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 have always been very close to my mom and have remained so, even as an adult with my own kids. She and my dad live about two hours from my family, and she’s been a very involved and loving grandmother. She also defers to my husband and me and never tries to claim she knows best. But she and I have very different political and religious beliefs. We’ve managed to stay close by avoiding these topics—until recently. The last time my kids and I visited my parents, my mom brought up how worried she is that we don’t attend church and how important she thinks it is that my kids know about “absolute truth.” Instead of politely demurring the way I know I should have, I blew up, and soon this turned into a heated argument about abortion and gay rights. I haven’t talked to her since. (Although my mom has tried to reach out to me, I’ve rebuffed her.) I’m still very angry about the conversation and don’t know how to move forward. None of her beliefs were a surprise, so I’m not sure why I’m still so distressed. I miss my mom but hate feeling like she’s disappointed in and disapproving of me.
—Please Don’t Bring Up Religion Again
It was inevitable that you’d eventually “blow”: we can keep silent only for so long about such things. But I also understand why you’d taken the path of avoidance/silence for so long! You love your mother, and you didn’t want your views to drive you apart. Well, Mom lit the match. Now that you’ve spelled this all out, the way forward is to take the bull by the horns. Pick up the phone. Be honest with her. Tell her you love her and miss her, and that your relationship will work only if you agree to disagree about matters that are enormously important to (both of) you. Tell her you don’t want to discuss religion—or politics—with her ever again. (And while you’re at it, extract a promise that she won’t proselytize the kids when she’s left alone with them.)
If she refuses to go along with this, I’m afraid there’s no path forward from there. (I doubt very much that she’ll refuse, though—my guess is that she’s as distraught as you are.) As to your distress about “disappointing” her and her disapproval of you—well, I’m afraid that’s going to have to be something you work through on your own. Grown children who think about things differently from their parents and who’ve pursued a different sort of life from the one their parents expected have to reckon with this. It’s a part of growing up. It may be the one missing piece of your own maturity and sense of self—and I hasten to say that this is not a criticism. It takes a long time to finish growing up, to fully shake off parental expectations and demands. Some people never do it. You’re already most of the way there.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 19-year-old son is a college sophomore and lives at home as a way to save money. He spends most of his time on campus, though, much of it with his girlfriend, whom he’s been dating since high school and who lives in the dorms. Her own family no longer lives in town. (They’re a three-hour plane ride away.) Now she’s looking into internships and has found a few local ones that she’s well into the application process for (interviews lined up for the next few weeks). Some of these are biomedical research internships, which are quite competitive. Her backup plan is to work at the summer camp she worked at during high school, as she’d be making well over minimum wage as a returning staff member.
Even before her parents’ move, they were not very close, so she’d rather stay in town for the summer than go “home.” (She spent more time with us than them when the kids were in high school.) She’s asked if she can live with us during the summer, which I have no issue with. She’s a lovely girl, all of my kids love her, and she’s a courteous guest. I can also trust her and my son to be responsible. (For example, neither of them drinks, and while I don’t know why she doesn’t, my son’s reasoning is that there are a lot of people in our family with addictive personalities and he doesn’t want to take any risks.) Here’s the complication: My son’s mother died when he was young, and I remarried and had two daughters with my now-ex-wife. The girls are 10 and 13.
My ex is utterly against my son’s girlfriend staying with us. She says this is because the girlfriend has ADHD (she’d confided this diagnosis to my family, and one of the girls told their mother) and we’ve been trying to get our younger daughter better at organization (she’s been screened for ADHD and has not been diagnosed). She is threatening to take me back to court over letting my son’s girlfriend stay with us. Is this something I actually need to be worried about?
—Hosting Without Ex’s Permission
I’m no legal expert, of course, but since you’ve written to me instead of calling your attorney, I’m glad to throw my opinion into the ring. I’m doubtful that you have anything to worry about with regard to the custody of your daughters, even if your ex-wife were to make good on her threat. (But as I say: I’m no expert on this. Why not consult the person who handled your divorce?) What I can weigh in on is how you might have a more fruitful conversation with your ex about these summer plans. I find it hard to believe that this young woman’s ADHD diagnosis is the reason your ex-wife objects to her spending the summer with your family. It’s not catching, after all.
I can think of lots of other reasons your ex might be uncomfortable with this arrangement, though. She might not want her daughters “exposed” to a young unmarried couple living together. She might be jealous of her daughters’ relationship with your son’s girlfriend. And so on. I am a big fan—in case you haven’t noticed—of dragging this sort of thing out into the open. Call her back, and have a real conversation with her. Hear her out; don’t get defensive. You might even offer up an apology for not talking this through with her earlier. This is your daughters’ mother—and your son’s stepmother—we’re talking about, and while I understand that you feel she doesn’t have the right to dictate decisions you make about your household, it only makes good sense to have a thoughtful, as-honest-as-possible relationship with her for your kids’ sake. In other words: Don’t just ignore her and hope for the best from the legal system.
