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 mother was terribly rude during our Christmas visit with my parents. My husband, two kids, dog, and I traveled to be with them, and although she had told me how excited she was for us to stay with them, she complained constantly while we were there. She hated: the movie we watched, the music we played, the route I chose to walk my dog, food I brought from home to share, etc. She also kept barging into conversations, frequently either interrupted my father’s stories to “correct” them, and offered her opinion or self-proclaimed expertise about pretty much everything.
My 22-year-old son did some laundry and left the dryer door open, and she complained so loudly to my father about the fact that the light could have burned out, I heard her from upstairs. The next day, she refused to let this son prepare his own meal and acted offended and angry that he was using her space (he has dietary restrictions and I had told her that he prefers to make his own food). There was a reprise of this on our last morning, and she raised her voice at us saying that this was her kitchen, her house!
We packed pretty quickly after that and left. She was all hugs and smiles during the sendoff. And she has since texted me several times with photos from our visit, telling me how much she misses us. She has a long history of narcissistic behavior that my father and I have discussed, and of refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing on her part; whenever confronted by me or my father about her behavior, she turns it against him. So I’m hesitant to call and confront her about what happened over Christmas. I know that she will a) deny it, and b) call me back the next day, after she has had hours to think it over, and blame my father for everything, even though he was perfectly pleasant the entire visit. Is it even worth confronting her? It would only be to get it off my chest and let her know why I don’t talk to her very often. But I wonder if there’s any point. She’s in her 70s—she’s not going to change. Meanwhile, I suffer from anxiety and my entire December was ruined in anticipation of that visit. One thing I do know for sure is that I don’t want to spend next Christmas there. Why would I? She ruined my holiday and left me depressed.
—Conflicted Adult Daughter
I’m sorry to hear that you’re depressed—it sounds like a pretty miserable Christmas. But I wonder about a couple of things. First: surely this wasn’t the first time your visit with your parents went badly. Your antipathy toward your mother seems to long predate this last unpleasant experience with her (honestly, it doesn’t sound like anything new happened, except in the particulars). You’re all grown up, with at least one grown-up child of your own. And you were anxious in advance of this visit—which suggests that you had an idea that there was going to be more to it than Mom just being glad to see you. So…why did you go? No adult is under obligation to spend holidays with their parents, even if it somehow feels like you must.
So good for you, deciding not to spend next Christmas with them. And I think you’re right: there’s no point “confronting” your mother. Just tell her what I wish you’d told her years ago: that you want to spend Christmas alone with your husband and kids. You don’t need to say any more than that.
But the second thing that’s on my mind is this: While some of what you describe does indeed sound dreadful (and some of it seems to indicate that your mother has demons of her own), some of it makes me think that you are borrowing trouble, or looking for reasons to be angry with her. (I’m not saying that you don’t have reason to be angry or upset, only that the laundry list of grievances you offer includes a number of things that sound like run-of-the-mill family irritation.) If you need to keep your mother at a distance, for your own sake, do it. If you want to keep in closer touch with your father, find a way to do that. (If your father refuses to be in touch with you without including your mother, you will have to deal with that.) You neither owe anyone an explanation for these choices nor—I promise—will it make you feel any better to get your anger off your chest. If you want to talk through your feelings about your parents—and I think you need to—a therapist can help you with that.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am struggling with family estrangement. My daughter (40) cut off all contact about three years ago. I lost not only her but my three grandchildren (who are now 7, 10, and 20). She never told me why. Then, about a year ago, through her brother, she indicated that she was ready to re-engage. When we spoke for the first time, I offered to go with her to therapy to work through our issues. She said she didn’t want to look backwards but was willing to move forward. I was invited to my granddaughter’s tenth birthday party and was heartbroken anew when the 7-year-old did not know who I was. My daughter’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law studiously avoided me at the party (I can only imagine how she must have framed our estrangement to them, if they treated me that way).
My daughter seems to have no idea how profoundly hurt I was by the loss of her and my grandchildren and is not willing/interested/able to invest in repairing the rift. I came to uneasy terms with this loss only to have her say she was ready to move on and reconnect—and then not do it in any meaningful way. Yes, there is childhood trauma (as far back as you may care to go) and we both suffer from mental health issues. We are both actively involved in working through our own issues individually. For my part, I have acknowledged and attempted to atone for how my poor choices affected her. Now I feel like I’m stuck in a liminal state, like she’s dangling a carrot to keep me miserable. So, my question is: should I give up?
—Gram is a Four-Letter Word
I want to say this gently, because I can tell how much pain you’re in, and from the perspective of a mother with her own grown child, I can think of almost nothing that would be worse than her cutting off contact with me.
