If I Have to Watch My Sons Crash Toy Cars One More Time, I’m Going to Lose My Mind

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 a 30-something, incredibly introverted woman who has been blessed with two very high-energy preschool-aged sons. I love them more than life but I feel like a bad mother. They love to play with chasing, screaming, or with noisy, over-the-top toys—with lots of, “Look Mama! See Mama! You didn’t look! Hi Mommy!” Our weekends are filled with non-stop games, adventures, and wrestling matches. I do everything I can to engage with them when I’m home—I work full-time out of the home so I’m not around much during the week, while my husband stays home with them—but I’m so exhausted most of the time that the idea of playing one more round of car crashing or dinosaur stomping makes me want to cry. I’m constantly on during the weekends because the boys refuse to let me out of their sight so my only opportunity to recharge is after they go to bed. My husband is an amazing dad but he deserves a break after being with them 40-50 hours a week so I try to let him rest on weekends as much as possible, but I can’t even use the bathroom without one or both of the boys melting down because I’m not playing with them. I know they miss me during the week (I might not be home during the day but I do bath and bedtime every night) but how do you reason with a toddler that they need to play by themselves for 20 minutes so I can take a breath, chug some coffee, and try not to sob with exhaustion? Books, puzzles, and quiet art projects hold zero appeal.

—Playtime Hostage

Dear Hostage,

Oh man, I think a lot of parents can empathize with you in this letter. And I sense that you know this, but it bears typing nonetheless: You are a good mother, even if you don’t want to watch a dinosaur battle seven (or 17) times in a row.

One thing that has worked for me in the past is interval parenting. I play with the kids, or watch the kids play, for a period of time or for a specific activity, and then I head somewhere else for a period of time or a specific activity. So, you might watch them build and destroy a fort, and then announce, “I’m going to go read the paper for 20 minutes and I’ll be back!” You can use a visual timer so they can gauge your time away and hopefully interrupt less. You can also use screens (I know!) to manage the intervals. I plan screen time for the times of day when I’m most in need of time to myself. And speaking of screens, there is an episode of Bluey (“Sheepdog,” Season 3, Episode 11, on Disney+) where Mum just needs 20 minutes away from the kids; that might be a good one to have on the frequent-watch list so you can refer back to it in conversations with the kids.

Sometimes, we get sensory overload when we have too many inputs coming at us. See what you can do to eliminate a few of those things. For example, wearing noise-suppressing earbuds while you watch an epic swordfight (maybe with an audiobook playing?) or laying on the floor, prone, to play doctor or other games. (This is a great list of lying-down games, which gives you positive sensory input while the kids get to be silly.) It doesn’t stop their play, but it tones your experience down a bit.

Finally, get outside. Many things that drive us batty indoors are far less triggering outside, and outdoor hours are incredibly therapeutic and centering for kids and adults alike—outdoor therapy is even used for conditions like ADHD and anxiety. Maybe you can start a Saturday afternoon hiking tradition! A quick Google search of “good family hikes near me” or the book series 50 Hikes with Kids can give you some ideas to get started. You might find that their rambunctiousness comes down after a few outdoor hours, and at the very least, it might give you an active hobby to do together. Good luck!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have an amazing 8-year-old daughter, Macie. Macie has been through a lot in her life due to a disability that affects her leg mobility; she has had a lot of surgeries over the years to fix it. Katie has been her best friend since preschool, and Katie’s parents are very familiar with the ins and outs of Macie’s condition. We trust Katie’s parents to watch Macie as needed.

A few days ago, my wife was out of town due to a family emergency and I needed to be in the office, so because school was off for winter break, Katie’s parents agreed to watch Macie for the day. Or so we thought—Katie’s extended family was in town and her older cousin Rachel babysat the kids and took them to the zoo. Things went rather poorly at the zoo because Rachel wasn’t familiar with Macie’s disability, and despite being intimately familiar with her disability herself, Macie is a child. Rachel didn’t know what Macie’s limits were and Macie had a false impression that she would be able to walk around the whole zoo. She was pushed past her limits and ended up in a situation where her wheelchair was in the car and she couldn’t go any further on her crutches. Things eventually worked out, but it was uncomfortable and could have been dangerous.

