Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I have a 9-year-old son, and I work from 7-3, so I pick him up after school. There is a 45-minute lag between when he gets out of school and when I can get there, so he goes to an afterschool program at a local community center. It is a good program, and a lot of his friends go to it. The people who work there help the kids with their homework, organize activities, feed them a snack, and also leave them a lot of free play time, participating in activities of their choosing. My son loves going there.
Last year my son asked if I could pick him up later so he could have more time there with his friends. I thought this was a reasonable request and started using the time after work to run errands, get in a workout, or just unwind from the day. I usually pick him up from the program between 4:30 and 5, and we are home in time to have dinner on the table when my wife gets home at 6. We do this every day but one, when I pick him up at 4, and he and I and one of his friends and that friend’s father play racquetball together. Here’s the problem: My wife hates this arrangement. She wants me to get him right after work and find things to do with him. And it’s not that I’d mind that—but 1) it’s not what he wants, and 2) there is not a whole lot for us to do. He is a 9-year-old kid—he wants to play with his friends. There are no kids his age in our neighborhood, and he’s shy (so if I take him to a local park, he usually just hangs back instead of joining the other kids). He isn’t into organized sports. If we go straight home, he’s bored (of course). I have tried taking him to afterschool events at the library and local arts center, and he’s thought they were OK but would rather be at the community center with his friends. Staying at the program late allows him to run off some energy and interact with his peers, and when he comes home he is in a good mood, his homework is done, and we can just spend the evening hanging out as a family.
My wife will not hear any of these arguments. Her “compromise” is that I pick up both our son and a friend for playdates every week—which makes no sense to anyone, since we are all paying for the program and the kids are already on a “playdate” there. But my wife says “a mother would never be able to get away with doing this” and that I am neglecting my duties as a father. She says it is unfair that I get two hours after work to “check out of parenting” while she has to come home right after work and start parenting. I’ve told her she didn’t have to, that she could take some time for herself if she wanted, but she says she can’t do that because she’d have less time with our son in the evenings. She’s made comments about me not being a committed father, even though I have a great relationship with our kid and we do lots of things together on the weekends.
I’ve tried to understand my wife’s perspective. I understand that, as a man, I don’t understand the pressure and guilt put on mothers. But I am standing firm on this. I’ve told her that this arrangement works for the two people it affects and I don’t want to change it. She counters that I have no right to do something that makes her uncomfortable, or that she feels strongly opposed to. But this isn’t me deciding on medical treatment or signing him up for a sport she hates. This is 90 extra minutes max at an afterschool program our kid enjoys—and that she is choosing to be opposed to. Am I missing something here? Should I just keep ignoring her demands until she stops making them? I am tired of fighting with her about this.
—It’s Just an Afterschool Program!
What you’re missing—though you pay lip service to knowing about “the pressure and guilt put on mothers”—is how frustrated your wife is with the status quo. I don’t think this argument is really about the afterschool program, and I think if you two keep arguing about that, with both of you pretending that that’s the real problem, you’ll get nowhere.
Of course you’re right: this arrangement, as you’ve described it, makes good sense (it sounds like a dream arrangement: the kid gets all his homework done, gets to play with his friends, gets fed, and is otherwise well-cared for in the hours immediately following school, and he begs to be allowed to participate? Plus you get access to that rarest of parenting pleasures, time to yourself?). But please don’t be disingenuous about this. Of course your wife is frustrated by this. She has no time to herself: she is always working or parenting. Your suggestion that she take time off from parenting “for herself” is infuriating to her. She is stuck between a rock and a hard place—like so many parents (more mothers than fathers, but some fathers too). Your failure to fully appreciate this is the real problem. (And honestly, she should not have to explain this to you.) Her life is harder than yours. That’s not your fault, but it’s a fact.
You’re right that your son should not be punished for it—he should not be picked up early from a program he loves. But your attitude, which comes through loud and clear in your letter and thus probably comes through loud and clear when you and your wife argue about this, that she is unreasonable (hysterical?) and you are the very definition of logic and good sense, is not helping matters.
