Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband, daughter, and I live in a city that’s apparently big on father-daughter dances at school. Neither one of us are from places that had these dances. I personally don’t love the concept, partially because of the patriarchal feel, but mainly because I think about all of the little girls who are excluded because they don’t have fathers (whether dead or absentee), don’t have a great relationship with their fathers, or are abused by their fathers. We are a couple of years away from my daughter being able to attend, but I’m already thinking about what to do. My husband agrees with my viewpoint, but also admits he’d probably feel sad about not attending. I also wouldn’t know how to begin explaining to our daughter why she couldn’t attend, if we ultimately made that choice. So, what say you? How do we handle it?
— Dancing Dilemma
Dear Dancing Dilemma,
So, it’s not a father/daughter dance, but our school eventually made the switch from Muffins with Mom and Doughnuts with Dad to a biannual Pastries with Parents. Even before the change, they made it clear that a student could invite any adult family member or caregiver they wanted to either event. Language does matter, but you might ask the organizers of the dance whether they’re welcoming in practice—I know I’d feel differently about participating in such an event if it were a hard-and-fast rule that only dads and daughters could go, as opposed to any parent or caregiver and child regardless of gender. And who knows: Maybe if enough people ask about it, they will think about changing the dance and how it’s advertised to the community.
I think this is really your call as parents. Personally, I have made the choice to participate in mom-centric events with my kids when they want to. I’ve not found it terribly difficult to talk with them about my reservations, and why there is no good reason for these events to be gendered at all, in age-appropriate ways; e.g.: “I really love going to Muffins with Mom with you, but I don’t think the school needs to call it that—not every kid has a mom, and everyone should feel included.” I bet you’ll find that you are able to do this as well? In my experience, it doesn’t have to turn into a big lecture for kids to get the point; many of them already care about kindness and fairness, and don’t want anyone to be left out.
Of course, the question of whether or not your daughter goes to this dance in a few years is less important than the broader conversations you have about gender and family and inclusion throughout her childhood—these conversations will start simple, of course, and then grow deeper and more nuanced as she gets older. You’re going to talk with and raise her in a way that is consistent with your values and principles, and ultimately, that is what matters most.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am living in a college dorm with a roommate. It’s the first time either of us have been away from our families, but her family situation has years of abuse and trauma that she still hasn’t escaped. Her mother is an alcoholic, and she has depended on my roommate to take care of her and give her money to support her addiction since my roommate was in junior high. My roommate has paid their bills and run the house since her dad left. She confided in me that she thought that going to college would be freedom for her, but she is sucked back into this toxic cycle with her mother.
I want to tell her to cut her mom off, but it’s not that simple. Her mom depends on her to keep her rent and bills paid, and can’t be depended on to do so herself. When my roommate tries to set boundaries and say that she’s not sending more money after paying for rent, bills, and food delivery, her mom says she will go back to an abusive ex. I understand that addiction is a disease and this is not her mother purposefully being toxic, but my roommate is 18 and working so hard to make her own life. Not only does she not have support, she’s being manipulated by her mom. My parents say to stay out of it, but my roommate works a waitress job almost every night while studying engineering, and she has been living this way for so long she doesn’t know what else to do except give into her mom’s demands for money (which she spends on alcohol) to keep her out of an abusive relationship and/or homelessness. My roommate says she can’t afford rehab even if her mom were willing to go, which she isn’t, but I know she can’t live the rest of her life like this. What can an adult daughter do for an alcoholic mother when she doesn’t want help?
— Worried Roommate
I can tell how much you care about your roommate, and of course you are concerned for her. Unfortunately, there is not much you or she can do if her mother doesn’t want help treating her addiction. Your roommate can’t control her mother’s choices or behavior, and you can’t force a major change in their relationship. What you can do is be there for your roommate, without judgment, and just be the best friend you can be. I know that this may be hard to accept, because you want to take some concrete action that will help make her situation better. But I assure you that being in her corner, reassuring her and letting her know that she can depend on you, is far from nothing.
It sounds as though the two of you are close, so I think that in addition to listening to her, you can encourage her to seek out more support—perhaps an appointment at the student counseling center, or a virtual or in-person Alateen or Al-Anon family group meeting where she can meet and talk with others affected by a loved one’s alcoholism. Knowing that she isn’t alone in this, that there are many others who can understand what she’s going through, might be of great value. And it might also help her figure out what sort of boundaries are feasible or right or necessary for her right now, and how best to set them.
You want to be there for your friend, and you will be, but please be sure you take care of yourself—your studies and other pursuits, your friendships, and your wellbeing are all important, too. Be aware that your energy and emotional resources are finite, and try to have your own support system in place as you strive to be a good friend to your roommate.
Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Nicole Each Week
From this week’s letter, My In-Laws’ Constant, Disruptive Grandparent Visits Are Pushing Me Over the Edge: “Their loud voices and constant baby talk and their very comfortable attitude around my house drives me mad.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is 9. Last weekend, we had a really close call with a car accident—someone was speeding the wrong way down a one-way road heading straight for us. Luckily, I swerved and they narrowly avoided grazing my daughter’s side of the car (she prefers sitting on the right side). Since that incident, she’s been terrified of car trips. She’s fine with taking the school bus, but cars are too much. We had to skip gymnastics, which she usually loves going to. It took half an hour to get her into the car to go for her eye doctor appointment, which she’d been looking forward to because her glasses prescription is outdated and she’s finding it harder to see. Today she started crying as we were trying to get ready to go to her best friend’s birthday party, first because she was scared about getting into a car accident, and then because she was afraid her friends would judge her for crying. She eventually went and had a blast, but wound up tearing up in front of her friend anticipating the drive home.
