Care and Feeding

My Husband Saves All of His Pent-Up Anger For Me

A dad yells angrily, with his hand up.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by OSTILL/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,

Let me start by saying that we are, as they say, “in the thick of it” right now, with a newborn and a very willful toddler. We spend all day soothing, shushing, rocking, and walking the newborn; the toddler is in a tantrum phase. At the end of every day, I feel accomplished if everyone has been fed, bathed, and loved, and I trust/hope that details like screen time will come out in the wash. I absolutely understand that the amount of deep breathing and resetting my husband and I have to do each day to avoid losing our cool is beyond tedious. We are worn out. That said, my husband—who is kind and gentle with our kids—is awful to me the second they are out of earshot. Angry, irritated, out of patience, he snaps at me over every little thing. I’ve talked to him about this, and he’s basically told me that he has to work so hard all day to keep his energy up and his frustration under control that the second the kids are down it all comes out at me. He reasons that it’s better to take it out on me, an adult who “can handle it,” than on the kids.

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I get that it’s hard to repeat for the thousandth time, “I won’t let you hit. If you’re angry, you can say ‘I’m so mad!’ or hit a pillow” and that it’s demoralizing to spend 20 minutes putting the baby down for a nap only to have him start crying 5 minutes later. But it’s unfair for me to get through a long day only to be my husband’s emotional punching bag. I’ve started avoiding him whenever we aren’t co-parenting, which hasn’t been great for our marriage, but I just don’t know what else to do. I can suggest we go to counseling, but I don’t think he is likely to be willing to do that because he’s so burnt out (and where would we get the time?). We try for date nights to reconnect, but with the expense and all the illness going around, it’s far from a sure thing we’ll actually make it out the door—and anyway it’s not much fun to get home from a night out only to be up all night with a baby. Is there anything I can do, or should I just give him space until he figures it out?

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—Grumped Out

Dear Grump,

You say you’ve talked to him about his behavior toward you and that his response was, “You’re an adult. You can handle it.” Tell him that you can’t.

I don’t know how people get the idea that it’s OK to treat their spouses badly, that if they need to open the escape valve on their own built-up misery, it’s perfectly acceptable to aim it at the person they chose to spend their life with. I’m not giving him a medal for being a loving father to the kids (thank goodness he is, but I’m sorry, that’s not going above and beyond—it’s baseline). Being “in the thick of it” is no excuse for mistreating you. He needs to figure out another way to let out his pent-up frustration. Let him buy a literal punching bag and pound it for a while after the kids are asleep, if that’s what it takes—or go for a late run (or a slow, exhausted jog) or just call a friend and vent at them. But you need to be very clear with him: this has to stop. Avoiding him is not a great idea, and developing that habit now is going to be hard to break later.

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Newborn plus toddler may be the most perfect storm of frustration and sleep deprivation, but there will be other difficult periods ahead over the course of you and your husband’s life together, and you don’t want to set a pattern of avoidance whenever the going gets rough. I’d also suggest that while you’re in this particularly difficult stage of marriage and parenting, you don’t focus on what sounds like the added stress of arranging “date nights.” After your long day, once he’s smacked the punching bag or pounded the pavement, and you’ve had a chance to catch your own breath in whatever way is helpful to you (a shower? a glass of wine? a good cry? or maybe your own turn at the bag?), even half an hour on the couch together in front of the TV, or side by side with books, or talking (perhaps about something other than how frustrated and tired you both are) may be reconnection enough for now.

