Care and Feeding

My Husband Racked Up $100,000 in Debt

What should I do?

A woman holding her head in her hands, looking conflicted
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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 I have been married for 15 years, and we have two elementary-age kids. A few months ago, I discovered, by accident, that my spouse had long been out of work and had hidden this from me (including lying when I asked specific questions). He had secretly opened multiple credit cards (bills only came to his email) and incurred over $100,000 in debt. It’s unclear where the money went.

I’m the primary breadwinner, and with a great deal of help and sacrifice, we have begun financial recovery. But my kids know something was wrong. I had to cancel almost all of their activities and some everyday things (cable), and it was touch-and-go for a while if they could remain in their school and whether we could stay in our house. This was all a total shock.

My husband often prioritized his own activities and interests and let me handle everything with the children, but I knew he loved the kids. It is shocking to me that he was so cavalier with their lives and futures, let alone mine.

I want a divorce. We’ve remained in the same house as I tried to regroup financially. But I feel more secure now—plus, there are signs he’s falling back into old bad habits. I’ve seen a lawyer, so I know what to expect. But how do I explain this to my kids? Before this, we got along well, spent time together, did not fight in front of them, and assured them we would never get a divorce. It’s a lie to say, “I love Daddy, but we can’t live together.” We can technically live together, and I stopped loving him once he betrayed me. But I can’t tell elementary-age kids that their father committed near-unbelievable financial infidelity. The idea of damaging them—or my relationship with them—permanently by a divorce that looks like my caprice is agony.

My spouse does not want a divorce. But living with someone I trusted, who lied to me repeatedly and ruined my children’s stability out of fear and selfishness, is also agonizing. How do I negotiate this nightmare in a way that’s least awful for my kids? Please don’t suggest counseling. I can afford neither the money nor the time.

—Heading for Divorce

Dear Heading,

This is a terrible betrayal. I’m so sorry—for the way you’ve been treated, and the impossibility of keeping your family together as you might have once promised your children. I’m sorry your husband doesn’t want a divorce, because I absolutely think you should divorce him! In part because that’s what you want, and it’s your turn to put yourself first. He’s been terribly reckless—a breach of trust and responsibility—and now is repeating this behavior. However difficult, divorce still seems the best option for both you and your children.

I think it is admirable that you want to protect your children’s image of their father. I also think it’s important to remember that you do not need to justify your actions to your children. It is a sad thing, and something they can mourn, but divorce is more complex than “This is X parent’s fault.” The usual explanations—“I love Daddy, but we can’t live together”—are probably always a lie or only partially the truth. I think it is OK to be less than honest with your kids, especially about something like this. If you cannot bring yourself to say this, that is another matter. You can tell them that divorce is complicated, it’s no one person’s fault, and it’s fine if they have complicated feelings about it because life is like that sometimes.

I think it will be important for you and your husband to present a united front. If you are not going to tell the kids of his transgressions, then he should not tell the kids that the divorce was not what he wanted. Divorce will affect the kids, but it sounds far less traumatizing than your husband’s actions. Alas, no one will know this, and it’s possible the kids (or other people in your life) will judge this as your caprice as opposed to a difficult but maybe inevitable choice.

But I think you truly believe this is the thing you need to do, so you should do it. Talk to friends or loved ones who have gone through a divorce. Talk to a great lawyer. Talk to your kids’ doctor or schools or existing therapists, and if they don’t have that last, get referrals to therapists, should the kids require help working through this. Talk to your husband and tell him if nothing else he owes you the respect of navigating your divorce in a way that’s easy on your children and you.

Finally, despite feeling you can ill afford the time or the money, talk to someone yourself! You deserve to explore all of this—the hurt and confusion—with a therapist or doctor. I know money is a difficult matter, but it is worth investing in your own happiness. You are worth that!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Before the pandemic lockdown, my husband worked full time at home, and I was on maternity leave with our now-6-month-old, as our daughter’s primary caretaker. Prior to leave, I worked at a small business I loved and to which I planned to return. Now I’m furloughed indefinitely and have serious concerns that my industry will be much less viable going forward. My husband’s job and day-to-day life are unchanged.

