parenting recommendation from Care and Feeding.
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 ex and co-parent has PTSD and has been going through a particularly rough patch, recovering after a drug relapse, and is in a very dark place (which she’s been very open about with me, and I’m giving as much support as I can). Now she has started self-harming. I’m certain our curious preschooler will see the obvious cuts and ask questions, and I’m deeply worried about what messages or fears a young child might internalize. Googling, everything I can find is for parents of self-harming kids, and no information on the reverse. What do I say to my ex, and what do I say to my kid? Thanks for your help.
— Co-Parenting Complications
Dear Co-Parenting Complications,
You’re right that there’s comparatively little information about self-harming parents, and I’m sorry that your family is navigating this under-resourced terrain. Hopefully your co-parent is already receiving some care for addiction and PTSD. If not, encourage her to schedule appointments with any existing providers or offer to help her begin the onboarding process for new ones.
It sounds like your ex is committed to communicating what she’s feeling and experiencing with you, as best she can. That’s encouraging, as it means she may be receptive to you intervening a bit more than you are at present, by taking on increased childcare responsibilities—either spending more time in your residence with your child and/or hiring a childcare provider who can help—and with helping your child process what’s happening, should the need arise.
You can tell your child that Mom is hurting but that she (and you) are trying to help her get better. If you want to be more specific, you can tell your child that sometimes when people are sad, upset or confused, they hurt themselves and they have to get help from doctors in order to stop. Wait for your child to inquire before trying to explain, but decide how much or how little you want to explain before the need presents itself. Don’t offer more details that you’re asked to provide and keep any explanation you may give as age-appropriate as possible. No matter how curious, a preschooler will have a limited capacity to understand anything more than that their mom is sick and that everyone who loves her is committed to helping her feel better.
Perhaps most importantly, be sure to assess whether or not time with Mom is helpful or harmful right now. If you get the sense that either mother or child are unsafe, figure out how to find alternative temporary visitation or living arrangements for your little one. I wish you all the best.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My sister is a single mom to two daughters. At the start of the pandemic the four of us moved into a duplex we inherited from our grandparents. I work from home and my sister doesn’t, so I’m often responsible for my nieces ‘Trina’ (14) and ‘Chloe’ (12). I make sure they get up for school, pick them up, make sure they get their homework done, and cook. They are bright, funny, insightful kids, and I value the time we spend together, but it has challenges.
Trina is autistic. My sister accommodates her by expecting Chloe to compromise—Trina decides where to eat, where to go, what to watch, what to listen to. I’ve virtually never seen Chloe get her way, and she almost always reacts to Trina’s or my sister’s requests by folding or going silent and looking at her phone. My sister tried to get Chloe to change where she got her birthday dinner to a place Trina likes until I stepped in. On the drive back, Chloe unwinds by talking about her day, while sometimes Trina wants peace and quiet. When she does she yells at us to shut up, Chloe shuts down. I suggested noise-canceling headphones and even offered to buy some, but she says it’s ableist to expect her to change. Trina will talk at length about her interests, gets upset if we ask for a break or to talk about something different, and then expects us to be quiet for her (stop talking, turn off music/games/tv) at the drop of a hat.
There has to be a balance between respecting who she is as an autistic person and her recognizing that being autistic is not an excuse to snap at people or ignore boundaries. I’m a gay man with no plans for adopting or otherwise becoming a parent. No one in my social circle is a parent so I can’t ask anyone for advice. I just turned 25, so I feel more like their brother sometimes. My sister posts on social media a lot about being the mom of an autistic kid and about how people who have neurotypical kids don’t understand. I don’t think she’d take my feedback very well considering I have no kids, autistic or otherwise. Am I way off base, or can Trina learn to express herself in ways that aren’t hurtful to others? How can I help Chloe get treated more fairly? How do I broach these topics with my sister?
— Troubled Uncle
Dear Troubled Uncle,
It sounds like you may have some fundamental misunderstandings about what living with autism is like. It’s an oversimplification to chalk Trina’s behavior up to “an excuse to snap at people or ignore boundaries.” A statement like that assumes that Trina herself is somehow hiding behind her diagnosis and willfully being insensitive to the needs of everyone around her. That’s a projection that may be rooted in your frustration and impatience in trying to communicate with her.
How much do you know about Trina’s diagnosis and the specific challenges it presents to her communication and social interaction? Different types of autism spectrum disorder have distinct characteristics, and while there are strategies and supports that may help to make communication and socialization more manageable for Trina, it isn’t likely that her understanding of boundaries and fairness will align with yours.
