Care and Feeding

My Husband Runs to His Mom for Every Single Parenting Issue

A man on his phone. He's holding his baby.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by LSOphoto/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 looking for some tips on how to increase my husband’s confidence in his ability to handle situations while caring for our daughter. First, let me say, he is an excellent and very engaged husband and father, this is not a feigned incompetence type situation. He just always seems so unsure and nervous, and I’d love to see him confident and feel like he’s not constantly questioning himself, especially because we have another on the way!

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I thought he’d outgrow the nervousness, which was very understandable as he had never been around babies before, but he really hasn’t. He still regularly asks me to take a look at how he put on our (14-month-old) daughter’s diaper to ask if I think it won’t leak. Whenever I’m around and he has a worry, I try to be really positive about what he did, and I talk about how happy she is playing and doing things with him as much as possible. I only give suggestions on how to do something when I think it’s absolutely necessary, and I think I’m pretty good about recognizing when “my way” would truly work better and when “dad’s way” is just different, not worse.

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The worst is that when he’s home alone with her, he calls his local mother if something comes up that he feels he can’t handle, and she comes to help. She’s a big worrier and has instilled a lot of that in him, so I really don’t think her presence is that helpful. Sometimes she just reinforces that he was right to be worried. Our daughter recently threw up after she ate. She was upset and he couldn’t really put her down, so he called his mom to help at hold and comfort her while he cleaned up. He also sent me a text letting me know she’d gotten sick, but he was taking care of it. Within 15 minutes of his mom arriving, he called me to list all the possible reasons his mother gave for why she’d been sick, from rotten milk to a terrible disease. I ended up leaving work to come home because he was so worried that something serious must be wrong, despite no evidence to point to anything other than that she ate too fast. Do you have any thoughts on supporting my husband while I’m there and away? And how to minimize grandma’s influence/worry?

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—He’s Got This, But He Doesn’t Know It Yet

Dear He’s Got This,

I’ve been where your husband is now, and I can say that it’s not a lot of fun to feel like a complete failure at taking care of a tiny human. During my first six months as a dad, I made mistakes like putting diapers on backwards, leaving a bottle of precious breast milk on top of the car and driving off, and pinching my daughter’s thighs in her carseat, for starters. I remember feeling like I wasn’t cut out for this. I, too, called my mom, who said something simple but profound: “I made the same mistakes, and guess what? You didn’t die or get seriously injured or sick. You’re going to make mistakes, and part of parenting is rolling with the punches and having a sense of humor. Besides, the mistakes make the best stories later on.” From that point, I remember not making every diaper change or feeding into some life-or-death scenario.

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That said, I didn’t always contact my mom for help. Often, my wife and I worked together to navigate the challenges of new parenthood. If your husband constantly goes to his mom instead of you, that is a big red flag. In essence, he’s saying, “I trust my mom more than you to help me through this,” and I don’t know any new mom who would be OK with that.

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From what you mentioned here, a simple conversation may not do the trick. It could be possible that your husband has an undiagnosed anxiety disorder fueled in part from his mom’s incessant worrying. With that in mind, I would start by encouraging him to see a therapist.

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Your mother-in-law is another story. You’re probably not going to change her ways at this stage, so your goal is to make sure your husband is as healthy as possible from a mental health standpoint, so he won’t need to call on her as often as he does. (If you feel like reminding her that an environment of doom and gloom isn’t helping anyone, then be my guest—but it probably won’t get you anywhere.) Remind your husband that he doesn’t have to call a parenting lifeline every time something goes wrong. He needs to learn to trust his gut. The calls to his mom may not stop completely, but if they’re lessened, that would be a win while he seeks help for his anxiety.

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While that unfolds, continue doing what you’re doing. You’re self-aware enough not to micromanage his parenting style or engage in maternal gatekeeping, which is wonderful. Keep providing all of the positive reinforcement that you can, because it means more than you know.  If you want to tell him how hurtful it is for him to talk to his mom instead of you, then you absolutely can do that as well—or you can save it for therapy together. With proper counseling and treatment, your husband will get on track in time.

