Care and Feeding

My Wife Undermines My Parenting

How can I get her to stop?

A mother smiles as she holds two toddlers who are kissing her
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by forsiba/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 dad to our three children (all under age 7) while my wife, a doctor, works long and unpredictable hours. We always knew I’d be staying at home and taking on the majority of the child care. I have no issues with that and in fact, I really appreciate getting to be with my kids at an age when I, myself, never really saw my working-all-the-time parents.

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Here’s the problem: My wife’s hours are unpredictable and it’s completely throwing a wrench in any semblance of routine or consistency with the kids. She will have a week at a time where she’s off call and home pretty much all day—which, though lovely, is disruptive in its own way. The kids are so excited to have so much time with her, and they get wound up and thrown off their routines. Then, there will be four weeks at a time when she’s on call; some days this looks like a 9-to-5 schedule and other days she’s getting up at 2 a.m. to deliver a baby. I am basically a single parent during these times—except when she’s coming home unexpectedly, it lands right during nap time, the kids are thrilled, and all hell breaks loose.

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When she’s home, my wife does attempt to follow through with the discipline and routines our kids are used to. But she often misses crucial information when she’s not home and then unknowingly undermines decisions I’ve already made about chores, housework, play dates, you name it. I’m also feeling some resentment that the kids really love having her around, and they react much more tepidly to my presence. Because my wife’s hours are unpredictable, her presence is something fun/exciting/out of the ordinary whereas mine is boring and predictable. It really sucks spending two hours on a bedtime routine only for her to unexpectedly walk in the door and be greeted by children throwing themselves at her—not to be put to bed for another two hours after that.

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My wife’s schedule should ease up in another one to two years as she gets more seniority in her private practice. But until then, do you have any ideas on how we can keep things more routine even if one parent’s work schedule is pretty much as unpredictable as a work schedule could get? I’ve even thought of asking her not to come home for an hour if doing so would disrupt nap time or bedtime, but this seems cruel. Please help.

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—Dad in Distress

Dear Dad,

I feel your pain as a former stay-at-home dad. It was easily the toughest job I’ve ever had in my life, but also the most rewarding.

It seems like the biggest problem here is the communication you’re having with your wife. You mentioned that she unknowingly undermines household decisions you’ve made as the primary caretaker of your children—but isn’t it your responsibility to let her know that? This is only going to get worse unless you have a serious talk with her as soon as possible.

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Like you said, it certainly isn’t a good look to have your wife stay away from her own home for up to an hour while you handle the bedtime routine, but there are other ways to make it work. First off, I would request that the unexpected home visits end. Simply have your wife text you with an approximate time she’s planning on coming home so you can work together to create an effective plan to handle your kids.

Routines are great and all, but you shouldn’t let your life become ruled by them. If their normal bedtime is at 8, and she texts you to say that she’ll be home at 8:30, perhaps you should keep the kids up a little longer and let her handle the bedtime routine instead. I’m sure she feels some level of guilt about not being at home as often as she’d like, so you can give her the opportunity to bond with the kiddos in her own way, while you take a much-needed mental health break. Kids are way more resilient than we give them credit for, and they will be able to adjust accordingly.

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Do you discuss your thinking with your wife on things like chores, housework, bedtime, and play dates? You may have a better window into your kids’ day-to-day lives during her work hours, but I would think she’d like to be involved in some of those decisions and, as I mentioned, participate in the execution of them when she is home. Again, I think it comes back to communicating with her.

Last, but not least, I would also suggest going to therapy with your wife, because I can feel the resentment coming through the computer screen. In my experience, what you’re feeling is pretty common among stay-at-home parents, so I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it, but opening up lines of communication will help you get on the right track.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My spouse and I just had an offer accepted on a town home and (knock on wood) are set to become first-time homeowners. We’re excited to have found such a nice place that we didn’t have to overbid on in a relatively good location. All that being said, the schools aren’t quite what we’d hoped. Our new home is in the same school district I grew up in (and loved), but the schools all have low ratings on GreatSchools (3, 3, and 5). We plan to start trying to have a kid next year, so school-age kids are still six to seven years away. But it’s on our minds.

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I’m trying to think if there’s anything my spouse and I can do about this other than just requesting transfers or moving when we get to that point. As a kid, I vividly remember most of my close friends from elementary school being pulled out of our school district by their parents by the time we all reached high school. I hated it and thought their parents were being snobbish. Some went to the bougie, rich-kid school districts and one went to private school. From those I kept in touch with, I know we all ended up accepted to the same colleges and got similar-level jobs. To be fair, though, I did go to the best schools out of my school district, and my old schools are ranked higher than the schools of my future kids, particularly elementary and middle schools.

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The metrics that my own parents have been talking about seem pretty classist (but, maybe, somewhat true?). Think “This school has a higher percentage of kids who live in apartments; therefore, their families are more transient, they may have tougher home lives, and thus could be bad classmates.” Other factors are pretty basic facts, like graduation rates and grades. I know from school websites that our kids’ future schools at least say the right things (think social emotional learning). But a teacher I know brushed that off as PR and said the metrics mattered more than the websites.

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Basically what I’m wondering is if there’s anything I can do as a childless community member to support these schools to improve, particularly the elementary school? I can (and do) vote for school funding measures. But anything else? If there’s anything specific to support children of color too, that’d be helpful to know (I’m white, but my spouse is Hispanic, so our kids will be bilingual and biracial).

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Selfishly, it’s about my kids. But I care about my community too.