If you can’t get to a place where you fully appreciate and are compassionate about your wife’s situation, your marriage is in trouble. Tell her you understand where she’s coming from, but not until you really do understand. Ask her to talk to you about how she feels. Ask her if there’s anything you can do to lighten her load, or if there’s anything else she’d like to change. (Maybe the answer is nothing—maybe she just needs to be heard and understood.)
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From this week’s letter, My Friend’s Girlfriend Is Only Interested in One Thing: “The problem is that Tim (and many of our friends) have caught Sarah in major lies.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
Some years ago (I am in my 30s), my parents got an ugly divorce, and as part of the fallout, my mother tried to use me to fill the emotional hole in her life. She constantly sought my reassurance and then endlessly apologized for it, constantly called and texted me. When I tried to gently push back (“Hey, I’m really slammed this week, can we catch up this weekend?”), she would spiral. Eventually I got into therapy and limited my contact with her, which has helped me a lot, but our relationship is dicey at best.
Now I am engaged to be married, and my fiancé has a mother who is a lot like mine. She’s a nice lady, but our interactions are difficult for me. Example: she’s recently had to downsize so she’s taken to offering me a lot of her old clothes, which I almost always cheerfully decline (“Oh, no thank you, but thanks for thinking of me!”)—which leads to a spiral of, “I’m so sorry to bother you, I didn’t think you’d like it but I’d never forgive myself if you did want it, but I’m so sorry, I know you’re busy…” which basically doesn’t end until I reassure her that no, everything is fine! And then she’ll offer me another shirt a week later. Or she’ll text me with some unsolicited “tip” (about dog training or whatever), then ask me if I’m going to follow it. If I respond with anything but a full-throated yes, for whatever reason, (and I’m always polite!), there’s another apology spiral.
She’s the same way with my fiancé, but they’re fairly close and it doesn’t bother him at all. He’s sympathetic to my discomfort and is happy to deal with her when she goes to him after my reassurance is insufficient (which usually happens), but the whole thing makes me incredibly anxious and uncomfortable. I’ve urged him to talk to her about the larger pattern of her behavior, but he’s hesitant to, because “it’s so ingrained” and due to low self-esteem. He thinks it will hurt her feelings and not make a difference in the way she behaves anyway.
My immediate problem that of course she wants to be fully involved in wedding planning and “celebrate her new daughter,” while her every text to me makes me want to tear my hair out. I’m tempted to elope! And while I’d love for both my MIL-to-be and my mother to go to therapy for their obvious anxiety, of course that’s a hard no from both of them. How do I get through this wedding, and then the rest of my life?
—Let’s Run Away to Tahiti and Never Come Back!
It is a sad fact of life that we can’t fix other people, no matter how broken they may be—no matter how obvious their brokenness may be to us (and no matter how distressing their brokenness is to us). Your decision to limit contact with your own mother was a self-preserving recognition of this.
But here’s the thing: there is no one-size-fits-all recognition—or solution—to the problem of dealing with people whose behavior is less than ideal. Your fiancé, as you note, is not troubled by his mother’s “apology spirals.” He is sympathetic to her troubles, and her behavior doesn’t madden him the way it maddens you (with its echo of your own mother’s behavior). This may be partly a result of his temperament (we are all different, after all) but it also suggests to me that his history with his mother is less fraught than yours (with your own mom), not to mention that he has a lifetime of experience dealing with his mother’s way of communicating and may have learned to tune it out or do whatever is necessary to appease her.
