The Un-United Front
I have enjoyed following your blog and advice columns for several years now, since my daughter was born almost three and a half years ago. My question concerns my husband. And, no, this is not intended to be a “can this marriage be saved” type question, but more of a what can I do differently question.
I work outside the home in an academic position, which in my case means three days a week. My husband operates his own business from home. Our daughter is home with him on the days that I work, and I am home with her on the other days so he can focus on his business. It has been a pretty good arrangement, except that the days I am away are very long days, and the work from home thing is difficult as you know. The main issue is that my husband repeatedly makes me feel as though things are better at home when I am not there. If she is crying or whining he says things like, “she doesn’t act like this when you aren’t here.”
The other morning she was crying because she didn’t want me to leave for work. He got aggravated with her for crying and then that evening told me he “couldn’t wait” until I left so she’d “get back to normal.” One day we were hiking and I’d gone off to explore by myself. When I got back, she started whining about something and he said, “We were fine until you came back. She doesn’t act like this until you are around.” He sent me off ahead (we were headed back to the vehicle) so he could calm her down and I pretty much missed the rest of the hike with my family.
The thing is, she does whine and cry with him. He can spend five minutes telling me about some epic meltdown she had about something, but then if she cries while I am present it is always somehow my fault. I’ve tried expressing to him that I am hurt by the implication that her behavior is due to me, but then he gets upset that he feels like he can’t talk to me about a behavioral issue.
But the net effect of all this is that sometimes I feel like they’d be better off without me around at all. I’m not suicidal or anything, but I feel like I’m not needed, and in fact make things worse.
So, I guess my question is this: do children act differently with one parent than the other? And, if I am making things worse with the whining and crying, how can I make things better? I don’t want my husband to dread my coming home in the evenings, or to wish I wasn’t there on family outings.
Feeling like a third wheel
Okay, so based on what you’ve written here, I don’t think we’re dealing with a behavioral issue, or anything really related to your daughter at all. Your daughter is three years old and it sounds like she is very good at it. Everything is going fine…right up until it isn’t and everything is terrible and whine-worthy? Crying and tantrumning and testing Mommy and Daddy’s respective limits and being irrationally difficult for no apparent reason, interspersed with periods of being the most delightful little person ever? Yeah. That’s nobody’s fault. That’s just a three-and-a-half-year-old.
Kids do often go through cycles of preferring one parent over the other, which can of course lead to hurt feelings on one side and frayed nerves on the other, but…it doesn’t even really sound like that’s what’s going on here. It’d be one thing if you were describing epic meltdowns of “I WANT DADDY! NOT MOMMY! I DON’T LIKE MOMMY!” at bedtime or during your days with her (and to anyone currently experiencing that allow me to hand you a glass of wine and the assurance that this too will pass) but what you’re describing sounds more like a breakdown in you and your husband’s co-parenting skills.
Mostly because of your observation that she DOES whine and cry with him (because OF COURSE SHE DOES), I’m voting more for a communication/discipline breakdown more than any REAL “difference” in her behavior around you vs. him. I wonder if your arrangement — which is a good, enviable one! — has kind of led to you both always operating on a Dad’s In Charge and/or Mom’s In Charge basis that you guys aren’t used to approaching behavior quirks together, on the same page with the same approach. Does her crying during the morning separation from you hurt his feelings and/or upset you, and so he wants to reinforce the fact that she’s “just fine” after you leave, and is just expressing it clumsily? How does he “calm her down” that is so different and at-odds with your presence? Does he think you’re too indulging? Too strict? Does he think that you get stressed out and tense and she picks up on it? These are all valid issues that couples sometimes have to talk about and work through…but TOGETHER. With WORDS. Not accusations and orders for the other parent to clear the damn room.
