Care and Feeding

I Got Too Physical With Our Son in a High-Stress Moment—and My Wife Won’t Forgive Me

I know I messed up, but icing me out isn’t fair.

Man holding his head in his hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo 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,

I’m not sure if this is a parenting question or a marriage question, but here goes: Last year, at the beginning of lockdown, in a high-stress moment, I got too physical with my son, who was in first grade at the time. He did something that I felt was dangerous, and I picked him up and held him against the wall and yelled at him not to do it again. My wife jumped in and stopped me.

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I have apologized to both of them a thousand times, and my son’s pediatrician is aware of what happened, so it’s not a secret. I also feel sure that even if it looked bad, he wasn’t in any real danger. My son still brings it up when he’s mad at me, but otherwise we have a loving relationship. But it’s no exaggeration to say that my wife has barely spoken to me since this happened. We communicate about the kids, schedules, dinner, etc., but we have hardly had a light or pleasant conversation in more than a year. I don’t know what to do. I know I made a mistake, but I am sure it will never happen again, and I don’t think it’s fair to ice me out forever.

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—Bad Dad in Boca

Dear Bad Dad,

You don’t say what your child’s “dangerous” action was, but it’s hard for me to imagine any scenario where swiftly stopping him (e.g., from running into the road) would require being picked up and held against a wall and shouted at by an adult over twice his size. Your physical intimidation of your son didn’t “look bad,” it was bad—bad enough that your wife, who had to “stop” you (from what?), is still upset; bad enough that your pediatrician was informed; bad enough that your son continues to talk about it over a year later. If your wife is still angry, she is entitled to be, but I wouldn’t assume that she is “icing you out” to punish you. She could be genuinely uncomfortable or anxious in your presence (I know I would be) and unsure of how to act or what to say. As for your son, consider that he might be bringing it up not because he wants to rub it in when he’s mad at you, but because it was frightening and genuinely traumatic for him. It would make sense if he’s triggered when he’s upset, or when you are—he probably doesn’t know what to make of what happened and is worried it could happen again.

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If I witnessed anyone doing what you described in your letter, I would consider it abusive behavior, and it would completely and permanently change how I viewed them. I don’t know that I would ever fully trust or feel safe with them again. So I don’t think this is nearly as straightforward as your wife withholding forgiveness from you, or your son remembering only when he’s mad at you. This is an ongoing unstable situation that you yourself created. You really scared your family in that moment, and now you seem to want them to just turn off their fear and emotions—the direct result of your actions—and carry on as though nothing happened. That’s not a fair or realistic demand to make of them. Why should she or your son believe this won’t happen the next time you feel pushed to the limit?

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You don’t seem to see this incident as part of a pattern, and I really, really hope that’s true. But it seems likely that it didn’t just come out of nowhere—often, a loss of control like this is not a one-time occurrence. Before this happened, were there truly no other times when your wife or child might have been afraid or intimidated by your reaction, verbal or physical, to a “high-stress” situation? Have you accepted full responsibility for this and any other past incidents that may have crossed a line? Have you taken concrete steps to get real help addressing any inciting problems or anger issues that are present? As you think about all these questions, consider that whatever you’ve said or done so far has obviously not satisfied or reassured your wife. (If you’re telling her the same things you wrote in your letter—that pinning your first grader against a wall and yelling at him was a “mistake” made in a “high-stress moment”—I can see why she wouldn’t be convinced.)

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At minimum, you probably need the help of a trained counselor to work on anger and control issues, and any other issues that may be present. And to be clear, I’m not talking about couples counseling, at least not to address your behavior—it’s your responsibility to get the help you need in order to understand what happened and make whatever changes are necessary to ensure it never happens again. It is not the job of your wife or child to accept or solve your problems, to override their learned responses to your behavior, to put this incident behind them, or even to forgive you at this point. What they really need is to trust and feel safe with you, to not fear you or your reactions. This may or may not be possible, based on the history and whole picture—but if you do have any hope of it happening, it sounds like you have a lot more work to do.

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From this week’s letter, “My Daughter’s New Teacher Is the Mother of My Son’s Bully: “He told my 10-year-old son that if he didn’t give him $20, he’d beat him up.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am in my early 30s, and my husband will be 40 at his next birthday. When we married a couple of years ago, we were both fairly undecided/indifferent to the idea of having kids. Lately, though, he has really been pushing the conversation so that he “knows what his future looks like.” He doesn’t particularly like kids and never expresses an interest in having them for the sake of having a family or being a parent. I think he sees fatherhood as an achievement, a box to be checked off like another postgraduate degree, or making partner at his firm. I would theoretically like to have kids, but am cleareyed about the fact that a lot of the sacrifices will fall to me if we do have them, and I am not necessarily ready for that, hence my own reluctance to start a family. Over the weekend, I was at a family baby shower and texted him that the event was giving me a little bit of baby fever. I meant it to be a lighthearted comment, not to indicate that my feelings about having a baby were suddenly transformed. When I got home, he was so upset with me, saying that I had misled him and that I should never have made the comment, and reemphasizing that he needs to know what his future is going to look like. I am so confused at these comments and this attitude towards having kids. Can you help me with how to respond?

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—Confused When Contemplating Co-Parenting

Dear Confused,

I’d be confused, too, not to mention annoyed—he shouldn’t be lashing out at or blaming you for a lack of resolution on the kids issue. It almost sounds like he wants you to tell him how it’s going to be, but that would be skipping the typical and fairly crucial step where the two of you actually talk about what each of you wants! If you just tell him “what the future is going to look like” re kids, it makes it all too easy for him to blame you later if he’s unhappy with that outcome. (Also, I hate to be the one to break it to your spouse, but even if you knew that you wanted kids and he was 100 percent on board, that still wouldn’t tell you what the future holds, because every kid is unique and unpredictable.)