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And yes, he’s got this.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son, “Charles” will be 18 in October. Charles is, for lack of a better term, a bit dim. We’ve had him checked for autism spectrum disorders, various learning disabilities, prion diseases, FTD, epilepsy, you name it. All negative. He’s a good kid, and there’s a lot more to someone’s life than grades and raw intellectual horsepower, and I’m proud to call him my son. He’s got a plumbing apprenticeship going, and he might need things explained to him, but he gets good work evaluations and is passing his classes at school.

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With the midterm elections coming up, I asked him who he wanted to vote for, and he said that he thought he should leave that up to “smarter people”. That he doesn’t understand a lot of the issues at stake, and that he thinks it would be better off for everyone if he stayed home on election day. Voting is a sacred right and a civic duty, and we threw out that whole “only the elite should be voting” idea centuries ago.

I’ve tried explaining this to him, but he seems adamant. How can I convince him that he shouldn’t let some mild undiagnosed intellectual disability keep him from participating in one of the most important functions a citizen can perform?

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—Frustrated Mother

Dear Frustrated Mother,

I feel passionately about this one. Everyone should vote. As a Black man in America, I believe it would be an insult to my ancestors who were beaten, spat upon, and killed as they fought for the right to vote in this country for me to stay at home and not have my voice heard. I could go on, but I’ll get to your son: Find out what’s important to him. Does he hate racism? Then he should vote for the individuals who will put money and resources behind ending it. What about abortion? The climate crisis? No matter what you believe about your son’s intellectual capabilities, he lands on one side of the fence on many major issues, and you probably have an idea on where he stands. If he wants to see his vision for a better America, then he needs to understand that every single vote counts, including his.

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Finally, you mentioned that you’ve tested your son for every learning disability under the sun, but have you tested him for depression? From what I read he sounds like a young man who doesn’t believe he’s worthy as a human being due to his academic struggles, and that’s heartbreaking. If you haven’t done so already, I would suggest taking him to a therapist to help him to realize that he’s valuable, loved, amazing, and needed in society.

I hope your son comes around, because in a free and fair democracy, every eligible citizen should vote.

Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have been married for 20 years and have three children together. He is a white man, and I’m Hispanic. Since he’s an only child, I knew his parents might have reservations toward me. There were always little things said here and there about the difference in our cultures and skin color. Nothing too drastic that I couldn’t get over but it was constant. For example, when I was pregnant with our third child, my mother-in-law said, “You’re too dark to have a blonde baby.” I am big on family and wanted my husband to continue to have a good relationship with his parents so I never said too much about their insensitive comments. Recently, our oldest son graduated from high school, and they refused to come, citing fear of COVID in large crowds (his features are dark like mine). It hurt since they are the only family we have in the state (my family lives across the country). A couple of months went by and now that same son is 18. He has told me that he doesn’t want to see his grandparents on his birthday after the last time we saw them.

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I feel like their visits are toxic for us because we all feel an air of negativity every time. My MIL recently found out she has cancer, and I know my husband has to be there for her. However, I never want to return to their house. It turns out they have neighbors who are racist—but they claim they are very nice people. The last time we were there, a neighbor that has never come by stopped by with some vegetables from his garden but refused to meet us. My husband knows this man is racist and was only checking to see who was in the house. I no longer feel safe going to their house in a very rural and white neighborhood. What should I do? I am the only one that has kept my husband from turning his back on his parents. Now that my MIL has been diagnosed, it’s hard to not look after them but I know I can’t do it anymore. Please help me figure this out, can they change?

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—Heartbroken in VA

Dear Heartbroken,

By now you probably know that I make my living by fighting against racism in corporations and schools across America. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who despises racists and racism as much as I do. That said, you made some pretty strong accusations throughout this letter that make me raise my eyebrows a bit. How do you know for sure that your in-laws’ neighbors are racist? How do you know for sure that the people who stopped by with vegetables have nefarious intentions? How do you know for sure that your in-laws’ reason for not coming to your son’s graduation is not due to a fear of Covid?

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Don’t get me wrong here—I’m not accusing you of lying, and I tend to believe you because I’ve seen plenty of similar situations. What I’m saying is we should focus on the one thing I know for sure is true—and it’s the fact that you despise your in-laws.

