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 doesn’t like asking for help for tasks that she can do herself, even if having assistance would make the task easier, more enjoyable, or completed quicker. This goes for things such as moving furniture—she once rearranged all the furniture in our living room while I was at work—as well as things with the children. She’ll run around town, stressed out, as she tries to get all three of the kids to various extracurriculars and playdates instead of just asking one of our parents to help out or taking me up on my offers to leave work early to do the running for a couple of them. On occasions when I have ignored her declarations that she can do it herself, she gets mad at me for interfering, so I mostly just let her be to do things her way and I do things my way, which is asking for help when needed. This has worked out well for us except I am taking issue with the way she describes my parenting to other people as taking shortcuts, being lazy, or insinuates that I am incompetent.
For example, last weekend I had all three kids while she spent the day out of town with a friend for the friend’s birthday. The kids and I met my parents, sister, and her kids for breakfast and then I needed to go to the grocery store and run some errands. My youngest wanted to stay with grandma and grandpa and my oldest wanted to go with my sister and niece to get their nails done. So I took my middle child and we got everything done in record time, picked up the other two and spent the rest of the day at the movies and building Legos. When we talked to my wife on the phone that evening and told her about her day, she laughed to her friends and made a comment about how I couldn’t “handle all three kids” on my own and had to call in reinforcements. We argued about it when she got home as she has a habit of making these comments. It’s not that I CAN’T handle all three kids at the grocery store and running errands, but that it makes no sense to drag the kids along somewhere they don’t want to go, when I can complete the task more efficiently without them. My wife would have suffered through the whining and bickering just to prove that she didn’t need help.
How can I get my wife to respect the choices I make, even though they are different from her own? How do I get her to understand that it is hurtful and offensive when she makes these comments to our family and friends about me? I feel like no matter what I say, she just doesn’t get it.
— Work Smarter, Not Harder
Dear Work Smarter, Not Harder,
A lot of people have a hard time asking for help. But insisting on the superiority of doing everything without help to me suggests your wife is operating on some deeply held but ultimately untrue beliefs. I’m not a therapist but I’ve spent enough time in therapy and recovery groups to catch a whiff of codependence in her attitude. Your wife may feel she has to earn love by taking care of others, even at the expense of her own needs. Some codependent people love to set themselves up as martyrs, making sacrifices against their own self-interest in order to prove how much they are capable of doing. If that’s the case, I have found the works of Melody Beattie, such as Codependent No More and The Language of Letting Go to be a great entryway into these concepts.
Alternately, the same sort of behaviors can be caused by the lesser-known counterdependency, or a fear of ever needing anyone. Counterdependent people have intimacy issues and are afraid to make themselves vulnerable by asking for help. We learn these faulty beliefs in our families of origin or even in response to childhood trauma. But they don’t serve us in the long-term, and I truly think your wife could benefit from therapy to help reframe her thinking. Doing that work is probably the only way she’ll truly understand how wrong minded it is to criticize you for asking for and utilizing available help.
Not only is asking for help not a weakness, in my experience it’s essential to surviving parenthood.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 17-year-old son (a junior, “Tim”) who’s a decent-to-good student and holds a part time job. Lately he’s been asking for more privileges like keeping his electronics in his room overnight. I’m not a fan but my ex had let him for some time and the wi-fi shuts off overnight so no biggie. We discussed doing so responsibly, and I agreed.
The problem is how Tim treats me. He’s pretty disdainful/disrespectful (his dad ignored me for months before the divorce and I think that contributes). I respond with a mix of “whatever,” “knock it off,” and “wow, really?”
My question is, how do I calibrate when to blow him off (because, teenagers) and when to set a boundary (because, rudeness)? I get butthurt pretty easily but work hard at not dumping my emotions on him. I just can’t tell when I should walk away (because I’m the adult) and when I should call him out (because he’s being a jerk). Help!
