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’ve changed and my husband hasn’t. We have two kids (11 and 7). Our 11-year-old has autism (think Young Sheldon) and caring for him takes a lot of time and energy, not to mention trying to balance love and attention for my 7-year-old. I don’t mind at all, I LOVE being a mother, but my husband keeps accusing me of “being done with him now that I had our children.” I want to do family things, and he wants the carefree partying version of me before we had children. The fact is, I don’t enjoy that scene anymore. Drugs and alcohol throw off my equilibrium (I have bipolar disorder). I’ve done it occasionally for his benefit, but I’m miserable. I don’t mind if he does that stuff with a friend—I’d much rather stay home with the kiddos anyway. He’s unhappy, and I don’t think I should have to change or regress to please him. Is our marriage over?
—Low-key Lady of Party Animal Husband
I don’t think your marriage is necessarily over, but I do think you’re going to need to put some work into rediscovering who you each are as individuals and what you want from this marriage. Reading between the lines here, I’m not sure your husband necessarily wants you to be a party animal; he might just be chasing that magical pre-kid time when he was your focus and partying was the way you connected. That is not an unrealistic desire, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be incompatible with hands-on parenting. Likewise, you sound like you want these years, when your children are young, to be a time where you pour most of your energy into them, and you might not be interested in having a third person to “care for.” That’s also fair, and your desire to focus on your kids doesn’t have to be incompatible with a successful marriage.
I think you two need to have a lot of deep conversations about what each of you wants—both in marriage and in your family of four. It’s entirely possible that one or both of you have changed your priorities from when you got married years ago, in which case you have to rediscover each other and find new areas of overlap between you. You may also have thought you were on the same page about having kids, but you unknowingly had different visions for what that would look like day-to-day. Making peace with those shifts in a partner can be difficult and requires intentional compromise and effort, which is why a lot of folks enlist the help of a marriage counselor. If you don’t go that route, this blog has some tips for trying to come back together, and you can find many more out there.
One thing I do want to clarify, though: Compromise should not mean you using substances just because he wants you to and you used to do it together. That’s not compromise; that’s capitulation, and no relationship should be dependent on those kinds of expectations.
Is it possible for your relationship to change, so that it has room for family focus and adult-only fun? Yes. Is it possible that you and your husband have irreconcilably different visions for your relationship? Yes. But you’ll only know which of those scenarios is true if you put in the work together. It probably won’t be easy, but sometimes the hard things are what bring the most reward. Good luck.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m an American who’s been living across the ocean for nearly five years now, and this fall I’m getting married to my partner (from this country). The country we live in is not English-speaking, and as the wedding date comes closer, my dad is descending into a major freakout that his future grandchildren won’t speak English and will never really get to know him or my mom as a result. I find this kind of ridiculous for a few reasons: I will certainly speak English in the home, my partner speaks English fairly well, and this country starts teaching English as a second language in first grade, just to name a few. Not to mention, it’ll be a few years (at least!) before we start trying for kids.
But none of that matters to my dad, who is already pretty far down the path of this freakout. It was hard enough for him to accept my move here, and he still mentions job opportunities for me stateside when we call. Now it’s going even further downhill. (For what it’s worth, my mom is an ally in this—she thinks it’s so cool that her hypothetical grandkids will be trilingual, and loves visiting me here.) How can I comfort him without going insane myself in the meantime?
I’m trying to figure out where the third language comes from, but I agree with you and your mom: What an amazing skill you’re giving your hypothetical future kids!
Are you certain that your dad is freaking out about the language, or could that be a red herring for a different issue? I wonder if he’s actually more worried about the prospect of you permanently settling abroad, or with someone who isn’t from the U.S. (who he maybe isn’t as close to as he always imagined?).
If you think his mythological grandchildren’s language really is the issue for him, then you and your mom must nip this in the bud. The next time he starts perseverating about it, cut it off. “Dad, we’ve been through this several times and now I need to put some guardrails up. This is where I will be living and raising my kids, and you will have a wonderful and fulfilling life with them. But I cannot keep having this conversation with you. We are officially done talking about it, do you understand?” And if it comes up again, gently but firmly redirect.
