Care and Feeding

My Wife’s Fears Have Taken on a Life of Their Own. I Can’t Live Like This Anymore.

A woman stands in her slippers next to a basket of laundry.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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,

My wife, Amy, has not left the house for close to four years; I thought it might get better with time, but it has gotten worse over the years, and now our 9-year-old, 6-year-old twins and Amy have been stuck inside our house for what feels like an entirety. I am stressed, lonely, and scared.

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It was not always like this. Our kids went to childcare and Amy taught high school biology. She was six months pregnant with our youngest child and was about to go on maternity leave when there was a school shooting. Amy wasn’t physically harmed (emotionally and mentally is a different story) but losing several of the kids she taught and colleagues caused her, we think, to go into early labor three weeks later; our baby’s lungs weren’t fully developed yet, and she died after only three days in this world. Losing her students, friends and our baby really took a toll.

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Amy thought it was safer to home-school our older kids, which I agreed with. But since then, it has gotten more extreme. She used to be able to go to her local shopping center, but now she can’t without having a panic attack. She lives in pajamas and nightgowns.

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She doesn’t let the kids leave the house either; they are still pretty young and don’t seem to mind. That would be fine, but it has caused them to balk at the idea of going anywhere, too. When I suggested to the twins that I take them to a movie in the actual cinema, they cried because they were scared. We are still social, which is an upside. Friends and family come over regularly—there are people in our house easily three times a week. So, we aren’t totally isolated. I am stir-crazy though. I want to travel. I want to take my kids to the park, zoo, museum, or just out to ice cream. Even having someone in my car with me, or hearing my kid share something novel that happened, are things I long for. But Amy shuts me down whenever I mention taking the kids outside and accuses me of wanting to put her babies in danger.

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Amy doesn’t seem to be depressed, so I didn’t think she needed a psychologist. Now, since she won’t even leave the house, I don’t know how she would go. She shut me down when I suggested it.  She is not moping, or laying in bed every day, which is what I used to associate with grief and depression. She runs around with the kids outside, swims in our pool with them, scrubs the house spotless every day, spends hours being creative in the kitchen and always goes to the effort of creating engaging and fun lessons for our kids.

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Our family members don’t seem to think it is a huge deal; they just see the perfect house, the great food, and the fun games and movies night. I’ve tried talking to them about it before, but I don’t think they believe it is a problem. When they mention it to Amy, she tells them I am exaggerating and lies that she takes them out.

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I am desperate and sometimes I feel I want to leave my marriage over this. But it feels petty and selfish, as she is the one who lost those students and lost the baby she carried for six months. I’ve tried to talk to Amy about how I’m worried out kids will become hermits, and she accused me of calling her a bad mother. I feel like I’ve failed as a father and a husband and am just struggling with how to get out of this.

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— Desperate Dad

Dear DD,

I’m so sorry for the loss of your baby, the trauma your wife experienced from both that loss and the violence at her school, and the ripple effects it has had for your family.

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Your wife needs help, and you know it. It is completely understandable how she—and you—came to be in this situation, but as you point out, it has gotten out of control, and it is now putting your marriage and your children’s wellbeing at risk.

Normally, I would suggest a frank conversation between you and Amy with cards on the table. However, in this case, I think you need to tread very carefully. It’s not just that Amy has withdrawn from the outside world; she seems to think that doing so will actively keep her kids safe. If you go in too strong, you could make the situation much worse. I highly encourage you to seek professional guidance from a mental health professional who specializes in trauma, PTSD, and similar areas—I am not a psychologist and am not attempting to diagnose your wife, but given your explanation of how this all started, these specialties seem like a good place to start. Find someone who offers both in-person and teletherapy sessions so that they can first start seeing you in private and then hopefully see you and Amy virtually. If you don’t know of any providers, Psychology Today manages an excellent directory that you can search by geography, specialty, telehealth options and more.

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At the risk of wading into litigious waters, it may not be a bad idea for you to speak to a family lawyer, as well. If you are truly contemplating leaving the marriage and attempting to fight for custody, it would be best to know what that might look like in your state—both in terms of the process and toll it will take, but also in terms of your chances of success regarding custody. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that this is your best move forward. Your wife is suffering, whether she sees that or not, and I think you owe it to her and your kids to try to help see her through this. (Plus, from what I’ve seen from friends, coparenting with someone who has radically different viewpoints about safety is very challenging.) I just think information is never a bad thing.

