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,
My husband and I have been married for 16 years. He is a hardworking professional and we are raising two daughters (ages 7 and 10) who are smart and sweet. For the most part, he is a loving and thoughtful guy, but we keep hitting a wall when it comes to our kids and media. We have very different points of view on media consumption as a whole and, specifically, what’s appropriate for our kids to see. If I had it my way, we wouldn’t even have a TV in our living room; my husband, on the other hand, has to have the biggest TV with the most amazing sound bar, etc. While I err on the side of caution, he doesn’t see anything wrong with a little sex, violence, and gore. He claims, “it’s nothing.”
My kids claim otherwise. Whenever they see something (however brief) that disturbs them, they tell me about it. For instance, they saw one moment of a preview for a scary movie, and the images were enough to spook my younger daughter for weeks. Most recently, my older daughter saw an old Western where a group of men grab a woman from a wagon, tear her blouse, expose her breast, and throw her to the ground. My daughter told me—with my husband present—that what she had seen had bothered her and that she couldn’t get it out of her head. My husband said, “It was nothing, she didn’t see anything, I turned it off.” My daughter and I talked about how it was just a movie, etc., but that kind of talk rings hollow when the topic revolves around the very real issue of sexual violence, not a make-believe psychotic clown in a sewer.
When I brought this up to my husband privately, he accused our 10-year-old of being “calculating” and doing this to “get him in trouble.” Of course, this led to a fight and him sleeping downstairs. I want him to protect our girls from this kind of stuff for as long as possible, but when I say this to him, he gets enraged at the suggestion that he doesn’t “take care of” his kids. He thinks because he works hard and makes a good living, that’s sufficient. Am I overreacting or being overprotective (both of which he accuses me of)?
You are neither overreacting nor being overprotective: You’re right to shield your children from violent images (and yes, of course, sexual violence in particular). Your husband is dead wrong, and I can’t tell you why he is determined not to protect the kids from this kind of harmful imagery—especially since it sounds as if he isn’t just being careless or thoughtless, but seems to feel there’s a sort of principle to be upheld. Is it possible he’s oppositional? Rebellious? That this is a big You’re-Not-the-Boss-of-Me statement?
Whatever is going on with him, it doesn’t sound like talking to him about this in the way you have been is going to make a whit of difference (and if my guess is right, it will only make him dig in his heels). You will not be surprised that I am going to recommend marriage counseling—it seems pretty clear to me that this is a problem between the two of you, and that it may be the tip of the iceberg. But in the meantime, since he refuses to get the message that nothing inappropriate for them should be on the TV when they are in the room, keep them out of the room. I would actually make it a rule: no playing in the living room when Daddy’s home. Maybe he’ll get the message that way.
Your daughters will be fine playing elsewhere. I recognize that it may be a challenge for you, particularly if the living room is a central room in your house where “everything happens” and if your husband continues to insist that there must be a TV in that room (and an enormous one, to boot!). But please do not turn this into an escalation of the power struggle that already exists between you and your husband, a “why should my daughters not be able to play in my living room?” scenario. And you might want to make that appointment for counseling sooner rather than later, because I am pretty sure he’s not going to like this rule any more than you will, and his calling you overprotective sounds like a trigger for you.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My son died suddenly several months ago, while his wife was pregnant with their first child. My daughter-in-law hyphenated her last name when they married, just over a year before his death, after living together for a number of years. When their daughter was born last month, she video-called me from the hospital and introduced the baby as “Alexis Michelle Rose”—Alexis being the name she and my son chose together, Michelle the female version of my son’s name, and Rose my own mother’s name (she and my son were very close). It only occurred to me later that she hadn’t told me the child’s last name.
