Dear Care and Feeding,
I feel like I am in crisis. I have three wonderful, adorable young children. For years, I have been unsatisfied in my marriage for very typical reasons. My husband and I have no physical and little emotional intimacy, though we do have a low-conflict household. I carry the bulk of the labor in our household concerning all domestic and child care responsibilities, despite the fact that I work full time at a stressful career. My husband is impatient with the kids and does not seem to like being around them. He snaps at them if they are too loud, for example. I often look at fathers that seem to plan and enjoy time with their kids and feel jealous: My husband will go if I plan it but does not enjoy it. I have been asking for all of this to change for years, and it has not, and I have come to believe that the current status quo is what it is going to be forever.
We are in counseling, though I do not feel that he wants to be or is invested in it. Despite this, I believe my husband loves me, and I know he wants to stay married. While I believe my husband is a good person, I daydream frequently about leaving this marriage. This has recently been pushed to a boiling point. Over the past year, I have been through a number of major, deep personal losses in addition to the collective trauma that the entire world is facing. I have this sudden feeling that life is short, I am deeply unhappy, and I would be so much happier living alone and working on a productive co-parenting relationship. I don’t think this is unrealistic, for I have found that I feel much, much happier when my husband has to travel, even though it means I have the kids alone. I feel so much freer! I do almost everything anyway, but when he isn’t there, the resentment and inequity aren’t staring me in the face.
If I left, financially I would be comfortable and I have zero interest in dating. I just want to enjoy my children, my career, and my time to myself when they are with their dad. My question is: Am I delusional? Am I selfish? I think about my kids going back and forth between two homes and I am scared that my happiness will come at their expense. But then I tell myself that I should model happiness for them—not anger and resentment, not the model of a desperately unhappy mother toiling away—and that ultimately if I were divorced it would be better for them. But is that self-serving? Their happiness is paramount, though I am also not interested in martyring myself on the altar of motherhood. Is there a better road that I can’t see?
—Is the Grass Greener?
Is it any comfort at all to be assured that the bind you’re in, which you see so clearly and has you in so much pain, is one that many, many women find themselves in? I wish I could tell you that there’s a good third option, a better road, that you haven’t considered. But the fact is that you have a fairly stark choice here, because you are going to be happier if you leave your husband, and your children are going to be less happy if you do.
I don’t think this is (ever) a simple matter of weighing their happiness against yours. If their happiness were paramount (I believe you when you say it is—and I understand that this is why you are struggling so) and yours simply didn’t matter, it would be easy, if brutal, to say: Stay. But your happiness, your well-being, your life—well, that matters too. So the really difficult question here is trying to weigh how miserable you will be if you stay in this marriage that is clearly not fulfilling you in any way, or in any way making your life more pleasant or a little bit easier, versus how miserable your children will be, post-divorce. I’m not going to pretend that your children will be glad if you leave their father—children, in virtually all situations short of abuse, are happier when their two unhappily married parents remain together under the same roof with them than they are when they split (as you seem to be painfully aware of).
But you do have a calculation to make, and while that sounds chilling (the math of unhappiness? If your kids will be 50 percent less happy post-divorce, and you will be 100 percent happier, does that mean that divorce wins? For me, it would not—but I’m not you, and I’m also not the one in your unhappy marriage), I think such a calculation is essential. And there are things you could consider that might mitigate their unhappiness. For example, instead of your kids going back and forth, what if you and their father were the ones who did that, and the kids got to stay put? This has worked for some families. Another idea, which I’ve seen in practice, is to keep the kids’ two homes close and easy and relatively painless to move between (friends of mine divorced when their daughter was a toddler, and they bought a second house just steps away from the first one, so the child could spend time every day with both parents and, as she got older, was able to decide for herself where she wanted to be on any given day). If you can figure out a way to change the calculation—so that your kids are only 25 percent less happy, let’s say—you might feel less conflicted about a divorce.
Still, divorce will come with its own challenges. Not just to your kids, as you’ve contemplated, but to you. I’ve talked before in this column about the hidden costs of divorce—the stuff one doesn’t usually think about, some of which will pop up later and cause you grief you haven’t anticipated. This includes ceding control to a future stepmother when your children are with their father, and the fact that half your children’s upbringing may take place without your input or agreement. When you make your decision, take all of this into account. You won’t be able to predict every aspect of what comes next, but you will want to be as prepared as possible and to do whatever you can to abate the damage ahead—for yourself, if you stay, and for the kids, if you go. I’m sending you my very best as you work through this tough decision.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Dinnertime has become a daily struggle in our household and I’m at a loss as to what to do. For the entirety of our children’s lives my husband has had a job that requires him to work late, and he has very rarely eaten dinner with the children (ages 9 and 11) and me. This spring he changed jobs and is now able to be home in time for family dinner almost every evening. That sounds great, but has actually been a nightmare. He spends every meal berating our kids about their table manners so that they (and I) now dread dinnertime.
I have been a stay-at-home mom since our children were born and am around them 24/7/365. I arrange and supervise their play dates and schedule all their activities; I regularly volunteer at their school. My husband has always worked long hours and traveled frequently and he has limited experience being around kids (both ours and others’). Our kids do not have bad manners. I know this not only by my own direct observation, but because they are frequently complimented on their manners by their teachers, other parents, the lunch lady at their school, and servers at restaurants.
