Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
How do I remind my husband how miserable we were vacationing in the same house as his family, without seeming like I hate his family? For the record, I do not.
We went away with them last year and stayed together in one house, and no one but his sister and her boyfriend enjoyed themselves. His sister constantly dumped care of her stepdaughter on someone else, and they are a family of dramatic tempers. One house, no matter how big, just does not give enough room for them all to separate from each other when they inevitably start picking and arguing. It was also miserable being confined to one bedroom when our two small children would not sleep well and we didn’t want to wake others. After the trip, we discussed it and said that in the future we would travel to the same location, but get our own separate place to stay. My husband’s parents ended up telling us that they also did not enjoy themselves. They said in the future they would prefer to bring their camper with a bed they know works for them and stay nearby.
My sister-in-law just reached out to everyone with a house to rent for this summer. My in-laws immediately agreed to it. My husband said he thinks it will be fine, because this time we would have two bedrooms. I said no and reminded him of how unhappy we all were on “vacation” last year. I told him I will ultimately leave it to him to decide, since it is his family, but if he agrees, I will not be coming on the vacation. I think for him this is just normal, because vacations growing up always included large extended families with lots of blowouts and disagreements. I, on the other hand, actually want my vacations—which I don’t get very many of—to be relaxing. So what can I do? I have two weeks to remind him that this is not what he wanted, and to actually have my vacation with my family.
—Stressed Out in Scottsdale
A professional negotiator would tell you that you have already hamstrung your bargaining power by unnecessarily ceding one point. Why should this be his decision, just because it’s his family? It’s your vacation, too, and your children who are going on this vacation. Just because it’s his family you’re visiting does not mean you should not be part of the discussion about what your family does on your vacation time.
Sometimes it is wonderful to pack everyone into one of those giant seven-bedroom houses on Currituck Sound or wherever and spend 168 hours up to the elbows in one another’s lives. A year ago, fresh off a difficult week, your husband agreed with you that this was not the vacation either of you wanted. Due to rose-colored glasses or—more likely—a general disinterest in thinking about this stuff, he’s drifted from that conviction to a vague, Oh, it’ll probably be fine this time. You are well within your rights to tell him that you love his family, and you are happy to spend time with them, but that you want to sleep in a separate, nearby house or hotel. You can hang out on the beach with them during the day, maybe stick around for dinner, and then grab some private time in the evenings to recharge and relax.
After all, it sure sounds like your husband is ceding this kind of planning to the various women in his life. That’s annoying, but it’s also an opportunity. Go online and find a hotel in the town where your sister-in-law wants to stay. Present it to your husband in a voice full of cheer and I feel certain he’ll shrug, happy to let you make the plans. Is this fair to you? No. Will it get you what you want? Yes.
But is it what you want, long term? Even if this version of beach week is more fun and less stressful than last year, is it giving you what you need? Especially if this is the only vacation time you ever get, I’d urge you to suggest and plan some different holidays now and then, so you can mix time with his family and the nuclear-unit vacations you crave.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My late husband and I had an argument about money that almost ended our marriage. Now I have a chance to reverse his decision, but I’m suddenly not sure if I should. I worked my way through college in the 1980s and my husband made a good career without going to college at all. We had a daughter, “Meghan,” seven years before twin sons. My husband was adamant that all three kids would earn their own way, and told Meghan that she was on her own for costs after age 18. We fought about it—but I gave in.
Meghan earned a partial scholarship to a state school but we didn’t co-sign her student loans, so she couldn’t pay. Instead, Meghan joined the Army, and barely spoke to us. She was assaulted by a fellow officer and won’t discuss any of her experiences during the years she served. She did eventually become a doctor, but I wish she could have gotten there any other way.
By the time our sons were teens, the cost of college got through to my husband. We helped them financially, and co-signed student loans for what we couldn’t pay. Meghan was furious about this and accused him of loving her brothers more. They weren’t speaking when he died, about a year later. I’m still grieving both his death and their estrangement.
It’s been years, and my sons are thriving. They live an hour away and we talk often. Meghan lives states away and barely texts. We have dinner every few years when she travels through, but nothing I do seems to bring us closer. I’m writing my will. I know my husband wanted things split equally between our kids, but I want to leave her more to make up for what I couldn’t give her for college. Is this a bad idea? A good idea?
—Torn in Tarrytown
It’s a bad idea. Granted, you’ll be dead, so you won’t care, but do you really want your daughter’s resentment while you’re alive to be replaced by your sons’ resentment once you’re gone?
But more than that, it’s a bad idea because it’s a cop-out. You’re putting off attempting to remedy this enormous mistake you made until it’s painless—for you. You’d rather have your daughter hate you for the next two or three decades than try to do something about it now? The braver thing to do—the right thing to do—is to try to remedy it now, even though it will be difficult, wrenching, and perhaps hopeless.
Many years ago, you and your husband made a terrible decision. Sure, you argued about it, but in the end you went along with it. It’s time for you to fly to wherever your doctor daughter lives, take her out for a long, boozy dinner at the nicest restaurant in town, and apologize for everything. Don’t shove it off on your dead husband. Tell her you were wrong. Tell her it was horribly unfair. Tell her you’re proud of her and all she’s accomplished, but that you wish every day that you and your husband had made a different choice when she was 18.