But. It is enormously important for you to step outside your own pain right now and consider your daughter’s, which you inflicted on her, however unintentionally. As the parent in this twosome, it’s crucial that you keep in mind that it was your responsibility to do right by her, and that your inability to do so—no matter what the circumstances were—came at great cost to her. The only way I can think of to say this (though I know it’s going to sound harsh and unfair) is that her feelings matter more than yours. Please remind yourself that she has reached out and is taking (baby) steps to include you in her life and her children’s—perhaps for her children’s sake, and perhaps for yours. You do not get to set the terms of this reconnection. You do not get to insist that the two of you do therapy together.
If you want to be a part of your grandchildren’s lives going forward, you are going to have to accept that this will not happen overnight, and you will not be the one to dictate the terms of those relationships. Can you do that? If not—if you cannot get past your hurt feelings, and recognize that an olive branch has been extended (and no doubt at considerable emotional cost to your daughter)—then yes, you should “give up.” But I urge you not to. I urge you to keep your eye on the prize, and take this step by step, in whatever way your daughter is able to give it to you.
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From this week’s letter, I Want My Baby to Have a Close Relationship With Her Grandparents, but My Sister Keeps Getting in the Way: “Both parents have health issues exacerbated by stress and the last thing I want is to harm them.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
We have three grown children. Our older daughter has three children from two failed marriages. We have always helped her out, financially and emotionally, from the time she got pregnant in college and (unmarried) had her first child, who’s now 12. Her second marriage has recently fallen apart, and we find ourselves constantly on call. Although always self-involved, she used to show appreciation and was pleasant to be with. Her attitude has changed, especially over this past year, when she switched to a fun, better-paying job. She’s very pretty, only 34, and is hounded by men. We are often asked to have the kids sleep over.
We love our grandchildren and don’t mind having them over. We eat as a family, TV off. We give them stability, and I make an effort for family dinners for birthdays and holidays. But we have never been invited to a home-cooked meal at her house. She makes no effort for us. Her house is a pigsty, and despite my best efforts, she barely knows how to cook. Though she looks impeccable, her children and dog are a bit wild. Her 12-year-old does a lot of babysitting for her brothers, ages 3 and 5, during the day, and has learned to take care of herself. It’s our house that is the center of the family, and I feel underappreciated for all the cooking, cleaning, gift-buying, good times, and effort I put in. She takes selfies at our pool or at the beach or at the table I have laid, and if anyone else is in the photos, it’s her kids and sometimes her dad—never me.
Christmas was the last straw. After I had cooked for two days and decorated for the kids (who loved it), when it came time to exchange gifts, my husband and I got a gift certificate for movies (which we no longer go to). I had sent her a link to an inexpensive wall clock ($14) for my studio that I would like “from the kids.” No such luck. The kids gave us nothing, not even a homemade card. I feel tough love is needed, but in the past, when she is upset with us, she cuts contact with the kids until she is desperate for babysitting again.
She cannot support her kids on her own, even with a decent job. Husband 1 pays child support but it’s minimal, husband 2 takes the boys a couple of days a week and pays nothing. She complains all the time, acting like she’s a single parent with no support, but she dumps the kids on us and goes out or works late all the time. I don’t know how to call her out on her selfish, thoughtless behavior without it affecting our relationships with the kids. But I’m hurt, fed up, and don’t know how to make her realize how uncaring she seems to us (for what it’s worth, she is in therapy). Hubby is the “let it be, she’s always been like this” kind, and more than indulges her financially. Help!
—Feeling Used in Florida
Help your daughter raise her kids or don’t. Enjoy the company of your grandchildren or don’t. But don’t expect this to be transactional. If your daughter never thanks you or mentions that she appreciates your help with the kids, go ahead and tell her that this hurts your feelings, that it makes you feel unloved (which is really what this comes down to). That is not the same thing as “calling her out” for her selfishness (of course she’ll slap back if you do that; anyone would). Being angry about her perfunctory Christmas gift-giving strikes me as entirely missing the point—both about how you feel (see above: unloved) and about gift-giving and receiving overall. Can you take a moment and think about this whole messy situation more clearly and more … holistically? Can you sort through the various tangled strands of it and separate them? Her messy house is none of your business. That she doesn’t invite you over for a homecooked meal makes sense if she can’t (or just doesn’t want to) cook. If you resent your husband’s making excuses for her, take that up with him. If you wish to have a better relationship with your daughter, maybe don’t refer to her two divorces as “failures.” (If you don’t wish to have a better relationship with her, that’s your prerogative too. But don’t put all the responsibility for this dysfunction on her.)
