parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

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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 21-year-old niece is six weeks pregnant. She currently has no job, no permanent address, no health insurance, and no partner. She could have been on my sister’s health insurance, but she put off signing the forms until it was too late. The man she believes is the baby’s father has already told her he’s not interested and doesn’t believe the child is his.

My partner and I recently bought a house and have a spare bedroom. When I heard my niece was pregnant, my first thought was that if she didn’t want to keep it, we should take it and turn the bedroom into a nursery. It’s not that I’m particularly eager to become a parent (my partner and I are still deciding if we will), but I also feel a deep connection to this child because I was the product of an unplanned pregnancy and was adopted by my bio mother’s parents. I was luckier than most unwanted babies in that someone decided to want me. This child is not so lucky. My sister has already said she’s not raising this baby. My parents are too old to raise another kid. My niece thinks she’s ready to be a mom, but I disagree. She told my mom once that she’s wanted a baby since she was 15 so that she would have someone to love and who would love her back, which is a terrible reason to have a kid. She wants a doll to dress up and show off, but I don’t think she really understands what having a baby entails. To make matters more complicated, the baby will be half Black, which has its own set of challenges, and I don’t think my niece (who until recently was posting that it was racist for Black folks to say white people shouldn’t have dreads or cornrows and was very much on the “reverse racism is as bad as regular racism” train) will do the work to have difficult conversations about race with her child, or even learn how to style their hair.

I’m only 25, and I don’t have kids myself, but I have been around babies my whole life and have a pretty good idea of what to expect. I’m willing to do all the research, read the books, change the diapers, make my own baby food, the whole nine yards. My partner and I both have good, stable jobs and make enough money that the budget may get tight with a baby, but we could make it work, and my parents have said they would help me with necessities if I took this on. Obviously, there’s no guarantee my niece will want to give up the baby, and I have no legal standing to take it from her, nor would I want to alienate her like that. But if the baby needs a home, and I can make it work, I feel obligated to step in. The problem is that I have a lot of health issues that remain undiagnosed. I don’t even know if my partner would go for it. We’ve discussed it tentatively, theoretically, but not in-depth enough to make a decision. I don’t want to lose him—we’ve been together for almost eight years, and I envision us being together forever. I don’t know if I can take this on, but I also don’t know how I can sit by and allow her to neglect this child, or worse, if she decides to give the baby up, how can I let the child go into the foster system when I can theoretically provide them a loving home? And if I realize that I can’t take this on, how do I forgive myself for not giving this baby the same love and privilege that I was given?

—Auntie’s Baby, Maybe

Dear ABM,

This is definitely a complicated situation, and it’s not surprising that it would trigger some strong emotions within you due to the circumstances of your own birth. Before you overly consume yourself with thoughts about how or if you could or should raise this child, you should talk to your partner about your desire to be supportive of your niece and explore a few ways in which you may be able to do that. Would he be willing to let your niece and the baby move in? Indefinitely, or for a predetermined amount of time? Is he open to the idea of adopting this child that is, at press time, not up for adoption? You’ve purchased a house and ostensibly plan to spend the foreseeable future together; you should involve him in your decision-making from the outset—even if you end up coming to a conclusion that leads to the end of the relationship.

Now, let’s talk about the bigger issue, which is that you have determined yourself to be a more competent, capable parent than your niece, who is the one expecting this child. Your concerns seem valid: She’s low on resources, the guy she believes to be the father is an asshole, her racial lens isn’t up-to-par. However, despite leading a life that is stable enough to become a homebuyer, you are only four years your niece’s senior. If you’ve been with your partner for eight years, that means you’ve been dating him since you were practically still a child yourself; you all could be lucky to have found “the one” early in life, but you also could find yourself in a situation in which one or both of you decides that you’d like to experience other partners, or other locales, before (or, sadly, instead of) formally settling down.

Though you have exhaustive experience with other people’s children, you have not been a primary caregiver for an infant. Also, you’ve got some health issues to contend with and you aren’t 100 percent sure that you want to have children at all. Your cousin, on the other hand, is currently pregnant with a child that, despite how faulty her reasons may be, she says she wants very badly and has wanted for a very long time. I don’t think it is yet time for you to decide that you are ready to raise her baby.

