Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a strained relationship with my dad and need advice on how to respond to something he said to me recently. To boil down a lot of history, I’m an only child, and my mom was abusive to both my dad and me. My dad never left her, defended me, or did anything to actually protect me. Instead, he would commiserate with me about how “difficult” my mom was after she had, for instance, put me in the hospital. I didn’t realize until adulthood how messed up this was. I used to absolutely adore my dad and think of him as the “good parent.” He and other family referred to me as a “daddy’s girl.”
Since I grew up, moved out, got a lot of therapy, and developed actual healthy relationships with people in my life, I have put distance between myself and him and my mom (whom he still lives with). I won’t see my mom anymore but try to have an OK relationship with my dad, calling and texting and occasionally meeting up. He has resisted every boundary and insists I will “make up” with my mom one day, an assertion I now simply ignore in conversation. I want to keep him in my life, partly so I can know he’s physically safe. (My mom is thankfully less violent now than she used to be, but I still get sick with worry for him.)
But in our last exchange, I gently rebuffed his suggestion that I come stay the night at their house and suggested we meet in my city as an alternative. His response was a lengthy message in which he told me that my mom was “right about me” and that they both “miss the nice little girl I was.” (I am 27.) He told me how sad I make him by never visiting and that the “only affection” he gets these days is from his dog, Toto. He then said, “I often wish you were more like Toto and that our relationship could be more like mine is with her; she loves and cuddles me, but you don’t.” I am so angry and disturbed. I am too embarrassed and ashamed to talk about this with my friends. Can you please advise on how I should reply to this awful message? Does it sound like I need to give up on a relationship with my dad too? I feel sick at him.
—Not a Dog
Dear Not a Dog,
As you recognize, your father is in an abusive relationship with your mother, and as a result, he was unable to protect you from her. Though you have found the courage to cut your mother off and to seek help for yourself, he hasn’t been able to see his circumstances—or how they impacted you—clearly enough that he’d know better than to expect you to reconcile with her. I think you owe it to yourself and your father to be honest with him about why you don’t have the sort of affectionate relationship he’d like to have with you. He should know how you feel about his inaction when your mother mistreated you, as well as where you stand on her behavior toward him. Tell him about the steps you have taken to heal yourself and why you won’t be changing your stance toward your mother.
You can continue to have a relationship with your father if you choose to, but I think that will mean having to manage your expectations of him accordingly. He is beholden to your mother and that is unlikely to change. If you see fit, perhaps you present him with an ultimatum: You will continue to engage with him only if he respects your decision not to deal with your mother. If he can’t handle that, you may find that you’re happier not communicating with him, or checking in on him only on rare occasions.
By failing to protect you, your father enabled your mother’s abuse. It may be difficult for you to see him for who he is beyond how he let you down, or to move past his insistence that you’ll forgive her someday. It is absolutely OK for you to decide that he is too upsetting or too triggering for you to deal with. It’s also OK if your empathy for your dad prevents you from fully letting go of him. What is most important is that you do your best to tend to your own feelings and make choices that make you feel healthy and whole.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is 7 years old and in second grade. After homeschooling, due to COVID during kindergarten and first grade, she seems to be adjusting really well to the academic rigors of public school, and has gotten used to the more regimented experience in the classroom. The problem is, she is sick ALL the time. As of March, she’s missed almost three weeks of school due to the flu and respiratory illnesses, in spite of being fully up to date with all her COVID vaccines and flu shots. She’s always been one of these kids who spikes a fever for a day whenever she gets a little bit sick—and of course, the school wants her to stay home for 24 hours after a fever.
The number of absences she’s had due to illness is causing me a lot of stress. We’re fortunate in that my husband is a stay-at-home parent, so child care isn’t an issue. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing SOMETHING wrong because she’s sick so often. Her doctor says she’s seen a lot of families who were isolated during COVID dealing with this and that “this too shall pass.” I worry that her teacher will judge me as a parent because of her illnesses, that she’ll fall behind, or even that we’ll be reported for truancy.
I honestly can’t tell how realistic my worries are. Is this normal for families returning to the germy hotbed of school post-COVID? How concerned should I realistically be about getting “in trouble” for her absences?
—Stressed and Sickly
Dear Stressed and Sickly,
There have been reports of an uptick in “chronically absent” students since the COVID pandemic began. Try not to worry about being judged by your child’s teacher and, instead, be proactive and reach out to them about your concerns. Most teachers would prefer that you didn’t send a sick child to school. You’re likely already doing this, but make sure your child’s absences are appropriately documented and categorized as excused. Talk to the teacher about how you can best support your child academically and what you can do to try and fill in any gaps in instruction. Find out what the school/district policy is with regard to excused absences and consider speaking to an administrator to let them know that you’re aware that your child has missed a lot of school and that you want to ensure that they’re not going to be penalized in any way. Allow your child to use sick days to heal, but when possible, obtain assignments and homework from their teacher and have them complete them if they are feeling up to it.
Importantly, don’t beat yourself up for this. You aren’t doing anything to cause your child to be ill, and by keeping them home, you’re both allowing them the space to get better and protecting other children and school staff from getting sick too. A child with a fever has no place in a classroom. You’re doing the right thing, even if it doesn’t feel good.
