Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a recently divorced mom to two teen boys. My now-ex and I went through a difficult divorce last year, but after many years of being taken, I’ve started dating again. I met “Jared” at my gym, and we hit it off immediately. Jared is thoughtful, compassionate, funny, handsome, charming, driven, and a total sweetheart. After dating for a couple of months, I decided to introduce my kids to Jared.
This past weekend, Jared and I went with the boys to a baseball game. During the game, I noticed that my younger son, “Max” (13), seemed to get along well with Jared. However, my older son, “Charlie” (16), seemed a bit quieter than usual. After the game, I asked Charlie what he thought about Jared. Charlie said that he got “weird vibes” from Jared. I asked him if he could expand on what he meant by that and he explained that he thought that Jared seemed “fake” and “dead behind the eyes.” I don’t think Jared actually said anything wrong, but something about Jared’s demeanor must have rubbed Charlie the wrong way. Charlie expressed that he doesn’t feel comfortable being around Jared and that he thinks there’s something “off” about him.
I was a bit disappointed to find out that Jared had this effect on my son, and I’ve been wrestling internally with what Charlie said. “Weird vibes” are just vibes, but what if he’s onto something? Could Charlie just have “weird vibes” about Jared because he’s still getting over the divorce and is not ready to see me with another man? On one hand, I want my sons to like my partner, but on the other hand, are “weird vibes” enough of a reason to end a relationship? In light of Charlie’s comments, should I continue to pursue my relationship with Jared?
Dear Vibe Shift,
This is pretty common with divorced parents—especially when the divorce is contentious—where kids will have issues with their parents’ new romantic partners. I think it would be foolish if you broke things off with Jared due to some weird feeling Charlie had during their initial meeting, which, yes, most likely stems from him feeling uncomfortable seeing you with another man.
I think you should sit down with Charlie and ask for more details around his issues with Jared regarding being “fake” and “dead behind the eyes,” because on the surface none of that means anything. What exactly makes him fake? If he responds with, “It’s just a feeling I have” then that wouldn’t be enough for me. He needs to provide something concrete in order for you to look into it further, and based on one meeting at a baseball game, I doubt he will.
On another note, based on what I keep hearing from my single friends, these dating streets tough. If you found a man who checks all of your boxes, why would you even consider giving him up so quickly? You would never forgive yourself if you broke up with Jared, only to have Charlie disapprove of every man you date after him.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep an eye out for any red flags, but you cannot live your life for your kids’ approval. You have every right to date, fall in love, and find happiness in a relationship. It may take time between Jared and Charlie, but if Jared is as great as you say he is, he’ll be patient and let Charlie come to him when he’s ready.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
How do you become a MIL people will like? I’m a mom to two young boys and they are my everything right now. I know this will change as they get older and become more independent. One day, they may even find a partner, get married, and have kids. (Yay!) However, I’m low-key dreading the day I become the MIL, because countless questions on message boards and advice columns are about how much everyone hates their MIL. It’s almost like the MIL is not allowed to be a real person with lived experience; a MIL is to be seen and not heard; a MIL should take up as little physical space as possible or live as far away as possible. The MIL is always too nosey, too opinionated, too loud, too generous, too self-absorbed, etc. I mean, why can’t the MIL just be a human being that deserves love, flaws and all? Sometimes it is warranted and there was real trauma. But many other times I read a post that is complaining about unsolicited advice (you mean trying to be helpful based on what worked for them?), or giving gifts the writer hates (you mean the MIL should have only bought something off an Amazon wish list?), etc.
Many times, I get the feeling that the writer’s own parents or friends could have committed the same sin, yet not have gotten any flack for it. So, are MIL’s supposed to just suck up and have zero opinions? To take direct orders and have zero free agency? On a side note, I have a MIL and I like her a lot. I have a mom that I love. They both take great care of my sons. Sure, they both do things differently than me, but I think my kids benefit from interacting with people with different experiences, rules, and opinions in their lives. I feel like our relationship is a unicorn because many of my friends also do not get along with their MILs or even their own mothers. Help me avoid this fate!
—A MIL Everyone Likes
Dear a MIL Everyone Likes,
I love this question, because after reading this column, you’ve probably noticed that MIL bashing is pretty common around here. I will say that a lot of the bashing seems warranted (as far as we can know from one side of the story), because some of the stuff letter writers report is straight up bananas, but I do understand what you’re saying.
Look, nobody sets out to be the annoying MIL (or DIL—it happens!). But then why does it happen so often? Every situation is different, but the one common denominator I’ve seen is due to crossing boundaries set by the parents. Let’s fast-forward into the future when your sons potentially become dads. If one of their partners tells you that they don’t allow their kids to eat sweets, don’t sneak a candy bar to them under the table. If they set rules for their kids, you gotta follow them.
