Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My mom retired a few years ago and since then, she’s become a fitness freak. I’m glad she’s active and doing things she enjoys, but she won’t stop needling me about why I don’t have the same habits. She brings it up compulsively. Even asking what she’s been up to leads to the half-marathon she’s been training for which leads to how badly she wishes I would run one with her. Every problem I mention to her—anxiety, insomnia, even workplace troubles—could be solved if only I got more exercise. The last two Christmases, she’s given me expensive running shoes. I’d never even worn the first pair by the time I received the second.
I like to think I lead a fairly active lifestyle; I live in a dense city without a car and walk or bike nearly everywhere I go. My mom, who lives in a different state, either doesn’t understand how much walking I do or thinks it doesn’t count because I’m not doing “workouts.” Luckily, this truly doesn’t seem to be a weight loss issue. She’s never mentioned anything about weight. Instead, when I’ve asked her (many times) to knock it off, she gets really emotional and tells me that we have bad genes and are destined to die early unless we work hard to fight it. Her father died when she was young because of heart problems brought on by a chain-smoking, hard-drinking lifestyle and her mother, though long-lived, had a number of health conditions that my mom believes were caused by inactivity.
My mom has always been a very anxious person, and I get that this is her way of assuaging her own health anxieties. But I still can’t stand the constant nagging, and I wish there was a way to get her to cut it out without making her tearful and prompting a bunch of half-apologies that end in “I just really think it’d be good for you if…” What should I say?
—Not Going to Run
Dear Not Going to Run,
You’ve already asked her to stop; now it’s time to tell her that the topic of exercise is off-limits. Refuse to discuss it with her anymore. This may mean that you have to redirect or end a few conversations before she understands how serious you are.
Next time she brings this up, say: “I’m happy that you love your active lifestyle, but I really need you to stop commenting on mine. It’s making you more anxious, it’s hurting our relationship, and I’m not going to discuss it with you anymore. If you won’t stop, I’m going to hang up, and we can try to talk another time.” And then you’ll need to be ready to actually hang up if she persists.
You might feel a little bad. She might feel a little bad. But if you really need this boundary, then I think you have to be the one to state and enforce it. I hope she gets the message.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
“Anna” was my late husband’s mother. He was her only child after her daughter died. I stayed close to her. She is “Aunt Anna” to my stepdaughter “Nina” and my own two kids. I have been in Nina’s life since she was 10. She is currently 26 and finally getting her own place. Anna used to be a world traveler and gave Nina some hand-woven rugs and magnets from her travels. Nina’s ex-roommate returned one of the rugs to me. Nina had sold the rest and trashed the magnets. This greatly upset me. Nina got defensive and said she didn’t need trash, especially trash from some weird old woman she wasn’t even related to.
I am so shocked by this behavior, and I don’t know what to do about it. Nina was such a sweet child and I thought her pulling away in college was just her natural independence emerging. Anna, along with my own parents, helped Nina pay for college. She is in all their wills, just like my own children. My husband says to give Nina some space and not to stir the pot by telling Anna anything. Anna is visiting for our mutual birthdays, and I don’t want to ruin it or lie to her. Please advise.
You don’t actually call Nina ungrateful, but I think that’s really what’s bothering you: How could she feel this way or be anything less than grateful when Anna has done so much to her?
Perhaps you think Nina should have treasured the rugs and magnets. Certainly her words could have been much kinder. I don’t know how you approached her about the rugs—if she felt that you were upset with her or were attacking her decision to sell them, that could very well have made her defensive. Keep in mind that the rugs were gifts; once Anna gave them to Nina, it was Nina’s choice what to do with them. She didn’t like or want to keep them, so she sold them. I get that it wouldn’t have been your choice, but we aren’t obligated to keep all the items we’re given if we don’t personally enjoy or have use for them. As for the college assistance, that was undoubtedly very kind of Anna. Again, it was a gift, and also her choice to make.
I don’t know the particulars of Anna and Nina’s relationship. But either they have one of their own, in which case it’s between them to work this out without your involvement, or their only real connection is through you, in which case I understand Nina’s statement about Anna not being her relation. Maybe she doesn’t like Anna and feels the connection was foisted on her. Maybe something else happened between the two of them that you’re unaware of. Or maybe Nina really is being unkind for no good reason. Whatever the case may be, nothing will be improved if you interfere and tell Anna what Nina said—Anna will just be hurt, and Nina will probably dig in and become even more defensive.
