Care and Feeding

My Mom’s Most Recent Transgression Is the Last Straw

A messy kitchen counter.
DedMorozz/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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,

How do I tell my kids that we won’t be seeing their grandparents anymore?

We have an infant, a preschooler, and a first-grader. I’ve just returned to full-time remote work after maternity leave. Some of that time off was unpaid but we made it work. My husband has just started a job with long and irregular hours because his previous job was exacerbating a chronic pain condition.

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I have been falling behind with housework since late in my last pregnancy and the mess has been getting out of hand. I need to get caught back up to a manageable baseline. My husband’s health issues and schedule mean that he hasn’t been able to help effectively. So, I reached out to my mom and she offered to come over around the holidays and help with housework and childcare.

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While she and my dad were here, she made a comment about “risking her job” as a mandatory reporter by not reporting my messy home to CPS. My mother is a credentialed mental health peer support specialist.

Not even a week later we had a visit from CPS regarding concerns about “conditions in the home.” I’m just devastated. The CPS caseworker interviewed our son at his school and then contacted us and interviewed us at our home. Thankfully, our son didn’t register this as concerning. The kids don’t know that anything happened. But this was intensely traumatic for my husband and me, not least because of my own experiences with CPS intervention as a child. The caseworker reassured us that they’ll close the case and that our home obviously isn’t so messy as to pose a danger to the children.

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This is just unforgivable. Even if I could move past it, and I can’t, I couldn’t expect my husband to do so.

I feel that I made a terrible mistake in letting my parents into our kids’ lives. I had a violent and chaotic childhood due to their mental health issues, but I love my parents. Having my own kids has given me more clarity about my priorities and about my own childhood trauma. I can’t let them bring this kind of disruption into our lives. I don’t think I can just keep them at arm’s length without going totally no-contact. I want too badly for them to be people that they just aren’t. People who can just love and support me.

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How do I address this with my kids? There’s only so long we can go without a visit or FaceTime call before they’ll want an explanation.

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— I’ll Just Hire a Cleaning Service

Dear I’ll Just Hire a Cleaning Service,

In recovery circles, I’ve heard this described as “going to the hardware store for oranges.” In this case, the hardware store is your parents and the oranges are the love and support you rightfully wish they could give you. Unfortunately, the hardware store simply doesn’t stock oranges. And we save ourselves a world of hurt when we learn to stop going to people for things they aren’t capable of giving us.

This incident was particularly painful because you reached out for help, a difficult and vulnerable thing to do, and the people who were supposed to help you not only judged you, they used your vulnerability against you. As a former foster parent, I can assure you that your parents’ CPS call placed your children in a far more dangerous spot than any messy house could.

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It’s clear that your parents do not have you or your children’s best interests at heart, so I can understand why you have decided they are not safe people to have in your lives. Since your children are very young, I’d keep your explanations clear but vague on the details like “We love Grandma and Grandpa, but sometimes when people hurt us, we can’t be around them anymore.” Make sure they understand that this decision is not their fault, and also that you will never leave them no matter what they do or what disagreements you may have. The transition may be difficult, but eventually they probably won’t even remember it.

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And please don’t blame yourself for wanting what your parents should be able to provide you with; that’s only natural. But try to start building your grocery store, i.e., finding and reaching out to those people in your life who are able to show up for you in the ways you need and deserve. (Additionally, for a compassionate resource on managing household tasks in difficult circumstances, I recommend KC Davis of Struggle Care who has a book, podcast, and website, and can be found on social media.)

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New Year, Same Problems

For an upcoming special edition of Care and Feeding, we want to hear about the messy situations plaguing you that you’d like to shed in the new year. A pet fox corrupting daughter? A 10-year-old behind the wheel? Harsh PTA crackdowns? Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I want to stop yelling at my kids. I try my best to be calm and think things through before speaking, but I inevitably reach a limit and can’t seem to help getting angry. I tell myself I’ll be better next time but it’s just not good enough.

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I look at my childhood, how my mom yelled at us, and how our relationship is now… it’s not great and I don’t want that for my future with my children. What are some practical things I can do now to stop this cycle once and for all? To make matters worse, I hear my kids starting to react the same way as me and I want better for them and their future children.

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— Yeller From Yonder

Dear Yeller From Yonder,

Children are lucky they’re so cute because they can also be singularly infuriating. I think for most parents this is hashtag relatable content. Who among us hasn’t lost it after the 17th time we’ve fruitlessly asked our kid to complete a basic task? (And felt guilty about it afterward.)

