Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My sister and her partner had their first child last year, and we are all thrilled. My sister’s partner is Asian (my family is white) and ever since their baby was born, our mother has continued to comment on how the baby got their father’s Asian eyes, and how all the other features look like they came from my sister. It makes me uncomfortable and when she’s made the comment around my sister, I can tell she gets agitated and annoyed too.
My family is progressive, and my mom prides herself on being a liberal post in our family. But she just doesn’t seem to understand that making comments about the baby’s Asian features (or anyone’s features for that matter) can be easily misconstrued. She has always had a habit of stating someone’s race or ethnicity when she is recounting stories, regardless if it is actually an important detail in her account. When we’ve attempted to address it with her, she sometimes becomes defensive and thinks we’re suggesting she is being racist. When I imagine bringing up the point about the baby, I can hear her say something to the effect of “I’m not scrutinizing, I’m simply acknowledging that she’s got Asian features.”
How can we get her to understand that we’re not accusing her of being racist with her comments, but that comments like this make her sound … off?
— Mom’s Doing It Again
Dear Doing It Again,
I know you’ve broached the general race-in-stories problem before without much success, but I think you (and perhaps another family member aside from your sister) do indeed need to have a direct, focused conversation with your mom about her specific bad habit of bringing up the baby’s race when talking about their physical features. Let her know that everyone is quite capable of seeing that her granddaughter got her eyes from her father, and that there is no need to repeatedly remark on how his racial heritage played a part. Explain to her that the parents of mixed-race children do not wish to be subject to constant discussion over their kids’ ethnic backgrounds, and that she might not realize that these comments are making people uncomfortable. Tell her that you aren’t accusing her of being racist, but that her commentary implies that she is overly fixated on the racial difference between her granddaughter’s parents, which could easily be interpreted as racism by some observers. As part of this discussion, you should mention how she describes people while telling stories as an example of how someone can appear to be consumed with race, which (ahem) you know she isn’t. Gently explain that your sister seems agitated by her consistent need to talk about the baby’s “Asian eyes” and that by constantly harping on how race shaped her features, it can seem that she views this child differently than she would if both her parents were white. Ask her to please consider your sister and her partner’s feelings and to stop making these unnecessary observations.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m being torn down by my mother for not including my biological sister in things that I do with my stepsister. I am a 25-year-old woman with one bio sister and one step sister, both 27. My stepsister moved back to our area a few years ago and since then, we have rekindled our childhood relationship. However, since my bio sister started seeing her toxic boyfriend, her personality has changed, and it has become difficult to be around her, especially since we don’t want to support her unhealthy relationship and new behaviors. Every time my mother finds out that my stepsister and I have hung out, she scolds me and blames me for not inviting my bio sister. It’s worth mentioning that there was an incident with my bio sister and her boyfriend that resulted in the boyfriend coming at our friend group with a golf club, which would leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth regarding hanging out with that person.
I have poured my emotional energy into trying to talk to my bio sister about how she has changed and how I miss the “old” her, but she doesn’t accept it. My mother gets irate with me when she finds out that I am doing anything with my stepsister and tries to manipulate me by saying I have hurt my bio sister’s feelings and am further damaging the family relationship. I’m exhausted emotionally from the fallout each time this happens. For the sake of my mental health, I cannot continue to play both the role of family glue and family scapegoat. How do I navigate this? Do I take the road of family glue and emotionally exhaust myself, or take the road of family scapegoat and take on the blame for the distance in the family’s relationships?
— Forked Within My Family
You should not see yourself as being responsible for being the glue holding your family together, nor the scapegoat for your family’s challenges. You should (again) attempt to talk to your mother about the issue with your sister and how she has been behaving since her relationship began. Make it clear to her that you have gone above and beyond to try and reach her, and that you are very worried by how this partnership seems to be influencing her. If your mother is concerned about anything, it should be what sounds like a very unhealthy dynamic between your sister and her boyfriend. Let her know that your sister has changed drastically since she began dating this man, that she hasn’t been the person you all know and love, and that change is what has impacted your ability to spend time together. Ask her what she thinks of the relationship, and how the two of you might work together to try and compel your sister to do her own reflection upon it. Be clear that your choice to spend time with your stepsister is not an affront to your bio sister, nor your mother, and that you need for her to respect that bond and to stop pretending as if it has any impact on your ability to connect with her other daughter. Set boundaries for what you allow your mother to say to you. If she calls you complaining that you spent time with your stepsister, cut her off and let her know that you are not okay with this line of conversation and that you’ll have to go. Refuse to hear her out when she begins complaining that you are somehow failing the family. Continue to push her to interrogate the relationship between your sister and this awful guy. Do not let your mother, or anyone else, make you feel like you are responsible for the current state of your family dynamics.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Is it rude to include gift suggestions on a kid’s birthday party invite? Our son’s third birthday is coming up, and I’m thinking of including a blurb like “Lincoln is currently size 3T and loves the color green and construction equipment!” on the invite for our family gathering. Based on previous experience with our kids, 75 percent of the people invited will contact us to ask about size and/or interests to come up with a gift, so we’re thinking it might be helpful/appreciated, but we don’t want it to seem like we expect everyone to bring gifts or only gifts of a certain type. In the past, even when we’ve told people not to bring the kids gifts, they all still did. My MIL loves the idea, my mom says it’s rude and presumptuous.