My in-laws want to take her on an outing next weekend. My daughter is having a hard time balancing her new fear of cars with not wanting her grandparents to know about her fear and wanting to spend time with them (and it’s not like they’ll judge her for it, they love her unconditionally). She can be timid and afraid of random things at times, but it’s never been this bad before.
— Concerned Parent
Timid or not, it makes sense that your daughter is still shaken after such an experience. She’s only 9, and it’s probably tough for her to process what almost/could have happened, let alone understand or assess the risk of it happening again. Her anxiety about getting in the car is understandable, but given that it’s also affecting her ability to live her life and go places she wants to go, it might be really helpful for her to talk with a therapist who can help her find ways to recognize and express what she is feeling—perhaps through play or art therapy, given her age. (You can ask your pediatrician for recommendations if you’re not sure where to start looking.)
For now, until her anxiety recedes, I wouldn’t force her into the car unnecessarily; I know you have to drive her places sometimes, but just for a little while, maybe don’t insist unless it’s really important. If she has to go somewhere in the car, build in extra time so she can talk with you about it, share what she’s feeling, and not feel rushed into it. Practice calm, deep breathing with her so she can do it any time she feels anxious. Does anything else help her feel more grounded? Talking with you, drawing, listening to music, having a favorite snack, reading a favorite book, playing a game on a tablet, holding or sipping a cold beverage? You can try making some or all these things available to her when she needs to ride in the car.
As for the grandparent visit, I would try to talk with her grandparents beforehand and let them know some of what your daughter has been going through. If she doesn’t want to talk with them about it, she shouldn’t have to, but it seems like something they should be aware of and sensitive to if they spend regular time with her, just so they don’t accidentally trigger her or push her to do something she doesn’t feel comfortable doing. By the time she sees them, your daughter might be over the worst of her fear and excited to go on the outing; even if she doesn’t feel up to it, there’s no reason she can’t still spend time with them at home. Hopefully, everyone in her life will be patient with her, and give her time to process. Anyone might be anxious after experiencing such a close call, but remember, she’s very young—she is still learning how to handle big feelings. This fear isn’t going to exist at this intensity forever, and she’ll have a better chance at recovering if she has the understanding of the people who love her and all the space she needs to express and have her feelings validated.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I recently welcomed a beautiful daughter into our family through adoption. We kept our journey to parenthood a secret from most of our family and friends, so it was quite a wonderful surprise for them. But the commentary we were hoping to avoid by keeping our adoption a secret is now flooding in—stories of pregnancy after adoption, followed by how it would be so great if we could have our “own” child. These types of comments make my blood boil. How do I shut down these comments in a way that will educate people at the same time?
— Love Makes a Family
Dear Love Makes,
Did your adoption agency have any guidance for you regarding conversations with family and friends? If not, you might try bringing this question to them, given that they are privy to the details of your adoption and have doubtless served many parents in your situation. Though I have to imagine that “best-practice” recommendations would usually include starting the adoption discussion, at least with close family members, before you bring a child home. It’s really for your child’s sake as much as yours—if there are people in your family who might be ignorant and/or insensitive about adoption, that’s not great, but it’s better to know and try to address it before you’re busy actually parenting that child and introducing them to relatives.
Keeping an adoption shrouded in secrecy feels like a bit of a throwback to the days when it was much more stigmatized, often kept quiet due to shame. (That stigma has not gone away, especially for adoptees and birth parents.) Choosing secrecy now, when many people are much more open about it, could send the message, true or not, that parents are uncertain, embarrassed, or not entirely at peace with the complicated decision to adopt. I’m also not sure why you thought you wouldn’t field any unfortunate comments about it just because people found out later. It’s not that your adoption plan was everyone’s business, but family and others genuinely close to you might have expected to know, as they probably would if you were expecting a biological child. The fact that it was a complete surprise to most of the people in your life means that they had no time to prepare, to talk with you about it, or to educate themselves; some of them are now probably grasping something to say. While I don’t excuse their insensitive or ignorant remarks—as an adoptee, I’m very familiar with the things adoptive families hear—I do think it’s possible that choosing to be more open with your family at an earlier juncture might have led to better conversations with at least some of them, if only because you could have led those conversations instead of just reacting to your relatives’ surprise and unwanted stories.
You asked how to shut this commentary down now that it’s occurring. You can certainly choose to correct people’s wrongheaded assumptions if you want to. My parents would sometimes shut people down with flat statements (“She is ‘our own child’”) or jokes (“Most parents are stuck with their kids; we chose ours”). When I’m facing a particularly rude question or assumption, I will sometimes ask, with feigned surprise, “Why would you ask/say something like that to me?”—because it turns the tables and forces the other person to scramble for an explanation. You can also simply refuse to discuss it and change the subject.
But even if you manage to quell these unwanted remarks from family and friends, you need to know that the weird adoption commentary probably isn’t going to end with them. If you’re confused or hurt by some of the things you’re hearing now, as an adult, imagine trying to understand and figure out how to respond to invasive questions or comments as a 5- or 6-year-old. Odds are that your child will hear and be increasingly aware of these things as they get older, and it will be your responsibility to affirm and assist and defend them when necessary—and yes, sometimes you’ll need to do this within your own family or community. Of course, you can and will still have your own (valid) feelings about it. But as a parent, your primary concern will shift to how it affects your child. You need to know how you will respond, how you will support them, how you will make space for and prioritize their feelings even as you deal with your own.
More Advice From Slate
My son is 6. Among other things, he loves fairies, unicorns, stories about girls, and the color pink. The other night my son couldn’t sleep because he really wants to read a unicorn book at school but doesn’t want his friends to laugh at him. Should I ask his teacher to step in and try to teach these kids that your gender doesn’t have to determine what you like?