Care and Feeding

I Feel Like I’m Drowning

A woman looks overwhelmed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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 have been married for four years and have been together almost six in a very loving and fulfilling relationship. He has two children, tweens, from a previous marriage, and we have a toddler together. He is a wonderful, attentive, fun, caring, involved father who loves being a dad—it’s his favorite thing in life. And it seems to come so naturally and easily to him! It’s not as easy for me. I’ve always loved children and worked with them my entire adult life; I always thought (and have been told) I was good with children. But now that I have three of them, I feel like I am drowning.

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The cooking, cleaning, menu planning, appointments—I feel like all I am doing is performing tasks. There is no opportunity for quality time because there’s always something to do. (For reference: my husband has a successful career and works full-time while I stay at home with our toddler. He helps with whatever he can, but most of the household tasks fall to me, obviously, as I’m the one who is at home.) I’m happy and thankful that he’s a wonderful father, but I can’t seem to match up as a mother. I love my children and want to be present and engaged and making fun memories, but the day in, day out tasks for a family of five are overwhelming me. I spend more time with the vacuum cleaner than on meaningful interaction with the kids. Am I missing something? Are some people just predisposed to being better parents? Living with Super Dad who makes it look so easy only makes it harder for me. Any advice would be much appreciated!

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—World’s OKest Mom

Dear WOKM,

I want to say this carefully and gently, without taking anything away from your husband, who so enjoys being a father and is so good at it … but it’s awfully easy to make being a parent look easy when someone else is doing all the work. What I’m seeing here is not a letter from someone who’s falling short as a good parent, but a cry of desperation from someone who has too much on her plate and isn’t getting enough help. In fact, it doesn’t sound as if you’re getting any help, and taking care of everything in a household with three children is hard, hard work.

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So here’s my advice. First, your husband needs to step up more, “successful career” or not (lots of us—ahem, usually women—have successful full-time careers and also take an active role in the work of parenting, instead of just enjoying the fun parts). Having a job doesn’t absolve him of all household and parental duties, no more than “being at home” means you are meant to spend 24 hours a day in household drudgery. Second, you need to have an honest conversation with him about how and why you are drowning, not only so that he understands why you are asking him to step up, but so that he knows how unhappy you are (and you sound very unhappy). Keeping unhappiness a secret from a spouse is not part of the formula for a loving, fulfilling partnership. Third, carve out some time for yourself. You cannot be a “present and engaged” parent having meaningful interactions with your children when every minute of every day is devoted to the logistics of parenting and the upkeep of your home. (And let me anticipate your objections to this by telling you that I understand that this will be hard for you to do, both because you are already so busy—so where will that elusive time for yourself come from?—and because you feel as if you should be able to handle everything at home, since this seems to be the deal you and your husband struck. Never mind that: do it anyway.) Hire a sitter for a few hours a day, take some time in the evening or on weekends, or avail yourself of part-time daycare. Maybe use some of that freed-up time for therapy (I have a feeling you have some stuff to work out around your marriage, as fulfilling as you say it already is, and about your identity).

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Last, if it’s feasible, pay someone to clean the house every so often or just let the damn house be dirty. If your husband can’t bear the dust balls and sticky floors, he can clean them up. If you can’t bear them—and I know lots of people can’t, although I am a champ at averting my eyes from such things, and I pay someone to come in every other week and scrub everything down to zero again—and he balks both at spending his downtime this way and at the expense, tell him he has to find something else in the household budget to cut so that the two of you can afford to pay a cleaner. And please—do make him do that. You don’t need another task on your to-do list.

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This is not about one great parent and one OK one. This is about figuring out how to make your marriage more equitable so that you too can have the chance to be a wonderful, attentive, fun, caring, involved parent. So you can love being a mom instead of drowning in it.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

How do working parents make sure they’re spending enough time with their kids? I have a secure, high-paying union job that keeps us comfortable while my wife stays home with our twins, and the job has such great health benefits and perks (like nine months of paid parental leave after the girls were born) that I know I should hold on to it. However, I work long hours (12- to 14-hour shifts) six days a week—there are nights I get home after bedtime for our 7-year-olds—and the job sometimes requires being out of town overnight, even during COVID.

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When I’m at home, I spend all my time with them, and I’ve always considered myself an involved mom even though my time with my kids is limited. But last week something happened that shook me up. I had a weekday off, so I picked the kids up from school … and the teacher had no idea who I was. To some extent, this was not a surprise, since my wife is the one she usually sees—but she also didn’t know our kids had two moms. She wouldn’t release them to me until she had compared my ID to the contacts the school has on file for the kids. To be fair, I have a Turkish name, and the kids call me (and refer to me as) “Mom” in my native langue, so when they’d talked about me, the teacher must have assumed I was their dad and thus was unprepared for a strange woman to show up. But here’s the thing. Since kids talk a LOT about their parents, it shocked me that my daughters haven’t talked about me enough for this basic fact to be known by their teacher. They draw pictures of our family, sure, but they’re 7, so I’m a brown blob with short hair. My wife says the issue was probably more heteronormativity on the teacher’s part than my kids having told no stories about me, but now I’m worried that all their happy childhood memories are only about my wife, since she’s the one who is around them all the time. Is this a warning sign, that they apparently don’t talk about me much? They’re always happy when I come home and they want to spend time with me, but I’m starting to feel like a welcome visitor, not their mom.  How do I make the short time I can be at home with them count more?