— Prefrontal Cortex Blues
Dear Prefrontal Cortex Blues,
Between the struggle for increased autonomy and privacy, the navigation of a changing parent-child relationship, and the well-known flood of haywire hormones, no one would ever say teens are known for their pleasant dispositions.
But given that you have both gone through a (recent?) divorce, I wonder if your son’s acting out is masking some deeper emotions he needs help processing. Next time he lashes out at you, try finding out what’s behind it. Say something like, “I hear you sounding very upset. Is there something else going on that is making you feel angry or frustrated?” He may be harboring feelings related to you or the situation that are coming out sideways. Validate his feelings while letting him know that rudeness is an unacceptable way to express them. If it turns out he does need help processing his feelings about the divorce or something else, consider a therapist.
Even if not, there may be more constructive ways to respond to his rudeness than “whatever.” Model the calm and kind communication you want from your kid. Let him know how his behavior affects you using “I” statements like “I feel hurt when you speak to me that way.” Set a clear boundary like, “In this family, we speak to one another respectfully,” and let him know what the consequences will be for breaking this rule—perhaps limiting his access to those electronics you mentioned?
Remember also to take care of yourself. I know that when I’m not practicing self-care and meeting my own needs, I have a harder time regulating my emotions when my son says something rude or hurtful. Making sure you’re in a good place emotionally will help you keep your center when he’s pushing your buttons.
And remember, kids lash out and test boundaries with people they trust. Even though it doesn’t feel awesome, your son’s behavior is a sign that he knows you are an emotionally safe place to let his emotions out.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My children are 8 and 10. When I tell people that they say “Oh! those are such great ages!” or “You’re in the sweet spot!” or “Isn’t it great that everything is so much easier?”
What I would like to reply is “Actually, it’s awful. I hate everything about it. One of them doesn’t sleep and the other doesn’t eat. One has friend drama and the other has sports drama. It was infinitely easier when they were babies and toddlers; sure, I was tired a lot, but tired is temporary. I am exhausted and burnt out to the bone, and would happily exchange these tweens for newborn twins. I would even take 3-year-old twins, and everyone knows 3-year-olds are the worst.”
I don’t say that, because no one wants to hear that. Parents of young children, in particular, seem really eager to prove how bad things are for them in comparison.
I loved parenting babies and toddlers. I miss it. I loathe parenting right now. There is no upside. People tell me travel is easy with this age, but that’s…two weeks a year if we’re lucky. The rest of the time it’s begging for screen time or fighting about bedtime.
But no one wants to hear this. That’s fine, I get it, but how do I get people to stop telling me how I’m in “the easy part”?
— Not So Sweet Spot
Dear Not So Sweet Spot,
I’m right there with you in tween town—my son is 11—and I would agree with you that nothing about this phase is easy.
When people talk about parenting getting “easier,” they’re usually referring to the sheer labor involved. Parenting little kids requires a ton of physical labor, because they require constant supervision, can’t perform tasks independently, and need you to entertain them every second of the day in ways you inevitably find mind-numbingly boring.
It is true that as kids get older, parenting becomes less labor-intensive. But what I’ve found is that parenting older children requires significantly more emotional labor. My kid’s problems are real now – he’s not throwing a tantrum because I left the crust on his toast, he’s struggling with his racial identity, navigating interpersonal relationships, and learning how to process difficult feelings. These are issues that are going to affect his adult life, and to which the best solutions aren’t always obvious. Not only is this difficult, parents of older kids are no longer reaping the rewards of unconditional love, admiration, and physical affection that little kids give so freely. In fact, we’re doing all this stressful emotional labor for kids who regularly tell us in exactly what ways we are “cringe.” Despite the messages you’re getting, I don’t think you’re the only one who found the baby-and-toddler days easier to navigate.