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I think it’s completely reasonable to tell your husband that you don’t feel comfortable around your in-laws and you don’t want to ever spend time with them in their house or anywhere else for that matter. I also wouldn’t fault your husband one bit if he chose not to visit his mother as she’s battling cancer. That may sound heartless to some, but having a blood relationship with someone doesn’t mean that a person should ignore decades of toxicity they’ve endured. As I’ve said before, some people are best loved from a distance.

Regarding if your in-laws can change, the answer is yes. Anyone can change if provided with the proper motivation to do so. The better question is do you care enough about them to help them change? My guess is the answer is no. If they brought so much pain into your life for all of these years, then it seems like the best thing to do is to let them go and focus on the things and people who fill your life with joy and peace.

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Life is too short to deal with hateful people.

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,

I am married with two young children, 3 and 5. I work full-time and unfortunately work swing shifts, nights, weekends, and holidays. My schedule is never the same one week to the next. Often I will go from working 2:00pm-11:00pm for a few days then flip to a 6:00 a.m. start time. Sleep comes at a challenge.

My wife worked part-time as a reading tutor. We used to have a nanny, but we were paying the nanny more than what my wife was making so after our second child was born, she decided to stay home.

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Three or four years ago she spent the summer taking online graduate courses to maintain her teaching license. During that time, she would work until 3:00 a.m. to get her schoolwork done. Working the way I do I fully understand how hard it is to change your sleep schedule, but my wife has taken to staying up past 2:00 a.m. on a night basis. This has forced me to wake up early to get the kids to school. Some nights I will work until midnight and it’s after 1:00 a.m. by the time I’m in bed, but meanwhile my wife is still reading on the couch. Then I wake up at 7:00 a.m. to get my daughter up and take her to school. The days I’m not home she gets one of her parents to come over and take our daughter to school and then goes back to bed. Meanwhile our son is awake and stuck playing in his room by himself while Mommy sleeps.

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We’ve had numerous conversations about how this is stressing our marriage. I’m exhausted and cranky all the time. I have to stay up late and she chooses to stay up late. I worry that when I work mornings my kids are unsupervised at home while my wife sleeps. I feel like her parents are a crutch to support her bad behavior by picking up the slack when I’m not home. I don’t know how to get my wife to change her behavior and feel I have been very patient. I would like to talk with her and her parents about this, but worry that would be a break in trust. I don’t know how to handle this situation.

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—Exhausted Dad

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Dear Exhausted Dad,

You mentioned that you’ve had numerous conversations with your wife regarding how your current arrangement is impacting your marriage, but you didn’t say what the outcome was. Did she double-down on choosing to stay up late? Did she say she would change, but never did? Is she invalidating your feelings or gaslighting you? Knowing how she reacts to your cries for help would help in terms of constructing a strategy on how to approach her going forward, but another part of me wonders if that even matters. At the end of the day, you’re not getting the help you need, and that’s the main problem.

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I’m also confused as to why you’re concerned about “a break in trust” by speaking with your wife and her parents. You’re at your breaking point, dude. Haven’t you suffered enough? Drastic action must be taken or else you’ll crumble into a pile of dust before you know it. Clearly your wife doesn’t understand or care about how bad things are for you, so you need to tell her firmly this is not sustainable.

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Some may argue that you should find another job that helps you rest more, but why should you do that? I mean, if you dislike your job, then yes, look for other means of employment. But if you enjoy what you’re doing, your wife should hold up her end of the parenting bargain. If the situation was reversed, I certainly wouldn’t advise your wife to quit her job so you could stay in bed.

Also, I think you and your wife should go through some counseling to help you deal with the obvious resentment you feel towards her. If you leave it unaddressed, you could wind up at the point of no return in your marriage and that would be an additional mess to endure. A licensed professional will help you to navigate these challenges and get your relationship on the right track.

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No matter what happens, you need to do whatever it takes to get your wife to take your concerns seriously, and you need do it immediately.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

I have an 8-year-old son who is really, really smart but really, really stubborn. Although he gets good grades, we fight all the time over schoolwork. He is constantly saying that he doesn’t see the point of some simple task, that it’s stupid and easy, that he hates it. When he does the work, he’s lazy, resents having to do multiple steps on things, and doesn’t follow directions well. I’ve tried incentives, but he was never reward-oriented. He’s always been a grouchy kid, but school is just turning him into an angry kid. Parent-teacher conferences are this week, and I’m going to bring all of this up, but I would love some ideas.

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