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,
My 13-year-old daughter, “Fiona,” has recently become very interested in her ancestry. I supported this and got her a membership to Ancestry.com and helped her gather family records on my side.
My husband has been less enthusiastic. He was adopted as a very young child and has always told me he knows nothing about his biological heritage and doesn’t want to find out because his adopted family are his only real family. For the record, my husband and kids are best described as racially ambiguous. Most people would guess a mix of Mongolian, Filipino, or Mexican.
Fiona has been directly asking her dad if she can look into the adoption. My husband has dodged the question for a few weeks saying he’ll think about it. A few nights ago, I asked my husband why he is so averse to learning about his biological parents. His adopted parents would definitely understand, they are very lovely and open-minded people. After some pressing, he suddenly confessed that he does know his biological mother’s name and heritage and has known for years. His heritage is American Indigenous.
I was shocked and hurt at this information, as it meant he had been lying to me for years. I asked him why and he confessed that he has always been embarrassed about being Indigenous, to come from people who were, and I quote, “Pretty much all alcoholics living on welfare.”
This is very out of character for him. We live in a southern state but are both liberals. He has always said that he believes poverty and alcoholism are due to systemic factors, not laziness or lack of self-control. He even has a friend who struggled with alcoholism and I NEVER saw him judge his friend for it.
I told him he should go to therapy about this, and he said he didn’t want to. When I told him this was unhealthy and pushed him, he agreed, but I think he was just doing it to end the conversation and will not end up going. At the end though he made me promise not to tell Fiona and I reluctantly agreed.
Later, I spoke to Fiona privately and told her that her dad’s adoption is a sensitive topic for him and to stop asking about it. But I feel it’s wrong to lie to her and her two younger brothers about their heritage. And when they do find out, I don’t want them to think being Indigenous is something shameful to be hidden. Plus, I am mad at my husband for not telling me knew his biological family all this time. I know it’s a personal thing, but we’ve been married for over fifteen years!
I am looking for advice on how to talk to my husband and hopefully my children about this.
— Questions of Heritage
You need to let go of your anger about your husband’s untruthfulness. I understand your feelings of shock and disappointment at uncovering a secret like this, but this isn’t a secret he kept from you—he kept it from everyone. Instead of being upset at the fact that he covered this up, try to understand his feelings and motives, and do your best to support him in what is clearly a very complicated aspect of his identity.
Second, understand that while people can intellectually know a set of facts, that doesn’t always translate to how we react when it comes to our own personal experiences. (I think about the letters we receive about parents struggling with their child’s gender identity, or systemic racism.) He may also know or assume something about his adoption that has impacted his opinions on this matter.
I think it was good that you suggested your husband go to therapy. But if he is not really willing to go—and not just go, but openly explore things once he’s there—you can’t make him. And that might be OK. In reflecting on your husband’s situation, without having been party to these conversations, I do wonder if this is one of those occasions where not everything that is “broken” needs fixing. If your husband has been able to lead a happy, successful life without confronting issues around his heritage, you might just let it be.
Regarding Fiona: Your husband needs to come to terms with the fact that this secret will probably be revealed at some point. DNA and ancestry sleuthing is more common with each passing day. To me, the question is not if the kids will find out, but when. You and your husband can decide whether you are comfortable letting fate decide that timing, or whether you want to be proactive. If the latter, figure out a trigger point when he will be willing to be honest with his kids—maybe it’s when they reach a certain age, or once one of them does a DNA swab.
This is a situation with no “correct” way forward. Do what you can to let your husband control the narrative of his own life without outright lying to your daughter. If you and he can work together to strike that balance, you can at least rest assured that you acted with respect and sensitivity.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My mother lives a bit less than two hours away, so quite often when she visits (especially in the winter) she comes in the evening for dinner, stays the night then leaves the next day after lunch during naptime. We recently added our second baby to the family, and he is not a fan of sleeping, greatly preferring crying as his nighttime activity. Because our toddler is a light sleeper and our bedrooms share a wall, I’ve been sleeping in the extra bedroom downstairs with him until we all get more settled and used to each other.
