Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are still in our twenties and had planned to have at least three or four children. A few weeks after birth, our beautiful firstborn son was diagnosed with a condition that will cause him to grow up with, among other challenges, a moderate to severe intellectual disability. This condition is unlikely to affect any future children of ours, and we feel extremely privileged to be able to afford the best possible care for him, even after we pass away.
My husband is named after his father and grandfather—let’s say John Paul Smith III—and we had named our son John Paul Smith IV and planned to call him Paul, since my husband already goes by John. Now, though, my husband wants to change our son’s first name to Paul and his middle name to something else, so that we can name our next son John Paul Smith IV, and call him Johnny or Jack or J.P. So Paul will remain Paul; the only thing that would change would be the name on his birth certificate, and he’ll never even need to know. But I can’t shake the feeling that doing this would somehow be horrible, and that friends and acquaintances will judge us for taking the traditional family name away from our disabled son. If they don’t find out right away, they will when we give our second son the same name as our first. Should I listen to this feeling, or go along with my husband’s wishes? He hasn’t explained his reasoning in detail, but I’m sure it has to do with the fact our firstborn is extremely unlikely to marry and father a John Paul Smith V, or to have the kind of accomplishments (academic, athletic, business, social) that he, and my father-in-law, would enjoy seeing their namesake having. However, I don’t doubt his love for our son in the slightest, any more than I do my own.
— Back and Forth Over Fourth
Dear Back and Forth,
As the parent of a disabled kid, I have to say that it’s very difficult for me to understand your husband’s plan, and in your place, I’d be deeply troubled by it. But far more important than my opinion—or the potential judgment of your friends and family—is how you feel about changing the name on Paul’s birth certificate and taking this family name away from him. It sounds like you’re not really okay with it, and I think that is something to pay attention to. Whether or not Paul ever finds out what you did (and I don’t think you can count on all those friends and relatives to keep quiet forever), you have to live with it. You’re under no obligation to just go along with your husband’s wishes on this—it may be his family tradition, but you’re Paul’s parent, too.
You and your husband need to have a real conversation about this, which it seems you haven’t done yet (perhaps because you are both avoiding it?). If your spouse doesn’t want Paul to have the traditional family name for the reasons you assume, he should have to say and own that, so you can discuss your concerns and not be left wondering about his motivations for the rest of your life. If he has other, better reasons you aren’t aware of for the change, great; he can share those with you instead.
You say you don’t doubt your husband’s love for Paul. But love is just one thing we owe our children. We have to see and accept and value them for who they are. If your husband is considering a step as drastic as changing your son’s birth certificate so that he can bestow his special family name on a future nondisabled child, that would seem to suggest that he has serious and unaddressed issues around Paul’s disability. Which, in and of itself, is okay—you can and will both always have your issues and worries and feelings regarding your son’s situation. But when our issues become our children’s to bear—when we begin to take those issues out on them—that’s not okay, and can cause real and lasting harm. It’s tough for me to see this alt name option your husband is floating as anything other than his issues about having a disabled child manifesting in a way that could ultimately prove to be to that child’s detriment.
The most important question here is not whether you choose to edit Paul’s name, but whether your husband is ready to accept and love and be proud of your son as he is and will be, recognize all the wonderful things about him, and value him just as much as he would a nondisabled child. If there is any chance that he views Paul as any less important or worthy than the nondisabled children you may have someday, that is terrible for all of you, Paul most of all. I realize that this is a hard thing to have to think about, let alone face. But for Paul’s sake, I think you have to be able discuss this with your husband. You two are a team, and you will be raising and caring for Paul together for a long time. I think you’re right to be concerned about his name change suggestion and what it might mean.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter will soon turn 15 and three-quarters, the legal age to start driver’s ed in our state. She’s already really excited to learn how to drive. However, she is very, very absent-minded and easily distracted (she doesn’t have ADHD), the kind of kid who’ll turn on the flashlight app to find her phone, or spend an hour trying to find her glasses without realizing she’s wearing them. I’m absolutely terrified. We’ve tried over the years to get her to be less all over the place, and nothing stuck. Every time she talks about being excited to drive, I imagine her dead in a car crash and I get really worried. My ex sees no issues. He’s planning on taking her to get her permit on the day she turns 16. How can I get her to be road-safe by then?
— Anticipating the Learner’s Permit
Dear Learner’s Permit,
I understand feeling worried, but your child is not the first absent-minded person to learn how to drive. It may well be that her particular type of scatteredness doesn’t carry over to driving. You don’t know that she isn’t capable of this—try not to borrow trouble by assuming the worst. Driving is a discrete skill set, it has a way of forcing focus (usually!), and chances are good that it is something your daughter can learn if she wants to.
