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Dear Care and Feeding: My Mother-in-Law Is Trying to Steal My Children

Slate logo Slate 11/25/2020 Nicole Chung
a little girl looking at the camera: Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Standart/iStock/Getty Images Plus. © Provided by Slate Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Standart/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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,

I have three wonderful kids and a mother-in-law who feels like my children are another chance for parenting, since she missed out on so much with her son. I have been trying to assert boundaries with her, but it can be hard. To my family, holidays mean spending them together. But every year she wants it to be just her and the grandkids at her house. Nobody else. And the whole separation of it all just bothers me.

I said yes last year and this year to Christmas. But how do I let her know in a respectful way that this will not be happening again? I have no problem with us coming up as family to do a holiday at her house, on occasion. This is a woman who asked for my kids to live with her and asked for a two-month stay at her place. She just bought a house and told them they will have their own room there, and she’s building them a pool. It all makes me uncomfortable. Her expectation is they will be there A LOT! She lives several states away.

—Help With Boundaries

Dear Help,

Don’t send the kids to visit their grandmother several states away, this year of all years. Even if you agreed to it already, our nationwide COVID surge is all the more reason to cancel. But I don’t think you can just use the pandemic as an excuse. While kids can of course visit their grandparents without their parents present, what your mother-in-law is asking for is not normal—and frankly, it is both callous and absurd of her to expect you to miss multiple holidays with your own children.

Given her clear lack of boundaries, she will continue to make these asks until she is explicitly told they aren’t on the table. I would first address the timely holiday visit, and make it clear that your family is just that—a family—and therefore a package deal: “The kids and I/we can come to your house [when it’s safe to travel again, not this year!], or you can come to our place, but we are our own family and we’re not going to spend Christmas apart.” (You didn’t mention a partner, but if your MIL’s son is living and still in the picture, know that all of this visit-planning and boundary-setting shouldn’t fall to you alone!) You can continue to address every single one of her other unreasonable requests—for super-long visits without you, for them to live with her (JFC!), etc.—in the same firm tone, if necessary reminding her that you’re their parent and she cannot dictate the terms of every visit. It is not disrespectful to try to establish some much-needed limits; if she is disappointed, that’s just how it goes, but she has no right to be. Her annual demand for holidays with your kids/without you is disrespectful, and you should not for an instant feel tempted to give in again.

I really think it’s crucial to try to establish some boundaries here, for your children’s sake as well as your own. I don’t know how old they are, but if your MIL is this needy and possessive toward them, they will pick up on it soon (if they haven’t already!) and feel just as uncomfortable as you do, if not more so. Your kids shouldn’t have to feel caught in the middle, nor do they deserve to bear the emotional weight of Grandma’s desire to have a parenting do-over.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I have a wonderful 6-year-old daughter we’ll call Ella. She is creative, energetic, emotionally intelligent, and kind. One thing she is not is a willing student. This is supposed to be her kindergarten year. We decided to home-school during the pandemic. My wife and I have a great setup for work. We have flexible schedules, work remotely, and each can make enough money working only half time. This means, in theory, one of us is always available during the week to tackle schoolwork.

I feel very good about the kind of parents we are, but teachers we are not. Though she did great in preschool with her then teacher and peers, she resists learning with us. We don’t have the energy or the will to fight with her every day to work on the home-school material we spent a bundle on. She loves books, but resists learning to read. She likes numbers, but fights learning addition. The result is we hardly do any “school.” When we do, it’s pretty minimal—reading a couple books to her, singing the ABCs, drawing or painting. I’m worried she will not be ready for first grade when the time comes. We both feel pretty guilty. Are we failing our child? Should we be making her do the work despite her resistance? Or is it OK to accept where she is at and just do what little we can?

—Bad Teachers

Dear Bad Teachers,

Home is not a place that most kids associate with tons of schoolwork, and it makes sense that Ella, like many others, has struggled to accept her parents as teachers this year. In a way, I think it’s good that this is her kindergarten year—I’m not saying that kindergarten isn’t important; it’s just that so much of what kids learn in kindergarten is how to be comfortable in school, how to relate to peers, how to follow classroom routines. Between the pandemic and home schooling, Ella probably will have some adjusting and perhaps some catching-up to do in all these areas once she’s back in a brick-and-mortar school, but so will her classmates, and kids all over the country. Constantly fighting over schoolwork, in a year that’s already so challenging, can’t be good for any of you—and there’s no guarantee that pushing hard will actually help her learn to read any faster. I think her existing love of books and numbers is what you really want to encourage, as that interest and enthusiasm could help fuel her learning for years to come.

I’m not sure what all is in your spendy curriculum, but if I were you, I’d focus on reading and math this year, and not worry as much about other subjects. You could try alternating between a home-school lesson and an activity she chooses. If you can find some regular time each day (or most days) to work on foundational skills in structured, reasonably productive bursts, that’s great. It’s also fairly easy to build math and word work into your daily routine: You can talk about the math of baking, add/subtract crackers or apple slices at snack time, have her bring a simple book along on a car ride, try reading signs while walking around your neighborhood, etc. If you really want to throw in some science or social studies, keep it as simple and fun as possible: plant some seeds, take a nature walk, find a kid-friendly virtual museum or aquarium tour, let Ella choose a topic and help her do online research and/or get some relevant books from the library.

I expect that she’ll be OK, no matter how this single year goes. It’s not your fault that your kindergartener doesn’t love school at home. But of course it’s also possible that she would be more willing to work given another kind of setup. I don’t know what the various school options are where you live, but if home schooling continues to be a daily struggle, it might be worth having a conversation about whether the current plan is really right for all of you. A virtual classroom, if still far from ideal, would give Ella opportunities to see and work with other children and different teachers. If you do decide to keep trucking with home school, try to remember that you’re all doing the best you can in an impossible year, and that it’s OK to cut yourself (and your child) a little slack sometimes.

• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter, who is in her late 20s, has always struggled with motivation and responsibility. She got through college by the skin of her teeth, but since then has been frequently unemployed (by choice) and lived at home rent- and responsibility-free until recently. She’s had issues with depression and other personal struggles, so that’s how my husband and I justified being so lenient with her, though it became clear to us that our approach was probably doing as much harm as it was good. This summer she moved across the country to a major city to be with her girlfriend, which we saw as a positive step towards independence. Because she had almost no money saved, we paid for the move and agreed to give her a monthly allowance that would easily cover her rent and expenses for the first six months. We did this with the clear understanding that that would end in the new year, which is now rapidly approaching.

She still has no job (and has admitted to only looking sporadically), she has blown through every bit of what we’ve given her so far (even though there should have been plenty for her to build up a cushion if she’d chosen to), her girlfriend also just lost her job, and I’m unsure what our next move is. I know she isn’t applying to non-office jobs, and part of me wants to insist she expand her search to include basically anything and everything that can get her some steady income. But where I’m getting stuck is the ethics of pushing her into a job that involves extensive interaction with the general public during a pandemic.

It would not be a significant financial hardship for my husband and I to continue supporting her for six more months, but I’m just so fed up with her lack of work ethic and also concerned that enabling her to remain lackadaisical about getting a job is having a negative effect on her mental health. I’d hoped this move would be the push out of the nest that would force her to fledge, but I’m afraid to push her into genuine danger. What should we do?

—Sad Mama Bird

Dear Sad,

I hear and fully understand why you’re fed up. But it has been a desperately hard year, and while there may well be a time for a more pointed sink-or-swim approach, I’m just not sure that time is during a raging pandemic and the worst recession since the Depression? You’re assuming that your daughter is being lazy about her job search, and maybe she is, but there could be so many other factors—you already know that she has a history of depression, and you mention being concerned for her mental health. I would really try to find out what else might be going on with her, and help her to find a good therapist if she needs one.

I might try to impose stricter limits on the type of assistance you’re willing to offer—perhaps a weekly set amount, so there’s less to spend all at once, and I wouldn’t give her more than she really needs. You can let her know that your help depends on her getting the help she needs and looking for any work she honestly feels able to do, and encourage her to widen her search to non-office jobs. But even if you do insist that she look for or accept a certain type of position, I just don’t think she will actually do it if she doesn’t want to. Ultimately, she’s the only one who can decide to go ahead and put herself in a position where she might get COVID at work. Even if she did fall in line with your wishes, I’m just not convinced that her parents telling her what sort of job to get really makes her more self-sufficient.

There are of course plenty of people who cannot support themselves, for any number of reasons, and this does not make them bad or disappointing or unworthy. I don’t know the precise details of your daughter’s struggles, her mental health, or her depression, but she might well require more counseling and/or other forms of support to get to a place where she can make her own way. But that she hasn’t got it all figured out in her 20s, in a new place, in this economy, is not shocking. I do hear that having her financially depend on you over the long term might not be feasible for you or good for her. You can continue to discuss and reassess the situation—if you and your husband feel you must take a harder line a few months from now, or when the pandemic ends, that option will still be available to you. I personally think the stakes of continuing to help her for a little while longer are probably rather low after 20-odd years of dependency, and cutting off assistance during COVID in order to adhere to a somewhat arbitrary deadline set months ago seems the riskier move to me.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a food-related parenting question that I haven’t seen addressed before, mainly because my “picky eaters” aren’t toddlers, but tweens. My kids will eat generally healthy dinners—a protein, grain, and vegetable—but they won’t eat anything that’s all mixed together. No stews. No casseroles. No soups. No pot pies. No stir-fry. Nothing with a sauce. Basically, they won’t eat anything I could throw in a crockpot on a busy day. Since I can’t cook a lovely meal with multiple sides every night, I do make crockpot meals, etc., a few times per week. The question is: What is the correct parenting response to these older kids who won’t eat it? Should I just let them make a PBJ? Or is this a good time to remind them that we don’t get what we want all the time, the food won’t kill them, and they should eat it anyway (or go hungry)? I don’t want to force them to eat something they don’t like, but it’s also really not OK to turn down Mom’s home-cooked meals all the time.

—Tween-age Food Battles

Dear TFB,

Assuming your teens’ avoidance of certain foods really is about personal taste and pickiness, not a medical or sensory issue—also assuming that they are generally healthy, well-fed, not falling off the growth charts, eating other meals and snacks, etc.—I think the sandwich alternative should be rare, and ideally they should at least try the food you prepare. If you’re able to take their strongest aversions into account, or if there’s something you can easily do to make a disliked meal more palatable (setting aside a portion of food without the sauce, for example), that’s entirely reasonable, and could help them get from “no way” to “it’s not my favorite, but I’ll make do.” I would still keep exposing them to lots of different types of food, even if they don’t initially love it, because of course tastes change; many formerly picky folks eventually grow into adventurous diners.

I also think you could consider having some/all of your teenagers plan and prepare a square meal for the family on a semiregular basis. They’re plenty old enough to start learning how to cook. It’ll give them a little more control over the menu, and may also help them better appreciate all the work and time you put into meal planning and prep. I think there’s really no better way for kids their age to learn that the food don’t cook itself.

—Nicole

A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law, a stay-at-home mom, made some nasty comments to me about my choice to continue working after having kids. She never apologized, and while I am pleasant to her out of necessity, it isn’t the same. I don’t trust her. Now her husband is out of work, and she wants me to recommend her for a position at my company. I do not like or respect this woman and do not want to work with her. My husband admits he wouldn’t help either. I know there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women, but do I have to help her here?

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