I mean this sincerely and kindly: In this case, it’s not a lie to mind your own business. You don’t know where their relationship will go from here, but a word from you now could cause more harm than good. For the sake of Anna’s feelings and your own relationship with Nina, my advice is to try to show your stepdaughter some patience during what may well be a challenging transition for her, hope you can come to better understand how she feels and what may be behind those feelings, and enjoy your visit with Anna without bringing Nina into it.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 2-and-a-half-year-old is currently really into building things and pretend play, particularly pretending to cook—I’ve eaten about 400 Magna Tile pizzas in the last week. Then, last night, my toddler handed me a Duplo Block beer! I just about spit out my real beer. Kidding, but wow. What should I do? He has never seen me or anyone else intoxicated, but he sees me have a beer or a glass of wine sometimes. Is that bad? I just told him that beer is for adults and that I’d like him to serve pretend milk or pretend water. Do I need to give him more info than that? I thought I had at least a decade before I’d even have to think about this.
—Maybe Not Mom of the Year
Dear Maybe Not,
You’re fine. Kids pretend to do all sorts of things that adults do; if you think about it, that’s mostly what pretend play is. It’s not like you caught your kid drinking a beer himself. He wasn’t even “drinking” the pretend beer; he served it to you, which suggests that he probably already knew it’s a drink for adults and not for him, even before you explained that to him (it’s good that you explained it, of course).
If you still feel upset about this, you can ask yourself why. Is it because your child has noticed that you occasionally drink alcohol? If that makes you uncomfortable, alright, you can always choose to not partake in his presence. But I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with drinking beer or wine in front of kids so long as you’re not getting drunk or losing control while caring for them.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a divorced father of two: a 12-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son. I have been dating Janie seriously for about 18 months and for a total of almost 2.5 years. Janie has an 8-year-old son. We have been discussing what a future together looks like and have started to take steps to combine our families more.
Janie and her ex-husband have a very defined custody arrangement that they do not typically deviate from unless it is very special circumstances. My ex-wife and I have a custody agreement, but we hardly use it and are much more fluid regarding who the kids are with. My ex-wife is a surgeon, so there are some weeks when she is on service or has a conference and the kids are with me more, and there are other weeks when they spend more time with her. One kid might also decide they want to hang out with Dad after school and then go to Mom’s for dinner. We live fairly close to one another, so this is convenient and works for everyone.
Over the summer, Janie and I experimented with living together and ran into a few bumps along the way. Mainly, Janie says that never knowing when to expect my kids or where they are going to be is stressful for her. She uses fixing dinner as an example—she says she never knows whether to fix food for five people or three. I have tried to tell her to just assume there will be five of us, and if there are fewer, we will have leftovers (I have teenagers—the food is always eaten), which is what I have always done and continue to do when I cook. If we plan a meal out, then I text my kids and ask them if they want to come. Janie also gets stressed out when the kids come over after school when she isn’t expecting them or when they don’t come over when she thought they would.
Now that all the kids have gone back to school, Janie is staying at her house more often, and we’re trying to figure out if this was a success or failure. While all the kids seemed to acclimate well—her son loves staying at my house and adores my children, and they adore having him around—I don’t think I am ready to combine households until Janie isn’t so put out by my “unconventional” custody arrangement. She would like us to compromise and just have the kids give us a heads-up at the beginning of every week of when they will be with us, but I think that is making them feel unwelcome in their own home. I want them to be able to come and go as they please. Besides, we can’t predict when their mom might have to work late, etc. Janie thinks that structure is good for kids and that they will adapt, and that if we are going to be a family, we will all have to compromise somehow. I don’t think that compromise should involve telling my kids they can’t come over whenever they want, though. Am I being unreasonable?
—This Works Just Fine
Dear Just Fine,
You’re not being unreasonable. It makes total sense why you’d want things to continue mostly as they have for your children, regardless of where you live or who you live with, and that you want them to feel comfortable and welcome to come and go as they please. You and your ex have a more flexible custody/co-parenting arrangement—based on her work schedule, yes, but also on the real needs and wants of your children.
As I read your letter, I admit my gut reaction was that Janie shouldn’t expect your kids to stay away if they aren’t expected: she’s the adult, after all, and they are your children. But if she can’t deal with the unpredictability, then she can’t, and it’s something for both of you to pay attention to. I’m a believer in compromise (and structure!), and I get that something about your free-flowing custody arrangement makes Janie anxious or uncomfortable—maybe she can’t help that. But I also don’t think it’s great or even feasible to tell your kids that they can’t come over if it’s not their day with you, full stop, because again, your ex-wife’s professional obligations sometimes keep her at the hospital or take her out of town unexpectedly. It won’t always be possible for your children to know that, or give you and Janie their weekly visiting schedule in advance.
I suppose you could ask your kids to text you and Janie if they’re coming over at a time you weren’t expecting. But if something comes up, or they just want to see and spend time with their dad, that should be okay. The question is not so much who’s being unreasonable or inflexible, here—it’s whether your vision of what feels right for you and your kids is compatible with what Janie wants and can live with. Until you both can figure that out, I’d agree with you that perhaps it’s best to wait on permanently combining your households.
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My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?