Care and Feeding

A Christmas gift is exchanged.

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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,

It seems early to be worrying about Christmas, but here we are. I’m a man in a family of mostly women (my wife, two daughters, one daughter-in-law, mother, two sisters, and three nieces). My brothers-in-law are easy to buy gifts for and my wife buys the gifts for her father, but I struggle buying presents for everyone else. I know they all want jewelry or beauty products or some book series I have no idea about. I work an incredibly stressful job and have limited time for shopping, not to mention that I don’t feel at all at home in stores that sell what they want.

My eldest daughter, “Halle” (28), loves celebrations, is an organizational master, and a very thoughtful gift buyer. She keeps spreadsheets with dates of birthdays, preferences, and gifts bought. Most years, I have been able to ask Halle to sort the bulk of present-buying for our family on my behalf (of course I give her the money for it), since she enjoys Christmas shopping and it greatly eases my stress. But last year, Halle complained every time I asked her about what gifts she had purchased, acting like shopping on my behalf was a huge burden rather than something she could easily handle while doing her own shopping.

Then, at our Christmas get-together, she made a point of telling people about the gifts that were supposed to be from me, making it obvious that she had selected them. At least a couple of relatives felt as if I don’t care about them (not at all true). I had to make the point several times that it was not Halle who had paid for these gifts but me! It was embarrassing. And since then we have had some awkward birthdays when my sisters thanked Halle for gifts that were from me. Now we are in October, when Halle starts Christmas shopping. In the past she has called to ask me who she should pick up gifts for from me and about money transfers, but there has been nothing from her this year. I have a bad feeling she will do what she did last year if I don’t say something, or she might simply refuse to help out at all. I absolutely don’t have time to go to the kind of effort she does—Christmas holidays are an overtime period for me—but I don’t want to end up forgetting anyone or resorting to gift cards. Can you advise me on how I can talk to Halle about this? It seems like she’s being unreasonable and uncharacteristically passive-aggressive, and I don’t know how to approach this conversation.

—Christmas Problems Already

Dear CPA,

Let me get this straight. You want your daughter to do all your Christmas shopping for you without complaint or comment, you can’t imagine why it’s the least bit inconvenient for her, you’re hurt and angry that she let your family know that she was the one who picked out all these gifts that she did pick out—and you want to know how to get her to keep doing this but return to shutting up about it? Are you kidding me?

I’ve got news for you, busy father of three (et al.): the important part of gift-giving is not who pays for the gifts but who thoughtfully chooses them (and how, and why). If you don’t have the time or the inclination to choose gifts for your loved ones, I would cut right to the chase and give them all cash. Do not ask Halle to buy your gifts again. In fact, to make sure she doesn’t this year, tell your daughter you are going to be a grownup and take care of gifts yourself.

And here’s a tip: write each of them a note telling them you love them, and why—and maybe even say, “As you know, shopping is not my forte. So I hope you won’t mind some cash to buy whatever it is that would please you most.”

(In your note to Halle, you might even apologize for treating her as your servant for so many years. And maybe give her an extra-large cash gift while you’re at it.)

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Herman Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Otherwise Docile Kid Chose a Really Odd Way to Stand Up for a Classmate: I was flabbergasted to learn that my son had been issued an in-school suspension for punching another boy in his class.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mom had me at 19, when she was understandably not ready to be a mother. She left me alone in the apartment for days and nights from toddlerhood on and was often drunk or hungover when she was with me. It took a lot of work on my end, but I came to forgive her for not being capable of being the parent a child needs, and although we’re not close, we’re still in each other’s lives.

I had my own daughter at 25, and she was and is very much wanted and treasured. She’s now 3, and I love her more than anything in the world. I work shift work, so although I only work about 40 hours a week and never past 9 p.m., it’s inconsistent. I’m lucky that a coworker has a son my daughter’s age, and we are both shift supervisors so we never work the same shift; thus we babysit each other’s children for free when the other is working, and we chip in on groceries since we feed each other’s kids meals and snacks. When she and I can’t cover each other, I have a dependable paid babysitter my daughter loves. All of this has been working well for the last three years.

