Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My partner and I are engaged to be married soon, and excitedly talking about our plans for married life—including, maybe, adopting children. I am horribly torn, because while I love the idea of having a child, I am also terrified that I will not be a fit mother. My own mother was abusive—mostly emotionally and mentally, but occasionally it got physical too. I can’t see myself ever physically hurting a child, but what if I’ve taken on her other behaviors and traits? My mom made it clear to me that people who aren’t smart aren’t lovable, and would punish me and withdraw affection if I ever did badly in school. My partner and I have already agreed that we would never let my mom near any child of ours—her behavior drove me to attempt suicide and I cannot bear the thought of her making another child feel that way. But what if I become the problem? I deeply value the idea of academic success and am terrified I would make my child feel unloved if they did badly, whether I meant to or not. How do I express these fears to my partner without making her think I’m an appalling person?
—Scared of Myself
Let me start by saying how terribly sorry I am for your experience of childhood. No one deserves to be raised with that kind of callous cruelty, and it’s wonderful that you have a loving partner and are no longer in a position to be abused by someone with complete authority over you.
To make a sweeping generalization, most people who spend more than 10 minutes thinking about whether or not they would be a good parent are perfectly capable of rising to the occasion. The bar is not actually that high: food, shelter, love, and not abusing them. I think our culture of hyperparenting makes it seem like you need to have your kids in Kumon and piano and Mandarin at age 3 to give them the mythical “best possible start.” You know what being abused feels like; don’t do that.
What I would think about, if I were in your shoes, is how you deal with stress and frustration in adult life. Do you yell at your partner? Talk things through? Punch a wall every now and then? Withdraw to regain your composure? Ask your partner how she feels about your conflict style. Kids will push you beyond your best self, so work on ensuring your less-than-best-self is still appropriate.
So many adults who were victims of child abuse wonder if they’ll break the cycle or perpetuate it. The wondering is the best possible sign. I cannot imagine your partner would hear your concerns as anything other than sensible self-examination.
I wish you all the very best. I think you’ll be fine.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a 28-year-old black queer woman who’s not hunting a romantic relationship down and doesn’t feel like my life will be lacking if I never have one. For years I’ve accepted that this means that I probably won’t have children, as single motherhood just seemed too daunting for me to be interested. But a few weeks ago I had a myomectomy, removing uterine fibroids, and that’s made me start to think about kids again. I think the urge has a lot to do with fear that I’ll be alone when I’m old. I mean, no kid should be beholden to their parents for raising them, right? No kid should be born just because they are a living elder-care insurance policy for their parents, right? Is there really any unselfish reason to have children?
—Childless for Now
As it happens, there is a nonselfish reason to have children. It is this: The world needs good people. And the world needs you to help make them. You are thoughtful, and seemingly kind and loving. Should you decide to parent children, then you have the opportunity to help grow thoughtful, kind, and loving humans. And I think you’ll agree that all of us can use more of those.
This is not to say you must have children. There are dozens of ways to impact the future and your community while remaining child-free. You can volunteer in schools, a church, a community center. You can spend time with the friends of your kids, giving them and their beleaguered parents the space from one another that is occasionally needed. The important part about our interactions with children, whether they are ours or someone else’s, is that in each encounter we are passing down and reinforcing the values we believe are needed for the love and safety of our shared world.
There are plenty of selfish reasons to have kids too, other than free elder care. You can teach them your favorite high-school jam and video them while they butcher the lyrics. And you can read the rudimentary poems on their messy, glittery gifts and hide your face so they don’t see your tears. But you asked for an unselfish reason—so yeah, the world is it.
* * *
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband’s friend wound up in prison almost a year ago. His wife and children are great, and I volunteered to help “Kathy” out with her son, 13, and daughter, 11. Kathy depends on me a lot, as she spends most of her time at work. I am very huggy with my own younger kids, and when Kathy’s kids really started to bond with me, I just treated them like they were my own. Last week, though, the 13-year-old admitted that he has a crush on me. (He used the term “romantic feelings” … he’s a big reader.) He still wants a lot of physical affection, and gets sulky if I don’t spend “enough” time with him. I have spoken to Kathy and my husband about this, but I don’t know what to do next in terms of my interactions with this boy. I don’t want to stop demonstrating that I care for him, because he is already suffering abandonment issues. But I’m worried that hugging him or sitting with an arm around his shoulders is now inappropriate. Help!
Oh, boy. What a pickle. It’s great you’ve done the work of caring for this family and these kids.
