Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I (together for 5 years, married 3) are expecting our first child, a daughter, in February. My wife is incredibly beautiful, talented, sexy, intellectual, fiercely loyal, basically perfect except…she’s a HUGE slob. We often joke that she’s a “slut” in the original sense of the word, i.e. a bad and lazy housekeeper. If I don’t want to live with grimy bathrooms, a sink full of dishes, and tumbleweeds of cat hair blowing everywhere, I have to clean, which I don’t mind doing, if that’s the price of being with her. I was single for over a decade before we met and had all but despaired of falling in love or having a family.
The only thing that irritates me is when she justifies herself by claiming she’s fighting back against centuries of unfair domestic expectations of women, or that being a female “art monster” (a creative artist who neglects everything except their work) makes her rare and special. Her parents are a doctor (dad) and lawyer (mom) and she grew up with nannies and cleaning ladies. I grew up with a hard-working single mom and got used to pitching in from an early age. She’s entitled to her own choices, but I hope I’m not being out of line by NOT wanting her teaching our daughter that it’s cool and feminist to be a slob. How can I instill basic housekeeping skills in our kids, without getting into a verbal war about the historic imbalance of household responsibilities?
— The Art Monster’s Male Maid
Dear Male Maid,
I don’t think that rejecting all domestic work is an inherently feminist choice, but I do know that the reality for women is that “having it all” often also means “doing it all.” Even when both partners work, in heterosexual couples, women in the relationship are more likely to have primary responsibility for doing the laundry, cleaning the house, and preparing meals. Your wife may legitimately feel that she has to choose between her own creative work and the domestic work it takes to keep a home running. She also may simply lack the required skills.
Whatever the case, she’s made it clear she’s not interested in learning them, so it’s really up to you to decide how to move forward. An equitable division of labor is ideal for most, but that balance is unique to every couple, depending on careers, children, finances, etc.
As someone who made it to my late 30s before I even learned how to cook a grilled cheese, I do think it’s important for children of both genders to learn the skills they’ll need to take care of themselves and their homes as adults. But can’t you be the person to instill those lessons in your kids? After all, there are lots of families where one partner does the bulk of the domestic tasks, and when that partner is a woman, I rarely hear any outcry about who will teach the children. Or might you hire a housekeeper, if you have the resources? This is obviously a pretty privileged option, but when it’s feasible, paying someone a fair wage can be a lot easier than fighting about it in perpetuity.
And if you haven’t, I also think you need to have a serious conversation about expectations around the division of labor when it comes to childcare and the work of parenting. The workload at home is about to increase exponentially, and if you can’t agree on the best way to manage it, you’ll likely end up resenting each other, which would be worse for your future child than a sink full of dishes.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m the first of my siblings to have children, and my two young kids are the first grandchildren for my parents. I used to joke that I grew up in a “screamy” household, but I’ve come to understand through years of therapy that my mother was emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive, and perhaps has a personality disorder. Even nowadays, she can seem even-tempered, kind, and loving one moment, but if something irritates her (especially after a glass of wine or two), she can quickly lose control of her emotions and become contemptuous and spiteful at best, rage-filled and physical at worst.
After the worst incidents over the years, she has expressed shame and regret, tearfully promising it won’t happen again. And yet it does. My father has been passive and let it happen without consequences. I have been told I was not an “easy” kid, but I don’t think I deserved violence. As I grew older, I increasingly tried to keep my emotions hidden so as not to provoke her temper, resulting in longstanding anxiety, depression, confusion, and difficulty trusting my own emotions.
Now that I am a parent, I want to raise my kids with calm and deep unconditional love, so they don’t grow up feeling like I did. The challenge is Grandma and Grandpa live an hour away and have requested frequent visits as well as overnight stays. They say they’ve been waiting so long to be grandparents, but I don’t think they understand the depth of the pain they have caused me. And perhaps more importantly, the cycle of bad behavior seems to continue.
Bottom line, I don’t feel comfortable having them care for my children without me or my husband present. It’s a bummer because it means no free babysitting, but I feel like it’s the only way to keep my kids safe. I don’t know how to draw this boundary with my parents because I fear it will cause a major disruption in our relationship—they seem to think that everything is fine. I would like to keep them in my life, and I would like for them to have a relationship with their grandkids. I’m just not sure how to proceed, and I don’t know how much longer I can keep dodging their childcare offers.
— The Grandmother Has Two Faces
Dear Grandmother Has Two Faces,
First off, let me say that you definitely did not deserve anything that happened to you as a child. And kudos to you on breaking the cycle and parenting your kids differently. You’ve drawn a great boundary to protect your kids from the kind of lifelong emotional consequences you have experienced, but you’re having trouble enforcing it.
I get that. Those of us who come from dysfunctional households often didn’t have anyone modeling good boundaries. If you grew up in a family with poor boundaries or no boundaries, starting to set them can make you feel guilty and uncomfortable. But the thing about a boundary is that you’re not in charge of how others respond to them. You’re simply stating your needs. If others are not willing to abide by your terms, that’s their choice, but your boundary remains the same.
