Care and Feeding

My Husband Would Rather Play Video Games Than Help Me Parent

We have a toddler and another baby on the way, but he’s the one throwing tantrums.

Man holding video game controller, biting his lip as he focuses on playing a game
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavebreakmedia/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,

My husband and I both have full-time jobs and an 18-month-old son. I am pregnant with our second child, due in February. Since our son was born, my husband seems to have regressed. He has not once helped me at night with our son, and has gotten up with him in the morning to let me sleep in no more than six times since his birth. Four of those times my husband threw a tantrum, slamming doors, throwing things, stomping around. He got my son out of his crib and then went back to sleep on the couch, even as our son cried. When I ask my husband to watch our son so I can get some work done, cook, or clean, he continues playing computer games the whole time, wearing his headset. He is completely oblivious to everything going on around him and ignores our son.

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When I try to discuss this, he yells at me and says that he just does things differently. I understand that people parent differently, but at this point, I have so little trust in my husband. I genuinely do not think our son is safe with him. The few times I have left them alone together, I’ve come home to find my husband playing video games and a child who is unfed and uncared for. I keep telling myself that becoming a parent is different for everyone. It is a learning process. But at what point is it reasonable to expect my husband to know our son’s general schedule? To be able to trust that if I must leave, he will feed and change his diaper, at minimum?

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He has also become much worse in care around the house. He comes home from work and immediately gets on his computer and starts playing video games, straight through to 11 p.m. He stacks dirty dishes at his desk and our coffee table. He throws trash literally everywhere except the trash can—I am constantly picking up after him. He does no cleaning. When I ask him for help, he becomes enraged and berates me. He was not like this until our son was born. But I had a lot more time then, and I was able to keep up with household chores while still having some time for myself.

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I have begged him to go to therapy on his own or together, but he refuses. It is obvious that he wants nothing to do with any responsibilities pertaining to our son and our house. All my money goes to buying necessities, while he spends his money on whatever he wants. I am exhausted. I have not had a break in a year and a half. I feel like a single mother trying to take care of a toddler and a 17-year-old boy (even though he is almost 30). I have tried talking to him, making plans, splitting up house and child care duties—nothing works. I do not want to beg and nag him for help. What else can I do to try to enlist my husband’s help? Am I enabling him? Am I being unfair or unreasonable? At what point do I throw in the towel?

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—Beaten Down and Exhausted

Dear Beaten Down,

You are not being unfair or unreasonable; your husband’s behavior and treatment of you (and your child) are unacceptable. I’m so sorry you’ve been going through this. Based on what you’ve shared, it’s honestly hard for me to see any real point in staying with this man, or what you might hope for if you do. Even if you lay down an ultimatum, I don’t think he’s going to change.

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Saying that enough is enough, getting out of an unsustainable and frankly intolerable situation, doesn’t mean that you’re the one who gave up here. He’s the one who appears to have checked out, long ago. I can’t know what’s going on with him, of course; he may really be struggling with something much bigger than the transition to parenthood—but the bottom line is: He won’t accept any responsibility for your family. He responds with rage and yells and insults you when you try to talk to him. He refuses to consider therapy. Perhaps most damning of all, you cannot trust him with your son.

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I understand it would be incredibly difficult to make a plan to either leave with your child or tell your husband to leave—though, by the sound of things, perhaps he wouldn’t need much convincing. But I don’t think you should spend much more of your limited time or energy hoping he’ll reform. Whatever his “reasons,” however difficult he finds it to be a parent, nothing can justify neglectful and abusive behavior.

Your son is very young, but I guarantee he will have already figured out that he cannot rely on his father. If you stay together, your next child will quickly learn the same. I know you didn’t mention them as a possible reason to stay or keep trying to do the impossible, to change a person who can’t or refuses to change. But in case that is even a fleeting consideration of yours, I want to stress how hard it would be for your children to be raised in a household with this dynamic, in which their father’s treatment of all of you is normalized. They cannot and should not grow up believing that any of this is OK. You should not have to endure this, and your kids shouldn’t either.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Hi! I know you usually do letters from parents, but I’ve seen a couple kids submit here before, so I hope this is OK. For context, I’m the oldest child in my house, and my little brother was diagnosed as autistic in kindergarten. I did some research on the matter, and as I looked at all the different sources, I realized that I identify with almost all of the traits and experiences listed, especially things like sensory issues, problems with eye contact, special interests (mine would be quantum physics—that stuff is awesome), and difficulty understanding the rules of social interactions. After looking into it a little more, I came to the conclusion that I might be autistic too.

