Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 17-year-old stepdaughter and a 2-year-old daughter. My stepdaughter just got back from Coachella coughing and sneezing—and now has COVID. I am writing in because I don’t like the way I handled it and am wondering if there’s an aspect of stepparenting that I am avoiding. I love my stepdaughter a lot. I feel like it’s important to be a background figure mostly, and support her parents, and accept that they have a different parenting style from my own and work within that. This does entail a loss of control, which I can accept. But I think I am leaning into the idea that I have to be supportive so much that I am not advocating for myself or am sacrificing integrity.
Her parents don’t set clear boundaries. I get that I can’t make them do that. But in this case, I am kind of pissed off because I would have handled a teenager going to Coachella during a pandemic differently. I would have let her go, but I would also have said that she was increasing her risk of COVID and have set clear expectations upon her return that she should have to test if she felt sick or if any of her friends got sick. Nobody did that, and she came back sick and acted like a teenager about it, and her parents indulged it. She denied that she could possibly have COVID and blamed her period while hacking and sneezing all over the house, and asked her mom to excuse her from school without saying she was sick so that she wouldn’t have to test, which her mom did. They waited for her to be responsible and test on her own, enabling irresponsible behavior like coughing all over an unvaccinated 2-year-old in the meantime. I feel that I should have said something practical and productive, and I didn’t. I just told my husband that I felt anxious about her being sick, and he didn’t do anything with that information except defend her to me, and it remained a psychological problem instead of a practical problem.
This is in the past. I can’t change what I did. I can wait for my test results, mask up, and be grateful that it’s not 2020’s COVID. But this situation makes me realize that there are other things I tolerate that make me feel like I am losing my integrity a little bit at a time. For example, I get that teenagers are messy, but I would rather deal with that by asking her to pick up her stuff or put her dishes in the dishwasher than do what her parents do, which is basically complain about it behind her back and clean up after her (their whole family unit lives in a state of constant guessing about how one another really feels). After this COVID situation, I feel really disappointed in myself and like I just didn’t show up. She would have hated it, but it is reasonable to tell any teenager that her period is not causing her to cough and sneeze, and that it’s wise to act as though she has COVID after being on a plane and at a big concert. I am acting like her parents act and not like myself when I shrug and complain privately instead of addressing her.
I guess my larger question is, what are my rights and responsibilities as a stepparent? Am I beholden to the parts of her parenting that make me feel like I personally lack integrity? Is it respectful or messed up that I see this as two families with two different sets of rules (our 2-year-old is definitely not being raised this way)? How do I balance upholding my own integrity, picking my battles wisely (obviously everybody’s health was a higher priority than the dishwasher), and not wanting to infringe on my stepdaughter’s original family unit?
—Limits of Support
There is no universal job description for stepmother—or mother, for that matter. Generally, the role of a stepparent is defined alongside the parent with whom one is partnered; a big part of the work is typically serving as a support system as that person leads the work of raising their child(ren). I’m not sure how long you’ve been in this young woman’s life, but I wonder what kinds of conversations you and her father had about your presence as a maternal figure—one who doesn’t have all the same rights and responsibilities as her parents, but who is still influential, present, and engaged in her rearing.
In the wake of this COVID incident, you should talk to your husband about how you can and should engage with your stepdaughter. It would have been completely reasonable for you to remind her that one’s period does not cause one to cough or sneeze, but if the groundwork for that interaction hasn’t been set, it could seem jarring or intrusive coming from you. I think what might also be missing is clarity about how you communicate with your husband about his daughter, and about the parenting choices he makes with his ex-partner. You have a voice here, even if it isn’t always present during their family conversations. You should be weighing in about his parenting, especially considering that you are parenting a child together who could be affected by what is going on with his older daughter. In this instance, your child was put at an increased risk for COVID because of the choices they made.
I think you should open up to your man about what you have been feeling: the dishes, the COVID risk, the feeling that you are being untrue to yourself because you are sitting silently as he makes decisions that you disagree with. It’s not for you to upend his parenting style or declare that what he’s doing isn’t working. However, there should be more collaboration and communication between the two of you in the process of raising his older child. You should feel empowered to speak to him about your observations, and when the occasion calls for it, you should be trusted as an adult voice of reason who can address your stepdaughter and correct her when needed. Stop holding your tongue and connect with him about this now before these feelings explode into something more difficult for you to manage. You can honor the “original family unit” while still being an active stepparent. It’s time to get active. All the best to you.
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From this week’s letter, I’m Worried My Big Decision Will Ruin My 4-Year-Old’s Social Life: “I feel confident, but immense guilt for taking him away from his friends and an environment that he loves and is proud of.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
Some friends of mine are trying for a baby, but because of their living conditions, a few of our mutual friends are saying they’ll call CPS once the baby comes. I don’t know what to do. I believe this couple is living with untreated mental illnesses. His parents bought them a house and car, and they don’t clean: They always have dishes piled up in the sink and along the counter for literal months, and they’ve thrown out all their dirty dishes and bought new ones a few times; dog feces is left on the carpet; entire planks and chunks of the hardwood floors are missing. I won’t go on forever, but you can smell and feel the filth when you walk into the house. They both say the other partner doesn’t clean, so why should they? They snap at each other and have just gotten used to living this way, which must be overwhelming and seem impossible to turn things around. They have a black Lab who is completely untrained and therefore injures grown adults unintentionally with her enthusiasm.