I know it’s hard, but the best thing to do is to clearly and directly tell your parents that you don’t feel comfortable with them babysitting solo because of their rageful and violent behavior. It very likely may cause a major disruption in your relationship, at least initially. They may become very upset or try to push back. You might even need to go through a period of separation from each other.
But as long as your parents believe and act as if everything is fine between you, you can’t have a relationship that more than scratches the surface anyway. Sweeping your feelings under the rug is keeping your parents from ever really knowing you. Weathering the discomfort of these difficult conversations is part of the healing process. And I’m hopeful that your parents want a relationship with your children badly enough that they will eventually come around and be willing to adhere to your rules.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
What are appropriate consequences for a kid who is struggling with both tweendom and a learning disability? My 12-year-old has always had huge challenges completing homework; she gets off task, fixates on unimportant details, and can spend hours trying to get one component perfect, exhausting herself before she can complete the others. Over years we have refined a system for her where she uses all the school supports available, including drop-in after school tutoring.
This year, however, she’s in seventh grade, newly independent… and making terrible decisions about getting her work done. We agreed she’d go to drop-in tutoring this week but came home with very little accomplished. We later discovered that she’d gone late because she’d accompanied a group of friends to sports tryouts. She asked to study with friends after school, and we agreed on the condition that she check in and report on what they’d accomplished. She did…. and then promptly failed to do the next promised task. Every night, homework that should take 40 minutes is drawn out over hours complete with meltdowns and tears. It’s taking a huge toll on our family and it’s only the third week of school.
I don’t want to highlight her learning disability as the reason she has to make better choices, but I’m stuck on what the right conversation should be. What would you say?
— Overwhelmed in Upstate
Dear Overwhelmed in Upstate,
You don’t specify what your daughter’s learning disability is, and I’m not a doctor or psychologist, but it sounds to me like you’re describing a kid who is struggling, not one who is making terrible decisions. I’m an adult ADHD-er, and sometimes what looks to others like “making bad decisions” is actually a manifestation of my disorder. For instance, forgetting to do something I said I would do, or managing my time poorly. It’s not that I’m careless or lazy, it’s that my brain works differently.
You mention that your daughter has increased independence as a seventh grader, so she’s likely dealing with less structure and situations that require more self-motivation, two things that could exacerbate the symptoms of her learning disability and make it more difficult to manage her schoolwork.
Assuming she has some kind of team or individualized education program already in place, talk to the professionals and ask them how you can help her better manage her schoolwork. It’s possible she needs additional accommodations, greater medical or therapeutic intervention, or access to other resources. My hunch is that your daughter doesn’t need consequences, she needs more support.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I think I want to have a second child, but after a miscarriage last month, I’m scared. I’m mama to a sweet four-year-old—being with him feels like dancing in the sun. My husband and I were on the fence about having kids, but we decided to go for it, and I’m so grateful I get to have this joy in my life.
My life as a mother hasn’t always felt like this, though. Five months after he was born I was hospitalized for a severe manic episode and diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. (I’d been misdiagnosed previously with unipolar depression.) What followed was eighteen months of hell. I was catatonically depressed, then suicidal, and hospitalized until—with the help of a psychiatrist, good therapy, a devoted spouse, and family support—things started to be okay again. Now I have a full, busy, life that I like, and a family I love. I think I would be bringing a new little one into a happy space.
We decided to try for kid #2, but my reservations about it have to do with my medications, specifically, lithium. I met with a psychiatrist specializing in perinatal mental health, and after extensive questioning, she told me I should stay on my medications; though lithium poses significant risks during a pregnancy, that my mental health without medication would be a greater risk. I felt clear on the decision, though anxious—I’m 37, which already makes for a higher-risk pregnancy.
We tried it—we got pregnant on the second month of trying—but almost immediately I experienced bleeding, and I lost the pregnancy around 5 weeks. Our plan is to try again this month or next one. But I have this FEAR that is with me. Am I too old, too sick, to be pregnant? Should I give up? I’m so busy, also—I have so many goals. If I knew this would work out okay—a healthy pregnancy, a healthy kid, a mama able to stay relatively well—I would go for it for sure. But we don’t know that.
— Late Thirties Longing
Dear Late Thirties Longing,
First off, parenting through mental illness is no joke, so congratulations on putting your oxygen mask on, so you can be the parent your child needs.
The bad news is I can’t tell you whether you should have another baby or not. You are the only one who can make the decision. But I can tell you that the fear you’re experiencing is completely natural. As my therapist sometimes tells me, “The feeling is appropriate to the situation.” Anyone would be fearful of trying again after a miscarriage and the mental health crisis you went through. Why not take a little time to process those feelings—perhaps join a support group or Internet forum where you can talk to other moms who have had similar experiences. It might be helpful to get your gynecologist, PCP, or psychiatrist’s perspective, too. Then maybe you can better separate your healthy fear from your feelings about whether or not you want to have a second child.
And as far as knowing it will all work out—nobody gets to know that, not even people without your challenges. Focus on those tools and practices that help keep you afloat, because that is ultimately the one piece of this you can control.