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I tried to bring it up with my mom, but she seemed kind of … dismissive, I guess? She didn’t deny that a lot of the identifying characteristics seemed to match up pretty well (in fact, she kind of skipped over that part entirely), but she said that the only reason she got my brother tested was because he was falling behind academically. I’m a couple years ahead of my peers in about half of my core classes and getting A’s in the rest, so I guess she doesn’t see any reason that it would be important to me. I can see where she’s coming from, but I feel like I’m struggling in areas that aren’t academic, and that maybe figuring out the cause of my issues would help me find solutions. Is my desire to find out unfounded? Is there a way to approach the topic again that would make her give me a little more consideration, or should I just let the matter drop? I’m sorry if this isn’t something you can help with, and maybe this is just dumb, but I just don’t know what to do.

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—404: Assistance Not Found

Dear 404,

Not dumb at all! I’m so glad you sent this question. It reminds me (quite a bit, actually) of a question I got from the parent of an autistic son who was doubting whether her older daughter could also be autistic, partly because her daughter had never struggled in school. I definitely don’t think you have to or should let this matter drop. It’s never a bad thing to be curious about who you are, and more specifically why you are the way you are; wanting to know and understand ourselves better is the most human and understandable of urges.

You can try telling your mother that not all autistic kids are the same and that you feel a need to seek more answers. This isn’t about your grades, but your overall self-understanding and well-being—both of which are far more important than your report card. You can also let her know that while you aren’t struggling academically, you feel you are in other areas, and could be better supported socially in particular. A diagnosis can help autistic people gain access to more resources and better-informed care. She should want to help you explore this question and seek out any additional support you feel you need. If it’s still hard getting through to her, know that you can also bring this up with other adults you trust: your pediatrician, a teacher, a school counselor.

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I also want to mention that while an official diagnosis can be both important and useful, it’s not what makes you who you are. If identifying as autistic and/or neurodivergent in any way helps you think about and better understand or define yourself, that’s OK. Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, says, “Autism is different for everyone, and there are lots of different ways to be autistic. Autistic people are in charge of our own identity—it can be helpful a lot of the time to have a professional validate what we already suspect, but we don’t need their permission. If autism is a word that helps explain how a person experiences the world, and if using strategies that generally help autistic people helps them, then that’s really what matters.”

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My lovely 6-year-old nephew I love gets REALLY into stuff for months or years, where every conversation we have is about the thing he’s into (turtles, magic tricks, Pokémon, etc.). He’s sweet and so, so smart. Recently, his parents started reading the first Harry Potter book to him. Guess what he’s into now? Guess what he wants to talk about with me?

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Here’s the thing: I am married to a trans woman who came out a year ago. J.K. Rowling is a transphobic bigot. She was just nominated for an award for an anti-trans essay from last year. This is not a secret (but maybe how bad it is … is?). Listening to and deflecting questions about how much I love Harry or why I don’t own the books is hard, and my wife now avoids these FaceTime calls. I have a preschooler, and while we won’t ban the books from our house, I don’t want her asking for them because of him, and I don’t want to give Rowling any money.

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I am glad my nephew is reading big books, and I remember loving similar books as a kid. Should I talk to his parents about why we don’t do HP here? We have a good relationship, but they can be defensive. They are supportive of my wife and read books to my nephew about different gender identities when she came out. The whole thing is just a bummer!

—Hope It’s a Short Phase

Dear Hope,

Your child will definitely know about these books whether or not her cousin loves them, but you and your wife still get to make your own decisions about the literature you buy and support. I do think it’s fine to have the “here’s the thing about JKR” chat with your nephew’s parents if you want, especially if you feel it’s important to maintaining that relationship—if something is really bothering you, you don’t necessarily want it just sitting there between you forever. (That said, they might not change their minds about the books, and then you might have some potentially fraught decisions to make about how that affects your relationship.) I hope they hear you out and don’t get super defensive; I also hope they plan to talk with their son about not being transphobic, and not just because of one author.

