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,
How much are you responsible for the relationship your partner has with your children when you know they are screwing it up? “Bob” and I have been married for 18 years and have two kids, 15 and 12. The younger has always been a challenging child, requiring lots of close parenting, intervention, therapy, classes, you name it. They are on the spectrum and have ADHD. They recently came out to me that they are bi and non-binary and wish to be called by a new name. I have accepted this request and continue to have a close and trusting relationship with them. They wanted me to tell Bob on their behalf, because they were afraid of Bob’s response. So I tried to be the intermediary, but Bob insisted that anything the kids wanted to talk to him about should be directed to him. I said fine, let 12 speak for themself. It did not go well.
Bob refuses to use the new name, providing lots of explanations (you can change it when you’re a legal adult, it’s confusing, dead name is non-gendered, etc.) and trying to make it sound like a rational response (he’s an engineer, and lots of his emotional responses are couched as “rational”). Bob and 12 had an enormous blowup, with 12 screaming and sobbing that they wanted to be listened to and respected. Afterwards, what I told Bob was, “You can choose a name, or you can choose to have a relationship with them.” My biggest fear in the world is my kids not wanting to talk to me, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep them close and make sure they know they can trust me. I told Bob this, but I don’t think he understands or agrees. I think Bob has a blind side when it comes to human relationships, to be frank, and that includes those with our kids. He believes it’s our children’s responsibility to bend to him, that he’s the parent, and they should just shut up and listen. Now he is actively destroying his relationship with 12, and 12 has asked me for help. I absolutely think Bob is in the wrong, but I don’t know that there’s anything I can do about it beyond what I’ve already done.
I know we’re never supposed to bad-talk the other parent to our kids—but what if they have really screwed up? I can’t convince Bob to behave differently, I can only tell 12 that I love and respect them and will back them up. I have assured them that Bob loves them and always will—and I believe that—but it’s clear he doesn’t respect them, and 12 knows this and hates him for it. I’m so angry he could be so short-sighted and cruel to a child who is in the process of trying to figure out their identity—which is hard enough without their own dad being a selfish, stubborn ass. Please help!
—Furious and Sad
I feel for you. And before I say what I’m about to, I’ll acknowledge that I rarely offer this advice, as regular readers of my column know. I mention this in order to underline that I do not say this casually, or easily: You need to get out of this marriage.
If your husband is unable to make the right choice—which you have starkly laid out for him—you are going to have to make a choice of your own. I recognize that you’re in a terrible position if you love your husband—or even if you “only” wish to stay married to him for other reasons (there are plenty of other reasons for people to stay married). But if your children’s well-being and your relationships with them are important, Bob’s unwillingness or inability to love them as they are, to make an effort to understand what he does not, and to treat them with respect will ultimately undermine your relationships with them: It will be impossible for them to believe you have their backs if you continue to stand beside him.
Maybe letting Bob know that will be the jolt he needs to become a better father (and a better person). I don’t have high hopes for this, I confess. But because I have witnessed firsthand (in my extended family and among my friends, as well as in the families of the students I taught and advised in three decades as a college professor) adult children cutting off contact with both their parents after one parent was unwilling to stand up to the other—and thus fully stand up for their child—I believe it’s worth a try. Good luck to you. I’m rooting for you and for your 12-year-old.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Up until my kids were born, I had an OK relationship with my mother-in-law. After our first (now 2 years old) was born, it seemed to me she wasn’t as warm or friendly as she had been toward me, but I didn’t have any concrete examples of this—just more of a feeling. But then, after she stayed at our house with our first when the second was born, she did something kind of awful.
When we got home from the hospital, I hugged my toddler, who quickly ran back over to my mother-in-law and climbed into her lap. My mother-in-law said something to her about how it was okay to be angry with me for leaving and coming back with a baby, and how she would never do anything like that to her. My mother-in-law knew very well that I had been struggling with anxiety about leaving my toddler, so what she said seemed to me especially and incredibly cruel, but I also recognized that I was postpartum and thus overly sensitive and emotional, so I let it go. My husband did say something to me after his mom left, telling me he knew it must have been hard to hear that, but “you know she didn’t mean it, she just said something stupid.” But since then (it’s been 8 weeks), the cruelty just keeps coming. She’s commented on my lack of showering/cleanliness (when she came over early for dinner before my husband had gotten home for the day), made us multiple “special dinners” that consist of foods I either hate or am allergic to (as she well knows), and criticized me any time I’ve left the house to do something by myself, leaving the kids with my husband (usually just to get groceries or run other errands, but once for a pedicure and once for lunch with a friend).
