Care and Feeding

I Need Some Alone Time

My husband says that makes me a bad mom.

A tired woman, wearing glasses, puts her hand to her head as her kid cries.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Dobrila Vignjevic/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,

I have an 18-month-old child with my husband of four years. Ever since my son was born, I’ve felt pretty desperate for alone time. My husband, however, feels he never has enough time with our son. Now this conflict has come to a head and we’re fighting a lot about it. We had a week of constant family time at Christmas, so the next week at work I took advantage of the lighter workload to work out and get my nails done. He can’t forgive me for this, and told me I was “avoiding” being at home with our family.

His parents (whom I don’t share a common language with) are now staying with us for three weeks, so I took four nights away with a girlfriend at the start of their visit. He says he can’t imagine a world in which he could bear to be away from our son for that long by choice and that there’s something wrong with me for wanting to get away. I don’t know what to do. I feel like I need a break; he feels like I’m not a good mom for wanting one.

To give you some context, we both work full time, but he makes more money and works longer hours. (He leaves earlier in the morning, so I’m solo every morning.) I took six months of maternity leave and breastfed for 15 months, but I did hire someone so I could get out of the house for two hours at a time, three days a week. He got three weeks of paternity leave. Our son is a beautiful, healthy, well-adjusted little boy. What is wrong with me?

—Mom Who Needs Too Much Alone Time

Dear MWNTMAT,

There is nothing wrong with you (except exhaustion, stress, and the bombardment of guilt your husband is laying on you). The question of how much alone time any given parent needs is not for anyone to answer—and judge!—except that particular parent. Your husband seems to think that all mothers, by definition, can’t bear to be away from their young children. This is simply not true. (And I say this with great confidence, although I was one of those mothers. For what it’s worth, I wish I had not been, but we are who we are. Nobody gets to tell us who or what that is.) I will say at the outset that it does seem to me there’s a simple enough solution to one of the problems you pose: If your husband feels he doesn’t get enough alone time with your child, and you are desperate for time for yourself, start taking more of that time whenever you can and let your husband stay with your son when his parents aren’t around so he can get that bonding time in. I understand that this will be impossible during the week, but for God’s sake, start doing it on the weekends! Both days. Every week. And not just for an hour or two, either.

This will kill two birds with one stone (and also allow your husband to put his money where his mouth is).

I am pretty sure this will not satisfy him, though. It sounds like this conflict is a red herring. There is a much bigger, thornier problem here. It’s unclear whether it stems from your husband’s insecurity or his need to exert control over you, but it is definitely something the two of you need to have an honest conversation about. I suspect this is going to be difficult, and if I were you I would bring that conversation to marriage counseling, pronto. If some kind of intervention doesn’t occur soon, I’m afraid that things between the two of you are only going to get worse.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I live close to, and have a fair amount of interaction with, my niece (11) and nephew (7). Recently, my beloved dog died. My husband and I are heartbroken. My sister has reached out to us to offer condolences but with the caveat that she hasn’t told her children about our dog’s death. She wants us to be the bearers of the bad news. My niece in particular is very sensitive and prone to melodrama, so while my sister says she thinks “it’s only right” that we should be the ones to tell the kids, I think she’s just trying to avoid having an uncomfortable conversation with her own children. Why should we have to relive our trauma (and ruin a day with the kids that would otherwise be fun) just so my sister stays in the clear? Not to mention that the longer anyone waits to tell the kids, the worse it’s going to be. What should we do?

—Not the Aunt’s Job

Dear NtAJ,

I am very sorry to hear about your dog. The loss of my own dog was as hard for me to bear as the loss of a human family member, and I know that many people—those who have never had a dog they loved dearly—find this hard to understand. So let my empathy for you be stipulated, even as I say the following:

1) It makes no difference how long it takes before you or your sister—or anyone else you two come up with to have a conversation with these children that neither of you wants to have—tell the children that the dog has died.

2) It may be that your sister is being childish. Surely she has had plenty of “uncomfortable conversations” with her children by now. (If she hasn’t, then there is something way more wrong going on here, in terms of her parenting, than your letter mentions.)

