Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a 20-year-old woman who was raised by a single mother, who got pregnant with me when she was 20 and traveling abroad and had a summer fling with my father, who was also traveling abroad. When they found out she was pregnant, they discussed their options and my mother, having aspirations of becoming a lawyer, decided she wanted to have an abortion. My father supported her decision; however, when the time came, she couldn’t go through with it and had me and told my father about me via email about five months after I was born. My father, blindsided, told her he was in no position to be a father (he lived on another continent and was traveling a lot for work), but told her he would pay child support, which he faithfully paid until I graduated from high school. My mother worked as a paralegal while I was growing up and was bitter about not realizing her dream of becoming a lawyer. She would often complain about how she would be a better attorney than the one she worked for and how she gave up so much. I grew up feeling pressure to succeed to make up for her giving up her dreams to have me and also guilt that I was the reason she didn’t achieve her dreams.
Upon my graduation, I received a letter from an attorney for my father’s family regarding a trust that had been set up for me. It had enough money in it to pay for my college as well as help me get started in life. I was shocked and found it odd when the letter closed with “in the past, requests to meet you have been denied, but your father’s family would like you to know that if you ever would like to meet, they are eager to get to know you,” as I had no idea his side of the family had any interest in me. When I asked my mother, she feigned confusion but then admitted that after she told my dad about me, his family reached out offering “assistance” but that she turned them down because she was angry at my father. They are an old money family and she felt like they were trying to “buy” me.
I ended up meeting my family soon after I graduated and they are the sweetest, kindest, most wonderful family. My grandparents are quirky and loving and my aunts and uncles are some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I have seven cousins who I fell into with as if we grew up together. I even met my dad, who is right in that he would’ve been a shit dad but is one of my favorite people to be around. He is more like an uncle or friend than a dad figure, but I love him nonetheless.
For a while, I tried to find a balance between getting to know my paternal family and having a relationship with my mother, but any time she would find out I was seeing someone from that family she would get upset and try to guilt trip me about how much she gave up for me and how I was choosing “those people” over her. She always plays the martyr and points out the sacrifices she made so I could have expensive hobbies and wear stylish clothes. When asked, my grandparents disclosed to me that when they found out about me they reached out and offered assistance to my mother, including arranging for a nanny so she could go to school and allowing her to live in a property they owned rent free. They asked to have a relationship with me over the years, but she turned them down.
The last straw came a couple weeks ago, when my dad asked if I wanted to accompany him on a month-long assignment overseas this summer. I was ecstatic—it’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit—but when I told my mom, she accused me of having no loyalty and said that now that I have my father’s money I should be paying her back for all that she sacrificed for me. It was the worst fight we’ve ever had and I haven’t spoken to her since. I don’t know how to go forward. I know she won’t see my side of things, or anyone’s side of things except her own. I find myself growing more and more bitter and angry thinking of the years I missed out on with this family because she only thought of herself and not what I might want. I am thinking of just taking the whole summer off from her. My cousins want me to join them on their backpacking trip after the trip with my dad is over, and a break from everything sounds great.
But I feel guilty. My mother is estranged from her own family and doesn’t have many friends, and I feel like I would be abandoning her. What I think would be the best thing for my mental health isn’t necessarily the best thing for her. Am I being a bad daughter? Can’t I have a relationship with both my parents?
—I Didn’t Ask to Be Born
Dear I Didn’t Ask,
You love your mother. That doesn’t mean she has the right to guilt you for a lifetime or tell you that you’re the reason she didn’t pursue her dreams. I realize that may have been her anger or other emotions talking, but it’s still not okay for her to put that on you. Nor is it okay to try to deny you the relationships you’ve created with your father and his family, or the experiences you’re hoping to share with them—you shouldn’t have to give those things up in order to prove your love or loyalty to her.
I don’t know that you will be able to make her see your point of view. But since she is your mother and you do love her, you can try one more time. Tell her that you’re going to continue to see your father and his family, and go on those trips you want to take with them. You can reiterate that you love her and that won’t change, but you also need her to know that she’s hurting you and hurting your relationship by trying to cut you off from part of your family. Tell her that you won’t be made to feel guilty for getting to know your relatives, and the next time she tries to take you to task for it, you’re hanging up. And then be ready to follow through on it.