— Helpful or Rude
Dear Helpful or Rude,
I think it’s helpful to provide information that can help your guests pick out gifts for your little one’s birthday, especially considering that your circle consists of so many people who are inclined to ask what they should bring. It’s very common for parents to include details about a child’s size and interests on a birthday party invite. If you want to lessen pressure regarding gift-giving, you can always include a preamble: “Presents not required, but for those who are inclined … ” Your peeps will be grateful that you’ve made their shopping easier, and you’ll appreciate getting things your little one can actually fit in and enjoy.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
A few months ago, my wife “Gloria” had a mental health episode, a severe one. She was asking me if we could get a maternity test for our children (a girl of 8 and a boy of 6), because she wasn’t sure if they were hers or not. She had trouble remembering her pregnancies and felt disconnected from most things in general and from our life at home a bit more urgently. She stayed for about three weeks in a psychiatric hospital, but insurance wouldn’t cover any further than that. Since then she’s still seeing therapists and medicating, but she hasn’t wanted to be near the kids, and God help me for saying this, I don’t trust her around them at the moment in the state she’s in. She is still quite unwell.
She’s been staying with her sister and her husband, and I speak to them fairly frequently. I’ve told the kids a somewhat edited version of the truth, that Mom is very sick and needs to get well, and that she won’t be coming home until she gets better, which might be a while. I have not told them anything about her feeling disconnected from them or that they’re not really hers. I haven’t even told them where she’s staying, and I’ve been careful to talk to my wife or her folks out of earshot of the children.
That wasn’t great, but it was a stable situation. But earlier in the week my daughter, “Grace,” talked to her grandparents. I’m not sure exactly what they said, but Grace found out that her mother isn’t in the hospital and that she doesn’t really believe she’s their mother and doesn’t want to see them. She immediately went to her brother and the next thing I know I have two despondent kids who are convinced that their mother isn’t coming back and hates them for some reason. Maybe I should have mentioned it was mental illness as opposed to implying it was something physical, but nothing I say seems to help anymore. They’re like little zombies now. They’ll go to school, they’ll do chores or homework assigned to them, but there’s no life, no energy in their eyes. I don’t know what to do.
— Too Much for Me
Dear Too Much,
It’s unfortunate that your children found out about some of your wife’s issues without the proper context for them to understand why she has been behaving in such a way. You’ll need to have some honest conversations with them about mental health. Explain that your wife’s brain is forcing her to say things that contradict both reality and what is in her heart. Let them know that mental illness is a sickness, just like cancer or COVID, and that there isn’t anything that she has done wrong to make her behave as she is now. Tell them that she is doing her best to get better so that she can return to them, and that she loves them as much as she always has. Give them room to be upset, confused, and frustrated—and give yourself the same grace as well. Do your best to keep their spirits as high as possible; try to limit idle time and keep them occupied with activities and quality time in order to prevent their minds from endlessly wandering. Be as affectionate and affirming as possible, and remind them regularly that their mother loves them and always will.
I would strongly recommend counseling for both you and your children. What you all are dealing with is incredibly challenging and you could benefit from having some support. This is a traumatic event for all of you, and it would be best to address your feelings now before they become an issue. Also, while the damage is done, you should still talk to your children’s grandparents about what happened. They should not have disclosed that information to your daughter. Be clear with them about how you’d like for them to communicate with her regarding your wife’s condition going forward. If these are your wife’s parents, they are certainly dealing with their own grief regarding her illness, but they should still be mindful of how young your children are and your right to decide what they do and don’t know about what’s going on with their mother.