And yet their dad, eating dinner with them on a regular basis for the first time in their lives, constantly criticizes them and engages in very little “regular” conversation at the table. For every statement asking them about their day, there are 10 along the lines of, “Don’t touch your food!” “Wait until everyone is served before you eat!” “Use your knife!” “Cut smaller bites!” “Put your napkin in your lap!” It has gotten so bad that the kids now say they wish Daddy would go back to his old job so he won’t be home as much! That breaks my heart.
I have tried talking to my husband about how he is damaging his relationship with them, but he gets very defensive. He accuses me of trying to “turn the kids against” him by not taking his side. But I never say anything about this in front of the kids. (Though it’s true that I don’t “back him up” at the table when he is berating them, because I think he’s wrong.) And even if the kids did have “atrocious” (his word) table manners, no one learns by being yelled at all the time. And nothing they do pleases him. Even if they do exactly as he asks, he doesn’t praise them—only watches for them to do something else he disapproves of, and scolds them for that.
This has become more and more of an issue until things really hit the fan the other day when he told our oldest that she “is disgusting” and she was in tears about it. I blew up at him. Even if kids are legitimately misbehaving, I told him, it is NEVER acceptable to name-call a child. I told him he was being a jerk and owed our child an apology. He didn’t apologize, and instead blew up at me, insisting that he is only trying to prepare them for life so they aren’t ostracized as adults for having gross table manners. He accused me of coddling them. His negativity toward them is so relentless the kids dread his coming home in the evening. I’m at a total loss of what to do. Please help.
You know what I wish you’d mentioned? Whether you still love—or even like—your husband. Whether, other than the daily misery over dinner, you consider your marriage to be a happy one. Or even an OK one.
Your husband’s behavior at the dinner table sounds bad, all right. If you wanted your letter to make me dislike him, you’ve absolutely succeeded. But there are a few things I’m wondering about (besides what I’ve already asked): Why is your foot pressed so hard on the gas pedal as you present your case? You seem to be suggesting that it should go without saying that you’re right and he’s wrong. And: If your kids’ table manners are so fantastic that others compliment them … how is it they don’t know where their napkins belong? (Not that I care at all whether their napkins are on their laps. And I’ll say it again: Your husband sounds like a jerk. But what is it all these nonfamily members are exclaiming over, exactly? That they know how to use a fork?)
There’s something that doesn’t feel quite right here. I find myself wondering if you’re unhappy in your marriage—as unhappy as the previous letter writer—and this business of dinnertime is an example of your general, possibly ill-defined dissatisfaction. It doesn’t sound like you want your husband around much (again: jerk, sure, so who would?). And it kind of sounds like he knows you don’t like having him around. In fact, I find myself wondering if his giving the kids such a hard time is really about their less-than-perfect table manners at all. Is it possible that this is a veiled way of criticizing you and voicing his own (maybe also general and equally ill-defined) dissatisfaction with the status quo, even if it’s one the two of you agreed on long ago. (And maybe his being home more often is making him uncomfortably aware of both how unwelcome—and unnecessary—his presence is, and how little he wants to be there.)
If I were you, I would shift from talking about the table manners to talking about your relationship. And because I don’t think the two of you can have that conversation right now without it turning ugly, I would strongly suggest marriage counseling. It may not help. He might even refuse to give it a try—or he might, like Grass Greener’s husband, go along with it but only reluctantly, half-heartedly. Or, like a lot of less-than-happy-together couples, you two might discover through marriage counseling that you don’t want to be married to each other anymore. But using the kids to communicate your conflict (Him: They’re disgusting! They eat like pigs! You: They are little angels and everyone says so!) is a really bad idea.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am very sleep-deprived, so I hope this question makes sense. We have the most amazing 3-month-old in the universe. I just finished my parental leave and had to go back to work, and my wife is still at home on maternity leave with him. When I was home, we both were involved in everything, but now it feels like she does everything even when I’m there. She’ll change him or soothe him or whatever even when I’m standing there talking to her. She pumps so I have bottles ready for feeding, but then she’ll start breastfeeding as soon as he makes his first hungry noise. While I understand that for middle-of-the night feedings this might make sense—she can roll over and feed him, whereas I have to calm him down and get a bottle ready at the same time—but, sensible or not, I still want to do it myself, especially since I have few other opportunities right now.
I keep trying to take him and offer to do whatever he needs when she has him and he’s fussing, but she keeps saying I’ve already worked a full day and she wants me to relax, and calls me sweet when I try to insist. She’s absolutely right: I’m exhausted being back at work, but she’s exhausted too, because parenting is exhausting. I do get to hold him and play with him, and in the evenings and on weekends I try to do my share of cleaning and laundry and so on while she’s busy with him, but he’s my son too and I want to be parenting, not just keeping house. And while I realize having an incredible wife who is a stellar mother to our infant is not a problem, I want to be his mom too. I don’t feel like playing with him only when he’s happy and bathed and full is real parenting. How do I be more clear about this? Or should I not be? Am I being ungrateful? Should I accept things the way they are?
—Sad Part-Time Mom
Do not accept things the way they are. You are not being ungrateful. The way to be more clear about this is to be clear about it. Tell your wife everything you’ve just told me. It sounds like what’s happening here is a combination of her trying to protect and support you and her deep dive into full-time motherhood, which sometimes makes one do strange and not entirely reasonable things (especially if one is flooded with nursing hormones, as your wife is), with perhaps a soupçon of determination to be the “perfect” mother (I am very sensitive to this possibility, as I fell into that trap myself). Let her know how you feel, directly and honestly and fully. If you can’t seem to find the words, or the right time, just show her this column.
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