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 am a 44-year-old divorced mom of three. I am the child of a violent, abusive, mentally ill man who viciously and maliciously abused my mother, my younger sister, and me. At 19 I dropped out of college, got a job, moved my mom and my sister into an apartment and financially supported them. We were each able to move on with our lives. Fast forward to today, where, after a divorce and lots of therapy, my life is balanced and I’m trying to make a happy life for myself.
Years ago, I decided to buy a huge beach house where my mom and stepfather could retire and live, and my family and our extended family could visit in the summer. I was desperately trying to create the happy, close family I never had. I’ve realized my mom is not loving, nor does she share the vision I always dreamed of. I’ve stopped going to the house because my mom and stepfather create a very unwelcoming and uncomfortable atmosphere. They are passive aggressive and have never welcomed some of our extended family members to stay, which was the “deal” when I bought it for them. To be clear, they pay nothing to live at the house except utilities.
With the house not working out the way I’ve dreamed, I’ve become resentful every time I pay the mortgage. I’ve now created this situation where I financially support a person who never protected me or my sister from abuse, and when given the opportunity to hurt me, does. I have tried to distance myself from her and not give her power over my life, feelings, or thoughts. But even understanding who she is, I’m feeling extremely depressed. I feel like I sacrificed everything for a mother who never was and never will be what I need. And my recent diagnosis of a serious and potentially life-threatening condition is bringing all of this into focus in a crippling way.
I have overcompensated for the love I never received by giving it to my three great kids (15, 14 and 10), who are regular kids living normal lives. But because they no longer need the cuddles and closeness they required as smaller children, I feel a sense of sadness and loss and that no one loves me. I know they do, and I don’t think my kids are responsible for providing me the love that I never received from a parent. But I’m still so sad and struggling. I feel empty that my marriage failed and that I only see my kids half the time. I am only a half-time mom and I now have a medical diagnosis that threatens my life. Should I cut off my mom the way I did with my dad? Block her number and never speak to her again? And how can I fill my heart that just longs for a full-time family?
— Empty Heart
It sounds like your mom is, for numerous reasons, incapable of being the mom you need her to be. That isn’t going to change, so you have to find a way to stop giving her opportunities to disappoint you. She doesn’t sound like she can support you through your health journey, and she certainly isn’t helping you cultivate family relationships in the way you hoped. So, if you cannot continue as you are currently, then I think it is OK to decide to walk away, either largely or fully, from the relationship. I think that would be hard while you are, effectively, her landlord, so it’s prudent to consider how you can get the beach house and its associated failed expectations out of your life. I don’t know if that means selling it, or paying of the mortgage and transferring the deed—you know your finances and what is possible. I would caution you to think about what kind of financial “off ramp” you give your mom. An abrupt eviction might feel good in the moment, but my gut says you’ll regret it in time, so find the path forward that doesn’t fully screw over your mom but does allow you to heal.
My larger concern is for how your family history may affect your relationship with your children. It sounds like you’ve raised three great kids. But I am deeply concerned with how much you are looking for validation in your family relationships, and how much you measure your worth based on others. This comes across not only when describing your mom, but when you discuss your divorce and being “only a half-time mom” (which is not a thing—you are a mom all day every day, no matter where your kids are sleeping that night). It makes sense based on your history, and I do not judge or criticize you for any of this. But I worry that, unless you find a way to address it, your current insecurity and demoralization will fester, you’ll put more pressure on your kids (and their families) to validate you, and it could eventually push your kids away. Because they will also be incapable of giving you what you want—not because they don’t care, but because it will be an impossible feat. There is no amount of love or positive feedback that a person can give you to convince you that you are loved and loveable once life has conditioned you to think otherwise. So, as much as you are feeling actively hurt by your mom, recognize that that relationship is effectively dead, and you must now work on yourself to safeguard your future relationship with your children.