This weekend we went to my husband’s sister’s house for a small gathering, and when my mother-in-law arrived, it was in a car full of toys, kids’ books, and toddler food and snacks. My sister-in-law has no kids. When I said, “What’s all this?” she said she wasn’t sure I’d remember to bring the things our toddler needs since the new baby takes up so much of my time and energy. She didn’t want the toddler to feel forgotten, she said. It’s true that a new baby takes a lot of attention, but I am not neglecting my other child! I packed up the kids and told my husband I wanted to go home, which we did (but not before I gave him the option of staying without me and the kids; I told him if he wanted to stay, he could get a ride back with his mother, but I’d had it).
Anyway, he left with me, and I finally told him about all the other “little” things she’s been doing for the last couple of months. She’s been very careful to make her nasty comments when no one else is in earshot, so he was relatively unaware. He said he would talk to her, that he’d let her know she can’t keep talking to me like that. And so he did—he went to see her in person, alone—but afterwards he was visibly upset and told me we would be taking a break from seeing her for a while and to please not respond to any calls or texts from her but to let him know if she tried to contact me. He wouldn’t tell me anything about what had happened, but it must have been pretty nasty to come to this, because they have always been a very close-knit family.
Since then, she has called or texted me nearly daily, sometimes apologetically, sometimes angrily blaming me for “taking her family away.” I know she’s reaching out to my husband at least as often, but he won’t talk about it. I love that he chose to stand up to her and protect me, but I also worry for him, because I know how hard this must be on him. I reached out to his sister to see if he was talking to her about it and she said no, but that their mother had called her, upset, wanting her to get him to talk to her again.
The thing is, I wasn’t looking to cut his mother out of our lives—I just wanted her negative comments to stop. I’m thinking she must have said something really terrible when he talked to her to cause him to stop speaking to her altogether. How can I get him to talk to me about this? I worry that it’s eating away at him.
—Strong Silent Type
It’s a red letter day at Care and Feeding (I guess), because twice in a row I am going to offer advice that runs counter to my usual counsel: When someone is not talking about how they feel, my advice is almost always to talk about how they feel and what’s on their mind.
But not this time. I think you need to leave well enough alone. Let your husband work through this. I can see that you feel uneasy, maybe even guilty, about how this shook out, but your husband made a choice, one that was probably difficult for him, and he made it because (I’m betting) he saw something in his mother that he’d never seen—or perhaps only hadn’t allowed himself to see—and it disturbed him enough to drastically alter the nature of their relationship. Let him be. When he’s ready to talk to you about it, he will. And please do not go around asking others if he’s talked to them about it. That’s intrusive. All you need to do in this situation is love him, support him in his decision … and block his mother’s number on your phone. (You didn’t ask, but I’m going to take my advice a step further, because I think eventually you’re going to need it, too. Do not try to fix this. It isn’t your relationship to fix.)
Dear Care and Feeding,
When I was 17, my stepfather—whom I had not been close to up to that point—caught me making out with my girlfriend (as gay teens go, I was pretty careless). Because he knew how homophobic my mom was, he said he’d cover for me until I made the decision to come out to her. Since then, we’ve had a very good relationship. In college, when I had a few close calls with my mom, he changed the subject or lied for me.
I finally came out to my mom when I was 25, and it went badly. My stepfather filed for divorce within a week. I didn’t speak to my mom for 9 years. I’m married now, and we have three kids—a 4-year-old and 2-year-old twins. My wife carried our first child, I carried the twins, they have the same sperm donor, and each of us has officially adopted the kid(s) we didn’t carry. My stepfather now lives nearby, and he is an amazing grandfather. He never had kids of his own, and I was surprised how great he turned out be with small children.
My mom and I get updates about each other’s lives only because we both talk to my sister. Recently, she told me our mom wanted to apologize to me, and after a lot of hesitation I decided to call her. My mom told me she hates the person she was back then and apologized profusely for how homophobic she was. I was glad to hear it, though it hurt me to learn that the reason she came to this conclusion was that she had talked to her coworker’s very insightful 15-year-old trans son—that she was able to really hear him and not her own daughter, whom she supposedly had loved dearly for 24 years and then called an abomination.
