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 not a parent (but I do spend a lot of time in my neighborhood parks walking my dog) and over the past few years I have observed a baffling and disgusting trend that I’d love an explanation for. Parents and caregivers of small children seem to bring little portable toilet bowls for their children to use. They set them up under trees, within feet of playgrounds and picnic areas, for these kids to poop and pee in. The park I go to has public bathrooms that are actually quite clean, with regularly stocked soap and paper towels and hot water from the sinks (I know a lot of parks don’t have those amenities). Why in the world is encouraging a child to defecate in front of everyone in the park in a plastic baggie under a tree preferable to a bathroom? These kids seem to just finish their business and run back to play on the playground, running their germy toilet hands over other kids and the equipment, eating ice cream and candy from the nearby ice cream truck. There is nary a second thought for hand washing or cleanliness. What. Is. Happening? When did this become a thing? Who is championing this? Why would a parent want to empty a baggy of their child’s excrement rather than take them to a restroom? Why are they doing this in view of picnic areas where people want to eat? Please explain!
—Enough With the Public Poopers
I get it, you’re grossed out by children excreting waste nearby. From my experience, this has always been a thing, but it was even more so during COVID-lockdown times because most public restrooms were closed. If a kid has to go, then a parent needs to be prepared at all times.
Now that we’re back to some semblance of normalcy, many parents are opting for a portable potty, and although my kids are well past the age of using that kind of device, I don’t have a problem with others doing it. It seems like the people who take issue with this are the same ones who have problems with moms breastfeeding in public. They’ll clutch their pearls and ask, “Why can’t they feed their baby in a restroom or in the car?!” and my response is always, “Why are you even looking in the first place?”
Not to sound insensitive, but parents aren’t worried about making strangers like you feel comfortable—they’re doing whatever it takes to get through each day with their sanity intact. If you don’t like it, don’t look. It’s as simple as that.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My mother-in-law and I don’t have the best relationship ever since my child was born, and now I’m expecting a second. She was immediately overwhelming for me as a new mom and often ignored me when I asked for specific actions with my new child. I felt invisible to her and not worthy of her respect because “she has raised three kids.” I asked my husband for help with setting boundaries with his mother, but he is nervous to stand up to her, so nothing changed. It finally came to a head a few months later, and she screamed at me and claimed I was calling her a bad grandma. She didn’t listen to anything I had to say and just played the victim.
I’m not saying I was perfect in our relationship, I became cold and reduced how chatty I was and would avoid visits with her and my child. I apologized for my ways and said I would change, and I did, my husband agrees. For the past year I have been chattier with her, and she sees my child about once a week.
My issue is that after a year of struggle in my marriage and my relationship with my in-laws (my father in-law and sister in-law all against me), my mother in-law hasn’t changed her ways whatsoever, and she is continuing to play the victim and make me the villain. She claims she has done absolutely nothing wrong for our relationship to become rocky and doesn’t understand why I won’t just get along with her. She also feels she doesn’t need boundaries and doesn’t understand my need for them. Knowing she feels this way makes me furious because she’s not taking any responsibility for her actions whatsoever and still refuses to listen to anyone if you try to explain it to her. I understand she wants more time with my child, but I don’t feel comfortable asking her to watch my child alone, and I don’t want to be with her without my husband. I also feel once a week is sufficient as a grandparent because even though I’m home, I’m making memories with my own child, especially before a second arrives. How does one move forward with someone who believes they are truly innocent and expects me to just accept her for who she is without any changes? Am I wrong for not inviting her over without my husband present?
—The Villain in Her Story
Dear the Villain,
So, as a matter of principle, you have the right to tell your MIL that you don’t want her to babysit your child and that you don’t want her coming to visit when you’re alone with the baby. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s so offensive about her behavior from your letter, which is somewhat vague, but if you think she’s bad news, that’s your call.
However, she is your husband’s mom, so if he wants her to have a relationship with your child, he is allowed to facilitate that. The good news is you can set the boundary that she must only visit whenever your husband is home, so there won’t be any awkwardness or other bad feelings. When she’s in your home with your husband and child, you can use that time to allow yourself to decompress from parenting and step away for a while.
As I’ve said in previous letters on this topic, the bigger issue is your spouse. As his wife, he should ultimately answer to you, not his mom—and he should do whatever he can to make you feel comfortable. This tension, if it goes unresolved, could impact your marriage (it sounds like it already is), so I would strongly suggest counseling to put all of your issues on the table.
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From this week’s letter, I’m Worried My Teen’s Strange, Unnecessary Habit Is Going to Cause Her Major Social Problems.: “It is clear that she feels very strongly about this, and is incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of changing.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a single mother with twin 9-year-old girls. We live in a fairly well-off suburb, but we’re on the lower end of the economic spectrum in our town. My kids know we aren’t the wealthiest people in our community. Their classmates talk about spending their summer at their second homes in a popular beach region of our state, or flying to Disney World every summer. A few kids in 3rd grade have expensive smartphones. And it’s always been somewhat obvious, in that all their friends mostly live in detached homes on backroads while we live in an apartment above my parents’ convenience store on the busy main street. But recently a series of unexpected costs have meant that I’m telling my kids “we can’t afford that” way more often than I used to. And I’m finding that things we used to do more frequently, like getting takeout, are turning into much more of a rarity. Hopefully just for the time being. I was able to preserve some family traditions, like applying to their favorite summer camp’s scholarship fund.
