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,
I’m a 68-year-old retired grandma of five. My son has a 6-year-old non-verbal autistic daughter who is still in diapers, has the mental development level of an 18-month-old and suffers from seizures. She is on three medications to control the seizures. I’ve helped my son and his wife care for her for three years now, and as she gets older, she also gets stronger. I’ve been punched, pushed, and had things thrown at me. I am tired and now want to move on to enjoy my “golden years.” I want to travel around the world, visit my other kids and their families, and sit and do nothing. My son is trying to guilt me to continue helping. Financially they are making ends meet, but this child needs professional help. They have reached out but have been turned down because they either make too much money or not enough. What should I do? I love my granddaughter so much and understand what my son and his wife are going through.
— Tired Grandma
On the one hand, you have earned your retirement and all the advantages that come with it. And caring for a child with such demanding needs is exhausting, both physically and emotionally—there’s no way around that. Plus, it’s not as if you have the stamina of a 30-year-old anymore!
That said, I get the feeling you’re looking for me to give you absolution to walk away and live your own life. But I can’t give that to you—not because I judge you (I don’t), but because I don’t think my opinion is going to make you feel less guilty or your son less upset. It’s not me who needs to give my blessing.
The unfortunate truth is that neither you nor your son and DIL asked to be in this situation. But the reasons you want and need to quit helping are the same reasons they want and need help! I wonder if there are creative solutions that give you what you need without forsaking the caretaking altogether. Could you think about rebalancing how you help so that it gives you breaks? For example, instead of helping for four hours every week, could you do two weeks off and one week on for longer hours? You might find it’s not the amount of help you’re giving, but the pace, that is wearing you down. Alternatively, you mention your son’s finances as a challenge to accessing professional help. Could you contribute some of your funds to obtain a caretaker, even if it meant less extravagant travel for you?
I think those kinds of options might give you and your son a workable partnership. But, I would also be realistic. You are not getting younger, and the caretaking is only going to get harder. You, your son and DIL need to have an exit strategy for you on a timetable you can all agree to. No matter how overwhelmed he may feel, hopefully he can see that logic. It might not be your ideal scenario, but it gives you a workable compromise, which is the stuff strong families are made of. Good luck to you and the whole family.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Last week, my daughter was abroad for work and my son-in-law looked after the kids himself. On the last day of my daughter’s trip, I got a call saying my granddaughter was in the hospital.
My grandkids say that her older brother dared her to climb a tree; she made a wrong move and fell. She broke her leg and required surgery, which means that she’ll probably be using a wheelchair and/or crutches for the next two months or so. She’s a resilient kid, and I’m sure she’ll get through this period just fine.
My grandkids tell me their parents are arguing. They’ve been fighting for over a week. My daughter thinks her husband should have been more careful and prevented this while my son-in-law thinks my daughter is being unfair and no one could have predicted this. I don’t really have a dog in this fight, since I can see both sides of the argument. My grandchildren are terrified that their parents are going to divorce soon. I’m not sure that’s likely, though obviously I don’t know the details of my daughter’s marriage. I’ve definitely noticed some of the fighting since I’m at their house a few hours each week, though not to the extent that my grandkids have. I know divorce isn’t the end of the world, but my grandkids are very worried about this. How can I support them through this? Obviously, it would be nice if my daughter didn’t argue with her husband, but I don’t know the whole story and it’s not my place to interfere with her marriage.
