Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 17-year-old daughter Amanda is starting university in a different city in September. Both my husband and I believe that she is ready for the change, both in terms of academics and emotional maturity. However, she has never lived on her own before, and a certain habit—exercise—has become a real sticking point between us. Amanda ran track and cross country from third grade all the way up until the first half of ninth grade, when lockdown began. Since then, she has barely exercised at all. She has said multiple times that she actually hated running for a very long time before she quit, and the pressure she felt from herself and the school team to win races (despite the fact that she was too busy to put in enough practice time) made her hate herself and the sport. In her words, she has a “messed-up relationship with exercise” that she has been putting in zero work to repair. After all, it’s been three years!
Interestingly, the lack of exercise does not seem to have had a noticeable negative impact on her mental and physical health. I’ve been telling her about how she has to make an effort to exercise during university (she says she understands, but I’m not sure if she does). This all came to a head when she overheard me telling her younger sister to “exercise and not be lazy like Amanda.” Now she isn’t speaking to me. Am I in the wrong here? She’s had three years to recover from the apparent emotional trauma.
—It’s Just Exercise!
Dear It’s Just Exercise,
How do you suppose Amanda felt, overhearing what you really think of her—that she’s not only “lazy,” but also a cautionary tale? It was wrong and hurtful, and also bordering on cruel to say something that could lower her in her sister’s estimation or negatively affect their relationship. I think you owe both your kids an apology.
Beyond that particular incident, I think you need to reassess your whole approach to this issue. Not only do you risk making exercise an even more fraught issue for Amanda, you could saddle her with intense body-image issues as well. My most charitable reading of your obsession with her exercise routine is that you may be a little anxious about her leaving home, and this is the thing you’ve chosen to focus on. Sometimes, the time remaining before college can feel like a countdown to the day we must send our kids out into the world 100 percent grown and mature adults with only healthy habits, but the reality is that while we do our best to prepare them, they’re still learning and growing and developing in all sorts of ways when they leave.
And we all have our likes and dislikes and issues and hang-ups, no matter how old we are.
By your own admission, you and your husband believe that Amanda is mature for her age and ready for college. You say that her physical and mental health and emotional IQ are all solid. Try to give her more credit for all of that—it’s not nothing! Whatever her relationship with exercise is right now, she’s probably dug in partly if not mostly because you’ve been lecturing her about it. (And you really should knock it off with the doubting her feelings about running—she’s told you that she’d stopped enjoying it even before she stopped, so do her the courtesy of believing her.) She’s almost an adult; she gets to make her own decisions about her body and her health and how she spends her time in college. Don’t judge her, and don’t imagine that you’re in charge of her exercise issues or her timeline for working on them.
Finally, I’d urge you to think about how you want to spend Amanda’s last remaining weeks or months at home. Do you really want to waste that time fighting about whether she ever becomes a runner again? Honestly, it sounds like that time could be better spent trying to make amends and repair whatever trust you may have broken before she leaves. Focus less on her relationship to exercise, and more on your relationship with her.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Earlier this summer, a new family moved onto my block. Shortly after settling in, they went around and introduced themselves and the kids. One of those kids is a small child, “E.” I believe he’s 5 or 6, with fairly severe autism spectrum disorder. He’s sweet and gentle, but he doesn’t really talk and won’t keep eye contact. E seems to manage to escape his parents fairly frequently. He’s approached me twice, and a few of my neighbors as well. He’ll run up to you, with a little rock in his hand, and try to push it into yours while saying “errand.” It’s the only word I’ve ever heard him say. One of his parents will usually catch up with him in a couple of minutes, but a couple of minutes is all it could take for a car to hit him or some other disaster to happen. I suppose it’s none of my business, but I am worried about the child’s safety. He doesn’t seem to have any self-preservation instincts, and he’ll run out into the street with cars with barely a care. Calling CPS seems like an overreaction, but I don’t really know what else I can do that might help but also be less intrusive. Can you give me any ideas?
—Not Sure How Involved to Get
Dear Not Sure,
It doesn’t sound like you’ve had a conversation with E’s parents about this? Given that they try to follow him, it seems like they aren’t indifferent to the problem or to his safety, even if what they’re currently doing isn’t enough. The next time E comes up to you and the parents follow, you could mention your concerns to them. Be specific about what the issue is—e.g., “I’ve seen E run into the street without looking, and I’m worried that he’ll get hit.” If he’s unsafe in the moment or two it takes for one of his parents to catch up with him, that’s definitely something they need to be aware of and take steps to prevent.
I absolutely get why you find the situation alarming, and I would be concerned for E’s safety as well. His parents clearly need a better plan for knowing where he is and keeping him safe when he goes outside. Ideally, of course, it wouldn’t fall to you or your neighbors to provide a wake-up call or tell them how worried you are. But you’re already thinking about intervening, and given the choice between having a somewhat awkward conversation about this issue and calling CPS on my neighbors, I’d definitely want to try the former first.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a solo mom of two toddlers—my husband works out of the state typically 2-3 months at a time for a good portion of the year, so I’m alone usually 60 percent of the time. We recently moved for the fourth time in six years and to be frank, I’m tired. I work a demanding full-time job (our new state is one of the most expensive in the U.S.) and rely on a mish-mash of daycare and part time babysitters to help corral the kids when I’m working. But in the evenings, when my support has gone home, and the kids are tired and cranky and demanding their daddy for the millionth time in five minutes, I lose it. My patience level drops to almost zero (I do ok if I’m caffeinated to within an inch of my life but it’s not a super sustainable solution).
