Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I need some help navigating a situation in my blended family. My husband has two daughters (14 and 17) from a previous marriage. The original marriage ended when the girls were toddlers. His ex-wife remarried five years later. My husband and I married when the girls were 10 and 13 after a whirlwind romance. We had to move out of state for my job shortly thereafter. The girls’ primary residence has been with their mother, stepfather, and grandmother. Initially, they would both come and stay with us in the summers, but those extended visits have dwindled as they expressed interest in spending their summers engaged in sporting activities and at camp, which we have been supportive of. I have always had what I would consider a friendly relationship with both girls.
The issue is with the eldest child’s high school graduation, which will be in June. Each student only gets five tickets. My stepdaughter wants her tickets to go to her mother, stepfather, grandmother, sister, and father. I would be left in a hotel room to celebrate with them at dinner after the ceremony. To her credit, my stepdaughter called me herself to explain the situation, but the conversation went sideways. I was taken aback when she said that she wanted the people closest to her at the ceremony. I do not think it is fair that I am being treated as less than her stepfather or grandmother. I pointed out that her father continued to provide support above and beyond what he was required to even after we married (private school, camps, etc.) and that our household should be treated with equal respect. She became distraught and ended the phone call.
I have proposed a number of solutions to my husband: both her stepfather and I can refrain from going; her grandmother could take a step back and allow the parents and stepparents to attend together; my younger stepdaughter could skip the ceremony and join us afterwards. My husband is reluctant to push the issue and has asked me not to make him choose. My stepdaughter is hoping to procure a ticket that one of her classmates will not have use for, but I’m not sure how to proceed if she can’t get an extra ticket. I want to preserve the relationships going forward, but I also want to make sure my husband and I are maintaining appropriate boundaries regarding not excluding anyone.
— Graduation Blues
Dear Graduation Blues,
I don’t really think this is about believing in boundaries or not excluding anyone. Indeed, you have crossed a few boundaries here, and now you are proposing that your stepdaughter’s stepfather, her sister, or her grandmother—the people that she spends most of her time with and therefore probably does feel closest to, like it or not—be excluded. Your feelings are hurt (which I get), so you have chosen to lash out at your stepdaughter and pressure your husband to override her wishes. But at the end of the day, there are only five tickets, and it’s up to your stepdaughter who gets them. I truly see no good reason to continue to make the whole situation even more wrenching and stressful for her, a teenager who is just trying to graduate and celebrate her big day. If no sixth ticket is forthcoming, I think you need to stand down and accept her decision.
You can be in your feelings about this all you want! It sucks to feel left out and it’s fine to be hurt over it. But you have a choice in how you deal with your feelings. I’m really stuck on the fact that you felt okay throwing school tuition and summer camp expenses (?) in your stepdaughter’s face during your phone call with her, thereby implying that she’s insufficiently grateful to you for … what? Letting her father fulfill his responsibilities as a parent after you were married? As his daughter, she was entitled to his continued financial support regardless. Your husband and his ex presumably decided that paying for her private education and activities was the right course, and it’s really A Choice for you to try to make her feel guilty about that now. If you truly care about fairness and respect—and if you want to improve your relationship with your stepdaughter—I think you ought to apologize for how you’ve treated her over this graduation ticket situation, and try to do better going forward.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I moved back to our hometown during the pandemic because we needed help with childcare and wanted to be near our parents. We went in “eyes wide open” (the area is much whiter and more conservative than where our kids were born). We told ourselves we’d just find our people and put up with the rest.
Things haven’t gone very smoothly. Though we survived the politicization of COVID, now that life is going “back to normal,” the differences between us and our neighbors are striking. Both my school-age kids have separately gotten in altercations/bullying situations over LGBT rights and Christianity being the dominant religion. We’ve spoken up at several school board meetings and one of my kids faced retribution from her homeroom teacher. We’ve tried to volunteer and help change things, but are being iced out by other parents who won’t let us join committees and essentially use social exclusion as a means of holding the party line. Meanwhile, even outside of school, my kids are lonely. Sports teams and clubs are basically an extension of the school system’s social, racial, and political environment. We were close with one family in our neighborhood, but they moved to a larger city a few months ago. We do love being near our parents, but it’s not a replacement for a larger, fuller feeling of connectedness and warmth in our community.
We’d like to leave for our kids’ sake. But we also feel like we’re “giving up” and potentially robbing our kids of the learning that comes from staying in a tough situation rather than just walking away. We also have very real logistical concerns about childcare if we move away from our parents. Not to mention, moving itself is expensive, and more diverse cities tend to have a higher cost of living. What should we do? We feel stuck and sad in this horribly isolating situation.