Instead, talk to her about her decision and her plans. Where does she intend to live? How does she figure that she’ll be able to support herself and an infant? Don’t be accusatory or attempt to lead her to the conclusion that she should place her child for adoption; rather, establish yourself as a safe space for honest dialogue and support. If your partner agrees to it, perhaps you can allow the two of them to move into your spare bedroom so that you can help her to save some money and provide some assistance with child care all at once. If it were the case that your niece were to later decide that she is unable to care for her child, perhaps it may be easier for you to step in on her behalf if you’ve already played a significant role in the little one’s life.

You can ask if she is certain that she wants to have a child right now, and how she intends to handle the tremendous work that comes with it. You can also ask if she wants to have a baby, or if she feels that she has no choice. But I don’t think you should volunteer to take her unborn kid off of her hands until she has made it clear that she does not intend to raise them herself, unless you can honestly say that she and/or her child are in harm’s way or that she is wholly incapable of performing the basic duties of motherhood.

It sounds like your niece is pregnant because she wants to be pregnant. It’s not to keep the alleged father, who refuses to be kept, and it’s not to please her own mother, who has made it clear she won’t be raising the child for her. So I wouldn’t say it’s appropriate to offer to take away a baby that she’s wanted since she was a kid. Rather, make sure she knows just what she’s getting into, and that she can count on you to be supportive no matter what, and once you are clear that this is the case, that if ever she was unable or unwilling to continue caring for her child, you’d do what it takes to keep them out of the “system.”

Also, find out what the local laws are regarding custody of a relative’s child; if the baby were to end up in foster care, God forbid, would you receive any priority in terms of being able to take them in yourself? Is there anything you should have in place beforehand? Finally, if you are able to start getting some clarity around your undiagnosed health challenges, it would be wise to do so now so that you can be of service when the child comes. Wishing all of you the very best.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I live with my husband and toddler son a plane ride away from our families, so we haven’t seen anyone in person since before COVID hit. We FaceTime weekly or more, although it’s hit or miss whether my son is interested in the call. Mostly we just chase him around the house, trying to keep him in the frame so the grandparents can watch him play. Do you have any ideas for how we can keep our son better connected with our families? I know they are so sad they haven’t seen us in so long, and he’s changed so much even in the past few months, but an in-person visit just isn’t in the cards right now. Can you think of anything more we can be doing?

—Long Distance Lull

Dear LDL,

Instead of relying primarily on FaceTime calls to keep your son connected to relatives, keep them abreast of his latest moves via photos, videos, texts, and emails. A daily, or even weekly, roundup of his greatest hits and sweetest moments will likely brighten the spirits of your folks without forcing a rambunctious little person to try to sit still long enough for Granny to see his new tooth. Continue to make time for video chats, but be mindful of how long they will hold his attention and schedule them so that your loved ones get to see him in real time on a regular basis, without suffering through 30 minutes of virtual “Hide and Go Seek.”

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 8-year-old daughter is in a virtual camp via Zoom. It’s focused on nurturing independence, confidence, and resilience in young girls, and the counselors are amazing. But whenever I overhear my daughter participating, she lags behind her peers. In one common activity, the counselor will ask a pretty easy question (“What’s a mean word that might hurt your feelings?”), give an example (“ ‘Stupid’ is a mean word!”), and then ask campers to volunteer for other potential answers. My daughter jumps to volunteer, but she always just copies what the counselor already said. When the counselors prompt her to think up a second example, she comes up empty. The other campers might be nervous or hesitant, but they’re participating more fruitfully. Campers also have opportunities to “celebrate” each other and show gratitude, and even though we’ve been practicing this at home outside of camp, my daughter again jumps to volunteer but chooses to share irrelevant info focused on herself (“I helped bake a cake this weekend!”) and has to be redirected by counselors.

Basically, my daughter is being THAT camper, every day, three weeks running. I was hoping she’d get the hang of it, but she’s not. I understand that if my daughter was actually at camp in person, I would be none the wiser to these shortcomings. But since I’m there and do occasionally overhear it (by necessity given our home layout), it’s truly gotten under my skin. I’m worried about her being unimaginative and self-centered, even more than is age-appropriate. For what it’s worth, my daughter says she’s enjoying camp and is always excited to join the Zooms. What is going on here?

—That Kid’s Mom

Dear TKM,

There are a lot of varieties of “that kid”—the one who hits everyone, the one who has never met a tale too tall to tell, the runner, etc.—and finding out that your child is one of them is almost always pretty uncomfortable. What you have to figure out here is if her behavior is deliberately annoying, or if she thinks it’s cute/charming, or if she’s behaving in earnest without a clue as to why her actions aren’t appropriate (I’m inclined to assume you don’t believe that to be the case).

