parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

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 am a single mom to a wonderfully precocious 5-year-old girl. My partner has three children from a previous marriage (ages 12, 10 and 7). We’ve gotten very serious and have discussed marriage in the near future. I love him with all my heart and feel very fortunate to have found love again. Except for one thing. My partner and his children are practicing Muslims. Though I was also raised Muslim, I am now an atheist. My partner knows and accepts my atheism and has no problem with how I live my life. I drink, eat and dress however I like and my ex-husband and I don’t put any religious restrictions on our own daughter. However, out of respect for my partner, I refrain from any activities that could be seen as “unIslamic” (i.e. imbibing, eating pork or wearing “revealing” clothing) when his kids visit. My partner does drink socially but never ever in front of his own children. In fact, no one in his family knows he’s ever touched alcohol!

I have slowly started to lift the curtain back on my authentic self in front of kids by wearing sleeveless tops and knee-length dresses but, eventually, I’d like to eat and drink what I like (especially in my own house!). This is a particularly sensitive topic as my partner’s ex-wife is deeply conservative and would be beyond upset if she caught wind of what I do. It could be perceived as influencing her children away from Islam and cause further friction between the two of them (they already have a contentious relationship as it is). However, I’m becoming concerned with how long I can keep this charade up when we eventually blend our families! When do I get to stop “hiding”? How do I broach the topic of easing some restrictions while his kids are around? How should my partner speak to his own kids about what his religious expectations for them are (despite the fact that he also does things that are considered “haram”). I feel like I’ve dug a hole for myself to keep my partner’s kids and ex-wife blissfully unaware of my true self but I’m ready to dig myself out. Please help!

—Atheist in a (Fox) Hole

Dear Atheist in a (Fox) Hole,

Congratulations on finding love again. That is fortunate. What’s less auspicious is your description of your current situation. You should not have to seek permission to be your authentic self.

You came into this family dynamic as a person who’s made unapologetic peace with who she is. Can your partner say the same?

You shouldn’t have to ask him about easing restrictions on your own behavior, whether his kids are around or not. As you’ve noted, there should be no restrictions on what you can and cannot do in your own home. It also isn’t your responsibility to figure out how your partner should talk to his children about the behavior he, too, is hiding from them. He has to decide how, when, and if he wants to do that. It seems that he’s reluctant to be more transparent with them, as well as with his conservative ex-wife. Why that’s the case is worth exploring before continuing down the path toward marriage. You have to find out for sure that he wants to remove the restrictions that have been in place since the inception of your relationship. If he doesn’t, you have to decide whether or not you can live with that. I suspect you’ve already made that decision.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My youngest daughter “Jade” (she’s 25) was just diagnosed with autism last year. She’s had difficulty with social interactions and some sensory issues her entire life, and I’m grateful that she now has the opportunity to better understand herself in relation to others.

I feel like a jerk for saying this, but Jade’s diagnosis has completely taken over all our family conversations. Jade and her younger brother still live in our hometown; they both moved out but get together with my wife and me a few times per month. We also have a family group chat that’s pretty active. Jade has been unable to talk about anything else ever since she was diagnosed. She keeps us updated all day with updates on her self-discoveries, and she brings any other discussion topics back to herself. Since getting diagnosed, she’s completely disengaged from in-person society: she stays home all day and gets food delivered (she works remotely but is in danger of losing her job because she refuses to come back to work in-person).

I have really tried to be empathetic, but I’m getting fed up. I understand this is a huge, life-changing thing she’s going through, but it’s been over a year, and we all have life things going on too. I also worry that her diagnosis has resulted in her attributing a lot of antisocial behavior to her autism, which allows her a “free pass” to not push herself (which is what’s contributing to her hermit-like behavior).

My wife and I are at an impasse. I’m fed up, and I feel like my wife indulges Jade by allowing her to live in this fantasyland of self-centered navel-gazing and not reminding Jade that other people’s problems and lives matter too. What can I do to help Jade while still ensuring she’s living in normal society? How can I help my family move past this situation?

—Defeated Dad in the Dakotas

Dear Defeated Dad in the Dakotas,

Jade’s autism diagnosis is still very new. For 25 years she’s lived with a condition that fundamentally impacts how she communicates, emotes and interacts with others—and she only realized it a year ago. It sounds like this realization is understandably taking time for her to process. She needs to be able to sit with it, alone, and she needs to be able to confide in those closest to her about it. Her responses to finding out that you’re different than you thought you were for your whole life seem healthy and valid.