Katie’s parents have apologized profusely and assured us that it will not happen again. My wife still says we should find alternative childcare from now on and not trust Macie at Katie’s house again. I think it’s a bit far, seeing as this is the only real incident we’ve had in the past five years of Katie’s family babysitting—and indeed the family has done very well to go above and beyond to make Macie more welcome in their house (they have a portable ramp and they rearranged some of their house so that their playroom is easily accessible to Macie if she’s having a rough day and needs to be in her wheelchair, and since Katie’s grandma was making insensitive comments about Macie’s leg braces the family have done a lot to make sure that Macie never needs to interact with Katie’s grandmother). This was a serious infraction, yes, but it’s their only one, and they have shown themselves to be trustworthy in the past. My wife and I are now at odds about how to proceed. I’m not saying we should throw all caution to the winds, I’m just saying that we should give the family another chance. My wife thinks that their “mistake” was too serious for us to be able to forgive them.

—Giving a Second Chance

Dear Second Chance,

I agree with you, for a few reasons:

1. Eight-year-olds are in that weird spot where they seem more mature than they really are, and it’s very easy to believe their accounts of events (or in this case, assessments of their abilities)—especially if the believer in question is not an experienced parent.
2. I wrote in a previous column that kids with disabilities aren’t always comfortable expressing their needs to new people. Moreover, they may not even be aware of what to ask for because the adults in their lives are making accommodations before the child even notices.
3. I imagine it’s also easy for an adult to become inured to a loved one’s accommodations, like in Katie’s parents’ case, and forget to explicitly point them out to others.
4. Once you make a big mistake, for which you’re remorseful, I think it’s very unlikely you’ll make it again.

Katie’s family members had Macie’s and your best interests at heart; they just messed up the execution. Now, everyone knows better and will do better in the future. None of us are so rich—nor have enough babysitters in the wings—to dismiss such dependable, accepting, and loving friends as Katie’s family. I understand your wife’s fear (and anger) but I think grace wins the day in this case.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 15-year-old child, “Sam.” My child’s father (“Jay”) and I broke up when our child was only 1. Overall, I find that the two of us co-parent well, despite some frustrations likely on both sides and some distance. Sam lives with me. The problem, however, is Jay’s mom, “Maggie.” She has been diagnosed with bipolar disease and has been known to go on and off her medicine. Sam is also the only grandchild on that side. Maggie spends a lot on Sam, but it’s always been in the form of things like Legos, stuffed animals, and cheap dollar-store things. She has a job, but it is a fairly low wage and she is (as far as Jay has told me) on disability.

About six months ago, we started to get packages, mostly from Amazon. While some were t-shirts, others were clearly more expensive items like crystals and jewelry. Mostly, I just chalked it up to Maggie’s eccentricities. Sam gave away the things they didn’t want, and we went on with our lives. Though the packages come fairly regularly. Recently, on a visit, Sam mentioned this stuff to Jay, in passing. Jay practically hit the ceiling and told me (and Sam, but it was aimed at me) that it was my job to let him know when Maggie starts to send things because that can be one of the signs she has gone off her meds. (I feel like I should also mention that Jay has long used access to Sam as a way to force medication compliance on Maggie. She goes off her meds, she doesn’t see Sam. I live about an hour away from Maggie but Jay lives five and a half hours away, in a whole other state. Jay visits about once a month. I don’t take Sam to visit Maggie without Jay and she doesn’t drive.)