You mention therapy. Are you still in active treatment? If not, you should be, and think critically about whether the therapy you receive is working. There are many types of care out there; if talk therapy isn’t getting you what you need, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) might, for example. (Interestingly, EMDR is often used with people with PTSD and other trauma conditions.) Do some research and see what techniques might help you meet your self-care goals. Be aggressive in finding the treatment that works for you. You are more than your sadness and regrets.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 3-year-old started full time daycare three months ago, after being somewhat isolated during the pandemic. Getting him adjusted to daycare was a huge challenge, but drop-offs are generally free of drama now.
He is still very dependent on routine and security items like his nap blanket. From the beginning, he refused to take his coat off ever (the classroom is comfortably warm. On a recent warm day, I gently suggested that if he felt hot he could put his coat in his cubby, and it would be safe there until the end of the day. He was quite firm that he wanted to keep his coat on. I asked if his coat made him feel safe and he said yes. I said that was okay and that I was glad he had something that made him feel safe.
The school is understandably pretty firm about no attachment objects or toys from home. I tend to be an anxious person who clings to home and comfort. I hear from so many (mostly family) voices around me that we are being too lenient and letting him do things his own way too much of the time rather than expecting him to toughen up and be normal. Am I letting him get away with being a weird coat kid? Or can I just trust that he’ll get over this in his own time, and he won’t still be wearing a winter coat all day in August?
— He’s Not Cold
Dear Not Cold,
I hope your daycare is one of those places that texts you periodic photos so that you can make an adorable photo collage of him in his coat! Honestly, this strikes me a no big deal. When my niece was a toddler, she wore her wool panda hat all day every day. And carried a plastic tiger around. Every photo, both the tiger and the hat were in view. Today, it’s a beloved memory of mine.
Kids are weird, and I’ve always found the weird things to be their most charming traits. In fact, toddlerhood is arguably the most endearing time to be weird. So, as long as the teachers are rolling with it, I think you are perfectly fine to sit back and see how this plays out. But if you want, you could consider getting a variety of jackets and coats for him so that it’s not always his winter puffer that he needs, so that the jackets can evolve with the seasons.
My only caveat is that you say you’re getting comments about your lenience. Are those comments all about the jacket, or about your parenting approach in general? If the former, my advice stands. If the latter—and if these comments are from reasonable people you trust who have similar parenting styles to you—then you might spend some time introspecting, or asking your kid’s daycare providers if there are behaviors or norms you need to address with him. But again, the jacket alone is not the hill to die on. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
How do I tell my mother to stop sending me “gifts” to my job? I guess I should start by saying my mother doesn’t know where I live and only knows where I work. (My name is plastered on the company website so it’s not hard to find me.) I don’t speak to my mother, and don’t really want a relationship with her. She has narcissistic tendencies and is bipolar but refuses to take her medications. There was physical and mental abuse in my childhood, and then as I got older, she literally stole my identity and racked up debt in my name. She is sending these “gifts” because she wants me to talk to her, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I am leaving this company in a couple months and need to ask her to stop sending these “gifts.” What is the shortest most concise way to say, “Stop sending me unwanted things to my job” without her thinking I’m trying to let her back into my life by talking to her. I would like to try to keep the barrage of hurtful comments from her to a minimum, if possible.
— Want to Be Giftless
The answer is simple: outsource! Truly, I think you have two options available, which involve no contact with your mom.
Your first option is to ask your colleagues for help. If you have a receptionist or admin who receives the mail and packages, tell them that absolutely no mail from your mother is to come your way—that you don’t even want to know it arrived. If that’s not how your office is staffed, then stop going to the mailroom yourself and enlist a colleague to act as your mailbox “bouncer.” Bribe them with Starbucks if you need to. Admittedly, involving colleagues requires transparency and vulnerability, which I know is a no-fly zone for some folks where the office is concerned, but it’s a passive option that doesn’t involve your mom at all, so I think it’s a winner.