And tell her you want to find a way to make amends and to be a part of her life. Maybe all that she wants from you is your heartfelt apology. Maybe she wants you to buy her a house. Maybe she wants you to find other, smaller ways to use your resources to make her midlife easier, as a too-late bit of compensation for how you made her youth so much harder. Maybe she doesn’t want anything at all from you, and you will return home heartbroken. But your focus should be on what you can do to rebuild your relationship now—not to try to make amends from beyond the grave.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Two years ago, my daughter “Ali,” who is now 11, befriended a girl, “Rose,” now 12, at an after-school art class. Rose seems a little immature for her age, is quite shy, and doesn’t seem to pick up well on social cues. One of the things I love most about Ali is that she will notice the kids who might not feel comfortable and make it a point to include them. This is what happened with Rose, as Ali made several friends in the class and always made sure to include Rose. They were in the same art class again the next year, and Rose’s mom, “Laura,” started to invite Ali to do things outside of class (we live in a different part of town, so Ali and Rose don’t go to the same school). Ali always had fun with Rose, and Laura often told me how the girls in Rose’s school weren’t very nice to her and how happy she was that Ali had become a friend, which warmed my heart as a parent.
When it came time to plan for last summer, Laura and I decided to sign Rose and Ali up for the same dance camp. While planning, I happened to mention other camps Ali was attending—and when summer rolled around, it turned out that Laura had booked Rose into those other camps, too. So for six weeks of the summer Rose and Ali spent all day together. It was a lot. Ali confided in me that she likes hanging out with Rose sometimes, but being with her all day every day was tough. Ali is a social butterfly and likes to make lots of different friends; Rose didn’t really try to make other friends, stuck close to Ali, and seemed to get sad if Ali wanted to talk to or hang out with other people. She asked if this summer, we could keep it to one camp with Rose.
The problem is two-pronged: First, Laura constantly tells me that Ali is Rose’s best friend, but Ali has a lot of friends. She considers Rose a friend, but not on that level. Laura asked if we could have a standing “playdate” every Wednesday after school, which I had to decline due to scheduling and because Ali had no interest. Two, how do I manage this summer? Laura has already started to ask about camps. I don’t want to lie to her, but I want to make sure Ali has a fun summer. I’d welcome any advice on putting up some boundaries here.
—Phrustrated in Philly
All I can think about while reading this letter is how hard it must be for Laura and Rose, lonely, fragile Tennessee Williams characters, struggling to make friends in a cold and uncaring world. Remember how proud you were of Ali’s empathy when she reached out to Rose in the first place. Even though it has become clear that friendship with Rose has its challenges, that empathy remains important and admirable, and I want to make sure that whatever you choose to do, you exhibit as much of it as you can for her mother. Parents of “social butterfly” children who make friends easily simply cannot understand how unhappy the parents of lonely children feel, and how desperately they can cling to the lifeline of one other kid who really sees and spends time with their child.
All of this is to say: There is nothing you can do about the first prong of your situation. There is an imbalance in this friendship, and to explain that to Laura is only to exacerbate her pain. (Anyway, she already knows.) As for the second prong, the summer-camp issue, you certainly are under no obligation to coordinate all six weeks of your daughter’s summer with another family. You should feel free to book some camps while hemming and hawing about your plans whenever Laura asks. (Repeat after me: “Our summer is such a mess! We just have no idea what we’re doing.”) But it might be nice to find something more to offer this poor child and mother than a single week. Maybe two weeks?
There’s another route to consider, though, which certainly places a burden upon you but which you might find appealing nonetheless. Do you like Laura? You don’t talk much about how you two get along, but if you’re interested in organically deepening the friendship between the girls, you should consider inviting daughter and mother for a long weekend away at the beach, in the mountains, at a campground, or wherever. I can assure you that Laura and Rose would view the invitation as a tremendous gift, one that would make the entire long summer seem much more bearable, maybe even exciting. And I’d bet that Ali—who, from your description, seems to really enjoy her time with Rose when there aren’t a bunch of other kids around complicating matters—would have fun as well. Certainly it would help her feel less torn, and less guilty, about spending time with this friend who needs her so. And who knows—maybe you’ll get a real friend out of it, too.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is in 5th grade and has been at the same private school for the past four years. She is thriving academically. It’s a small school and she is part of a friend group with four other girls. This was great until the beginning of this school year, when one of the girls decided she didn’t want to be friends with my daughter anymore, and basically blacklisted her. Now another one of the girls has become very high-drama, lying that another girl threatened to kill her (!?). I reached out to the teacher and the other moms, who delivered basically a “meh” response. My daughter is very distressed about the dynamics and she is the type of kid who wants to fix everything.
I want to move her to the public school system because next year will be the start of middle school and a natural time to switch schools, and she will have so many more people to choose from when she makes friends. I do worry that she will find the sheer number of students in the public school overwhelming. But I went to a small private elementary school when I was a kid and remember very well the girl dynamics, and the best thing that happened to me was that I graduated and went on to public school. I’m just having a hard time making a decision because she is a very anxious kid. She was also really looking forward to a class trip they all take near the end of 8th grade.
For what it’s worth, my older son goes to public school. After what I’ve been through trying to get his needs met in the public school system, I don’t have any illusions that public school will react any better than private school to issues that come up with my daughter. But my son has managed to find his people in the public school and I want that for my daughter as well. Any advice?
—Ambivalent in Anaheim
This is the easiest question anyone has ever sent Care and Feeding. You’re paying thousands of dollars for your daughter to have a shitty time with a bunch of jerks, replicating an experience you didn’t even like when you had it yourself. What a great opportunity to do the right thing and send her to public school without even thinking twice.
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