Unfortunately, this is something my daughters have picked up on. When they were younger and asked about why we don’t live in a house like their friends, I told them that it’s so wonderful that grandma and grandpa live right below us and we can see them every day. But I’m worried now. They’re getting older and those sorts of things aren’t going to cut it anymore. When they were little, the wealth disparity was evident in our housing situation, and maybe some of the toys that they had. But as their peers grow up and the wealth disparity becomes even more apparent, since we won’t be able to afford all the trendy clothes or gadgets that their friends can, I’m worried my kids might be ostracized. We aren’t the only family living in the mixed-use apartments, nor are we the only family in our economic situation in our town, but families like ours are the minority in our town. How can I talk to my daughters about our situation, and help them feel special when all their friends can afford things that we can’t?
—We Can’t Afford That
Dear Can’t Afford That,
There are a lot of ways to go about this, but I think a great way of instilling kids of this age with some financial perspective is to break down the monthly expenses (rent/mortgage, car payment, food, etc.) to show them how your money is allocated. It’s a helpful exercise to show that you aren’t being stingy, but you are doing what it takes to survive as a single parent. Personally speaking, I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but my parents did an amazing job of explaining why I couldn’t have all of the coolest gadgets back in the day. One time, when I wanted a Super Nintendo video game system, my mom went through the financial breakdown of monthly expenses with me and said that there was no way we could afford it under our current circumstances without sacrificing something important. Did I like her answer? No, I didn’t, but I understood.
Another helpful thing you can do is have your twins volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. The goal isn’t for them to say, “Whew, at least we aren’t like those people!” but for them to be grateful for what they have right now and to show empathy for others who aren’t as fortunate. I also did this when I was a child, and it changed my perspective entirely.
Last, but not least—remind your kids of the main thing, which is to grow up in a happy, loving, healthy household. There are plenty of people who make more money in a month than you make in an entire year and have all of the “stuff” but are absolutely miserable. Trust me when I say that when you’re on your deathbed, your kids aren’t going to say, “Man, I wish mom bought us more designer clothes when we were 9.”
Think of it this way—what are your fondest memories of your parents? I bet it doesn’t include any material item they bought for you, but instead it was something they did with you. Continue to show up for them as a mom and they will be just fine in the end.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a question about affection between my daughter and her uncle (my brother). My 10-year-old daughter is affectionate by nature, and still cuddles with my husband and me and sits on my lap occasionally. However, when we visit with my brother (a very kind 34-year-old who struggles with boundaries and social cues) she is extremely affectionate: She wants to sit on his lap for extended periods of time. He is quite affectionate back, think lots of head-patting and always being near her. I do not at all think anything nefarious is going on, but it is giving me the major icks as she gets older. Is there a way to address this and put a stop to it without making her feel ashamed or as if she is doing something wrong? Or since she loves to cuddle with her uncle, do I just have to get over the ick factor? (My husband agrees with me and is equally at a loss as to how to handle it.) At what age (and how) do you tell a child to stop sitting on people’s laps?
—Uncomfortable About Uncle
I can see where you’re coming from, especially since I have daughters around the same age. What you’re describing isn’t an issue for my 12-year-old, mostly because she’s an introvert who looks like a grown woman at 5’8” and has zero interest in sitting on any man’s lap. However, my 9-year-old still sits on my lap and has been known to sit on the laps of her grandfather and uncles. There aren’t any red flags with any of those men, but I can absolutely understand how you could have the “ick factor,” as you described it, in terms of how your daughter and brother interact.
This is a great opportunity to talk to your daughter about boundaries and consent. Basically, you should teach her that she should never sit on anyone’s lap or allow anyone to touch her without her consent. Additionally, I think it’s also a good idea to share a message with your brother. You can say something along the lines of, “Hey, I know you’re a good guy and that you’re not a threat to my daughter, but she’s at the age where I’m teaching her about consent and bodily autonomy. For now, I think it may be a good idea to dial back the cuddling, and if it ever happens, you need to ask for her permission first.” Any adult of sound mind would understand what you’re trying to say and will act accordingly, and I feel that your brother falls into that category.
With all of that said, will your daughter still choose to sit on your brother’s lap going forward? Will your brother still welcome the cuddles and lap-sitting? Perhaps, but you should take solace in knowing that he’s not a creep. Once her hormones start kicking in, she probably will think it’s weird to be sitting on her uncle’s lap and that behavior will dissipate rather quickly. For now, your mission is to teach your kid about the importance of consent, and everything else will fall into place.
More Advice From Slate
Oh man we are struggling. We have a delightful, challenging 2-year-old. Among her current toddlerisms are hating bath time, changing her outfit a dozen times a day, refusing the car seat or insisting it’s too tight, suddenly getting extremely possessive and snatchy with fragile or dangerous things. At least she’s not a runner? I’m reading the books and trying my best, but it is really getting the better of my husband. He lectures her and tries to use logic on her. I just overheard him during bedtime saying, “You know, you’re being very disrespectful of me—I’m your father.” “Why didn’t you cover your nose when you sneeze? We have told you so many times.” Over the weekend he informed me that he wanted me to work with her on her letters, like with a lesson plan and learning outcomes. She’s 2! How do I talk to him about his approach?