I’m going to make a wild guess here that your mother’s divorce, and her subsequent leaning on you, followed a much less close and loving mother-child relationship than you might have wished for in your childhood, that your resentment of her wanting you to take care of her during this rough stretch of hers has deep roots. (In other words: if this was a fleeting moment of role-reversal, you might not have been quite so frustrated by it.) So—first—I urge you to do everything you can to separate (in your mind) these two mothers. Your mother-in-law is not your mother; certain of her behaviors simply remind you of your own mother. That reminder is a trigger for you, but in and of itself it’s not all that awful. Sure, dealing with someone who constantly apologizes is annoying, but it’s not a psychological assault (again: it reminds you of a psychological assault—which is bad enough, I know, but is of a different order of magnitude tha your problem with your own mother). There’s no percentage in trying to convince your fiancé to have a talk with his mother about her “larger pattern” of behavior. If it doesn’t bother him, don’t try to make it bother him. But I also don’t think you have to be the one to talk to her (most of the time); it’s perfectly fine to keep a certain amount of distance from your mother-in-law if she drives you crazy. So if she wants to be involved in wedding planning, that’s her son’s problem to handle (or not handle), not yours. If she texts you about the wedding, text back, Sorry! I’m so busy right now—better talk to Bob instead. Pass all phone calls off to him. And if she texts just to say, Oh, I am so happy that you’re going to be my daughter!, it’s OK to text back Thanks, and leave it at that. As to the offerings of hand-me-downs: keep your responses minimal to those too. Thanks, but I don’t need anything. And step off the cycle of apology/reassurance. Text back It’s OK and stop there; if you’re talking on the phone or in person, say “It’s OK” and then change the subject. Do not engage.
The way to keep your sanity—during this wedding planning period (though I myself am a fan of elopement; it’s what I did, and I’ve never been sorry) and for the rest of your life—is to do what you can to protect yourself, rather than making an effort to change anyone else (or making an effort to get anyone else to change anyone else!).
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
In June 2021 I left my husband of 23 years. Although we had some ups and downs throughout the years, he was a good husband and a great father to our now 20- and 22-year-old daughters. We were a close family and had a great circle of friends. To most people who knew us, we looked like the picture of a perfect marriage/family. But for at least the final five years of our marriage, I knew I wasn’t in love with him and I was starting to panic about being empty nesters, as our daughters were starting university and moving away.
While for the first 15 years or so of our marriage, there was no reason for him to mistrust me, in its later years I engaged in mild (and not so mild) flirtations with other men. I am not proud of my actions, and looking back I can’t even recognize who that woman was. In any case, in February 2021, I unexpectedly fell in love with another man and began an affair with him that lasted for four months. In June 2021, my husband overheard me having therapy on Zoom (thank you, Covid!) and confronted me. I admitted the affair and told him I was in love with the other man. My husband and I talked and cried nonstop for four days, and I made the difficult decision to choose ME and my happiness and moved out of the house. I knew my kids would be upset, hurt, and angry, but I assumed that at the stage they were at in their lives, they would understand (or try to).
Things have not gone that way at all. I haven’t seen my younger daughter in a year. My older daughter has been a little more hot and cold with me, although more cold than hot. She is at least more communicative than her sister (and by that I mean occasionally she will text me telling me how angry she is). I have tried to respect their desire for time and space to grieve, but I am afraid we will never find our way back to each other. I text them often, but they rarely reply. I’ve begged them to go to a therapist with me. They will not. My younger daughter is completely closed off and shut down. My older one sporadically sees a therapist on her own. As a child of divorce myself (my father left my mother for another woman when I was 14), I understand their pain, anger, betrayal, and sadness all too well. I just don’t know how they can heal and grieve without even having one conversation with me. (I should add that my soon-to-be ex-husband and I are actually fine with each other now and have remained in contact throughout the year and a half.) I know my daughters are tired of my texts (they say they feel they’re “just words”). I want to respect their desire for space while still trying to prove to them that they are the most important people in my life. Because I didn’t end the relationship with my now boyfriend, they do not accept that they are my priority. I wish I had had the courage to leave my husband before meeting someone else. I wish I had not left the family home and not left my older daughter to look after my husband, who was a broken and destroyed man for a few months. But I can’t undo any of the things I did. I feel like my 20 years of mothering counts for nothing now and it breaks my heart that they’re choosing to live without me in their lives. Can you help us? I want to do something, but I don’t know what!
—Left My Husband, Lost My Daughters
You need to step away from your phone. Stop texting them. It’s not doing either you or them any good, and it’s not going to suddenly start doing any of you any good. At this point, it seems like your contacting them in this way is compulsive behavior you’re engaging in to try to ease your anxiety about your relationships with them (and it’s not working anyway—you’re still consumed by it).
