Care and Feeding

When Our Household Get Sick, My Husband Expects Me to Do All the Work

How do I convince him that, even though I am less prone to illness, he still has to help take care of the kids?

Collage of a sick man on a couch with a woman caring for a boy in front.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by LENblR/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Huntstock/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’m a stay-at-home mom, and my husband works outside the home. We have three kids and obviously we all sometimes get sick. However, for some reason (*cough* I wash my hands and he doesn’t *cough*) I usually seem to get a much milder case of whatever bug we’re all dealing with than my husband, or sometimes don’t get it at all, leaving me to care for sick kids without any help. I know I should be grateful that I don’t usually get as sick, but being under the weather and nursing sick babies while my husband sleeps all day is hard. I usually end up completely run down, exhausted, and sometimes even depressed.

Recently, we all got the flu, and this time I did get it pretty bad. My husband was still recovering, and the baby was still sick so my mom had to come stay with us for a while … and then she got it. My husband and I talked after we were all healthy about how we could better handle a house full of sick people and, uncharacteristically, we didn’t come to a great resolution. I’m tired of not being able to get significant rest time when I’m ill and being on my own with sick kids, so I think we should rely on help from family more and also that my husband should accept that being sick as a parent isn’t the same as being sick without kids. I asked him to really consider what help he could offer me while he’s sick and volunteer it more. I also admitted that I should do a better job of asking him to work from home occasionally when I need to recover from being sick. He agreed on the last point but didn’t accept either of the first two: He thinks it’s out of line to ask family to come help us and get sick themselves and isn’t willing to commit himself to doing more when he is sick. We’re all healthy now but I’m sure the next virus is just around the corner, so who is right? How do you fairly split the work when everyone doesn’t feel good?

—We’re Not at Our Best

Dear WNaOB,

I am always thrilled to hear anyone is out there, washing their hands, which is one of the best forms of preventive “medicine” we have. This may indeed help account for the times you manage to avoid the bug entirely but can have no possible relationship to the times you just have milder symptoms than your less fortunate family members.

Every illness is different. So is what “doing more” can mean. I’m glad you are on the same page about him working from home more frequently while you are recovering; I am not sure why it hinges on you asking as opposed to him making the decision based on the situation, but if that’s what it takes, fine.

On the family question, I’m torn. I would not ask an older relative to risk the seasonal flu, if at all possible. For minor bugs, if you are extremely honest that you are floundering and need a second pair of hands and that those hands may wind up catching whatever illness the family has, people can make their own informed decision about helping.

Sometimes everyone is sick at once. One of the worst parts of being a parent is not being able to retreat to the couch with a Gatorade, regardless of how terrible you feel, because a child needs you to hold their hair back or heat up some soup. It’s a good time to rely on food delivery for a short period (if anyone actually feels like eating), and I recommend having basic sickness prep ready to roll (children’s cold medicine to bring down fevers and help with sleep, Pedialyte, extra mattress protectors under extra fresh sheets so you can just yank off the soiled top set and have a pre-made bed ready to go, etc.)

You and your husband are not going to solve for all time the “but I’M sicker when I’m sick” argument. You do need to ask for what you need and to be specific with what those needs are. “Can you please switch the laundry to the dryer? Can you load the dishwasher? Can you bring home saltines and ginger ale?” It seems as though communication in your household has become contentious and now carries the weight of grievances from Ghosts of Seasonal Flu Past. He thinks you’re telling him he’s a malingerer, you’re drowning in gross tissues, etc. Please try to strip emotion out of these interactions whenever possible. Fake it like you’re on a team until you’re actually on a team here.

Also, I hesitate to tell a grown man to wash his hands during cold and flu season, but if he hasn’t grasped the repeated and unpleasant cause and effect at play here, you have my permission to tell him a professional advice columnist thinks he’s being a real tool.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have seen a similar question from the perspective of servers and owners, but I am looking for your opinion on when your friend’s kid is misbehaving.

My husband has two friends that frequently come to our small resort town for visits. They have a 3-year-old and another on the way. We have an 8-year-old. There are always dinner plans involved when they come, but there are few child-friendly restaurants among the more popular spots that out-of-town friends enjoy visiting. That being said, their 3-year-old is the worst behaved child I have witnessed in public. They refuse to stop him from doing anything he wants and give him whatever he demands. In a restaurant setting, they let him grab and spill lit candles, run back and forth in front of the kitchen door, leave their sight (think around the corner from our table at the bar), and the worst is screaming loudly for his way during the meal.