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This may be a long road ahead, and I can hear in your letter how stuck you feel. But have hope that with the right guidance from a professional, you can find a way to help Amy and your kids rediscover life outside your home.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister-in-law, J, has been staying with us for the past few weeks. She’s only 23 and just got out of a really bad relationship. Her ex-girlfriend was physically abusive while using the fact that J hadn’t come out to her family as bisexual to coerce her into doing things and keeping quiet about the abuse, all while berating her about how awful she was at everything. The relationship derailed her education, so she is living with us until the start of the next semester when she can finish her senior year of college. J’s been helping out by babysitting our kids, since both my husband and I work full time. I love J. She might be one of the nicest people I know. I feel really bad for her, but at the same time I need to set some boundaries with her.

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My younger kid, E, is in pre-K. Earlier this school year, E failed her vision test. Unbeknownst to us, she is very farsighted, and also has a large discrepancy in her eyes, like a non-visible lazy eye. She now wears very thick glasses and has to wear an eye patch for a certain amount of time every day. Although I initially felt very guilty that she had spent her entire life being unable to see, E has adapted incredibly well to both the glasses and the eye patch (she loves “pirate time”).

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J has started to get way too involved in parenting the kids, especially in E’s eyecare. I think that, like me, J was upset at hearing just how bad E’s eyesight was. J has taken it upon herself to do a bunch of online research about kids wearing eye patches and has told me that we should buy patches from a particular company and use patch for a different amount of time each day (which is counter to the optometrist’s orders). J keeps trying to get E to eat more carrots because they’re good for eyesight (which is a myth). She yelled at our son for playing with the sprinkler outside because E was there, and the water could get on her glasses and she’d have to clean them. J also told E to seriously consider cutting her hair because apparently having long hair and glasses is a combination that doesn’t work.

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My husband told our son that he didn’t do anything wrong, but he refused to talk to J about appropriate ways to help and said that I shouldn’t either. In J’s relationship, she was constantly being berated about not being helpful enough and my husband doesn’t want to bring back memories of that to her. I want to support her, but my kids need to come first. What should I do?

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— Trying to Be Supportive Sister-in-Law

Dear Trying to be Supportive,

There is a difference between constructive feedback and berating someone. While I admire your husband’s sensitivity to J’s history, I do think you can and should try to redirect some of J’s behavior. Of course, not everything needs to be on the table for discussion. Let go of the small stuff that is more annoying than problematic and instead think about the areas where boundaries are important to you. The next time J crosses that line, gently redirect her. You may say something like “I appreciate your research, but we are comfortable with the doctor’s advice for now.”

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When you can, try to give J a bit of grace. If I had been a parent or caretaker at 23, I would have been nowhere near as fluent in parenting techniques as I was when I became a mom at 33. (And lord knows, I still wasn’t “fluent” even then!) A lot of what you are experiencing right now may simply be the trial and error of a person learning how to “parent” on the fly. The more you can contextualize the kind of caretaking you want, rather than correcting specific decisions J makes, the more receptive she may be to your message.

It also bears remembering that, if I understand your letter correctly, you only have a couple more months with J for a roommate. That is all the more reason to let the small stuff go. She’s a live-in sitter for a short while, but she’s family forever.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a pretty low-stakes question about introducing children to the joys of camping. I was a Scout growing up and absolutely loved the camping trips. I recently had a baby, and while the weather conditions currently preclude us from this hobby, I like to think ahead. How can we minimize the stress of the sudden change of location and deviation from routine? At 4 months old, she is already at the point where skipping bath time causes some fussiness and disturbed sleep. She is bound to notice her bed and toys are missing, right?

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— Mama Bear Stuck in the City

Dear Mama Bear,

I love this question, not only for my environmental educator roots (yay outdoor time!) but because I also identify with your hopes to minimize chaos. I think the answers boil down to two main themes: gear and managing your expectations. And although you’re asking specifically about camping, I feel like this could be a metaphor for any new experience with a baby.