3) It is definitely the case that you are being childish. You don’t want an otherwise fun day with your sister’s kids to be ruined? I suppose if you only saw them once a year, I would be more sympathetic about this complaint, but you’ve noted that you have a “fair amount of interaction” with them. Having a real relationship with another human being means that sometimes it’s not going to be pure fun. And having a conversation in which you show yourself to be vulnerable—distressed, sad, trying to cope with your grief, in need of comfort even as you offer comfort to them—will deepen the ties between you and these children you love.

I get the feeling that all of this is beside the point—that this kind of standoff between you and your sister is old news. Long-standing resentment, frustration, and aggrievement have a way of rearing their heads in inventive new forms, and this seems like an especially potent one. If your relationship with your sister is important to you—and, hell, even if it doesn’t feel like it is right now (because maybe it could be, if the two of you gave it some healthy attention)—it’s time for the two of you to come clean to each other about what’s really going on. You both seem to be using the children as pawns in some ancient battle of wills.

Meanwhile: Square your shoulders and take on the task of talking to your niece and nephew about this death honestly, gently, kindly. It really doesn’t matter who “should” tell the kids. What matters is that someone who loves them, who will pay attention to how they feel when they hear this hard news (yes, even though this loss is much harder for you to bear than it will be for them), has this conversation with them. I would take this a step further and harken back to the concerns I raised in No. 2: If you care about these children, this is an opportunity to make clear to them that there is an adult in their lives who can talk to them about hard things. If your sister can’t step up—now or at any other time in the future—it would be a truly good deed, in the long term, if you would.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I never thought I wanted to have children. One of the reasons for my divorce from my first partner was my complete lack of interest in ever being a parent. I’m a selfish gal—I like to go out and sleep in—and so I moved on to a happy relationship with a wonderful man who was equally uninterested in having kids. And then, a couple of years into our relationship, we went to the ER one morning for what we thought might be a slipped disk and discovered that he was dying of spinal cancer. He rapidly became completely paralyzed. (The spine is maybe the worst spot for a tumor.) Now I am a full-time caregiver to someone who is mentally still my wonderful partner but physically a 170-pound baby. I feed him, clean up his poop, help soothe him to sleep, and then watch him sleep to make sure he doesn’t stop breathing. (Literally: I have to monitor him constantly because the tumor compromised his airway and lungs.) In other words, I do all the stuff a parent would do for an infant but instead of getting a prize at the end of this process—a human being who might be cool someday—I am buying precious time with my favorite person while he dies in agony.

But that is not what I need help with. He and I are doing pretty well, all things considered. I am writing because of this: Suddenly, I want a baby. It hit me fast and hard when I was starting to process this new life I’m living, but it’s stuck around. He and I have talked about it, and he too feels differently about this now. We agree that, given a few more years, we probably would have come around to the idea and tried for a baby after all. I realize that he would have made a great dad. And I’m confident, with the evidence of my new role as Superstar Cancer Patient Caregiver/Home Nurse tucked securely under my belt, that I would be totally fine with giving up my lazy previous lifestyle for the right reason. I’d be an amazing mom.

Obviously we can’t have a kid right now. I can’t care for my partner AND be pregnant (too much heavy lifting involved, at the very least), and I don’t see how I could care for him and an infant at the same time, if he lives long enough. But his cancer is not one that can be genetically passed on. I could get a sperm sample frozen for later, and try for our baby when he is gone (after some time off and some therapy, obviously). Is that a crazy idea? Am I crazy? Is this just my grief talking? Is it monstrous of me to pursue this thought process with my partner? Would it be monstrous of me to raise a child whose father was dead before they were even technically conceived? Am I just terrified of being left alone?

