Woman decorating a Christmas tree while talking on the phone, smiling
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AnnaStills/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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,

I’m an almost-30 only child to an overbearing single mom. My husband of three years and I moved this year across the country for work, and my mom has not stopped holding it against us. When I started dating my husband, it was like a switch: My mom suddenly hated him and couldn’t say enough mean things about him. She criticized our decisions on when to get married, even trying to bribe us to pick a later date, despite our having dated for years at that point. Pre-pandemic, she would drive to my house where my husband worked from home, harass him about chores, and leave before I could get home from work, so she wasn’t even spending time with me.

We’ve been looking forward to the natural boundaries of physical space from our move. When it became clear that we would be moving in the fall, I started to prepare my mom. I’ve been planning this move since college, so it wasn’t a secret, but my mom acted shocked or dismissive at any discussion. Finally, our moving trucks were about to arrive, and she still was in denial, so I had to call her and be very direct: We are moving in a few weeks and it’s already settled. She did not take it well.

We’ve been in our new place for several months, and the guilt trips haven’t stopped. She still says that I didn’t tell her we were moving. For the last few weeks, my mom has weaponized Christmas. Every call—and there are a lot of calls, even if I don’t pick up—seems to include the question of when we’re traveling home for Christmas and how we can stay extra-long. We don’t want to travel this year. Any concerns I’ve mentioned about the pandemic, traveling stress, and the expense (and fear) of leaving my dog with a stranger are countered with criticism and dismissed. She sends family group texts of photos of all the Christmas decorations she’s putting up for me. If I don’t respond, she sends texts that sound like there’s an emergency—but there’s not. It’s getting to the point where I want to leave my phone on silent and never pick up.

Twice this week she’s asked if we could just move “home” and live with her. I’ve excused myself from the phone calls after that. I get so angry that I can’t see a kind but firm way of telling her we aren’t traveling, let alone to please let me live my life in a way that I can enjoy our relationship again. I’m seeing a therapist, but we can only do so much. How can I establish boundaries with my mom that won’t ruin the holidays for all of us?

—The Christmas Canceller

Dear Christmas Canceller,

I’m very sorry that your mother has chosen to harass you in this way from a distance. You’ve done nothing wrong by marrying, moving, or choosing not to travel during a pandemic, and she has no right to put you through this. I’m glad that you and your husband now have physical distance from her, at least, and I’m also glad that you have the support of a therapist.

If you have not yet explicitly told her, you can let your mother know that her many angry calls and texts and guilt trips are unacceptable and actively harming her relationship with you. Unfortunately (and I think you already know this), she most likely won’t let up after Christmas. If you want to maintain this challenging relationship, try to set some very firm boundaries regarding if, when, and how you communicate with your mother. Decide what sort of frequency you can handle—one 20-minute call a month? A 10-minute call every two weeks? Texts/emails only?—and stick to that plan. (If there’s another relative you trust on your mom’s side of the family, ask them to let you know if there’s a genuine emergency.) I also want you to know that it is completely OK to take a break from communicating with her, if you need to, for the sake of your mental health and/or your marriage.

You said it yourself: “We can only do so much.” You have very little power to change what she does, but you do get to decide how you will act and how much you can endure. Your mother is the one ruining your holiday, not the other way around, and I don’t think you should feel a moment’s guilt for setting and sticking to whatever boundaries you need where she’s concerned.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is 12, and we adopted him at birth through an open adoption, with the agreement that his birth mom could see him once every two months. We were OK with this and have been doing these bimonthly visits since he was a baby. Unfortunately, he has never really liked his birth mom, and kind of resents her for giving him up. He no longer wants to visit her and honestly isn’t really interested in an active relationship with her, and I don’t know if I want to keep forcing him to have one. However, it was incredibly painful for his birth mom to have to give him up, and I know seeing him once in a while helps her be OK with it. She is the woman who gave my son life, and I don’t want to keep her from any contact with her child. But my son already has some complicated feelings surrounding being adopted, and he’s struggling with it a little more as he’s hitting puberty, and to be honest I think the compulsory visits to his birth mom are making it worse. (Also want to mention that bio dad is not in the picture, and never has been, but my son isn’t too fussed about it.) Should I keep forcing him to visit with his birth mom?

