Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’ve always been awful at lying or hiding the truth. I’m the youngest in a large blended family, and I have six nieces and nephews who live in the area. The oldest is 15, the youngest is 4, and my sister-in-law is pregnant. I babysit the kids and take them out on special outings. I’m the fun aunt who all my nieces and nephews feel comfortable confiding things in. I’m finding that as the kids grow older and as I get more niblings, there’s more secrets and larger ones.
I try to keep things confidential. The only times I’ve told something that was confided in me was when my 7-year-old niece told me she couldn’t see the board in school but didn’t want her parents to know because she didn’t want to get glasses, and when my 11-year-old nephew said that his clothes didn’t fit him but he didn’t want his parents to worry about buying new clothes. In both cases, I framed things as an observation rather than something the kids told me, and the kids never found out I was the one who told their parents.
Because of things going on in my life (including a recent breakup,) I feel overwhelmed now. Telling my half-brother about my niece’s eyesight issues seemed like a rational decision at the time and only positive things came from it (my niece got glasses and feels really confident with them now and likes the fact that she can see better). The only secret I’m confident that I should keep is that my oldest nephew is confused about having crushes on boys and girls and not really sure how to feel about it. Other than that, I’m having trouble deciding where to draw the line. Do I tell my siblings that my niece in middle school is being bullied by a gaggle of kids, or that my nephew secretly hates baseball and is only playing because his friend is on the team, or that my niece really doesn’t like her mother’s cooking? All of these secrets are slowly building up and they’re hard to keep track of. I feel like I’m going to burst, and I don’t want to betray their confidence or fail to keep the wrong secret. I do like babysitting and hanging out with my nieces and nephews, and I don’t want to make their lives more difficult or make them lose their trust in me, but at the same time I am overwhelmed by all these secrets.
– Surrounded by Secrecy
You’ll need to evaluate these secrets on a case-by-case basis and decide based on how the child who disclosed it would be impacted by your telling (or not telling.) It seems as though this is what you have done successfully so far: You spoke up about the vision problems and ill-fitting clothes, while keeping your nephew’s feelings about his sexuality to yourself. Bullying is dangerous; this is an issue that you shouldn’t keep to yourself. You can let your siblings know that you want to maintain your niece’s confidence in you and ask them to probe the issue without identifying you as the source to the best of their ability. But ultimately, it is urgent that they address what is going on, and it would be better for you to be outed for telling than for you to try and keep something like that to yourself. As far as your nephew’s dislike for baseball goes, you can tell his parents that you suspect that he’s not enjoying himself very much and let them investigate further. In terms of your niece not liking her mother’s cooking, there’s not much that can be done about that, as her mother is probably responsible for preparing many of the family’s meals. In other words, disclose your niblings secrets when it is necessary; if one of them is in danger or in need of support, pass that information on so that their parents can act. Otherwise, remain their confidante. Try not to let this stress you out; it means a lot to your nieces and nephews that they have you to confide in, and it’s also important that they have you to share necessary information with their parents when they are unwilling to do so themselves.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a group of friends that I grew up with, and we used to get together quite frequently. Our hangs have gone from a couple of times a month to a few times a year, as life continues. My question is how to successfully navigate friendships when most have kids and one friend doesn’t.
My friends are understandably busy with babies, toddles, and preteens. Their schedules are crazy with activities, and they now have “mom friends” as well. During get-togethers, they don’t usually bring the kids because they want a break, but they primarily talk about the kids and/or kid activities. I would love to see and/or be involved with my friends’ kids but this never really happened because of family schedules, and of course, COVID. I miss my friends and I miss being the auntie I could have been. How do other childless people navigate old friendships once friends become parents rather than being phased out?
– Not the Aunt
Dear Not the Aunt,
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating friendships with folks who have become parents. You’ll want to evaluate your relationships individually to see how to go about trying to strengthen them. There may be those who you really want to connect with more deeply, while others may be better suited for occasional catch-ups and larger group outings. When you’ve established who those folks are that you do want to see more often, let them know. Acknowledge that they are busy with parenting and life, but that you’d like to at least try and connect more regularly. Be honest about the fact that you’d like to play an auntie role for their children as well. Offer to accompany them to kid-friendly places they’d be going to anyway, so they don’t have to completely adjust their schedule each time you hang. While there may be folks who are simply too swamped to make more time for you, it’s likely that some of your friends are also craving more of a connection to the friends they had before parenthood took over their lives, and they may be excited to hear that you not only want to reconnect with them, but that you are interested in hanging out with their children too.
It’s easy for parents to assume that childfree friends would rather only link up when the kids aren’t there, and I think it would mean a lot to your friends to hear that you want to know their children in a meaningful way. You may find yourself going to children’s museums or on other outings that wouldn’t usually be up your alley, but if your buddies are open, this could be a start to a new, special chapter in your friendship. Don’t take it personally that it is falling on you to make these requests; parents can easily get so consumed with our families that we don’t make time for other people who matter to us. If these people really are your friends, they will be happy to hear your request for more time, even if it isn’t necessarily easy to honor.
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From this week’s letter, My Pushy In-laws Are Using My Kids as Pawns Against Me : “My husband pretends none of this is happening, and refuses to enforce any kind of boundary around their commentary.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a single woman in her late-thirties. I don’t have kids (although I would want them with the right partner), and I prioritized my career over building a family. My issue is with my friend who I’ll call “Rebecca.” Rebecca works from home and has a toddler who I’ll call “Jen.” Due to COVID, I didn’t get to meet Jen in person for a while; however, I recently moved close to Rebecca and her family. Since I’ve moved, I’ve received numerous invitations to hang out with them (which is awesome) and I’ve noticed a trend that I need help stopping.
