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 can really use some advice! Before we were in social lockdown, I would avoid my husband P for an hour or so after he came home from work because he was usually frustrated about something that happened. I would take our daughter out for a walk and let him cool off. After our daughter went to bed, he would start venting and he would pick the theme up several times during the evening. So, after a while, I asked him to limit this venting to five minutes. This was still a struggle for us when the pandemic hit.
We are now in isolation in our apartment. We alternate caring for our not-quite 2-year-old toddler and working, but we can hear each other. I cannot close myself off with noise-canceling headphones when he is working because I have to be responsive to our daughter. All day long, everything about P exudes how he’s pissed. Not only in his facial expression, but he frequently swears under his breath. When he speaks to me, it’s in a tone I do not appreciate. After work, he wants to vent, but I cannot listen anymore, even for five minutes. It’s the combination of negativity and looking down on people from a position of ethical superiority. He wants me to agree with him, and affirm the stuff he disapproves of. Sometimes I agree with him, but usually, I don’t understand why he’s so mad.
He’s a great father and a very thoughtful husband. He has had some issues in the past, both in relation to his family and very bad treatment from previous supervisors. He just needs therapy, but it’s not feasible for him to get it any time soon. So how do I deal? He has indicated that he needs the swearing while he is working. But our daughter is parroting a lot of things so it’s only a matter of time before she starts swearing too. When we discuss this issue, he tends to point toward being sensitive as the problem. It’s true that I am a sensitive person, so he feels that means there is nothing we can do to change this situation. I would always be able to “sense” his rage. I think he is allowing himself too much room to express his frustration. In communication, it’s easy to point at the receiver and blame sensitivity as the problem. The actions of the sender are not irrelevant. Thoughts? Tips? Help!?!
—Too Much to Handle
He is not a “great father” and he is not a “very thoughtful husband,” and I think that when it becomes remotely feasible, you should have a consultation with a divorce lawyer. If he rouses himself to enter some serious anger management therapy, and you see meaningful changes in his behavior, great. You cannot raise a child with someone you have to constantly walk on eggshells around. (I also accept that you may have very genuine concerns about how he will cope with his custodial time, considering his inability to moderate his reactions to the world and to other people.)
There are lots of bad moms and dads who were totally adequate parents to babies and toddlers, but once their kids became old enough to have complex inner lives and the ability to disagree with them, those kids just became another thing to stew over and react against. Do you want your daughter to know she has to avoid her father when he comes home from work? Do you want her to think it’s normal to have to read his moods and adjust her very normal behavior accordingly? Is that the lesson you want her to take into her own adult relationships?
You are not describing an abusive husband to me, at this stage of the game, but I do think you should read Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? and see if any parts of it resonate. He blames you for your sensitivity, and you are buying into it. I do not like this. I do not like any part of this. You deserve better.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am having a very hard time connecting with my stepdaughter.
My now husband and I started dating when his little girl, Cinderella, had just turned 3. Our relationship progressed quickly and we married when she was about 4½. Since the beginning, he has had custody every second weekend. Cinderella is now 5, and we are starting to move toward 50/50 custody. It’s the right choice. My husband is a wonderful father, and I think Cinderella would really benefit by spending more time with him.
I am the problem. When we started dating, we’d been friends for years and I was so thrilled and so in love with him, I turned off my rational brain and leapt head first into my happy ending: moving cities to be with him and assuming the stepmother thing would fall into place because I’ve always loved and been good with kids.
It hasn’t fallen into place. I love Cinderella because she’s a part of him, but I struggle to connect with her. Part of the problem is that I completely disagree with the majority of decisions her mother makes, and they result in behavioral issues that at best grate on my nerves and at worst make me concerned that I might never be able to connect with her.
Right now, on the weekends that we have her, I feel like I am going through the motions and just counting down the hours until she’s in bed or gone. When I spend time with her, either one-on-one or with my husband, and we do special outings or crafts and activities, we have fun in the moment. But it doesn’t seem to carry over, and I find myself resentful of the time I spent when she then melts down over screen time or refuses to help clean her room, etc. When I opt to do my own thing on weekends, I feel like an interloper and out of place in my own house.
I kept thinking that this stage would pass and once we were done with potty training (90 percent there!) and the daily tantrums (happening less and less!), it would be easier, but I still find myself struggling to connect. It’s ridiculous, but I feel like I have a personality conflict with a 5-year-old. I find myself falling into unhelpful thought patterns and making distinctions like contrasting myself as a kid vs. her. As an example, I was desperate to grow up and try new things, while she is behind the development curve on most things and is often unmotivated to learn. I loved reading and playing sports, and she has at best a passing interest in both. I loved watching movies and TV shows that adults in my life introduced me to, and she refuses to watch anything that she doesn’t pick herself (even Disney movies).
