My Parents Pushed Their Backwards Beliefs Onto Me. I Won’t Let It Happen With My Daughter.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I have a wonderful 3-year-old daughter, Chelsea. My parents are involved, loving grandparents, but one issue gives us pause. My wife and I both struggle with weight, and we know there’s a decent chance that Chelsea will eventually face similar issues. My parents were less than great on this front when I was growing up: My mom was forever making observations about my body; my dad offered to buy me a car if I lost weight—which I did, so he did—and then threatened to confiscate the car when I gained some back. I think a lot of their behavior came from love and concern, but it felt like bullying, and I would have preferred supportive parents whose affection didn’t seem at all conditioned on my size. My wife and I are trying to be very deliberate in helping Chelsea develop a positive, healthy body image, and at minimum have resolved to never be the reason that she feels bad about how she looks. I’m concerned that my parents will not be so careful (to say the least). Even now, they say mildly problematic things in her presence, like complimenting me for losing weight, which I’m sure they see as kind but ultimately reinforces the idea that fat is bad and thin is good—and that’s not a lesson I want Chelsea to learn from people she loves. As a fat kid, it did me a lot of harm.

I’m really not interested in revisiting this aspect of my childhood with my parents. I’ve made peace with their imperfections, and we have a good relationship that wouldn’t benefit from digging up this particular trauma. That said, I need to set clear boundaries around how they address these issues with and around Chelsea, and I’m not sure how to go about that without opening a can of worms about their own parenting, which I think would just put them on the defensive. Do you have any suggestions? Or do I just need to whip out the can opener?

—Big in Brooklyn

Dear Brooklyn,

Nah, keep that can opener put away—your clutter-free counter space is the envy of many.

You can address this (early and often!) without breathing a word of recrimination about your own childhood. They may make this connection themselves, of course, and if they do, and bring it up, you can tell them what you’ve told me: You’re not interested in litigating the past; you love them, you’re not angry; you’re looking ahead now. Keep your eye on the prize: protecting Chelsea from absorbing their damaging messaging, nipping their expressions of fatphobia in the bud, and making it clear to your daughter where you stand. Given how young she is, the way I’d handle this right now is directly addressing each instance as it comes up, in her presence and instantly. Not by scolding the parent who’s transgressed, but by defanging and trivializing whatever it is they’ve said:

Parent, to you: Look at you! You’ve lost weight! You look great.
You (vaguely, distracted): Huh. I hadn’t noticed. (Followed by an immediate change of subject.)

If you raise your daughter to understand that commenting on people’s bodies is rude, she will be alert to this sort of exchange. At some point, she is likely to ask you, “If talking about bodies is rude, why does Grandma always say things about yours?” Then you can tell her that poor grandma doesn’t understand this, and that she has some wacky, wrong ideas about how bodies are supposed to look—as if everybody’s body is supposed to be exactly the same! Poor, poor grandma. Chelsea may start educating her grandparents herself.

Thus, if (or, to be realistic—sigh—when) they start talking to her about fatness and thinness (“Oh, honey, you’re getting a little chubby, aren’t you!” or, “That’s enough pizza, sweetheart. You don’t want to get fat, do you?”), Chelsea should be able to handle it—or ignore it—herself.  But there’s nothing wrong with your saying, “Please don’t talk about her body. Her body is nobody’s business but hers.” (They will almost certainly respond, defensively, “We’re only trying to help!” Tell them, “But talking about her body isn’t helpful. It’s harmful.”) And if this occurs more than once, sit them down and tell them outright, once and for all, “We don’t talk about other people’s bodies in this family, ever, for any reason. We don’t talk about fatness and thinness, we don’t equate fat with bad and thin with good, and we don’t police what our child eats. Those are our house rules. Please abide by them.”

They will be shocked, no doubt. They may protest. Be firm. As Chelsea’s parents, you get to make the rules. I’m guessing they’ll do their best to follow them, even if they disagree with you, and that they’ll slip up sometimes, as a lifelong habit is hard to break (but a gentle reminder should do the trick). Only if they are hateful people will they insist on pushing past these boundaries you’ve made so clear. And they don’t seem to be. (If I’m wrong and you’ve cut them too much slack, feel free to deny them access to their grandchild until they are prepared to behave themselves.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a fun, creative, and sensitive 5-year-old son. Earlier this month, he had a bad virus and was hospitalized for weeks. He’s (thankfully!) fine now, but one of the outcomes seems to be a lot of unprocessed rage. Two weeks out of the hospital and the most minor of things will set him off screaming and melting down. This behavior is completely new to us (previously he was prone to cry and take some space if he was upset). The sorts of things that set him off are: dinner not being ready, a play date coming to an end, a friend interrupting him while he’s talking. And even when I (his mother) am not the “cause” of his rage, it will often be directed at me.