I’ve asked Maggie to please stop sending things that aren’t shirts to Sam because Sam just isn’t interested in it. I get a small, guilty type of email after, the packages slow down, and then she starts up again. Jay now expects me to tell her to stop and to let him know whenever we get anything from her. This puts me in an uncomfortable situation. As Maggie isn’t being actively harmful to Sam, I don’t feel it’s my place to try and control access or tell her what she can and can’t send, especially since my attempts have gone nowhere. She recently sent me a text saying to please not tell Jay about what she sends. What is my place here? This seems like a major issue between Maggie and her son. I’m just trying to do what’s best for my kid, while not hurting Maggie or undermining the co-parenting relationship Jay and I have.

—Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck,

I would find a middle ground that you’re comfortable with. Reiterate to Maggie that Sam is really only interested in t-shirts, but also tell her that Jay is worried about her and asked for your help. Let Maggie know that you aren’t going to send Jay a report of every purchase, but if her spending ever seems to increase significantly, then you will be letting him know. On those occasions, you can again email her to ask her to pull back, and reiterate your agreement with Jay.

Let Jay know the plan, too. If he’s mad and wants more information than you’re willing to report, I think that’s for him to reconcile, or to work with you to find a system you can both live with. Meanwhile, don’t involve Sam, or let them get involved. Although the spending has some potentially troubling origins, it’s also an expression of grandparental affection. Let Sam enjoy that aspect of things while you and Jay work out the logistics.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m 20. I have a 19-year-old brother and a 14-year-old sister. My brother and I both got to the same college but we’re home now for winter break. Our grandma is also staying with us right now because her home needs major repairs. Our grandma constantly criticizes our younger sister by comparing her to me. I’m apparently more traditionally feminine, my sister has a high airy voice and prefers glasses over contacts, and my grandma thinks she looks “like a lesbian” (my sister thinks she’s asexual but isn’t out to anyone but me and our brother). Moreover, she doesn’t believe in my sister’s Autism diagnosis and gets upset that my sister is picky about her clothes, can’t stand certain foods, and struggles to make friends.

Our mom and stepfather really don’t care enough to put a stop to it and just tell our sister to have some grace because grandma is old and just put up with it for the next two weeks. My sister really feels bad about this but she’s indicated that she doesn’t want me to step in. No one except my brother and I has explicitly told her that grandma is wrong and it’s OK to be herself. But I think the message rings hollow when the reason she’s feeling bad is that she’s being compared to me. How else can we help our sister?

—Sad Sister

Dear Sad,

I think you’re off to a great start by supporting your sister in the way she wants—she has specifically asked you not to intervene and you’ve heeded her wishes. While it probably makes you feel powerless and like you aren’t doing enough, you’re respecting her boundaries, and that’s important. (She’s probably afraid of being under scrutiny even more than she already is.)

Find ways these next two weeks to get your sister out of the house. See all the movies, invite her to your friends’ places—anything where she can get a respite. The next time Grandma visits or calls, you can have a proactive conversation with your parents about her unacceptable comments and how you will respond. Unfortunately, if they understand that the othering of their youngest daughter is damaging the family as a whole—and that you’re willing to throw some clapbacks at grandma if needed—they might be more apt to adjust things. You can also arm your sister with retorts to have “on deck” if she needs them.

Meanwhile, I’m not in your home, but I don’t think your support rings hollow just because you’re being praised in comparison. If anything, it might make your words that much more powerful, because it shows you aren’t buying what grandma and others are selling. Find opportunities to demonstrate what you value about your sister—not just refutations of others’ cruelty, but real, genuine observations of your sister’s strengths and merits. And you can check out PFLAG.org for more ways to be a genuine ally and friend to your sister. All my best to you and her.


We found out a few months ago that my husband’s brother and his wife are expecting. For the last couple years, every time we’re together, they’ve peppered us with questions about whether or when to have kids (we have two, now preschool and toddler ages). I’ve been 100 percent honest with my sister-in-law about the realities of pregnancy, birth, postpartum period, and being a working mom. She seemed really on the fence about it all, but I sensed my brother-in-law really wants to be a father. I initially sensed his disappointment when I didn’t rave about motherhood and sort of “sell” his wife on the experience, but I would never do that to another woman.