— Just Stuck
Dear Just Stuck,
Here’s what it comes down to: How long are you willing to stay and try to build something like a workable life for you and your family? And do you have any realistic hope or expectation that that will happen in the near future?
You have already put a great deal of effort into making a real home there, standing up for your kids when necessary and engaging with the school board and (controlling) fellow parents.
It’s one thing to stay and give it more time if you think that things will get better; you’ll find real community; your children won’t be perpetually bullied or isolated; etc. But if you genuinely can’t see the situation changing any time soon and you have the ability to leave, I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to stay put. There’s no valor in raising your kids in a place where they never feel they belong—and where they may even end up being targeted because of who they are or what they believe—counting down the days until they can finally escape.
Obviously moving is a pain and a major expense. It may not be possible right away. If you do move, your parents will miss having you local. But your kids come first, and should you wind up moving for their sake (and yours!), it’s more than okay. People move all the time for less important reasons; childhood is not very long in the grand scheme, and your kids won’t get a second shot at it. I really don’t put much stock in isolation or suffering for the sake of it, or letting children “learn” from the experience of being lonely, disliked, or bullied by bigots.
Your kids can get their character-building life lessons in other ways.
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From this week’s letter, My Adult Son Has Mastered the Art of Weaponized Incompetence: “We are effectively subsidizing the prolonged adolescence of an adult child who makes more than his father annually.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter “Beth” is 13 years old and in eighth grade. She’s been best friends with a girl across the street from us, “Caroline,” since preschool. After the pandemic, Caroline started having really bad panic attacks and as a result, didn’t go to school when it opened up, and would often times make plans with Beth and then cancel, not show up, leave early, or, if they were at her house, ask her to leave. My daughter, who has a very big heart and loves her friends, was distraught at this, because no one told her about Caroline’s anxiety or why she was acting this way for a while (I assumed she had already known). However, when Beth found out, she would go to Caroline’s classes (they aren’t in the same ones) to pick up work for her, text her funny little memes she found daily, and invite her to things. Caroline, who was still struggling, never thanked Beth or responded to her texts.
After a couple of months of this, Beth told me that she was angry with Caroline. During the pandemic, Beth developed extreme anxiety, depression, and trichotillomania. When she gets anxiety attacks and relapses back into her hair-pulling, she thanks the people who helped her and makes an effort to keep her friends. Beth stopped making such an effort to be friends with Caroline because, as she put it, she was tired of pulling Caroline’s weight for her. I tried to help her reconcile with Caroline, but I don’t want to control my daughter’s choices, so in the end I had to let Beth do what she wanted. Their friendship has never fully recovered.
Fast forward to this year, Caroline is back in school full time and feeling better. She’s on medication and sees a therapist. It seemed like the girls were getting back to normal. But last week, Beth expressed a desire to cut ties with Caroline. She said it was because Caroline is socially awkward, embarrasses her, can’t take a hint, and is clingy and “weird.” After she said this, I told her she wasn’t being sensitive to Caroline and the challenges she was facing. Beth exploded at that, saying she was tired of everything being about Caroline, Caroline’s feelings, wants, and needs, and only hanging out when Caroline feels up to it and only as long as Caroline wants. I told her that since they’ve been friends so long, it’d be sad to see their friendship end over this. I admit that in the moment I did try to guilt Beth into staying close with Caroline, so she directed her anger at me, and told me that she can be friends with whoever she wants, and she needs friends who are willing to support her when she needs help. As far as I know, Beth hasn’t made any effort to speak to Caroline since.
I’ve since learned the reason Beth was pushed to the breaking point: One day at lunch, Beth went over to Caroline and asked her to go to the bathroom with her. Beth was having a panic attack and needed Caroline’s help. Caroline apparently went to the bathroom with her, and then left her alone because she “felt uncomfortable and triggered” by my daughter’s panic attack. I know this because one of my friends has a daughter who’s a year younger than Beth, and happened to be in the bathroom during the incident and helped my daughter, and then told her mom about it later, who told me. I knew that my daughter had a panic attack because she texted me, but I had no idea about Caroline’s refusal to help. I am honestly at a loss on how to proceed—I don’t want to tell my daughter to stay in a friendship she is unhappy in, but I don’t want the girls’ 10-year friendship to end.
— Conflicted in Colorado
I really think you’ve gotten too deeply involved in the girls’ friendship. You can’t force your daughter to feel an affinity for someone or think of them as a close friend if she no longer does. It’d be one thing if Beth were asking you for advice, or saying she would like you to help her decide whether to be friends with Caroline. As it is, it seems like she has made up her mind, at least for now. Trying to guilt her into remaining friends is unfair to both kids and is also bound to fail.