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Of course, neither of you should force the other to become a parent if they adamantly don’t want to, but the whole “kids or not?” discussion is one you should ideally be having together. Let your husband know that you want to start an open, frank conversation about what both of you want—ask each other questions, talk about your feelings and the pros and cons, all of that. It won’t necessarily lead to a quick resolution—you might not be on the same page, neither of you may feel sure of what you want just yet—but it should be an actual discussion. Right now you’re both just guessing at how the other feels and getting nowhere.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

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My wife and I (we’re both women) are at an impasse over the appropriate levels of chores for our 12- and 14-year-old daughters. My wife was always extremely busy in her childhood (year-round athletics, heavy course load, etc.) and remembers her parents letting her off the hook with chores when she got too busy with school/sports. She says it meant a lot to her that her parents only wanted her to focus on school, and that they were sensitive when she was overwhelmed. She has since grown up to be extremely responsible and keeps quite a clean home. My parents were similar with me, but I honestly became pretty lazy with chores as a result and never really learned to do them thoroughly. My inability to keep my home clean, get over the gross-out factor of cleaning a toilet, etc., has been a source of embarrassment in adulthood as I play “catch-up.”

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Our daughters generally contribute around the home—unloading the dishwasher, tidying their rooms, etc.—but they balk at cleaning toilets or sweeping because they’re too busy with school and extracurricular activities. My wife wants to give them a pass because they’re busy. I remember how I took advantage of this, and how it robbed me of learning to balance chores with fun time. I think we are both over-identifying with our respective childhoods, to the detriment of a balanced approach to our children. Is there an objective solution here? Is one of us correct, or should we find something in the middle?

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—To Chore or Not to Chore?

Dear To Chore,

I land more toward your end of the spectrum. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to do basic household chores and—this is key—not expect others to clean everything for them. When you get right down to it, it just shouldn’t take all that long to clean a toilet or sweep the kitchen floor. Especially when you practice! Nor do I buy that sweeping the kitchen on occasion is what’s going to keep one of your kids from getting that grade or sports scholarship. I can’t plausibly blame my chores for that B in calculus, and to this day I’m thankful that I didn’t leave home without knowing how to take care of one.

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Of course, you shouldn’t give your kids so many chores each week that it does interfere with schoolwork or becomes the main thing they remember about their childhoods. But remember, one day they’re all probably going to be out of your house, living either on their own or with others, and they will need to know how to care for their own spaces. You don’t want them to be the sort of people who leave all that domestic labor to their partners or spouses or roommates. They do need to know how to do a wide range of basic chores, and the only way they’ll learn is (at least some!) repetition.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I will preface this question by saying I don’t know anything about babies; my only experience is with my now-15-month-old, so I have no frame of reference as to what’s normal for babies, and since I had her during the pandemic, I haven’t been able to observe others. My girl is extremely active: She started walking at 10 months, so now she’s running and climbing and throwing her tiny body around. As a result, her legs are literally covered in bruises and scrapes. Nothing serious, and I know little kids get scraped up all time—but she’s not a little kid, she’s a baby. We got her some (cute, unicorn-covered) kneepads to wear at the playground, and her nanny has sought out play spaces with softer ground covering, but … am I doing something wrong? Should we be doing more to prevent her from taking spills? I thought it was healthy to let her do her thing (always at arm’s length) and promote her independence and physical development, but now I’m afraid people are going to think we abuse or neglect her or make fun of her (honestly, adorable!!) kneepads.

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—Rough ’n’ Tumble Baby

Dear Rough ’n’ Tumble,

I remember having to “spot” one of my kids on the playground equipment, as she was determined to shadow her older sibling and had no respect for gravity whatsoever until the age of 5, so I kinda know what you’re going through. Toddlers do make contact with the ground a whole lot—they’re learning their limits, but also those limits change week to week. You can’t do much to keep them from falling, indoors or outdoors, because you usually won’t see it coming. The good news is that you typically know right away or soon if they’re actually hurt.

If your toddler is falling hard enough to bruise and it’s happening often, it’s not a bad idea to seek out some softer places for her to land (carpet, grass, mats in a little kids gym—though I know this last one might be a nonstarter for you during a pandemic). When she is exploring on hard pavement, she might get scraped up less often if she wears pants instead of shorts or skirts. The kneepads are fine if they make you feel better, and I don’t think anyone will actually say anything to you or her about them. I think people generally know that kids’ limbs get banged up and scraped and bug-bitten and all the rest. Don’t worry, she’ll soon be falling a lot less!

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—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

I’m a guy and I got into a heated argument with my boyfriend a few days ago. I became silent and nonresponsive, and out of frustration he flung his coffee mug in my general direction, though quite far away from me. This is the first time something like this has happened, and we generally communicate well with each other. He regretted it instantly and was profusely apologetic afterward. We resolved the issue in the moment, but I have since felt angry about his violent act. He still regrets his action but says it’s unfair of me to call it “physically abusive.” I’m finding it difficult to get over this because abuse is something I find unacceptable in a relationship. He says it wasn’t physically abusive because it could not have hurt me—which is true. He denies that his casualness has anything to do with our gender—I still think it does. I have never felt unsafe in my relationship, but should I accept his apology?

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