Personally, when my three-year-old is losing his mind for no reason, that’s usually a signal that we — his father and I — should remove HIM from the situation. A time-out, a break, a Naughty Step, a let’s-get-back-in-the-car-we’re-leaving. Something like that. Kicking the other parent out of the equation is just…not the way we approach things. (UNLESS, of course, there’s a parental patience/temper/I-need-a-time-out issue going on with one of us. But that’s more like a self-recognized need to remove ourselves, or to let the other person take a breather. It’s NOT a blame-the-other-parent-and-make-them-feel-incompetent thing.)
Regardless, the stuff your husband is saying to you needs to stop, because it’s not helping anyone. I would be feeling pretty resentful and irritated too, if I was being “blamed” for every less-than-desirable behavior simply because…I was there? By saying “she never acts like that with ME,” he’s putting her behavior on you, which…no. Forget any casual correlation between her whining and your presence, he’s ALSO sending her the signal that her temper or desire to whine are not behaviors that she is in charge of and can control. Kids are smart, and they absolutely pick up on things like that. She’s the one whining and pitching a fit, but it’s Mommy’s fault, because she “never” acts that way otherwise! (EVEN THOUGH SHE DOES.)
You guys absolutely need to sit down and hash this out. AWAY from your daughter and NOT in the middle of an incident. The goal here is for you two to always be presented a united front in her presence — Mommy AND Daddy Are In Charge, Both Of Them. What one of you says, the other will support and back up. No matter what. No fighting in front of her, no giving her the sense that she can divide and conquer by whining in front of you until Daddy tells you to leave and then acquiesces to her demand. Write it all out on paper if you have to, use lots of “I feel” and “I hear” when addressing the stuff he says, and why it’s so hurtful and discouraging. He probably has no idea how deeply you’re feeling his comments, which could just be coming from 1) him wanting to reassure you that she enjoys her time with him while you work, or 2) a clumsy, kind-of clueless need to reassure HIMSELF of the same thing.
If there IS some big difference in your discipline approaches or how you handle tantrums and whining, figure out if there’s a way to get more on the same page. Pick up some books on preschooler behavior and find approaches that you both agree on. If your husband really does believe that it’s simply your PRESENCE and EXISTENCE that’s causing the behavior, once again stress that 1) Dude, that’s not helpful, and 2) removing yourself from interactions and outings every time she misbehaves is NOT a solution.
If he gets bent out of shape because he can’t “talk to you” about a behavior issue, point out that that’s exactly what YOU ARE DOING. He may have it in his head that he’s awesome and his approach is always right, but there are several people’s behavior in play during preschooler whine-fests. Hers. His. Yours. Him blaming you is about as helpful as asking your daughter “what’s wrooooooooong?” in the middle of a tantrum, when she’s likely to mostly be angry that like, air is touching her body and be completely unable to express it.
There have definitely been times when my husband and I have not seen eye-to-eye during situations with our kids. Oh, my lands. We both have an issue with picking our battles, and sometimes don’t realize that we’re locked in an epic struggle over something that JUST. ISN’T. WORTH. IT. But the other person does. So we struggle occasionally with wanting to help the other parent out and continue the whole united front thing…while fighting the urge to tell the other person that DUDE, CHILL OUT AND LET IT GO. THIS IS NOT A BIG DEAL. Recently I got annoyed enough and said these words to Jason in front of Noah, who IMMEDIATELY spun around and repeated it all to his dad in the most obnoxious, defiant way possible. Hooray! Everyone’s irritated now! I maintain that Jason wasn’t dealing with the situation perfectly…but I absolutely admit that I up and made it even worse by pointing fingers in front of Noah. I should have stepped in with a compromise or asked to talk to Jason in another room, or something.
It’s…an ongoing process, this parenting with a partner thing. Your husband sounds like a great dad who is very confident in his parenting abilities. Which is not at all a bad thing. But his confidence should not be trampling yours. You guys are a team, and should double as the other person’s biggest cheerleader too.
Photo credit: ThinkstockPublished January 19, 2012. Last updated March 23, 2012.