I know it feels terrible to be unappreciated, but I’ve found that when I feel put upon and aggrieved, the most helpful thing I can do for myself is consider how I have put myself in that unappreciated situation in the first place, then make adjustments as necessary. Something tells me that what’s happening right now is an old, old story in your family—including your feeling that your husband has aligned himself with your daughter and that nobody fully appreciates you and all you do. This doesn’t excuse your daughter for never expressing gratitude—if that truly is the case—but it does mean that there’s more to this than meets the eye, and that the “last straw” of the puny Christmas gift is a red herring.
And bottom line? If you value your relationships with your grandchildren, then stay in your daughter’s life and accept (or just tolerate) the way things are. (You may want to repeat my own mantra: I can’t change anyone else. I can only change the way I respond to them.)
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My older daughter, Sophia, who is in third grade, is a walking paleontological encyclopedia. If we go to a dinosaur museum, she’ll tell me what the placard got wrong or cool facts it left out. In her free time, she often reads dinosaur encyclopedias, watches dinosaur documentaries and paleontology YouTube videos, etc. Half of her clothes are dinosaur-themed. My brother paints miniatures, and for her birthday, he painted Triceratops on her eyeglass frames. It was a lot of work—we had to have the lenses removed, and since she wasn’t wearing her glasses she kept having me take pictures while my brother was painting so she could zoom in and check on his accuracy.
Sophia’s known as “the dinosaur girl” at school, and one of her “friends,” Jane, recently started (essentially) bullying her for liking dinosaurs, which Jane insists is a “boy thing.” Jane makes fun of her every day and Sophia pushes back quietly, telling her it doesn’t matter what she thinks, but this hasn’t stopped Jane’s bullying. One of Sophia’s other friends has told me he finds it worrying that Sophia is friends with someone who’s so mean! I emailed their teacher, and she said she’d talked to Sophia, but because Sophia thought it wasn’t a big deal (that’s not what Sophia tells us—she tells us it hurts her feelings), there wasn’t much she could do about it.
Talking to Jane’s parents wouldn’t work—they have more traditional views on gender, which is probably where Jane’s new behavior originates. My husband and I have told Sophia that because Jane is so mean, she really isn’t her friend, and that Sophia can and should set boundaries on their relationship. But Sophia continues to play with Jane. She will not tell us why. (I’m guessing it’s because they’ve been friends since preschool and Sophia finds change difficult.)
I won’t facilitate playdates for them, but when Sophia asks to arrange one, my husband still says yes. He thinks that while we can guide her, we can’t make the decision to end the friendship for her, and that by being friends with Jane, maybe Sophia can change Jane’s mind about what “boy things” and “girl things” are. I think this is ridiculous. She’s only 8, and it’s clear that despite being hurt, she isn’t going to set any boundaries; we have to set them for her. I also find it concerning that Sophia voluntarily plays with someone who’s so mean to her that other third graders are telling me they’re worried about it. The whole situation is a mess and I would love advice on how to deal with it.
—The Dinosaur Girl’s Mom
Ah, as a mother of a (former) dinosaur girl, whose kid also sometimes tolerated treatment from friends that incensed me, you have my sympathy. In my daughter’s case, the meanness didn’t have anything to do with dinosaurs, or gender roles (it tended to be about her being out of step when it came to pop culture), and I do think the specific nature of Jane’s bullying of Sophia makes a difference—that it is in fact both better and worse. Better because Sophia seems to know that dinosaurs aren’t just for boys, and thus is in a better position to defend herself (and, as your husband points out, to educate Jane) and to dismiss Jane’s learned-at-home (oh, isn’t it always?) sexism. (My poor daughter just felt like a freak for not knowing stuff the other kids knew.) But worse, of course, because Jane’s ideas about gender are pernicious.
But here’s the really bad news (for you, I mean). Your husband is absolutely right. You should not make the decision to end Sophia’s friendship with Jane for her. Eight is old enough for her to begin to learn how to navigate such relationships—and it is not too young to educate others! Besides, I am pretty certain that you don’t know what’s keeping Sophia in this friendship. I am pretty certain that she’s friends with Jane because she loves her, despite Jane’s repeatedly saying something mean. And while I don’t approve of your pulling the plug on their relationship, I do wholeheartedly endorse your having some conversations with her, both on the subject of sexism and its wrongness and tenaciousness and on love and how it is expressed and what should not be tolerated by those we love (and who may claim to love us). These life lessons are more than worth the price of admission.
More Advice From Slate
What is your take on expectations of women these days? I can’t tell if I’m a total dud or normal, but I feel exhausted by the expectations of me. I am a mother of a young child, and this is my main priority. I do all the parenting (literally), and my husband’s only expectation in this area is to say hello to our child when he gets home. You could argue that this dynamic is my fault, but among my friends it’s actually pretty common that the mom does the lion’s share of parenting.