I wonder if this is because I’m the safe harbor for his feelings or (more upsettingly) if it’s because he views me as complicit in some uncomfortable medical moments (e.g., holding him still for blood tests and the insertion of IVs). His meltdowns mostly (but not always) occur at home, and I don’t want to overreact to what may be a short-term problem as his emotions level out. But I also don’t want to just stand by if there’s something to be done that might help him. Currently, I’m trying to talk to him about his feelings, reiterating my unconditional love, and acknowledging how hard it’s been for him. When he does act out in school, his teachers are being understanding—but I fear that, as time passes, their sympathy will wane. Do you have any advice? Would a therapist be overkill? How long might this go on for? I don’t know any children who’ve had similar experiences so I feel a bit at sea!

—Relieved but Now A Scapegoat

Dear Relieved Scapegoat,

A therapist is never overkill. What would it hurt to have him see a (good, play-therapy-trained) therapist specializing in the treatment of children? Why let him struggle through this on his own, when professional help can offer him the support he needs to process what’s happened?

Sure, he will likely get through this with or without professional help, but bringing a therapist into the mix doesn’t need to be thought of as a drastic measure. At his age, a few weeks is a significant portion of his life. It’s not at all surprising that it’s left him distressed, feeling out of control, frightened, and enraged. And I’m sure he’s taking much of this out on you because he’s too young to fully understand what happened to him, and because even if he knows (because you’ve told him) that you were just trying to assist the doctors and nurses in helping him get better, he still feels that you were “supposed to” protect him from harm and “instead” held him down while needles were inserted. (I know this thought is upsetting for you! I promise, it’s even more upsetting for him.) I’m also sure you are indeed the safe repository for all his feelings.

I think showing him you love him—speaking gently, holding him, soothing him, demonstrating understanding and compassion—is even more important than telling him anything. Offering the space for him to talk about his feelings if he wants to and can, is great (but don’t push it; don’t ask him, again and again, how he’s feeling) and making it clear (not by saying it, but by not punishing or scolding him) that his anger is understandable, given his experience, will go a long way in this instance. But I’d get him some outside help, too, at least for the time being.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a lesbian, married to a trans man. We’re both in our early 30s and have been talking about starting a family for years. We have so much love to give, stable jobs, a home, and community support, and we adore our nieces and nephews, to whom we are godparents. If a baby or three turned up in a basket on our doorstep tomorrow, I would be over the moon. The problem is that, because my partner is trans and because of some other health issues, I would be the one to carry. And I’m terrified.

I cannot get past a firm feeling of “this is not who you are.” I have read books. I’m in therapy. I have talked with friends who have gotten pregnant. I’ve talked with my mom. But no matter what, when I think of myself pregnant and giving birth, I think of my agency being robbed; of becoming someone I’m not; of being seen by others in a way that makes my skin crawl. I don’t have a single positive thought about it, except for the result, which I want very much. I suspect this is partially a gender thing—I’m quite butch and love existing in a state of androgyny—but I know other butches and even trans guys who have gotten pregnant and don’t seem to have all this angst about it! My spouse is not pressuring me in the slightest and I know he’ll support any decision I make. I’ve researched adoption and it seems so difficult to do in anything approaching an ethical way. Surrogacy makes me feel like a coward (should I really pay someone else to do something I can do but am scared of?). I’ve had some initial tests and have every reason to believe I am healthy, fertile, etc. Is ANYONE excited for pregnancy? Is it normal to feel soul-deep dread? If you do feel it, do you get over it? Do you just grit your teeth for nine months?

—Why Can’t I Just Grow the Baby in A Pod?

Dear Why,

I can’t answer the question of whether “anyone” is ever excited for pregnancy itself (but I’m willing to bet that some people must be, because that’s the answer to every question about whether “anyone is” anything). I myself enjoyed pregnancy (which surprised me) and I’ve met others who have, too. But that doesn’t mean that you would, or that you should become pregnant if you hate the thought of it.

I don’t know the answer to whether you’ll get over it, either (though my guess is no—not when the feeling is “soul-deep dread”). And, honestly, I think you know better than to ask if something is “normal.” What even is “normal,” anyway? We feel what we feel, we are who we are.

