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,
What can I do help shield my kids from other people’s anxiety? My husband has mild anxiety related to a few specific situations (large crowds, public speaking) but does pretty well managing it, and it certainly has never affected our children. His parents are another story. Before we had kids, they lived on the other side of the country and I saw them three times in six years (including our wedding). But just before our first child was born, two years ago, they surprised us (they actually shouted, “Surprise!” when they unexpectedly showed up at our front door) by buying a house near us and moving into it. They had just retired and wanted to be involved in their grandkids’ lives, they said.
Now we generally see them at least every other week, and after some initial boundary-setting and challenges, we have a mostly positive relationship with them. Since then, we have had another baby. While it’s nice that they live near enough to provide occasional babysitting, since getting to know them better I’ve learned how uncontrolled and all-encompassing their anxiety is. Everything from standard daily tasks to once-in-a-lifetime events cause visible and audible worry. Anything concerning our kids amplifies it even more. I understand that they love them and want the best for them, but I don’t want my kids to become little worriers themselves! I already see it happening in my 2-year-old.
I know some amount of anxiety is probably predetermined, but I absolutely also know that it can be learned. I don’t want to cut their grandparents out of my children’s life, but they have no interest in treating or managing their own anxiety (it has been a topic of discussion in the past). How can I help counter the anxiety emanating from them while still allowing them regular time with my kids? I feel like this is more than just a “respect my parenting boundary and don’t do these specific things” situation, because their anxiety pops up in so many scenarios, and if they could control it, they already would be doing that.
For starters, while I appreciate the convenience of having your in-laws nearby to babysit, given your concerns, it’s time to pull the plug on that. Make other babysitting arrangements. The grandparents can be very involved in your kids’ lives without being left alone with them. And when you’re present—as it seems you are most of the time when the kids are around them—it’s time to be honest and decisive with the hovering, anxious grandparents. You’re right about them not being able to help it. But you can intercede, every time. When they swoop in to “protect” your child, stop them. Say firmly, “Please don’t do that. We want her to learn [how to navigate stairs, or whatever else she’s doing] on her own—this is important to us.” Their feelings may be hurt, but I’m sure they’d find (repeatedly) hurt feelings the lesser evil (which you may have to spell out for them, if they protest) than being denied access to their grandchildren.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My mother-in-law is the caregiver of our young baby while my husband and I either work from home or go to the office, and we compensate her with a competitive wage. She loves the baby and loves taking care of her, but she clashes with my husband and me on parenting methods. Her method is to respond to the baby’s every whimper, to provide no routine, and to hold the baby non-stop. Ours is to follow a routine and give her a little time to self-settle. Because Grandma refuses to do as we ask during the day, the baby is confused and fussy at night. It’s very frustrating.
My mother-in-law also becomes upset and catastrophizes illnesses and syndromes whenever the baby cries. She is always demanding that we see a specialist, and she blames us for whatever seems to be “wrong.” The judgment weighs on me. She has actually asked me to change my diet (e.g., cut out dairy) to improve my breast milk. She says she doesn’t trust us and complains that we’re not taking her concerns seriously when we politely disagree with her. And that isn’t even true! We do call our pediatrician over every concern she brings up, but she doesn’t believe our doctor, who says the baby is fine. Both my husband and I want this to work. We love her and want her to have this time with her granddaughter and even live with us someday (she’s welcome to, just says she’s not ready yet). I have this fantasy of a multigenerational home with us all living together as a happy family with more kids, but we’re struggling already with just one baby. Is there any way we can compromise and get along better?
—Family Means No One Gets Left Behind
I’ll say it again (louder this time): NO MORE BABYSITTING.
If a grandparent cannot or will not abide by your childrearing decisions, they should not be left alone with the child. There is nothing you can do to fix this: Your mother-in-law has her own deeply held ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong, and she’s made it clear that she’s right and you’re wrong when it comes to caring for your child. Why on earth would you continue to put up with this? Take that “competitive wage” and pay a professional sitter. Your husband should be the one to tell her why—it’s his mother, after all—but if he won’t, then it’s up to you. And I’m sorry to say that your fantasy of a happy-together-intergenerational family has no basis in the reality of the family you’ve got. Unless you are prepared to let your mother-in-law be the one who raises your children—or she undergoes a personality transplant—there is no way on earth that you should all be living in the same household. I’m sorry to burst that bubble.
You are in charge of how your child is cared for. You make the rules. If she won’t follow them, she’s going to have to have a relationship with her grandchild(ren) along the same lines that I just suggested to Nervous, above. (And this has nothing to do with whose style of parenting I prefer. I myself am a hold-the-baby-all-day-long, nurse-on-demand type—just for instance. But I can tell you right now that when my daughter has a baby, if she isn’t a fan of that, I’ll hold my tongue and do exactly what she wants me to do. Her child, her rules.)
