Care and Feeding

Who Should I Love More, My Husband or My Children?

My husband has an opinion.

Collage of a smug man standing next to a confused thoughtful woman over an array of colorful paper tears.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Khosrork and AaronAmat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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,

Can you please weigh in on the subject of “who should one love more” between a spouse and your children? My husband and I recently had an argument (the first of 2020, actually) over this issue. He believes spouses should love each other first and “more” than they love their children. His reasoning is that this love provides the stable base for the family, and our partnership comes before the children.

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Until now, it has been my opinion that a person who puts anyone, even a spouse, before their child is wrong, and I know many moms who would call me a bad mother for sharing his opinion. “No man comes before my child,” so to speak. I did research online and found many articles sharing my husband’s opinion, so I am now rethinking what I originally thought was a no-brainer. I’m incredibly conflicted and confused. What do you think?

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—Who Comes First?

Dear WCF,

It’s a bullshit comparison is the heft of my answer. I think that the love and commitment between myself and my husband is the core of our family, and that, if possible, modeling a happy and respectful and affectionate partnership is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, and letting that slip by the wayside to overfocus on those same children can be a real problem. Someday, God willing, they’ll be out the door and we’ll have each other, and we certainly don’t want to feel like confused strangers.

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That being said, I would expect that in a Deep Impact scenario both my husband and I would save our children before saving each other, and each of us would be equally incandescently furious to wake up alive in the hospital to discover the other had made a different choice.

We love people in wildly different ways. We love our children (ideally!) unconditionally, and in even the happiest marriages our love for our spouse remains conditional, so if you have some extra energy, you might as well toss it in their direction.

Stop arguing about this and just do your best for each other and your children. Life is not a game show where you have to vote someone off the island.

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The dog comes first. That’s my true answer.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I both attend church every Sunday. We are extremely active in our congregation and know the members exceptionally well. Both of us have jobs at church working with the youth congregation. Recently, I was asked to direct a portion of the youth services while my husband was teaching a small group of older children. Knowing that both of us would be very occupied, I asked another member of our congregation if they’d watch our 3-month-old son for the hour that both of us would be busy. It was someone I knew extremely well, and they were still at church, just right across the hall attending a class for adults. My husband, who had already left to teach his class, wasn’t aware of the arrangement and afterward was upset at me for “handing our baby off to a stranger.”

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He tried to tell me since he wasn’t comfortable with it I shouldn’t do it again. I countered that the baby was very safe in the care of a trusted friend, amongst many other adults whom I know and trust, and not more than 100 feet away. I wanted to validate his feelings of anxiety as a new parent, but refused to agree that I would never do it again. It would have been impossible for either of us to manage our baby in that situation, and to me it was a perfect solution. He insists in the future that if we need a “baby wrangler” in these situations they should come with us and be within our sight. He has a history of anxiety for which he takes meds, and to me this is just his anxiety manifesting itself, but maybe I’m in the wrong here for thinking he’s being unreasonable.

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—Is It Me or Him?

Dear Me or Him?

It’s him, I think. The particular situation you describe seems exceptionally safe and I wouldn’t blink an eye at it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take his opinion into account. We have all, I believe, followed the news over the last 50 years and as a result become less trusting of “this lovely person I know from church.”

My answer, in this situation, is that if he is indeed this anxious about your extremely small baby—something so many sleep-deprived, anxious parents can relate to—you should both temporarily scale way back on your church obligations and instead simplify your lives and responsibilities whenever possible. Your husband might benefit from sitting happily listening to the sermon while holding the baby; I am sure there are others in the congregation who can work with the youth group.

I think you can both suggest he speak to his doctor about how being a new parent is impacting his anxiety and validate his opinion by shuffling things about at church (and elsewhere) as he adjusts to your ever-evolving new normal.

Congratulations on your baby.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 4-year-old daughter. My wife and I are trying very hard to foster a healthy body image in her and have always candidly answered (in age-appropriate terms) any questions she has had about her body. The trouble is that she recently discovered that it “feels really good to push on my vagina,” and doing so is now literally her favorite activity. She fortunately keeps her pants on, but there is no ambiguity about what she is doing.

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We have explained to her that vaginas are private and so she can only touch it in private, so now she frequently asks if various situations are “private enough.” She has mostly respected the boundaries we have set, and we haven’t gotten any calls from her preschool teacher, but at Christmas she quietly excused herself from dinner, snuck over to the couch, and started enjoying herself in full view of a half-dozen relatives. Fortunately my wife was seated facing that couch and intervened before anyone noticed, but I’m sure this will happen again when we have guests over. My folks also babysit her pretty regularly, and I have no idea what their reaction would be to seeing their preschool grandchild masturbating.

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She has no concept of sexuality or social taboos. How do we convey that she really, really can’t do this anywhere other than her bedroom without implying that it is shameful?

—Not Now, Darling

Dear NND,

The “in private” line is what I always recommend, and you’re really doing quite well. You’re doing better than the parent of a child of my acquaintance who, having learned the “only in private” line, would yell “I NEED PRIVACY” at the dinner table, expecting guests to clear out of the room so he could get on with it.

Pooping isn’t shameful, we all do it, but it’s pretty clear we do it in a specific room. I don’t think you’re going to give her a complex by making it clear that masturbation is for your bedroom.

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I advise telling your parents about this, however awkward, and telling them your “in the bedroom” policy. It’s very generational, and even though almost everyone masturbates—likely including your parents (sorry!)—their initial reactions could easily revert to whatever they were told as children about “that’s dirty, don’t play with yourself,” etc., and then you really will have an uncomfortable situation.

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Best of luck! And, if it’s any comfort, most parents get to have a variation of this talk and you’re in fine company.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am writing to update you on the letter “I’m Not a Monster Anymore.” The writer, “Owen,” is my adopted son, and he referred to me as “Greg” in his letter. I think Owen must have forgotten that I am the person in our household who reads Slate advice columns and originally showed him this page! I came across his letter last week and ended up crying on public transport.

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I thought you would appreciate knowing that he took your advice and wrote us a letter (with pen and paper, 1800s-style!) in which he apologized for the anger he’s expressed toward me specifically over the years. It meant the world to me. He didn’t end up asking about coming to the meal because I beat him to it and asked if he would like to come when we were having a big conversation about his letter to us—I’d honestly thought he would say no and was thrilled that he seemed keen to come for a change.

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We’ve talked a lot and, after discovering his letter here, my husband and I have had a long talk with him about using kinder language to describe himself and about his place as being very much one of our “real kids.” He was not a monster, for the record—just a handful, and we understood why. Thank you so much for the thoughtful response you wrote to him!

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—Greg

Dear Greg,

Well, I’m crying. I’m sure most of my readers are crying (they were all cheering for Owen). I could not be happier with this update. You and your husband are wonderful parents and wonderful people, and you have raised wonderful children.

I’m maudlin because of the new year, but what a great reminder that people are always more than their trauma, and that love and patience and compassion and more patience can do more than we can possibly imagine. I have so much faith that this difficult conversation will lead to a parent-child relationship in which Owen no longer feels like he’s always the taker and never the giver. Your love and your pride for him is so clear in just these short paragraphs.

I wish you a wonderful 2020.

—Nicole

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