Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
For years, I was adamantly child-free. I constantly heard how my mom was pushed out of her job after my older sister was born, and after becoming one of the few people from my high school to go to college, I heard stories from my friends who became stay-at-home moms super young. It all convinced me that having kids would push me out of a job and deprive me of an identity. If my parents or relatives tried to pester me about kids, I would firmly say no. Then, four years ago, I realized I was bisexual and started dating my now-fiancée. She knew my feelings about children from the beginning of our relationship and had always told me that the decision was ultimately my call—she loved her siblings’ kids and had wanted to be a mom, but it wasn’t an absolute dealbreaker. But when we started thinking about marriage, I realized that I wanted to be a mom with her. I talked a lot about it in therapy and saw how my upbringing influenced my perception of having kids. When I discussed it with my fiancée, we talked through who would carry the baby and discussed how we would divide up household labor with a baby, since that was where so much of my hesitancy came from.
A year later, as our wedding approaches, I still feel really good about this plan. My issue is how to explain this to my family without A) coming off as rude, B) confirming their biases about child-free people, and C) making life more difficult for my cousins and siblings who have very valid reasons for not having children. I know that the moment I say that we plan on having a child, or when we actually get pregnant, my older relatives and my parents will constantly tell me how they always knew I couldn’t resist it when that’s not what happened at all! I can’t just say, “Mom, your comments that parenting ruined your life messed up my perception of having children, but I finally worked through it!” and expect nothing to happen, but I fear that I’ll end up blurting it out due to sheer frustration. How can I handle this conversation maturely while not making things worse for those who actually don’t want kids? Is there a script out there for this? Help!
—Irritated with Inevitable “I Told You So”s
I understand how frustrating it can be to feel like you’re going to be teased for changing your mind on a big life decision. People don’t generally get flack for changing careers or buying a new home, yet it’s still open season for smug commentary on parenting. Unfortunately, the “I told you so”s from the more self-righteous family members aren’t likely to stop at your child’s birth—parenting is a field of opinion landmines, especially those first few years. Anything you can do to accept that and fortify yourself against taking it personally, do now.
In terms of whether and how to share this decision with your loved ones, I would opt for proactive, casual messaging. I, personally, can get too flustered in a stressful moment to be coherent or kind; given your fear of blurting something out, I suspect you’re in the same camp. So, the next time you and your mom (or a trusted sister) are talking about the wedding, find a moment to bring it up. You asked for a script, so here is one to consider:
“You know, Mom, there’s something I want to talk to you about, and I need your help with it. [Name] and I have decided, after a lot of conversations and a lot of therapy, that we want to have kids. Before you say ‘I told you so,’ hear me out. Growing up, I heard from so many people how parenthood fundamentally changed them and ruined their careers; I didn’t want that for myself. But as an adult, with a flesh-and-blood partner, I can see the good in parenthood, and I’m genuinely excited to give it a go. But I just cannot handle a barrage of comments from the family. So, I’m asking for your help in letting so-and-so know that this is our plan, and not to hound me—especially since we’ll be doing IVF and it might be a hard road ahead. I just need folks to give me grace, not teasing; can you back me up on that?”
Hopefully, by enlisting her as your ally and messenger (even if they were one of the perpetrators), you can dissipate most of the smug comments before they come your way. Of course, the comments might fly behind your back, but oh well, such is family. You probably can’t prevent fallout for your childfree relatives, but if you do hear any guff they get, a simple, “Just because I changed my mind doesn’t mean they will; back off” should hopefully do the trick. Good luck in your marriage and on your parenthood journey!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My mom changed the inheritance after my dad died. He told me he wanted it equal. My mom changed the inheritance because she thinks my brother needs the money more. She is 88 years old but very healthy. My brother was favored my entire life, yet he smokes pot and has been willfully unemployed for a decade even though he has a wife and a teen. They are spending money on lavish vacations with her inheritance because he knows he will inherit millions from my mom. It’s always me who visits my mom on holidays but I’m so disappointed that I no longer want to see her because she’s disfavoring me again! She figures she can have it both ways and won’t lose me. My brother calls me greedy; I’ll never speak to him again. Should I cut ties with my mom? Inheritance is in a trust, she claims it can’t be changed without our signatures.