I hope she can eventually accept your decision and your right to make it, even if she doesn’t agree. I do want to point out that, just to make things easier for yourself (not because you should have to hide anything!), you can always follow the time-honored tradition of doing whatever you want and not telling your mom about it. She sounds like a person entirely wrapped up in the specific story she is telling herself about how her own life has played out. It doesn’t make it any easier for you to hear that, perhaps, but I say it because you should know and try to believe that her reaction is not about you, or what kind of daughter you are, at all. It’s about her. For your sake and hers, I hope she decides to change.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have an almost-3-year-old. I take on 100 percent of logistics involving our daughter, including taking her to nursery school every day. It’s a 10-minute drive or 2-minute walk; I usually walk. My husband chooses not to come with us; the nature of his job is that he has to be logged in (he works from home) at 9 a.m., even though I’m always home at least a few minutes before then. When our daughter asks why daddy isn’t coming with us, he says “Daddy has to work.”
I hate this, because in my mind this implies that mommy does NOT have to work. This is untrue—-n fact, I make almost twice as much as my husband in a high-powered job that I am extremely proud of. I just happen to work efficiently, so I can spare the 20 minutes to drop her off, and make the time to hang out with her after her babysitter leaves and on the weekends and in the mornings before my husband wakes up, etc.
It is important to me that I set a good example for my daughter. My mom did so for me. I do not want her to think that daddy works and mommy is just baby’s playmate; I am baby’s playmate, but I also do important work. I also realize she’s very little, so nuance might be lost on her. Should we be saying something else when explaining why her dad isn’t present at these times?
—Mommy ALSO Works
Dear Mommy Also Works,
I’m sure your daughter knows that moms also have jobs—she sees you doing your job every day. The problem is not that she will grow up thinking moms don’t work.
The problem is that she may grow up thinking dads don’t parent.
This is about much more than the walk to school and what you tell your child about it. Like, it would be completely acceptable if you were always the one to walk her to school—if both you and your husband agreed to that division of labor, and if he were taking care of other things! It sounds like he’s not, since you say you take on “100 percent of logistics” (aka all the logistics!) when it comes to parenting. That’s the example I’d be worried about. It would be ideal if your husband worried more about an equitable division of labor, and the example he’s setting for your child.
Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Nicole Each Week
From this week’s letter, One of My Daughters Is Incredibly Successful. The Other Blows Up Every Time I Mention It.: “I will mention how proud I am of Everleigh, or how much she’s accomplished, and Veronica will blow up and say that she knows that I think she’s a burden.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband comes from a big family that lives near each other in another state. We’re not especially close to them (physically or emotionally), but we try to visit every couple of years. One of his siblings adopted a child about 13 years ago. As the kid has entered their teenage years, it seems there has been a lot of friction recently, and I’m sorry to say that his sibling has been appallingly awful and effectively disowned this child, turning them out of the house and sending them to live with their spouse’s parents. Everyone in the family has strongly condemned this action.
My heart breaks for this child, whom I have met a handful of times at family events. My husband and I want to let them know that they still have a family in us. The rest of my husband’s family feels the same and continues to make sure the kid is invited to family events, which the parent then pointedly refuses to attend. However, we’re not really sure how to go about it. We don’t have kids, and most of the children we interact with via local friends are preschoolers. Do you have any advice/ideas on how we can best support a reserved teenager in another state who is going through a devastating ordeal? So far, my best idea is to plan a visit to take the kid and a friend of their choosing to a local amusement park, along with another one of my husband’s siblings who lives in town and sees them more. Or should we just set up a 529 in the child’s name and not try to show up out of the blue and involve ourselves in their life? I would love your perspective, because I am worried about doing the wrong thing and making the whole situation somehow worse for the child.
— Concerned in California
This is enraging and heartbreaking; of course you are concerned for your nibling. (I would be really concerned for the terrible parent’s spouse as well—if their child was sent away against their wishes, things in that marriage obviously can’t be good.) If you decide you want to try to see the child, communicate that through their grandparents or the other parent, don’t force anything, and only go forward if the child genuinely welcomes the idea. Ask yourself whether your pre-existing relationship with them is close enough that they would look forward to and enjoy spending a day with you; if not, or if you’re not sure, then it may not be the best idea, however well intended.
