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 not attracted to my wife since she had our son two years ago. It’s not that her body is radically different—she’s within a couple of pounds of her pre-baby weight—it’s just impossible for me to look at her and think of her as a sexual being and not just a mom. Maybe part of it is that our son is still nursing and so my wife’s body is literally being used for mothering purposes all the time. Maybe part of it is that her only interests right now are her job and our kid (understandably; she doesn’t have time for anything else). I’ve never found moms attractive in the past. If I thought a friend was cute, the minute she had a baby she became unattractive to me. But everyone said it would be different with my own wife because, of course, we had a history together. It’s not different. I feel like an asshole and I don’t know what to do.
—Mother, Not Wife
Dear Not Wife,
I’m going to assume best intent with you here, since you took the trouble to write to an advice column instead of stepping out on your marriage or complaining on some Reddit thread. I appreciate that you say you feel like an asshole, because, respectfully, you sound like one. But, to some extent, I can empathize with where you are. After my first kid was born, I (a woman and the birthing partner) was the one who felt like my role as mother (and particularly a nursing mother) was at odds with being someone’s sexual partner, and it took me several months to get back in the saddle. So, I do think a kind of mind game can crop up when our bodies are suddenly put to a different purpose than they were before. For some folks, motherhood is a turn-on, for others, it’s a turn-off, and for others still, it’s neutral.
You say that your wife’s only interests are her job and your kid. Really?? I’ve never once met a woman who said, “You know, since becoming a mom, I don’t even miss all my previous hobbies, friends, and social activities. None of them matter now that I have little Jacob.” On the contrary, I have met plenty of women who lament being the “default parent” who is responsible for most of the parenting decisions, household management, and in-the-moment nurturing (despite working full time just like their partner does). I’d encourage you to take a long, hard look at whether you are putting your wife into the “mother” category in more ways than just your sexual attraction. If you think your wife would be more attractive or recognizable to you if she got back into some of her previous pastimes, then good news: that is something you can directly influence today by taking on a more significant parenting role or outsourcing some of the household tasks to a third party! Basically, if you have time for your interests, but she doesn’t have time for hers, then I direct you to these lyrics from Taylor Swift’s latest hit: “It’s me, hi! I’m the problem, it’s me.”
Along those same lines, have you tried to date your wife since becoming parents? It’s easy to get caught up in the daily humdrum of diapers, school parties, and bedtime routines; actively going out just the two of you can help remind you of what you found attractive about your partner.
My next point is something you’re probably already expecting me to say: Get to therapy. A marriage counselor or sex therapist can help you understand and unpack why your attraction has changed and help you and your wife find your way back to each other. This seems especially important since you mention that this has been a trend for you; it’s a pretty misogynistic way to think about women. Tread very carefully when raising this problem with your wife—in fact, try to do some of this work on your own before you burden her with it. I’m sure on some level she already knows something is going on, but no one enjoys being told that they are no longer attractive to their partner; if you don’t choose your words precisely, you risk unintentionally blaming her. Apologize that you are putting her in this position and ask her for help in getting you back on track. This route is going to require significant vulnerability, honesty, and humility on your part. If that seems daunting, think of it as a gift you are giving to your partner, your child, and yourself. Good luck.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a 17-year-old girl who likes to go on walks and bike rides. Normally, I would go on walks with my parents, but they’ve been busy. At my age, I think I should be allowed to go on walks a couple of miles away from home. I live in a safe, suburban city and most of the people I’ve encountered on my walks are dog walkers and young families. My parents, however, refuse to let me go anywhere on my own. My mom thinks that because I am a quiet person, I’d be “easily abducted” and incapable of defending myself. I think she is being paranoid. I’m honestly kind of offended that she thinks I’m so helpless and stupid. While I understand my parents’ concerns, I think they’re being too overprotective. How do I convince them I’ll be fine?