Prior to having our daughter, we were diligent about sharing cooking, cleaning, and home maintenance. Because he is the sole breadwinner for the foreseeable future and I am unemployed, I have continued to be the primary caretaker. If the baby wakes up from a nap, he waits for me to get her even if she’s crying. In the morning I get her dressed and give her a bottle, and my husband stays in bed because he has to be “on” for work.

Every day I feel more resentful that my husband gets to keep his job and doesn’t have to be in parenting mode 24/7. I’m also feeling increasingly resentful of motherhood in general, as I would not have decided to have a baby if I had known I would have been forced to be a stay-at-home mom. This is making me feel a ton of mom guilt, since I know so many people would cherish this time with their baby. Even when I’m playing with my little girl, I’m so bored and can only think about all the chores that I should be doing.

Like so many parents out there, I feel like I’m drowning. I talk about how I’m feeling with my husband, but there are only so many times I can say “I’m tired and drained. I really wish I could get a break.” He’ll step up help for a day or two, then fall back into the same work routine he’s had for years. I really believe he’s being as balanced between his work obligations and home life as he can, but I genuinely feel this is untenable.

—Spent Mama

Dear Spent Mama,

Knowing that yours is a common experience—especially right now—won’t save you from drowning, but it’s important to remember. These are extraordinarily weird times!

For starters, I think it’s completely natural that you’d resent your husband right now. Your maternity leave (really a tour of duty) turned into a forced furlough, preventing you from going back to the work you love. That’s very disappointing. Also, I think it’s wholly reasonable that you feel distracted and irritable and then guilty. Caring for an infant all day is tiring, and thinking about the laundry you need to fold instead of reading or singing to the baby will make you feel bad about yourself! Finally, leaving aside your family stuff, the stress of this moment would be hard on anyone. You’re still a person and need time to relax and be human.

I think balance in household life is something you constantly renegotiate—day by day even—and in this particular moment it’s almost certainly an impossibility. Do not feel hopeless, but instead resolved: You can make your days better. You need to talk to your husband candidly, not to plant the seed that he might be more helpful, but to establish that the work you do is as important for your family’s survival as the work he does. This was true before the quarantine and remains true now!

It is hard for him to work and be responsible for your financial well-being; it is hard for you to work and be responsible for your daily comfort and your child’s care. You need to help one another. So talk about what that looks like.

Does he clock out for an hour (lunch break!) to give the baby her bottle and put her down for her nap? Do you manage bed and bath time so he can unwind after his day is over? Do you switch off morning responsibilities so you each get a chance to linger in bed alone? (Normally, I’m all for spending those morning hours as a family, but together time is all we have these days!) If he’s keeping up a five-day workweek, can he tackle more on the weekends—managing all the meals, or being responsible for the laundry, or even taking the baby out for a picnic so you can be alone with your thoughts?

Reframing your labor as work will, I hope, help you more equitably share the load. You are not wrong for needing a break, and he is not wrong for the good fortune of being able to maintain his familiar schedule. You’re a team, and you’re in this together, and I think you can do this. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m 14 years old, and my parents just found out I’m gay. My mom was listening at my door when I was Zooming with my boyfriend. She heard me tell him that I love him. So now I’m trapped with my parents who are telling me that being gay is disgusting and an insult to a god I don’t even believe in. I knew coming out to them would be hard, but I didn’t expect to be trapped with them after it happened. I feel like you guys give good, levelheaded advice, and honestly I wish you were my parents instead. Do you have any advice on getting through the next couple of months without me going crazy?

