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 part of a friend group that, all told, has seven daughters ranging in age from six months to 4 years old. My daughter is on the younger end of the group and has had maybe one episode of the sniffles her whole life, but all the other families have sick kids all the time. I am writing because I don’t know what to do about playdates. I feel like, more often than not, we cancel because the other family has an illness of some sort. This has me wondering if other families do the same, or if most people simply accept that illness will spread around.
My friends hang out when their kids are sick and happily pass illness around for the sake of “building immunity.” I am a nurse and I don’t think subjecting my kiddo to repeated colds, fevers, and episodes of pink eye is worth the immunity my friends claim it builds (and their kids are still ALWAYS sick, so I don’t know that it’s working anyway). Still, I am a first-time mom, and I’m just not sure if I am in a strange microcosm of humans who are weirdly OK with spreading germs—or if I’m the outlier for not wanting my child (or myself!) to get sick for the sake of socializing. Finally—a side note—I get that amongst siblings or in day care settings it’s hard to prevent illness, but nobody’s kids receive care outside the home at this time. I am in no way judging my friends for having sick children—but am I the weird one for being so unwilling to expose mine to theirs?
—Germ-Free in Georgia
Here’s the real question: What difference does it make if you’re “the weird one” or they are? Why do any of you have to be weird? Each of us needs to do what we believe is right when it comes to raising and caring for our children. As long as a parent isn’t doing harm, there’s a lot of leeway here, depending on (literally) too many factors to name.
You’re not doing your infant daughter harm by having her miss out on social engagements. Whether you feel this is doing you harm is another matter. Are you lonely? Do you feel left out? If so, can you propose outdoor gatherings so that you’ll still have these other parents to talk to? Or propose a playground get-together with the one family in which no one is currently sick? I am not willing to weigh in on the subject of whether these other parents are doing their young children harm—because they’re not the ones who wrote in to ask me, and I do my best not to offer unasked-for advice, in life as in this column. But I will say that making judgments—or even just looking askance—at what others do where their children are concerned (whether it’s you judging them for exposing their kids to other kids’ germs or them judging you for “overprotecting” yours) is always a bad practice. No one’s weird in this scenario. Everyone’s doing their best with what they’ve got and who they are. Trust me.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I know you get a lot of letters by and about adult children cutting contact with their parents, but I’m in the reverse position. My mom cut me off when I turned 18, and she hasn’t spoken to me since. I was not an easy kid, I know: I was angry at her for cheating on and divorcing my dad. Because my dad wasn’t around anymore, she had to deal with all of it on her own—and then in my teens I acted out with drug and alcohol use to cope with abuse from her boyfriend. To her credit, when I finally told her what her boyfriend was doing, she dumped him immediately. By then I was in juvenile detention, where I spent several months. When I was released, she dropped me on my dad’s doorstep and hasn’t reached out to me or responded to my attempts at contacting her since. Three months ago, I wrote to her, offering to go to therapy with her; she returned the letter unopened.
My dad wasn’t there for me in my childhood but he and my stepmom stepped up later and helped me go to college and find my way to a career. We get along well now and I see them often. I’m 25 and I have a loving boyfriend and good friends as well as a relationship with my father and stepmother, but I feel like I’m still looking for my mom everywhere I go, hoping other women will step into that role. How do I stand this feeling of motherlessness?
I wish I could tell you that this feeling will pass. Even more, I wish I could tell you that your mother will change her mind and be willing—oh, eager!—to start over and have a relationship with you. I can’t, of course. Your mother is guided by her own star—or her own trauma and inner demons—and I think it’s time you stopped reaching out to her. She knows you want her back. If she’s ever moved to answer that call—if she’s ever able to answer it—she will. So let’s focus on the question with which you end your letter.
You are going to need professional help with this, Motherless. It’s wonderful that you have a solid relationship with your father and stepmother, that you have a loving romantic partner and good friends—and it’s a sign of your own strength, healing, and sense of self—but the loss of one’s mother, for a teenager, for any reason, is not a blow that’s easy to bounce back from. If your mother had died when you were young, if she had been physically present but distant and uncaring, if you had been the one to cut ties for the sake of your own mental health—the loss would be a deep wound. Not the same wound, to be sure. But one that would need care.
Therapy with your mother is not what’s in order here. Therapy for you is, to help you live your life wholly and with joy, whether or not your mother is ever a part of it again. I’ll be thinking of you and wishing all the best for you.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am part of a group of four longtime friends, all women in our 50s. One of our group is recently widowed (less than a year), and is besotted by a man she hasn’t known very long (who has been very recently divorced). Not even six months after meeting him, she’s moved him and his two children into her home, and she has just announced that they are getting married in a month. His divorce was just finalized. My other friends and I feel that the whole thing has been very rushed, and it seems to us that this man has been pushing her and is a little controlling even though she says she is happy. They are attached at the hip and engage in lots of PDA (honestly, she is acting like a teenager). We know that none of this is our business and we keep our feelings to ourselves, yet we all believe she is rushing headlong into a situation neither of them are prepared to handle.
