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,

After having my third child I’ve been unable to lose some of the baby weight and it has settled, thanks to a serious case of diastasis, in the shape of baby bump. I am asked at least once a week when I am due, whether I’m having a boy or girl, how far along I am or some variation that assumes that I am pregnant. I don’t love these comments but do recognize that my body reads as “pregnant” to many. I have completed months of physical therapy, experimented with various clothing styles and hope to lose the remainder of the “baby weight” when I finish breastfeeding (which has happened with my previous babies) but there will be a bump for the foreseeable future. I have yet to come up with a good response when these comments are made and usually end up stammering and apologizing to the asker.

My main problem is that these questions are often asked in front of my children, the older two of which are very aware that I DO hope to be pregnant soon. Because of multiple losses I don’t usually tell my kids I am expecting until the second trimester and don’t want to have to argue with someone about whether or not I’m pregnant in front of my children while I’m moving through the tenuous first trimester. And yes, about 1/3 to 1/2 of the time when I say I’m not pregnant people push back by saying I MUST be or that I look at least halfway along (people are the worst). What is the best response now and if/when I do become pregnant again? I’d love to stomp and shout that my body is no one’s business but many of these comments come from people I will continue to see and feel I need to be polite to like neighbors, daycare teachers, etc.

—A Bump Without A Baby

Dear ABWaB,

“Please don’t talk about my body.”

Say it with a smile, if you can muster one, but if you can’t, that’s fine, too. If your interlocutor apologizes, thank them, but don’t let them off the hook if you can help it. Let them sit with their discomfort and self-consciousness. Now that discomfort is theirs to deal with, instead of yours, which it never should have been in the first place.

You don’t ever owe anyone an apology or an explanation for how your body looks. Even if you are interacting with people you know and trust and a friend asks about your stomach, you can say “I’d rather not talk about my body” if you don’t feel like getting into it, for any reason.

You can even say a variation of this to your kids, or other people’s kids. “Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes having a big tummy means a person is pregnant, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s never ok to talk about someone else’s body without their consent.”

It might feel hard to be this blunt the first few times you try it, but even if it’s awkward in the moment, I guarantee you’ll feel better afterwards than you would have if you apologized or explained. If someone thinks you’re rude for asking them not to talk about your body but doesn’t think they’re rude for grilling you about the contents of your uterus, well … that is genuinely not your problem! And if your response prompts someone to consider never telling someone they look pregnant ever again, that’s a win for everyone.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We live halfway across the country from my mom, who is retired and well-off; she visits every other month to stay with us for about two weeks to see our 5-year-old and 2-year-old. The occasional free childcare is paradise, and she cleans our house and grocery shops and lets us have date nights. However, my mom is and has always been wildly narcissistic. She frames her visits entirely in terms of her own desire (think “I can’t bear the thought that your children won’t know me”), and interacts with our kids in a way that is designed to meet her needs (“It’s my last night here, 4-year-old, and your tantrum is a problem because I need to have a peaceful time with you for my last night.”) When our kids don’t follow her instructions (increasingly common as they get older), shame and conformity are her only tools (“I am so disappointed that you won’t put on your clothes like I asked.”).  She doesn’t play as a way to garner cooperation, just sits sullenly until one of us “fixes it” or the child is shamed into submission. As you might imagine, this is largely what I grew up with, and it is triggering some stuff for me. I’m dealing with it in therapy, and have been for years, but my question is, do I need to protect my kids from this stuff, and if so, how? Do I send my mom the How to Talk books? Do I need a direct conversation? Is this really as bad as it sounds?

—We Moved For a Reason

Dear WMFaR,

I like how succinctly you’ve summed up your mom’s failings, and I can tell you think a lot about how not to follow in her footsteps. The issue is probably not how to protect your kids. Though it’s excruciating for you to witness how she is with them, it’s unlikely that it’s going to mess them up because she’s not their primary caretaker.  Ideally she’d treat them differently, but regardless of what book you send her, she’s not going to become a completely different person. If you think she is capable of hearing what you have to say and is interested in changing her ways so that she can have a deeper, more sincere relationship with you and her grandkids, then by all means talk to her. But if you’ve pretty much thrown in the towel about her essentially self-centered nature, then what you need to do is mitigate the harm she’s still capable of causing you.

Two weeks every other month is a lot.  The free help is nice, but is it really free? It sounds like she’s using the chores and childcare as leverage to keep your life enmeshed with hers. Hiring a sitter for date nights is cheaper than an extra therapy session (or maybe about the same, depending on where you live and whether your therapist is in-network, but you see what I mean).

