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 I first met my husband, he told me he’d never touched a drink, never smoked, and never taken any sort of drug. He had a family history of addiction, and having seen what it does to people, he decided it probably wasn’t worth it. As someone who never became addicted to alcohol but partied a bit too hard in my early 20s, I really respected that. He never asked that I not drink, though by the time I met him, I wasn’t going out often anyways.
Over time, his relationship with his alcoholic mother grew worse until we had to cut her out of our lives entirely, and his sister recently died of a drug overdose. He’s since become a health fanatic. We have three kids between the ages of 13 and 9. He’s now obsessed with perceived unhealthiness in our family, and it’s doing something really strange to our kids.
While he doesn’t physically stop anyone from doing anything, he nags them all the time about the smallest things. Sometimes, it’s little things like our son’s snack of choice (usually cheese and crackers, which he deems unhealthy). Other times it’s things that no one really has any control over—he spends a lot of time lamenting how our kids are “going blind” because they need glasses. When our daughter broke her leg falling off a structure at the playground, he spent the whole time she was in a cast nagging her about being more aware of her surroundings. All of our kids are fit and active, and none have health issues. Still, he’s obsessed with their health. As a result, the kids are starting to want to spend less time with him, and I can’t bring any of this up to him without getting a guilt trip about how I don’t care about the kids’ health as much as he does. I’m at a loss for what to do.
Dear Health Hyperbole,
It’s admirable that your husband has made the choice to abstain from alcohol in consideration of his family’s history of addiction. And look—we know from research that labeling kids’ food choices as “good” and “bad” is more likely to lead to disordered eating than the “healthy” eating habits he hopes to encourage. Similarly, nagging the kids about their eyesight or unavoidable accidents seems unlikely to result in better health.
But if your husband’s fears about your family’s health are coming from a deep emotional place, they probably won’t respond to this kind of logic. In therapy and recovery groups, I’ve heard the expression, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” meaning disproportionate reactions in the present are often connected to something from the past. It seems logical that your husband’s fixation could be helping him feel a sense of control in response to some out-of-control situations he’s experienced. Given that this all started following some deep family trauma, therapy, or a support group like Al-Anon, which is for those affected by others’ addiction, might help get to the root of the issue. Group therapy in particular has been shown to be an effective choice for men. After all, “health” is important, but it doesn’t just apply to the physical body—it’s just as vital that your husband take care of his mental and emotional health.
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I am white, and my husband is Korean. We have two daughters who are 12 and 15. We had a family picnic, and when we were saying goodbye, my mother-in-law started commenting on how nice our older daughter looked. But then, she started telling my younger daughter that she needed to start losing weight if she wanted to look like her sister, and if she was in Korea, she would have taken her to get her eyelids and nose “fixed” much earlier “because when you do it now it won’t look as natural.” My youngest daughter was mortified. How can we confront grandma?