Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Each of my in-laws passed away after a period filled with many illnesses, hospitalizations, and needing continuous daily care. My spouse and I felt proud of having served them at home in their last years of need. It was a loud home with many trying days toward the end—needing to force my in-laws to exercise, take medicine, clean them, etc. as they were going through both physical and mental decline. We had home nurse aides help us in the last few months, it had become so physically exhausting.
One of my kids, who is 7 years old, seems to have witnessed some episode of this (something physical) when she must have been 5 or 6 and has on multiple occasions said that she knows what I did to grandma and that I sent her to God. She even makes some physical movement of her hand to her face to that effect. I love my daughter deeply and she has not been saying this with any sort of negative feelings but in more of a matter-of-fact way, as in “I saw what you did, you did this (some action), and now Grandma is with God.”
I am horrified at the possibility that my daughter might bring this up in school, with friends, or in any other public situation. At the same time, I don’t want to sow the seeds of gaslighting that she did not see what she claims. However, my attempts to sit down and clarify the situation have not been helpful. My spouse finds it hilarious, but we have gone through a period of estrangement. I feel there is no one I can talk to who is going to take me seriously without getting into trouble first.
—Trouble with Daughter
I don’t think you need to worry about gaslighting in this situation since you’re not trying to convince your daughter that a factual event didn’t occur. But I think there might be some ways to correct the record.
I’m guessing you have asked her to describe in detail what she saw, and she’s either vague or circumspect. If you think she’s being vague simply because she doesn’t recall details, you might try describing or acting out the care routines you did for Grandma to see if any of it pings for her. If it does, then you can more deeply explain what you were doing. If you think she is holding back, you can ask a trusted family member or friend to have the conversation instead. However, I wouldn’t attempt either of these more than once. it’s very possible that none of this will give you any clarity, and you want to be careful not to badger or nag her for insight she simply might be unable to give.
One thing you can do, no matter what, is to share how her words make you feel. The next time she insinuates that you caused Grandma’s death, let her know that you loved and cared for Grandma and it makes you sad to hear someone say you sent her to God, because you miss her. Even if it doesn’t stop your daughter from believing you played a role, it would at least activate her empathy so that she stopped mentioning it to you—and it might prevent her from mentioning it to others.
If the matter doesn’t go away, or if it escalates, it might be worth calling in a child psychologist for support. Hopefully, it won’t come to that, her fixation on Grandma’s death will fade, and this will be just one of those bizarre anecdotes of childhood. Good luck.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I have been caring for our niece, “Phillipa” (now 24), ever since my sister and her husband died in a car accident about 20 years ago. Shortly after college, she joined the Peace Corps, and she was due to finish her volunteering soon. So, we were quite worried to find out she’d been hurt in an accident involving an unexploded ordnance and was in the hospital. She’s supposed to make a full recovery, but in her calls, she was quite unhappy to be sitting around in a hospital with open wards and very little to do.
Her latest call was different. She had met this guy in the hospital, similar war-adjacent sort of injury, and she was gushing about how she’d never met a guy so handsome, charming, or overall wonderful. She’d never seemed to notice guys before, and to be perfectly honest I had kind of thought she was closeted and wanted to give her space to come out when she felt comfortable.
Well, she’s definitely infatuated now, and probably because it’s the first time, it’s hitting her hard. And at least from where I’m sitting, this is not a great idea. For starters, he’s 37. He’s a local, and she’s set to come home to the States in a few months. Also, he’s a veteran of the wars in the region and some of the stuff she’s said about him seems charming to her but makes me think he’s a little unbalanced (although I’ll admit I’ve never met him personally). I think it’s great that she’s making a connection, but this is not a good place to start out, and I worry she doesn’t have the experience to see that. What can I do to help her get over this crush?
Obviously, it’s hard to know when to raise one’s alarm bells—especially with letters like this, where the answer hinges on context that isn’t available to me. So, I have to rely just on my gut for this one, which is telling me that you can probably play this situation low-key.
One reason my spidey senses aren’t tingling is the fact that, one way or another, Phillipa’s time abroad is going to end, and this relationship (if it sticks) is likely to follow suit. You know the saying that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime? I think it’s most likely that this relationship will be of the seasonal variety. So long as he isn’t violent or into any harmful/illegal activities, a finite fling with an imperfect match doesn’t feel like a huge risk. That’s kind of par for the course for many 20-something-year-olds.
I also wonder if your niece is as romantically naïve as you think she is. Even if she hasn’t dated a ton (and let’s be clear: You aren’t aware of a dating history, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have one) she’s likely to have amassed more lived experience and observations from her friends’ romances than you know.
Your niece is a full-grown adult, which means you aren’t going to be able to shield her from every bad decision she may make—no matter how much you want to. But you can still provide guidance. Do a lot of listening, and when you ask questions or make observations about what you hear, do it in a way that asks your niece to reflect on the relationship or the man, rather than making remarks that put her in a defensive position. Imagine yourself teaching Phillipa to drive, sitting shotgun while she’s behind the wheel. Your job was to provide guidance on how to operate the car and navigate the traffic; you weren’t reaching over and grabbing the wheel. Take the same approach here, and think of this situation less as a relationship to intervene in, and more like an opportunity to guide Phillipa in how to have relationships in general. Those lessons will last longer than any single relationship will.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Do you have any tips for maintaining sanity during long stretches alone with a small child? I’m the mom of a kindergartner, and while my husband is a great dad, he travels for work semi-regularly, plus I have a more flexible work situation, so I handle most of our kid’s sick days. I love my son dearly, he’s a great kid, but for some reason, I find long stretches of time alone at home with him, with no other adult for backup or company, really hard. Like, on a mental health level. I end up tired, stressed, and miserable, turning to junk food and screens as coping mechanisms, which just make me feel even worse. Kiddo has been home with a sore throat and fever this week and by lunchtime on day three, after not sleeping well the night before, I basically had a sobbing meltdown. I try to do things like scheduling playdates when feasible (like when my husband travels over a weekend), but it’s never enough. What’s wrong with me? And how do I get better at this?
—Stressed Single Mom
I think everyone has a period of childrearing that doesn’t jive with their personalities or a parenting task that makes them tear their hair out. For me, the bedtime routine is a part of the parenting process where I am simply trying to survive the night without yelling. It just isn’t when I’m at my best. It’s OK that day-long stretches with your youngster aren’t your jam, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way.
One thing that has worked for me is planning one excursion per day or weekend. (This isn’t feasible when your little one is sick, but on those weekends and school institute days, it’s a lifesaver.) It doesn’t have to be a full or half-day affair; in fact, it’s best if it’s not. A hike in the local forest preserve, a trip to the farmers market, storytime at the library, etc. are great free experiences that eat up an hour. Museum and zoo memberships come in handy, too, giving you a chance to visit somewhere but not feel like you need to “make the most” of your admission fee. But the other thing that totally counts as an excursion is errands! I used this trick a lot when I had a newborn and wanted to escape the baby but still spend time with my 4-year-old. Taking a young kid on errands lets you be productive, use your brain and/or body, and be out among other humans. Simultaneously, your kid is spending time with you and getting some novel experiences. You can give your kid a list of stops you’ll make so that he can cross them off as you go, which will help lessen any “are we done yet” complaints. I like to throw some treats in my purse or drive through Starbucks for a cake pop, just to make it feel a little more special.
The other thing is to chunk up the day into “on” and “off” times. “On” times are when you are attending to your kid, and “off” times are when you’re around but doing your own thing. So if you play a board game together, give yourself permission to step away and do some laundry or read a magazine when it is over. But then come back later and have a snack or watch some Bluey together. If frequent switches like that don’t work for you or your kid, you can engineer an afternoon “quiet time” into the day, where for an hour or two in the afternoon, everyone does their own thing, whether that’s napping, reading, or toys. My friend’s very active kids love sitting down to an audiobook player, which gives her a dependable respite. While this might take your kid some getting used to, you can gently explain that this is something you need in order to feel your best, and that it’s also a good exercise for your kid to learn how to be alone. (Speaking of Bluey, the episode “Sheepdog” is all about how mom just needs 20 minutes to herself, and “Bingo” is about the youngest kid learning how to entertain herself while mom fixes a toilet. Both might be good episodes to spark a conversation with your kid.)
A final idea might be to instigate a little parallel play. This is when you’re doing like-minded activities near each other, but you’re not really doing it together. For example, if your hobby is embroidery, you and your kid could have craft time together, where you do your stitching and he makes a glue collage. Or, you could read your own books side-by-side on the couch. (I Spy With My Little Eye books are great alternatives for non-reading kids.)
In my experience, every year brings a little more independence to our kids. Until the time comes when your son doesn’t need you around as much, give yourself permission to prioritize yourself sometimes on these long days. As they say, the years are short, but the days are long. Solidarity, mom!
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 13-year-old daughter “Sylvie” who identifies as gender fluid. She’s awesome, has her own style, and is super confident. Yay! We’re very supportive and our family/friend group is as mixed as they come. As long as she’s happy, we’re happy.
My question is how to deal with gender-typical undergarments, specifically bras. She hit puberty last year and has developed breasts. They’re not large but absolutely noticeable when wearing her favorite t-shirts. She hates wearing a bra, to the point of crying, and feels it’s unfair to wear something uncomfortable for the sake of other people. I get it! Bras can suck and people should keep their leering eyes off of kids. It’s just not always the reality.
We’ve tried sports bras, tanks, lined camis, you name it. She hates them all. How do I support her feelings but also help her understand that there may be people who are looking at her in a way she doesn’t fully understand yet? I’m 1,000 percent against covering up because “boys can’t control themselves” but there are also curious middle schoolers and lecherous adults out there. I’m not implying anything will happen but I want to find a balance so she can wear what makes her happy but not feel completely restricted.
—To Bra or Not to Bra
Dear to Bra or Not to Bra,
I’ve been thinking about your letter a lot and questioning whether I am the right person to answer it since I’m not gender-fluid or trans myself. I also didn’t want to just call up my trans friends and make them do the hard job of discussing dysmorphia with me. In the end, the path I took is the one I would recommend you and your kid start out with: reading the experiences of other gender-non-conforming people to see what resonates with your teen.
So, on the subject of what to buy, if Sylvie wants to keep experimenting: This blog post by Griffin Wynne makes some recommendations but also discusses the mind game that bra shopping plays with them. Autostraddle, a lifestyle blog run by queer and trans folks, has a curated set of short articles on the subject of bras—everything from recommendations to reflections on the whole concept.
But on that deeper subject of whether she needs to wear bras at all, I would encourage you to take Sylvie’s lead. Even though they are ostensibly functional, bras are, in reality, a gendered and sexualized garment, which makes the idea of wearing one pretty loaded for LGBTQIA+ individuals. I understand you want to protect her from people saying, thinking, and doing cruel things, but it’s important to keep in mind that, to Sylvie, wearing such a gendered garment could be its own version of harm.
That said, Sylvie is young, and, as you said, might not fully realize the kind of bad-actor behavior she could encounter in the world. While philosophically we can agree no one should have to wear things because of how other people will react, is she prepared for what that might be like in practice? Have a deep discussion with her about this facet of the decision. How will she feel and how might she react if she is stared at, berated, etc.? Talk through these situations so that she is prepared, but then let her make the decision. She can always reassess later if she needs to. There are also other options she can consider—like nipple pasties, tighter tank tops, or doubling up on t-shirts—to augment her appearance through less gendered means, but only cross that bridge if she wants to.
It’s deeply unfair how much our LGBTQIA+ friends have to be on the front lines of pushing back against social norms. This won’t be the last issue Sylvie will face in this arena. My general advice is to accept and advocate for whatever makes her the most comfortable in her own body and be there for her without question or censure in the moments when society disappoints her. Good luck!
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I both were raised in households where our dads yelled. While my husband had (and still has) a great relationship with his dad despite this—and sees him as a good role model—I did not have a good relationship with mine. What I mostly remember is trying my best to stay out of his way and walking on eggshells to keep from annoying or antagonizing him. My husband and I very rarely get into arguments in which he raises his voice, but from time to time it does happen, and I have to ask him not to yell at me. I do not think it’s a stretch to say that he will at some point in the future yell at our daughter.