—Stuck at Home and Bored
You are nearly a grown adult, so given your age and (I assume) previously demonstrated sense of responsibility, I would expect your parents to give you some increased freedom. To me, what you’re asking for sounds reasonable. Still, for some parents, it can feel monumental to let your kid—yes, even at 17—out into the world without a safety net. (And if you haven’t been responsible in the past, it’s understandable why they would balk at any free-ranging now.)
Ask them to meet you halfway by compromising on a few criteria. Maybe you can’t walk wherever and whenever you want, but could you agree on specific areas of town or times of day? Maybe you can carry pepper spray and let them track your phone; you could offer to enroll in a women’s self-defense class. As gently as you can, point out that their no-walks rule feels like overkill, considering in less than a year you will be a legal adult who will be “allowed” to walk just about anywhere. You might even point out that by letting you walk with these safeguards now, they’re helping you develop habits that will likely stick as you move into college and adulthood.
You can’t convince them you’ll be fine, but hopefully, you can guide them along the pathway of acceptable risk. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
We have 10- and 19-year-old daughters. My husband is clearly favoring the younger one, to the continuous chagrin of the elder. I agree with him that the older one needs to push herself more and “get it together,” but I don’t agree with openly supporting one while constantly finding fault with the other. Any discussions we have end up in arguments and a general souring of the relationship between all of us for weeks on end, and I’m afraid the eldest will soon choose to move out, just to be away from her dad. She already chose to go to the furthest university she got an offer for, and, were it not for absurd rent prices, she would have stayed there for the summer. It breaks my and her younger sister’s heart. Help!
—Mum’s the Word
Have you ever spoken directly to your eldest daughter about her father’s behavior? You and I can make assumptions about how she feels and what she needs, but it might be helpful to have a sidebar with her about how she’s doing. Share your observations of your husband’s behavior, and ask her how his behavior is affecting her and what she would want the relationship to look like going forward. Brainstorm how you can help create that future she’d want. For example, maybe she wants you to stand up in the moment and tell your husband that his comments are out-of-bounds. Or perhaps the blow-ups you mention aren’t worth it to her, and she’d rather just lie low when she’s home from breaks. Follow her lead and keep your promises to her; asking how you can help and then not doing it is often worse than never asking in the first place.
Meanwhile, you and your husband need to have a serious one-on-one conversation. (If this is likely to lead to another blow-up, choose a weekend where both kids are out of the house for a couple of days.) He needs to understand that his behavior is not only hurting his eldest daughter, but you and the youngest as well. He doesn’t have to necessarily change his opinions about each daughter’s life choices, but he does need to keep more of those opinions to himself. If he can’t change his patterns on his own, insist on couples counseling (I get the feeling he’d be reticent to do therapy on his own) where he can gain some tools to break his bad habits. If he won’t go, there’s no reason you can’t go on your own.
Your husband may be among the parents out there who think that their job is to shape their kids into who they want them to be. Bad news, I’m afraid. We, parents, are more like tour guides than sculptors. Sure, we can nudge our kids in a certain direction, but a lot of who they become is outside our control. (The exception, of course, is abuse, trauma, and neglect, which can have drastic and dire impacts on how a child grows into adulthood.) There is a lot of joy (and freedom) in parenting once you shift your mindset from “make my kid a model human” to “I can’t wait to see who he/she will turn out to be.” If you think your husband needs this kind of mental course correction, try steering him toward this Ted Talk or this article.
Your husband’s relationship with your eldest daughter might not ever be what it could be, but how you conduct yourself will determine your future relationship with her. She’ll remember you showing up for her, so do what you can to be noticeably and proudly in her corner.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m sure this question is stepping into a minefield but I’m at the end of my rope. My sister (36) has a son (6) who is craving attention from her. Normally, I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t tell others how to parent, but I’m concerned about how his behavior is going to look in school and in the future. I don’t want him turning into a brat.
