Dear Care and Feeding,
So, this is a seemingly small thing and it’s going to make me sound like an absolute jerk, but here we go. We welcomed our first baby during COVID, and our family and friends have been amazing. When they couldn’t be here in person, they showered us with tons and tons of baby gifts. What they couldn’t do in person, they made up 1 million–fold in sending things. We were getting care packages, meals, etc., all the time, an impulse I absolutely understand, and the support was both heartwarming and overwhelming. I had a very difficult pregnancy, a nightmarish breastfeeding experience, and a lot of C-section complications. I had PPD pretty badly for a while and was in a pretty dark place. I wasn’t very public about any of it, but it was an awfully hard time. I had only four weeks of maternity leave, and a baby with colic who literally just started sleeping now. I have been waking up at 4 a.m. just to get a little time to myself to exercise, eat, and shower before the day starts, and then I’m off to the races working, caring, cooking, cleaning, etc. I am on my feet until I close my eyes at night to go to sleep.
I have not written a single thank-you note. I know it has been noticed and commented on very unfavorably. I do feel terrible about it. With the sheer volume of stuff we received, and from so many different sources, I did not keep track of any of it while we were in the thick of things. At this point, I have no idea what we got from who, and I also am sure that I missed a bunch of things and never even acknowledged receiving them. I don’t want to make excuses, nor do I really want to discuss publicly how absolutely awful the first few months were, because no one really wants to hear that from a new mom. I am trying to give a few thank-you cards at a time when I see people in person and just chip away at it, but honestly so much of it was just lost to time.
I live in a part of the country where this is a really big faux pas. My partner is willing to help, but fairly or unfairly, this is an expectation that really falls on women here, and so I don’t think that is even the type of acknowledgment they want. I do feel terrible that so many people did so much for us and were met with more or less radio silence, but I just have no idea what to do now. How do I fix this?
You don’t sound like a jerk—you just sound overwhelmed! I’m sorry it’s been so rough. Having a new baby during the pandemic would have been a lot even without the birth complications, colic, PPD, and too brief maternity leave. Of course, sending thank-you notes is a good and courteous thing to do. But when I send something to help or cheer a loved one who I know is Really Going Through It, I never feel offended if a thank-you card isn’t forthcoming. (I also just cannot imagine believing that a thank-you note must come from a woman or it doesn’t count—anyone who believes this is just asking to not get a thank-you card, in my opinion.) It makes sense that the volume of presents you received during such a tough time would make it hard to keep track of everything, and if I’m understanding correctly, you didn’t even ask for all these things; they just started showing up.
I’m no Emily Post, obviously, but here’s what I would do: Email. Limit handwritten notes only to folks who don’t use it (and let your partner help with them!), but otherwise send a brief but kind email to each person who sent anything. Why email? Because you can copy and paste blocks of text but still personalize each one, you’ll have a record of everyone you’ve thanked, and you can also easily attach baby photos, which should help placate anyone who’s not a total monster. If you can remember what a given person sent you, thank them for that item/present/gift card/etc.; if not, you can say something nice but more general, like “Thank you so much for the thoughtful [gift/assistance] you sent. We appreciate it more than we can say.” Add a little paragraph to each email—again, copy-paste is your friend here—about how the baby is doing, and attach a couple of adorable pictures. I hear that you don’t want to go into great detail about your struggles, but if you want people to better understand why this particular task fell by the wayside, you could perhaps allude, more generally, to Going Through It—something like “Apologies for the delay, but between a challenging postpartum and having a wonderful but deeply sleep-averse baby during the pandemic, we’ve just been through a lot.” That’s pretty vague—it could refer to millions of other new parents, too!—and could possibly help smooth some ruffled feathers.