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From this week’s letter, My Ex’s Death Has Led to the Unlikeliest Arrangement: “This guilt is eating me up inside and I don’t really know what to do about it.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am an Asian American woman. I’ve been married to my husband, who’s white, for 10 years. We always wanted to have kids at some point, but about six years ago, we ended up taking in my husband’s sister’s children, who were 8 months and 3 years old at the time. We adopted them, and they consider us their parents rather than their mother and her ex-boyfriend, who both gave up their parental rights and want nothing to do with the kids. They call me “Mom.”
A lot of times, we get interesting comments when we go out in public since I’m a darker-skinned Asian woman and my kids are pale-skinned white children with blond hair. We used to live in a fairly diverse community, and while people were sometimes rude, we didn’t really deal with a ton of issues pertaining to our multiracial family. Last year, we moved for my husband’s job, and our new town is less diverse.
Ever since we moved here, we’ve been questioned a lot more. People assume I’m the babysitter. I get questioned in public to make sure that my kids are my own. Our kids know that while I may not look like them, we’re all still a big family. But I’m not entirely sure how to talk to the kids about the increased scrutiny we face when going out as a family. Last week, I took my daughter to get glasses, and it took the staff almost 30 minutes to figure out that I was the primary cardholder of her insurance policy. We went to my son’s favorite restaurant to celebrate his birthday last night, and we got rude comments from several other patrons; when my husband was in the bathroom, we heard “Make sure their mother’s OK with them eating that cake,” and when my kids indignantly told them I was their mother, we got disgusted looks and a “joke” about the kids teaching me English. (I’m American, I grew up here, I’m fluent in English, and I barely speak my native language.)
My parents were not great at talking to me about issues involving race, and we both experienced the same racism! My kids are now 9 and 6. I’ve talked to them a bit about how racism impacts me as their mother, but I get overwhelmed by their follow-up questions. I’m asked about how our experiences are different from that of my son’s best friend, who is Afro-Latino, or why the things we go through have no easy fix. I’m stuck when it comes to talking about racial privilege or things like that with my kids. I have no idea why I have such big blinders on this topic; it may stem from my upbringing, where my parents told me that unless something was causing me physical harm, I should just keep my head down.
—What to Say?
Dear What to Say,
Regardless of one’s own upbringing, talking to children about racism can be incredibly difficult. Racism is silly, it lacks justification, it shouldn’t exist, it’s unreasonable, it doesn’t make logical sense, and explaining something like that to a young person is inherently challenging. Your parents were among the many adults who choose to instruct their children to look the other way, and they may have thought they were protecting you from pain by refusing to engage you about racism; they also may have felt, as you do, that they lacked the words to adequately explain it to you. Regardless of their reasoning, this choice likely left you ill-prepared for some of the experiences you would have throughout your life, possibly dating back to your own childhood.
All children need to learn about racism from an early age. It is important that children of color are prepared for what they may encounter out in the world and, for white children like your own, that they do not perpetuate racial bias. You must continue to have these dialogues with your children, uncomfortable as they may be. I think it would be helpful for you to strengthen your own conceptual understanding of racism so that you can answer some of the questions that will come up. Author Ibram X. Kendi has a few books that I think you would find useful, such as Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which will fill in some of the gaps with regard to your own understanding of American racism, and How to Raise an Antiracist, which talks about how to prevent your own children from absorbing racially biased attitudes. Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race is another excellent resource for navigating this difficult subject.
It’s critical that you don’t shy away from talking about race and racism with your children, even if that means admitting at times that you don’t have all the answers. Taking the time to educate both yourself and them will likely also help you to gain some perspective on your own experiences.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
How can I build closeness to my nephew over time, since I’m not that familiar with kids, and my social circle doesn’t include any yet? My sister had a baby in September and lives a plane flight away. I visited right after his birth to support her, and again when he was 6 months old. I’ll likely visit three to four times a year, which I know is practically an eternity apart to a kid.
Since he’s a baby right now, it’s pretty easy—when he was new we cuddled, walked, and I changed diapers, and at 6 months, we do all that stuff plus play with toys, sing, and practice sitting up and rolling over. But soon he’ll be bigger and there will be more to know, and I’m kind of freaked out about it. I don’t want to be the out-of-touch relative who visits, tells you how big you’ve gotten, and then bores you to death. But also, I genuinely don’t know much about babies and kids.
Part of it is worry about comparison—my brother also lives locally to my sister and he’s a pediatrician, so everything he does with our nephew comes easily. He also adores our nephew, so we have bonded over that at least. I’m hoping to read about child development a little bit to know what to expect, but I also don’t know how to stay in touch and would love advice.
Dear Faraway Aunt,
You don’t have to be an expert on children to have a great relationship with a child, nor do you have to live nearby. What matters is the love that you show to your nephew when you’re together, which he can already feel. Make the most of your visits: Give him your attention, and continue getting on the floor to play with him. Also, keep in touch with him on a regular basis. You can start FaceTime/Zoom chats with him now, and they’ll only get better as he gets older and is able to communicate more. Get in the habit of sending him things as well. They don’t have to be expensive. You can purchase him books or small, inexpensive toys; you can send him drawings you’ve completed; and when he’s old enough to read, receiving letters from you will probably be more thrilling than you’d expect. Your commitment to nurturing this relationship, despite the distance, is what matters most.