Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have a 5-year-old son, and we live on the ground floor of an apartment building in a large city. When “Stu and Chelsea” moved in, a year and a half ago, they were expecting their first child, but other than generic hallway chitchat about kids, we didn’t know them very well. A month after they arrived, we were awoken at 5 a.m. by Chelsea’s scream (her water broke a week early)… and then, because our bedroom shares a wall with their living room, we heard what turned out to be the beginning of a planned home birth! Our son somehow slept through the noise, and then we hustled him to preschool, but my husband and I both work from home, and we couldn’t that morning—we ended up leaving to work at a café only to return as she was pushing. I absolutely understand why some people choose home births, and I had a great experience myself having a fairly natural water birth—but I had it at a hospital because we lived in an apartment!
I felt really uncomfortable all day, as we heard every gritty detail of Stu and Chelsea’s home birth. And we had told them about the thin walls in our building when they first moved in! (We mentioned it because our son can be loud.) Honestly, we were confused and upset that they hadn’t let us know this would be happening. But when we decided that we wanted to try to discuss this with them, we also realized that it would be shitty to bring it up when they were in the throes of new parenthood, and ended up just ordering a white noise machine. Their daughter is over a year old now, and we don’t see them that often, so we still haven’t gotten past generic chitchat. And by now we’d be fine not ever mentioning it… if Chelsea hadn’t told me that she was pregnant again when I ran into her two days ago. My husband and I don’t want to be caught off guard again, and we want to find a way to ask them what the plan is and finally discuss how the lack of information last time unexpectedly scrambled our work and life. But we also really don’t want to seem rude or judgmental—it’s their kid’s birth after all, we just would like to know if we’ll be hearing it (especially because I doubt a white noise machine will drown it out). All we want is to know in advance if we should have a backup workday and childcare plan, but I worry that it might come off as mom-shaming or Karen behavior. How can we (politely) discuss this with Chelsea and Stu?
—Not in This Birth Plan, Please
I don’t think there is a “polite” way to do that—especially since you want to tell them that when their daughter was born, it inconvenienced, upset, and confused you (what is to be gained by telling them that?). Even if they had told you they were arranging a home birth, they wouldn’t have been able to tell you precisely when it would happen, so I’m not sure how you could have planned for it. And if you ask them point-blank if they intend to have another home birth, they won’t know what day that baby is going to decide to be born either. So what purpose would be served by this conversation, except to let them know that you heard what you heard, it made you uncomfortable, and you disapprove of their intention to do it again (if that is indeed their intention—which it likely is, if all went well for them last time)? You say that all you want is advance notice so that you can make arrangements to be elsewhere that day, but I don’t see how that can be true: You know as well as I do that babies arrive when they’re ready to arrive, sometimes “early” and sometimes “late.” I suppose you could ask a friend if they’d be willing to host your family overnight—and let you and your husband turn their place into an office if it goes down on a workday—whenever the next baby comes—i.e., they’ll know you’ll be calling at the last minute to cash in on that favor. But you could do that without having an uncomfortable conversation with your neighbors—it could be a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency sort of thing.
But sounds to me like you’re hoping a conversation with Stu and Chelsea will steer them in the direction of a hospital birth. So be honest with yourselves, and decide whether you want to be the people who, for their own sake, ask their neighbors to please not have a home birth again. If the answer is yes, then don’t be surprised if Stu and Chelsea never speak to you again, even “generically,” whether their second child is born in a hospital or at home.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a mom of two, and like most of my friends, I don’t like my mother-in-law. However, unlike most of my friends, I don’t have a good reason for it. She’s not terrible—she just annoys me, we have absolutely nothing in common, and I don’t think she was the greatest mom (for example, my husband didn’t brush his teeth as a kid until high school, when he learned in health class he was supposed to). I’m resentful on my husband’s behalf. Fortunately (for me), we live across the country from her and see her only once a year, when we visit. My husband isn’t close to his family. He briefly FaceTimes them with our kids about four times a year. My MIL clearly wants to be more involved and asks lots of questions about the kids in our shared Google photo album. My husband ignores these questions because that’s his personality. I ignore these questions because I don’t like her and feel like it’s not my job to answer them, since she’s not my mom. The result is that she knows almost nothing about our lives, while my mom, who lives nearby and sees my kids often, is very involved in our lives. The fair-minded part of me feels bad about this discrepancy and guilty for not trying to include my MIL more. However, the emotional part of me dislikes her so strongly that I can’t bring myself to do anything about this. Should it be my husband’s responsibility to facilitate a closer relationship between his mom and our kids, and am I fine staying out of it? Also: Is there a way for me to get over this irrational dislike of her (since it makes our yearly visit to see her so unpleasant for me)?