Meanwhile, rally your ally-mom to the cause and ask her to actively intervene with your dad. As his partner, she needs to have a frank conversation with him about his behavior. He can worry to her, or to his friends, but not to you. She needs to tell him that if he keeps that behavior up, all it will do is strain your relationship and drive you apart, at which point language will be the least of his worries. From you, this would sound like a threat, but from her, it will hopefully resonate as wise counsel. I hope he takes heed and calms down, for everyone’s sake.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My sweet nearly 11-year-old daughter is growing up! She’s in the throws of early puberty and is learning how to care for her body with things like deodorant and regular face washing. My question is: Do I help her to remove the visible mustache she has grown, which she may be blissfully unaware of? We talk often in our house about, “Your hair your body, you don’t have to ever shave your legs or armpits if you’re not into it.” I don’t mean to deviate from that advice now, but I feel like I want to protect her from being made fun of. I had similar issues as a child, and eventually, I took care of my unwanted stash. Am I putting the cart before the horse? Or am I putting her parachute on for a softer landing?
—A Loving Mom
Just ask her. Presumably, you’ve had other conversations based on what you are noticing about her maturation, whether it’s acne, breast development, etc. While it’s hardly the most comfortable thing for a teen girl’s mom to start a conversation about the specifics of her changing body, it’s also largely unavoidable. Tell her what you’ve noticed about her facial hair, share your own experiences, and ask her what she wants to do. Make it clear that she can take her time deciding, and that she can always change her mind down the line if she wants to. Let her know that while she is always welcome to talk to you about it, this will be the only time you bring up the topic. It can be a brief and casual conversation, but the important thing is to let her drive the (metaphorical) bus.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I (both women) have a minor disagreement about siblings fighting. I grew up as a single child, so I don’t have any prior experience with siblings. My wife, on the other hand, grew up with an older sister and three younger siblings. My wife and I have a 7-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. I’m struggling with when to interfere with sibling rivalry and fighting.
My wife and I disagree about where to draw the line on siblings fighting. My son calls my daughter names like “four eyes” or “idiot” just to get a rise out of her. The kids can easily get into a tattle battle where they list off every single minor grievance they’ve built up recently. They bicker all the time about mundane stuff like which kid gets to sit next to which parent on the couch, and neither kid is afraid to turn things into pushing and shoving (though my daughter tends to start more physical fights). I’m writing this after we went to a restaurant for Father’s Day with my parents, and my son dared my daughter to eat a spoonful of “ketchup,” which turned out to be hot sauce. I thought they were a bit young for pranks, but I guess that’s changing as they get older. Despite all this, my kids have a close relationship. They play together all the time, and I sometimes walk in on them cuddling on the couch while watching TV.
My wife thinks we should just let the fighting slide—she was laughing at the restaurant when my daughter started reacting to the hot sauce, and she rolls her eyes at me when I break up the shoving matches or say something like, “Don’t say mean things about your sister.” She claims that she fought and pranked her siblings all the time as a kid and her parents never interfered, and (except for the homophobic ones) she has a close relationship with them to this day. My wife says since the kids still have a close relationship with each other now, we don’t have to interfere with their fighting. Her parents dispute that they never interfered, but even if they didn’t, don’t we have a responsibility as parents to teach our kids to get along with each other in less violent and mean-spirited ways?
—Siblings Fighting Fight
Different parents are going to have different approaches to a situation like this, but my view is that both of you are half right. It’s natural for siblings to bicker, taunt, trick, and annoy each other. In some ways, this can be healthy, because it gives them a safe space to practice giving and receiving antagonism. On the other hand, sibling conflict can, at minimum, disrupt the whole household and, at maximum, leave permanent scars (emotional and physical). From your letter, I will say I don’t think the latter is a risk here.
I recommend reading the chapter “The Sibling Effect” in NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. In it, they follow psychologist Dr. Laurie Kramer, who studies sibling relationships. She points out that most sibling dynamics are “net-positive,” meaning the sibling angst is outweighed by the positive times together. Her research also reveals that sibling conflict is potentially more complex than it appears on the surface because it creates a kind of yo-yo effect where siblings move apart and come together as they effectively “play through” their disagreements. After reading the chapter, you might not be as concerned about the fighting you’re seeing in your kids.
That said, you’re within your rights to ask for a more comfortable household. It’s probably not realistic to ask for all the fighting to stop, but you could suggest that the one or two most troubling-to-you behaviors be made “out of bounds.” For example, name-calling could be taboo or pranks could be limited to inside the home only. Ultimately, while I agree with your wife that interfering in their conflicts is futile to some degree, you do have a responsibility to make sure things don’t go too far, and you’re allowed to put some guardrails up so you aren’t consistently stressed in your own home.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I had a lovely baby girl this summer. She has different hair and eye color than we do, but otherwise looks very much like our child. She does have one fairly distinct feature that we don’t share: the shape of her eyes. We live in a progressive and diverse city but have now gotten multiple comments about her “insert racist comment here” eyes. The first time, I was so shocked I didn’t even acknowledge it.