Recently, for the first time since I went back to work after my daughter was born, neither regular childcare option was available. My mother stepped up and took my daughter so that I didn’t have to take an unpaid sick day. As soon as I dropped off my daughter, she started lecturing me about working too much and how my daughter was going to feel neglected if I wasn’t a more present mother. I was genuinely shocked, since 1) I am a single parent who has no choice but to work to provide for her, and 2) she left me alone most of my childhood, and she was partying, not working. I was very angry, and I told her that while I was grateful for her help, it didn’t give her the right to tell me how to parent my daughter, and I left for work. When I came home I calmly told her she of all people had no right to judge me, and she burst into tears, called me a monster for telling her she wasn’t perfect as a teen mom, and then asked what my excuse was.

She’s never said anything like this before, although this is the first time I’ve asked her for help with my daughter. Normally she just sees her granddaughter for fun, not babysitting. I don’t want to cut her out of my daughter’s life, but I don’t want to hear those things again. I’m now worrying whether my daughter feels abandoned, because my schedule is unpredictable, so it’s not like we have dinner every night. I am feeling very confused and distressed. I apologized to my mother for getting angry and told her I need some space to work through my feelings, but she didn’t apologize to me in return, so I guess she really thinks that I’m an absentee mother. Am I?

—Different but the Same?

Dear DbtS,

I don’t know if she really thinks this of you, but that is neither here nor there. You are providing for your daughter in every way. If you want me to hazard a guess about what’s up with your mom, I will: I think she is consumed with guilt about her failures, and I think that when you asked her for help with your daughter’s care—for the first time!—it stirred that pot (or, in contemporary parlance, triggered her). She lashed out because that’s what people tend to do when they’re in pain. For all we know, she may even believe that you’re “neglecting” your child (she may have convinced herself of this as a way of letting her own neglectful parenting off the hook), though it’s hard to imagine anyone equating your situation to hers.

I am here to tell you that you’re doing great. The thoughtfulness with which you’ve worked out how to take care of your daughter is itself an indication of what a good mother you are. Your mother’s diatribe and her refusal to apologize are not proof that Mom is right. They indicate the damage she did, which will be part of you forever. When it rears up (because it will), you will need to face it and remind yourself of who you are and what your life is like now. And where your (present-day) mother is concerned? Tell her—calmly, coolly—that you don’t wish to talk about this anymore or ever again. But if you want your mother in your or your daughter’s life, you will need to take a firm stand. And I think it would be wise to return to the get-together-for-fun times, no-babysitting days of yore for Grandma. (Instead, find a backup paid sitter for the rare occasions when neither of your go-to sitters is available.)

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My mom died when I was in high school. It was extremely traumatic, and it’s something I’ve had to work through in therapy over the last almost-20 years. I speak about her to my now-3-year-old often; usually, I tell him how kind she was, how much she would have loved him, that sort of thing. Last night at dinner, though, he asked me for the first time where she was. I explained that she’s not here anymore. He asked, “Is she at her home?” And I absolutely lost it and broke down at the dinner table. I didn’t know how to answer that question, and I sat there sobbing. My sweet toddler came over, hugged me, and asked me why I was sad. I told him I was sad because my mom/his grandma isn’t here anymore, and I missed her. He didn’t understand where she was. I’m worried I’ve now traumatized and confused him. I don’t love the idea of explaining the death of a parent to my 3-year-old, let alone talking about the circumstances of my mom’s death. But I’m wondering the best way to answer his question about her whereabouts in an honest, non-religious, and age-appropriate way.

—Mama is Sad

Dear Mama,

You haven’t traumatized him. You may have momentarily confused him by using the euphemism “not here anymore” (children this age are pretty literal-minded: if someone isn’t “here,” where is the “there” that they are?) but you can revisit this conversation and be clear with him about what you meant.

I know you hate the thought of telling your child that people die—and you especially hate the thought of telling him that parents do—but he is not too young for this conversation. I have said this before and I’ll say it again: every young child at some point realizes or learns that their parents are going to die someday. Many fairy tales exist to serve this purpose, and to help children work out their feelings about this terrible knowledge. Bambi, The Lion King, and The Land Before Time do that, too.