Second option: mark the packages as “Refused” and return them to the post office or mail carrier. You could even lie and say “Refused – no longer employed here.” The risk of course is that mom tries to call (or worse, show up), because you’re actively refusing her gifts. Also, be aware that this won’t work for opened items, so if mom gets a few packages back she might start sending you stuff without her return address on it. But to me, nothing sends a clearer message than that simple word plastered across a returned package.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have a 22-month-old girl and a 3-month-old boy. I am currently home with the kids until the youngest turns 2 and can enter a local nursery school program. My husband recently had to travel for 10 consecutive days for work. He was hesitant to go, but I told him it would be fine. Overall, everything went well while he was away. I used a friend for a grocery pickup and had his parents over for dinner to help a bit on bath nights.
When he came back, he seemed distracted and upset so I asked him what was wrong. He said it seemed like everything had gone OK while he was gone. I reassured him that it had. He told me that was the problem; he’d been gone for an extended amount of time, and it had hardly been different than if he was here. He had expected it to be significantly more difficult for me to do things on my own, and he felt insulted that we had all adjusted so well without him.
I told him it didn’t mean we didn’t need him or that it wasn’t easier when he was home, just that we could manage when he was away, which I think is a good thing. He said that he wouldn’t be able to take care of both kids 24 hours a day for 10 days on his own if I needed to go away, and I said I thought he could just fine. After a bit more back and forth, I told him that I wasn’t going to apologize for being proficient with our children, and that if he felt he wasn’t, he was welcome to start doing more to get himself there. He took that to mean that I think he doesn’t do enough, which is the exact opposite of how I feel and what I’d been telling him for the past 10 minutes.
He left for work still upset and now here I am mystified. How did me taking care of everything turn into him being mad at me? Suggestions for how to approach this? While things do go pretty well in our house, I don’t really have the energy to manage his emotions and take care of everything else I already do, nor did I expect to need to.
— I Run This House
While I will admit to first feeling frustration on your behalf, I do sympathize with your husband a bit; nobody likes feeling superfluous, whether it’s true or not.
The fact is, you probably do manage more of the house and thus can more easily adapt to his absence than the reverse. That is to be expected; not only are you a stay-at-home parent, but as plenty of articles will tell you, statistically, women carry more of the mental load of running a household than men do. Your husband’s indignance is unfair, because parenting and running the home is your primary job. It doesn’t mean he isn’t contributing, but it means that the main work still got done. Also, as it sounds like you tried to explain, carrying the full load of parenting for 10 days is different than doing it forever. Just because the former is manageable doesn’t mean your husband isn’t needed in the grand scheme of things. I’m a widowed parent, and I can attest that solo parenting forever is a way different beast than doing it for finite bursts. Your success during this trip doesn’t nullify his contributions as a parent. It just means he can count on you when his career takes him away.
A book you might want to look into—and I’ve suggested it before in previous letters—is Fair Play by Eve Rodsky. The book is effective at making the invisible tasks visible in order to help couples divide duties more equitably. While its primary audience is couples where one person feels overburdened by their home and parenting tasks, I think it still might help in your case. It may help your husband see why you could survive so effectively without him, and it would give you both a framework to discuss shifting responsibilities to him if that is truly what you both want.
However, I think it’s critical for your husband, and you, to remember that your arrangement is temporary. In another 18 months, you will go back to work, at which point you will have to recalibrate everyone’s role. He needs to remember that even though today you are a bad-ass mama who runs the world within your four walls, you’ll eventually be a bad-ass mama who can’t make it to soccer on Thursday because of a meeting she has to attend. The power dynamics will even out, and there will be times when dad will be essential to things getting done. As Tom Hanks reminds us, this too shall pass.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I (we’re white) have a 2-year-old daughter and are doing our very best to be anti-racist parents. We’re making sure she has lots of multiracial dolls, only consumes books and TV shows with diverse characters, has no problematic Halloween costumes, and so on. But when we try to discuss issues like structural racism, intersectionality, or White fragility, she doesn’t seem at all interested. Have we screwed up somehow?