Cut back on the visits and weather her inevitable complaints about how you’re keeping her from the children. If you determine that telling her the truth is too much of a hassle with no upside, make up excuses. When the kids are older, if she’s up for it, you can ship them off to grandma’s house and let her parent them whatever mildly terrible way she wants without your having to witness it.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am 6 months pregnant, expecting my first child in October. This will be the fourth grandchild on my side of the family. For my husband’s family, this will be the first grandchild and his sister’s first nephew. His sister is a wonderful person and I know she will be an engaged and loving aunt. My husband and I live in a two-family house and she lives in the other unit, so she will likely be one of the baby’s main caretakers, after myself and my husband.

The problem is, she is against vaccination. She subscribes to the conspiracy theories around the Covid vaccines being part of a population control plot by Bill Gates and believes that they change your DNA. She never gets a flu vaccine, and I would be surprised if she had had a Tdap booster in the past 10 years. What’s more, she’s convinced her father of this belief system, and he also has stopped getting the flu shot and is hesitant to get the Covid vaccine. My husband is not against vaccines, but he is highly skeptical of large, money-making institutions such as big Pharma and he is more sympathetic to their point of view than I am.

I want to protect and advocate for my newborn by requiring that all people who plan to spend significant time with the baby be up to date with their vaccinations—understanding that we can’t control for all people who come in contact with him, but we can control who is in the inner circle. At the same time, I am wary of being overly or unnecessarily vigilant to the detriment of familial relationships. Am I right to be concerned? Or, will the baby be plenty protected by the antibodies that I provide through prenatal vaccinations and breastfeeding? If I do decide that I need to make this requirement of all of my newborn’s caretakers, ideally my husband and I would be in agreement in defining and holding this boundary. But, because he is generally less concerned about this than I am, I know that it would really be him holding a boundary that I defined. His family would know this too, which I am afraid would make me the bad guy. What do I do? Should I set a boundary at all? And if so, how do I best communicate this boundary in a way that makes sense to my husband and his family?

—Vaxxed and Vexed

Dear Vaxxed and Vexed,

The first thing to tackle: your husband isn’t taking this seriously enough, and regardless of how he feels about “big pharma”—a separate issue entirely, but whatever—he probably doesn’t want his baby to suffer preventable serious illness or death because of exposure to your conspiracy-theorist sister-in-law. Get him to accompany you to an appointment where you discuss this situation with your medical care provider. Your husband needs to hear how serious the consequences to your baby could be, not just from COVID but from other diseases your sister-in-law could give the baby, like the flu. Even if you have to be the bad guy or risk alienating family members, your peace of mind is worth it.

You’re wondering whether the small risk to your baby might be worth alienating a family member and giving up free childcare, but think about how much more permanently and irrevocably your family relationships would be altered if your kid became seriously ill. I understand how awkward it will be to keep living alongside his sister if she doesn’t reconsider her anti-vaxx stance. But the fact is that vaccines prevent serious illness, are safe, and do not change your DNA or affect fertility. Maybe if your husband can make it his mission to meet his sister where she is and try to assuage some of her fears with compassion and evidence from sources she trusts, she might come around. If not, she can spend time near the baby after he’s fully vaccinated.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 9-year-old son and I recently had the bonding experience of watching a cult classic together, The Princess Bride. Of course he loved the sword fighting, Andre the Giant, all that good stuff, but for some reason, the one thing that has stuck with him the most was… Princess Buttercup’s aborted suicide attempt. Now whenever anything goes wrong, it’s “Guess I’ll go kill myself…” He’s even grabbed a kitchen knife and held it to his chest when I told him no on something totally routine. I don’t want to stigmatize mental health, I want to take his emotions seriously, but I’m not really sure how to handle this. I’ve been very calm and said “Well, that’s not the best way to handle your disappointment. why don’t you (redirect)…” This has gone on for a while now, although it’s starting to fade out, so I guess it’s just a phase, but how seriously should I take it? And (not really) more importantly, how can we watch The Princess Bride again without setting it off again?!?!

—As You Wish

Dear AYW,

If you have even the slightest reason to suspect that these jokes are the manifestation of any underlying depression, seek professional help immediately. However, absent any other signs of emotional distress, it seems like your son has simply found a very effective way of pushing your buttons. If only he was just doing an annoying impression of Vizzini or Miracle Max! You don’t mention if you’ve had a firm conversation with him about how serious this is? Nine years old is plenty old enough for you to have at least one talk about how this is absolutely not something to joke about. Make clear you’re there for him. And after that, since it’s already starting to fade out, don’t press your luck on the repeat viewings anytime soon. There are other classic films that will entertain you both equally, though it’s true that few are as perfect as that one.

— Emily

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I feel like I am in crisis. I have three wonderful, adorable young children. For years, I have been unsatisfied in my marriage for very typical reasons. My husband and I have no physical and little emotional intimacy, though we do have a low-conflict household. I carry the bulk of the labor in our household concerning all domestic and child care responsibilities, despite the fact that I work full time at a stressful career. My husband is impatient with the kids and does not seem to like being around them. I can’t help but feel I’d be happier divorced. What should I do?