—Hoping the Answer Isn’t “Just Be Rich”

Dear Hoping,

I’m pretty skeptical of those school ranking systems. As a person who visits schools often for work, I will say that often the most thoughtful, polite, and intelligent kids I encounter are from inner-city schools with lower-than-average ratings. Not to mention, I went to an elite, predominantly white high school for one year, and without question my public high school experience was exponentially better and healthier for me. Other than the fact that there were more kids who looked like me who walked the hallways, I felt like I was a part of a community instead of feeling like an outsider as one of a few Black kids on my private school’s campus. In other words, I felt more at ease at my public school, and my grades were excellent because I felt safer. I also felt like my public school teachers were way better than my private school ones, because they didn’t let their biases influence their interactions with me. My point is that numbers and rankings don’t begin to tell the whole story.

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What I’m getting at is: Maybe these schools don’t need to improve? Have you set foot inside of them? Observed a few classes? Until you do that, you can’t really say how good or bad a school is. Speak to the administrators of your kids’ potential future school and ask to volunteer in some capacity. It may be tricky during COVID, and you’ll be subjected to background checks and things of that ilk, but if successful, it can give you a better idea of what life is like there. You can also reach out to the PTA to find out more about the school.

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You ask what you can do to support kids of color? One of the best ways to do that is to stand with them. In my community, some white people put “Black Lives Matter” signs on their front yards, but in the same breath they vote against affordable housing measures in our neighborhood—which to me means they’re nothing but bad actors. Instead of taking the easy route of running to a so-called highly ranked school, show your community that your children can attend your neighborhood school and still be successful.

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As you do so, attend school board meetings, run for PTA office, and make friends with the parents of your children’s classmates. I’m not saying it will be easy or that it will happen overnight, but you could truly change the schools’ reputation just by being involved and inspiring others to do the same.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My teenage daughter “Anna” has three close friends. They are great girls with whom Anna has a lot in common. One thing they don’t all share is race. All three girls are from immigrant families from different countries and cultures. Our family is white. I love that my daughter’s friend group is so diverse, but lately, her friends have taken to teasing her about her outlier status—calling her a “cracker,” making fun of her “Southern accent” (which she doesn’t have), etc. Anna wants this to stop. She obviously can’t and won’t reciprocate. Based on past interactions, directly asking her friends to stop will result in accusations of being overly sensitive or taking things too seriously. What should she do?

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—Response Needed

Dear Response Needed,

Everyone should be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, or anything else. Whenever my kids approach me to say they’re being teased or bullied, I constantly remind them that anyone who consistently makes them feel bad aren’t really their friends. The same rule applies here.

As you mentioned, two wrongs don’t make a right, so she definitely shouldn’t respond with a racist clap-back of her own—but I don’t see anything wrong with telling her friends to knock it off. Your daughter should set clear boundaries to let these kids know she won’t tolerate that kind of behavior going forward.

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She can start by saying something like this: “Hey, I’m not cool with these jokes anymore. They’re not funny and they really bother me. If you’re truly my friend, you’ll take this seriously and stop.” If they shrug it off, continue the offensive behavior, or double-down by calling her an oversensitive snowflake, then she should really question if they are really her friends.

If someone I cared about told me that I did something to offend them, I would apologize profusely and stop immediately. These girls should do the same thing, and if they are as great as you say they are, they most likely will.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My family just moved for my dad’s job, and I started at a high school with a mostly immigrant population. I made friends with a great group of kids who are all Black, mostly first-generation families from the Caribbean or Africa. I’m white, and although my last school and extracurriculars were diverse, I’ve never been this close with a group who’s all the same race except me.

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Today when we were hanging out, they started making jokes about getting beaten by their parents. I thought it was just “if I did that, my parents would kick my butt” kind of jokes, but they were sharing details and taking off a shoe to playfully hit each other. I asked if they really got hit, and they just laughed and said how white I am and that it was normal in their cultures. I never really got a definitive yes that they were being abused at home, but the jokes about chanclas and their parents made it seem like dark humor about real experiences. I don’t want to tell my parents and be the white person who overreacts and calls the cops if it’s just something I don’t understand, but I don’t want my friends to get abused either. Is this a kind of humor I don’t get as an outsider, or should I do something?

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—The White Friend

Dear White Friend,

As I’ve said numerous times around here, I have very little respect for any parents who resort to physical violence of any kind when raising their kids. There is no excuse to ever hit a child, and I’m willing to die on that hill.

However, I think in this instance you would be best served not to intervene, at least not yet. As much as I vehemently disagree with anyone who thinks it’s OK to lay their hands on a child, there are differences between discipline and abuse.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell your parents based on what you know—and certainly do not tell the police, because that could end up traumatizing your friends in a way that could affect them forever. That said, you should definitely keep your eyes peeled for obvious red flags of abuse such as facial bruising, unexplained broken bones, burn marks, strong mood swings, being petrified of their parents, and reacting in fear if you ever ask to visit their home, to name a few. (See this resource for signs of child abuse, as well as a hotline if you have questions.) If you have a close relationship with your friends, you should be able to have an open discussion with them if you feel the line has been crossed between discipline and abuse.

If your gut tells you something is seriously wrong, then you should take the requisite actions to address it. Start by talking to your parents.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I are parents to an amazing 20-month-old boy. Before I became pregnant, my husband and I went out weekly with co-workers after work. My husband still attends these and ends up getting sloshed. I love staying home, and I’m over these get-togethers, but my husband insists I need to get out more and should come along. What should I do?

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