When Thomas was a baby, my sister worked out of the house while her husband “worked” from home. She eventually put the pieces together and realized that her husband was not working, but sleeping, and neglecting Thomas the whole time. (He’d be in the crib for hours crying without his father responding.) She filed for divorce. After that, likely out of some guilt, she became super permissive. Every line she drew, she’d let Thomas push her back. (Think: “If you don’t eat half your food, no dessert… OK, a quarter of your food, well, five bites. Oh good, you had a bite, you can have dessert.”) As this has gone on, my sister has become increasingly disengaged as well. She is constantly texting people with him around. He is difficult to deal with when she isn’t around, and nearly impossible when she is.
This came to a head recently. We were on a family trip to a museum. Thomas was clearly looking for some attention, but my sister would provide a brief reply before going right back to texting. So, Thomas did what he usually does: He threw a giant fit. He refused to move, demanded to go somewhere, and just slumped down in a corner. That got my sister’s attention. She managed to put her phone down enough to try and bribe him into behaving (yes bribe, by getting him ice cream when we were done). Then she engaged appropriately with him. But it took the fit to get her engaged. It is a reoccurring pattern. He wants attention, but the only way he gets it is by having tantrums. His behavior is what I’d think of for a 3- or 4-year-old. I don’t know how he is in school. I would like to have a discussion with my sister about her phone use and her reactions to Thomas, but I’m sure it’s going to cause a big fight between us. I’m not even sure she’ll listen. Is there any somewhat reasonable and neutral way to approach this, or should I just stay out of it?
—Give Him Attention!
As well-intentioned as you may be, this is indeed a minefield you are considering stepping into. I can’t draw you a path to success for this conversation, but I can offer thoughts to mull over.
You don’t mention if you are a parent yourself. If you are not, I would abandon the whole idea, unless she invites the conversation. I am struggling to think of something less welcome than parenting advice from a non-parent.
If you have kids but you also have a full-time co-parent, I would still tread very cautiously. Kids are great, but the conversations, as you know, can be endless, boring, and slow, to name a few adjectives. When there isn’t another parent in the household, they are even harder, because there is no one else to volley with; you are the sole converser all the time, with no breaks and no adult conversation to shake it up. Imagine if your entire socialization within your home was about PJ Masks villains, itchy underwear, whether someone earned dessert, why you can’t watch another episode of Bluey, whether a planet could ever have a purple sky, is there a planet with a purple sky, do you know whether there is a planet with a purple sky, why we have to comb hair, why the town named that street that name… you get the picture. It’s really hard to be that engaged all the time. And she might be taking the opportunity, when you and other adults are around to watch her kid and engage with him, to mentally check out. So, before you do anything, be absolutely sure you are giving her grace, and remember that you are only seeing a portion of her day.
That said, it’s very possible that your observation is correct—that Thomas has learned to throw fits as a means to get his way or get attention. I still don’t think there is a great way to bring that up with your sister. I think you have to wait until she remarks on his behavior in a way that indicates she is struggling. At that point, you can say something like, “Do you notice any patterns about when he does it? Like if you’re on your phone, or out of sight or something?” Asking open-ended questions in a non-judgmental way can be an effective way to point her in a direction—far better, I think, than offering straight-up commentary.
You can also offer to babysit Thomas frequently or host him for a sleepover. See how he copes with the rules or limits that you set for him. If he behaves reasonably for you, then a) that’s probably your best clue as to how he does in school, and b) you can report back to his mom how he did, and maybe she’ll pick up on the patterns. You also get the added bonus of being a moderating influence in his life, if it is needed. Bottom line: No parent is perfect and every parent needs help. But often, the help we need is less about advice and more about support. Be sure that’s where your brain is at as you contemplate your next step.
More Advice From Slate
I have a 16-year-old son who recently obtained his driver’s license. He saved up enough money and, with his dad’s help, got a used car. His dad and I are divorced and have been since our son was 5. Before he got his own car, my son used to spend a couple of nights a week and every other weekend with his dad. I assumed this would continue after he started driving, but it hasn’t. He comes home after he gets off work every night, eats, does his homework, and goes to bed. On the weekends, he’s out with friends. It’s getting to the point where he’s going weeks without seeing his dad, and I’m concerned.