Care and Feeding

My Husband Won’t Let Me Teach Our Baby My Native Language

I don’t get why he’s so resistant to this!

A baby crawling on the floor.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Gent/Unsplash.

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 grew up in Ireland, where we weren’t allowed to speak our language or participate in our culture in any way by English law. I went to America for college and married an American man, and am now pregnant. I suggested to my husband that I speak Irish and he speak English to the baby, so they grow up bilingual. He said the baby won’t be speaking a language he doesn’t speak.

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I’m heartbroken, since he knows how hard it was for me and my family to be so disconnected from our culture, and how hard we fought—and Irish people still fight—for our language not to die. When I tried to explain this, he rolled his eyes and said his family is descended from French and Italian as well as English, so by my logic we should teach the baby four languages. 1) He only speaks English. 2) We could learn as much French and Italian as we can before the baby comes if it’s important, which I told him. 3) His families immigrated here more than 100 years ago, and I’ve never heard him talk about those cultures before now.

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I’ve tried to discuss this calmly over the past few days, which has only resulted in worse and worse fights, until he finally yelled that I’m white and I should stop acting like I’m special, or the baby’s going to think white people are oppressed. I’ve never compared our occupation with what people of color go through in America, or any country. Since moving here my husband and I have participated in protests and political meetings for racial equality, and never once has he mentioned that my desire for connection to my culture is offensive or even related to the fight of oppressed people in America. I don’t understand why he is offended at the idea of our child having the freedom to know this part of their culture, which is so important to me since I know the pain of it being illegal. Is this inappropriate in America? Is it giving up solidarity with people of color if I teach my child my language, when many people face racist violence for not speaking English?

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—Erin Go Wha?

Dear Erin Go Wha,

No, of course teaching your child to understand and appreciate their Irish heritage—through language and other means—in no way conflicts with your wish to be in solidarity with people of color in the U.S. Your husband’s comment about teaching the baby French and Italian, and the out-of-left-field accusation that it is somehow … racist(?) of you to want your child to speak your country’s language, is a clear example of derailment. The bottom line, I suspect, is that he doesn’t want his child to know something he doesn’t, and he might also fear being left out in some way if you and your child share a language he doesn’t understand. Both these things strike me as regrettably small and petty of him, perhaps springing from some insecurity (about himself, or his potential to be a good parent, or both), and I’m sorry you’re dealing with his attitude as fallout.

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I think it’s wonderful that you want to share a language and other cultural knowledge and traditions with your child. They also have a right to their heritage. While it would be ideal to have your husband’s understanding and cooperation, you do not actually need his permission to teach your child about their roots or the culture the two of you will share.

It really sounds like there has been a communication breakdown, given both his accusations and the fact that he yelled them at you. I think he’s the one at fault, and I find his behavior to be a bit of a red flag. Both of you might benefit from some marital counseling if you find you cannot communicate about or work through this on your own. I hope that your husband starts being more reasonable and more generous—to both you and your future child—and that you can get on the same page before your baby arrives.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My boyfriend and I have been together for over two years. We have a somewhat nontraditional relationship—we don’t live together and don’t plan to any time soon, and don’t want to marry, but we are committed partners. He has a 7-year-old daughter and 50-50 custody, and I am struggling with my role in her life.

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The stance of my boyfriend and society in general seems to be that if you’re dating someone with a child, you must love that child as your own, or not date someone with a child. The thing is, I don’t love her as my own. I do love her, but like I would a friend’s child. I don’t miss her when she’s at her mother’s, but am glad to see her when she’s with my boyfriend. I make an effort to spend one-on-one time with her; I read with her every day, do arts and crafts with her, take her hiking, and play dolls with her. I bathe her, feed her, and do her hair. We have a solid relationship, but I’m not her mom, and don’t want to be.

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My boyfriend has been asking his ex for more time with his daughter, and then he wants me to help more and watch her so he can focus on his hobbies. I think he shouldn’t ask for more time if he himself isn’t going to spend it with her. When we met, he made it clear he wasn’t interested in marriage or cohabitation, and that was appealing to me. Had he said he wanted me to be a second mom to his kid, I wouldn’t have pursued things with him. I’m not a parent, and don’t know if I’m missing something because of that. If I don’t love his child like my own, should I break things off? Is it unfair that I don’t want to take on more time with her so my boyfriend can do his hobbies?

