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,
When my now 14-year-old was a year old, my ex and I decided our relationship wasn’t working and divorced. He remarried and moved 4 hours away to another state. For the first few years, until our child was 6 or so, he was pretty disconnected, always finding reasons to cancel visits, rarely calling, etc. However, in the 8 years since, he has started to step up and be there. Ex and our kid see each other every 5-6 weeks, talk regularly on the phone, and ex runs a game for the kid and their friends weekly. But our kid wants more from him.
I do try to get him to visit more often, but he always counters with how “busy” he is. (How busy can he be? He works from home and his wife has a hybrid job.) Now our kid is in a play, with a major role, and is also graduating from middle school this year. My ex has never come to anything at our kid’s school (no preschool graduation, no concerts, no plays, nothing). My kid has asked me to ask their father to come to both the play and graduation, which are in the same month. So I asked, and my ex said he’d try to swing graduation but the play was “impossible” since it isn’t on a weekend, and he can’t take any more vacation time. I got really upset and angry. He has told me he has five weeks of vacation plus some flex time every year. He typically uses three weeks for relaxing leisure trips, and two on our kid.
When I told our kid that his dad can’t make the play, our kid broke down and started to really cry. It’s the first time I’ve seen them do this about their father in years. They asked why their dad never comes to anything important … and I couldn’t answer. I told my kid that they need to ask their dad that question. Well, my kid never did. But as the play gets closer, they are becoming more moody over it. Is there any way for me to make my ex understand that this is really devastating for our child? I long decided to try to stay out of their relationship, but now I feel I need to be more direct. I just am unsure how to approach this, or if I even should.
—Some Things are Important!
I feel for your child, I do. But I think you should stay out of this. I don’t see any way for you to “make” your ex understand that his not being more involved in this child’s life is hurting them. Either he already knows and can’t or won’t be more involved—or he is incapable of understanding this. Either way, your saying any more than you already have will make no difference. But I do think you can encourage your child to speak up, not because that will persuade your ex to step up further (I don’t think it will; I think he is as involved as he wants to be and feels he is able to be). No, I think you should encourage your child to advocate for themself, to voice their own needs, and to ask the questions they very much want answers to for their own sake. I know it pains you to see your child in pain (honestly, it pains me to think about it) but this is not a problem you can solve for them.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have twin almost 18-month-olds (a boy and a girl). My husband has always been very involved in parenting, and we both try to engage with the kids as much as possible when we are home/not working. (He works a traditional, out of the home job, while I work from home.) So, even though we have a nanny to watch the kids while I work, I still see them more as we are in the same house all day, and I am with them at lunch. This is great for me, but over the past couple of months, both babies seem to be favoring me. They readily approach me for cuddles and help, while they rarely go to their dad when he asks and sometimes struggle to get away if he tries to hug or kiss them (he stops right away if they do that). Our little boy lately even refuses my husband at bedtime, whereas we used to alternate who does each child’s bedtime routine.
My husband is so patient, but he is also sensitive, and I know it really hurts him. I have tried to show him more physical affection while we are all together, in hopes that our children will copy me. He also has time alone with them on the nights I go to the gym or (occasionally) go out with friends, and they are fine with him then, but definitely not as loving and affectionate as they are with me. Are there other things my husband or I can do to help the babies bond with him? This can’t last forever, can it? These two are our first and last, so I want to do all I can to foster great relationships with both my husband and me.
—Don’t Want to be the Favorite
Such a different question about such a different kind of father! And yet, strangely enough, the first part of my answer is pretty much the same as my answer to Some Things Are Important!
In response to your last sentence: It isn’t your job to foster a great relationship between your children and your husband. It’s his. Stay out of it. (Modeling affection toward him is just silly. If you feel affectionate toward the man you’re married to, be affectionate—but don’t put on a show for your children.)
As to the rest of it: It’s only natural that these very small children will favor you when they spend more time with you. For now. These things move through phases. Be patient (both of you). As long as their father continues to be a loving parent—and doesn’t display his own hurt feelings to the kids, who are not responsible for making him happy—they will have a happy and healthy relationship. And chances are they will go through a stage when they prefer him to you. (For more on my thoughts about parent-preference, take a look an earlier column that includes two questions and answers on the subject!)
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am in my mid-20s and for most of my life had a great relationship with my mom. My parents were married until I was in college, but it felt like I was raised by just her as my dad was pretty absent. When they divorced while I was in college, I was relieved. My mom hadn’t been happy in the relationship for years, and I wanted her to find a partner who brought her joy.