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As you’ve already learned, a 6-year-old megafan of anything is not going to be able to fully regulate or hide his enthusiasm. If your nephew asks why you don’t own the books, it’s OK to be honest and say that you don’t like them. I hope your relationship with him doesn’t suffer in any lasting way because he has this fandom—you and your wife definitely don’t have to ignore or set your own feelings aside, but I think it’s good if you can still take his calls, talk with him about other things, and maintain this important relationship with a kid you both love.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We seem to have lucked out with our neighbors. They immediately welcomed us to the neighborhood with brownies, their two teenage daughters are super sweet and offered to babysit our 6-year-old son anytime, and their dog loves ours so much that we’re each other’s go-to petsitters. The only problem is their 17-year-old’s passion for opera singing. She’s a talented soprano who’s been training for years and hopes to go to a top music school. Pre-COVID, she went to her teacher’s house for lessons, and we heard her occasionally but enjoyed it. But since we’ve been in quarantine, she’s had to take lessons online, and they go for two or more hours a day, four or five days a week, not to mention the increasing number of hours she’s spent practicing for upcoming auditions. To make matters worse, we had a baby three months ago, and she seems to have a sixth sense for when we put him to sleep because she chooses then to sing the same few lines of Puccini. Loudly. For hours.

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My husband and I are already sleep-deprived from the baby and cranky from helping a first grader with Zoom all day, and this just turns my splitting headache into a migraine. Our houses aren’t that far apart, and it seems like no matter where I try to hide, I can still hear her trying to hit new notes. I’m planning to invest in noise-canceling headphones for my husband and me, but the baby can hear her despite having a white noise machine on, so he still wakes up when she practices. I want to write her parents a note or have a conversation with them, but A) I know from talking with their daughter that opera singing is her lifelong dream, and it’s really important she get a scholarship to these schools; and B) I don’t know how to word a polite note or have a civil conversation in my current frame of mind. Can you offer any help?

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—Mad at Mozart

Dear MaM,

Yeah, talking with the parents is probably your best course here! I took voice lessons at that age but was strictly an amateur, so I asked some professional opera singers for a gut check on how much an aspiring professional needs to practice daily and whether it’s reasonable to approach them about doing so less (or at least doing so at predictable times!).

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One singer, Jane Hoffman, told me, “I would definitely be open to scheduling [practice] around my neighbors’ concerns. A lot of people only voice their issues by slipping a nasty note under your door or asking your landlord to evict you!” Another singer, John Brancy, said most singers would be willing to discuss the need for a more consistent or accommodating schedule, adding that “the best way to approach a singer is through encouragement and appreciation for their instrument.” Singers I reached out to noted that two-plus hours a day of full-voiced singing (loud enough for neighbors to hear) is a lot for a singer that age, and said there are many other ways to practice: translating texts, researching repertoire, working on diction, “marking”—singing parts more softly, to spare the voice—and singing into a towel, to name a handful. (I don’t think you should pass these suggestions on; I mention them to help alleviate your worry about undermining your young neighbor’s dreams. There are other ways for her to work on her skills, though of course sometimes she will need to sing at full volume.)

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Your conversation may feel a little awkward, but it doesn’t have to be contentious. You’ve already described the situation here with a great deal of understanding, and you can carry that into your discussion with the parents. You might begin by expressing your (genuine) appreciation for their daughter’s talent and your sincere support of her goals: “Wow, Musetta is such a beautiful singer, and it’s wonderful that she’s so dedicated to her music! We know she wants to study and sing professionally and is working hard to make that happen, and we’re all rooting for her. But we do have a baby who really needs his sleep. Can we please talk about his sleep schedule and her practice schedule, and how to make both work?”

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If they’re at all reasonable, they should be willing to have a polite and productive conversation about more intentional scheduling as well as possible noise-mitigating options. They may genuinely have no idea just how far or well the sound travels, and you will be doing them and the whole neighborhood a favor by gently cluing them in—as Hoffman said, “no one wants to be a pain in their neighbors’ asses.”

—Nicole

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