Sign her up for a good driver’s ed class—honestly, if you’re feeling so anxious about her driving that you keep picturing her getting into a car accident, it might be better if you’re not the one trying to teach her. Make sure she gets a ton of practice before she takes her road test. If she doesn’t learn the necessary skills to drive safely, she shouldn’t pass. If she does, remember to breathe and try to trust that she knows what she’s doing.
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From this week’s letter, My Son Is Behaving Very Strangely at College—Should I Intervene?: “I look back on my own college years and have fond memories of the freedom of student life. I’m sad that James might not have those same experiences.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
Our elementary-age child is an only child. To be honest, they weren’t planned. Instead they were the greatest surprise to our family. We are both in our 30s and had never thought of having kids. After their birth, I went off birth control, so my husband got a vasectomy.
Throughout the years, our child has asked for a baby. We have replied with “Every family is different. Some have no babies, some have one, and some have many.” As our child grows up, they will learn where babies come from. How do I let our child know that although they weren’t planned, we are thankful every day that we had them? (I don’t want to lie, as they need to understand the importance of safe sex.) Second, how do we best explain that we chose to not have more kids? That even though she may always want a sibling, it won’t happen unless we are surprised again?
— One and Done
Dear One and Done,
I understand not wanting to fib if asked, but I personally don’t think you have to tell your child they were a surprise unless you want to. You can still talk with them about consent and bodily autonomy and birth control! Parents should do that whether or not their kids were planned.
You’re talking about future questions that your child may or may not ask—not every kid is going to ask their parents to explain their reproductive decisions, or if they were actively trying to get pregnant with them, or why they stopped at one. Take the questions as they come; be honest, but know that you don’t need to share every single detail with your child. I think you’ve already explained the second part fairly well with your “Every family is different” talk. You could add something like, “We only had one child because that’s all we wanted.” They may still feel a way about not having a sibling; they’re allowed to be disappointed. But the choice to have a child or several is a parental decision, and your child can simply be told that it was yours to stop at one.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am really struggling. I became a mom six months ago, and sadly do not have the support of my own mother, who passed away in 2019. Even though that was four years ago, a lot of things are coming up for me, and I find myself fantasizing about the mother and grandmother she would be. She would automatically know exactly what I need, and come over just to clean our bathrooms and let me take a nap. Moms are just always there for you and your safe space to turn to no matter the circumstances! I feel so alone in this experience because all of my friends still have their moms. There is hardly anything available when you Google “motherless moms” or “moms without moms,” etc. The transition to motherhood is so much harder than I ever could have imagined, and going through it without your own mom is just incredibly painful and isolating.
— Mom Without Mom
Dear Mom Without Mom,
I’m so sorry. I’m sure that your mother would have loved being there for you when you became a mom, seeing you grow into your role as a parent. My mom died in 2020, and what’s hardest for me is knowing that she won’t see my kids grow up.
A good friend—a whole support system!—can’t replace your mom. And it’s true that your friends who haven’t lost parents don’t know exactly what you’re going through. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care, or that they can’t listen, or that some of them don’t also know what it is to wish that some aspect of their transition to parenthood had gone otherwise. I don’t think we need to have experienced the exact same losses or disappointments to empathize with our friends, and so I hope that the people who care about you are there when you need support as a new mom, or want to talk about your mother or your grief for her. Remember that you do still have people you can talk to and lean on.
A friend whose mother is also gone now once told me, “The definition of mother is open.” There are other people in my life who still mother me, in a way; who cherish and help and support and guide me. Sometimes, I am the one trying to mother myself—I try to see what my mother saw in me, and be the person and the parent she had so much faith in. I summon her when I tell my children a story about her. I remind them that she loved them and was already proud of everything they will become. It doesn’t take the pain of grief away, or make any of us miss her less. But it does help me remember that I still carry her with me in all that I do, perhaps especially the things I do with and for my kids.
I hope it eases your heart a bit, and isn’t overstepping, to share this with you. I know that you’re always going to miss your mother. But if it helps at all, perhaps you can remind yourself that you still possess everything she gave you, especially her love. It will show up in how you parent. It’s part of who you are, and who your child will be, too.
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I am a high-performing individual at my workplace who also suffers from clinical depression and anxiety. I’ve discussed the basic issues with my boss, who seems vaguely supportive without truly understanding—she’s stated that I should do what I need to do for myself without really seeming to understand that sometimes I just can’t bear to come into work because of these illnesses. This year has been challenging so far, and I’ve taken four sick days this year where I’ve supplied other excuses for not being at work. Do I owe it to my boss/company to tell them why I’m really not there?