Ultimately, I am afraid there is nothing you can do to make up for this child being disowned by their father. But that doesn’t mean nothing you do with or for them matters. Continue to reach out with sincerity, show interest in their life, and just let them know you care about them. Send gifts, if you want to, on birthdays and holidays. Continue to let them know they’re part of the family and welcome at family functions, but don’t be surprised or upset if they don’t feel comfortable joining in right now. And yes, offering financial support in the future may be another meaningful way to help, if you want to, particularly if this upheaval in their life means they enter adulthood without the practical support or prospects they might have otherwise had.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have been together for 13 years. He has always been the self-sacrificing type. Much of his behavior stemmed from his past marriage where he was emotionally and mentally abused into being a caregiver and provider to his ex-wife and her son, who was only a few years older than him. In turn, he often places a significant amount of responsibility on himself to do everything at home, or ends up doing nothing because he is burned out. This has disrupted his health over the years, despite my begging him to see a doctor for numerous issues that he’s had. He has chronic skin problems that are not resolved after many years, he has bad sleep apnea but he will not wear his CPAP. He recently developed an allergy to fish that left him vomiting profusely. He also was itching with no rash for days on end, and did nothing about it. His anxiety is untreated and leaves us to work around a lot of it.
When we’re both working together, everything is great, neither of us feels overwhelmed, and the house is in order. As someone with chronic health and mental illness issues myself, it’s becoming harder to manage everything in the house when he isn’t doing any self-care. I end up having to pick up the slack of taking care of the house itself when I am in bouts of pain or exhaustion, I can’t sleep because he is up all night, or he’s holed up online because he’s overwhelmed. Picking up and taking care of our two kids, cooking, cleaning, laundry, trash, dishes, mopping, all falls to me. I can’t say the last time the bathrooms were cleaned. After working a stressful, mobile, out-of-the-home job (he works from home), all day to come home and immediately have to jump into working more is so hard and I’m exhausted.
I don’t know how to take care of him. I feel like I can talk to him about everything but this. He just blows me off, or gets upset. If I explain that I am struggling with the workload he points out everything he’s already doing (bills, cooking dinner) to say that it’s ok he’s not contributing to the other labor around the house at that time. It ultimately ends in an argument, so I am just holding it in. If I ask him to at least make an attempt to wear his CPAP or see the doctor about his skin or allergy he thinks of every excuse not to do it. We have excellent insurance and we are well off enough that money isn’t a concern for medical treatment either. I know he’s not doing well and it’s affecting everyone now. What do I do?
— Please Take Care
Dear Please Take Care,
To use a common analogy, this is a clear-cut case of your husband needing to put on his own oxygen mask before he can help anyone else. I don’t know if it would help at all for him to hear that, but it’s true.
It sounds like you already know that the current status quo isn’t working for either of you, and that household work needs to be distributed differently so that you aren’t overburdened physically and mentally. But this situation won’t really improve until your husband decides to attend to his own basic needs and care for himself, and by extension care for his family. You shouldn’t have to do this, but could you make an appointment and bring him to the doctor? In the meantime, think about everything that needs to get done around the house and consider what you may be able to outsource (while staying within your means) or who you might be able to call upon for help, if only temporarily.
I try not to go on about therapy too much in this column—you all know about therapy!—but you mentioned that you think past experiences with abuse are affecting your husband’s actions and reactions right now. It’s very understandable, if so. And at the same time, his choices right now are having a profound impact on his health and yours, and on your family overall. Perhaps if he talks with a counselor, or the two of you go to counseling together, you’ll have a better chance of finding a workable way forward.
More Advice From Slate
I’m a single mother, sole parent to a 6-year-old son. Next month I will be starting a new job, working 12-hour night shifts in a hospital two hours away from our home. He seems prepared for me not being with him overnight sometimes, but he recently asked for a phone of his own so we could exchange messages. I think it could be good for us. Is it a crazy idea?