Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My ex-husband frequently disrespected my feelings, flaked out on parenting duties, and cheated on me multiple times before one of his hookups discovered he was married and contacted me. I was incredibly devastated and furious, but I kept the reason for our divorce from our son, who was 5 at the time. He is now 8, and I have since remarried to an incredible man, who treats me wonderfully and has made a huge effort to bond with my son and be involved in his life. I have primary custody, and my husband has never missed a soccer game, drop-off, or back to school night—unlike my ex, who now sees our son every other weekend because it was “too hard” for him to “give up all of his weekends.”
My husband has worked really hard to be a good step-dad, and they get along really well most of the time. I say “most” because every time my son comes back from spending the weekend at his dad’s, he is really rude and disrespectful to my husband for the next few days. Temporarily, things they liked to do together, like painting, are “lame,” or my son no longer wants my husband to teach him a “girly” instrument like piano. Things my husband would do normally and ask my son to join in on (work in the garden, help us cook) are “boring” or “weird” and “his dad says he shouldn’t have to do that.”
My husband just tries to ignore it, and I correct my son every time and he’ll apologize, the behavior fades away, but it always reoccurs after his next visit. I’m positive that it’s my ex saying this stuff to our son, but I have no proof besides the fact that he has made cracks at my husband for being “weak” in the past and the pattern that I’m seeing with this behavior. It’s incredibly frustrating and hurtful to both my husband and me, but I don’t know how to stop it. What can I do to intervene and break this cycle? Getting lawyers involved seems crazy, and I want my son to see his dad, but hearing him parrot this toxic BS without really understanding it breaks my heart, and I’m worried about how it will impact him and his relationship with my husband and me in the future.
—Fed up in SF
Dear Fed Up,
First off, congrats on upgrading from your ex and finding a loving life partner. Divorce is never easy, but finding true love in the aftermath softens the blow significantly. The problem is you still have to co-parent with a clown who subscribes to all of the toxic nonsense that plagues masculinity today. Playing the piano is girly? Seriously?
Your first step is to have a very strongly worded discussion with your ex and tell him about your son’s troubling post-visit behavior. You can say something along the lines of, “He consistently says thinks like ‘painting is lame’ and ‘cooking isn’t something boys should do’ after he sees you, and I know that’s not something me and my husband teach him. You’re entitled to your opinions, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t share those thoughts with our son.” He may gaslight you, mock you, or roll his eyes at you—but I would bet that he’ll be put on notice and either stop his behavior or significantly limit it.
More importantly, you need to keep enforcing to your son that real men and boys can do anything from cooking, cleaning, and painting to arm wrestling and rolling in the mud. Show him examples of successful men who engage in those so-called “lame” activities to help him understand how wrong his dad is. Since you spend more time with your son than your ex does, you’ll have more opportunities to hammer your points home to him. Also, seeing your husband model a healthy form of masculinity on a regular basis will help immensely.
This last part is super important: As I’ve said many times before in this column, no matter how bad things get, do not talk trash about your ex to your son, because the only thing that will accomplish is damaging him in the long run. Trust me, you can easily get your point across to without bad-mouthing his dad.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m having an issue with a coworker I’m hoping you can help me with. I’ve decided to make a career shift and have been open with my boss about it throughout the process of transitioning. My number one reason for this switch is that my fiancé and I have recently changed our minds about kids, and the path I was on was not conducive to family life.
My boss and I have a close relationship, and I’m an open book, so I’ve been vocal about wanting to make this change because I’m turning 30, and ideally would like to start trying to have a family no later than 32 to avoid any potential fertility issues. She’s understanding, but I have a coworker who is very much not.
My coworker “Lila” has a very dominant personality and can be a busybody. She constantly butts in to other conversations, and mine with my boss has struck a nerve that’s made her behavior worse. She recently had her first child, and will be turning 41 next week. This fact has made her very domineering whenever the subject of age gets brought up. I would understand this completely if not for an important caveat: Lila is in a same-sex relationship and therefore had IVF to conceive. I have mentioned more than once that I would like to avoid having to go down this road because I have a diagnosed mental illness, and that process could threaten the functionality of my medication, but she will not let this go. The most frustrating part of this issue is that I am never communicating with her when these issues arise. There have been multiple times when I have been in my boss’ office with the door open, and she has overheard and walked in.
My question is, how can I politely shut down Lila’s involvement without cutting the line of communication with my boss? I am usually a pretty patient person, but I fear that the longer this goes on the more it may seem like I’m passing judgment on Lila’s relationship and the way she has conceived, which is absolutely not true. I don’t want to go down that road. Help!
—Age Isn’t Just a Number
Dear Just a Number,
Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t understand what Lila’s age, conception plan, and sexual preference have to do with anything. The fact is, she’s involving herself in something that is none of her business at the office, and since it doesn’t sound like she’s a trusted friend of yours, I would find a way to firmly tell her stay out of it.
First, I would start with your boss. I’m assuming she is someone who has an open-door policy at work, so ask if you can meet with her offsite for a private lunch and share your concerns about Lila. While meeting with her, you can say something along the lines of, “I wanted to meet with you away from the office because I noticed that Lila has inserted her opinions about my private life whenever you and I have a discussion. This makes me really uncomfortable, and I want it to stop. As our leader, I would rather you talk to her about this instead of me, but I will do it if I have to.”
Since she’s your boss, she will probably take it upon herself to coach Lila to not butt into conversations, which will save you from that headache. Also, she should do a better job of ensuring private conversations are kept private—which would seem to be easily solved by just closing her office door when the need arises.
