Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
When our son “Felix” was born four years ago, my husband and I made the decision that we wanted to limit his exposure to screens and sugar as much as possible. That worked well until last year, when I went to work and my mother began providing regular childcare—which for her, came with dessert and cartoon time in the afternoon. We talked to her about it a few times, but she’d always revert. We finally realized she wasn’t changing and decided that it was something we could live with in exchange for the free babysitting and we focused on setting limits on weekends, and it’s been fine!
Recently, my mother-in-law wanted to have Felix for a sleepover, which he was excited about. We explained to her beforehand that we tried to limit sugar and screentime as much as possible on the weekends, but when we picked him up we learned that they’d both been part of the visit—ice cream and a movie in the evening, pancakes and some cartoons in the morning. (Felix had a great time.)
I was pretty frustrated and told my MIL as much! She said that it wasn’t fair that my mom gets to share these kinds of “grandma indulgences” with Felix but she doesn’t, and that she’s already jealous of their closeness because of how much time they spend together. I told her that when she starts giving us free childcare we can talk about screens and sweets! This hit a sore spot for her, since she’d love to care for Felix but she won’t be able to retire for years, while my parents are well-off and have more free time.
We apologized but haven’t really spoken since—she has done all of her communicating through my husband. He recently told me she asked about another sleepover, but that she didn’t mention the screens and sweets. He thinks we should let Felix go, and that a few hours of TV and some dessert won’t hurt him. I can’t decide if he’s right, or if I should let Felix go only on the condition that she agrees to no TV or sugar, or if I should put my foot down here and say no on principle because she disregarded our wishes before. What do you think?
— Don’t Pour Any Sugar on Him
Dear Don’t Pour,
You are totally justified in your desire to limit your child’s screentime and sugar intake. However, I have to say, I think there’s an issue with the difference in how you’ve approached that with your MIL versus how you’ve approached it with your own mother. You basically sold your mom the right to circumvent your rules in exchange for free day care. Furthermore, you literally told your MIL that she could have the same privileges if she were able to provide free day care, something you knew she could not afford to do.
It’s very common for Grandma’s house to represent a break from the structures that govern a child at their own home. Indulging one’s grandchildren is said to be one of the most pleasurable things about being a grandparent; grandmas and grandpas across the world take great joy in softening themselves for their grandkids and allowing them to have and do things they might not have allowed for their own children. I don’t think it’s fair for you to allow this dynamic to exist for your mother, but not your MIL, especially since it seems as though the primary difference between them is class. Why should a lack of means prevent your MIL from indulging your son? Furthermore, it isn’t as if your MIL is going to have your son in her care that often—we’re talking about occasional sleepovers here. Please let your MIL be a grandma to her grandson. Apologize to her again and allow her to show your son a good time when he goes to visit her.
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’m a woman with two teenage children, and I’m in the process of divorcing my husband. We had the classic “your parents love you but can’t be together anymore” conversation with them, but I’m trying to navigate the much thornier issue behind our divorce with the kids.
Keeping it vague, my ex did something over a period of the last 18 months that I would have been completely fine and supportive of, if they had told me. Instead, they engaged in increasingly elaborate lies, but it was something that always would have come out in the end. Our daughter found out by accident a few months ago, and my ex pressured her to keep it secret from both me and her brother. This was really messed up, and has hurt her relationship with her brother and with my ex. Ex takes no responsibility for any of this.
I know family therapy for them and maybe me is good (the kids are on a wait-list for a place that does sliding scale, and also at the two places in our county that take my insurance), but money is incredibly tight right now, and I’m trying to figure out how to navigate this in the meantime. How do I talk to my kids about this when ex won’t? How much do I tell them? The thing that ex did wasn’t wrong, and there’s a chance they could also experience something like it one day, but the lies were wrong, and forcing my daughter to lie to her family was incredibly messed up.
— It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Coverup
Obviously there is a lot here that I don’t know about what transpired with your ex, but from what you’ve told me, it sounds like you need to have some honest conversations with both of your children about what took place. Try to talk to them about what happened truthfully, while still being sensitive to their relationship with their father. Allow them to express themselves and discuss how your ex’s deceit hurt them and impacted their relationship. Acknowledge what a difficult position your daughter was placed in and that she shouldn’t be held accountable for being dishonest with her brother. Explain to them, as you see fit, how your ex’s lies put you on track for a divorce and why this situation is as serious to you as it is. While it will be difficult to navigate your ex’s refusal to take any accountability for what he has done, it will mean a lot to your children that you were truthful with them and that you allowed them the space to share their feelings openly.