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—Not Looking to Be Mommy No. 2

Dear Not Mommy No. 2,

To me, it sounds like your boyfriend might not want to have to arrange his schedule around his child’s needs, so he expects you to pick up the slack during his appointed time with her. And then he implies the problem may be that you don’t love his kid enough? I say this not to be harsh, but because I don’t think anyone should be framing this issue as a failure of love on your part—as you seem to be, at least a little, with questions like: “If I don’t love her like my own, should I break things off?” (I guess I’m also not entirely sure what “love a child as your own” means, since an unfortunate number of parents don’t truly love or appreciate the kids they’ve got.) Nor do I think you have to be a second mom or third parent to your boyfriend’s child, or love her as if she were your kid. It would not be ideal if you disliked her, nor acceptable if you mistreated her, but it is 100 percent fine and appropriate to love her as you would a friend’s child. It’s also great that you like spending some time with her—I bet she also enjoys reading and doing crafts and going on outings with you.

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She’s not your kid, though, and you aren’t the one who shares custody of her. It’s not your responsibility to dig deep for some level of emotion you do not have, or be responsible for most of her care during your boyfriend’s weekends with her. If he wants to ask for more time together, I agree with you that he should be using it, not just going off and pursuing his hobbies while always expecting you to babysit. It sounds like you’re already doing and helping a lot!

I might be tempted to break things off if you talk about all this with him and he doesn’t change; him trying to get out of actually caring for his child would be a deal-breaker for me. But I don’t think this amounts to a terrible lack of love or feeling on your part. You said it yourself: “Had he said he wanted me to be a second mom to his kid, I wouldn’t have pursued things with him.” That’s a fine thing to know and recognize about yourself. If you don’t want to be in a situation where he expects you to parent his kid (while he does other things!), you do not have to be.

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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 10-year-old son “Matt” has autism. He has recently had a lot of change in his life, including leaving an “elite” K–12 private prep school he had attended since kindergarten that had become very unkind and frankly cruel after a recent change in several administrators and a particularly incompetent and ableist teacher this year. Prior to that, the school had generally been a good environment for him, but things changed rapidly this year under the new regime. Several wonderful speech and OT therapists have quit the school recently, which is very telling about the shift in mindset.

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We made the agonizing decision to remove him from the school (which his older sibling still attends—we did not want to have tremendous disruptions in both our kids’ lives at the same time). We home-schooled him for a few months so Matt could regroup from his hurt and trauma. After careful consideration of our options, we decided to put him in our zoned public school, which has been great so far and very supportive. He seems to like it there, although is still upset at times about leaving his old school. Matt is in the general education classroom with accommodations as we wait for the IEP evaluation process to be completed. We expect he will remain in the general ed classroom, possibly with some support services as he does well academically with a little extra help. However, he has recently begun to deny his ASD diagnosis claiming, “I do not have autism.” Prior to this, he had been accepting the diagnosis reasonably well, although he did not tend to talk about it much unless we brought it up. We generally use a low-key approach in explaining his diagnosis (“everyone has strengths and challenges,” that type of thing).

He had only recently begun to show interest in developing peer friendships, previously preferring to play alone at recess most days, etc. The new friendship interests had been challenging even before the school change. I think between his new awareness that peer relationships are more difficult for him and the painful process of changing schools, he just does not want to feel “different” right now. My question is: How do we best handle his new resistance to his diagnosis, while still supporting his emotional needs through this transition? We do not want to be in his face, forcing the issue constantly, but nor do we want him to feel bad about himself—he is much more than his diagnosis. We love and treasure our son’s sweet spirit and admire his tremendous courage and perseverance. Should we just give him some time and space with periodic gentle reminders? Maybe address it a little more after he has settled into his new school and over the summer? He does have an amazing speech therapist outside of school to help him navigate the process of finding his way in a new school and has been in counseling throughout all this. Any wisdom you can offer would be much appreciated.