According to experts, one crucial factor is what you’re yelling. You should never resort to name-calling, personal criticism, or shaming at any volume.

If you find yourself yelling at your children more than occasionally, the first step is to be aware of what situations and behaviors lead to you losing your cool. Then, try to notice what physical sensations you experience before resorting to yelling. Do you feel a tightness in your stomach, or begin to clench your jaw? When you feel these sensations, it’s time to stop and do some deep breathing or other mindfulness techniques, or simply remove yourself from the situation for a while. You might also consider adopting a meditation practice. When I meditate regularly, I find it gives me some distance from my immediate emotional response, sort of a “pause” that allows me to be less reactive and more intentional.

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I know how painful it can be to find yourself repeating harmful patterns from your own childhood. If you’re not in therapy, I think it’s a crucial tool to help you heal and break the cycle with your own children.  And if you do slip up, don’t underestimate the power of an apology. I want my kid to understand that everyone makes mistakes and I try to model taking accountability for mine. I say something like, “I’m sorry for yelling at you earlier. I got angry and frustrated, but that wasn’t the right way to handle the situation.” (Incidentally, my 11-year-old son has turned out to be a great little apologizer!) You’ll never be a perfect parent, but your kids will learn a lot by seeing you continually working to be a better one.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a woman in her early 30s who is desperately excited to become a parent. My spouse and I have been working with this goal in mind for the past couple years now, but I have real, terrifying concerns about the reality of parenthood I see my friends and family grapple with daily.

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My spouse and I are in careers where passion outweighs pay, and we are feeling the pinch after buying a house for the first time in a major metropolitan city (with the reasoning being we have successful careers, immediate family, and many very close friends all here). Friends of mine with tight family budgets are often spiraling as they contend with adding parenthood to their already busy and stressful lives. I have been trying for almost a year now to overcome my fear that I simply don’t have what it takes to be a parent without sacrificing some part of myself: a job that I love in a career field where I feel I can make a difference and be an agent of change for the better, but one where I am also chronically underpaid and overworked.

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I suppose my question to you is two-fold: What should I do to be financially prepared for a child—is there a recommended portion of income we should be ready to devote to a baby? And how, *how* in the world does anyone do this in a world where two middle-class incomes can barely be stretched to include children even in the best-case scenarios, where unexpected medical costs or other complications can leave a family in ruin, and where daycare costs are so great, they often equal or exceed one parent’s entire paycheck? It feels irresponsible to even begin trying for a baby without answering these questions.

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Being a parent has been a lifelong dream of mine, and one of the few things I have felt total, complete conviction that I want. But I fear that I’m foolishly chasing a dream that simply isn’t sustainable in the world we live in today.

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— Petrified Over Parenthood

Dear Petrified Over Parenthood,

On the one hand, it’s absolutely understandable that you want to be financially prepared for parenthood, and I won’t pretend it’s easy to manage in a society that provides very little support to parents. To that end, there are plenty of resources that will tell you exactly what kind of nest egg you should be sitting on before attempting to fertilize your eggs.

But I can’t help but bristle at the idea that it’s “irresponsible” to have children if you’re not in perfect financial shape. After all, plenty of people don’t have the privilege of two middle-class incomes like you and your husband. Should they be excluded from having children?

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Additionally, no matter how well you plan, there’s no guarantee that your situation won’t change after your child’s birth. Like many women, I didn’t intend to find myself a single mom, subsisting on one income instead of two. So many people lost their jobs overnight when we were blindsided by the onset of the pandemic. Circumstances can change on a dime, but we adjust and do our best for our kids. It sounds like you have an extensive support system of family and friends nearby, which is an extremely valuable resource and potential safety net if you run into trouble.

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The decision to have children or not is an extremely personal one, and if you don’t think you can handle the all-too-real financial stress of parenthood, that’s an important factor to consider. But if you’re operating under the idea that you have to be wealthy to be a good parent, that’s simply not true. And I think you’re a lot more likely to regret letting money stand between you and your dream of parenthood than you are to regret bringing a very wanted child into your life.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a wonderful son who likes very few kids (even though many kids seem to like him). He has one very good friend at school, who really helps him get through the day (he doesn’t like school much and he has recently been assessed as being both gifted and having low processing speed). We have had this kid to our house for play dates four or five times, which have gone really well. We have perfectly pleasant conversations with the kid’s parents whenever we see them at the school gates or in the nearby playground. But they never, ever ask our son over. I am becoming a bit resentful of this but tried to explain this away to myself that they’re from a slightly different culture and have more kids to deal with. I spoke to someone today, however, who mentioned that their kid was off to this child’s house for a playdate.