—FOMOmmy Issues

Dear FOMOmmy,

I don’t know any more than you do if this is “just the grief talking” or if you’re panicking at the thought of being left alone. Maybe. But I do feel confident that your idea isn’t “crazy” and that you aren’t, either. And no, I don’t think it would be monstrous to speak of it to your partner. If he is horrified by the idea (and you must be prepared for this), that should be the end of it. But if you and your partner are in agreement about it, you have nothing to lose by freezing his sperm. You very well might decide, after that cooling-off period and working through things in therapy, that you’re not going to make use of it (and I would make no promises to your partner about it). But since you are wise enough to know that this is not something you should do immediately after your beloved’s death, I vote yes on the question of whether it’s OK to have the option. And I offer you my deepest sympathy for the rough turn your life has taken, and my admiration for the way you’ve handled it. Not to mention my congratulations on the discovery that you’ve got way more to yourself than once met the eye.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single mother to a college freshman. She is fully ensconced in that muddy stage of life between being a live-at-home (almost) grown child and a fully independent adult—which means I am fully ensconced in that muddy stage of walking the line between when to intervene and when to back off. I divorced her father 10 years ago. He was, and remains, a verbally, emotionally, and financially abusive person. He was very good at manipulating me into a variety of unfortunate and sometimes terrible situations, and like many people in abusive relationships, for years I believed that everything was my fault. I also believed that his behavior affected only me, not our daughter. I am grateful that I was able to go to therapy and realize none of that was true and I needed to get myself and my daughter out of that situation.

Now my daughter is in her second long-term relationship and I am seeing and also hearing from her some concerning things about how her boyfriend treats her and how she’s reacting to that treatment. He is not overtly abusive, but I am alert to the ways he is mildly controlling: little things like telling her she can’t watch a certain TV show without him because that’s their “couple time,” and big things like turning her appropriate anger at him for hurtful behavior into a discussion about how she expressed her anger in a way that he didn’t care for and forcing her to apologize. This stinks to high heaven to me. It smells like someone who is laying the groundwork for being more and more controlling. I have spoken to her twice about this (both times after she shared with me something they had fought about) and both times she’s assured me that everything is fine. She doesn’t think my impression of his behavior as controlling is accurate.

One of the reasons I ended my marriage was so my daughter wouldn’t think that what her father was doing was normal or in any way OK. I have worked hard for a long time to keep an open dialogue with her so I could help her navigate her life and learn to make good choices—better choices than I made. I am sick to my stomach thinking that she may be on a path to marrying someone like her father. She is in therapy, and has been off and on since the divorce, so she has a neutral party to talk to. But how do I talk to her and share my concerns about what I see? Is this the time to start sharing more specific details about why I divorced her father?

—Not OK in OK

Dear Not OK,

You don’t mention what sort of relationship—if any—your daughter has had with her father since the divorce, so I want to tread carefully here. If the two of them have a relationship and it is a loving one (that is, if your ex-husband is healthy enough to have become a much better father than husband—or ex-husband, for that matter), then I would offer somewhat different advice, because undermining a good relationship between them would be a very bad idea. But if, as I am guessing from context clues, he is not a meaningful part of your daughter’s life, I would indeed be frank with her about the causes of your divorce. She is certainly old enough to know the truth. I would go further and say it is important for her to have this information at this point in her life to help her make sense of her life.

Which brings me to the other piece of this puzzle. You have already expressed your concerns about her boyfriend and she has dismissed them. I think once you have been fully honest with her about why you are concerned, you must step away from this. I know it’s very hard to hear, but you cannot navigate her life for her. You cannot force her to make good choices—and she may have to make some bad ones on her own before she begins to make better ones. Most of us make a number of bad choices before we start to make good ones, and alas, many of us do at least start out making what feel like “choices” that are actually an unconscious acting-out of our own childhoods (and, yes, of our parents’ marriages). If she has all the information that is available, knows that she has your support (and your faith in her!), and has a good therapist with whom to talk things through, you can—you must—let her figure this out in her own time. Trust that she will. You don’t really have another option. (I’m sure you know that if you dig in, she’ll only dig in harder on her end.) I wish you luck and also fortitude. There are plenty of ways that being a parent to a grown child is even harder than being a parent to a young one.

—Michelle

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