In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a stay-at-home parent who feels his efforts to establish and maintain boundaries during the day are undercut when his spouse returns home from work. He believes the daily struggles he has with their daughter “are partly or greatly exacerbated by my wife’s interactions with her…. I’m drained as a parent and feeling resentful towards my spouse for letting a stubborn 3.5-year-old have her way.”
Transcript of “Dad Feels Undermined and Defeated by Partner’s Lack of Limits”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. In this episode I’m responding to an email I received from a parent who is the primary caregiver to a 3½-year-old and a 13-month-old, and he’s feeling like his efforts to establish and maintain limits are being undercut by his spouse, whose work schedule only allows her an hour or two a day with her kids. He’s feeling drained as a parent and resentful towards his wife.
Here’s the note I received:
“Hi, Janet. My wife and I are both regular listeners of your podcast and we’ve read and discussed much of your No Bad Kids book. Recently I’ve been having some real struggles with my 3½-year-old daughter that seem to be partly or greatly exacerbated by my wife’s interactions with her. I’m the stay at home parent and get roughly 38 hours a week, minus nap times of solo parenting. We have two kids, also a 13-month-old boy. I feel the burden of a lot the disciplinary grunt work. I’m the one who has to say no the most, simply by being home with them all day long and fielding every request from the constant desire to watch screens to breakfast, lunch meal asks, and playtime.
We agree on a lot of the big picture stuff, your advice on how to foster an environment of confidence, independent play, and explorative learning. The major challenge is on weekdays when Momma is only going to get an hour or less to see them in the morning and a 90 minute to three-hour window, less for toddler, slightly more for 3½-year-old after work. She comes in ready to play and engage one on one or one on two and seemingly overrides a lot our rules/groundwork and lets our daughter call the shots. And when challenged on her lack of boundaries, she argues, “I get so little time with them. I don’t want to make my one to two hours about that.”
Every time our daughter wins something that I wouldn’t give her during the day, due to it being an inappropriate time or her defiant behavior, she ups the ante on these behaviors after “winning” one with Mom. Often when I say no to things, our daughter throws a massive tantrum and just says, “I want Mum Mum to come home. I don’t want her to work!” And it sometimes lasts for 30 to 90 minutes. I’m drained as a parent and feeling resentful towards my spouse for letting a stubborn 3½-year-old have her way when she’s misbehaving or crying. Not sure what to do. