Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m sitting at home sulking during Christmas because I caught a cold from my older sister. We took Christmas presents to our disabled sister—five hours back and forth in the car—while she coughed and hacked and sneezed. I realize viruses can be picked up anywhere, but the timing and the symptoms coincide with hers. It would be one thing if this were a single case, but she is so lonely that she always comes to activities sick. She’ll even admit that she really wanted to come, even sick. So, she joins us each time. Even to lunches with our elderly mother and with a friend who is struggling with a terminal disease. Up until now, I’ve shrugged and said, “Well, that’s her, and she’s lonely.” I’m the only one of the family whom she hasn’t alienated, and I have empathy for her. I plan to tell her I’m leaving if she shows up to anything else sick, but what I need is a way out of my anger. I’m furious that I’ll miss time with my grandkids because she infected me. Like, so angry that it’ll mess with my family time when I am healthy. By the way, yes, I have been in therapy a couple times, but it never seemed to help.
— Sick and Furious
It really stinks to miss out on family time when you are sick. I get that you’re mad about that, but I hope you can understand that that same sentiment is what is causing your sister to keep coming out. You are a (presumably) well-adjusted, social person, and the thought of missing family has you wound up so much that you anticipate being mad weeks from now. Imagine how she, a chronically lonely person, must feel at the prospect of missing a rare social outing because of a cold? Desperate enough to show up sick, I think. (I will assume you describe a non-serious illness.) All that to say you and she share the same perspectives on how valuable these family moments are; what you’re angry about are her choices. The best way to help her change her behavior is to give her workable alternative choices.
For example, call her out (kindly) on her pattern, and ask her to mask up next time she’s under the weather. Carry extra masks in the car and your purse in case she forgets. Schedule a “rain date” in advance of the big events, which would give her a way to opt out when sick without sabotaging her opportunity to see people. You can also ask her the day before an outing whether she is sick so that you manage disappointment ahead of time, rather than blowing up at her on her threshold.
As to how you give up the anger, I don’t have a tried-and-true system. The times that I have a successfully let go of loved one’s repeated affronts (real or perceived), it’s just been a matter of reminding myself in the moment that they aren’t doing these things to me with the purpose of hurting me, and that the thing I am in control of is my reaction. When you realize that you have the power to choose to be angry or not, it can be a really empowering and calming insight.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Years ago, my parents “divorced” after 27 years of common law marriage, and I still feel resentment. I’m 44 years old and feel there’s hope for them. I know that’s not reality because my father has since remarried and has a son with his wife. My mom is single and seems sad. Unfortunately, my mother lives in Spain and I don’t get to see her often as I’d like to. I only see my father once a year (before Christmas) because he otherwise claims he’s “always busy.” I don’t know my younger brother, but despite that, I have sent Christmas gifts and birthday cards for the last 18 years and never received a thank you from him. It’s OK; I understand he’s young and doesn’t know who I am. My family and I never get invited to their home for holidays of any sort and my father doesn’t have any kind of relationship with my children who are now young men (17 and 15). When I see my father, I’m happy and give him a great big hug but it doesn’t seem reciprocated at all. I want to address the mess but don’t want to sabotage “whatever we do have,“ which in all honestly isn’t much!
— Sad and Confused
Your father and his family do not want a relationship with you. I am sorry to put it so bluntly, but I think clarity might be kindness in this case. You have given your father several opportunities to forge a relationship, and he has rebuffed them all, expect for seemingly sporadic meetups, which sound to me (from your telling) like appointments he keeps out of guilt. You’ve also sent 18 years of cards and gifts to your brother with no reply, except his silence, which is all the reply you need.
I understand that you are still experiencing some measure of heartbreak over the family that could have been, and that is natural. But forging a relationship, especially through divorce and remarriages, requires all parties to be invested. I’d also urge you to consider what this longing and consistent rejection might be doing to your own sons, assuming they’re aware of your attempts at contact; it seems to me that a long-lost unknown relative is far better than the one whose radio silence blares loudly each year. Instead of chasing after your father and your half-brother, I would encourage you to lean into the relationships you already have. Family is not just the people who share your DNA. Some of the most meaningful relationships we have are with those who we chose for ourselves. Focus your love on those people instead.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My ex-husband and I have fundamentally different ideologies about siblings fighting. We divorced two years ago and co-parent 10-year-old boy/girl twins, “James” and Jessie,” and an 8-year-old daughter, “Molly.” Jessie has anxiety and rarely fights with either of her siblings (she’s been seeing a therapist for a while, but we’re in the middle of switching therapists so she isn’t seeing anyone at the moment). She gets along really well with both of them, though she’s closer with James just because they’re the same age. But James and Molly are constantly bickering. I can tell they love each other dearly and once in a while they show it in a way that’s obvious (cuddling while watching TV, James comforting Molly after she’s had a nightmare, Molly making James a birthday present). But usually there’s some sort of argument between them. Mostly it’s about nothing—things like who gets to be first in line or who gets to eat which slice of leftover pizza.
My ex rarely intervenes in their fighting. I intervene all the time, especially if they’re saying things to be intentionally hurtful to one another or if they’re saying derogatory things about each other’s appearances. I encourage my kids to talk things out instead of arguing with each other. We have the kids for a week at a time, and the result is that they come to my house angry/upset and we spend the whole week getting them less angry and upset, only to go back to angry and upset again when they go to their dad’s house. All the while Jessie is being caught up in this and sometimes forced to pick a side.
All of this arguing isn’t great for me, it certainly isn’t for Jessie, and it isn’t great for Molly and James, either. Since my ex doesn’t see anything wrong here and isn’t willing to change up his parenting, is there anything I can do to stop this pattern from continuing on my end?
—Done with Drama
Do you have a good relationship with your ex? If so, consider talking to him not about his parenting style—which is unlikely to change at your urging—but about how the kids are arriving to you. If you explain that they’re often cross with each other when they arrive at your house, maybe he’d agree to try to at least patch up the worst fights before custody changes hands. You can frame it as giving each parent a shot at a clean slate for the week. You can pledge to do the same (whether or not they are ever in such a state when you hand them over is beside the point).
Meanwhile, I think you have to accept that “different house, different rules” might be how things work in the foreseeable future. Instead of gaming that system, focus your efforts on what is within your sphere of control. Firm consequences for behavior you deem out of bounds (like digs at each other’s appearance) and a system for settling repeat disputes can bring stability and clear expectations to your house. Implemented frequently enough, hopefully your children will begin to adapt their behavior accordingly, at least during your weeks. You might also consider establishing a tradition of checking in when you first reunite with the kids—a kind of state-of-the-union conversation where you get the lay of the emotional land and try to squash any beefs at the outset of your week together.
Sibling drama isn’t fun and rarely easily solved. Focus your efforts on giving them the tools to solve their own disputes, rather than always intervening. I suspect that is what your ex is also trying to achieve, just through a different approach. Good luck!
Dear Care and Feeding,
I (30s woman) have a special bond with my cousin’s only child, a 5-year-old daughter. I think that, since I’m single and childless, she can’t quite conceptualize that I’m a grownup, and when I travel to see her three-ish times a year, I play with her the entire time. I’m not great with kids normally, but for whatever reason she and I just click; her mom says we’re “soul sisters.” My question is about maintaining that bond as she gets older and has less need/interest in a grownup playmate. I can’t quite picture what a relationship between, say, a 40-year-old and a 12-year-old would be. Aside from my own parents, I didn’t really have any adults in my life who took an interest in me when I was a kid/teen, so I have a hard time imagining what our future relationship would look like. But I want so badly to stay a part of her life! What’s the best way to continue supporting her as she grows up?
— Fun Cousin
Aww, this letter is so sweet. I am a BIG believer in kids growing up around adults who give them the time of day—I was that kid, my kid has those adults, and I try to be that adult to a lot of the kids in my life. So, off the bat, well done for not only appreciating this young girl but for wanting to be sure you stay in her life in a meaningful way as she grows up.
The good news is that I don’t think it’s that hard. The stuff you’re doing right now is going to set the foundation for your future relationship. When you play with her for these prolonged periods of time, you are telling her that she is a fun and enjoyable person to be around. When you (most likely) take your playtime cues from her, you validate her ideas and empower her. When you have conversations with her, you communicate that she is interesting and worthy. As she grows up, the playing will transform into just hanging out and talking, and she won’t want to talk to people who she doesn’t feel safe and validated by. But she will spend time (albeit limited time on her terms, because teenagers) with people who were consistent positive forces in her childhood.
In that vein, think about ways to continue the listening and accepting like you’re already doing on kid-friendly social apps. When she’s a teen, you can keep in touch via occasional texts. And as she grows up and you continue to visit, you can keep following her lead when it comes to actual activities; you’ll figure out what new interests have taken the place of Barbies and Legos. If it’s not immediately obvious to you, you can always ask her mom what activities she’d enjoy—hikes, manicures, chess games, etc. But I suspect that the relationship will largely take care of itself, if these first few years are any indication. Have fun getting to know each version of this girl as she grows. I’m sure it will be amazing.
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I’m a stay-at-home mom, and my husband works outside the home. We have three kids and obviously we all sometimes get sick. However, for some reason (*cough* I wash my hands and he doesn’t *cough*) I usually seem to get a much milder case of whatever bug we’re all dealing with than my husband, or sometimes don’t get it at all. This leads to absurd behavior by my husband.