Dear Care & Feeding,
My husband and I have been married for seven years, and we have two girls, ages 3 and 5. The girls have always favored me over my husband, despite our efforts to show he is also fun and loving. My eldest is often unnecessarily mean to my husband, not liking when he tries to give hugs or help her with simple things, which really hurts his feelings since he loves her so much. She can at times be very disrespectful, which is addressed. While I don’t agree with her behavior in any way, sometimes when I overhear her conversations with my husband, he is also pretty mean.
He has a tendency to take things personally and then blows up by either yelling or being sarcastic or passive aggressive. For instance, in a recent argument he told her, “You better stop now before I get really angry. Just shut up.” He is like this in arguments with me as well, which bothers me. However, I discuss these things with him, forgive, and move on as opposed to holding on to fights and arguments. Plus, if we dig too deep into his communication style, he tends to shut down.
I have brought up my concerns about his argument style, as well as concerns about his behavior toward our daughter and the impact it is having on their relationship, not to mention her emotional state. In his defense, he is sometimes receptive and will make a change to stay calm, talk politely, and make efforts to be more patient for several weeks. But if there is no change in our daughter’s behavior, he reverts back to yelling and being passive-aggressive. He then tells me not to interfere, saying that his style works better, which is to yell.
I am hesitant to interfere further, but I worry about the impact on my daughter. My husband does yell at our 3-year-old and loses his patience with her, but he’s much more forgiving of her behaviors because she is younger and enjoys spending time with him more than my oldest, so I think he connects with her easier. Overall, my husband is a good dad and husband, but at this point I am basically fed up with him because I feel like he needs to suck it up a little and be a parent instead of another 5-year-old having a tantrum. How can I handle this relational situation without interfering yet also not causing my daughter additional emotional pain?
—Mommy in the Middle
Dear Mommy in the Middle,
Sarcasm, passive aggressiveness, and shutting down dialogue when challenged are major barriers to effective communication between adults. These obstacles are even more insurmountable between parents and their small children. It doesn’t sound like your husband is able to effectively communicate with you or his daughters in a consistent way. He hasn’t mastered it with you, and you’re unable to help him negotiate the divide with your children. You also aren’t responsible for doing this for him. You shouldn’t be ignoring his behavior or making apologies and excuses for it. That won’t help any of you in the long run. It enables your husband to revert to his negative coping mechanisms, and it teaches your daughters to suppress their own observations and emotions about how their dad is treating them.
Your older daughter has already picked up on how difficult it is to interact peacefully with her dad. Be glad that she’s still pushing back and that she’s still being vocal about her experiences and her needs. It means she hasn’t shut down emotionally. She has yet to internalize the message that her father’s behavior should be ignored or forgiven without a sincere apology or a commitment to changing his behavior. Developing healthier communication will be easier before she does either of those things.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t sound like an issue that can be managed independently anymore. Your family would greatly benefit from an objective outside party to mediate and to provide you all with better communication strategies. Have you considered family counseling? Would your husband be open to it? At this point, it may be your best option to reduce the conflict in your household.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a postgraduate student in my late 20s. At the beginning of the pandemic, I moved back home to live with my parents and have been here ever since. It’s been fine! I pay rent, we respect each other’s privacy, and aside from some extremely minor squabbles about whose turn it is to do the dishes, we’ve all gotten along really well. I’ve been working from home this whole time and have even managed to save up some money, enough to afford to attend a study program in Europe next year. My problem is this: my mother is an anxious person who finds the idea of international travel, even pre-pandemic, a waste of time at best and a march to certain doom at worst. In her eyes, there’s not a country in the world that isn’t dirty, dangerous, and loaded with unsavory characters waiting to take advantage of me. She’s happily uninterested in watching news or documentaries so none of these opinions are based in fact, it’s just presumption. I, on the other hand, have a good amount of travel experience under my belt, and am conscious of the precautions I need to take abroad when traveling as a solo female. I respect local customs, I always have travel insurance and the phone number of the nearest embassy, and I don’t enjoy parties or extreme sports so all of my previous trips abroad have been quite tame.
I’m struggling with how to break it to my mother that I’ll be moving to Europe for six months if I’m accepted into this program. I certainly haven’t told either of my parents that I’m applying. I want to avoid the advance lectures and warnings, but I’ll need to tell them eventually if I’m accepted. What’s your advice on how to do this? I’m of course happy to have regular check-in calls with them and will give them all the details on where I’m staying, but I don’t want the months before I leave to be filled with dire warnings of how I’m practically volunteering to become Liam Neeson’s daughter in Taken. (Quite frankly, I’m envious of my friends whose parents are incredibly supportive of them and have been helping them with their applications. Why don’t I have that, too?!) If I get into the program, should I just wait until I’m a month out and then hit them with a, “Surprise!” conversation so I have enough time to prepare for the move without the hassle?
Dear Frustrated Traveler,
It can be disheartening to know that your parents aren’t able to support your dreams the way you’d like for them to. In her own way, your mother wants what she thinks is best for you: the relative safety of being close to home or at least stateside. But you know, based on what sounds like a good deal of enriching experiences abroad, that you’re capable of protecting yourself in unfamiliar surroundings and that you can reach out to the proper authorities for help should the unforeseen happen. Try to remind your mother of that as best you can.
