Care and Feeding

My Son Broke His Father’s Spirit in a Wrestling Match

My husband’s sudden coldness is ruining a previously close relationship. How do I get him to snap out of it?

Collage of a father and a son standing next to one another with crossed arms.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by opolja/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Halfpoint/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,

My husband and teen son were the best of friends, getting along so well I sometimes felt like the third wheel in their close relationship. However, a recent incident fundamentally changed their dynamic and has put me in a difficult situation. Much of their bonding has revolved around being athletic, and my husband has always encouraged my son to become stronger. He took pride in his kid’s accomplishments in the gym until the day he found his son had surpassed him in strength. Both of them were wrestling around in the backyard, something they had done since my son was old enough to walk. In all those years their wrestling was a friendly game they played where a much stronger man was encouraging a boy to deal with the feeling of defeat whenever he got pinned.

But then the moment finally came when my son was able to pin his dad. It was of course inevitable as my son got bigger and my husband aged, but I think it came a little too early for a man who always prided himself on his physical power. After that day my husband became stern and even a bit cold with his son, making quite blunt statements about looking forward to the day he moves out. While I think this is a normal attitude (most parents want to see their children leave the nest), it has been quite a shock to my son who has not connected the change in his dad’s behavior to the incident in the backyard. He feels he lost his best friend and instinctually blames himself without understanding the underlying psychology of my husband feeling emasculated by his own “baby boy.”

I expressed my concerns to my husband, but he defensively denied my interpretation without offering any sort of explanation for his behavior. Now I feel torn between a husband whose pride is wounded, and a son who feels estranged from the most important person in the world to him.  I am conflicted in my duties as a loyal wife and a loving mother. Do I tell my son the theory I have as to why his dad is so different, or do I not embarrass my husband further by exposing his frankly ridiculous issues with masculinity?

—Caught in the Middle

Dear CitM,

What in the actual Harry Chapin is wrong with your husband? This is some infantile nonsense. Have another conversation, focusing on his behavior, and make it clear that something has changed, and your son is hurting.

He needs therapy. I doubt he will be open to it, but your job is your son’s emotional health at this time. I don’t think I would mention your specific theory to him until you coax your husband into opening up to you a bit. This has gone on long enough. You will just have to keep pushing until the behavior changes. I am so sorry. This would absolutely infuriate and madden me. Be there for your son, say vague things about his dad being distracted by (waves vaguely at news cycle), and do not stop until your husband gets his shit together.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have been struggling with whether to call my daughter “pretty” or “beautiful.” My daughter is 2 years old, and when I am around her, I actively avoid using those words to refer to her or other people. It feels like I would be destroying some of her innocence by introducing the concept of valuing people’s appearances. One of her children’s books has a scene where the mother dresses up and the kids tell her how pretty she looks, and I make up a different meaning for that page.

On the other hand, I do think she’s pretty, and I want to instill in her a sense of confidence. I know when I was growing up people called me “pretty” in a well-meaning way, and I turned out with relatively balanced views on appearances. I think it’s because my mother also complimented me on other aspects of myself and didn’t overemphasize looks. Am I overthinking it? Should I tell her she’s pretty because I think it’s the truth or keep avoiding it until she starts using those terms herself? If she does start to use it herself, do I still try to not bring it up independently? I do use “pretty” to refer to objects occasionally, so it’ll enter her vocabulary soon. I don’t think we’re at a point in society where I can raise her in a bubble free of judgment on appearances, but how and when do I start to introduce it?

—Paranoid of Pretty

Dear PoP,

It’s fine. We’re in a global pandemic. You turned out great. Tell her she’s pretty and make sure you talk about the importance of being kind and hardworking. I am being concise because we just had a very large earthquake at my house (we’re fine!) and are now (whee!) in official exposure quarantine with our three kids. However, I simply would have told you the same information in a larger paragraph.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband’s large family has regular weekend-long gatherings for birthdays and holidays, which with 16 young children (four of which are mine) proves to be a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. When we arrived at the last gathering over Christmas with our healthy children, I was dismayed when I looked at my niece. Red eyes, one almost swollen shut. I asked my SIL what was wrong. She casually responded, “Oh yeah, she has pinkeye, that reminds me I forgot her eye drops.” Of their five children, three others were quite sick with influenza. They were understandably miserable (coughing, aching, tired). I was very upset because their parents make no effort to prevent the spread. On several occasions I observed the kids coughing over prepared food with their parents standing beside them.

On other occasions I have brought a large bottle of hand sanitizer with me and tried to be the enforcer of cleanliness by getting all the kids to scrub up before meals, but this time I forgot it.

When it comes to things like this I feel very much like an outsider in the family, as they sometimes laugh off the spread of sickness by saying “families that get sick together, stay together.” I think it’s ridiculous, and if you wouldn’t bring a kid to school/day care, you shouldn’t bring them to a gathering. With COVID-19 in the news it has me wondering about the next gathering. Part of me wants to send out an email related to common courtesy and sick children, but I don’t want to come across as an eye-rolling nag. Or do I contact everyone individually before gatherings and make a mental note of everyone’s health status? Please give me some advice before Easter!

P.S. I love your column!

—Sick of Being Sick

Dear SoBS,

I love you too. Do not go near these people for the next several months. Just say no. Tell them you are practicing physical distancing. By all means, drop a CDC link, but I doubt people this careless with the health of others will pay much attention.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband of three years and I are considering starting a family. I have always been on the fence about becoming parents because it is a life-changing experience that will affect our lifestyle and relationship, which is pretty solid. Recently, another big push for me not to start a family is because I despise his family. I can’t stand being in the same room with them for holidays, a brief lunch, or even to make small talk. I do not respect their family values. My husband is aware of this and recognizes they’re a little kooky; he’s always been the black sheep of the family. We manage to keep our distance, which I am relieved about. They also do not seek us out because they are busy with their other kids and grandchildren.

I am worried that if I do change my mind about having a family that I will have to spend more time with his family because they would expect to see their grandchild and spend time with us. I also fear that my husband would want us to spend more time with his family. In turn, this could affect my marriage with my husband. How do I ensure we maintain our distance even if we have a baby?

—Black Sheep With a Baby

Dear BSWaB,

Talk to your husband about your specific concerns regarding increased contact with his family. If you two decide you want to be parents, don’t let some other assholes keep you from doing so, under any circumstances. It sounds like they are unlikely to warmly embrace your husband after a lifetime of being chilly to him, and if you are both on the same page, that is what matters.

You do have to be on the same page, and if you are, you also don’t have to spend a minute longer with his family than you want. This is a great time in human history to avoid unwanted contact with anyone without a lot of drama.

Now, I want you to think about this: If my husband had literally no family, would I want to have a baby? That’s the real question. It will likely provide clarity.

— Nicole

More Advice From Slate

Over the holidays I got engaged. My boyfriend has clinical depression, and the holidays are rough on him. I was going to break up with him, but I held off, thinking it would be easier after the holidays. Then he surprised me—at his parents’ house in front of his whole family—with a ring. I didn’t see how to say no without humiliating him in front of his family, so I accepted. I’ve been trying to break it off ever since, but something always stops me. He had problems at work, and then it was Valentine’s Day, and then he had a medical scare. I keep picturing myself marrying him because I don’t have the nerve to break up with him. He has a therapist he trusts implicitly. Would it be wrong to ask her to tell him?