I don’t like who I turn into at the end of the day. My patience fails, I snap at my kids, get frustrated at the drop of a hat, and one or more of us usually ends up crying. I try my hardest to take deep breaths and center myself, but I honestly can’t take another round of crying fits because brother is wearing the blue pajamas or because the dogs have fur and people don’t or whatever else it is that makes toddlers fail on a mechanical level. We don’t have close family or friends nearby, and our budget doesn’t really allow for additional paid support. I floated the idea of an au pair to my husband, but he didn’t like it (he’s weird about his space, even if he’s rarely in it). I know we’ll eventually get through this stage, but I’m not sure if I’ll be around to see it—I might run screaming into the void before then. Besides therapy, any advice?
Dear Flat-Out Exhausted,
It’s not that talking with a good therapist about how you’re feeling can’t be beneficial, but it seems to me that you need more than that—you need concrete, logistical changes, right now. Does your husband understand that you’re at your breaking point? Whether or not you can get him on board with the idea of an au pair or just more childcare help, I think it’s important to share with him just how frustrated and overwhelmed you are. Feeling that way once in a while, or ending the day with a few parenting regrets, is one thing—when you mentioned screaming into the void and not being sure whether you’d be around to see the end of this stage, I felt really concerned for you.
I’m a bit confused about what you might be able to afford, because you said you floated the idea of an au pair but also mentioned that more paid support isn’t in the budget. I don’t think it’s right or reasonable for your husband to unilaterally veto the idea of childcare that is in the budget. But if he isn’t open to that, or you just can’t afford it, could you find a babysitter who’s available a few evenings a week and/or on the weekend? Are there any other types of home services you could occasionally pay for—maybe cleaning or meal prep?—that would make your solo-parenting time even a little easier?
I think it’s really important for your husband to listen and try to understand what it’s like for you when he’s on the road for work, and how much you’re struggling on your own. I know it might be tough for you to be fully honest about it, but I think you need to let him know that you can’t simply keep going as you are. If he can understand how overwhelmed you are, then perhaps he’ll be able to understand that what you’re doing right now isn’t sustainable—either his work/travel situation needs to change, or your level of support and how you manage things at home does. I know it won’t be easy, and you’ll need time to figure out what’s doable and put any plans into action, but it seems clear that the two of you do need to start discussing and planning for some kind of change as soon as possible.
I sense a lot of self-blame in your letter, and I hope, at the very least, you can be gentler with yourself while you try to figure this out. Parenting toddlers is physically and mentally exhausting, and you’re doing the lion’s share of it alone. I’m sure you’re doing the best you can, and I hope you can get the help you need so that things start to feel more manageable.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have been together for three and a half years. He has three adult children from a prior marriage and I have two. I thought I had a great relationship with all the kids. They talk to me about everything and often come to me for advice. His youngest is 21 and his only daughter. When we first met, she was 17 and told me that she missed her dad’s former girlfriend because she took her shopping and spent large amounts of money on her. I didn’t think anything about it. I’d probably miss her too. But I explained that I can’t afford that because there’s five of them. She replied (half-jokingly), “But I’m special. At least I used to be when I was the only girl.”
I thought we’d gotten past everything. Then at Christmas, she called her dad. She didn’t know that she was on speakerphone. She was upset that we only sent her $100 (plus gifts) for Christmas. She had expected enough to pay her rent. Then she said, “Frankly, Daddy, I miss [his ex]. At least she helped me.” I was hurt and angry. I have helped her out financially several times. I just can’t afford to give her large amounts. So lately, I’ve told her to ask her father when she needs something. My husband thinks I’m being petty and have no right to “hold a grudge against a kid.” I don’t understand how I’m supposed to react to the situation. I tried talking to her, and she just said that she wouldn’t have said it if she had known I’d hear.
Dear Petty Step,
I don’t blame you for feeling hurt and annoyed; I would be, too. I absolutely agree that you don’t owe your children/stepchildren more gifts or financial assistance than you and your husband can afford. Stick to what’s fair and realistic for you—hopefully they will realize, if they don’t already, that you’re doing what you can.
You have a right to your anger. When tempers cool a bit, it might be worth trying to talk with her again about how her remark made you feel. At 21, your stepdaughter is not exactly a kid—she bears responsibility for what she says and does—but she also doesn’t have the perspective or experience an older adult would. If she’s been spoiled as the only girl, I get how that might be really frustrating for you to see and deal with, and I’m not trying to make excuses for either rudeness or entitlement. But she is likely being forced to learn more about how the world works now, and she might really be anxious about money or struggling financially, a situation that (understandably!) doesn’t always bring out the best in people. I couldn’t help but notice that she was looking to pay her rent with that Christmas money, not go on a shopping spree (though of course it’s possible that she spent her rent money on a shopping spree; I don’t know her life).
Let’s be real: Many of us think or say things in moments of stress or frustration that we wouldn’t say to someone’s face. How you go on depends on how important this relationship is to you, and/or how important it is to you to try to keep the peace with your stepdaughter for the sake of your husband and overall family harmony. If you do want this relationship to recover or improve over the long term, acknowledge your feelings, talk things through with your stepdaughter if you want to, and try not to let this incident drive a permanent wedge between the two of you.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I are in our early 30s, and we have been married for almost five years. We have one child, a daughter, who is 14 months old. We had no trouble conceiving, but I had a challenging pregnancy and a traumatic labor resulting in an emergency Cesarean and an awful recovery. Our daughter has also had some health issues that she thankfully has grown out of or will grow out of over the next few years, but this first year has been incredibly difficult. I am only just now feeling like I’m getting back to myself. I am not really thrilled about the idea of getting back in that saddle, to be honest.