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—Worried Working Mom

Dear WWM,

So here’s what seems like the other side of the coin … except that no one reading the first letter would have imagined Super Dad as described in that letter having these kinds of self-doubts, right? So my first thought, reading your letter, was: Man, damned if we do, damned if we don’t. That kind of sums up motherhood, doesn’t it?

I mean, it’s baked into so many of us (women, I mean) to feel like we’re doing something wrong no matter what we’re doing. And the juggling act—the juggling while walking a tightrope act—of parenting and working at a job, especially one as demanding and draining as yours is, makes being a mother feel especially perilous and especially impossible to do “right.”

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But I think your wife has read the situation at your daughters’ school correctly. I think you’re reading too much about your kids’ feelings and what they do or don’t say about you into this encounter with the teacher (who is wrong to assume that all kids have straight, opposite-sex parents, but was right to check the contact list if she’d never seen you before). The kids might talk about you constantly without it ever coming up that you’re a woman. (I mean, why even would it?) I’m willing to bet the ranch that if your twins had a name for you that was recognizable (to the teacher) as a version of the English word “Mom,” she would not have been caught off guard. The fact that your daughters refer to you using a word with which the teacher is unfamiliar seems to have cemented her heteronormative assumptions (and yes, she needs to do better—but that is not the subject of your letter).

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That this episode shook you so does tell you something, though. Not about how your kids feel about you, but about how you feel. If you feel like a visitor, if it seems to you that you’re missing out on the experience of being your children’s mother, then something is going to have to give. If you’re already spending all the time you have at home with them—and you’re not spending that time barking orders at them or drilling them on what they learned at school that day—there’s nothing I can say to help you make that time “count” more. What I do wonder is how you feel about that secure, high-paying job of yours—and how your wife feels about it, and about her job of staying home with the kids. You two, like World’s OKest Mom and Super Dad, should also be talking about the arrangement you’ve made. Maybe it’s fine—maybe you’re both happy with the status quo. But if the pickup time crisis is a metaphor for your sense that something is wrong with the balance of things in your relationship—and your family life, and your life overall—maybe it’s time to fine-tune that balance. Maybe you do need to let this job go and find one that’s more family-friendly. Or maybe you just need to vent. But please make sure your wife has a chance to do so, too.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister and I have recently been arguing a lot. We are relatively close but are at different stages of life. I am married with four small kids and a husband, and she is recently divorced (after five years) without children. Now she’s dating again and tells me she’s not interested in having babies (husband or no). That’s fine and I want to support her, but here’s my dilemma. She is clinically depressed. She’s seeing a therapist and is taking medication but will text me things like “I have no joy in my life—what can I do to find some?” I’m not living a perfect life by any means (I recently underwent cancer treatment during a pregnancy while in a pandemic among other things) but I can say I’m pretty content, so I try to offer advice (she did ask, after all) and since my kids tend to bring me the most joy, I naturally have suggested that maybe being a mother would make her happy.

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I understand that kids are not everyone’s cup of tea, but she’s not finding happiness in her job, her hobbies, her casual relationships, her friendships, or even her church group. Still, when I mention that babies bring joy, she blows up in anger. She went through a tough year of fertility treatments when she was still married and is convinced that that was enough trying for kids for her. So I’m at a loss as to what to say to help or comfort her at this point. I don’t want to be trite and say, “You’ll find something eventually” but I also don’t have the skills, knowledge, or, frankly, time to try to help her find her bliss. How can I be a supportive sister during her depression without spiraling down a dark hole with her? It feels like all I do is make her mad, which is frustrating. I don’t know what answer she’s looking for, but all of mine are wrong.

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—No Answer in Newtown

Dear NAiN,

People who are depressed don’t “find happiness”—not in their jobs, not in their hobbies, not in their relationships, not “even” in church. And not by making babies. And your sister isn’t asking for advice, even if it sounds that way. She’s letting you know—repeatedly, I’m guessing—that she feels awful, hopeless, bleak. She has a therapist who (I sorely hope) has the skills and knowledge to help her, so that’s not what she needs from you. She just needs to know you’re still there. That you love her. “I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad. I feel for you. I love you” would be a much better response than either telling her what will fix her (it won’t) or promising that some vague something will (which you already know won’t). If you’d like more help figuring out how to respond to her, you might take a look at this article on how to talk to someone who is depressed. I know it isn’t easy or uncomplicated to love and support someone who is seriously depressed, but if you care about her, you’ll make time for her when she needs you, and you’ll reassure her that she’s not alone in the world, even if she feels she is. That’s really about the only thing you can assure her of, assuming that it’s true.

—Michelle

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