When I am not internally annoyed at her (or by extension, her mother) or generally resenting the situation, I am torn up with guilt. I want us to have a great relationship, and I want to be a loving and supportive co-parent to my husband. He’s eager for us to start trying for our own child, but I want to have a really great foundation with Cinderella first. Plus I am now questioning if I am even a good candidate for motherhood given how much I am struggling with the stepmother role.
Any advice or solutions you could share would be greatly appreciated. I have tried talking to my friends, but none of them even have children yet, mind you dealing with blended family situations. I’ve combed through every past column trying to find a situation similar to mine to help me figure out what I can do.
Hope you’re staying healthy and safe right now,
I know you know you are not a Wicked Stepmother. I get letters from Wicked Stepmothers, and I can tell the difference. You are trying your best, and you are struggling.
A common way to shut down any attempt to express difficulty in a relationship with a stepchild is “YOU KNEW YOU WERE MARRYING A MAN WITH A CHILD.” This is sometimes very true! This is not what you are describing. It sounds like you have a great desire to have a better relationship, and it also sounds as though your stepdaughter is dealing with some divorce-related trauma and possibly some developmental delays, for which I would encourage your husband to pursue evaluation. That’s a hard place to be in. I see no indication that you would be a bad mother to any child, but I am heartened to hear that you want the situation to improve before adding a new child to the mix.
Some practical advice, now. You can’t do anything about his ex-wife’s bad parenting, and I hope that 50/50 custody will help mitigate the behaviors you’re seeing. You can do your very best to stop reacting negatively to the fact you and his daughter are different people. Not all activities need to cater to her interests, but learning more about what she does enjoy doing and doing those things with her is a better strategy than wondering why she doesn’t want to watch the same movies you do.
Lots of people who are not stepparents go through phases where they find their child difficult and annoying. There’s nothing wrong with vigorously seeking out opportunities to be by yourself and recharge. I’m glad that you and your husband share a basic parenting philosophy and that you think he’s a good dad. The real death knell of stepparenting is when your partner and you disagree about the fundamentals. Don’t feel like you cannot be honest with him about your feelings. Reiterate that you love your stepdaughter and that your goal is to have a better relationship.
She’s very young. She’s processing a lot. I don’t think you are destined to never truly connect with this kid. You will just have to meet her where she is and try to find activities that will allow you to bond. I also recommend picking up a copy of Stepfamilies, which is very well-researched and has a lot to offer to you in your current situation. It will also help you feel less alone. Stepmonster is also a book that may allow you to be a little selfish and enjoy hearing validation for thoughts you feel bad for having in the first place.
I hope and have a fair degree of confidence that this will get better. I wish you all the best.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have been with my wife for four years and we have been through the wringer. I found out a while back that she was texting other guys that were hitting on her and not getting out of the conversation. She instead hid the conversations and didn’t tell me anything about it and even lied to me about them all while continuing to talk to these guys. When I did find out about them, I asked her about it, and she said she was playing their game to show them that she is not a piece of meat.
I love her, but I feel betrayed and am already developing a lot of trust issues as a result of the situation. I would like to know how to go about fixing this, and if I should continue to want a relationship with her or just worry about what I need to be happy. We do have a 3-year-old daughter.
Dear Struggling Husband,
I think you need to “two-card” your wife (a Reddit expression that translates to “marriage counseling or divorce lawyer?”) and give yourself the gift of knowing you can one day say to your kid “I did my best to save this marriage.”
I think your wife is serially emotionally unfaithful at best, and I would be hugely surprised if that was the full extent of it. I almost never tell any of my readers to end their marriage, because it’s an easy thing to say and a cataclysmic nightmare to actually do. But you do not trust your wife, she is hiding vital information from you, and her explanation for the ongoing conversations is utterly laughable. She is cheating on you. This is cheating.
No one wants to get divorced when they have a young child. But I do think that divorcing when you have a 3-year-old, who will have only the haziest memories of the Before Time, is a million times better than modeling a distrustful and disrespectful marriage for the next five to seven years, and then putting an older child through the ordeal of an extremely high-conflict divorce after you finally walk in on her nude with her karate instructor because you came home a little earlier than usual. I believe this to be true.
I still think you need to try couples counseling, mostly for your own peace of mind. Knowing you did your best means a great deal. I also want you to, if at all possible, engage in individual counseling. If you can only afford one, go to the individual counseling. Engaging in couples counseling with a liar is going to be far less productive than talking to a sympathetic yet disinterested third party who is not actively trying to gaslight you.
I am so very sorry, and I would like to hear from you over the coming months, if at all possible.
Is It Safe to Add Other Families to Your Quarantine Bubble?
Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I couldn’t find a response section. Just thought I would say that we will have to account for the things we give advice about. These are people’s lives you’re dealing with. In my experience, going to the Bible for answers has never led me astray.
I will give this missive all the attention it deserves, and I congratulate you on finding a divination method that works for your life … even if it appears not to have assisted you in finding the very prominently marked comment section.
Have a blessed day.
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