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From this week’s letter, My Parent Friends Keep Asking Me to Attend the Most Horrible Kid Thing I Can Imagine: “It’s getting to the point where I’ve politely declined these invitations from each parent at least a dozen times.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I disagree about our 8-year-old’s education. We live in an area where public schools are not terrible but not great, and class sizes are huge. Covid threw an early wrench in the works, of course, but even so our kid is hitting milestones, has friends, and seems ok at school. We live in a state that has been passing bans on education about LGBTQ topics and racism, so we always knew we’d have to give him extra educational enrichment at home. In other words, we’d made a kind of uneasy peace with the situation. But at a recent parent-teacher conference, it became obvious that the teacher was barely paying attention to him (because he doesn’t make trouble). My wife was angrier than I was, and now she is convinced that the only way for him to get a good education would be homeschooling him. It would be hard but not impossible financially for her to stay home, but I don’t like the idea. My wife’s career has always been important to her. And all the homeschool kids I’ve ever met had social problems. Homeschooling rules are lax/nonexistent in our state, so we’d have to find our own path, and most other people locally seem to be doing it for religious reasons. Is there another way to get him a good education in a broken system? We can’t afford the private school in our area, and it’s even more conservative than the public school anyway.
Any chance you can pull up stakes and move? (You may think I’m joking. But I have friends who recently did just that, taking a big hit financially and careerwise but concluding that it was worth it for the sake of their kids.)
Short of that, if you are stuck where you are forever, I don’t think your wife’s idea is such a terrible one in the long run. I know plenty of homeschooled kids who have no “social problems.” In fact, as a college professor, I taught a number of young people whose previous education had been entirely at home, and they were among my best students and the most mature—and none of them seemed to have any trouble making and keeping friends.
Homeschooling well is a lot of work, though. And it requires not only a parent who is able to teach a variety of subjects but also a parental commitment to diving into multiple extracurricular activities (arts, sports, Scouts, theater, choir—whatever) so that the child is still regularly interacting with other children in a way that goes beyond “just playing.” Homeschooling your child can be immensely rewarding but it’s not something to be undertaken lightly. (I should note too that although I live in a state that does have some guidelines around homeschooling, when I took my daughter out of her dreadful middle school and taught her eighth grade at home, I still had to figure out most aspects of her education on my own, which wasn’t always easy—and I’m a teacher by profession.)
What I’d suggest is that you two take a breath. Your wife may be riding the wave of her indignation, which I understand (I’d be indignant too), but that won’t be enough to fuel the years ahead, which are going to be very challenging if she does take this on (and it sounds like she’d be taking it all on herself, not as a joint project with you). Giving up her career is a big deal, as you say, but it won’t be the only hard part.
Indeed, my advice is that you take a long breath—that you not only finish this school year but start the next one too and see how it’s going. If your son is happy and doing well at school, and you and your wife are providing a fuller education for him at home in an informal way, to supplement what he learns in elementary school, it’s worth taking this slowly. See what next year’s teacher is like. And if next year seems to be going all right, see how the year after that goes. These early years of schooling—as long as he’s being taught basic skills and you’re also educating him in other ways, and he’s happy (no small thing!) and safe—are less of a big deal than many parents think. If you’re still living in this same area when he’s a bit older, homeschooling may indeed be a good (or even the only) option.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have been very fortunate over the years to have many caring, fulfilling friendships across several social groups. As our friends and we have gotten older, we’ve moved away from one another, but for those on the other side of our city (over an hour away), we do make getting together a priority. Lately, though, it feels like my husband and I are always juggling logistics, and it is starting to get overwhelming. Our children’s birthday parties alone feel like they’re taking over most of our weekends. Our calendar fills up months in advance. I am also realizing that these get-togethers don’t feel quite the same as we move into different seasons of our lives, with different careers, parenting styles, hobbies, etc. There isn’t any animosity, but conversation requires a lot more effort than it used to. None of our kids are the same age, and the kids aren’t close, so that also is a factor.
Now that my husband and I have kids in elementary school, we have enjoyed having low-key hangouts with friends in our community, when we can. I cherish what my longtime friendships have been, but I really think it is time to let at least some of these in-person obligations go for the sake of family balance and to leave room in our lives for spontaneity. I wish I could just text and have zoom dates with them, the way I do with my out-of-state friends. Is there any way to do this gracefully and sensitively?
—Grateful but Overwhelmed
Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe you (and they all!) have let this go on for as long as y’all have. Stop. Just stop. Do it whatever way feels natural to you. Either start saying no to invitations (a simple, “I’m sorry, we can’t” is a perfectly reasonable way to respond, as is, “We can’t plan that far ahead”), or go straight to the chase and tell your friends what you’ve just told me: This is too much. You don’t want to spend so much time traveling. You don’t want to have all your weekends booked in advance. You need some quiet time, and some time for your kids to make and cultivate nearby friends. In other words: You have a life.
The way to transition to a texting-and-Zoom relationship is to start texting them the same kind of (presumably) chatty updates and check-ins you send your farther-away friends. As we grow up and our interests and priorities change, some old friendships do inevitably taper off, without rancor or grief. You’re trying to live your old life and your new life simultaneously—and, as you’ve already discovered, that’s exhausting.