Trina’s capacity for adapting to Chloe’s and your needs (for a certain conversational flow, for silence or for reciprocity) may be limited. And it’s safe to assume that it’s easier for you to make certain accommodations to ensure less conflict than for Trina to do so. It may be best to ask yourself what those accommodations can look like. Would it be useful to let Chloe know that you’d be happy to talk more about her day when you’re not in the car with Trina? Would it be listening to Trina discuss her interests without the expectation that you’ll also have equal time to share yours? Would it be offering to take Chloe on a separate outing where her preferences are centered, from time to time? Decide how you can best support Chloe without trying to “change” Trina. Decide how you can embrace Trina as she is, without feeling resentful that she can’t meet your expectations.
It would still be fine to point out to your sister a few instances when you’ve noticed that Chloe felt unheard or overshadowed and to ask if there’s anything more you can do to support the family in making sure that Chloe’s needs for attention and engagement are being met. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I took my daughters (2 and 5) for a playdate at the house of a family in the neighborhood who also have 2 daughters the same age. I’m friendly, though not especially close, with the other parents, but they invited me to stay for brunch and we were having a very nice time.
Until, that is, I stood up from the dining room table and accidentally knocked down their chandelier, causing it to smash. (The parents are on the shorter side and I’m quite tall). The chandelier was mid-range (West Elm) but installing a new one will require an electrician. The parents were very gracious about it, but it’s still a big pain in the arse and not an insignificant expenditure.
I offered, sincerely if not forcefully, to Venmo them some money. They said, “We’ll let you know where we end up” but haven’t said anything further in subsequent friendly text exchanges about future play dates.
What’s my responsibility here? Should I just Venmo them? Drop it and just buy them wine and flowers? Or say nothing? (For what it’s worth I’d say we are in broadly similar financial situations, though they are probably in higher earning jobs.)
— It’s a Mitzvah to Break Glass
Dear It’s a Mizvah,
Your willingness to accept financial responsibility for this accident is appropriate and commendable. Though the couple did tell you that they would let you know how things turn out with repair and replacement, it would be a good idea to follow-up. A simple note or phone call, reminding them that they mentioned updating you about the chandelier would suffice. If they still deflect and don’t ask to be reimbursed or any way financially compensated, you can consider yourself free of obligation. In that event, the wine and flowers would be a very nice touch.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have 4 grown children. We both lost our full-time jobs during Covid and have basically retired. Now, I have a part-time job that I love and have made peace with the somewhat forced conditions of retirement. But this “retirement” has brought on a whole slew of challenges with our children and their increased expectations of our time and labor.
We have 6 grandchildren. My daughter’s husband died by suicide a few years ago. Needless to say it’s been a difficult time for her, the kids and frankly all of us. Their household is chaotic and needy all the time. We have been babysitting a lot while my daughter goes to school, often taking the grandchildren from Thursdays through Sundays.
One of the issues is they live about an hour and a half away. We spend a lot of time on the road. When we can, we take the kids to our house but either way it’s mentally and physically draining. I’ve asked my daughter to consider moving closer but she won’t. She has asked us to move closer—which we’ve considered—but my job and friends are here. Hence the commute.
Now my son has asked for babysitting help, too. He also lives 1.5 hours away. They are in a much better financial position than my daughter but are having trouble keeping a babysitter. We agreed to babysit temporarily but it means I have to lose some of my work hours. That hurts both financially and mental health-wise (I love my job).
Retirement was supposed to give us less stress, not more! I am exhausted. My husband is exhausted and extremely grumpy.
To make matters worse, my 94-year-old mother has dementia. She lives in another state and my sisters take great care of her. I want to help them out with care, as well. Who should come first? What are my obligations? Retirement was supposed to be less stressful. It makes me laugh because when I first lost my job I was at loose ends—feeling not needed. Now everyone needs me. What can I do?
— Can I Clone Myself?
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Your commitment to your family is commendable. I’m sure your children appreciate it. But it also sounds like it’s time to start setting firmer boundaries about what you can and cannot do for them. If you’re willing to keep the children, be less willing to commute three hours roundtrip for pick-ups and drop-offs. Make bringing the kids to your home and picking them up a condition of childcare. If that proves too prohibitive for them, at least get them to commit to taking on one leg of the commute while you continue doing the other. If possible, use the time you’ve saved to pursue your other interests and commitments. Let your kids know when you’ll be out of town, visiting your mother; if you provide them ample notice, they’ll be able to make other arrangements for childcare. Don’t rush back. They’ll manage until you return. Despite the pressures and challenges your children face, they’re adults and if you were still working full-time like you were before the pandemic, you wouldn’t have been available to watch everyone’s kids as often as you do. They would’ve had to find solutions elsewhere, and they can still do that now, when necessary. You didn’t retire just to transition to full-time, unpaid labor for your kids. I hope you’re able to enjoy your golden years and to continue finding fulfillment in supporting your family.
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