You’re an adult. You can inform your parents of your plan on whatever timeline you feel would be best to minimize the stress of preparing to spend six months abroad. Regular check-in calls (or emails) while you’re away should set their minds at ease, but even if they don’t, remember that the best reassurance you can provide to your parents about how capable you are of living independently is to follow through with living independently, despite their worries.
For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a single father with sole custody of my 8-year-old son. Mostly things are well, but my son has a habit, which, through no fault of his own, causes me irrational distress. He often tries to communicate with me nonverbally using hand signals. I’m aware that this is pretty normal and appropriate behavior on his part—in his classroom, for example, the kids are encouraged to make certain requests, such as drinking water or going to the bathroom using hand signals.
My problem is that I’m not just really bad at reading nonverbal signals. It actually causes me great mental anguish when people—especially loved ones—try. I know this sounds overly dramatic, but it’s almost like spiders are crawling across my brain.
I’m pretty sure I know the cause. While I was always bad at this as a teen and young man, it really became a problem when I was married. My ex-wife (not the mother of my son, by the way) was one of those women who would always try to get me to read her mind and send me “signals” but then would get upset with me when I would fail to notice or correctly interpret them. She would then later berate me, using my failure to understand as “proof” that I didn’t really love her. She’s long gone, happily, and I don’t miss a thing about her, but she left me with this feeling of helplessness when I have to try and interpret nonverbal communication. I don’t lose my patience with my son when he tries it. I know he’s not doing it to try and get a rise out of me and I feel bad that something so innocent should cause me such distress. I try to hide it from him while encouraging him to be direct with his communication. Therapy isn’t an option—I live in a rural area where it’s simply not available. Do I just ride this out? Or should I be firmer with him that I need him to verbalize when he wants something?
—Use Your Words
Dear Use Your Words,
Rather than working to hide your distress from your son, be honest with him about your limitations here. He doesn’t need to know why you have a hard time processing nonverbal cues, but you can explain to him that everyone communicates differently and while it’s great that he’s able to use nonverbal expressions to convey his needs in school, that technique doesn’t work so well for you at home.
It’s important that he knows that this is your issue, not his. It can seem counterintuitive to admit our vulnerabilities to our young children, but you’d be surprised at how willing they often are to help us navigate them, once they know about them.
Also: I know you mentioned that therapy isn’t a very accessible option where you live. I’d like to suggest that while in-person therapy may not be readily available, online options are. Provided that you have reliable internet, virtual counseling may be an option you’d like to consider.
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From this week’s letter, “Our Family Is About to Go Through a Very Confusing Change”: “We’re just not sure how to discuss this with such a young child.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My son “Thomas” just started 10th grade two weeks ago. In science class, his assigned lab partner is a girl, “Ava,” who he hadn’t met before. Since the second day of school, Ava has shown a clear interest in Thomas. She waits outside his class for him at the beginning of lunch and at the end of the day. She texts him every day asking him to come with her for one activity or another. The first weekend after school started, she texted him multiple times asking if he wanted to hang out that weekend. She follows him around the hallways at school. Thomas is feeling overwhelmed by all this. He went on a couple of outings with Ava during lunch, but says he is not interested in more. He says that Ava is a decent lab partner, but he does not want to be spending so much time with her after class and is uncomfortable with her frequent texts. However, he doesn’t want to hurt Ava’s feelings or make things awkward between them, since they will be in class together for the rest of the semester. Thomas is becoming increasingly upset by this and is now anxious about returning to school. How can I help him with this situation?
—Lab Partner Drama
Dear Lab Partner Drama,
Unwanted attention can be very uncomfortable, and it sounds like Thomas feels out of his depth in explaining to Ava that he doesn’t welcome her advances. I’m guessing that before a few weeks ago, neither of them has had in-person school for quite some time, which could be heightening both Ava’s eagerness to make a new friend (or a more-than-friend) and Thomas’ discomfort with that eagerness. Regardless, he has every right to tell Ava he isn’t interested in spending time with her outside of their lab. And telling her that will be among the first of many opportunities he’ll have to let someone know that he isn’t interested in socializing with them. It’s a skill he’ll need to hone, and you’re in a great position to help him develop it.
Ava is being direct with Thomas. Thomas should, in turn, be direct with Ava. He should be as clear in his disinterest as she is in her interest, letting her know that he’d rather keep their interaction limited to their class time and projects. But make sure that he understands that being direct needn’t be cruel. He enjoys being her lab partner; he can lead with that, letting her know that he appreciates being able to count on her to contribute to their assignments. Having the conversation in person, perhaps at the end of their shared class, would also help. Unlike expressing his feelings via text, talking to Ava in person should preempt the need for a follow-up conversation. It may not do much to soften the blow, but a kind word, delivered face-to-face, can go a long way toward making a hard truth easier to hear and accept.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I are expecting our first child, and the day cares we’re considering have long waitlists. We’d have an advantage if we joined the church one of them is part of, but we are atheists. To further complicate things, my husband’s parents would like us to baptize our child in their church, which is different from the day care church. We don’t know which, if either, is the right thing to do. What do you think?