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 is great guy. He loves our two young daughters with all of his heart, he provides for them, and he loves me to death. The problem is that he’s completely incompetent when it comes to common parenting tasks, which constantly leaves me exhausted because I have to clean up all of his mistakes. He makes ponytails wrong, so I have to do them myself. He dresses our daughters in mismatched outfits, so I have to put them in different clothes. He also makes unhealthy snacks for the girls, so I find myself having to constantly tell him what to make and how to make it. Lately he’s not been lifting a finger to help out with my daughters at all. At first he was doing everything wrong and now he’s doing nothing. I’m so frustrated! Please help me reach him.
—Frustrated in Fresno
Let me get this straight: You have a great husband who loves you and your daughters, and he provides for them—but after you micromanaged the hell out of him, he lost interest in taking part in parenting tasks, and you’re writing in wondering what happened? Really?!
Maternal gatekeeping is an issue that should be taken very seriously, because I’ve seen my share of marriages and relationships end because of it. To be clear, he doesn’t make ponytails “wrong”—he makes them differently than you. His sense of style for your girls may seem “mismatched” to you, but that’s your opinion, not a fact. Contrary to what you believe, the parenting world doesn’t revolve around your beliefs.
More importantly, your behavior has taken away the joy from parenting he once had. Dads do things differently from moms, and that’s a wonderful thing, because it allows us (dads) to bond with our kids in our own unique ways. For example, when I was growing up, my mom went on a weekend trip to visit some of her relatives and left my brothers and me at home with our dad. When she walked into the house afterward, all three of us were on the floor with empty KFC buckets everywhere watching WWF (now WWE) on our TV. I’ll never forget the look on her face, but she didn’t “correct” my dad or micromanage him—she shook her head and smiled as if to say, “I would never do that, but this is his way of creating memories with the kids, and I appreciate that.”
And guess what? As I sit here almost 35 years after that weekend, it still stands as one of the best memories I have of my dad. Would you want to deprive your kids of similar memories with their dad because you need to have everything done your way? I promise you, as your girls grow older, they won’t give a damn about the messy hairdos or funky clothes; they’ll care that their dad cared enough about them to try. That’s what’s important here.
If you want to empower your man to be a better hairstylist, send him to YouTube to watch some tutorials (that’s how I learned how to style my daughters’ hair), but don’t browbeat him or roll your eyes at his efforts. At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself these simple questions: Are my kids safe? Are my kids happy? If the answer to these questions is “Yes”, then back the hell up and let him bond with his kids in his own way.
Slate is looking to interview parents and children together—young parents and older ones, younger kids and adult children—for an upcoming project. To participate, send us an email at email@example.com with a few words about your family.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I, both white, have a 14-month-old daughter. We live in a very white, upper-middle-class suburban town in a school district considered highly desirable. We are planning to move to a different, more diverse suburban town 35 minutes away within a year so our daughter can attend a more racially and economically diverse school. The school district is considered to be worse (but not terrible) based on metrics like test scores and class size, but we think it’ll be OK because we’ll be able to give her a lot of support from home. We chose this town because it was the most diverse town that still had a bearable commute to our jobs and because we like the area itself. My friends with school-age children tell me I’m being naïve and throwing away a good opportunity for my daughter for misguided reasons. Am I? I personally went to a school that was considered “bad” (a very underfunded rural school) but I turned out fine.
Who gives a rat’s rear end what your friends think? She’s your daughter, and you should always do what feels right for you and your family.
I’m strongly in favor of kids attending diverse schools because we live in a diverse nation. Exposing your baby girl to other children who are different from her at an early age will help her to develop tolerance and love for others from various backgrounds. I went to both a diverse public high school and a high-end New England prep school with a bunch of rich (mostly white) kids. I’ll tell you without hesitation that the middle-class public school was so much better for me in all aspects.
When all is said and done, your daughter will receive a comparable academic education to the kids in the upper-middle-class school district—but the real-world education she’ll receive from being around a diverse student body will be so much more valuable to her in the long run. And just like you, I bet she’ll turn out to be better than “fine.”
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Dear Care and Feeding,
On Christmas, as I was taking a walk, I saw a young child (who I’m guessing is around 6 years old) skip/run diagonally across an intersection alone. There were no cars out because of the holiday, but it is usually a fairly busy intersection for a residential neighborhood, with stops only facing one direction. From my distance and the angle of the streets, it seemed possible that a parent was lagging a bit behind. When I reached the intersection, however, it became clear there was no parent following. Unfortunately, by that point I also could not see the child anywhere. If I had seen them, I would’ve planned to ask whether their parents knew where they were and help them get home if not. Since the child had vanished, I’d hoped they had gone into one of the nearby driveways to go home and decided against knocking on doors to check. (This was also somewhat far from my own neighborhood, and I would not have known anyone.)