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In terms of gear, your goal should be to ensure that your most important baby tools are already familiar to her. Don’t introduce novel objects that are new and strange when you go camping. If you haven’t already, invest in a pack-and-play or other portable sleeping space for your baby (Elizabeth Newcamp, of Slate’s Mom and Dad are Fighting podcast, is an avid camper and talks about a few options here); let the baby nap or sleep in it at home so it’s familiar when camping. Same thing if you decide to take along a portable bathtub, a hiking carrier, etc. When it comes to her familiar toys, rather than worry about her missing them, I would encourage you to bring plenty with you—more than you think you’ll need. You can bring a mix of slam-dunk favorites and new-to-her objects that you’re confident she’ll enjoy. (I love to shop at resale stores to pick up toys for trips. It’s cheaper, greener, and I don’t need to worry as much about anything getting dirty or lost.) While it might seem weird to schlep all of that brightly-colored plastic into the woods with you—especially when you want to be connecting to nature as a family—having familiar objects and the familiarity of playtime itself can ultimately be a blessing when baby and parents both need to just chill out for a while.

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Even with all that planning, manage your expectations. You can prepare all you want for a trip and still have NO idea how your baby will react. The crisp forest air might lull her to sleep, or she might be totally alert in the new environment. My advice is to plan your first trip for no more than one or two nights, and no more than an hour away from home. That way, your stakes are super low, and it’s not a huge loss if you need to pack it in early. The more practice you get, the more adventurous you can be with your durations and locations. But a disastrous early experience can sabotage your love for this hobby for years to come—and that’s what we want to avoid.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a first-year undergraduate student in my home state. This semester, I struggled with my courses, and my performance suffered. My parents really want me to go to medical school, as do I. (My desire to become a doctor has always been independent of my parents’ wishes). I’ve been doing my best this semester to do well, but unfortunately will not be receiving the best grades for the semester. I am planning on retaking two courses (one next semester and the other in the summer) to help boost my GPA and make sure I fully understand the content before going to higher-level classes. My parents told me that if I don’t get all A’s or mostly all A’s this semester, which unfortunately is not possible at this point, they would unenroll me from my college and make me transfer to the local college in my city because it is less rigorous and would help my GPA.

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I absolutely love my current university, and aside from the stress of my parents’ ultimatum, I feel happier than I ever have; I’m finding myself and being more mentally healthy. My school also has my desired major and is known nation-wide as a “Public Ivy” and one of the best public schools in the country for pre-med students. I have also been offered a variety of research opportunities and a research grant that is contingent on my enrollment at my current university. I have decided to go to behind my parents’ back and speak with my university to ensure that my parents cannot unenroll me. I was planning on letting them know that I will still attend my current university with or without their support, but I know that it will cause a huge fight. Is there a way that I can speak with them about this in a better way? My father is very serious about unenrolling me, and I’m afraid that by securing my spot at my current university I’d be causing an irreparable shift in our relationship. I don’t want to hurt my parents, and I am not a confrontational person at all, but staying at my current university is, in my opinion, truly where I belong. How can I best broach this topic to my parents and when? My semester ends in early December.

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— Anxious Student

Dear Anxious,

I think you’re making the right move to learn about your rights as a student if your parents were to stop supporting your college choice. Think very hard, though, about whether you have the means to support yourself and any financial fallout from this decision. Student loan debt can be crippling, and a doctor’s salary is not always as lush as people think when butted against these and other education- and career-related expenses.

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Assuming you have done your homework there, I your next move is highly dependent on your parents’ personalities. Play to your audience. If your dad is a data-and-evidence guy, for example, you might present him with the stats on med school acceptance rates for your university, along with perhaps some information from a guidance counselor about what kinds of GPAs are necessary to be competitive (your school’s pedigree might be more impressive than straight A’s to many programs, for example).

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One clue to how to proceed may lie in what you don’t say in your letter. You say explicitly that your father is committed to unenrolling you, but what is your mother’s opinion? You may want to start by talking to her, so that she can advise you on what tactics to use with your father and take your side if needed.

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Final thought, for what it’s worth: I believe the Federal Education Privacy Act (FERPA) states that in most cases, universities are prohibited from sharing a student’s grades with anyone without consent (so long as the student is not a minor). Check your school’s policy with the registrar. I realize that refusing to show your father your grades might get you in hotter water than you were before, but if you confirm that he can’t call up the school and get your transcript, that might impact how you want to proceed. Good luck!

—Allison

More Advice From Slate

Recently a friend of a friend’s brother died of cancer. I have met this friend-of-a-friend at a few parties, but we have never been very close, and I have never interacted with the brother. Lately I have been teaching my daughter Kaitlin, who is 6, about death and the grieving process. Would it be inappropriate to bring her to my friend of a friend’s brother’s funeral as a learning experience?

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