A few days later my DIL posted the birth announcement on social media, and I was stunned: My granddaughter’s last name is my daughter-in-law’s maiden name only. It was only at this time that I noticed that my daughter-in-law had quietly unhyphenated her name on her profile. I feel rejected and heartbroken. I have always welcomed my DIL into my home with open arms and have thought of her as family. I thought she felt the same way. By not keeping and giving the child our family name, I feel she is disrespecting my son’s memory, and I worry that this is a sign that she won’t prioritize a relationship between my grandchild and me. I confronted her on our last video call and she assured me that she wants me to be involved in their lives. She apologized for the way I learned about the name. She said the decision about which last name to use was “pragmatic” and she should have realized I’d be hurt by it. The birth of this baby was a welcome distraction from my grief, but I’m finding it hard to move past this hurt and anger. I need to preserve the relationship with my daughter-in-law. My granddaughter is the only tie to my son I have left. Please help.
—What’s in a Name?
I am so deeply sorry for your loss, which is immeasurable. And I implore you to do what you can to peer through the curtain of your grief to see that your daughter-in-law loves and respects you and clearly wants you to be a part of your granddaughter’s—and her—life. She called you from the hospital. She named her daughter in a way that honors her father (and your mother—hence you). She also said all the right things when you “confronted” her, and she was empathetic enough not to react angrily or even defensively to a confrontation by the grieving mother of the man she is grieving the loss of too.
There are many ways to honor and respect your son’s memory. Keeping a hyphenated last name would be one of them, of course, but honestly it’s not even a very important one—and you don’t know why she decided to add your son’s name to hers in the first place (it’s certainly not a default decision; it’s one of several options, and one that lots of women prefer not to choose, for numerous reasons). Deciding to resume using her own last name—which has its own significance in her family, of course—and giving her daughter the same last name as hers is pragmatic; it simplifies many things down the line. I know this very well, as I never changed my last name to my husband’s—nor did I hyphenate our two names. And when our daughter, to whom we gave her father’s last name (with my last name as one of two middle names), decided that was “unfair” and began hyphenating our two last names, we became a three-name family. It’s very clear to me why someone would want to simplify last names! And your daughter-in-law’s choice to use the last name she has had all her life until just over a year ago seems to me easy to understand, too.
Please don’t get stuck on the name. Do everything you can to let this go. There’s no evidence that I can see that your son’s wife means to excise you from the picture, or that she wants the child not to be connected to the man her father was. Even as you go through the most difficult, heartbreaking—unbearable—thing for a parent, see if you can let yourself take pleasure in your granddaughter. She is more than a distraction—she is the very essence of hope, and she needs and deserves your love as much as you need and deserve to bestow it on her. Your relationship with her, if you can allow it to, is going to be a balm for you, I promise.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a single mom hoping to enjoy this year’s Mother’s Day without doing the work to make that happen. Here is the backstory: I have been a single mother since my youngest was 5 years old. He is now 15; his siblings are 18 (doing college at home with me) and 21 (in college on campus). Throughout their lives, I have been the one who organized and planned the things that kept them connected to the rest of the family and to one another (events, cards, phone calls, videoconferencing before it was a thing, gifts, visits, etc.). Since the pandemic, with the three kids spending time in different households, I’ve increased my efforts to find creative ways they could bond. And it has mostly worked—but I am still doing all the emotional labor to make this happen. For my own birthday, I reached out to my oldest and requested that the siblings plan a Zoom party, for which I didn’t want to be the planner. (As a single person, I was already planning a virtual birthday party with my friends; I didn’t want to take on the planning of another one.) The birthday meetup with my kids had mixed results. The youngest said he would go but slept through it, the middle child attended but didn’t RSVP, and the oldest sent out the Zoom link 10 minutes after the scheduled time. I know they are young and busy. But surely they can manage this! It isn’t asking much.
Now I am thinking ahead to Mother’s Day. I have always had to plan and manage my own celebration. Aren’t they old enough to be able to do this for me? I guess my question is twofold: Since they take for granted the work I do to keep them connected to each other, and to me, how do I help them grow up to be adults who do the emotional and pragmatic work necessary to stay connected? And how do I get them to practice that work by initiating, planning and executing a Mother’s Day that makes me feel acknowledged and appreciated? I have already told them this is an important event for me, but I’m not sure they get it. Should I just give up on all this?
