Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
How much should parents disclose during divorce, when the divorce itself is sparked by sex issues? My husband and I are the parents of a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old, and if things continue as they are, we’re probably sliding toward divorce. I hope that’s not the case, but I’ve lined up a lawyer, and I’m on a therapy waitlist.
Two years ago, my husband announced in the middle of what I thought was a good sex life, that he wanted to open up our marriage. It was very strongly implied that he would leave me if I disagreed. I agreed to it unhappily, but ultimately it worked very well for me, and I was really happy with my new experiences. He was less so since he’s not gotten much interest and the two times he succeeded were both disappointing to him. He was so upset that after 18 months we closed the relationship, but being exposed to other options and discovering that he can be really selfish in a lot of ways beyond sex definitely opened my eyes. He’s leaning hard on a whole “traditional marriage” thing as a result, and I’m quite unhappy. I’m worried he’s going to claim I cheated on him if I pursue a divorce, and I don’t want to ruin things with our kids, but I also don’t know if I can stay.
Dear Divorce Woes,
If you decide to go forward with a divorce, your children do not need to know that sexual conflicts were a significant factor in your choice to leave. It’s enough to tell them that the two of you had issues that could not be worked out, you were no longer happy, and you felt that parting ways would be the best thing to do. Perhaps later in life, when your children are adults, if you have the sort of relationship where you speak frankly about topics like sex, you may want to share more information. But at no point would it be necessary to tell your kids that your marriage unraveled over an attempt at an open relationship and you shouldn’t feel bad about keeping that to yourself, perhaps indefinitely. Kids are not entitled to know everything about their parents—you deserve some privacy.
As far as making the decision goes, it sounds like you have a lot to think about. Couples counseling may help the two of you to work through your challenges or to recognize ways the relationship has been irreparably damaged. I think you should continue to pursue therapy on your own either way—this complicated situation has given you a lot to process. If this marriage no longer suits you, you owe it to yourself to move forward. If you want to salvage the relationship, your husband must be willing to prove to you that he can be the partner you need. You deserve to be treated with respect and to have your feelings taken seriously.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a question about how to best support my seven-year old-son. He’s always been interested in things that aren’t “traditionally” male; he has a lot of rainbow items and brightly colored clothing, for example, and wears dress-up clothes at home. We often get his items from the “girl” section because sexism is still alive and well. We’ve always been supportive of him wearing what he wants to wear, and his preschool and elementary school have been supportive of him as well. He has a rainbow backpack with a unicorn and a rainbow-sequined unicorn lunchbox.
On two separate occasions, however, we’ve had him tell us that he doesn’t want to carry them “in public. ” He didn’t want to carry his backpack off of an airplane once, and just recently he didn’t want to take his lunchbox with him to a special day camp for President’s Day. He says that he’s afraid he’ll be embarrassed by them. He told me that he hasn’t had an interaction that embarrassed him (but he might be hiding or forgetting something that happened), and he likes having these items at school. I can’t quite get a handle on why he’s feeling these things, and how I can best support him. I almost worry that given the books/movies that we’ve read and watched about boys doing dance, musical theater, etc. almost always start out with the protagonist being bullied before they end up being accepted has him concerned that there are others he might encounter who would bully him. Any suggestions for how we can help him navigate his feelings and be comfortable in these “public” settings?
—Raising Billy Elliot
Dear Raising Billy Elliot,
Your son is so lucky to have both supportive parents and a supportive school environment. However, he has still been able to discern the fact that there are people in our society who wouldn’t embrace his style of dress. It’s possible that he has omitted or forgotten a particular incident, but it wouldn’t take a negative encounter for him to know that there are adults and children who’d take issue with his accessories. Television programs, movies, and books are still largely heteronormative and as you mentioned, stories about boys who embrace traditionally “feminine” interests often center some sort of resistance to their identities.
I think you should have some honest dialogue with your son about the importance of being true to himself while understanding that some may take issue with who he is. Affirm his identity and his choices, and celebrate his love of color and sparkly things. Talk about how some of his preferences are typically associated with girls and why it’s unfortunate that people are put into gendered boxes. Let him know that it is important for him to live his truth, but also that you can understand why that may be scary at times. Explain that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about being a boy who loves rainbows, and that people who feel otherwise are ignorant. Encourage him to do his best at being himself at all times, and be gentle with him when he lacks the courage to do so. Make sure that he knows that no matter what, his parents will always stand by his side and accept him fully. There are a number of lovely books that explore the expansive nature of gender identity, such as Julian Is a Mermaid and Pink Is for Boys; read those and talk about the power of being himself, even when it feels hard.