—Trapped

Dear Trapped,

I’m sorry this didn’t go as you’d planned. Under normal circumstances I would urge you to connect with any adult you love and trust—an aunt or uncle, a teacher or minister, a neighbor or friend—but these are not normal circumstances, and none of those people are available to you immediately. I think the safest thing at the moment would be to negotiate some kind of peace with your parents; you are indeed trapped with them for the time being.

It is not impossible that, despite what they’re saying now, your parents will someday be fiercely supportive of who you are. I really hope you get there! But I don’t want you to think about that at the moment. It is your parents’ job to love you unconditionally. It is not your job to argue for your own worth.

I hope your folks are still doing some of their job—feeding you, caring for you—and if they are, I hope you can remember that those things are also an expression of their love. (They could be doing more! But maybe this is all they can do right now.) As long as you are safe at home, I think you should try to just endure this moment.

If you feel unsafe—like they talk about asking you to leave your home or threaten you physically—that is another matter. That would be an emergency, and if that comes up, you should reach out to one of the adults you trust or, if that’s not an option, to an organization for young people like you.

But maybe you just feel bad and frustrated—you are who you are, your parents do not respect that. As terrible as that certainly is, I’m worried only about you surviving this weird period of quarantine. I don’t think you should lie or pretend to be anything you’re not.

If your parents bring up the subject of your being gay, try to change it. If they tell you it is disgusting, tell them that is cruel, and you don’t want to discuss being gay in these terms. None of this is how this should work, and I wish I had better advice, but I just want you to get through this moment. I want you to wait to have the hard conversations with your folks until you have some support from other people in your life.

To that end, I think you should preserve your connections to those other people—not just video chatting your boyfriend, but emailing and calling other friends, so you can remind yourself that while you’re stuck at home with Mom and Dad, there are still a lot of people out in the world whom you’re connected to. Throw yourself into your schoolwork, stay connected to your social network, be strong, be safe, and know that a lot of people out there (me included!) want you to be well. Please email me again if you need to talk.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 3-year-old has been sleeping in our bed for about six months. Prior to that, he slept in his own bed/crib in our bedroom in our tiny apartment.

Our move to a bigger home unfortunately coincided with a medical issue. He had a surgical procedure, and we kept him in our bed while he recovered so we could keep an eye on him for about six weeks. But now it has been six months, and he is just fine, and in spite of his own very cool bedroom with his own big kid bed and sheets he picked out, he has absolutely zero interest in sleeping alone.

I don’t blame him; he’s been through a lot. But now with the lockdown, we’re together 24/7, and after a full day of trying to work and keep him entertained, I’d just love to sleep without a tiny foot in my face. I know I could lay down the law and let him tantrum it out, but he still has some genuine trauma/anxiety from the surgery, and now he’s also stressed from the pandemic disruptions. Is there any way to do this gently? How can we persuade him to try sleeping in his own room without him feeling like he’s being banished?

—Sleep-Training a Toddler

Dear STaT,

Many people find it irresistibly precious to share a bed with their little ones. I am not one of those people. I love a good cuddle, but nighttime is for sleep, and as you say, in this particular moment, I think we need to take whatever opportunity we can for some alone time.

You’re right about all the mitigating circumstances. Your kid had a trauma of his own, and now he’s probably picking up on the anxiety of this strange moment. But he’s 3, and spending the night in his own room isn’t a punishment, simply something it’s time he masters.

You were smart to get him involved in designing his new room, but he’s smart too and is not going to get psyched about sleeping alone just because he has new bedsheets. If you have it in you, you could throw him a party—happy 1,111 days old, little man!—and announce that this means it’s only the big boy bed for him from now on. You could string up some old Christmas lights for magical effect; you could tack up a sheet and turn his bed into a hideout. You could promise him three bedtime stories nightly or a whole new bedtime routine or what have you, but all this stuff is just a distraction. When it comes right down to getting him to stay in his bed the night through, he might fight, he might cry, but eventually, he’ll get the hang of it, and you’ll get your space so you can sleep. A battle worth fighting, in my opinion.

—Rumaan

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