One more option you may not like—though it is one that I myself would feel zero shame employing were I in/getting past a crisis—is writing a group email or text (to yourself, BCC everyone else) sincerely thanking everyone for being there for your family in such a stressful time. And as soon as you get any gifts in the future, fire off an electronic thank-you so at least you’ll know you acknowledged it, and you won’t forget what they sent. Does any of this perfectly align with what our grandmothers taught us? No. But I’m a child of the digital age who remembers how hard postpartum was without a pandemic to deal with, and I really think we all need to learn to give ourselves and others a break, especially after living through the stressful chaos of the last year-plus. Regardless of what you do about the notes, please try to remember that you’re doing your best in a really hard time. That’s all you can do, and I think it should be enough for anyone.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I used to self-harm. I haven’t done it in over 15 years, but I still have scars on my upper arms. I don’t hide this, and my kids are still toddlers so they haven’t asked, but they will, and some of their older friends have asked. What should I say? I don’t want to minimize or stigmatize, and I want to be honest with my kids about my mental health struggles, but I also don’t really want to talk about it at the playground. Can you give me a script?
There’s a time and place for this conversation, and the terms should be entirely up to you. When you don’t want to talk about your history of self-harm, I think it’s totally OK to just give your kids’ friends (or any other nosy kids) a simple answer, something like “I was hurt. It happened a long time ago. The scars don’t hurt me anymore.” If they keep pressing, you can just say, firmly, “I’m not going to talk about it with you right now.” If they accept this, great; if not, repeat yourself, and be ready to change the subject. As you said, you’ll have other, more detailed discussions about this with your own kids when they are older, and when you choose.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m in my late 40s, and my daughter, 24, is home to complete an internship in our area before starting graduate school in the fall. While I had been looking forward to the summer, it has been very rocky, and I am hoping you might have some advice for getting it back on track. Specifically, my daughter is having trouble seeing me as an adult who can do adult things. I raised her as a single parent—her father left to be with another woman when Daughter was very young, and never had much to do with us afterwards—so there wasn’t much time for dating or even my own friends or hobbies. However, Daughter was absolutely horrified that I wanted to have a glass of wine with dinner (just one) on a recent night because I never drank in front of her when she was a minor. She expressed that she was “disgusted” that I went on a date (it wasn’t much of a match and I was home by 9 p.m.). I admitted that I had tried recreational marijuana (legal in our area) last year—more disgust and disappointment, even though I didn’t care for it and probably won’t do it again. She says she “just needs me to be Mom and only Mom” a while longer.
Before coming here for the summer, she had been living in another city on her own after graduating from college three years ago. According to her, she doesn’t drink, has never tried drugs of any kind, and doesn’t date because she identifies as asexual/aromantic. I can avoid drinking and dating for the summer while she is here—this may be the last time she lives with me, and I don’t want it to be a miserable couple months before she leaves—but I do hope she can eventually understand that I deserve to have my own life, including things I didn’t do in front of her when she was a kid. Should I keep talking to her about this, or just let it take care of itself with time?
—Not Here to Be Judged
I’m sorry your summer visit with your daughter isn’t going as you’d hoped, but I don’t think it’s necessary for you to avoid the occasional date or glass of wine just because your daughter has strange ideas about what mothers can do. You acting like the adult you are doesn’t make you any less her mother—moms are also adults! Not only are you all grown up, so is she. This should not be so difficult for her to grasp, even if you did spend her childhood parenting solo and wholly focused on her needs. I honestly think you should do what you want. If you want wine with dinner, have some. If you want to have a social life, pursue one. If your daughter wants to feel upset about your choices, that’s her choice—I don’t think you need to alter your behavior or abstain from absolutely everything because of it.
Hopefully this will get better with time, as your daughter gains maturity and perspective. But in the meantime, you can still try to talk with her about it. Try not to allow yourself to be drawn into explanations or justifications for your perfectly acceptable choices, which you do not owe her. You could start by simply telling your daughter how much you love her and want to have a good visit and a good relationship with her, emphasizing that this has always been the case and will not change. You can also remind her that you’re an adult, one who’s been making her own decisions for a long time, and just as you wouldn’t judge or hold her to account for dating or drinking if she wanted to do those things, you’d appreciate the same courtesy. I’d start with the mildest possible version of this talk, and then if she gets pushy or judgy, point out that you aren’t harming anyone with your choices and you are not answerable to her for them. Let her know that you want her to understand and accept this because you love her, and you very much want the two of you to have a good, mutually compassionate and supportive relationship.
