Care and Feeding

My Husband Is a Completely Absent Father

A woman looking up with brow furrowed in dismay
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by deeepblue/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,

I’m a stay-at-home mom to 4-year-old twins, and my husband is an executive for a large company. He makes really good money, and his job allows us to live in a big house in a very nice neighborhood, have two luxury cars, and we will be able to send our kids to an elite private school next year. The problem is that he doesn’t lift a finger at home with our sons. No baths, no feedings, no story time, no playing in the backyard, nothing. Whenever I ask him about it, he gets upset and tells me some version of “Everything you and the kids have is because of me. You should be grateful! Taking care of the kids isn’t hard like my job is!” I get that he’s under pressure at work, but does that excuse him from being a dad? How can I get through to him?

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—Overwhelmed Mom

Dear OM,

Let me start by saying that I despise dudes like your husband with the passion of a million burning suns. They make life miserable for their partners, they make all other dads look bad, and they set a crappy example for their kids.

When he’s six feet under, I highly doubt your sons will fondly remember him by saying, “Our dad had the nicest Mercedes SUV. Man, that thing was beautiful. He always drove around in style.” Playing ball in the backyard, reading stories before bed, having impromptu dance parties, pulling fun practical jokes on unsuspecting victims—these are the sorts of things that kids remember about their parents. Those activities don’t cost a dime, but are priceless.

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My dad died of colon cancer recently, and I’m so incredibly thankful that he created those memories for me. And because he was such a great dad, I learned how to have those connections with my daughters. Hell, I even wrote a book about my dad because he meant that much to me. The fact that your husband is willing to throw all of that away to be a walking ATM is beyond sad.

You should remind your husband that signing up for parenthood involves more than paying the bills. I don’t care how stressful his job is—he can find time for your boys. Barack Obama was president of the United States for eight years, dealt with unimaginable stress as the leader of the free world, and dealt with racism from his own citizens. He still made time for his two daughters and said fatherhood is “one of the most important jobs any man can have.”

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If he thinks your job is a cakewalk, have him watch the boys on a Saturday while you take a much-needed mental health break outside of the house. If your phone doesn’t ring within an hour of you leaving, I’d be completely shocked. One of the many problems with men like your husband is they think working in corporate America is “real work,” while raising kids entails watching bad cartoons all day. I’ve worked in corporate America and have been a stay-at-home dad, and I’ll tell you right now that going into the office was a vacation for me compared with child care.

If reminding him of his role or outright asking him to step up as a primary parent for a weekend doesn’t get him to see the light, then you should consider going to counseling. There are some families that thrive under the dynamic you’re currently living in, but it’s clear you’re not, so it’s time to take action. There is a lot at stake here, not only for your sanity, but for the development of your kids.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I had our first baby two months ago. For my entire pregnancy, we referred to him as a nickname—think “The Terminator.” We now call him “Term” or “Termy” or other variants on that, although he has a perfectly beautiful and fitting given name as well, which other people call him. The question is—at what point do we need to switch over to calling him by his real name (or a more traditional nickname) so that he doesn’t learn to talk thinking his name is “Termy”? I will mourn the day when I have to give up the nickname I associate with having him in my belly, but I also understand that names can be hard for babies and at some point he should learn his given one!

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—Nickname or Not

Dear NoN,

I don’t want to minimize your concern, but this should be low on your list of things to worry about in 2021. To make you feel better, my mom has called me a nickname (that I won’t share here, or anywhere, for that matter) since I was a baby until present day. I knew my name the entire time—and I have a difficult name to pronounce.

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Nicknames are quite common when parents address their kids. When he goes to school or hangs out in any location outside of your home, he’ll be called by his legal name, and everything will be fine.

When the time comes—and that time will be a while from now since he’s only 2 months old—you can tell him that this is a nickname that only his mom and dad use for him. It’s really that simple. Kids are way smarter than we give them credit for.

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Just be ready to get snapped at if you have the audacity to use that nickname in front of his buddies when he gets older. I’m speaking from personal experience on that one.

