Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m looking for advice on how to deal with my competitive best friend. We’ve been in each other’s lives for a very long time now (since we were children, and we were particularly close during our mid-late teenage years). We are now both in our early 30s, with long-term partners. In the last few years, it feels like she makes everything in our lives a competition by comparing anything she can. She comes off as envious at times, and I feel like she belittles and patronizes others as a way of dealing with that.
She has an 18-month-old son who, in her mind, is incredibly advanced. I know most parents are proud of their children, but her “bragging” goes above and beyond. He’s just started speaking, but you would think he’s earned a Nobel Prize, by the way she goes on about it to others. Personally, though I’m not an expert, he certainly seems a little “ahead” of his milestones but not in a “child genius” kind of way. She often tries to compare him to my brother’s daughter, who she knows has always been very advanced for her age, and fishes for compliments that they are similar (though they are not).
My partner and I are expecting a baby of our own early next year, and I’m worried about how our friendship will be affected. I already worry that our children will be unfairly compared to each other and that she will try and turn “child-rearing” into yet another competition. I already feel the struggles of maintaining our friendship right now, and I know she can feel that I am distancing myself from her. But at the same time, I don’t want to lose my best friend. When she’s not being competitive or patronizing, she is wonderful, thoughtful, kind, and one of the only people who understands me. And I know she would love on our baby very much (and it sure does take a village!). I just can’t stand how she makes me and my other half feel sometimes!
—Not Sure This Is the Village For Me
Dear Not Sure,
If she’s truly your best friend, then you should feel able to approach her directly and tell her how you really feel. If you can’t keep it real with your bestie, then who can you keep it real with? Personally, parents like your friend drive me nuts. This isn’t the Parenting Olympics! Ain’t nobody getting Gold Medals when kids reach early milestones. In fact, it seems to me that the most insecure parents are the ones who engage in this type of foolishness.
I would start by mentioning how you feel when she goes down this path by saying, “I’m noticing lately that everything is a competition with you, and it makes me really uncomfortable. You know that I’m going to have my baby soon, and I don’t want you to compare your son to our child. I love you so much and I love our friendship, but I can’t be a true friend to you if I don’t voice my concerns. As the saying goes, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ and I don’t want the joy of our lives to be taken away by this.”
Hopefully this will give her the wake-up call she needs. If not, then it doesn’t mean you need to cut her off entirely—it just means you shouldn’t engage whenever she goes down that road. For example, when she mentions how her son is reading Shakespeare at 5 years old when other kids can barely read The Cat in the Hat, just deadpan while looking at your phone and say, “That’s cool.” Eventually, when she realizes that she’s not getting the response she’s looking for, she’ll stop bringing it up. Another option is to continue calling the behavior out by saying, “This is what I’m talking about. I’m happy for your son, but I’m not going to engage in this competitive dialogue. All kids grow up at their own pace.”
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My son’s father and I split a year ago, when our son was 6, after almost 12 years together. The split was complicated but not nasty—I caught him in an(other) affair, and he expressed his desire for a freer life with less responsibility, to party more, and basically the need to escape the pressures of reality. I was heartbroken, but I have always been (too) independent, had existing trust issues, and I was primarily concerned about our son. Because I wouldn’t allow him to stay and rent a room in my house, and he couldn’t fathom living alone, he convinced his new girlfriend to let him move in immediately and moved to her house in the mountains, a few hours’ drive away.
In the year that’s passed, he’s only visited with our son for very short stints (about 6 hours at a time), and only every 4-6 weeks or so. Add to that, he wants us to still be good friends who talk and text regularly, both about our son and about life in general … which is hard when I know what a crap father he’s being, and when I know how easily he uses people, myself included. I’ve made big steps toward setting firmer boundaries, but I have also been trying to keep things cordial to remove any excuses that might prevent him from visiting. I’m torn over whether this is good for my son or not, though—dad doesn’t come nearly enough, doesn’t spend enough time when he does come, but dad and mom still seem friendly and happy, which I think is sometimes more confusing for a child. How does a mom simultaneously foster a relationship between her son and his dad, while also protecting that same kiddo from the repeated heartbreak his dad causes him?
—Co-parenting With Myself
Your primary job as a parent is to protect your child from harm—whether it’s physical or psychological. Personally, I cannot see how this situation can be positive for your son, especially with your ex attempting to be besties with you. To be clear, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to be a complete jerk to this man, but he clearly is not your friend, because a friend (a.k.a. someone who likes and respects you) would never do the things he did to you.