—Feeling Guilty but Unwilling to Change
Dear Guilty but Unwilling,
You don’t have to have a “good reason” to dislike someone, but if that person is someone you are obliged to interact with, and especially if it’s your children’s grandparent, you do have to be kind. The line between “kind” and “loving” is tricky—I get that. I also get (unfortunately, too well) the simmering resentment one can feel toward a parent who badly parented those we love most. So I don’t believe there’s anything I can do to help you get over how you feel about your husband’s mother (with whom he clearly doesn’t want to have much to do either) and I don’t think it is your responsibility to facilitate a relationship between your kids and their paternal grandmother. I’d go so far as to say that given your husband’s “personality” and his own feelings about his mother, it’s hers. Asking you questions about the kids in your shared online photo album does not, to me, signify a real desire to be “more involved.” If she wants to be a part of her grandchildren’s lives, she needs to take the bull by the horns: No matter how old they are now, she can write them letters (which, if they’re too young to understand them yet, you can keep for them), regularly send them small but meaningful gifts, and otherwise make it clear to them that she cares. She can visit, too (and I know that thought will make you shudder, but if she wants to come, and asks if she may, try to find it in your heart to say yes—but put her up in a nearby hotel or Airbnb: Don’t be a martyr).
As to her questions, it does seem unkind to ignore them. Is it possible to answer them briefly and politely? You don’t have to become her best friend; you don’t have to talk to her on the phone or otherwise be in touch with her between your family’s annual visits to her—but if she asks a question online, what would it cost you to answer it? In other words, you can forge a middle path with her. And you needn’t feel guilty about the discrepancy between the relationships with the two grandmothers. Your mother is putting in the time and effort (and I’d bet the ranch that she would be even if she did not live nearby). Your mother-in-law isn’t, it would seem. Perhaps she can’t, given her constitution. But that’s not your problem, or your husband’s either.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
My partner and I live in the U.S. with our 15-month-old. We have a close friend who has lived in Europe since college, and who has returned many times and visited us when they’re in the States, but we’ve never been there. We were planning to go this spring, before the baby turns 2, to save money (since the baby can fly for free). I teach, so we are limited to spring break.
Another important friend just announced their wedding, which will occur at the very end of my spring break. It will take place many states away from us. Since we are not especially spontaneous or adventurous people, the thought of our flying directly, with a toddler in tow, from Europe to a wedding in another state is very stressful. All the details overwhelm me—the packing for Europe plus a wedding weekend, sleeping arrangements, logistics around food, etc. It is too last-minute to move the Europe trip up to winter break: We still need passports, and my friend in Europe has holiday plans anyway. If we wait until next summer, our child will need her own ticket—so at that point, I find myself thinking, why not wait until she is old enough to remember? But I would feel like a crappy friend for canceling these plans to visit, when we’ve never managed to get there before this. And I worry that we are just homebodies who don’t have the guts to pull off a somewhat complicated trip, and the wedding is a pathetic excuse. Is postponing our trip to Europe reasonable? Or should we toughen up and try to have a good time?
—What About the Car Seat?
Dear Car Seat,
Let’s leave logistics aside for a moment. I have a question for you. Is the wedding an excuse? Or do you really want or feel you need to go to that wedding? If your “important friend” who’s getting married would be deeply hurt by your not attending—and/or if you really, really want to be there to celebrate and support this friend at a crucial juncture in their life—then it is certainly not an excuse, pathetic or otherwise.