A secondary problem I’ve noticed is how grandparents act like they know more about raising tiny humans than their adult children do. By the time your sons are hypothetical dads, it probably will have been 25-35 years since you’ve changed a diaper, administered a feeding, helped with long division homework, etc. Approaches to all kinds of things may have changed significantly by then, and you have to trust that the way you once did it may not be the best way at that time. Now, obviously if you saw one of your sons’ partners driving around town with a toddler on their lap, you would need to intervene right away. However, if you see them braiding their daughter’s hair in a way that you don’t like, don’t take it out and do it yourself. Just let them do their thing and let them figure it out as best they can.
This is just a long way of saying I don’t think people are getting worked up about a MIL having a regular opinion that differs from their adult children and their partners. They’re getting worked up about a MIL swooping in and taking actions that contradict the parents’ wishes. Remember, you can’t bring main character energy to your sons’ lives as they try to raise their own children. If you do, your sons’ partners will be writing to me to complain about how much of a pain you are, and nobody wants that.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Our town, quite multiracial, has had many racial incidents, including two that included our Muslim family, which were really crappy. However, this time, my younger brother and a friend (Latino) of his, both in middle school, called a Black student a “monkey.” We are literally appalled and other than flipping out at him, and him apologizing in person to the student, what else is there to do? The one thing that he did before we had even found out was that he actually apologized to the girl online; we hope that means he internally understood what he did was horrible. Most of the advice about this topic is geared towards little kids, and towards white families, but what advice do you have for middle school-age kids?
—Embarrassed and Shocked
Dear Embarrassed and Shocked,
As a Black man in America, I can’t say that I’m shocked or appalled by this—but I’m glad that at least your brother apologized for his outburst of his own volition. I’m also an anti-racism facilitator for corporations and schools, so I handle issues like these for a living.
First off, it starts with education, because in my experience with young people, racism and ignorance go hand in hand. If kids learn at a young age about the horrific anti-Black racism that stains America’s history, they will grow up to be more empathetic to what people like me go through on a daily basis. With more empathy comes kindness, and with more kindness, racism starts to die. (However, if you’re a fan of white supremacy, you’ll rewrite history to say that Black people found slavery beneficial, like they’re currently doing in middle schools in Florida. I don’t need to tell you how that’s going to play out.)
You’ll find more tips in one of my recent columns, and I suggest you check them out. In the meantime, I also think your parents and your brother should visit the person’s home and apologize together. There’s something powerful about a parent accompanying a minor child when they make an error like this, because it shows everyone involved that the parents are against this, too.
Maybe I’m desensitized because of who I am and what I’ve experienced, but I’ll say that this incident probably isn’t an indictment of your brother’s character. He’ll recover and do better, but the main goal is that he’s properly educated before it’s too late. Because as Frederick Douglass once said, “It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a dad to two boys (13 and 11), and I just divorced their mother a couple of months ago. We’re currently all still living in the same house together, but I’m going to move out at the end of the calendar year. I’m writing because I know that my ex-wife has poisoned the mind of my oldest son to the point where he barely talks to me and meanwhile gushes over his mom. It breaks my heart because I’ve been a great dad to my kids, and I would never resort to these tactics. How should I handle this? Should I confront my ex? Should I take the high road? By the way, I know she’s trashing me because two of our mutual friends told me and my youngest son did as well.
Dear Isolated Dad,
Parental alienation during a divorce is awful, and my heart goes out to you for having to deal with it firsthand. I’ve seen this play out so many times, and it’s straight up despicable and immature to include children in adult problems. I’m not a family law attorney, but I think you should seek the counsel of one, because you could take her to court over this depending on where you happen to live.
That said, I’m glad you mentioned that you would never resort to these tactics, because it will only hurt you in the long run. You may despise your ex, but if you keep those feelings to yourself (or at least away from your kids), it will help them to manage their new normal in a healthy way. Not to mention, your ex may think she’s winning by dragging you through the mud, but when your kids become adults, they will resent her for treating you this way. Again, I’ve seen this movie so many times before where the trash-talking parent barely has a relationship with their adult kids while the parent who took the high road enjoys a great relationship with them and any grandkids.
I’m not saying you should just sit back and do nothing. You should reassure your kids that you will always love them, be there for them, and support them throughout life. No matter what happens, never stoop to bashing your ex to them, and know that you’ll be rewarded later on for it. Last but not least, you need to privately tell your ex to knock it off, but if she doesn’t, be sure to document everything so if you need to take the legal route, you’ll be prepared.
My husband is all the usual things: Smart! Funny! Caring! He has, however, turned into a horrible gift giver. He used to be quite creative, but our lives have become busier as we’ve become older. We have a child, a house, and more demanding careers. I’m not looking for extravagant gifts, I’m just looking for a little consideration and I know he has it in him. For the price of the half-dead grocery store flowers I received on our recent anniversary, I would have loved to have been taken out to my favorite bar for a drink…