, practically. Have you actually heard from people that they don’t want to be friends with you because they don’t approve of the way you present as a parent, or because you parent at all? Or are you just drawing conclusions? It could be that your projections are guiding the narrative, even though they aren’t the actual narrative. That is, I wonder to what degree you are self-sabotaging because of the judgement you perceive, which may not actually exist. As informed as a projection can be, it’s still a projection. The penultimate line of your letter says a lot—you think these people are judging you for this or that reason but you don’t actually know. They might be judging you for reasons that have nothing to do with having a kid or parenting—a personality defect that you’re completely overlooking.
I’m kidding about the defect—mostly. The best way forward is to quiet your mind, however you need to do that—via a distracting hobby or a meditation practice, for example. You’re better off living your life as if judgement isn’t there. It is true, people can be judgmental, particularly about qualities that they perceive as cool and are intimidated by, but if you’re determined to solve this problem, you’re going to have to plow through. Be kind and friendly even to people that you feel have judged you (especially in the absence of hard proof). Reach out to people you haven’t talked to in a while and make plans. Or start from scratch and try to find alternate means to making friends, like a new hobby or group workout. Do not let perceived judgements dictate your life. That’s giving them too much power. You can also make it a goal to find other hot moms with whom to commiserate. Surely, you can’t be the only one going through this. If you’re as cool as you present in your letter, you won’t be lonely for long.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
HELP! I have a 5- and 7-year-old who love playing outside. Within minutes of being out, our 9-year-old nightmare of a neighbor joins them. She’s mean, disrespectful, sneaky, and relentlessly bossy. She doesn’t share, she’s not willing to take turns, and she excludes my youngest—even banning her from playing with her own toys.
She ruins the fun every time, and there’s always an issue when she’s around. My children want to play together and with other friends outside, without her. I’ve spoken to her countless times, explained our house rules, set expectations, intervened, sent her home, etc., all to no avail. Another family’s experiencing the same problems with her.
Without a real relationship to her parents, how do we give our kids peace without hurting feelings, offending anyone, and/or making things worse?
—Frustrated Next Door
You’re asking the impossible. How do you thwart someone (as a unified front, no less, with other families in your hood?) without hurting feelings? You don’t. Surely you’re familiar with the expression “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” (I prefer “you can’t groom your cat with your tongue without getting hair in your mouth,” but that’s neither here nor there.) The point is, you don’t get to have everything, at least not without consequences. What you’re seeking to do is reject a 9-year-old child. Surely, she doesn’t identify as a jerk—yet. Even if she is one, and even if your end goal of ostracizing her teaches her a hard but valuable lesson that changes her life for the better, it will likely not come without pain.
You have choices. You can be extremely aggressive and have your kids follow suit. Tell her that she can’t play with them, in no uncertain terms, and tell them to remind her in those very words whenever she comes around: “You can’t play with us.” You can talk to the parents—you don’t need to have a relationship with someone to let them know that they’re contributing to your misery. Take it from someone who regularly rides the New York subway.
Or—and I think this is what you should do—you can approach this child with some compassion by attempting to understand why she is the way she is, perhaps even via close inspection like inviting her to your house. Right now she’s just a villain, and while that certainly could be the case, something tells me you’re not looking hard enough. And beware: Any action you take to bar her from playing with your kids may make you the villain. If you’re going to do something about it, you must be willing to accept that role—that’s yet another pile of broken eggs, another mouthful of cat hair.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
My boyfriend “Matt” and I are in our mid-20s. We rent an apartment in a suburb of a major city. We live on the top floor. Matt has been estranged from his father since he was a teen, but after his dad’s death a couple of years ago, his stepmother reached out to ask if he wanted a relationship with his half-sister, Emma, who’s now 7. Matt hesitated at first, but eventually said yes, and now describes it as one of the best decisions he ever made.
Emma’s mom is a single mother who often relies on us for childcare. She comes over after school a few days a week and occasionally stays with us if her mom goes on a business trip. Like all kids Emma can be loud sometimes. She gets excited easily. However, if you remind her to be quiet she always listens. She’s a very well behaved, well mannered, rule-following, responsible kid. We make sure to take her out to the park or library or museum or something, especially if she’s staying with us for more than a few hours.