My mom remarried a few summers ago, and her husband is her perfect match. They are very happy together, which makes me happy. But at the same time, I have felt a divide growing between my mom and me. I have let her know (not just once, but repeatedly) that I don’t feel included in her new family. (My stepdad has kids of his own and a large extended family.)
The last straw came at Christmas. Due to weather and sickness, we couldn’t be together on Christmas Day, so the plan was to gather to celebrate Christmas belatedly after a couple of weeks. I always make the long drive to my mom and stepfather’s home for holidays, since everyone else lives near them, and I planned to do so for the belated Christmas celebration. However, I wasn’t told about the date they’d chosen until two days prior to it, and it was too late for me to take time off work. I was hurt and voiced it, and my mom apologized. But I still felt (and feel) left out and hurt. How do I tell my mom I no longer feel like I’m part of her family without sounding like a terrible daughter who isn’t happy for her?
I am so sorry you’re feeling excluded and hurt. I wish I knew more about the “divide” you felt prior to Christmas. Have you been left out of other gatherings? Are you not hearing from your mother as often as you used to? I’m afraid it’s inevitable that your mother, whose full attention, relationship-wise, was on you, will now be spreading the love around a bit more thinly. She now has not only a husband who brings her joy (for the first time?) but stepchildren and a new extended family, and she’s balancing the responsibilities (and pleasures) of these new relationships, which have expanded her world, with the lifelong (for you) relationship with her daughter. I’m not suggesting that you suck it up and get used to it—but I am suggesting that you carefully consider what has made you feel left out (before the actual leaving out that happened at Christmas, which might have been innocuous—a hurried decision made among a large group).
I also want you to take a closer look at the question you ask at the end of your letter. Are you happy for your mother? Really and truly happy? Because you are a full-grown adult now, and it’s time for you not to be the center of her attention. (This would be healthy for both of you!) If the examples of her neglecting you or abandoning you for her new family are nebulous (for example: She used to call every day and now doesn’t) and you’re truly glad she’s happy after a long, first, unhappy marriage, then you are certainly not being a “terrible daughter” if you let her know how you feel (that you miss her). In fact, you wouldn’t be a “terrible daughter” even if you told her you were feeling left out. Even if you tried to make her feel guilty about this. Even if you are in fact not that happy for her, now that you see what it’s like for her to be in a happy marriage. You’re human. Don’t give yourself a hard time.
But maybe don’t give her a hard time, either? Tell her how you feel (once you’re sure you know) because it isn’t healthy to keep things bottled up with people we love—but also tell her you understand. And then try to.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
After having our first, my husband and I discussed having more kids and decided we would still like at least one more but would wait to have the conversation after a full year had passed, especially after a difficult delivery. In spite of birth control, I recently (at 7 months postpartum) found out I am pregnant. When I told my husband, I was nervous but excited. He reacted negatively, telling me that it was too soon, that it wasn’t safe for me to be pregnant again yet. Even while recognizing he was saying this out of concern for my safety, it was difficult to hear, especially when we had so recently established that we did want to have (at least one) more.
I told him his reaction had hurt me and asked him if he was saying he didn’t want to keep the pregnancy, and he said no, he was just worried about me. He apologized, and I genuinely believe him. A few days later, we discussed this all again, and he asked if I would have divorced him if he had said he wanted to terminate. He kept pressing me about this, and eventually I said that hypothetically it was something I would have had to consider—depending on how he acted and treated me after I let him know I was going to keep the baby.
He’s now angry with me for saying I could ever consider divorcing him, and I’m upset with him for basically forcing me into making this true but unnecessary statement. Plus, I guess, on my end there are pregnancy hormones (but what’s his excuse?). Maybe I should’ve just lied, but I don’t see anything wrong with telling your loving partner that if the relationship turned unsupportive in a major way you would need to consider leaving. Do you have any suggestions on how we can put this behind us? He is genuinely excited about the pregnancy now, talking about it and making plans about how to tell people, but I can tell he’s feeling hurt.
—Not Going Anywhere
You say you can tell he’s hurt—how? And has he said he’s angry? Oh, never mind. We are always making assumptions about how our partners feel (pregnancy hormones or not). I suppose this is inevitable, but it sure does make married life—actually, life in general—harder.
And a conversation is often useful to clear up such matters. If he has directly told you he’s angry, or hurt, start there. If he hasn’t, you might start with, “I get the sense that you’re …” Perhaps he’ll say, “Nah, I’m over it. It was just a bad moment.” But if there are lingering bad feelings here (and if I were you I’d look at my own, too, now that you know that if you had to make a choice, this is the choice you’d make), it seems to me that now that this Pandora’s box has been opened, you had better deal with what’s in it together. It may be—it very likely will be—a hard conversation, but it’s one worth having.
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