Help! How can I support Slate so I can keep reading all the advice from Dear Prudence, Care and Feeding, Ask a Teacher, and How to Do It? Answer: Join Slate Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a married husband with two young children. I’ve struggled with anger my entire life. My therapist and I spend most of our time dealing with this issue and developing management strategies. I’ve made a lot of progress and would say I’m in much better shape than I was even a year ago. But it’s definitely an ongoing struggle to keep my temper in check. Recently, I’ve really recognized the damage this has all done to my almost-5-year-old. To be clear, I have never and would never physically harm him or threaten to do so. But I’ve seen studies about how yelling at a child can have a similar emotional and psychological impact to physical abuse, and frankly, even if I hadn’t seen those studies, I can see the truth of that in his behavior. When admonished for misbehavior—even with gentleness—he will frequently fall into a defensive reaction of frantically repeating “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” He’s so scared in those moments, and it breaks my heart. There are other similar displays of anxiety that could be unrelated, but my behavior has clearly taken a toll on him. Obviously, I need to get my anger under control and stop yelling (which is something I’m working on), but what do I do to heal the damage I’ve already done, both to him and to our relationship?

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—Regretting My Rage

Dear RMR,

I want to commend you for seeking therapy for your anger. Sadly, there are a lot of men in America who think that getting help for their emotional/mental problems is a sign of weakness, and their loved ones suffer in the process because of it.

Speaking of which—have you considered therapy for your son? While he is obviously very young, it seems like he might benefit from professional assistance to get help with the scars he has from your previous outbursts. Not to mention, going together as father and son could help both of you hash out some issues that you may not even be aware of.

In regard to what you can do right now, you can start by being as loving as possible. More hugs, more playtime, more bonding—whatever that looks like for you. If you think you’re doing enough now, you’re not. Double your efforts.

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I know it may not be this simple for you, but one strategy that is very effective for many parents is, when your son inevitably misbehaves, asking yourself if it’s worth directly addressing instead of redirecting. For example, if he’s jumping on the couch (something that every kid does at some point in their life), you can point him to another shiny object by saying, “Hey, come here. I want to show you something,” which will get him to stop without you having to spook him. If it happens again, you’ll have to talk about it, which you can do by saying something lighthearted, like “If the couch breaks, we’ll have to sit on the cold, dirty floor. Raise your hand if you want to do that!” (Hopefully he would keep his hand down). Either way, you get the idea.

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The goal is to be as gentle as possible with him. Take him to therapy so he won’t be afraid of you anymore. And please—continue going to therapy yourself. You’re being a great role model to him by illustrating that dudes can ask for help when it’s needed.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Growing up, I moved four times before age 15. My family wasn’t in the military or anything, and we didn’t struggle financially—my parents just couldn’t decide which jobs they wanted or how close they wanted to be to extended family. It destroyed my ability to make and keep friends, and had long-lasting impacts on my self-esteem. I swore I’d never do that to my kids. My wife is a doctor who is about to finish residency. We have 2-year-old twins. My wife can earn slightly more money, and have slightly better job prospects, if she does a two-year fellowship (kind of like an extended residency) for which we will have no say in location. I want to jettison fellowship and move immediately to the city where we’ll stay long-term. I want my kids to make friends at preschool who they can grow up with. My wife is insisting that our kids are too young to remember this move anyway, and as long as we settle down by the time the kids are 4 or 5, that will provide enough stability. I’m extremely aware my past history with frequent moves is probably coloring my judgment on this. What say you? Should I bite the bullet and deal with the brief move in exchange for a slightly higher chance of long-term stability thereafter? Please help.

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—Done With Moving in Minneapolis

Dear Done With Moving,

I’m with your wife on this. I can’t remember anything that happened to me when I was 2 years old—can you? Not to mention, how many times have women taken one for the team to further the careers of their husbands? The answer is often.

I don’t discount your history, but kids are resilient and can handle almost anything if they have supportive parents to help them. Also, your kids have the extra benefit of having each other to lean on as twins (I’m a twin, so I’m speaking from experience here).

You’ll be fine, your kids will be fine, and your wife will thrive in her chosen career on her terms. Everyone wins.

—Doyin

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