Our neighbor “Debby” is an older woman who’s a bit of a curmudgeon and looks a lot like Emma (same sort of nose, hair color and type, eye color, big glasses, often seen wearing a dress). Emma made the mistake of pointing that out to her once, and Debby was not a fan. She doesn’t like kids, but I think she doesn’t like Emma in particular because of that.
Ever since Emma started visiting us, Debby has started to complain to us regularly about our noise. My boyfriend was watching TV a while ago, when Emma wasn’t staying with us, with the volume low enough that I couldn’t hear it in our bedroom, and Debby knocked on our door asking us to “shut up the little brat.” I can understand being upset by loud noises, but we aren’t being noisy. None of the people below us have ever complained. Other than Debby and us, most of the people in this building have kids. I’ve talked to a few of them and Debby complains about them too. Debby has never officially filed a noise complaint, and our landlord isn’t going to do anything if Debby just keeps bothering us. This is the first major issue that either my boyfriend or I have ever had in our renting experiences regarding neighbors. Is there anything we can do here?
I think your best course of action is inaction. Don’t give Debby an ounce of your energy. When she knocks, tell her what she wants to hear to make her go away as quickly as possible, and go on living your life. You’re not going to reason with someone who uses language like, “Shut up the little brat,” so don’t even try. You believe that your landlord won’t do anything if Debby keeps bothering you, but you should be recording incidents like the “little brat” in emails so that if she ever were to hit you with a noise complaint, you could point to this pattern of harassment as it occurred, thereby suggesting that such a complaint is just an extension of that.
And speaking of recording, I’m a big believer of turning a camera on people to help them consider their behavior. If you feel similarly, you might record these incidents (check your state law on the legality of this, it varies). You might also be helped by checking noise regulations to see if there are any guidelines that would help you. A lawyer could also be a big help if things get worse.
You have power here, and the right to live your life without being harassed. You’re not doing anything wrong; Debby is.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 5-year-old girl who is wonderful and smart, and caring most of the time. However, sometimes I feel she gets easily frustrated and once she’s on that frustrated track it is so hard to get her off of it. She gets tense, she starts crying, she refuses to do the thing that she needs to do in order to move forward. This morning she woke up in a bad mood, demanded cartoons, and we told her to say please, and she straight up refused. We told her she could not have TV or privileges until she used her manners, and she threw a huge temper tantrum. When we threaten her with time out, it doesn’t work, and she just sits there stubbornly waiting for us to give in.
I wish I had better strategies to help her not feel so frustrated and stuck, but I really don’t know how else to approach it. In these moments, I try asking her to take a deep breath. I give her a big hug, even though she’s resistant, and say things like “I hear what you’re saying. You want cartoons. All you have to do is use your manners.” And she still refuses. I admire her tenacity and her willpower but it’s not going to serve her well in life to be so inflexible. What can I do to help?
—Another Tired Mom In Oregon
Dear Mom in Oregon,
You threaten her with time out, she sits there stubbornly waiting for you to give in, and then what? You give in, right? Don’t. You undoubtedly have more willpower than she does. Just don’t cave. Show her what tenacity looks like. Live by your word and show your daughter what consistency looks like. It may be a valuable lesson moving forward. Or if you must give in, don’t give in on everything. Take TV privileges away indefinitely. It’s not like she needs them to survive. If you’re going to talk the talk of a strict parent, walk the walk.
More Advice From Slate
I’m a 55-year-old divorced college professor who earns $140,000 a year (plus interest, dividends, and royalties). I have around $3.5 million in investments, home equity, and savings, so I am fairly well off. My 51-year-old girlfriend has little savings, works an hourly wage job, and earns around $40,000 a year (she’s had a much tougher life than me). I would be happy to support us both and would like her to quit working (or work much less) so we can travel more and have more free fun time. But she is worried about losing independence and being financially dependent on me. How do we bridge this?