My question is: How do we handle our own feelings? Even though we haven’t voiced them, she is aware that we have doubts: She has accused us of not being happy for her. We want her to be happy, but we hate so many aspects of this situation. Not to mention that the man is exactly like her first husband, with whom she had a terrible relationship. We feel like maybe WE need therapy to learn how to just let this go and let her live her life, but it is all we can talk about!
Dear Too Involved,
For starters: Stop talking about it.
The three of you are whipping yourselves into a state of agitation, worry, and judgment that has nowhere to go. You recognize that this is none of your business, you are determined not to say anything out loud—but you can’t seem to help letting your friend know in other ways (a look, a sigh, a shudder?) exactly how you feel—and there is absolutely nothing you can do about the train wreck you believe is ahead. It’s time for the trio of friends who are not the woman making what looks like a very bad decision to stop obsessing over it.
I am not forbidding you to tell her how you feel, and why, just once (and then forever hold your peace, even when—if—this marriage ends and you feel a pressing urge to say, “I told you so”). But as I’m sure you’re aware, if you do so, she will be angry. She may even cut off contact, which would isolate her even further, so that if this new relationship flounders—if she ends up as unhappy and regretful as you suppose she will be—she will not have her old friends to lean on.
If you think there’s any chance your friend will heed your warning and slow things down, go ahead and shoot your shot. If you know—as I suspect you do know—there’s nothing you can do to make the train stop before it crashes, don’t say a word. Let it go. It’s her life. You can’t tell her how to live it. And you don’t need therapy to teach you that. You just need to find another topic of conversation. (If you can’t think of anything else to talk about, then your friend group has another sort of problem.)
Dear Care and Feeding,
Sadly, we don’t expect my husband’s grandmother to live much longer, and we are preparing for her likely passing within the next couple of months. She lives overseas with my father-in-law, who cares for her, and we videochat with them weekly. Our toddler has never met these two relatives in person but he adores them. He will absolutely miss his great-grandmother when she passes; he’ll ask about her when she isn’t on screen with his granddad. We’re not sure how to approach this with him. Our son just turned 2 a few weeks ago and is pretty developmentally average in most ways. He cares very much about people in his life. Any time he learns a new concept, he runs through a complete list of loved ones to establish how they fit with said concept (e.g., when encountering a new food, he immediately asks if Grandma, Sally, Uncle Ben, and so on like that food). I know that if we explain death as a concept, he is going to run through the list of names, including himself, my husband, and me, asking if we are going to die.
We’ve read up and understand that explaining death factually is usually best for little ones, but he’s still a bit younger than we hoped he’d be for that conversation and we worry that learning we’re all going to die might cause more damage at this age (especially since for him a “long time” is half an hour, so we’d have limited ability to put timelines into perspective). How should we approach this? Should we explain the concept of death with factual honesty, or would more vagueness be better while he’s this young? We could tell him that we can’t see Nana because she’s not here anymore and leave it at that. If we went for that option, I expect he would fixate on “Nana not here anymore” for a while, but I don’t think he would ask further questions at this age.
—Bearer of Sad News
I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s grandmother, even as I am full of admiration for you for having connected her with her great-grandson the way you have. Good for you! That the family has made sure she is a presence in your child’s life despite the distance and never having met face-to-face, gives me joy. May you inspire others to follow your example.
My feeling about what to tell your toddler when his great-grandmother dies is the truth. If you use the word “died,” yes, he will ask what that means. You can tell him that in a way he can understand: She was very, very old, and her body stopped working. He may ask further questions, but it’s unlikely that at his age he will make the connection to himself (that’s coming though, and this article in EuroJournal is one I’ve recommended before, to help you prepare for it). He will be sad, which is completely appropriate. He’ll see that you and his father—and his grandfather, when they next videochat—are sad, too. That’s a good thing, as it validates his own feelings. Let him feel those feelings, and help him manage them (in part by demonstrating by example how you manage them).
I’m not crazy about “She isn’t here anymore,” because it’s a euphemism that opens another can of worms (as I think most euphemisms do). You can be factual without going down a philosophical rabbit hole. It’s best not to sidestep something that will lead you down pathways that themselves lead nowhere (Where has she gone? Why has she gone? Where’s here?). Something else I’ve mentioned before (how to talk to children about death is a perennial Care and Feeding question) is that Tomie dePaola’s Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs helped me (28 years ago now) talk to my then 2-year-old about death when my husband’s maternal grandmother—and then his maternal grandfather a month or so later—died. My daughter had met them only a few times, on our visits down South, but they’d made a big impression on her and my husband and I talked to her about them often. After their deaths, we read and reread dePaola’s beautiful book, whenever she requested it. I think it should be in every toddler’s library.
More Advice From Slate
I have a 2-year-old son who recently developed a problem going to sleep in his own bed. One night, after our bedtime routine of reading stories, his dad and I were saying good night and his dad added the “don’t let the bedbugs bite!” saying. Immediately, a look of horror crossed my son’s face and he sat up and pointed at the bed asking “Bite? Bite?” over and over.