—Perplexed and Hurt
Set aside the baggage you are attaching to this scenario (resentment of your brother, jealousy for your mom’s affection) and boil it down to the simplest question: Are you going to stop speaking to your mom because she didn’t pay you enough?
I’m not here to comment on whether your mom should have done what she did—I don’t even know if it was truly contrary to your dad’s wishes. And I cannot comment on what kind of mother she has been or what your relationship with her has been like. But like it or not, this is what she has determined to be the best way to disperse her own resources. If this is the last straw in what has been an objectively painful relationship, then do what you need to do to protect your heart. But if this is a generally loving relationship that you abruptly end over money, do not be surprised at any number of adjectives your family might ascribe to you.
Time and love are priceless commodities. Be very careful before you throw them away.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I don’t know how to put this any another way, but I think the pandemic broke my child. I’m his mother. He (assigned female at birth) started college in the fall of 2019. Their first semester was great, but in March of 2020 when the shutdown happened, they just went off the rails. In quick succession, they sunk into a massive depression, began taking meds for said depression, gained an enormous amount of weight, came out as trans, and changed their name.
Prior to this crisis, he had presented as about as cisgender as they come. I never had a clue that they felt this way about their gender. So that was a shock. And when I say he gained weight, I mean he put on easily a hundred pounds. He’s clearly in a tremendous amount of physical discomfort. The name change bothers me as well (I know, I need to let it go). But with all these changes happening so quickly, I simply don’t recognize him. They’re a totally different person.
I’m supposed to be supportive, and I would never say anything to him about any of this, but it makes my heart hurt to look at him. Last week I was at the grocery store, and I overheard a couple of his former high school classmates clearly talking about him. “What happened to ‘X’? They went away to college and came back as Shrek.” The shame was uncontrollable and overwhelming. I know I shouldn’t care what other people say, but that cut right to the bone. I went back to my car and cried for an hour.
The biggest issue is that I don’t know how to separate any of my feelings about this. He’s an adult, of course, and responsible for his decisions. But I feel in my bones that I’m failing them, and I don’t know where to start. They’re in therapy (so am I), but he’s clearly still desperately unhappy, and I just don’t know what to do.
—COVID Broke My Kid
COVID “broke” a lot of kids your son’s age and younger. I suspect there will be many papers written in the next decade about the psychological shifts that happened as a result of the pandemic, and it would be fascinating if it wasn’t so sad and so personal for many of us. Your son is not alone in having been rocked by this global event.
Consider, however, that COVID may not be the root cause of your son’s distress, but just a shitty context in which he came out as trans. It is possible that the depression is more about his gender identity and how that process is unfolding; dysphoria can really mess with one’s mental health, as can the process of unpacking the past and trying to chart one’s future. It is not uncommon for this to be a very rocky road—your son is literally discovering and deciding who he is going to be, while fully aware that the world isn’t a kind place to people like him. That’s a lot to handle even without a pandemic, and I bet he’s felt rather adrift and isolated (in more ways than one) over the past few years. He needs your honest support and validation—not just acceptance—as he goes forward.
Regarding his physical changes, significant weight gain can be distressing, and the public eye knows no limits for the cruelty it can inflict on overweight people. But remember that weight gain can be the result of real psychological trauma (see above) as well as depression medication. Also, remember that beauty and fatness are not antonyms. You might find the work of Aubrey Gordon helpful in breaking this social conditioning we all get saddled with. I know you don’t want your son to face cruelty or adversity. Still, try to shift your mindset away from “I feel embarrassed for my son” to “My son is finding his way, f*ck the haters.” Anyone who isn’t on your son’s team doesn’t matter; to paraphrase my father-in-law, their opinion and $5 buys you a Starbucks.
It’s hard for me to parse out here exactly what you’re most distressed about, and in what particular way you feel you’re failing your son. Is it because you didn’t know he was trans, so you are questioning the past 20 years? Is it because you can’t quite validate his trans identity in your heart, and you feel bad about that? Or is it because other kids came out of the pandemic OK and yours didn’t? If we were talking over coffee, you would probably reply, “All those things!” I think the only way to separate your feelings about it all is to literally separate them, and analyze each sentiment to death. Maybe this happens in your therapy sessions or maybe you keep a journal in which you free-write. PFLAG and other advocacy groups might have more resources for you.
However you move forward, I do not think you necessarily failed your son, but you need to take control of yourself so that that statement remains true. If you make your son’s coming-out journey about how guilty and sad you feel, you will do far more damage than the pandemic or the meds have done. I say that with love, not to chastise you, but to be sure that you are doing the work earnestly and urgently. You can do this.
Dear Care and Feeding,
We have a parenting conundrum we are struggling with. Our son is 10 months old and he’s been in a small group daycare for the past three months. He is thriving there. He’s a very social baby and though the semi-constant illness is no fun, the benefits are clear. He sleeps better and is making developmental leaps on the regular. The staff-to-kid ratio is 2:1, the care seems excellent, he adores them, and they seem to genuinely care for him. We also love having a place to send him that feels safe. We are both hybrid workers and working from home was hard during the months before daycare (when we mostly relied on in-home help from grandparents).
So, what’s the problem? COVID. We kept him out of group care until he was fully vaccinated, and he’s been OK this summer. But with cases on the rise, he was exposed to a sick baby this week. We are still waiting out the incubation period to see if he’s in the clear. This has sent us into a bit of a tailspin. For most illnesses he gets, we can be reassured that he’s building his immune system, but COVID is a whole other story. We are a COVID-cautious family. One grandparent has COVID-induced dementia (contracted before vaccines were available) and another is immunocompromised. A close friend struggles with long COVID. We mask in unavoidable group settings and avoid indoor groups when we can.
There is so little information available on the long-term consequences of repeated COVID infections for infants and young children. We know long COVID could happen, but there seems to be no consensus on the likelihood. The chances he could avoid catching COVID if he stays in group care seems non-existent, especially since he is too young to mask. We could, barely, afford a nanny share, which would give him some socialization and limit his exposure risk, but would not have many of the quality-of-life benefits we get from daycare. We feel confident he would adjust to this if we did it but are struggling with the decision.
How do we do this parental calculus? We are talking to his doctor and all our parent friends, but nothing is making us feel confident in either decision. We know even having the option is an extreme privilege—lots of people have no choice at all—but how should we approach something at once so fraught and also so dependent on insufficient data?
—Conflicted and Confused
Dear Conflicted and Confused,
As with any parenting decision without a clear-cut answer, you get as much data as you can, and you fill in the rest with your gut and what feels right to you. You give yourself the grace to change your mind, and you forgive yourself if you turn out, in retrospect, to have been wrong—because parenting is a jungle full of best guesses.
In this case, you’ve seen the data: Infants may frequently experience asymptomatic infection or less severe symptoms compared to adults who contract COVID. Your child is vaccinated, which means they are even less likely to fall ill. I will stop there because I am not a doctor and thus unqualified to give you any direct medical advice. I can tell you that my toddler has been in childcare for two years and has never gotten COVID from school—he got it from me.
It is admirable and understandable that you want to keep your son (and the rest of the family) as safe as possible. But we take risks every day and accept them because of their positive tradeoffs. The convenience of car travel is worth risking an accident, for example. If you feel the social development, peace of mind, predictability, and sense of community are worth it to you, it is OK to accept an amount of risk in return, if that is what you are comfortable with. If that trade-off isn’t worth the risk for your family, you decide differently. Again, it’s not about trusting yourself that you made the “right” decision; it’s about giving yourself permission to make a best guess.
There is no manual in this parenting game; you write it as you make the plays. Good luck deciding.
More Advice From Slate
We recently had a picnic with another couple and their 15-month-old. My 2-year-old son was sitting with me and did something cute, so I pulled out my phone to get a quick pic, and my son was delighted to see himself and me on the selfie screen. At the same time, the other baby came toddling up behind us to investigate, and I thought it might make her smile too, so I held up the phone for her and did the “look at that cute baby!” routine.