If your daughter’s antics are working your nerves, her counselors and fellow campers likely feel the same way. Sit her down and mention some of the behaviors you’ve noticed during her Zoom sessions and ask her how she would feel if another child was responsible. If she is able to recognize or admit that her actions are obnoxious or bothersome, then work with her to establish why she operates that way. Perhaps she’s bored or desperate for some special attention, which is hard to get via a Zoom call. Maybe she’s just a bit socially inept, as 8-year-olds can tend to be.

If it seems that she’s choosing to be a pain in the butt, make it plain to her that neither adult authority figures nor other children like that sort of behavior and that she may face consequences at camp, school, and beyond if she continues, such as struggling to make friends or getting reprimanded. Be clear that her antics are a distraction that her fellow campers and her counselors do not deserve to be subjected to and consider enacting consequences in your home when you observe her keeping them up.

However, if she’s just truly lost on why it’s not OK to give a useless response to a simple question, then you all need to spend more time exploring hypothetical situations like the ones you’ve witnessed and practicing appropriate answers. (Perhaps giving praise to other campers makes her feel nervous—is there another way she can participate in the peer “celebrations”?)

No matter what the motivation behind her behavior, encourage her to stop and think before responding to a question from a counselor (or, in a few weeks, a teacher): “Do I have the right answer, or do I just want to be heard? Is now the right time to be silly, or is this serious?” Good luck, and hopefully you can help her to understand why it is soooooo wack to be “that kid.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

About a year ago, I started dating an amazing woman who is a single mom with young kids. When COVID started spreading in our region, we were instructed to stay home and only see people in your household. Maybe if we were both single, we could have quarantined together, but it seemed like a bad idea to do that with the kids, so we decided not to see each other in person. I miss her, and COVID isn’t going away for a long time. I want to suggest that we see each other again, but I don’t know how we would do that and keep their family—including the kids’ dad—and me safe. What are the options for dating a parent during COVID? Is there a way to be together without merging households?

—Pandemic Parent Partner

Dear PPP,

What is the custody arrangement between your lady friend and her children’s father? If the kids are spending lengthy periods of time at his home, or if that is an option on the table that wouldn’t disrupt their existing situation, perhaps you all could spend a few days together at one of your homes and she could then quarantine for the appropriate amount of time before having the kids come back to her—of course, you’d need to be screened and then quarantine yourself before this reunion.

If you can trust yourselves to resist the urge to physically touch one another, you could take a socially distanced date to a park, or one of you could drive to the other one’s home and talk from the so-close-but-yet-so-far safe distance of your car. Pull up with a boombox, like the guy on that movie Say Anything that I’ve never watch but have seen referenced on television a million times, and play her some romantic music or one of her favorite songs.

Perhaps being in the same place physically just cannot work at this point. How often are you guys talking via video chat or telephone? Have you all done a good job of staying connected virtually, or do you feel like the relationship has screeched to a halt? What sort of conversations had you all had prior to the pandemic about a future together? Are you all exclusive by choice, or thanks to circumstances that make it difficult to add new people to your romantic roster? If there’s a lack of clarity about the terms of endearment here, now is a great time to get that straightened out. If it is, in fact, your mutual desire to proceed as a couple long term, then you all must talk about how you can both work toward keeping the flame alive from afar.

Plan virtual dates where you watch the same movie or cook the same meal “together” while on video chat. Play online games with one another; there’s plenty of old-school options like Uno, Connect Four, and Family Feud if you don’t want to learn a new web-specific one. Send each other sexy pictures/videos. Buy her some lingerie and ask her to wear it during FaceTime sex, which is a real thing that I would have dismissed wholesale a few months ago, despite the fact that people have been doing it for years. Try to give each other at least some of the time you’d share if things were normal.


More Advice From Slate

Several years ago my husband had an affair that resulted in a child. Although we’re still married and he has no interest in a divorce, he lives with the child and her mother. Our family has been shattered and my children occasionally say things that let me know they still carry a tremendous burden of hurt. But we all believe the child bears no responsibility and deserves a father. The mother of the child, however, will never be accepted into our lives. A major problem arises around the holidays. My husband insists on coming over for Christmas, but isn’t present in any meaningful sense. He just stares straight ahead. He criticizes little things, opens gifts but never takes them with him, and refuses any offers of food. Nothing we do makes him happy and the harder we try the unhappier he seems. I know therapy for everyone is the answer but he’s never been one to open up and previous efforts have been fruitless. What can we do to make his Christmas visit a little less awkward and perhaps even pleasant?

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