I have been married six years and have two kids: a daughter who is four and a son who will be three soon. On the whole, I am happy with the way my husband and I are co-parenting. He is really involved in the day-to-day around the house, even though we made the decision that I would stop working until the kids get to kindergarten. My issue is that he parents our kids very differently, and not just because of the age difference.
I see him being much more affectionate and careful with our daughter, and treating our son like he’s much older than he is. For example, he expects our 2-year-old son to use a fork without making a mess, but caters to our daughter’s every whim, never making her clean up her own toys or messes she makes, not even in an age-appropriate way. He is much gentler to our daughter but doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for our son when he has a boo-boo or needs comforting. I am playing armchair psychologist, but I think this has something to do with the way his parents treated him (very strict) and his two brothers growing up. Anytime I bring this up he takes it as criticism and refuses to talk about it, let alone change his behavior. I’m afraid we’re raising a bratty girl and a lonely boy, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
-Fearing a gender-biased household
First, I want to commend you for paying attention to this dynamic. With the associated chaos of a young family-of-four, many of us might avoid such careful observation in favor of getting more sleep or just zoning out in front of the TV. That being said, the hyperparenting phenomenon that is overtaking our playgrounds and schools has its benefits and its costs. Your kids have two functioning role models in their lives and are not being abused – this really is a plus no matter how you look at it.
You are connecting Husband’s behavior to his family of origin, and as a mental health practitioner, I’m also curious about how his childhood experience impacts his parenting decisions. Still, without assigning blame to the In-Laws, there is a lot of confusion about the role of the father in the modern family, and about what it even means to be a man in this culture. Does Husband have male friends who are also fathers of young children? Are they able to talk about the challenges and struggles, the mixed messages, what it means to be a man today, and about how to raise young men?
Now, on to the more important issue: the communication between you and Husband. It sounds like he feels a little anxious when you bring up this topic. The sad truth is that no matter how gently you put it, messages from women about male behavior are often read as criticism. I’d recommend you read Love and Stosny’s “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.” I think it might help chart a course for better connection, which can lead you to getting what you both want and need. After that, perhaps Husband might be willing to join a men’s parenting or processing group (for no other reason than an evening outside of the house…) where he can talk about his goals and expectations, and receive feedback from someone who doesn’t share living space.
Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. Her website is www.therapygeorgetown.com. This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.