Your daughters need time to work through this on their own. Whether they get consistent (or any) therapy or not, it’s not going to happen overnight. They are choosing to live without you in their lives right now—that doesn’t mean this will last forever. (Honestly, if your relationships with them were good before this fissure in your family, I don’t believe for a second this distance will last forever.) Let them be now—let them feel what they feel. You’ve said your piece(s). Step back; be respectful of their sadness and anger. Your assumption that these young women would “understand” was faulty (and at the risk of sounding harsh, I will add that it was also self-serving: there was no reason to suppose they would not be shocked and dismayed to learn that their mother had had an affair and was leaving their father; they are not disinterested parties, after all). I am not attempting to shame you for choosing “yourself” and your happiness. You are entitled to that. What you are not entitled to is your daughter’s immediate forgiveness and an embrace of the new situation in which they find themselves. They can “heal and grieve” without a conversation with you. In fact, I think they have to.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m pregnant with my first child, and my husband and I are looking forward to having a baby. I have a friend of several years who is single and childfree by choice. At times she acts happy for me—she even bought me some baby gifts—but she’s constantly telling me we’re not going to be friends anymore once my baby arrives! She insists she knows this from previous experience. She describes scenarios in which friends canceled plans with her because their child was sick and she just couldn’t understand why the child couldn’t just be left with the other parent. She seems to take this sort of thing personally. Another friend, who had a child long before we knew her, tried to share with us how she’d felt abandoned when her child was born and wished someone would have visited her; our friend replied that she wants to get drinks on Friday nights, not spend time with someone’s baby. Recently, she asked if I was coming to her party (less than a month after my due date) and when I said I didn’t know yet, she said, “See?!!!” Obviously I know I’ll be busier and less available when my baby is here, but I didn’t have the intention of ending this friendship. Is it worth even trying to put in the effort to continue the friendship or should I just let it go, because it seems like she’s made her decision?
—I’m Not the Fair Weather Friend
I don’t know what you mean by “effort,” exactly. Do you mean should you bother to keep spending time with her now, while you still have the time—or do you mean that after the baby is born, should you tie yourself in knots to keep your friend in your life even though she’s unwilling to accept/understand that one’s life changes after a child enters it? If the former: sure, spend time with her (if you still enjoy it, despite her attitude—to be honest, she sounds like a [self-centered] pill to me). I mean, why should you stop having fun with a friend whose company you enjoy, while you still have the chance to? But if you’re asking whether it’s worth trying to keep a friend in your life who refuses to acknowledge and accommodate to the fact that your life has changed—and who isn’t willing to occasionally sacrifice going out for drinks on a Friday night (or, more likely, put off those drinks by a couple of hours) for the sake of spending time with a dear friend—it is absolutely not. She doesn’t sound like much of a friend to me.
I know it’s terribly unfair, but the reality is that some people will vanish from your life once it changes in this way. Or, if they don’t vanish, you will eventually banish them because of their failure to understand that you cannot drop everything to hang out with them, that you’re not always available to pick up the phone when they feel like talking, that if your kid is sick you may not be willing to be away from them even for a few hours—that, in short, your priorities are different and the center of gravity of your life has shifted dramatically. Luckily, there are compensations for these losses. For one thing, you’ll make new friends, who do understand. (It may take some effort, but it will be worth it.) For another, the friends who do stick around, adjusting to this new normal, and end up also being a big part of your child’s life, will be even dearer to you than they are now. Plus, of course, you get to have a child—which, overall, is awesome (for people who want to have children).
I’ll say one other thing before I close. There is a possibility that what’s happening here is more complex than it looks—that your friend loves you and is afraid of losing you and is trying to protect herself in advance from what she imagines may be a devastating loss. If you two are close, and her friendship means a lot to you, then continuing to spend time with her now, and letting her know that no matter how much your life changes, you’ll still love her, is worth the “effort.” As is inviting her over (multiple times) to spend time with you and your baby. It’ll be her prerogative to say no (any or every time). Then you’ll know for sure.
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I’m a single mom of an amazing 6-year-old boy. I asked my best friend if she would be his guardian if anything happened to me, and she said no. She’s always said she didn’t want children, but she’s so great with my son that it really shocked me when she turned me down. What should I do?