Rebecca has implied that it would be “super helpful” if I could just come and take Jen for a walk while she works, and whenever I come over, I get relegated to playing with Jen the entire time.
Now that I’ve caught this trend, I can’t shake the feeling that Rebecca and her husband are kind of using me for free childcare, and I had it all but confirmed when Rebecca got irritated that I wouldn’t show up at a show she’s producing to “entertain Jen.” Rebecca is my oldest friend, and aside from telling her that I have plans every night for the next 18 years, what are some approaches I can take to perhaps expressing that I’m not interested in being an ad hoc babysitter?
– Babysitter, I Am Not
I’m not clear if all of Rebecca’s requests to spend time with you involve you keeping an eye on Jen. If they do, then that’s definitely a problem, and you need to let her know that you are her friend, not her on-call babysitter. However, if it isn’t the case that Rebecca only calls on you for childcare, then you should consider the fact that it is quite normal for a friend to babysit a friend’s child. Are you unwilling to babysit, even on occasion? Either way, it sounds as if these requests are outnumbering the ones for just a regular hang between buds, so it’s time for a conversation with your girl. Let Rebecca know that you get how difficult it must be balancing a career with motherhood, and that you’re happy to help her out every so often (I hope!). But now it seems to have gotten to a point where she is calling on you almost exclusively to do childcare, and you’re uncomfortable with that. Hopefully, she’ll see the error of her ways and apologize for over relying upon you. If she only wants to get together when it means that you’ll be watching Jen, then perhaps this friendship has run its course.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
When our younger kid was born, we named her “Anna Elizabeth Smith.” When she was 4, she decided she wanted to go by “Ellie” as a nickname for her middle name, and she’s stuck to that decision ever since. She’s 8, so she’s been going by Ellie for almost half her life. Most people know her as Ellie or Elizabeth and don’t know that’s legally her middle name. We never use Anna for her unless we’re filling out forms or documents. She often forgets that her own legal name is Anna. The school attendance sheets call her Elizabeth, so she’s never had to explain herself to teachers or substitutes outside of the normal nickname thing. Absolutely no one calls her Anna … except my parents.
We don’t see them that often since we live far away. When we do see them, it’s usually a big deal. Every year, we spend a week with them around Christmas to get away from the cold, and they come up in the summer for our kids’ birthdays, which are both in the same week. For around two weeks each year, my parents constantly call her Anna. My kids are very good about correcting them. My parents apologize and make a joke about how they’re old. By the end of the week, they can sometimes remember she’s Ellie.
A month later, I’ll post a picture of Ellie in our private family group chat and my mom will say something like “Anna looks so cute with her new glasses.” Unlike when my son or daughter corrects them in-person, when my husband, my brother, his wife or myself corrects them, they get very defensive. They accuse us of calling them senile, or they play the old card and say it’s so hard to remember things that change at the age of 68.
Recently, my mother sent us beautifully knitted sweaters for each grandchild with their name and a picture showcasing the grandkid’s personality. Ellie’s sweater has her reading a book and wearing her favorite dress that matches her glasses. I’m sure Ellie would love this and wear it all the time. However, since my mom put the wrong name on it, Ellie won’t touch it. My mom got upset that I never posted a photo of Ellie wearing hers the same way she got a picture of all her other grandkids wearing theirs.
I’m not sure what to do. I don’t appreciate being yelled at or guilt tripped when I correct them on my own daughter’s name. At the same time, this isn’t a big enough deal where I want to totally rock the boat. At the end of the day, Ellie loves my parents when they’re around, and other than that she doesn’t really think about them. They aren’t part of our lives the same way my local in-laws are. Even though it deeply annoys Ellie when they’re around, I think about this far more than Ellie does. Is there anything I can do or is this just one of the minor inconveniences one needs to put up with?
– Misnaming Mishaps
Dear Misnaming Mishaps,
This may feel like a minor inconvenience, but it’s worth a serious conversation with your parents. Ellie has chosen to go by that name for a reason, and whatever that may be, it’s important to her. Her other family members and people at her school have respected this decision, while your parents have decided not to do that. I can’t imagine what their rationale might be—it may simply be that they prefer “Anna” to “Ellie” —but it seems obvious that this is willful on their part, and that has to be grating for your daughter. The sweater incident was particularly insensitive; if Ellie has gone so far as to be referred to by her nickname in all spaces, why on earth would she want a sweater that bears a name that she has categorically rejected? It’s unfortunate that your mother tried to force it upon her in that way.
Let your parents know that Ellie is very serious about being called by her chosen name, and that it would mean a lot to her (and you) for them to respect that. Explain that she would have treasured the sweater, had it been made with the accurate name. Be clear that you do not think of them as senile, and that you do respect the fact that it may be difficult for them to embrace change at this stage in their lives. However, Ellie has gone by this name for four years, which should have been more than enough time for them to adapt. Tell them that their refusal to use her adopted name (which is, after all, a common nickname for her real middle name!) hurts her feelings and that you know that they would never want to do such a thing. Occasionally slipping up and calling her “Anna” is one thing, but never calling her “Ellie” is a choice that they have made. Hopefully, confrontation will force them to pull it together and choose otherwise. If they continue to refuse, apologize to Ellie for the annoyance and let her know that she hasn’t done anything wrong to cause them to behave this way, and that they are just having a hard time letting go of what they thought her name would be when she was born.