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From this week’s letter, My Mother-in-Law Just Moved in With Us, and Wow, Our Parenting Styles Are Not the Same: “I’m struggling with how to draw ‘I’m the parent, not you’ boundaries in a kind but firm way.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My ex-husband and I divorced almost 30 years ago, when our three children were under 10 years old. I was open to 50-50 shared custody, but he wanted only a weekend a month and visits for some special occasions and holidays. After two years or so, he decided to drop the weekends and switch to special visits only, and he gradually became a sporadic, unreliable presence in their lives. He did make most of his child support payments. (And I didn’t press him for the ones he missed because I felt as if his relationship with the kids was already hanging on by a thread.) My older kids took his absence harder than my youngest, who didn’t really remember anything different. I did my best to avoid bad-mouthing him, even though I was angry myself.
Our oldest two now have children of their own. Recently, their father has become ill, with a serious diagnosis. He’s reached out to all three children about having more of a relationship with them. And he told them that I told him to stay away when they were young! He said he regretted not pushing back more. These are lies. My two oldest knew I’d done no such thing and have no intention of changing their very limited relationship with him. But my youngest believes what he told him! He called me, extremely upset, asking why I’d kept him “from having a dad growing up.” I told him I hadn’t. I also spoke more harshly about his dad than he’s ever heard me do before. After he ended the call, I sent a text saying that I understand that his dad’s call brought up a lot of emotions and that I know this must be very hard, and I reiterated that what he’d said was a lie. I told him I had wanted his dad to be more involved but I couldn’t force him to be. I said “I love you” and that I was ready to talk more whenever he was. That was three weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard from him. We never go that long without talking. I miss my son, and it’s eating me up inside that he believes such a hurtful lie about me. What do I do now? Do I reach out again? If so, what do I say to convince him? My older kids have a clearer picture of who their dad is, but it feels wrong to ask them to speak to their brother on my behalf.
I think what you do now is let him be (not forever, just for now). And stay out of your three kids’ relationships with one another. Let them sort it. And although I know this is painful, see if you can separate out your need to have your son believe you—and to disbelieve his father—from your son’s grief, which is a swirling mix of emotions at this point. He has lived with his father’s abandonment all his life without understanding it, and now he is simultaneously dealing with an “explanation” that paints you, the parent he was able to count on, as the villain. Think of how hard that must be for him!
Wait as long as you can bear, and if you still haven’t heard from him, try writing to him (not texting him!). If he doesn’t respond to that, wait a beat, and then try calling. Don’t give up—my guess is this is going to take some time.
I want to say something about your ex-husband, the liar, before I close. There is a possibility that he is also lying to himself. This doesn’t excuse him, of course. But as he faces his mortality, he may be unable to take an honest look at himself.
I have faith that your youngest will work through this and be back. Have patience.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Since the birth of our baby six months ago, my MIL has regularly offered to watch him, whether during the day or nights/weekends. A few weeks ago, I asked if she would be available to come over on Monday mornings for an hour and a half while I take a class at the gym, and she had a long list of reasons that wouldn’t work (it’s winter and she doesn’t like driving in snow, sometimes she has an appointment—you get the idea). I said we could absolutely do this on a week-by-week basis. I offered to bring the baby to their house if she’d rather not drive and said it would be fine to just give him a bottle during the time she was with him. Still, she continued to hesitate, so I dropped it, figuring she didn’t actually want to watch him, and arranged for him to stay with my friend, who is a SAHM to two toddlers.
Since then, my MIL has continued to tell me she’s available “anytime” to help out. I no longer take this seriously. But this past week, my husband came home from a visit with them (he had the baby with him) and asked if I could please take the baby over to his parents’ house every other week when I go to the gym. His mom had told him she’s upset that I never ask her to watch the baby, that I’m using my friend as a sitter instead. Baffled, I told him about the exchange we had back when I originally asked her. Now he’s baffled too. I know that sometimes people make offers they don’t want you to take them up on, but how are you supposed to handle it when they make the offer, make it clear they don’t mean it, then are hurt you don’t take them up on the offer? Should we address this with her or just smile and nod every time she offers in the future, knowing it’s not really meant? (And then what? He tsk-tsks and nods sympathetically every time she complains to him about it?)
Smile and nod all the way! Tsk-tsk and nod all the way afterward! There is no upside to addressing this directly, at least not now. Her feelings will be hurt, you and your husband will get angry, and it will turn into a whole thing. It might be worth giving it another try later on—and I’d give it at least six months—the same way you did last time. If she equivocates again, give up. It’s back to the smile and nod. Some people can’t admit to themselves that they’re full of it, alas. (Maybe you can make taking her up on it an annual event. Maybe eventually she’ll take you up on your taking her up on it. You never know.)
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