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 am the mother to two wonderful children, ages 8 and 1, and my husband and I have been married for 11 years. After having our son eight years ago, my husband was diagnosed with a chronic illness that is not terminal but definitely life-altering, and he lives with pain on a daily basis. My older son’s first year was pretty challenging as we adapted to my husband’s diagnosis while also being first-time parents, but we got through it together with a wonderful child and an even stronger relationship. I have always wanted two children and when my oldest was 3, we decided to try for a second. Unfortunately, this ended in a miscarriage. When I finally felt ready to try again, my husband told me that he was happy with the one child we had and didn’t want another. He said he was getting old (he is 10 years my senior) and felt that his body just wasn’t capable of being the parent to a young child again. I was devastated and mourned the loss of the baby I miscarried all over again. Ultimately though, I respected his wishes, moved on and was generally really happy with the life we created.
Several years later my husband told me that he made a mistake—he did want another child. His desire to have another did have a catch though—he was clear that if we were to have another, I would likely have to do more than my fair share of the work due to his chronic pain and fatigue. I agreed to this and appreciated that he was upfront and honest. I was ecstatic!
We now have a one year old who I love dearly but whose first year has been, well … challenging. He had some health issues requiring many doctor’s appointments and medication, and he is a terrible sleeper. I have spent close to $5,000 on sleep consultants hoping someone can help me get this baby to sleep! As promised, I have done the majority of the work. My husband is still enjoying a luxurious, full night of rest in the basement a year later and has done this ever since my son was born, even when he was waking up every 45 minutes and even when he would only sleep propped up on me. There were nights I slept 1 or 2 hours max and still parented two children the next day. I’m not complaining, I signed up for this. Thankfully, the worst of this seems to be behind us and our son is happy and healthy—but I feel as though I’ve aged 10 years.
Now, for the past few months I have been dealing with some postpartum thyroid issues. I’ve been seeing an endocrinologist and we’re working on getting things right, but in the meantime I am not feeling well at all. After the past year, I am a haggard, sleep-deprived, emotionally fried mess. My thyroid issues leave me exhausted, unable to concentrate and emotional. My skin is so dry it’s cracked, my hair is falling out in handfuls, and I’ve gained a ton of weight. So things are pretty awesome! I NEED HELP.
I’ve tried to talk to my husband about things, and he listens and says the right things, but nothing ever changes. I’m still doing the majority of the work around the house and most (all?) of the parenting, and some days I just want to run away, lock myself in a hotel room and sleep for 25 years. I have tried asking him explicitly to help with very specific things (i.e., make dinner on this day, or take out the garbage, etc). I have tried just not doing things and getting a bit of rest when my son is sleeping, but then things pile up and become a bigger job for me. I have had my parents down to help several times, but they live many hours away and are getting older. I have expressed my feelings and communicated my needs over and over and over. My son is on a waitlist for daycare but there are no spots right now and I can’t afford a nanny. I know I agreed to this but this is too much for me to handle – how can I get him to help me? And if I can’t, what do I do?
— Fed Up and Tired
Dear Fed Up and Tired,
This is a tough one. On the one hand, you did have an agreement with your husband, although it sounds like “more than your fair share of the work” may have become “all of the work” in practice after your son’s birth. But given that the circumstances under which you made the original agreement have changed, it may be time to renegotiate.
With you now at a diminished capacity, you simply cannot manage it all alone, and you will eventually hit a wall if you don’t get some help. If your husband is unable or unwilling to offer that help, you will need to reach out to friends and family. Childcare is great, but you can also ask friends to drop off groceries or prepared dinners on days you can’t manage. Perhaps your parents can Facetime with your older child during the baby’s naptime and allow you to get some rest. I’d look into other daycares with shorter waistlists, and if you can possibly swing a babysitter from time to time, be strategic about integrating rest and self-care so you don’t burn out and so you can continue to heal physically. An outlet—therapy? some form of exercise?—to tend to your mental health might help you as well. For a cheaper option you may be able to find a 12-year-old in your neighborhood to hire as a Mother’s helper who will play with your 8-year-old while your baby naps. If your husband’s chronic illness falls under the disability umbrella, I also wonder if your state provides any benefits or resources that may help.