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—Worried in Florida

Dear Worried,

As the parent of an autistic child, this really made my heart hurt for yours. I think it’s not uncommon for autistic kids—or any other kid—to experience times when they may wish to deny certain things about themselves, especially if those things have made them a target for exclusion and/or cruelty. I also think you’re on the right track in terms of not pressuring your son to talk about this right now if he’d rather not. You mention the trauma he went through: It makes so much sense that he would need to process and heal from that before he can do anything else.

I reached out to Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, who confirmed that this is a fairly common experience, especially for kids who’ve been bullied or worse because they’re autistic. “If you are different, and people use that difference to justify hurting you—or even if you are hurt and also learn about your difference at the same time—it can make sense to try and disavow your difference as a way to protect yourself,” she said. Bascom affirmed that what your child needs most right now is “to feel loved, safe, celebrated, and accepted unconditionally at home and by as many other people as possible” as he processes what happened to him at his old school.

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Bascom recommended that you continue discussing and normalizing the fact that everyone is good at some things and requires help with others, and that any supports your son needs at school are OK—you don’t necessarily have to associate those supports and accommodations with his autism, she pointed out; it’s more important that he receive and accept them without feeling embarrassed or stigmatized. She also suggested that you “continue to periodically sprinkle in conversations about autism, and that those conversations be explicitly and only positive” and include both real-life and fictional autistic people he might be able to look up to. “Don’t make autism the focus—focus on the person, and lightly note that they’re autistic. He can make the connection. Give him lots of positive role models, and the space to process that,” she said. “He’s going to have plenty of time to come to terms with having a disability and the tougher aspects of autism as he grows up. Right now, just make sure he feels loved.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Since high school, my young adult daughter has a cycle of behavior that I, her feminist mother, find perplexing. Essentially, she falls in love and takes the position she “must” prioritize her partner’s happiness over her own by making decisions (like where to live) that make my daughter miserable. When it eventually becomes obvious her partner is comfortable with her being miserable forever while they get everything they want, she breaks up. Then she turns right around and finds a different, immature, self-centered partner. Of course, none of these partners offers her any long-term commitment—which may actually be a blessing. I try to be respectful in reminding her that compromise in an equal and loving relationship doesn’t require one partner consistently agreeing to be frustrated and miserable. Is there any other way I can help her break this vicious cycle?

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—Negotiating Happiness

Dear Negotiating,

I’m sure this is frustrating and sometimes heartbreaking to watch, because you love your daughter and want her to be happy and loved and valued. But you obviously cannot make her life/relationship choices for her or choose her partners. It’s possible that she may not need you to keep reminding her about what true compromise is or what makes a loving relationship—it’s not that those points aren’t real and valid, but you’ve already told her, and I could see repeated talks about this coming across as more lecturing than supportive. No doubt she knows that your reminders are coming from love. Still, repeated “this is what an equal, loving relationship should be” talks could be received as criticism—you continuing to point out an area of her life where she is perhaps “failing,” or even disappointing you.

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You don’t have to table the advice forever; I understand you want her to know that she deserves better. I think if I were you, right now I’d just want to do everything I could to voice what I appreciate about my daughter, affirm how much I love and value her, build her up in every possible way I can. I don’t want to presume based on the little you’ve shared here, but in case some lack of self-esteem or self-worth—and not just bad luck in love—is a factor for her, I think your unconditional love and support will prove more important and valuable in the long run than a continued stream of the most well-meaning relationship advice.

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— Nicole

More Advice From Slate

My boyfriend recently proposed, and I happily said yes. We’ve only been engaged for a few weeks, and suddenly things are on the rocks. His parents are constantly criticizing me for my lack of religion, my clothes, etc. I’ve learned to deal with that. But recently they came to meet my parents and told them that they had done a poor job raising me. My parents are wonderful people and I’m completely horrified that my prospective in-laws treated them so badly. My fiance says that I should try harder with his parents—I think he needs to tell them that they need to act with respect toward me and my family. We’re at a stalemate, and I’m seriously thinking of breaking off the engagement. Am I wrong to expect that if my in-laws can’t be respectful toward my family, then my fiance needs to draw some boundaries between me and his parents?

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