To be painfully honest, I’ve known 13-year-old boys to have romantic feelings for store mannequins, so you haven’t done anything wrong or behaved inappropriately. But you should definitely place a very firm physical boundary between yourself and this child.
It’s very normal to phase out things like hugging and snuggling with kids as they hit puberty, mostly because they think you’re the dumbest and most embarrassing person who’s ever lived, but in this instance a firm “That’s not appropriate” and a refusal to engage with any argument about it should more than suffice. You are not this kid’s parent or stepparent, and he has an adult he’s related to/not attracted to who can provide physical affection. There genuinely are many opportunities to still be kind and nurturing to him and his sister, just in a way that doesn’t involve being huggy, and I know you can find them.
I would be interested to know how Kathy reacted to your news, as most parents would be sufficiently spooked to look into new arrangements, but it sounds like she’s stretched unbelievably thin. Please talk with her once more, as seriously as you’ve talked to us, and request that she speak to her son, to deliver the message that you are not a romantic object (and that transient crushes are a normal part of adolescence).
In your position, I would find a way to help these kids that no longer put me alone in the house with them, but that’s not necessarily the most ethical choice. However, you need to immediately tell Kathy and stop spending time with her son if this child persists in seeking physical contact or talking about romantic or sexual feelings after being told it’s inappropriate—or if you feel even remotely physically unsafe.
This is how I would handle the situation were the genders reversed as well, for the record. I truly hope a way is found to maintain continuity and stability in these children’s lives that also keeps you from having your boundaries violated. Please free yourself from the fear that you’re contributing to his abandonment issues. Demonstrating to him that he does not have the right to demand physical attention from other people, nor to coerce them into touching him by sulking, is in fact a helpful life lesson, and a gift.
* * *
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 12-year-old son has not seen his father since we divorced and he moved about seven hours north, 11 years ago. Backstory: Both paternal grandparents and all three of his father’s siblings were drug addicts. When I found out that his father was also using drugs, after we had moved across the country to leave behind that toxic situation, I filed for divorce.
When my son was younger, I always explained his father’s absence by saying, “Your dad loved you so much but knew he wasn’t able to be a parent. He knew that Mommy loved you and would be able to take care of you always.” This felt like an adequate explanation for a small child, and since he rarely asked questions about his father, I never really went any deeper with it. Now that we are nearing the teen years, I feel like I should give him a more fleshed-out history. I also worry about the genetic predisposition to addiction; from a clinical perspective, this information is necessary for the choices he will be faced with making in the upcoming years.
Should I bring up this history in our conversations about why his father, or anyone else from his father’s family, is not in his life? I’m worried that telling him will make him feel like he is genetically cursed, potentially making drugs more likely.
But I also worry that not saying it will make it seem like it was a shameful secret we tried to bury. He has a dad who’s been in his life since he was 2, a little brother who adores him. Maybe he just isn’t interested in knowing about a family he never knew.
—Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
You can tell your son the truth. There is nothing inherently shameful about the fact that his father was an addict. Addiction destroys families because it is a personal, physical, and some may even say spiritual sickness that makes its sufferers sacrifice everything they would want to hold dear, including those they love. Addiction is terrible. But it is no more shameful than cancer, and it does not need to be a secret.
So if and when your son asks, you can be honest. You can say, “Your father had the disease of addiction, and it made it very difficult for him to show up for you and love you as you deserved to be loved. I’m sure he would have liked to have done better, but he could not. And the good news is that I am able to be here and love you and your dad is able to be here and love you, and we always will.”
As for the hereditary aspect of addiction, I understand from personal experience that this is a real concern for many families. But the unfortunate truth is that the science on this is equivocal at best. And there is nothing you can say or not say to your son that will guarantee he won’t try drugs, or even become addicted. Obviously this doesn’t stop us from trying. We tell our children that drugs can have a way of ruining lives for some people, many people, and that no one whose life was destroyed ever thought it was going to happen to them. Addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful. And we hope these words have an impact. And they may. But there is no way to guarantee it.
As parents we cannot live too far in the future no matter how much we would like to. Right now, today, you have a safe and happy child who is loved and supported. That’s all you need for today. You can be assured that he is off to a much better start and in better hands than his father was.
* * *
Dear Care and Feeding,
My older child transitioned about a year ago, starting middle school as the girl she knows herself to be. There’s never been any question about the love and support my wife, my son, and I have for her. This has been true for our extended family, as well—with one disappointing caveat.
My father took the news hard—not in the sense that he said anything negative against my daughter or us, but rather, in the sense of being uncharacteristically silent. He hasn’t seen his granddaughter after the transition, even though I’ve asked him to come visit us several times. I have no interest in taking the entire family to visit him. Travel for my daughter is very anxiety-provoking. It is for us, too, since my father lives in a very conservative and unwelcoming part of the country.
