Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
I’m a stay-at-home mom with a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old. My husband works long hours at a very intense, high-stress job in order to afford our wonderful house, top-flight health insurance, retirement and college savings, cars, vacations, and the thousand little nice things that make our lives more bearable, even when it feels like the world is going to hell. We have a weekly cleaning service for the big stuff like floors and bathrooms, but other than that I do close to 100 percent of the housework and childcare. My husband plays with the kids and reads to them for an hour or so before bed, watches them for a couple of hours on weekends, and that’s it. And dare I say … I’m happy? I feed, bathe, change, cook, do laundry, errands, appointments, take the kids to parks and museums … and I still get far more reading and writing done than when I was single, working a 40-hour-a-week office job that mentally exhausted me.
My two closest SAHM friends are in very similar positions to me, yet constantly fighting with their husbands over housework. They complain that these guys come home after working 10-12+ hours and just want to relax, instead of immediately taking over the kids and pitching in with dinner, dishes, laundry—and I have to bite my tongue when I think, isn’t that how it should be? It seems to me that one partner doing 100 percent of the income earning and the other doing 100 percent of the homemaking is a fair division of labor, regardless of the gender(s) involved. So would each partner doing 50 percent of each, or any equivalent. But I don’t hear my friends volunteering to get part-time jobs if their husbands pitch in at home.
I do my best to listen and sound supportive, but they still end up resenting me for not being more vehemently on their side and ripping into their husbands as selfish, lazy douchebags.
The worst, to me, is when they claim to feel like single moms. I and my brother were raised by an actual single mom, with close to zero financial support from either of our fathers, and I can attest that our lives growing up were approximately ten million times harder and less pleasant than these women’s. So how should I respond to their complaints? Continue biting my tongue? Snap and tell them they don’t know how good they have it? Find better friends? Or what?
— Not Superpowered, Just Content
Dear Just Content,
If your friends were just making cracks about being single moms, I’d say call them in about it and see if they change their ways. But the fact that they resent you for not sharing their frustrations about the division of labor leads me to believe that you are just misaligned. If it didn’t bother you or them, it would be one thing, but it seems they want a friend who will commiserate (or at least agree with their outlook), and you want friends who don’t complain about these things. I wonder if you’d be better served with friends who share your worldview. It’s less about who is right and wrong here; simply put, you’re content and it sounds like you’ll be happier with people who are similarly content. It doesn’t sound like their discontentment is pushing you to discover anything you’ve not noticed or to think about things in different ways, so I wonder what the friendship is bringing you. However, if they are great friends otherwise, you may want to see if you all can maintain a friendship without talking about housework. It may not be what they’re looking for, but it’s worth a shot.
My mother has a boundaries problem. I am in my mid-twenties and independence means a lot to me, but it feels like she’s stripping me of my agency! Here are some examples of ways she has trampled my boundary in the past seven days alone. My apartment’s leasing office kept sending us incorrect versions of the lease we needed to renew. She asked me if she could call them. I clearly said “no; I can do this.” She called anyway and only told me afterwards (and this is not the first time she’s done this). Mom asked if she could send me money for a trip I was taking (which I could entirely pay for on my own); I said no, we went back and forth for about twenty minutes with me saying no, I finally agreed to a small amount even though I really value my financial independence, she transferred an amount even larger than the original amount into my bank account after looking at the balance in my checking account and saying it wasn’t enough. She texts me 5-to-6 times a day while I am at work asking how I am and if I say something like “busy” or “good” she gets sad.
I have tried to talk to her about boundaries. She always justifies her intervention, because I am in a competitive and intense graduate program and have an anxiety disorder, and she only works a few hours a day, so I must need her help to keep my anxiety down. But this is making me more stressed! I only see her once every few months now because I feel like if I give her an inch, she’ll take a mile. Any tips on a better script for establishing boundaries than “no, don’t do this” beforehand and “I asked you not to do this” afterwards?
— Open Borders, but Firm Boundaries!
Dear Firm Boundaries,
It’s going to take a little while for your mother to adjust to the new relationship that you two are building. Some of it will come as you two separate your finances—it sounds like she’s cosigner on your lease and has access to your bank accounts; that won’t always be the case, and those kinds of actual boundaries will help you to feel more independent. Prior to that, however, you should try reframing your no’s as positives you’re excited about. With the trip money, for instance, I wonder how differently things might have worked out if you’d said something like “I’m really excited to be able to afford this trip on my own and it helps my self-confidence to be able to do it. Thanks for trusting me to manage my money enough to do this independently.” She’d probably still give you money, as that sounds like that’s part of her love language and also reduces her anxiety. But it may help you to feel differently about it.