My mom and I have talked a few times since then and I can tell she’s changed. Though she’s hurt me before, I’m excited to have her back in my life. She wants to have a relationship with my kids. She’s coming to the city where I live soon, for work, and wants to know if she can meet her grandkids. My wife doesn’t think it’s a great idea, but says she’ll support me whatever I decide. My mom assures me, every time we talk, that her homophobia is in the past. But I feel conflicted when I think about having the kids meet her. I know how much it would mean to her to get to know them, and I want to give her a chance, but I can’t stop worrying that it’ll go wrong. I want to take things slowly, and I have no idea what that would look like. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
I get it, I really do. And I understand where your wife’s coming from too (I would be very protective if it were my spouse who’d been treated this way as a young person by a parent). But because I believe that people can change—if they want to, if they work at it—I’m with you in your sense that she really has. And I want to gently point out that while I know it hurts that it took someone else to help her get where she is now, when theoretically it could have been her own then-25-year-old daughter, she was in a very different place when she encountered her coworker’s son. She had experienced the loss of her daughter as a result of her own ignorance and cruelty (and perhaps had been stewing in that for all those years, unable to think her way out of it), she was ready to receive what she had been unable/unwilling to when you were 25, and our culture has shifted (not nearly enough, but enough to make a difference).
Of course you should proceed cautiously—but I think that caution can include an in-person meeting. If I were you, I would meet with her alone first, perhaps for coffee. Feel things out. Trust your gut. If your instincts tell you that you can trust her—at least to take a first step forward—then invite her home. Introduce your kids to her. See how that goes before you plan any further visits. One step at a time, OK? I hope very much for all of your sakes that things go well as you move forward slowly and carefully. And keep in mind that the decision you make now is not an irrevocable one. If your mother’s homophobia rears up again, you can change your mind about including her in your family’s life. (P.S. Leave your stepfather out of the equation, at least for the time being. It introduces another, entirely too complicated element to a delicate, fragile relationship that may be beginning on new terms between you and your mom.)
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
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Dear Care and Feeding,
We recently relocated to a different state to be closer to family. My 3-year-old daughter has done very well with the move—she loves the new house. For the first month after we moved, before we could get her a part-time spot at a local daycare, she stayed with her grandparents during the workday, but a couple of weeks ago she started to go to daycare two days a week. Before we moved, she was at home with a nanny, so this is her first daycare experience. To say she isn’t adjusting well is an understatement. She cries the night before, cries as she’s getting dressed, cries on the way to daycare, cries at dropoff. She still goes to her grandparents the other days of the week, and she is happy and excited to go there.
We thought daycare would be a good way for her to meet kids her own age, since we don’t know any families with children here. We also thought it would get her used to being in a classroom. However, she is completely miserable on daycare days. I knew there would be an adjustment period, but I just don’t know how long to give it (honestly, I don’t know how much more my heart can take). Her grandparents would be happy to watch her full time and she would rather go there, so I wonder if I should pull the plug on daycare. I wonder if with the move, this was just too much change for her. On the other hand, I worry that if we pull her out, she will remember this experience and not want to try again in the future. I worry that I am reacting too emotionally and should just give it more time. For what it’s worth, the teachers and other kids in her class seem kind, so I’m not worried about the daycare itself, just that maybe my daughter isn’t ready for it. But how can I tell? How long should I wait?
—When do I Pull the Plug?
Dear Pull the Plug,
I don’t think you need to torture yourself (or your daughter). If you didn’t have another excellent option, I’d advise otherwise, but if both your child and her grandparents are happy to spend all day every day together—for now—I would go ahead and pull the plug. You can plug it back in later. As your daughter gets older, she’ll get more interested in spending her days with other kids. At worst, if the grandparents are up for this, she can continue to spend her days with them until she starts preschool or even kindergarten—it wouldn’t be the end of the world for her to never go to daycare. Consider yourself very lucky to have family who can care for her while you’re at work.
But I would make sure she does get to play with other children. Can the grandparents take her to read aloud events at the public library, the playground when weather permits, and other activities where she’ll encounter children her own age? If there’s class they can take her to once a week—creative movement, say, or a preschool music class—she’ll start making friends there. Learning how to socialize with other kids is a good skill to have before starting school. But there are ways to do it other than through daycare. While I know others might advise you to toughen up and wait it out, I am not a fan of forcing children to do anything unless it’s essential for their health or safety. Or, as noted, if you’re stuck and have no choice. Let yourself off the hook. (And, for the record, I think it’s OK to be emotional about your child.)
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