—Now You See Me …

Dear NYSM,

As an adoptee, I can affirm that having “complicated feelings” about adoption, in adolescence and also in every other stage of life, is normal and 100 percent OK. Open adoption relationships are also complicated—and, like all family relationships, they might experience ups and downs, feel closer at times and more distant at others, change and evolve over time. If your 12-year-old said he didn’t want to visit his aunt or grandmother, you probably wouldn’t say, “OK, you never have to see them again!” My guess is that you’d investigate and get more information before making any big decisions. And that’s what I think your next step should be here, too. I wouldn’t necessarily force your son to visit his birth mom while you try to figure out exactly what’s going on, but (assuming there has been no harm or wrongdoing) I would want to do whatever I could to honor that original adoption agreement you made, and avoid a breach if at all possible.

When I checked in with Martha Crawford, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and adoptive parent, she said that your son is probably old enough to have a deeper discussion about these visits with his birth mom and what’s not working for him beyond “I don’t want to go anymore.” Crawford notes, “Kids often say they don’t like something when they aren’t getting what they need.” Are the visits all about sitting and talking in someone’s living room, and if so, would another type of structure or activity be better for him—meeting at a park, having a movie or game night, etc.? Are the visits hard because there are things he hasn’t talked about, and might need to, when it comes to his feelings about his birth mom and her decision? If in-person visits are especially tough right now, are there other forms of communication that would be easier and help bridge any gap between trips?

Crawford and I also think it’s worth considering whether your son might be absorbing someone else’s ambivalence or judgment regarding his birth mother: Adoption is complex, and many adopted kids can tell when others, especially our adoptive family members, want it to be simple. Even if you have never given your son a reason to worry that his relationship with his birth mother bothers or poses some threat to you, pressure can so often come from others; all those ignorant questions and comments adoptees get that can make us feel as though we have to defend or normalize our adoptive and/or birth parents, or choose one “side” over the other.

If you’ve already tried to talk with your son about all of this and feel you’re hitting a wall, consider what other supports are available. Did you adopt through an agency? If so, would you feel comfortable seeking the advice of agency social workers, and/or involving them as potential mediators? (I’d be very surprised if they haven’t seen this exact scenario play out many times in open adoptions.) If you don’t have access to an agency, you could try to find a counselor or therapist to help you all talk through this, although it would be crucial to find one with specific experience in adoption. Ideally, you will be able to talk with your son’s birth mom about this as well—it won’t be easy, but I also doubt she’ll be shocked to hear that the child she placed for adoption has complicated feelings about it (and about her). Perhaps the current arrangement doesn’t feel quite right to her either, and she has ideas about how it could improve.

Of course, there are open adoption relationships that are especially difficult and/or unable to go the distance. Your son’s needs come first, and it could well be that, now or in the future, the level of openness/contact will have to change. But again, if his birth mom has done nothing wrong, I wouldn’t want to make a decision now, while he’s 12, that closes any doors or makes a future relationship with his birth family all but impossible. Get more information and support first, and figure out where to go from there. And in the meantime, make sure that your son has plenty of opportunities to safely, honestly express anything he wants to about his adoption. He might not stay in touch with his birth mother forever, but whatever his “complicated feelings” around adoption are, chances are good that ending these visits won’t just make them go away.

• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an almost-3-year-old son and a 6-month-old daughter. As an infant, everyone in our orbit consistently remarked on what a delightfully easygoing baby he was. He napped when he got tired, slept through the night early, and rarely cried. My husband and I joked that we must be professionals because we never experienced the ragged first year that so many new parents describe. As a toddler now, he’s helpful and sweet and just a pretty all-around wonderful kid.