— Aftermath of a Tree
I think you’re totally in-bounds to let your daughter know that the kids are worrying about the fighting. We aren’t always aware of what our kids pick up on or the conclusions they draw. Drop her a casual FYI text or call. “Hey daughter, the kids are telling me they’ve noticed you guys arguing a lot since the tree incident. I don’t need to know the details of what is going on in your marriage, and I don’t want to get in the middle of things if you are fighting. I just thought you’d want to know that the kids are kind of freaking out about it.” If she wants to ask questions or vent to you about the marriage, she can continue the conversation; if not, you’ve served (valiantly) as a mole and given her some useful information about her kids. Couples fight, and no more needs to be said about it unless your daughter wishes.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My mother has been suffering from a still-undiagnosed neurological condition for the past several months. She is unable to walk, not cognitively intact, and has gone back-and-forth from hospitals to rehabs. Although, at this point, anything terminal has been ruled out, without a diagnosis we do not have either a prognosis or real treatment. Obviously, my daughters (8 and 10) have not spent nearly as much time with her as they used to— – she’s their youngest grandparent and was their number one babysitter and “fun grandmom.” As it is, they are too young to visit her in the hospital, and while they have visited her in rehab they are freaked out by the experience (I don’t blame them). Grandmom is bedridden, obviously confused and not who they remember and want her to be. The problem is we don’t know when or if things will get any better. I haven’t given up hope that we will find some kind of treatment that will at least make her more mobile and aware, but I vacillate between wanting to make them spend more time with her (because this is how things are at this point) and wanting to let them avoid her because of the scariness of the situation. But if we end up not having much time left, will time with her now be invaluable, or pollute their earlier memories of good times with Grandmom?
— Sandwiched Between a Rock and a Hard Place
I can identify with your daughters to some extent. When I was a very young child, my grandfather (Pop-Pop) was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological condition. He lost the ability to speak, then walk, then care for himself. My grandmother cared for him in their home for the remainder of his life, and he passed away when I was about 10 years old. As a girl, I was rather afraid of Pop-Pophim; he moaned and stared and sometimes smelled funny. Even the fact that he couldn’t use his body was scary. I knew it was irrational and unfair to be afraid of him, but I couldn’t help it. After he died, I felt regret for many years that I didn’t give him the affection I wished I could have.
Even though I felt that guilt as a kid, I am not sure there is much to be gained by making your daughters spend a lot of time with your mom right now. It’s not that I think seeing your mom in her current situation will pollute their memories of happier times; I am certain that the good memories will far outweigh the bad. I just think that, when they look back on this period, they’ll want to know they were loving towards their grandmom, and I don’t think they are able to be that in her current state. Instead, I would give them the opportunity to care for her remotely: draw pictures, write letters and make short videos for grandma, which you can deliver on your visits. Give them the option to accompany you to the rehab, but do not insist except once and a while. If you can strike that balance, you will both keep the girls comfortable now and give them peace of mind later on.
If the unfortunate happens and you must say goodbye to your mom, do bring them to give their goodbyes, too. I had that last moment with Pop-Popmy grandfather—though I didn’t know it at the time—and it still brings me comfort today. I hope things turn around for your family.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My son, “Sam” (16), recently began dating “Julie” (17). Julie is his first girlfriend, and he is absolutely smitten. However, Julie has a daughter from a previous relationship. She had her at 16. From what I understand, the father is older and away at college and there’s little involvement. I am a young mom myself (34) and can fully appreciate what this young woman has gone through and the struggles ahead, but I’m worried about Sam feeling pressured into a pseudo-stepfather role so young. Am I out of bounds to reach out to Julie’s parents to discuss what their rules are for Julie about dating? Is it wrong to require that Sam not be around her daughter? I want them to have a healthy relationship, but this feels all too grown up, too quickly.
— Not Grandma
If Julie didn’t have a kid, would you feel the same need to talk to her parents this early in the game? To me, asking about their dating guidelines—given that she is a teen mom—feels tantamount to interrogating them about their parenting, and I don’t see a way that that plays in your favor. I also don’t think it’s realistic to ban Sam from contact with the baby, who lives in Julie’s house and will interact with her regularly.
Take a step back and talk to Sam. What does he say Julie’s expectations are? How often does he see the baby when they hang out? What does he see as his responsibilities in this situation? Share your fears about him falling into a pseudo-parent role, and counsel him on how to approach that aspect of his relationship with Julie carefully and respectfully.
Once you know the relationship isn’t just a blip, then I think it’s perfectly OK to get together with her parents in an effort to get to know one another. My guess is that many of your questions will get answered naturally in this casual context, and it also lets you share what guidance you’ve given Sam. Chances are good that you all are on the same page and they will appreciate your efforts to safeguard not only Sam, but Julie and the baby as well.
This approach instills some personal responsibility in Sam for how he’ll approach his relationship while also giving you and the other parents a chance to unite in supporting both teens. Good luck!