—Mother’s Day Blues
Is there something between “just giving up” on kids age 15 through 21 as they figure out how to do right by the people they love, and micromanaging their connection to one another (not to mention their celebration of your birthday)? No, actually, let me mention that after all.
It’s never a good idea to make people (yes, even our own children) celebrate our birthdays or other events in our honor. Honestly, I don’t get the logic at all of demanding that people make us feel special (do you really feel special when you’ve mandated the celebration?). Mother’s Day on demand seems like something that can only backfire on you! If it’s a day that’s meant for children to express their gratitude to their mothers, then requiring them to do so seems to defeat the purpose, no? And I can’t imagine the point of orchestrating one’s own Mother’s Day, as you say you have in the past.
But I’ll be even more honest with you. I’m not sure what the hell Mother’s Day is supposed to mean, since it seems to me a lot of women count on their husbands to make a fuss over them on that day and are disappointed if they don’t in precisely the way they expect (and women without husbands are made to feel sad and sorry for themselves). Plus, the whole young-kids-bringing-Mom-breakfast-in-bed thing has always seemed to me a made-for-TV idea, one without any actual real-world merits. My own default on this holiday has always been to ignore it—much to the relief, I assume, of my husband and daughter (we ignore Father’s Day too—we’re an equal opportunity Hallmark holiday–defiant family). But maybe that’s just us (I realize that Mother’s Day is a big industry; a lot of mothers and their families obviously feel differently about it). If what you’re really talking about is feeling that your kids don’t appreciate you properly—well, welcome to the my-kids-are-in-their-teens-and-20s club. If you’ve been a good mother all their lives, your kids will come to appreciate you for it. You can’t rush this. Certainly you can’t mandate it.
I wouldn’t ask them to make you a birthday party either, even a super low-key one on Zoom. Celebrate your milestones with your friends. Let your kids figure out how to celebrate you on their own (they are absolutely old enough for that). If they don’t, try to take your disappointment in stride. As you acknowledge, they are young and busy. (They are also self-centered right now, which is only to be expected at this point in their lives.) As to the work of keeping them connected with one another and other members of the family—well, this was something that was part of your job when they were young. But it isn’t anymore. You’ve modeled that behavior. Now let it go and let them work out for themselves how to do it. That’s not the same thing as “giving up.” It’s just letting them grow up.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 16-year-old daughter watches vlogs and it drives me crazy. I find it insane that she’d rather watch someone else film and talk about their life than actually live her own life. Even before the pandemic, she was bit of a homebody. I think she should be out with friends and getting in trouble, but she just stays shut up in her room doing homework and watching other people go about their lives. She says the vlogs are interesting because they show her how people all over the world live; she says they make her feel more productive. She’s agreed to not watch them in the living room, where I have to see and hear them too, but I want her to stop watching them altogether. Is this worth putting my foot down over?
Oh, I was so tempted to answer this with one word (and that word would have been No). But I feel a need to point out that your kid is 16: You had better choose your battles carefully in the few remaining years before she moves out. If something is actually dangerous, it’s worth putting your foot down for sure (but think hard about that “actually,” please; don’t indulge in a knee-jerk reaction). Your daughter choosing to watch vlogs goes in the category—along with her clothing choices and how she wears her hair (for example)—of Stuff I Wouldn’t Do, but I’m Not Her. You don’t get to decide every single thing about her life anymore, including how she spends her time. Just let her be.
(I could have just said No, right?)
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My husband, our three young children, and I recently went on a vacation with my in-laws. My mother-in-law tries to act more like our children’s mother than a grandmother. On this recent visit she brought a children’s book for our 5-year-old daughter that was missing the last two pages. The book was about a girl who visits her grandmother for the summer every year; my MIL wrote an ending with my daughter that said the girl’s parents died and she got to live with her grandmother forever. It was written like a happy ending! I’m so upset I can’t even look at my MIL. What should I do?