Even my 8-year-old is embarrassed. I am so anxious during our meals with them that I cannot enjoy myself. Later I feel embarrassed at the thought of seeing the server again, though we do tip extra. I have suggested more low-key places like Chili’s, but they never want to go there. I would give the kid my phone, but he would break it for sure. Nothing I bring for him keeps him entertained for more than five minutes. How can I extricate myself from these meals in the future? I would like a kind way to explain to them that we prefer to cook for them rather than go out.

—It Takes a Village?

Dear ITaV,

Lit candles? Are you sure they’re not actively trying to get him taken by the state?

No one can make you go to a nice restaurant with this child against your will. You can say, with utter sincerity, “We’re not really up for going out tonight; do you want us to get takeout from that lovely place where young Timothy nearly castrated himself on the fireplace irons, or would you prefer us to cook?”

Being a good host doesn’t mean you have to spend two hours gibbering in horror, being glared at by innocent people just trying to enjoy a nice meal.

Timothy may grow out of this, he may be more ill-behaved in unfamiliar places, etc. That’s their problem. You get to make your own choices about how you spend your evenings.

As to the servers, when you go back on your own, I would absolutely say, “I’m so sorry about last week. Our friends apparently make no attempt to parent their 3-year-old in restaurants, and we were so embarrassed by his behavior. We tipped extra, but we’ll try to keep them out of here in future.” Throw them under the bus with a clear conscience, or you’ll run out of places you feel comfortable eating in your own town.

• 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,

My partner and I have our first baby on the way, and we are very excited. The problem lies with my mother, who is a textbook narcissist, and feels entitled to every aspect of my life. I’ve tried to set boundaries, both gently and forcefully, but usually end up failing. When she doesn’t get unfettered access to me, she gaslights, guilt trips, and yells and screams until I back down. The few times I’ve stood my ground, she stops talking to me for weeks. When she finally comes back around, she acts as if nothing happened, and continues to ignore the boundary I fought so hard to put in place. Every time I attempt to set a boundary, it results in a major meltdown from my mother, who “doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment,” “feels deeply sad,” and “doesn’t understand why I want to cut her out of my life.”

The thing is, I don’t want to cut her out of my life—I just want some boundaries—but the more tantrums she throws, the more I actually DO want her out of my life … for good.

With this pregnancy, as you can imagine, my mother has been all-consuming. Part of it probably comes from a good place, but when she pushes to be kept entirely in the loop on every scan and test and detail and hiccup, I feel I can’t breathe. I share some things, but it’s never enough. I try to deflect her constant stream of questions—by ignoring them if they come in a text or by giving a vague answer if she really doesn’t let up—but recently, I just can’t take it anymore. It’s exhausting fielding all those questions, especially when I’m digesting a lot of new information myself, not to mention getting horribly sick. (For me, morning sickness is more like all day and night sickness.)

Last week, I decided to express how much pressure she was putting me under and how I’d really like to share things only when I feel comfortable sharing. My note was straightforward and polite and left no room for misinterpretation. I hesitated to write it, but felt it needed to be done, since she wasn’t taking my “subtle” hints. I don’t think the message was a mistake, but it did cause a huge fallout. Since sending the message, I’ve been bombarded with her typical spiral of texts claiming that she’s so sad she doesn’t know what to do, that she feels I want to hurt her and she doesn’t deserve it, and that she doesn’t understand my note, could I please call her to talk about it.

My response to this was simple, as well: My boundaries are not up for discussion. I’ve ignored the texts that have come in since, and I know a phone call is just a ploy to rope me into a knock-down, drag-out fight that only ends when I admit wrongdoing and apologize profusely— trust me, I’ve been around this block before.