Maybe Caroline hasn’t been the steadiest friend to Beth; maybe Beth finds it easier or at least more possible, despite her own struggles with anxiety, to be there for or reconnect with her friends when she’s doing better. Beth doesn’t have to change the way she feels about Caroline or be friends with her again, but it might help her feel better—or at least not take it so personally—if she can be helped to understand that Caroline, like her, is probably just doing her best right now. You can’t and shouldn’t try to force them to be close at all costs, but perhaps it’s worth trying to explain to your daughter that while both girls have anxiety, that doesn’t mean they will experience or deal with it in the same ways, or have the same energy to put into their friendships. Maybe if you can help Beth see this, it will help lessen some of the animus she feels? Whether they are ever friends again or not, with all that both kids are dealing with, they don’t need this bitterness sitting between them as well.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am the mom of two truly wonderful boys, 6 and 8 years old. Recently, my husband was sick and so I was on parenting duty solo. No big deal, but it was a tiring day juggling my work, their afterschool activities, and their care. I truly feel that it was an uneventful day. I didn’t feel particularly grumpy at all. When I was tucking the kids into bed, they told me that I never smile, I am grumpy all the time, and I snap at them every day. They said I am not nice, and that their dad is much nicer than I am. I know that kids sometimes say hurtful things when they are mad, and I want to reiterate that they didn’t seem mad at all. They were relaxed, seemed happy, and were not reacting to any particular incident. After they said this, I apologized to them and left their room, and immediately burst into tears.
I feel like their comments were at least partially unfair. I am by nature a very smiley person and I smile all the time, especially at my boys because they bring me so much joy. I think I am like many parents, I am sometimes a bit grumpy (there is so much to do!), but I try hard to be positive, upbeat, and encouraging. I certainly snap sometimes, for example: “Why are you still playing?!? I asked you to put on your shoes!” This isn’t an everyday occurrence, and I do have to push them out the door to school and to their various activities. But this is how they feel, so I also don’t want to completely invalidate their feelings.
I am having a hard time moving on from what they said. I try to see the very best in my kids, and I feel like they see the worst in me. Like most parents, I am putting in a lot of effort into parenting—playing with my kids, getting involved in their interests, listening to them, and adjusting my work so that I can spend as much time with them as possible. Should I back off in effort a bit, in the hopes that I am more relaxed and less grumpy? I feel like my parenting life may be divided in two, before this conversation and after.
— A Mom Who Has Been Casually Devastated
Dear Casually Devastated,
I obviously cannot know what you’re really like as a parent, but even if you had been having a legit grumpy day, it’s probably not fair or accurate for your kids to tell you that you’re like that all the time. Kids, like us, are not always fair! That said, I think it can be good for any parent to think about how we’re routinely speaking with our children, as there may well be some negative communication patterns we haven’t fully acknowledged or tried to remedy. I’m curious about whether you talked with your husband about what your kids said—and, if you did, how he responded? Did he think there was any truth or merit in it, or did he think they were mostly feeling nagged / blowing off steam?
From your letter, it sounds as though a lot of the actual childcare and child-rearing tasks fall to you—and certainly did that day your husband was sick—so I just want to point out that it’s pretty easy to be the cheerful, fun, “nice” parent when you’re not the one on call all the time. If you’re the parent doing the lion’s share of the work where they’re concerned, of course you’re going to be the one pushing and prodding and trying to get them to put their toys away and get out the door. Is it possible that you aren’t the mean one so much as … the only one asking anything of them? (And really, who smiles when trying to get a resistant kid to put on their shoes and go to school?)
I’m not quite sure how to answer your question about backing off. There is no great way to lean out of parenting. I don’t think that doing less with or for your children is in itself the solution. What may be worth thinking about is what you actually need—do you feel like you’re struggling in any way, and would anything help you feel better? I know it can be really hard to focus on or take care of yourself as a parent, or say that you need help or are feeling overwhelmed or just want a break from handling everything/always being on duty at home. But if you have by some chance been feeling this way, and that’s some of what your kids are picking up on, talk to someone about it—starting with your husband, if you feel able to speak with him about it, and going from there. It’s not all on you to figure out how to meet all your kids’ needs and keep the household running and make sure that you can get rest and take care of yourself and feel okay, too; that is shared labor for the two of you.
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I have a 7-year-old daughter, “Bea,” and we live two houses over from her best friend “Stacy,” also the same age. The two girls go to school together and frequently stay over at each other’s houses now that everyone’s fully vaccinated. Stacy’s parents recently got a pet fox. This is legal where we live, although they would have had to register the animal as an exotic pet. I wasn’t worried at first, but now I’m not so sure. The fox isn’t violent or anything, but almost every time she comes back from their house, Bea tells some hilarious, giggling story about how the fox stole food, or the TV remote, or a bracelet, or something else, and ran around the house holding it in his mouth or trying to bury it somewhere…