My mother asked about coming to visit this past week, and I said she was welcome but wouldn’t be able to stay overnight as the baby and I are in the extra bedroom. She said the couch would be fine, but I told her because of her sleep apnea and incredibly loud snoring (she knows this is a thing), it wouldn’t work because of the layout of the house. She got very upset and said it sounded like we didn’t want her to come visit at all so she wouldn’t. I told her that wasn’t what I said at all—we are prioritizing good sleep for our toddler during this transition. She said driving down and back in the same day was too much, so a visit would just have to wait.
We live in a rural area, so there are no hotels within a 30-minute drive. I see her point about it being a lot of driving in one day, but I don’t think we’re wrong either to try to keep this transition smooth by doing what we need to help our toddler sleep well. I see this continuing to be the situation for the next couple weeks at least, so do we stand our ground on sleep arrangements or should we be looking to accommodate her if she’s coming for the visit?
— Sleepless in PA
You are totally within your rights to stand your ground on this subject. I just wonder if you have to. I sympathize with your desire to prioritize sleep for your kiddos—my first son was so hard to get down, and didn’t sleep through the night for 18 months, which made me completely on edge about anything happening after 7 p.m. But I can also imagine your mother’s point of view; she has a brand-new grandbaby, which she is effectively being told she can’t come snuggle during its newborn phase. That hardly seems fair to her. If I were you, I would invite her on the weekends—when husband and toddler don’t have work or preschool to worry about—and just accept that someone might have crappy sleep for a night. Buy a white noise machine (or two) and maybe some earplugs for your husband. You might also give your mom your master bedroom and have your husband sleep downstairs to lessen his chances of waking.
In looking back at my early weeks and months of motherhood, I stand by most the decisions I made about my babies and household, but I do wish I had been less absolute about some things. You can put guardrails around your family’s sleep without being extreme about it. Your mother and future-you will probably appreciate it.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My (30F) relationship with my mother is very important to me, but also very taxing. She is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, and she struggles with chronic pain. She also lives alone on disability income due to the severity of her mental health struggles and has regularly told me how she sees suicide or MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying, a Canadian program) as valid options, as she sees no way to make her life better. She’s holding out hope that future grandchildren will bring some purpose to her life.
I’m used to the cycles of her berating me and being mad at me, typically due to some action or inaction on my part that triggers her immense anger. I do not blame her as I know that “hurt people hurt people” and that it’s her mental illness that causes the irrational lashing out. I try my best to see what I did wrong without allowing myself to breakdown over guilt. I always want to help since she doesn’t have a very strong support system, and I try to do so gently, but am often accused of trying to “parent her” or “dictate” her life.
All of this would be fine, however I’ve recently found out I’m pregnant with my first child. She’s just sent me another email laying into me and has made it clear she wants nothing to do with me (so for the foreseeable future, that’ll hold true). Do I wait out telling her until she decides we’re on speaking terms again? I’ve already told my father and stepmother as my husband and I spent Christmas vacation with them, and it was suspicious that I didn’t want sushi or champagne.
We’re about to go visit his parents next month and will likely have to tell them too for similar suspicions (and I’m excited to tell them). I know if she’s the last parent to know, she’ll be very upset, but I could white lie to cover it. But if this cold shoulder period lasts too long, I’m going to want to tell people, and don’t know how to proceed. Do I tell her now, even though she’s mad at me (and I’m hurting from her anger)? Do I wait until she reaches out again? When things are good, we talk on the phone daily, so having other important people know this big news before her feels weird.
— So Many Mixed Emotions
Dear Mixed Emotions,
Congratulations on expecting your first child! Based on your letter, it seems to me that waiting to tell your mom carries risks that telling her doesn’t. Given her pattern, I don’t think she will accept any of your logic about why you didn’t reach out with your news (even though she said she doesn’t want contact)—she will simply be hurt, and it might turn into one of those things she holds over your head for years to come. On the flipside, if you shoot her an email with the subject line “happy news from me and [partner name]” then it’s her choice whether to open the email or not. As you have indicated, you cannot control her behavior, you can only control yours. So, do what will make you proud of yourself years from now when you look back.