Several hours later, I was still worried about this very young child who was running around alone. I’m left hoping they were older than I originally guessed and that they got home safe. But my mind invents horrible possibilities that I could have prevented by turning down that street to find the child. My question boils down to: What is a caring adult’s responsibility to strangers’ children? What should one chalk up to parenting decisions that are fine, just different than the ones I would make (I do not yet have children myself), versus situations that are concerning? And when a situation is concerning, how does one help with the lowest possible creep factor?
—Concerned in California
This is a very good question, without a one-size-fits-all answer. First off, we have to remember that we live in very different times these days. When I was growing up, I could tell my parents that I was going to play in an abandoned warehouse, and they’d shrug their shoulders and tell me to be home by dinner. I try to give my own kids a similar degree of age-appropriate freedom, but I’ve learned from my interactions with my children’s friends’ parents that I’m in the minority. Kids today seem like they’re covered from head to toe in bubble Wrap.
Of course I can’t say for certain that this kid made it home safely, but I would guess so. Children aren’t as dumb and helpless as we think they are. But at the end of the day, it always comes down to trusting your gut. I think knocking on doors is a little much, but if you felt in the moment that something was awry, I don’t think there would have been anything wrong with you asking the child if their parents are nearby and if they are safe.
That said, the reason I said I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer is because although this would probably work for a white adult approaching a child, if a big Black man like me approached a white child, onlookers could think I have nefarious intentions and it could end badly for me. You might think I’m exaggerating here, but sadly, I’ve had multiple white strangers approach me in public throughout the years to ask if my multiracial babies were mine, as if I were a child trafficker or something. That wouldn’t keep me from putting my nose into a situation if I felt that a child was in imminent danger, but I probably wouldn’t do it in the situation you describe — and I sure as hell wouldn’t be knocking on random doors.
Whiteness has its privileges in America.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My partner and I want to start a family soon after we’re married, and we have had broad-stroke conversations about the kind of parents we’d like to be. We’ve decided that we want to divide child-rearing and household duties equally, we’re extremely anti-spanking or hitting of any kind (more on why below), and we’d like our parents to be fairly involved, though we’ll likely need to keep my mother at arm’s length (again, more on that below). We’re grateful to both be gainfully employed with savings, and we have a financial planner who’s confident in our ability to afford a fruitful future. But I can’t help feeling that there’s more we could be doing to plan for the monumental job of parenthood.
I’m terrified of being a bad parent, and I’m fairly certain this fear stems from my experience with my own parents. My father was an anxious alcoholic who was perpetually unfaithful to my mom. He also embezzled my family’s money, to the point that we lost our home when I was a teenager. My mom struggled to control her anxiety and anger, and would yell and hit my sister and me if she thought we were misbehaving (my sister was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD). I rarely felt safe talking to my mom, as she’d often interrupt or talk over me rather than hold space for my feelings.
While my mother has apologized to my sister and me, she still struggles to control her anxiety and anger. My father is six years sober and on medication for his anxiety. I’ve been in therapy for most of my life and have forgiven my parents, as I recognize they were doing the best they could given their own toxic childhoods and unhealthy marriage. I’m also working to unlearn the unhealthy behaviors my mother modeled.
Is there anything else I can be doing to prepare for parenthood? Are there key conversations you’d recommend my partner and I have? Books we should read? I don’t just want to be better than my parents were—I want to be a GREAT parent. I want my children to feel safe, loved, and heard. My partner isn’t as worried about whether he’ll be a good parent, partly because his nurturing, well-adjusted folks made healthy parenting look easy. Still, he’s invested in having these conversations because he understands parenting is important and knows how badly I want to get it “right.”
—Eager to Get It Right
This may not be the answer you’re looking for, but I strongly believe it to be true: The fact that you want to be a good parent is all you’ll need to become one. I can’t count how many parents I know who’ve come from backgrounds similar to yours and are now some of the best moms and dads I know. The motivation to give your kids a childhood that is better than your own can be unbelievably powerful.
I also believe strongly in the power of therapy (which you’re taking part in) to flesh out any unresolved emotional issues that could get in your way. I don’t often find much value in parenting books because as I’ve said before in this column (and as I say in today’s column!), there’s often not a one-size-fits-all solution to parenting problems. All kids, all parents, and all of our parenting situations are so uniquely different.
I’m going to run the risk of sounding like a cheesy greeting card and tell you that if you come from a place of love, you’re going to create an atmosphere of love for your child. Not to mention, you already have plenty of examples of what not to do as a parent, and you can keep that in your back pocket as you navigate through the unpredictable world of raising tiny humans.
You got this!
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