If you want badly to have a child, but you deeply dread pregnancy and childbirth, then I would seriously consider adoption. Yes, adoption can be traumatic. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done in an ethical way, or that children in need of parents, whose first parents are unable to raise them, should be left parentless. When adoption is child-centered—undertaken by adoptive parents who understand that they will have to help their child in different ways at different ages to understand the implications of having been adopted; who support their curiosity about, and relationships with, their first parents; who support their racial/ethnic identity, which may be different from their adoptive parents; and who educate themselves (and who will get professional help when/if needed) about helping their adopted child deal with adoption-related loss and trauma—it is not unethical.

Is it harder to proceed with an adoption if you’re aware of how difficult it can be to do it in an ethical way? Yes. But it’s harder to do anything when you are aware of the risks involved than it is to do it with your eyes closed. It’s harder at every step along the way as you face those risks head-on. Harder, and smarter. And better for everyone involved.

If you and your spouse want children, and you are going to be good parents to any children you have, you should have them. But you shouldn’t force yourself to go through the physical transformation—for it is a transformation, which I think is one of the reasons you’re so frightened of it—of pregnancy and childbirth if the very thought of it turns your blood cold. Become a parent in another way. My wish for you is that you do become a parent, in whatever way that you are able to. I’m crossing my fingers for you.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are rethinking a decision we’d already made, because of our worries about how it will affect our children. We have two, ages 6 and 8. Recently, I was offered a new job, which seemed like a good option at the time, but it involves a move and the changing of our kids’ schools. We have been very lucky, raising them in a safe community we like, where our kids have friends and can play freely every day after school. The new school would offer them a great education, but they are in a pretty good school where we currently live. Moving to a new place where there might not be many children around, or not the same opportunities for unsupervised play, is making us both doubt our decision, particularly when we consider our younger child, who has some anxieties but thrives in this setting, as she feels comfortable and confident with all of our neighbors’ kids, whom she knows so well. I am torn. Having to tell my (possible) new employer that I’ve changed my mind seems terribly unprofessional. How do we make these tough decisions? How do we know if what we are feeling is just parental guilt over changing our kids’ lives and fear of the unknown, or if it is a sign that we have realized what we value the most now that we’re thinking of leaving it?

—Wracked with Mom Guilt

Dear Wracked,

I think you are experiencing both guilt about changing your kids’ lives and the realization that what you value most is something you already have. As to fear of the unknown: This is a near-universal fear, and one that we overcome when we forge ahead with something we recognize as worth it.

The question is: Is this move worth it? For a much better job—one that will be more fulfilling, increase your family’s financial security, and otherwise be a significant step forward in your life—it might be. Might be. It would still be worth considering the balance of losses and gains. But this job doesn’t seem, as you’ve described it (rather tepidly) to meet that standard. It seemed like “a good option”—that’s all. If your current job meets your needs, and your kids are happy where they are, what’s the point of taking the new job? Sometimes we feel as if moving on for the sake of it is important—that if there is an opportunity to make a move, we have a moral imperative to make it. But we don’t. My guess is that you leapt at the offer without fully thinking it through. Now you have, and it has occurred to you that maybe you don’t need to change jobs, at least not right now.

I came close, once, to leaving my teaching position for one at another institution that beckoned (and there were some good reasons to do it, including its location—much nearer to the place I still considered home—and some I concluded were silly—i.e., I was flattered by the offer, from a fancier, more elite college than mine), but in the end I decided that I wanted my (anxious, sensitive) child to have something neither my husband nor I had had: a whole childhood in one place, in the same house. I have never, not for an instant, regretted that decision.

It’s not a bad thing to put your children’s needs ahead of other considerations. If you believe that it’s better for them to stay put, and you’re not wildly excited about the opportunities the new job represents, then listen to your instincts. It’s not unprofessional to change your mind as long as you handle the delivery of this news in a professional way. Begin with, “Please know that I am very grateful for your offer,” and toss in “upon further thought,” “alas,” and “what’s best for my family.”

And don’t let anybody tell you that you’re “caving” to “parental guilt.” Parents are supposed to consider the well-being of their children when they make decisions. It’s part of the job of being a parent.

—Michelle

My 7-year-old’s father (my ex-husband) grew up amongst outgoing friends who constantly interrupted, talked over one another, competed for the wittiest remark, and thought nothing of all of it. Even now, as an adult, these are the type of friends he’s drawn to, which has resulted in him thinking this is “normal” behavior.