Moving forward, I think you and your spouse need to work out a contingency plan that makes use of either hired help or tasks your husband is able to handle, because it simply isn’t feasible for you to handle everything, especially if you get sick yourself. You simply cannot show up for your kids without first being able to take care of yourself.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My father passed away three years ago. He was an amazing person, a great dad, and a wonderful grandfather. He had seven grandchildren and managed to have a special and unique bond with every single one of them. He played chess and did the crossword with my oldest, he took my middle child fishing and played soccer with her when his health permitted, and he read stories and played games with my youngest. As a family we often share stories about him, and my older kids love looking at pictures of him. My mom recently announced to the family that she’s dating again and wants to introduce her partner to all of us soon.
My kids are 13, 11, and 6, and my older kids have told us they feel betrayed. They’re already upset that their younger sister doesn’t really remember their grandfather outside of the stories she’s heard and the pictures she’s seen.
Around the time that my dad passed away the kids saw a grief counselor who helped them work through a lot of the emotions they were feeling surrounding the illness and death of their grandfather. Though they talk a lot about missing him, nothing has seemed out of the ordinary until now. We’ve tried explaining that everyone grieves in different ways and that their grandmother is allowed to move on, but it doesn’t seem to stick. My sisters and I are mostly happy for our mother. She took our dad’s death the hardest out of any of us, having been married to him for more than 40 years, and when she announced her new relationship, she seemed the happiest she’s been since our dad died. Our kids never saw the true extent of how much his death affected her.
According to my older sister, her kids are similarly upset. My mother does not know the kids’ feelings about her dating. How can we help our kids who are going through these emotions?
— Grieving Their Grandpa
Dear Grieving Their Grandpa,
It makes sense that your mom’s announcement has reactivated some of the grief your kids have been feeling since your father’s death. But while they may need to process those feelings, perhaps with the help of the grief counselor they saw previously, this is also a great opportunity to help them consider someone else’s needs and point of view. Try explaining to them the magnitude of your mother’s loss, what it really means to lose someone you spent 40 years with, and the loneliness she must be feeling.
If you feel comfortable telling your mom that your kids are really grieving their grandpa and having trouble with the idea of a new partner, she may want to talk to them as well and reassure them that this new person will never replace their grandfather in her life or their lives. I’d also choose a neutral setting for the introduction, not an occasion loaded with meaning and memories like a holiday. And initially at least, consider a mix of one-on-one time with Grandma and time in which her new partner is included.
No matter how they feel about it, your kids should know they’re expected to treat your grandmother and her new partner with kindness and respect. While the feelings they’re having are a valid part of the grief process, they need to understand that they don’t get to dictate how their grandmother lives her life, and that she deserves to be happy and move on.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a question about freshman in high school, and when I should start worrying about my child’s grades. This is my younger child. My older is very high achieving and enrolled at a very challenging program at an Ivy League like-college. I am also an immigrant so the kids are my first experience of school in this country. My younger child is very sweet, a very helpful, and an awesome kid in his own ways. I believe grades are important as far as getting into a good college is concerned, so my question is: When do I become concerned about grades? My younger one’s freshman grades are below 3.0 GPA and I am very concerned that he will not get into even the local state university. Is this concerning? I love my child regardless, but seeing his confidence slide is heartbreaking especially when he compares himself to his brother.
Another part of my question is how do I get him help? I have tried connecting with counselors at his middle school in the past and now high school. They keep on telling me that he is fine. But I am concerned, as he does really bad in quizzes and tests, otherwise he gets good grades based on homework itself. I think this is pointing to something but have no support from school or his father. How do I help him?
— Very Concerned Mama
Dear Very Concerned Mama,
Given that the school counselor thinks your son is doing fine, and that he’s a great kid outside of school, it’s possible he simply isn’t the academic overachiever type. Take it from this former straight-A teacher’s pet who ended up with an awesome, brilliant kid who generally regards school as torture and has never cracked a book for pleasure.