With the texting, I think you can be more straightforward and tell her that while you appreciate her reaching out, it actually ratchets up your anxiety to receive so many texts during the work day. Ask her if she can try to only text you after you’ve gotten off. You can also ask if it will help her anxiety to hear from you first, if that’s something you’re interested in doing. It may not be appealing to commit to a “I’m home from work” text every day, but the two of you will benefit from some kind of new arrangement. You may need to remind her of this a few times because, chances are, she’s spending her down time thinking about you, and it’s hard to remember that one’s child isn’t as available as they always were when the child starts venturing out on their own.
My wife and I are lucky to have lowish student debt, but we struggle with low-paying jobs and sky-high rent. Our family has had a beach house in tourist trap city for over twenty years. It is in fairly good condition, but my parents don’t want to rent it out anymore. The city has a ban short-term rentals after AirBnB flooded the market. Most people want to stay a week, not two, so the house stands empty more often than not. My parents have offered us the house with the caveat that we would have to host my family for at least two weeks a year (which could be broken up). We could easily transfer our careers over since I work from home and she is in education.
I am all for this, even if only for a few years. We would be able to save money and pay off our debts. The area has a low-cost living and a lot of local farms. My wife hates the idea. She thinks that my parents are putting too many strings on the gift and should just sell the house and give us the money. I told her that they would never do that since my two sisters visit the beach every year and the money would be split between all the kids, including the grandkids. My parents are just like that. My wife tells me she hates having the obligation to host, and I point out we personally have stayed multiple times with my family without a problem. My sisters are reasonable, the kids well behaved, and we could just time it so we went to visit her parents instead when they came over (just lock the bedroom door). Then she went on about how she hates the weather, can’t speak the local language, and finally broke down crying and said she didn’t want to leave our city. She grew up here, went to college here, her friends were here, and her parents were here. That felt like a slap in the face because a big promise in our marriage was travel. We promised to try and live overseas at least once or twice. We haven’t been able to save up for that at all.
I love my wife, but I feel cheated here. I feel stuck. I feel suffocated at the thought of living like this for the next five, 10, 20 years. Part of me just wants move down on my own and let my wife decide what her heart wants the most. But I don’t know if that will kill my marriage or not. And we did do pre-marital counseling, but obviously we not on the same page with all this. Help please.
— Stay or Seaside
Dear Stay or Seaside,
There’s a big difference between wanting to go on vacation and wanting to live on vacation, and it seems like that’s where you two are getting tripped up. Indeed, in your wife’s view, owning and being responsible for this home might be antithetical to the idea of vacation.
It’s work, it pulls her out of a community she loves, and it might not bring you any closer to your shared goal of travel. For you, the vacation home is home as well as a respite. It’s not that for your wife, and it seems the financial leg up it would provide comes with too many strings for her to navigate. Neither one of you is right or wrong, but by the same token neither one of you has betrayed the other. This is just a house that doesn’t work for both of you.
The hard thing, of course, is that it’s a free house. But I encourage you to see your wife’s point of view: that this house is not actually totally free. Your parents have a major say in what happens to it and have placed strings on the gift. And any strings, no matter how light, are going to chafe. In any other circumstance, a person’s in-laws don’t really have a say over what a person does with their house. So, maybe your wife is having a hard time getting around that shift. Additionally, this move would presumably require her to start over in a new school, while your job remains the same. There’s a lot of changes being asked of her here. So, just as you’re afraid of being suffocated by your rent, she’s afraid of being suffocated by a loss of freedom.
See if you can have a conversation that’s not about the house at all. Talk about what your shared plan is for saving money, traveling, prioritizing your goals. The house is a distraction right now. It’s one option, but from your letter I don’t know if you’ve had conversations about other options. Talk through your plan for making a change that will free both of you equally. Maybe the best option is actually to take the vacation home, but to limit the stay to one year. Maybe it’s to decline the house but still move. This conflict doesn’t have to tank your marriage if you both can have a conversation about shared goals together and listen to what each other is actually asking for.
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My 6-year-old daughter falls apart every time I leave the house. I work a flexible schedule so sometimes I’ll be home for a little bit after school and then go to work in the evening, and sometimes I’ll have to work for an hour or two on a weekend morning. While my 2-year-old is chill about this, my 6-year-old completely loses it. She does this (hysterical sobbing) no matter who’s staying with her—her dad, our amazing regular babysitter, or her grandma (whom she really loves). And I want to scream at her that I have to work so we can live and she knows I’m coming back, but that doesn’t seem like the right reaction…