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My husband made a few hints at a pick-up from a play date that it would be fun for our son to go to their house. Usually I would be mortified by this, but in this case I was grateful he did so in a very non-threatening way. What do I do? Given how limited my son’s social circle is, this relationship is very important to us, but it doesn’t seem right as it is, and they are going to be at the same school together for 5+ years. I thought it was meant to take a village…

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— Non-Reciprocal Villager

Dear Non-Reciprocal Villager,

I’m curious what exactly is underneath this resentment. Is it burdensome for you to host the playdates with your son’s friend? Or is it just that your pride is wounded by the idea that this family doesn’t seem to want to invite your son to their home?

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There are many reasons why they might not want to have your son over, from a messy house to a chaotic home life to a stressful work schedule that leaves them with little to give. The playdate with the other child may have been a rare exception, or perhaps they know his family well enough to feel more comfortable having them in their home. Or, while I’m sure your son is wonderful, some kids are simply easier to supervise than others, if only because of the way they interact with your kid.

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If you really can’t get past your feelings about this, you may have to be more direct and simply tell this family that your son would love to see his friend but you’re not up to hosting and ask if they’d be willing to have him over instead. Depending on how old your son is, he could also ask his friend directly if he can come over and let his friend deal with asking his parents.

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But while I can understand feeling a bit stung by the lack of reciprocity, given that this friendship is extremely important to your son, I think it’s worth putting your ego aside for the sake of his best interests.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently had a baby boy. My husband has always had some mild anxiety, generally related to big stressful life events (job changes, large purchases, moving, etc.) and has managed it well by talking it out. It has definitely intensified with the baby though. Because it’s not just a one-time event to talk through and move on from, I no longer feel like us talking is helping, nor like I have the energy to keep addressing it every day. (Examples of this anxiety include asking if the baby is breathing when it’s sleeping, asking if baby is OK when he cries, etc.) I want to put his mind at ease, but I just can’t keep telling him 20 times per day that he’s fine, he’s just a baby and babies cry sometimes.

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I mentioned his increasing anxiety, and he got very defensive and said he’s just worried about the baby and that’s normal. I also brought up that partners can be affected by issues like post-partum depression and post-partum anxiety, and asked if he’d like to join me for my 6-week postpartum checkup at the OB’s office where they do the screening for it, and he told me it wouldn’t make any sense for him to come since she’s just my doctor and deals with female reproductive health.

Is there more I can do here, or do I just keep supporting as I can and keep trying to get him to speak to a professional to help manage the anxiety? He’s great with the baby and doing everything he can to support me for the record, and I just want to find a way to support him effectively too.

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— Anxious Dad Makes For A Stressed Mom

Dear Anxious Dad Makes For A Stressed Mom,

You are absolutely right that men can also be affected by postpartum mental health issues. Some research shows that up to 18 percent of men develop anxiety disorders during pregnancy or the first year after the birth. In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement that said “maternal depression affects the whole family” and recommended screening for partners in addition to the birthing parent.

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Men are also less likely to seek help. But if your husband is suffering, he absolutely needs professional help. If he’s not comfortable being screened by your OB, he can speak to his primary care doctor or a mental health professional. Postpartum Support International has a section specifically for dads, which includes a hotline, online support groups, and a directory of providers who specialize in postpartum mood disorders.

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Since your husband doesn’t think there is an issue, try pointing out specific examples of the changes you have noticed in his personality or behavior in a non-judgmental way. Be sure to emphasize that he is a great dad and partner and you are coming from a place of love and concern. As a final trump card, you can tell him that parental mental health is shown to greatly affect a child’s wellbeing. He obviously cares deeply for your son and getting some support will enable him to be the best parent he can be.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

My 5-year-old daughter does dance lessons with a teacher she adores, Miss Emma. Her Christmas concert was this week, and Emma asked each parent to pay $50 for the concert costume. I’ve just picked up the costume, and it has a price tag for $25 still attached. Emma is a very kind teacher, and my daughter very much wants to continue classes with her, but I feel a bit annoyed. I was led to believe she wasn’t making a profit on costumes, and if I’d known she was going to charge us twice the price, I would have gone to the store and purchased it myself. Should I say something to her?

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