But given that things aren’t likely to get any easier as you move into the teen years, I think it’s important that you make time for yourself and integrate self-care practices into your daily life to give you a break from the stress and allow you to show up for your kids as your most present self. See also if you can find ways to enjoy your kids again at least a little bit of the time. Think back on events or activities you’ve genuinely enjoyed doing with your kids in the past and try to make a little time each week to do them—whether it’s watching a show you both enjoy together, playing a game, or taking a walk around the block. This phase of parenting can be a slog, but at the end of the slog, if all goes according to plan, it’s over. Your kids will leave your home. You don’t want to find you missed all the good parts.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My ex husband “Al” and I divorced about 4 years ago. We have shared custody of our 3 kids—10-year-old twins (boy & girl) and an 8-year-old daughter. I started going out with my current boyfriend “Jim” a few months ago. Jim and I dated in college. I was going through a really rough time during my relationship with Jim and he helped me get through it, but eventually we broke up due to other reasons. We remained friendly until we graduated and moved to opposite sides of the country, and then we only remained in touch as Facebook friends. I met Al, we got married, had kids, and then decided we’d be better parents as exes. Al is usually a great coparent, and I’d never had any issues before.
Al recently found out I’m dating Jim. I’m not sure how he found out, since even my own kids didn’t know. My older kids suspected I was dating someone, and I didn’t try to hide it, but we are nowhere near ready for Jim to meet my kids yet. Al has been slipping hints to the kids that mom has a friend who has all sorts of negative qualities. My kids are old enough to see through this, though my youngest has anxiety and asks me if I’ll be safe any time I mention seeing a friend.
Jim recently told me about how as a kid, he and his siblings would spend every Sunday evening cooking dinner for the entire family. He said it was a blast and some of the fondest memories he had with his siblings. I thought a family cooking day would be a fun idea, so the kids and I did it one day for lunch. All three kids enjoyed it thoroughly and want to do it again.
I told the kids my friend gave me the idea for the family cooking project. When the kids asked Al if they could cook with him, since he has a library of old family recipes dating back to his grandmother in Italy, Al correctly deduced that the idea had come from Jim. He told the kids that they aren’t allowed to cook and blew up my phone with angry texts about how the kids aren’t old enough to use knives or be near the oven or things like that. He’s been much colder to me when we’ve dropped the kids off at each other’s houses. Do you have any advice on navigating our rapidly changing co-parenting arrangement?
— Co-Parenting Chaos
Dear Co-Parenting Chaos,
I don’t know if it’s a guy thing or what, but I’ve been coparenting with my ex for over 8 years now and I can tell you it all goes a lot more smoothly when I am not dating or in a relationship with anyone. Your new relationship is obviously hitting some buttons for your ex, and he’s quite transparently using the kids to take it out on you. But my take on dating as a co-parent is this: Until one of you is dating someone seriously enough that they are going to be meeting your kids, it’s not one bit of the other parent’s damn business. Unless you’re dating someone who poses some kind of danger, or you’re neglecting your parental responsibilities, you have every right to keep your love life private from your co-parent. I’d tell Al that in no uncertain terms. And also that he has no right to make your co-parenting relationship more difficult or confuse your kids because of his feelings about you dating someone.
If the time does come that you want to introduce your new boyfriend into your kid’s lives, then and only then does it become his business. If it helps settle him down a bit, you can hammer out an agreement ahead of time for how this situation will be handled on either end. Let him know you will have a conversation with him before involving any new partners in your kids’ lives and consider whether you each want the option to meet the new partner first. If you’re feeling generous, you can reassure him that your kids have a Dad, so any man who comes into their lives will never be in that capacity.
There will probably be some continued conflict, but if the relationship is meaningful to you, keep standing up to Al and reinforcing your boundaries around your dating life. Because as I have learned the hard way, a troublesome ex and the attendant drama actually does have the capacity to tank a relationship if you aren’t vigilant in your defense.
More Advice From Slate
My daughter just turned 1, and we had a birthday party for her with some extended family. As she munched happily on her chocolate cupcake after we sang “Happy Birthday,” my mother-in-law jokingly chided, “That’s gonna go straight to your hips, girl!” Should I have said something? Should I say something now, after the fact?