Stay on top of your pursuit of therapy and get the three of you enrolled as soon as time and finances permit. Be there for your children during this difficult time to the best of your ability and as challenging as it may be, encourage them to maintain a relationship with your ex in spite of what he has done. Be mindful not to let your own (justifiable!) resentment for this man to impact how you regard him in the presence of your kids, even as you have to talk openly about something that he has done wrong. Wishing you all the best in navigating this incredibly delicate balancing act.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My MIL has been married three times. Both previous husbands passed away, one being my husband’s father, “Will.” My MIL and husband were very close then and he helped her get through the devastating loss of losing her husband and his father. She found “Jake” about one month after “Will” passed on. My husband was a bit concerned but didn’t say much. Less than a year later she and “Jake” were married.
“Jake” has a son. She tried to become really close to him and forgot about her own son and daughter, so much so that sometimes I have had to call her to remind her she missed her son’s birthday. She has only two kids and keeps forgetting HER son’s birthday. Wasn’t she there? When Jake died, my husband was good enough to be there for support and comfort. Before his funeral, she was already on an online dating site to find her next husband. Less than a year later, she married “Tom.”
She chooses to be very involved with Tom’s children’s lives. She has called my husband four times in one year, while he has called her at least twice a month. When she did call, she would ask how my husband is and then interrupt him to tell him about her life. We have asked her to come over (we live five mins away from her) and she says that she is old and can’t move around well but yet she can visit Tom’s kids out of state. We have offered to come by her house and there is always an excuse as to why she can’t have company.
My husband has spoken to her about his frustrations quite a few times. She doesn’t appear to care much about him or his family, so he stopped calling her altogether. Christmas came around and he told her that we would not be getting together and told her why. She said she was very hurt and that he needs to conform to her busy schedule. She told him that how he feels is wrong. I hate seeing my husband hurting this way. She has been like this for way too long. She chose to drift away. She keeps telling him now that she is the only mom he will have and to deal with it because she is old and won’t be around long. What? My husband and I both have health issues, and she just doesn’t seem to care. She will never admit her wrongdoing. Tom is not very nice to my husband, often saying inappropriate or unkind things to him when his mom can’t hear it. I hate seeing this happening to this family. What, if anything, can you suggest I or my husband do to help this situation?
— Weary in Wisconsin
You and your husband will both have to come to terms with the reality of who his mother is: self-important, narcissistic, and committed to having a man no matter what she has to sacrifice in order to do so. This woman has made a choice, and her inability to be alone has found her clinging to her husbands’ families instead of taking care to nurture her own. I can imagine that this has been devastating for your husband, and I encourage you to encourage him to seek out some professional help. He is going to have to accept who his mother is and to find peace with himself in spite of it. It is critical that he doesn’t hold himself responsible and that he recognizes her selfishness for what it is. I think it is great that he let her know that you all wouldn’t be gathering with her for the holidays. It is important to set boundaries with this woman, rather than to sacrifice yourselves in order to make things work with someone who is deeply committed only to herself.
Be present for your husband, allow him to talk about the pain he is experiencing without judgement and support his decision to further limit her role in your lives. Don’t delude yourself into believing that you can talk your MIL into being a better mother; she has shown you exactly who she is. Focus on helping your husband to find ways to love himself in spite of the lack of care from a woman who once meant so much to him. You cannot replace her, but you can be his shoulder to cry on as he comes to terms with how she has chosen to regard him.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have twist on the classic body image issue: My husband and I are new parents to a 6-month-old daughter, so I have some time but I want to be prepared. Growing up, my parents both had issues with food and body image, and in an attempt to avoid causing problems for me, they only ever told me I was smart, capable, determined, etc. Neither of my parents ever told me I was pretty or made any positive body comments at any point in my life, and I craved that attention. Looking back at pictures, I was a cute kid and so were my siblings. As an adult, I know I’m average looking. Not ugly, not supermodel material, but I still have self-esteem issues related to my appearance. How do I keep from replicating this experience with my own kid?
— Trying to Break Three Generations of Issues
Dear Three Generations,
It sounds like you recognize what was missing in your life growing up: You needed to hear that you were beautiful, inside and out. You needed to know that you were enough, but your parents were only able to focus on nurturing certain parts of your self-image. All children deserve to hear that they are gorgeous so that they can believe it, in addition to being told that they are intelligent, worthy, and full of potential. Start giving your baby all of those messages now. Let her know that she is adorable, and smart, and talented. Make sure that there is balance in how you talk to her about who she is, and that you don’t overemphasize one virtue above the others. You can let a child know that they are beautiful while also teaching them to believe that physical beauty isn’t the measure of a person. You can encourage her to embrace and love her body at any size while still driving home the idea that we are much more than who we are on the outside. Think about the things you wanted to hear growing up and say them to your child, regularly. She will thank you for it later.