It sounds like your daughter is really struggling with what should be a normal boundary, and she is unfortunately making it your problem. If, after you talk with her about this, she continues to judge and police your behavior—and especially if this escalates—you might consider talking with a therapist, together or just you on your own, to try to figure out the source of her behavior and what additional boundaries you may need for the sake of your relationship.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter’s room is a constant battleground for us. She piles her clothes anywhere. She makes messes and doesn’t clean them up. She leaves garbage on the floor. We don’t expect perfection, but living in squalor is not acceptable. Learning to take care of your things is important for life. I get so upset that she doesn’t care about her own possessions enough to put them away. I refuse to buy her clothes anymore, but even what she buys with her own money, she doesn’t do any more than shove them in her closet and hope I don’t notice. (Even after I organized her closet with every category in a place and she loved it!) We’ve tried cleaning together; we’ve tried making her do it. We’ve tried being strict, and we’ve tried being lenient. We’ve tried consequences; we’ve tried rewards. She’ll get sad, act remorseful, and clean up a bit, but then the mess returns. This not respecting her parents really bothers me. She’s 9, very creative and caring, and I adore her to pieces. I don’t know what to do, and I can’t just “let it go” because no one should live in a pigsty, and I’d hate for her whole house to be like this when she’s older. I just don’t understand not caring about piles and messes and so much stuff everywhere! (Yes, we’ve made her get rid of bags of stuff; she does a lot of projects in her room even though we have a craft room.) Help?
—At My Wits’ End
Dear Wits’ End,
My parents used to have a magnet on their refrigerator that read “Creative minds are rarely tidy!” and I think about this whenever I survey my kids’ rooms. When I started reading your letter, I was kind of expecting you to say that your child is a teenager, maybe on the cusp of independence, and you’re worried about how she’ll cope once she’s responsible for her own space. I get that this is annoying, I do, and it would be ideal if you could see her floor. But she’s 9! She is very much a work in progress, and she still has time to acquire basic cleaning skills.
I don’t think you need to interpret her mess as she doesn’t respect us as parents. Childhood is a series of lessons about how to live, and the trajectory doesn’t always arc the way you want it to, but this isn’t something to take personally! It’s also worth remembering that many people of all ages struggle to stay organized and keep their surroundings orderly, for a whole variety of reasons, and this is neither a moral failing nor necessarily a sign that they don’t respect others. I suspect by now this is so central a source of conflict in your household (you yourself called it “a constant battleground”) that neither of you can keep it in perspective anymore. Your daughter is probably hyper-focused on how bad it feels to disappoint her parents and/or how annoying it is to constantly be reminded to be neater, and you seem to be reacting to the mess by internalizing it as a personal slight, with the accumulated stress response of a thousand prior messes.
You can, of course, keep working on this—both her messy ways and your response to it. If it were me, I’d lean toward a certain reward for keeping her room picked up for a brief and therefore achievable amount of time, and build from there, recognizing that it will not happen overnight, and what you’re looking for is any incremental improvement to celebrate and build on. But I also see the case for checking her room less often, just for a little while, because it is now such a source of stress and conflict, and what may actually benefit you the most as a parent are more breaks in the cycle of obsessing and getting mad over it. You don’t need to be on her about this all the time for her to learn how to clean stuff. At this point, focusing on it to the exclusion of all else is likely making it worse.
Also, buy your daughter clothes if she needs them. Being messy doesn’t mean she doesn’t need clothing that fits.
More Advice From Slate
How do teachers really feel about kids missing school for a vacation? My kids range in age from upper elementary school to middle school. For years, I’ve watched families visit Disney World in the dead of winter to beat the long lines, or take advantage of lower airfare during nonpeak travel periods to head off somewhere warm. I’m envious. I’m a rule-follower and feel like school is school. But I also feel like I may be missing out on quality time with my family. We don’t have a lot of discretionary income and taking a vacation when prices are lower would help us take a vacation we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Is it a big deal for my kid to miss five days of school for a vacation?