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 son recently received an award at work, which was presented at a dinner. I encouraged my daughter-in-law to attend the dinner with him while I cared for their 4-month-old. Since he’s started to do better with bottles (he’s breastfed and previously had been refusing bottles), she agreed (if nervously—and I did have to make the offer multiple times). The night of the dinner, she seemed hesitant about leaving and told me to text her if he was refusing a bottle, reminding me that she could be home in 20 minutes if needed. I assured her we’d be fine and sent them on their way. The baby fought a bit and ended up having only half of his first bottle. I figured if he was hungry and didn’t have his mother around as an option, he’d do better with the second one later. But he didn’t want that one either. He gagged and spit up. By that time, though, my son and DIL were going to be home in an hour anyway, so I just held him while he cried and did my best to comfort him.
When they got home, they were apologetic that he hadn’t gone to sleep the way he usually does by that time, and I said he was probably a little hungry because he had only had half of his first bottle and hadn’t taken the second. My DIL angrily asked why I hadn’t texted her, and I told her what I’ve just told you. She took the baby and left the room to feed him. My son went in with her and came out a few minutes later and told me I should go home. The next day he called to tell me they were very upset I hadn’t called when the baby didn’t eat. I told him I just wanted them to have a couple of hours out of the house and obviously the baby hadn’t been THAT hungry if he kept refusing bottles.
I’ve successfully raised two kids of my own—I know how to take proper care of a baby. But my son said that for now they’d like some space, and he’d like me to apologize to my DIL when we do get together. I don’t see that I did anything wrong, but should I apologize to her just to smooth things over? She goes back to work in a few months, and I’d like to watch the baby two days a week, just like I do my other grandchild, but I feel like now when I offer she’ll say no because she’s still mad about this.
—Nana Knows Best
No, I’m sorry. You do not know best—not when it comes to someone else’s child. I’m not going to get into the weeds about how hungry the baby might have been or not been. That’s not the point. The point is that this wasn’t your call to make. The baby’s mother was anxious about leaving him for an evening. Indeed, she was ambivalent, at best, about going in the first place. (Again, I’m not going to weigh in on this, because it’s nobody’s business but her own. Some new parents have no trouble leaving their infants with a grandparent or other trusted sitter; some hate to leave them, no matter who is available to care for them.) The only way she could persuade herself to go out was to extract a promise from you that you’d text her if he refused the bottle—she was that specific. And you didn’t do that. You absolutely do owe her an apology, and it had better be a heartfelt one. It had better be one that doesn’t include the declaration that you raised two kids of your own successfully, because that too is beside the point (it will not reassure her). If you want to be the one who cares for that child two days a week when his mother goes back to work, you’ll have to be able to convince her that you’ll handle things the way she wants them handled, not the way you think is best. And you’ll have to actually mean it. Otherwise, I think, you can say goodbye to that plan.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife (26) and I (24) are expecting our first kid. I am a woman of color; my wife is white. We met, got married, and live in her hometown. My own family lives on the other side of the continent (in Canada) and my parents speak little English. We see her family a lot more than we see mine, and we have a good relationship with them. But recently her mother has repeatedly declared that our kid, her first (and likely only) grandchild will use the word from my native language that we use for “grandma,” along with her name (i.e., “Grandma” X). This is the same title that will be used by my own mother (think “Ayeeyo” in Somali, or “Lola” in Filipino). My wife feels strongly that this is a kind of appropriation, and that this title should be something special for my mother. I find myself going back and forth about how I feel (but also less concerned about the former, more about the latter). But even my wife, who is so adamant, isn’t sure about how to address this with her mother. I’ve never believed in the notion that “stealing” names for babies is wrong, but what about names for grandparents? How do we gently shut this down if it comes down to it?
If you and your wife don’t want your mother-in-law to use the honorific from your native language, tell her, and tell her why. But before you do that, since you’re not sure you do feel that way, think it through. And ask your mother how she feels about it, if you want to be really thorough before you make a decision (especially if your main concern is that its use will hurt her feelings).
I do want to point out, in regard to the idea of “specialness,” that in many families in which English is the language spoken at home, the grandmothers are called Grandma X and Grandma Y, or Nana X and Nana Y, without issue. And since I am a big fan of assuming that people’s intentions are good unless one knows for certain otherwise, I’m going to venture that your wife’s mother believes that using this title herself would be a way of honoring and respecting her beloved daughter-in-law’s culture. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good way to do this, of course. Intentions aren’t everything. And if you and your wife decide together that you don’t like her mother’s plan, being honest with her is the best way forward. (It pretty much always is.)
But keep in mind that your mother may be touched—pleased—rather than upset by your mother-in-law’s enthusiastic embrace of this honorific. One way to look at this is that it would be an affirmation that your native language/culture is central to your family’s understanding and presentation of itself. (In other words: there is no one right way to handle this!)
Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Herman Each Week
From this week’s letter, I’ve Had It With Other People’s Comments About My Baby: “Well-intentioned friends make comments like, “Wow! Your baby is HUGE!”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I hate my sister-in-law. She makes every visit to my husband’s parents’ home excruciating. She is constantly yelling at and berating their mother. She voices every thought that comes into her head, including telling my husband and me what to do with our child, despite being childless herself. On a handful of occasions, I have been her target, something she has never acknowledged or apologized for. No one else will say it, but I think she ruined my wedding by roasting her brother after she said, “I know you don’t want me to give a speech but I’m going to anyway.” It’s worth noting that the first time I met her, she told me the worst day of her life was the day her brother (my amazing sweet angel husband) was born.
Their parents have always allowed this now 45-year-old woman to act and talk this way. I would go so far as to say that they reward her bad behavior. For her 40th birthday, they gave her a very expensive watch. (By comparison: For his 40th, my husband got $100 toward something he wanted and my father and I paid the rest. For our son’s second birthday, he got $200.) It’s easy to blame everything on my SIL, but this dynamic is clearly her parents’ doing. My husband is obviously hurt by this, but he doesn’t like to talk about it. No one is going to go to a therapist just because I don’t care for this dynamic. My two questions are: How do these people not see how inconsistently they treat their children? And other than supporting my husband, is there anything else I can do?
I’m an advice columnist, not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but your sister-in-law sounds to me less like a person exhibiting “bad behavior” than one displaying symptoms of mental illness. Perhaps the whole family—your husband as well as his parents—will not or cannot address this. Or (for all you know) they have, to no avail. If your husband “doesn’t like to talk about it,” you may never know. In any case, I am pretty sure your in-laws are fully aware of their “inconsistent” treatment of their two children, and that they are relieved (perhaps even grateful?) that your husband has you—and your family, it sounds like—while they continue to take care of their troubled adult daughter. (I’m not saying this is “fair.” I’m just saying they may be doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances.)
As to your second question: For goodness’ sake, stay out of it. This is not your problem. Don’t make it your problem. You say your husband is “obviously hurt” by his parents’ seeming to favor his sister, but unless he has told you that, I think you’re projecting. And you should project yourself right out of this equation. I am 100 percent certain that this dynamic existed long before you entered the family. Do whatever you can not to insert yourself into it. (And if you can’t bear to be around your sister-in-law, don’t. Let your husband and son spend time with them without you. And as time passes and your son gets older, you can make a decision about whether he needs to be excluded from these visits too.)
Dear Care and Feeding,
How do I get my parents to divorce? They’re each individually nice people, but they are absolutely TERRIBLE together. They average a screaming match a day, often over completely idiotic stuff like one of them walking too fast for the other to keep up with, or cooking with cheese when the other has a dairy intolerance. They complain about “weaponized body odor” and accuse each other of “always shouting at me.” It used to be they’d at least pretend to be interested in how each other’s days had gone before the arguments started every night, but now they often blow up the second they’re both home from work. It is beyond ridiculous, and I am sick of it. I’d suggest family therapy if I had any faith it would work, but I’m sure at this point they just need to burn the relationship down and start over. For my sake, how can I get them to do this?
—14, and the Only Adult in the Room
If they are as miserable together as your letter suggests, it’s possible that they’re staying together for what they believe is your sake, because they fear it would be devastating—or at least extremely destabilizing—for you if they divorced. Many parents feel this way (and it’s often true, too). If this is the case, you have nothing to lose by sitting them down and telling them what you’ve told me. Let them know that you can see how unhappy their marriage is (you can offer chapter and verse), that it’s making you miserable to be living in the midst of it, and that you want them to know that you would be happier and overall much better off if they separated. (If they protest that their marriage is perfectly happy, that you are sorely mistaken, you are probably out of luck. There’s no percentage in arguing with them about it. And of course they may have other reasons, having nothing to do with you, for wanting or needing to stay together.)
As I see it, one possibility of your calling them out on their ugliness to each other and how it’s affecting you will be a wake-up call. Maybe they won’t end their marriage but will be so ashamed of themselves, they’ll do better after that. Maybe they’ll decide to try couples counseling. Who knows?
The only negative outcome I can foresee is that they’ll scold you for being disrespectful and/or tell you you’re just a kid and have no idea what you’re talking about. (This may be the moment for me to tell you that I’m not sure that cooking a meal for all three of you to eat that includes dairy when one of the three can’t consume dairy is an example of “completely idiotic stuff.”)
But if your confronting them goes nowhere, take heart: You’ve got only four years left of living in this battleground. In the meantime, I wish you fortitude.
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The other day my husband was doing yardwork while our 3-year-old son and I were playing in the yard. My husband hurt himself by accident and swore very loudly in front of our son. Now our son keeps saying “f*ing sh*t.” We’ve tried telling him we don’t say bad words like what Daddy said, but that didn’t work. Then we just stopped reacting to it hoping that would stop it. That didn’t work. Now he’s dropping F-bombs constantly. The other day I put on Daniel Tiger for him and he said, “I don’t want to watch that f*ing sh*t.” Help me!