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From this week’s letter, My Daughter Broke up With Her High School Boyfriend. But I’m the One Crying: “I haven’t breathed a word to my daughter or anyone else about these feelings.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are expecting our first child in a few months. Following the baby’s birth, we plan to hold a small, family-only naming ceremony in our home. We don’t have many relatives nearby aside from our immediate families and one set of grandparents each. The problem is: I do not want to invite my husband’s other grandmother, who lives out of state, because she is emotionally abusive to my in-laws. She has ruined many weddings and family celebrations with her hurtful words (think body shaming, racist, and gender insensitive comments), and I don’t want to bring her into my home and introduce her to my new baby. (For what it’s worth, neither my husband nor I have ever been the target of her comments; we seem to fit the mold of what she wants from children/grandchildren).
My husband, however, would rather invite her to spare my father-in-law from having to deal with her harassment. I do not think that reason is sufficient; my father-in-law is entitled to maintain a relationship with her while we can choose not to do so. Also, I have a feeling that she will make a big deal of the fact that the baby will not be named after her husband who passed away a few years ago. I do not plan on inviting her into my home or to any future events for this child since I would never want to put any child of mine at risk of being the target of her abuse. I know the baby won’t remember anything from the ceremony, but for everyone else’s sake (and my own), I really would like to avoid this invite. I’m not sure how to approach this next, with my husband or my father-in-law.
—Protective (Future) Mama
The most important thing here is getting your husband on board with not inviting his grandmother; it sounds like he may have the inclination to include her in family events out of obligation. Let him know how important it is to you that this occasion isn’t dampened by her mistreatment of her relatives and that you do not wish to involve her in any future celebrations for your child. Acknowledge the possibility that this will create an awkward situation for his father, but that this is very serious to you. Talk about how hurtful her words have been and why you are so resolved to protect your child from her behavior. Hopefully, your husband will understand and after years of enduring her shenanigans, he’ll be glad to have an excuse to exclude this unpleasant woman.
As far as talking to your father-in-law goes, your husband should ideally lead that conversation. If he doesn’t, let him know that it isn’t your desire to create conflict with his mother, but that you are simply unable to tolerate the way she treats family members and that you are unwilling to allow that dynamic around your child. Your FIL knows his mother and he shouldn’t be surprised that you wouldn’t want her around. Perhaps he can use the fact that she lives out of state as an excuse for why she wasn’t invited. Maybe he’ll throw you, the “outsider,” under the bus. Either way, you needn’t overly concern yourself with how this woman feels about being left off the guest list or who she blames for that.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
How does one deal with a co-parent/ex who regularly lies about, badmouths, and generally undermines the other parent? I’ve always been of the mind that regardless of whatever bad feelings there are between me and my ex, it is in our kids’ best interests to maintain a relationship with both parents. However, my ex clearly does not view it the same way.
Over the last five years, she has regularly told our kids I’m manipulative, criticized my relationship choices (to them, never directly to me), and told them they aren’t a priority to me (which they very much are). I have a good relationship with both kids, who are now teenagers, and I know that they take most of what their mom says with a big grain of salt. Still, I worry that when someone hears a lie over and over, a person can start to believe it is true. I don’t want to ask my kids “What did your mom say about me this week?” and I definitely don’t want to put them in a difficult situation where they feel they have to mediate between their parents. My ex and I used to have a co-parenting agreement in which we both agreed to bring any parenting concerns directly to the other co-parent, but she never really followed that. I’ve requested we go to mediation but she flat-out refuses. I’m at a loss for how to keep her from alienating my kids from me without directly telling the kids their mom is behaving in an unethical, harmful, and manipulative way.
Though I’m sure you’ve given this some thought, let me remind you that you can take your ex to court to try and force her into mediation. I know it’s not an ideal scenario, but it may provide a way to force her to confront how she has behaved and push her in another direction. Whether or not you take any steps to try and change the relationship between you and her, I think your children deserve to hear your frank thoughts on this. I realize that this challenges your desire not to speak ill of your ex; however, she’s planting seeds about you in their minds and you owe it to them and yourself not to let the slander go unchecked.
You can still be respectful of your ex as you confront some of her claims about you. Tell your children that you only want for them to have a great relationship with both of their parents and that you would not go out of your way to challenge their mother unless you absolutely had to, which in this case, you do. Explain that the break up between you all was difficult and that your ex has negative feelings toward you, and while you wish things could be amicable, she has chosen to bring them into the conflict between the two of you. Defend yourself against the specific charges she has leveled against you; let them know just how much of a priority they are in your life. Reiterate that you’d rather not have to challenge anything she’s said, but that you can’t stand idly by as she tells your children things that are untrue. Explain that you know it’s difficult for them to hear these things about you and that you don’t want them to be caught in the drama between you and your ex, but that you have no choice but to defend yourself. But more importantly, let your actions toward them show who you really are. Hopefully, the kids will learn to ignore their mother’s claims about you.