Enter our daughter. Her first few weeks were a breeze, and I really thought we’d hit the jackpot twice. Around two months, a switch flipped. She cries constantly, fights sleep, and rejects being cuddled. I know that most of this is within the realm of normal, but I feel like I’m grieving the baby period that I loved so much. The first year of my son’s life was the most joy I had ever experienced, but the past few months have been so difficult. I fear that I’m not bonding with my daughter because she just seems so detached from all of us. She wants to be held to eat—that’s basically it.

Do I just need to push through this? Is there a way I can find some joy in this phase? Will I eventually have the bond with my daughter that I do with my son?

—I Thought I Was a Good Mother

Dear Good Mother,

Ah, spirited children. Didn’t your 6-month-old hear that second kids are supposed to be easier? She really should have fallen in line here!

I think you know that your first kid was a bit of an outlier; you and your husband acknowledge that you had it easy with him. It sounds like your second kid is more on par with other, less chill babies—which means that what you’re experiencing with her is totally normal, even though I know it’s hard! Postpartum is rough, and I personally recall the switch from one to two kids being absolutely brutal. No matter how many times you’ve done it before, in a sense you’re starting at square one with a brand-new baby, figuring out their own particular quirks and preferences and needs, because every kid is so different from literally every other kid.

It’s totally understandable and more than OK for you to feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and less than pure untrammeled joy right now. You may end up experiencing great happiness and fulfillment in your daughter’s first year, which would of course be wonderful, but please don’t beat yourself up if this phase is simply something you survive and look back on with little nostalgia. The most important thing to remember is that you love her, and you have many more years to get to know her and enjoy being her mom—this particular phase, tough and draining though it is, represents but a tiny fraction of the time you’ll have together.

A final word: While your signoff might be slightly tongue-in-cheek, it, plus your letter, does have me just a little worried about you. It’s possible that you’re dealing with some postpartum depression in addition to everything else going on. If you haven’t yet, please consider talking with your doctor about how hard things have been lately—again, none of your feelings are wrong, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need and deserve more support. For now, try to believe that you’re a good mom, you’re doing the very best you can, and it is enough.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I were married for a decade and always talked about having kids. I never felt ready, and we were on a tight budget and I figured it would come together eventually. In 2015, when she was 38 and I was 40, we divorced after a kid ultimatum.

Fast forward to today, we’re both remarried, and she has two kids. I try to stay cordial because we have mutual friends, but I just found out she has a nanny! After all her claims that we could “make child care work” on our small budget, she’s using the most expensive option, and all her conversations with our mutual friends about “finding parenting to be incredibly fulfilling most times” are lies—she’s not even the one raising these kids if the nanny has them all day when she’s at work.

I’m so angry at her, and I feel like every time I have to hear about her kids, I get angrier. This is made worse by the fact that I didn’t want to have a “kids?” ultimatum again, so I married a woman who doesn’t want them, but now I think about having a kid every time I see pictures of my ex’s toddlers on social media. I can’t tell whether it’s real or out of jealousy. What do I do?


Dear Conflicted,

I think you need to deal with your anger and unresolved issues around your divorce, not pursue parenthood in a deeply misguided attempt to prove to your ex that you’re “better” than she is at something you never felt ready to do in the first place. Whether or not to have kids with your new wife is ultimately a conversation to have with your new wife, but I’d venture to guess that you probably don’t really want kids so much as you want to judge and show up your ex-wife! You are no longer married to this person. You’ve both remarried. You should not be fixating on her (perfectly fine) decision to pay for child care so she can work, or using it as an excuse to condemn her—something you are obviously all too eager to do. Stop obsessing over your ex and her family, stop discussing her with mutual friends, unfollow her on social media, and deal with your own issues. What you’re doing is really unhealthy and unfair to all involved, and it needs to stop.


More Advice From Slate

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. This wouldn’t be a big problem, except for the fact that we are hosting the holidays this year. My entire family will be with us on Christmas morning.

I’m still smarting from the flowers, and I’m afraid if I open another so-so gift I’ll cry! We are a really close family and they’ll be able to read my face no matter how hard I try to keep it in check. We also are the kind of family that opens each present painfully slowly and ohh and ahh over every one. Should I bring this up with my spouse, and how do I not sound shallow?

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