Now, let’s focus on you. Are you actively in therapy to help manage the impacts of your mom’s mental health? If not, please start now. If I have learned anything from my time as a mom and the letters we get at this column, it is that a baby is never a panacea for family drama—in fact, quite the opposite. You might be facing a future where your mom uses your child as another way to emotionally manipulate you; I’m sure you can imagine, based on your experiences, what that might potentially look like. I am not trying to paint your mom as a villain (I agree with you that these behaviors are not intentionally malicious), but I do want to make sure that when motherhood’s hormones and logistics make you more vulnerable that you have the tools in your toolbox to manage your own wellbeing. You will likely have an even harder tightrope to walk than you have now, and a therapist can be very helpful in managing that. Good luck, and congratulations again!
Dear Care and Feeding,
I would like to know if I’m wrong in wanting my husband to be cleaner and neater. My husband retired a few years ago, and I am still working. He grew up in a not-so-clean household with clutter everywhere. (When I first visited his parents’ house, I asked if they were in the process of moving. He wanted to know why I asked.) I can’t stand clutter. Since retirement, my husband has made my bedroom, his office, and my sitting room full of his clutter and it’s driving me crazy! He refuses to get rid of stuff and gets angry if I move it or put it away. For example, he had six glue sticks sitting on the desk. I put four of them away, and he got angry. This is one example of many. He won’t put things away and says it’s his house, too.
I cannot stand coming home to this. He says it shouldn’t bother me since it’s his stuff around him. Am I wrong? I want to leave him because I cannot stand him anymore, but I have nowhere to go. I’m thinking of throwing things away and not care about his fussing, but I’m reluctant. I just need some advice. It was so much easier to keep my house clean when he was working. Now it looks so cluttered.
— Cluttered Brain
I can hear how infuriated you are in this letter, and I can also infer how stubborn your husband is being. I’m frankly fascinated that there has been such a dramatic shift between pre- and post-retirement life. Was there never a conflict about clutter, or anything home-related, before this? Because it seems as if you both have no practice in compromising on this subject.
I want to point out that you referred to the sitting room and bedroom as “my” and not “ours.” To me, that indicates that you, consciously or not, think of these spaces as rooms that you control, and that he just happens to spend time in. Does that sound accurate? If so, that is not fair play. Meanwhile, it appears that your husband is using retirement and “stuff” as his way of asserting himself in some kind of act of rebellion or independence.
Both of you need to take a breath and get on the same team again. You’re taking something that should be workable and letting it fester into a major standoff.
You are not wrong in wanting your husband to clean up his act—common areas need to be spaces where both parties feel reasonably comfortable. And no, just because the mess belongs to a loved one doesn’t mean you have to love the mess (nice try, buddy). But he is not wrong in expecting to have a say in how these spaces function, and he shouldn’t have to be the only one adapting to his partner’s preferences. It is natural to need a bit of norm-resetting after a major life change, like retirement. The pattern of your lives has changed, and you both need to come together to set shared expectations for what that looks like. So, he might need to tidy more than he wants, and you might have to accept a bit more clutter than you want. Or, you all might need to designate a “man cave” that he can treat however he wants—whatever works for you both.
Is this kind of cooperation possible? You say you want to leave him because you cannot stand “him” anymore—is it him or this behavior that you want to leave? If the latter, you can find compromise and establish a new normal; it will just take time and effort (and maybe a marriage counselor if you think a neutral party would help). If the former, you have bigger things than glue sticks that you need to consider.
More Advice From Slate
So my wife and I had a disagreement about whether to learn the gender of our second child. (We did learn for the first.) Chatting with family on the phone, I said I wanted to know, and my wife said she wasn’t sure—that she was thinking about being surprised—and made a joke about how the gynecologist wasn’t going to tell me without her permission. Afterward, I asked my wife if she was serious, and she said yes, absolutely: While she very much wanted to make the decision whether to know together, she thought it was important that we do the same thing. What’s your take?