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New Year, Same Problems

For an upcoming special edition of Care and Feeding, we want to hear about the messy situations plaguing you that you’d like to shed in the new year. A pet fox corrupting daughter? A 10-year-old behind the wheel? Harsh PTA crackdowns? Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 19-month-old and an 8-week-old. My mother and my in-laws are constantly offering to babysit while I go do whatever I need to and/or so that my husband and I can go out. Each time, I’ve thanked them for the offer and let them know I will remember it and take them up on it when ready/needed, but that this most likely won’t be for some time. But they keep offering, even more insistently, sometimes sounding more like a demand. I keep repeating my answer, as has my husband. I have quite a few reasons for saying no, and I have shared some of them when pressed: not needing to do anything away from home at the moment, as I run errands when my husband is home; the newborn still being on a very unreliable on-demand breastfeeding schedule and refusing a bottle; being tired and just wanting to hang out at home with the kids instead of going out, etc. I’ve also told them that I just don’t feel the need to be out and away from my house and kids much right now, and neither does my husband.

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I’m not suffering from PPA/PPD. I do a workout at home every day when the kids’ naps briefly overlap, so I’m staying active. I get outside for a while a couple of times each day with our dog. I’m also lucky enough to be staying home for the next year, so needing to get the infant to take a bottle isn’t a pressing matter for me. And my husband and I get time together nearly every night when our toddler goes to bed, and the infant sleeps independently for a bit too. (The additional reasons, which we don’t mention: my in-laws are not confident about most infant care tasks, such as diaper changes, and are unwilling to attempt these tasks while we are around to supervise, so that they might become more confident/competent; my mother is not a nurturer and believes in cry-it-out and other such approaches “to build independence” even in a baby this young, which we absolutely do not.)

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The overall message we give our parents is that we know this phase will be over all too soon and won’t happen for us again (we’re done having kids), so we are okay with passing up some other things right now to be fully present for them. Why can’t they just accept that and quit treating me like I’m broken for not wanting to escape every chance I get? They see the kids at least once a week, either at our house or theirs, so I don’t think it’s an access problem. Our first was born premature and spent considerable time in the NICU, then was immunocompromised and needed limited exposures for a year, so this is a new issue for us, despite not being first-time parents.

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—Happy at Home

Dear Happy,

Instead of asking why they can’t “just accept” your polite, endlessly repeated declinations of their (endlessly repeated) offers to babysit (because, honestly, who knows why? And what difference does it make why they can’t or won’t?), how about taking a look at why this is bothering you so much? I mean, I know it’s annoying to be asked the same question again and again—but it seems to be really getting under your skin.

Usually, when something bugs us this much, it’s because it’s pushing a button. While I can assure you that you’re not “broken” for not wanting to escape (full disclosure: I didn’t either, and lots of people acted like I had a screw loose … or was faking it!), the fact that you can’t shrug this off suggests to me that there might be more at stake here for you than just their offering and your refusing childcare. Are you worried that there is something wrong with you for wanting to be at home virtually all the time with your children? Would you be grateful to get a break from time to time if only you could trust any of the three grandparents to look after your kids? How much resentment and sadness are you carrying around where your mother is concerned? (Presumably she let you cry it out?) Knowing how you feel—taking an honest accounting of what’s really going on beneath the surface—can make dealing with the surface problem a hell of a lot easier.

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And since you’ve already spelled out some very good reasons for saying no, next time any of them asks, cut the question—and your answer—short. At this point, all you have to say is a cheery, “No thanks” before you change the subject.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Girlfriend’s Nasty Attitude Toward Her Ex Is Freaking Me Out: “Should I look at this as a red flag, or is this a “mind-your-own-business” situation?”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son and daughter-in-law are expecting their first child this spring. My son’s job requires him to be on the road often and he will be able to take only about a week of leave when the baby arrives. Originally their plan was for my daughter-in-law’s mother to stay with her for at least a few months as she gets into the swing of things as a new mom. Unfortunately, her mom recently passed away. It was quite sudden, and obviously my daughter-in-law is deep in mourning. They have asked if I can fly out and stay when my son returns to work, which I’m very happy to do, but I am worried about trying to make this as comfortable as possible for my daughter-in-law, whom I haven’t really had the chance to get to know (they live on the opposite coast). I also don’t have any experience of this sort to fall back on: my daughters live near me, so I’ve never done long stays in their homes, even when their children were newborns. I’m certainly aware that I shouldn’t make my daughter-in-law feel she has to treat me like a guest, and I can entertain myself and also get out of the house if she needs time to herself. My plan is to focus on cooking and housework, so that she can concentrate on the baby. But beyond that, do you have any guidance about what would make things easier on her?