It may be beneficial for you and your family to have a consultation with the professional who diagnosed your daughter. You can share some of your concerns with them about how best to balance validating her new discoveries and including her in other family conversations. It may also be helpful to keep in mind that “normal” is relative, even for the neurotypical. Trying to make your ideas about normalcy the standard for Jade is an unrealistic goal.

If I may, I’d like to challenge you to restructure your closing question. Ask not how you can help your family “move past” this situation. Ask how your family can help Jade move through an entirely new approach to her life. The word “situation” implies that this is temporary. It is not. Jade will be dealing with this for the rest of her life. You can expect that you and the rest of the family will, too.

I wish you all well. Especially Jade.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My ex-husband and I divorced amicably four years ago, when our sons were three and two. He moved back home to Australia when it was finalized, and our original agreement was that our kids would spend summer and winter break with him, and the rest of the year with me. But then the pandemic hit, and our kids have only been able to see him once in person since then, as neither of us are very comfortable with international travel right now.

The thing is, I’ve been dating a great guy for the past year, and introduced him to my boys, who get along with him great… and enjoy telling Dad all about their trips to the park with Mommy’s boyfriend. I feel like this has been reminding my ex how much he’s missed over the past year or so, because he recently told me that he doesn’t want my boyfriend acting “like a dad” to them (picking them up from daycare, babysitting them, taking them on outings with me, etc.). While I totally understand where my ex is coming from, it frustrates me that I would be preventing my boyfriend (who I seriously see a future with) from connecting with my sons, who really enjoy spending time with him. I don’t know what reasonable boundary to set here: Should I try to negotiate with my ex and come to an agreement on what my boyfriend can do with my kids, try to find more ways to keep my kids connected to their dad, or something else entirely? Please help!

—International Co-Parenting Sucks

Dear International Co-Parenting Sucks,

As I read it, the only boundary you need to set is with your ex-husband. Why should he regulate your current relationship? Your boyfriend is not “acting like a dad” to your sons. He’s acting like an engaged partner to you. I’m sure you appreciate the hands-on help. Why settle for less of it in order to placate someone who isn’t able to offer it to you? Point out to your ex that all of you—you, the boys, and your ex—are very fortunate that your boyfriend is so willing to step in to assist in their father’s absence.

When international travel is deemed safe again, your ex’s visits with your sons will resume. Between now and then, he needs to get used to hearing about and perhaps even championing your happiness and the health of your relationship. It may not be easy for him to listen to your sons excitedly discuss activities they’ve enjoyed with you and your boyfriend. But if your ex-husband trusts you to raise the children while he lives halfway across the world, he has to also be willing to trust your judgment about who you allow them to spend time with. That includes your boyfriend.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 5-year-old has started to do chores in order to “earn” screen time, totally of their own volition. I think they got the idea by us asking/telling them to do things like, “put your bowl in the sink” or “get dressed” before they could use the iPad. So now, before they’ll do things, they ask us if they can use the iPad if they pick up and put away all their toys or what not. They don’t get an allowance yet, so screen time seems to be their currency. I might be doubting myself here, as my childhood had no chores at all, really, so I don’t know what’s normal. As long as we limit screen time to reasonable amounts any given day, are there any problems with going along with them on this and tying screen time to chores?

—Screen Time is Clean Time

Dear Screen Time is Clean Time,

It sounds like you’re raising an industrious self-starter! We should all be so lucky, especially when it comes to household chores. For now, go with your child’s instincts on this. There’s nothing wrong with reinforcing their idea that labor should be rewarded. Beware, though. This definitely sets an early precedent for parent-child negotiations. At this rate, screen time won’t remain their only currency for long. You’ll both have to revisit this transactional system when stakes are higher or else, in another five years, you may end up with a ten-year-old who expects a living wage for dishwashing and bed-making.  Figure out which household tasks you consider eligible for a reward; not all of them should be. Some things, like cleaning up after themselves, should be daily expectations. You’re already on the right track, setting a reasonable maximum limit on screen time. Continue setting reasonable limits on what your child can expect to gain from volunteering to do more work around the house. It’s important for them to understand that there are caps on labor, as well as rewards. In the meantime, enjoy the lighter domestic labor load.

— Stacia

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