Last, but not least: If Lila continues offers unsolicited advice, I would very calmly (yet firmly) state, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this at work” and leave it at that. You don’t owe Lila or anyone else any additional information about this very personal aspect of your life.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a 39-year-old woman in a stressful parent/child situation with my mom. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the spring. Thankfully, my prognosis is good, my present level of disability is mild and manageable, and I was able to start on a disease modifying treatment (DMT) immediately. My DMT is a type of chemotherapy that kills a portion of my immune system, so I will be immunocompromised for the rest of my life. Basically, I will live under COVID-era protocols of masking and social distancing forever. An added effect of my DMT is that I can no longer get vaccine boosters.
Enter my mom, who has become an almost deranged antivaxxer, and will not get vaccinated or mask in my presence to protect me. This means I can never stay in her home, she can’t stay in mine, we can’t spend unmasked time inside together, and she can no longer help care for my kids (her grandchildren). Her decision to endanger me through potential exposure has a ripple effect into every holiday, grandchild’s birthday, and special family event. As a single parent who now finds herself disabled and immunocompromised, I cannot take any risks that would prevent me from being there and caring for my kids. To add insult to injury, she posts on social media about how she’ll “never get the jab,” and my own dad and brother will not assertively come down on my side of this conflict.
I am saddened that my own mother is choosing to engage in behavior that isolates me and my kids from my immediate family and prevents all of us from having a healthy child/grandchild relationship with my mom. I am also having a really hard time relating to my mom’s stance; I would walk through fire to protect my kids and maintain a healthy and positive relationship with them. We haven’t seen either of my parents since March when I started the DMT, and I have barely spoken to my mom since then because I can’t think of anything nice to say. What do I do here?
—Do It For Your Daughter
Dear For Your Daughter,
Oh man, this is a heartbreaking letter. I sympathize because I also would walk through fire to protect my kids and maintain a great relationship with them into adulthood, and I think the overwhelming majority of parents would agree with us on that. Unfortunately, when people become so clouded by propaganda, they end up losing all sense of perspective about things that are truly important, like family. You don’t have to look very far to see cultish behavior like this happening all around us in America.
I hate to say it, but I think you have to love your mom from a distance going forward—and that probably means taking a real break from communication (which it sounds like you’ve sort of already started), after letting her clearly know why. If she’s going put her political beliefs ahead of the safety of her own daughter, why would you want her around you? It’s not hyperbole to say that a visit from her could literally kill you, and you shouldn’t take that risk under any circumstances. Hopefully, a break will push her to reflect on the fact that if she wants to have a relationship with you, she’ll need to do what it takes to keep you safe.
I know it may sound harsh—this is your mother, after all—but my guess is that you and your kids will be fine without having someone in your life who views your safety as trivial and meaningless. While this is all happening, I would highly recommend seeking therapy to help you navigate this pain. Yes, it hurts now, but you will heal once you surround yourself with people who love and value you.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband has a pretty foul mouth, and he’s usually careful about not cursing in front of our two daughters, 8-year-old “Lisa” and 5-year-old “Mia,” but sometimes he slips up in front of the kids and uses those words to make fun of others. The other day, Lisa’s teacher contacted me to say that she called another classmate “a bitch.” Not that this matters, but the classmate in question was a boy. My husband laughed it off and said, “Big deal! When did we become so soft as a country that we can’t say that?” I’m worried that Lisa is becoming a bully and my husband is the cause. Little Mia looks up to Lisa and parrots everything she does, so I know she will be next. How can I stop this?
Dear Cursing Bully,
I’m not going to say that your husband is a bad guy from this one incident, but this isn’t a good look for him at all. Not being cool with name calling doesn’t make anyone “soft,” it makes them kind human beings. I think it’s such a strange parenting flex to laugh when your child calls another child a “bitch.”
Clearly your husband needs to be put in check, mainly because he’s a role model for your daughters, and if he thinks his behavior is acceptable, your kids will too. Also, in my line of work, I’ve noticed that name-calling is often the “gateway drug” for racism and other forms of bigotry as kids grow older, and I’m assuming that’s the last thing you want for your daughters. Lastly, regardless of the fact that your husband laments that people are actually getting disciplined for name-calling, this will get your daughter in trouble if she continues down this road.
You should tell him to knock it off as soon as possible by saying, “I know we disagree about the seriousness of name-calling, but the fact remains that this will negatively impact Lisa in many ways if we allow it to continue. I need you to be the bigger person and not only tell her that what she did was wrong, but also inform her that you will stop modeling that type of behavior in front of her and her sister going forward.” This shouldn’t be a suggestion, either—you should demand this of your husband, and if he’s a reasonable parent, he should fall in line. If not, then you have a much bigger problem on your hands that may require marriage counseling to solve.
Dealing with Lisa should be much easier. Sit her down and inform her that words like that are completely unacceptable and should never be used again at school or at home. If she responds with, “Well, daddy says that stuff” then you should quickly respond with, “He used to, but he won’t anymore because he knows it’s wrong.”
More Advice From Slate
Becky is in sixth grade and goes to school with my daughter Carrie. Becky doesn’t really have friends. She eats lunch alone most of the time, and she rarely gets invited to parties. Becky’s mom believes that this is the result of mean-girl behavior at school. It’s true that kids do avoid Becky. But it’s not because she wears the wrong clothes or likes the wrong bands, it’s that Becky is not a nice kid. She has an explosive temper and within seconds goes from a minor disagreement to screaming in some kid’s face about how they’re stupid and useless. She’s just plain mean, and most of her classmates have tired of her behavior. I have told Carrie that it’s OK to walk away from a person who is chronically mean to her and that it’s not her job to fix Becky’s problems. But I can’t keep having the same conversations with Becky’s mom! How can I tell her that she can’t expect Carrie to solve Becky’s friendship problems but that they need to deal with Becky’s issues instead?