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—Hopefully Helpful

Dear Hopeful,

Your letter is a balm to my soul. If only every new grandparent were as thoughtful!

Your intention to concentrate on cooking and housework seems just right to me (it’s precisely the help I wanted—and received—from my own mother in the early weeks after my daughter was born). I would take this one small step farther by pausing to ask your daughter-in-law if it’s all right with her if you take over those tasks. Be direct and matter-of-fact: “I’d like to take over the cooking and laundry and so on so that you can concentrate on the baby, if that’s OK with you.” If she’s anything like me, it will be very much OK. But I’ve known first-time mothers who want the baby taken off their hands part of the time, and who might be glad to fold a basketful of laundry or get dinner started as a low-stakes break from round-the-clock newborn care. The only way to find out is to ask before taking over all non-baby-specific jobs, and also to tell her (gently, and only once) that if she needs a baby-care break, all she has to do is ask you. Rather than saying, for example, “Why don’t you give me the baby so you can take a shower?”, just let her know that anytime she needs you to take the baby, you’re here for her.

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It probably goes without saying that you should not reorganize her cupboards or spices or in any other way take over the management of the household (I mention this only because I know it happens). If she’s nursing, do everything you can to make her feel comfortable doing so in your presence—but if she prefers to nurse in privacy, do not tell her she’s being silly or otherwise lecture or badger her about it (I’m sure you wouldn’t—but, again, I’ve heard a lot of stories). Do not express your opinion about nursing versus bottlefeeding. (While I’m at it, let me add that there’s no reason to express your opinion about anything baby-related unless she asks you what you think, or asks directly for advice.)

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One thing my mother did, along with housework, that I still think of fondly nearly thirty years later was tend to me while I took care of my newborn daughter. (For example: she refilled my giant, hospital-issued water jug without my asking, setting it beside me as I nursed. That sort of small gesture can go a long way.)

And since your daughter-in-law is beginning motherhood while grieving, she may need more attention—or more space. She may need to talk; she may need to cry. The rule for you to follow throughout all of this is: follow her lead. Give her what she needs (and never assume that you know better than she does what it is she needs). This is a chance for you to get to know her, and for her to know what she can count on you for. It’s an honor, I think, to have this opportunity. That you are going into it with an open heart and mind bodes very well for both of you.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

If you missed Friday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother can’t seem to let go of the fact that my 16-year-old nephew didn’t give Christmas presents to his parents, but did splurge on gifts for his friends (which they did not reciprocate). I’ve tried to communicate the Slate advice column wisdom that one shouldn’t meddle in such matters, but she’s determined to drop hints in the future—or just to corner him when he’s visiting and have a talk with him about this. Should teenagers be encouraged to give gifts to their parents, and is it a grandmother’s place to intervene? I don’t think the boy’s parents (particularly his father, my brother) would appreciate Grandma’s interference.

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—Unsure Uncle

Dear Unsure,

You’re right, she should stay out of this—but so should you. That is, don’t try to get between your mother and your nephew or his parents. The principle of “natural consequences” as a strategy for parents can be useful to us all. In other words: your mother will quickly learn the cost of interfering, and it will teach her not to do so in the future.

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P.S. I don’t think it’s so strange that this teenager spent money on his friends instead of his parents. At that age, many kids aren’t thinking about their parents. Their friends are everything to them—their parents are just vague figures in the background of their lives. But if your brother and his spouse see this as a problem, they’ll deal with it themselves. It’s nobody’s business but their own.

—Michelle

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My 14-year-old daughter dresses like she’s going to a nightclub—halter tops, tube tops, short shorts, high heels, bare midriffs. I want to encourage her sense of style and help her to be positive about her body, but this is not OK, and we can’t stop fighting about it. What should I do?

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