I’m truly at a loss. I need to be able to set boundaries in general, but now that we have a baby on the way, this need is paramount. I see no way to do this with her, as things stand, and I feel an enormous pressure to mark a line in the sand before the baby arrives. No matter which way I slice it, I can only envision a lifetime of battles over her need to have unlimited access to our kid. I’d like our child to have a relationship with his/her grandparents, but it’s got to be on our terms, not on my mother’s. I’d also like to keep contact limited—first of all, because it’s very hard for me to be around my mother and distance is my way of coping, but also because I don’t trust how she conducts herself, and I’m not sure how much of that I’d like my child to be exposed to.

The fact is, if I struggle so much to establish a small boundary now without a kid, how can I establish bigger, more frequent boundaries once our child is here? It seems impossible to teach boundaries to a narcissist, but is there anything I could be doing differently/better?

—At Wits’ End

Dear AWE,

This is exhausting. You have exhausted me. I cannot imagine how you and your partner feel. Your mother is a nightmare. I would not want my children to see an adult conduct themselves in this fashion, by which I mean your mother, but also them absorbing the lesson that if you throw enough fits, you can get what you want.

I know you say you want her in your life, but what you describe is completely intolerable. I’m glad you’re currently holding firm, but I want you to talk to a professional about this relationship. When someone has been setting the tone for what boundaries you’re “allowed” to draw for your entire life, it’s almost impossible to do a hard reset without a really strong support system.

I would take a break from her entirely until after the baby comes. You need it, and she needs to know you can do it. There will be a major extinction burst. You will have to block her number and her email. You may find the police on your doorstep for a welfare check.

When the baby comes, I would only agree to see her at a place where you can get up and leave. It’s a lot harder to shove a middle-age woman out of your home than it is to get out of a McDonald’s under your own steam. If she throws a fit, she doesn’t get to see you or the baby for another three months. She’s acting like a child. You can’t treat her like a reasonable adult.

Frankly, I think you should almost certainly end this relationship, and I think she will eventually drive you to do it anyway. In the meantime, it’s vital that you not allow her to steal your joy in your new baby, or zap your limited stores of energy for the rest of your pregnancy.

No contact. Limited, supervised, outside-the-home contact when you are ready (and you need to want to see her, not just feel like you don’t have a good excuse to put it off any longer).

I can tell you’ve worked hard to get to your current level of backbone. Don’t let yourself regress. Please keep me posted.

Can You Work With Kids, Have Your Own, and Still Remain Sane?

Dan Kois and Jamilah Lemieux are joined by Emily Farranto on this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My father is unconsciously misogynistic. He paid for both my brothers to go to private school, while I went to the poorly performing public school where teachers may or may not have bothered to show up to class. He has never actively listened to any of the ideas I’ve tried to discuss with him (while my brothers will repeat the same ideas and he will praise their intelligence, causing my brothers to laugh but not call him on his selective hearing). He could probably not name what I studied in higher education nor list how many degrees I have.

I have tried to accept this and love him anyway—he came by his views honestly, as his parents pulled his sister out of school so she could work to pay for his private school as a child. Obviously, his family taught him gender is important. What frustrates me when I am home is that he publicly rationalizes all his decisions with regard to me and my brothers, sometimes outright lying—he told my husband that we lived in a good school district so he sent me to public school but failed to account for why both my younger siblings (male) were sent to a very expensive private school a half an hour away. This makes me so angry, especially as I watch him now question my decisions with regard to my own 5-year-old daughter (who he regularly calls “bossy”) and 2-year-old son (who he calls “henpecked by Miss Bossypants.”)

I feel such rage whenever I am around him now, and around my mother, who, for reasons obvious in her own background, blindly supports his statements and ideas. My brothers say to leave it alone—he’s old; he never listens to me anyway; he’ll be dead soon; but this does not help calm my incredible anger toward both my parents. What should I do to be a less angry person? Talk to him? Find a therapist? Write a rage journal? I am frankly just avoiding him and my mother, which is all too easy given I was never a priority for them to begin with.

—Vexed in Virginia

Dear Vexed in Virginia,

Find a therapist. Write a furious letter and burn it. Do not visit them. Read the previous answer. You are in my prayers.

—  Nicole

More Advice From Slate

My older son wants to dress as the Black Panther for Halloween. He’s obsessed with superheroes (of course) and has heard that Black Panther is undefeatable, and concluded he’s the best one. Is that OK? Like, is it tantamount to blackface, similar but not as bad, or totally different from