If your parental spidey sense is telling you there’s a bigger issue, however, you may want to get your son screened for ADHD and other learning disabilities that could be affecting his ability to perform under the time constraints of a testing situation. It’s also quite possible what you’re seeing is a result of the pandemic. Many students lack foundational skills they should have in subjects that were taught remotely. If his high school is a more intense or competitive environment than his middle school, it’s quite possible your son is not alone in these struggles. Your child’s teachers might be able to provide you with some helpful insight.
Talk to your son, too, and find out what he experiences while test-taking; simple anxiety causes some kids to struggle and can possibly be managed with mindfulness techniques and breathing exercise. Be careful also how you talk about tests at home—help your son see testing as a simple measure of how well he understands the specific material at one specific moment in time, and not a reflection of who he is as a person or even a student.
Of course, not every kid is Ivy League bound. Does your son have other gifts and talents that might inform a future career? Depending on his vocational interests, you may be able to work together to plan an alternate path to success. And be careful not to compare your two children to each other. Your youngest is his own awesome person, and while education is important, he’s ultimately more than a GPA.
Did you know former Care and Feeding columnist Carvell Wallace is now a co-host of Slate’s How To! podcast? Listen to the latest episode about letting boys become men.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Do you have any coping strategies for staying in a marriage that you know you want to end, but the timing isn’t right?
Currently, my husband and I are both unhappy. He says as much, often, and I feel the same but mostly keep it inside. Shared tragedy and his fear of looking like “the bad guy” has kept us together thus far, but it’s something I feel is on the horizon, whether it be tomorrow or 10 years from now. When I think about my future, I rarely if ever picture him in it.
The things that are keeping me in place are a special needs child who needs outside therapies in addition to a specialized school, which means she needs a parent available to take her. That also means, at the encouragement of my husband, I do not work (he travels extensively for work and while we have family nearby, they are not reliable for any sort of help in that regard). No job means I have no money or savings of my own. I also don’t have a vehicle in my name and couldn’t afford to buy one thanks to the aforementioned lack of funds. Our home and the mortgage are in both of our names, so technically he couldn’t kick me out, but I also couldn’t buy him out. I have no college degree and most of my previous work experience (which at this point was years ago) is in the admin sector. Those jobs don’t pay well in our area unless you’ve been at the same job your whole life, and I don’t have that kind of time.
How in the world do I set myself up to get out the door? I need money. I need independence. I need support. I need a way out. But how do I get those things without affecting my child’s care? She’s the most important thing in my life, full stop, and I’d rather live in silent misery than see her fall behind because I couldn’t get her to therapy. Please help.
— Feeling Held Hostage
Dear Feeling Held Hostage,
As a single mom who split from her kid’s dad while our son was still very young, I’ve been asked this question many times, usually by mom acquaintances who want to know how to follow in the trail I was the first to blaze, and also, if they’re capable of it. Since I had my own income, my situation was not as complicated as yours, but it was still very difficult, and it cannot be done all at once. Here in New York, the Bar Association will connect you with a lawyer for a $35 initial consultation, so I’d check to see if one of your local legal organizations offers a similar service so you can simply gather information and get the lay of the land. Find out more about the process and what kind of supports your husband may be required to pay you and provide to your child in the event of a divorce. Ask what you can do to protect yourself and your child in this scenario.
Couple’s therapy (and individual if possible) might be another good first step to making a plan on how to increase your independence. Maybe you could look for remote or part-time work as a test run for the future as well as a way to start putting some money away. Hopefully your husband doesn’t want your child to go without her basic needs either, so if he’s as unhappy as you think he is, perhaps you can even work together on a transition plan out of the marriage.
As devastating as splitting up our family was, one thing I have to believe is that my kid is better off with a happy single mom than witnessing a united front of misery. And you can’t truly be the parent and example you want to be while being this unhappy in your circumstances. Your child can learn a lot from seeing you pick yourself up and do the hard work to change your situation for the better, one seemingly small step at a time.
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My father is a charming, charismatic, wealthy man who abandoned me and my mother, never paid child support, never showed up for birthdays, and let me live with my mom’s abusive relatives after she died rather than take me in. He’s still tormenting me. What should I do?