I admit I haven’t ever brought my son over for these reasons, but before him, I would come over and try to help as much as an untrained nonprofessional can. I encouraged them to see therapists or talk to their doctors about how they were feeling (they refused); I listened and validated their feelings whenever they wanted to talk; I focused on one area, like dishes. I came over, put on fun music, brought wine, and offered to wash if one of them would dry—they started sniping at me like they do each other and watched me clean by myself. Since becoming a working mom, I admit I haven’t had time to try to help them nearly as much, but I’ve been to their house and they’re still struggling the same way.
I understand where our friends are coming from when they say they don’t want a baby in this environment. I want to be clear that I’m not judging: They’re clearly struggling and not utilizing any resources to help themselves, and it must be difficult to be in that place. But I genuinely think that this environment would be dangerous for a child, especially once they’re old enough to run around. Do you have any suggestions for more effective ways to help them? I’d rather they started finding healthier ways to live, for their sake as well as the hypothetical child, than plot behind their backs to call the authorities on them before there’s even a baby. But I’m at a loss.
—Making the Call
Dear Making the Call,
If your other friends are willing, see if you can rally them to participate in a formal, sit-down intervention before waiting until a child is born and then calling child protective services on this couple. You may also wish to speak to their families and see if they would be willing to participate in such an effort.
Perhaps hearing some serious talk from people who care about them will inspire them to look at their lives and consider making some significant changes before expanding their family.
Ideally, something like this would take place at their home so you can talk about the specific things that concern you—the months-old dishes, the aggressive dog—and point to them as examples in real time. You should manage your expectations accordingly; these two have lived this way for quite a while, and as you suggest, they may be dealing with undiagnosed mental health challenges. However, I think it is worth it for your friend circle to let them know directly that you all are concerned about the two of them, and by extension the child they wish to have. They may feel somewhat isolated in the dysfunctional world that they have created for themselves and may not know how to share that they need some significant support.
Intervening should also mean committing to checking in on them as they honor a commitment to, say, improve the conditions of the house before having a baby. You should not step in and do things for them as you have in the past, but you can make yourself available to help encourage and support them if they show willingness to make some changes in their lives. If, in fact, they choose not to alter their behaviors at all, your other friends may still see fit to report them to the authorities—and that, sadly, could end up being the best possible thing to do on behalf of this child. However, before it gets to that point, I think you owe it to your friends to try and help them see just how much they are struggling and how important it is that they course-correct before expanding their family. Wishing you lots of luck with some very difficult conversations.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am the eldest of three children. The youngest turned 30 this year; I’m in my upper 30s. My two siblings still live with our mother. She is in her early 60s and works a very exhausting physical custodial job. Thanks to her and my father, I was able to make it to college, graduate, meet my husband, and ultimately start my independent life with kids and a lovely career. We grew up extremely poor but were happy and sheltered enough to not know their struggles until we got older. As a kid, my parents would leave me in charge of my siblings so they could work on the weekends. Looking back, I realize it was wrong of them, but they had no other option.
Because of a very early indoctrination into caring for my siblings, I feel like I have always been a pseudo second mom to them. My siblings currently do not work or contribute to the rent; they ask our mother to pay for their personal requests (fast food, manicures, gas money, etc.), and leave all the heavy chores of the home to her. She still does their laundry to this day! Before our father passed away, I was more involved in the day-to-day of their household. I’d visit and run errands for them, research and fill out paperwork for local agencies to help meet their financial gap, speak to social workers. I’ve taken a step back in the past year because I find myself 1) upset that my very adult siblings do not participate in the “work” it takes to be a grown-up, and 2) upset that their well-being tends to fall on me. I have my own bills, young children, and home to care for and am finding it harder and harder to stretch myself to keep them in a comfy life.
I worry a lot for our mother, but she has allowed this situation to play out and has such a quiet personality that despite knowing she wishes they did more, she never speaks up. In her own words, she prefers they’re home “safe” than struggling out on their own. I hope to receive guidance on whether I should speak up (I’m afraid to blow up at my siblings), and if I should, how do I participate in a healthy discussion and plan to get them to work or at least get my mother to attend to this issue herself. To be honest, I really feel burned out by the constant worry of so many responsibilities for so many capable adults in my life.
—Actually Just a Sibling Too
Dear Just a Sibling,
You can—and should—talk to your siblings and your mother about the imbalances in your respective relationships. However, what is most important here is your resolve. Stepping back is not enough; your siblings should not rely on you to care for them at all.