I think you need to keep your ex at arm’s length in terms of what you tell him about your personal life and treat him more like a co-worker instead of a buddy. That means your conversations should center on your son and nothing else. This dude doesn’t deserve to have a window into your life, and allowing him in only serves to make himself feel good, because then he won’t feel like “the bad guy.” As you mentioned, he uses people, and he’s definitely using you. Don’t allow it to continue for another day.
In terms of your precious son, you don’t mention any formal custody arrangements, so I would have a conversation with your ex and tell him flat out that he needs to step up more as a dad and that you will not be able to be responsible for maintaining his relationship with his own son. Maybe that will get him to become more active in his kid’s life, but I think that’s unlikely based on my experiences with people like him. Hopefully I’m wrong. With that in mind, definitely enlist a licensed therapist to help your son navigate this tough situation, and keep giving him all the love you can.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Does divorce really ruin kids’ lives? I’m married to a man who loves me and my 7-year-old daughter more than anything, and he will do what is asked of him, but he’s not a partner. He never holds a job for more than several months, he has no interest in our finances or helping stick to a budget, and he does nothing around the house without being asked first (multiple times, more than not). We’ve tried counseling, I’ve explained the mental load and how tired I am from shouldering everything, but it never gets better. I’m just not attracted to him or in love with him anymore—he’s just one more person whose needs I’m trying to meet all the time. But my friends say divorce is terrible for kids and he’s not abusing me or cheating or suffering an addiction so I should stick it out. He is great with our girl. Is it really better for my daughter for me to stay in a marriage like this?
—Stay or Go
Dear Stay or Go,
The short answer is no—divorce doesn’t ruin kids’ lives. In fact, there are countless kids thriving throughout America with parents that have split up. What messes kids up are parents who are constantly fighting and bickering in front of them, or parents who try to manipulate children to believe the other party is the “bad guy.” As long as those things aren’t happening and each parent can be respectable towards the other while focusing on the emotional welfare of their kids, everything should be ok.
I think the stigma around divorce needs to be changed because it’s not always some horrible event that emotionally scars everyone involved. If done correctly, all parties can move on in a healthy way—and it’s certainly better than sticking around in a loveless marriage with someone you’re not attracted to. Also, I know you know this, but you shouldn’t consider staying just because this dude isn’t abusing you, cheating on you, or suffering from substance abuse issues. That is an incredibly low bar.
You’ve tried counseling and you put in effort to save it, and now you should move on.
He can be great with your daughter without you being married to him. More importantly, you’ll be a better mom to your daughter when you are in a happy mindset as well.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a divorced mother of a 7-year-old daughter. For over two years, I have been dating a wonderful man, who has two children, a 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. We don’t live together. My partner’s kids still seem annoyed or uncomfortable with me. We have tried various family outings to break the ice, but those mostly stopped because of his kids’ heavy activity schedule. We even attempted a week-long vacation, but I left early because the kids were fighting. My daughter makes fun of my partner in an age-appropriate way, but she loves spending time with his kids.
Yesterday was a day off school and I asked his son what his friends were doing that day. He countered “how should I know?” in an angry tone. Then his daughter insisted on speaking to her father in Romanian, a language I don’t speak, in front of me, to keep their discussion private. I was very hurt by both interactions. I know I should toughen up and keep trying with the kids, mostly for my partners’ sake, and that their attitude towards me is probably shaped by his ex-wife, but sometimes building a relationship with the kids feels like filling a bottomless pit.
—Sensitive Snowflake Stepmom
This isn’t easy so I certainly don’t think you’re a “snowflake” by any means. Sadly, this kind of behavior from children happens often when one divorced parent attempts to move on romantically, and usually it’s because of the reason you mentioned in your letter.
If you feel that your partner’s ex-wife is trashing you to the kids, you need to have him step up and confront her on your behalf. The conversation he has with her should involve bluntly telling her to knock it off and stop manipulating the children. Unless you’ve given this woman legitimate reasons why you’re a risk to her children (and I’m assuming you haven’t), she needs to keep your name out of her mouth.
Next, your partner needs to play damage control with his kids by simply stating how amazing you are and how you are not going to ever replace their mother (which is a strong fear divorced kids have). He needs to reiterate that your role is to be someone who helps to enhance their lives, not take away anything that already exists.
Last but not least, you need to have thick skin and continue to move forward by being the best person you can be. That doesn’t mean you should tolerate disrespectful behavior from the kids, but it means that they’re children who are navigating a difficult and scary situation. Give them some grace and know that if the slander from his ex-wife stops, they should come around as long as you’re pleasant, kind, and patient.
My baby son’s first birthday and Christmas are only a few weeks apart. Any advice on how to manage this? We don’t want him to be inundated with gifts for the whole month of December, but we also don’t want him to feel like no one cares it’s his birthday.