And wait, I have another question. What’s wrong with being a homebody? What’s wrong with not being particularly adventurous or spontaneous? There is no one right way to be. Why should you feel that you should be able to pull off a doubleheader, and that not being willing/able to do that means you’re gutless? This is your life. Live it the way that feels right for you, and do your best to set aside anyone else’s expectations or judgments about how things are supposed to be. And when I say this, I include letting go of your concern that your overseas friend will think you’re a bad friend if you end up not making a trip to Europe anytime soon. You’re not a bad friend (as far as I can tell)—you’ve just got a baby, money worries (it would seem), and a desire to keep your life fairly simple. There’s nothing wrong with that. Take a breath. Then make a choice about what to do—one with which you’re comfortable and feel good about. And tell both friends how much you love them.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am the parent of a 15-year-old, “Cody,” and I’m in conflict with my mom over what is and is not appropriate care for them. To be clear, Cody has shown no signs of irresponsibility. They take the city bus to and from school (and have for years). They are fairly self-sufficient. I am a single parent. I work as a nurse overnights, and my parents have been instrumental in allowing me to do that, by keeping Cody at their place while I work. But Cody wants a little more independence and has asked to be able to have at least one night a week to be at home alone. We did a trial period over the summer and it went fine. We even did one during the school year that was also just fine (they were able to get up and go to school on their own, etc.). I have little reason to believe that my kid will sneak away to go partying or to a friend’s house without permission. (Obviously, if those things happen, we will have to reevaluate.)
However, my mom is aghast at this. She thinks 15 is way too young to be alone at home overnight. She thinks that the apartment will be broken into and my child killed or kidnapped or any number of terrifying but unlikely scenarios. My child has a cell phone, is three blocks from my parents, and has friends four blocks away in multiple directions. They know where the police station is, how to dial 911, what to do if there is a fire, and so on. We have gone over this many times. They also know the basic rules of the house and what is expected if they stay by themselves. But my mom is digging in her heels and continues to talk about how inappropriate it is for me to leave my child in the house alone. It’s giving me flashbacks to my own childhood (for the record, she is on medication for her anxiety now and it is definitely not as bad as it once was). I’ve told her multiple times that I’m the mom, not her, and that I think this plan is just fine, but my mom keeps coming up with reasons that it’s not. Since I’m not totally comfortable leaving my kid at home alone every night that I’m working—at least not yet (in a year or two, I’m guessing I will be), I can’t just say that Cody isn’t going over there again. But also, Cody has a good, close relationship with my stepfather and my mom, and I don’t want to do anything to interfere with or undermine that. (By the way, my stepfather agrees with me, but has been staying out of it lately, after my mom complained that we were ganging up on her.) What I need is a script—a way to communicate that I hear her concerns, that my child and I have taken steps to address those concerns, and that this is a good thing for everyone!
—No Need to be So Anxious
Dear No Need,
“Mom, I love you. And I appreciate so much all the help you’ve been giving me—you’ve made it possible for me to keep my job and have helped me so much with Cody. But they’re growing up now, and it’s important to me to honor their need for independence, bit by bit. I know you’re worried, but you’re going to have to trust me on this. You know I’d never do anything to put Cody in danger.”
If Mom continues to argue (and I’m sure she will), that’s when you say, “I’m sorry but this isn’t up for discussion.” There’s no reason to take the nuclear option and tell her angrily that you’re cutting the cord altogether. Clear communication, without threats or rash actions, is almost always the best way to go.
I think what makes this hard (for everyone, I mean, not just for you) is all the baggage we carry into these interactions. For you, there’s your own experience with your mother’s anxiety, the burden it put on you, and the way you identify with your child and see the possibility of your own childhood and adolescence playing out in them. But there’s also this, I think: You may not be entirely certain that what Cody proposes is a good idea. You may be conflicted about it—without admitting that to yourself—so that your mother’s voice is (loudly) putting into words your own fears for Cody’s well-being, rational or not, as you try to thread the needle between the anxiety your mom instilled in you and your determination to trust and support your child in their efforts to be more independent.
Of course, I have no idea if it is or isn’t a good idea to let your 15-year-old be at home alone overnight. (I know from experience that one’s mileage may vary: Leaving me alone overnight at 15 was not wise—for me, it was the perfect opportunity to put myself in all kinds of danger and keep that a secret from my parents—while leaving my daughter alone at 15 was just fine.) Trust your instincts. You may have to quiet all the noise within—along with your mother’s noise on the outside—and listen very closely to hear them. And then you can rely on my script.
More Advice From Slate
A good friend from college is now married with two small kids. When we visit each other (no less than twice a year), there is always tension with her husband, “Paul,” and my big dumb dog, “Scooter.” The kiddos and Scooter all like each other and are very cautiously interested in playing with each other (which only happens with supervision, of course). Every once in a while, something happens and they need a short break from each other.