If you want to stop taking care of your siblings altogether, then stop. You know it’s not good for them or for you. It causes you to enjoy a decreased quality of life. Stop doing it. This may be easier said than done, which is why I suggest you speak to a therapist about your continued inclination to do what you were reared to do, despite knowing better. You have to put your foot down and mean it, or else you’ll be dealing with this for the rest of your lives. As far as your mother goes, you should engage her in a series of conversations about how she allows herself to be used by her children, but prepare yourself for the likelihood that she is comfortable with life the way it is now and will be unwilling to change. Some people only know how to parent in this all-sacrificing manner, and there are adult children all over the world taking advantage of that. Be a voice of reason for her, but more importantly, break your own remaining tendencies to extend yourself to your siblings.
And who knows? Perhaps mother is tired and would like a break from all this inappropriate care work. If she seems receptive to intervention, help her to see just how her quality of life suffers as a result of caring for them the way she does. Ask her how prepared she thinks they are to care for themselves if something were to happen to her. Remind her constantly that she deserves a more comfortable existence and that the children she raised owe it to her to pick up where she should have left off a long time ago. Let her see you live by your own commitment to stop pampering these spoiled adults and hopefully she’ll be inspired enough to make some changes in her own relationship to them. Sending you and her all the best.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
At the heart of my question: What are the signals that playing doctor has gone too far, and what do I do about it?
I have a just-turned-5-year-old boy. He and his best best best friend (same age, but a girl) have now snuck off to play “doctor” four times in the last few months. Each time, they have been found within a few minutes, given a lecture about body privacy, while also talking about how curiosity is normal. It seemed to be a mutual interest activity, and both myself and the other parents have been careful not to create any sense of shaming, but instead reinforce that it is important to have body privacy.
Fast forward to today. This time, they snuck away and had less than five minutes together in a downstairs bedroom before I found them. When they came out, I asked them to do a timeout since they knew they weren’t supposed to sneak off together anymore. I talked to each one for a couple minutes separately. Their stories line up, all except one thing: The girl reported that my son told her she “had to” pull her pants down, and she said she didn’t want to—she wanted to go back to playing with toys. And this time, there was touching for the first time—him touching her vagina. I asked the girl how she felt and helped her with a couple example emotions (sad, worried, confused, silly, bored, happy). She said she was mostly just wanting to go play with toys and was not sad.
I had a conversation with my son about consent after this, and emphasized that he absolutely cannot tell a girl to take her clothes off, cannot touch a girl, and that if he was an older boy, this type of behavior would get him in very big trouble. I had him share back with me what he understood from what I told him, and he seemed to hear it. We talked about how it is a mean thing to do to tell someone they have to share their body, and it is something that is never OK.
One more piece of info: My son is a dark-skinned Black boy. I just watched my best friend’s 10-year-old Black son get written up with a sexual harassment complaint in his permanent school record for using sexual gestures at school—no touching, no exposure, just gestures. I know there isn’t a lot of room in our society for Black boys to make mistakes. I also know my son is a little kid and is curious and figuring things out. We all played doctor as kids—I don’t want to make something normal into something shameful, but this feels different. What do I do next?
—We All Played Doctor Once
Dear We All Played,
While this sounds like it could be “normal” behavior, one child’s curious moment could very easily become another child’s traumatic experience, and as you know, the stakes for your Black son’s mistake can be higher than for some of his peers (particularly if the girl involved is White; often, there isn’t a terribly high price for harming Black girls). You must have a few very serious conversations with your son, very soon. The first is a follow-up discussion about bodies and consent. It isn’t enough for him to simply understand autonomy and that he isn’t supposed to touch anywhere without asking. It’s time for him to understand what penises and vaginas are, what they do, and just why these are our “no-touch” areas in an age-appropriate way. I Said No is a useful book that will help with the bodily autonomy aspect of the conversation.
You also need to talk about gender and race. He must understand how the former can put him in a position of power over his female peers, and how the latter can inform nearly all of his experiences—including what happens when he makes a mistake. You want a son who makes girls feel safe in his presence, who respects their boundaries and refuses to cross them; in order for him to have that sort of empathy, you have to start talking to him now about what it means to live in a world that largely believes that boys are stronger than girls, that they are our natural leaders, and that their desires are more important or urgent. Let him know that forcing a girl to touch his private area, or to let him touch hers, is one of the absolute worst things he could do, that he will be seriously punished for such a thing, and that he can cause a girl (or a male peer) tremendous harm were he to do something like this again. As far as the conversation about race, you certainly know the importance of preparing Black children for a society that does not have their best interests in mind. Five is old enough to talk about our history, from Africa to bondage, from bondage to relative freedom, and the continued fight for justice. If you haven’t already started those dialogues, you’re behind and you need to play catch-up.
This isn’t about traumatizing or scaring your child into submission. This is a matter of providing him with the information that he needs in order to survive his body and to avoid being a danger to others. Boys of all races should be getting the latter lesson, but too few of them will. If you’re truly worried about what happened and want to make sure there’s nothing going on that you’re unaware of, you can take him to a child therapist and let them assure you that he’s developing normally—which he probably is! But you may rest easier hearing it from a professional. Wishing you all the best.
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