I think he needs to hear that he can’t have a relationship with me unless he tries to have a relationship with my daughter. What do you think?
To make this situation even more fraught, the worst-kept secret in our family is that my father is gay. He’s firmly in the closet even after his divorce from my mother, my brother coming out (and getting married!), and my daughter’s transition. Is it even possible to have a real relationship with someone who cannot be honest about something so fundamental?
—Know Thyself, Dad
Well, first, congratulations on being way ahead of the game as an accepting parent of a trans kid, and being the kind of parent whose child feels comfortable enough to share their identity with. I do not know you, but I am proud of you and your family.
… Dad, huh?! People are stubborn and confused and conflicted and weird, and his sexual orientation (straight, gay, or bi) really doesn’t even need to enter the conversation. Not making your daughter travel to see him is a good choice. Continuing to offer to host him is a good choice—with the proviso that you will expect him to treat your daughter with respect, a baseline requirement for any guest in your home.
Let me also say that your father has not expressed negative opinions or treated your daughter poorly. He has been silent, which is always an option (and one I wish more people would choose). Don’t count him or your relationship out just yet.
* * *
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 10-year-old son just told another kid at school that he doesn’t like black girls. We are a mixed-race family, and my son is not white-passing. I’ve asked him why he’s said the things he said, and he said he didn’t know—it just came out. He has a very restricted media diet, has no unrestricted access to the internet, has no social media accounts. But his father displays a variety of right-wing news—Infowars, the Drudge Report, etc.—on a very large screen in the middle of the living room, since it’s his primary computer and it’s easier to read without bifocals. Some of this material is anti-Muslim, some of it violent, and when I spot my son sitting with his dad while Dad’s reading, I make excuses to shoo him away. His father tried to engage him in talk about politics when he was younger, but I pointed out that there is no way he’s emotionally mature enough to digest this information, and I will not stand for him effectively brainwashing our son.
After a meeting with teachers and the principal, he has apologized both to the kid he said this to as well as the girl he was referring to (she was present). Should I treat this as any childhood outburst, pointing out that we don’t say hurtful things because people will be hurt when we say them? Or should I consider this a bigger problem?
—Parenting Is Hard
Yes, parenting is hard. It’s even harder when you’re co-parenting a biracial child with a father who regularly consumes racist media as though it were legitimate news.
I’m less concerned about what your child said. Surely it’s mortifying and awful. But kids say terrible things, working things out, trying out ideas that they have heard and think might be cool. I’m glad for your son’s sake that it became a whole thing involving the principal’s office, and having to face the girl he hurt—even as I am terribly sorry that this girl has to carry this for the rest of her life. One of the things we routinely underestimate when we’re children is the impact of our actions on other people. We think we’re being clever or scoring points, but that illusion dissipates the moment we have to look someone in the eye and see how we’ve hurt them. Kids generally don’t want be hurtful once they see what that hurt actually means.
The bigger issue, of course, is what’s going on in your household. There is plenty of racism and misogyny to be gathered from almost literally the air we breathe. But Alex Jones has been screaming his unhinged conspiracy theories at your son for the majority of his 10 years. And keep in mind this is only what you see. If your husband feels passionately about this stuff, then it is entirely possible there are private conversations happening between him and your son that you would be unhappy about. It is time for you to consider what your real boundaries are around this, and then to have what may be a very uncomfortable conversation with your husband about it. It is not, in my view, “talk about politics.” It is racist, anti-human violence. And as long as it is normalized in your household, your son will have a very hard time recognizing the full humanity and value of nonwhite people. And that includes himself.
* * *
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are expecting a baby in June. We’re both very excited and have been discussing how we would like to raise our child together. On almost everything we either agree or it doesn’t seem too difficult to reach a compromise. However, on the issue of bacon we are hopelessly deadlocked.
I haven’t eaten red (mammal) meat in over 25 years, and my husband has never not eaten it. I don’t make him keep it out of the house, and I’ve even bought meat for him when I thought he might enjoy it. When it comes to the baby, though, we can’t seem to agree. My husband says we should feed the baby meat and let them decide whether to continue eating it when they’re older. I don’t see why we have to set “full carnivore” as the initial default. We both already eat poultry and fish, so it’s not as if adding cows and pigs and sheep to the diet will add essential nutrients.
Any advice on how we can make this decision together?
If you already eat poultry, I’m afraid my sympathies are with your husband. Make him cook the bacon, though.
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