Conversations with children about death often occur around the death of a pet, which may feel like a lower-stakes way to approach the topic. But your child has directly asked you where his grandmother is, and it is time to use the word “death.” She died, and it made me very sad. It still makes me sad sometimes. It’s all right for him to know you’re still sad about this. You don’t need to tell him any of the details about your mother’s death, but you do need to let him know that death is a part of life. There is useful information here, including advice about how to explain death to a child this young.

I also want to offer you some advice you haven’t asked for. Beyond the therapy you’ve had in the years since your mother’s death, you might want to explore the work of Hope Edelman, who lost her own mother as a teenager, has written extensively on the subject of motherless daughters and motherless mothers—and you, of course, are both—and also offers a support community, with workshops, retreats, and even weekly Zoom meetings. I believe this will be of help to you as you navigate these conversations with your son (which, I will note, will change as time passes). I know this is hard. But I know you can do it. I’ll be holding you and your child in my heart.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have been married for 42 years, and we have a son and a daughter from his previous marriage. My stepdaughter is not close to her dad; she sees and speaks to him rarely. Recently my husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and informed the kids. I am truly heartbroken by their response. My stepdaughter immediately asked me how much life insurance my husband had and said that, as his oldest child, she was due half. My daughter-in-law said that our son was due half. In other words, that I should get nothing: my stepchildren are “due” all of it.

I am so focused on caring for my husband as his health declines that I feel overwhelmed and don’t want to respond emotionally to these declarations (although it is very tempting to do so). I will not tell my husband what they have said because it would break his heart. (And I have not discussed it with my stepson because I don’t want to cause friction in his marriage.) We are not wealthy. We live in a small house, have a car payment and other expenses that we cover with just social security and my husband’s pension (of which I would receive a smaller amount after his death). I feel like I am drowning in fear and resentment. What do I do? I feel like I need to take care of our expenses—what will before long be my expenses—first, but both the girls are very clear about their expectations.

—Drowning in Despair

Dear Drowning,

Let me throw you a life raft. If your husband has a life insurance policy, there is a designated beneficiary. If you are the beneficiary—as I assume you are—then you, not his adult children, are “due” this money. I would not have a conversation with your stepchildren—or stepchild-in-law—about this now. I would simply refuse to talk about it, cutting off any such discussion with, “Right now my only concern is your dad’s health, keeping him comfortable and safe, and doing everything I can for him.” If they press you, feel free to add, “I’m not interested in talking about this” and, if necessary, say goodbye and hang up the phone or leave the room.

It doesn’t matter what these women’s expectations are. I have no idea what your history is with your husband’s kids—I’m guessing it has been to some extent fraught (at least from their point of view)—but it is your husband’s expectations and wishes that count here. I hope you two have wills (if you don’t, please have them drawn up now; I assure you that I would suggest this even if he were perfectly healthy). Every adult with any assets at all (even a “small house” and its contents) should have a will. In the wake of a death, chaos ensues without one. If your husband already has a will, I hope you know what it says. And I hope it says that everything the two of you own is yours after his death. (And if he has a life insurance policy, I would be shocked if his adult children, and not you, were the ones named in it!)

If what you fear is that these “kids” will make demands of you after their father is gone, I would do everything you can to prepare yourself emotionally for this barrage. And if my guess is right, and there is some ancient history that is now being exhumed—and you want to address is it, for the sake of your own peace of mind and the family’s well-being—then it will be your choice to do so. I don’t think money is the way to do that, no matter what is being said. And if money drives your stepchildren away from you after their father’s death, it will tell you more about your relationship with them than you ever understood while he was alive.


More Advice From Slate

I’m a 55-year-old divorced college professor who earns $140,000 a year (plus interest, dividends, and royalties). I have around $3.5 million in investments, home equity, and savings, so I am fairly well off. My 51-year-old girlfriend has little savings, works an hourly wage job, and earns around $40,000 a year (she’s had a much tougher life than me). I would be happy to support us both and would like her to quit working (or work much less) so we can travel more and have more free fun time. But she is worried about losing independence and being financially dependent on me. How do we bridge this?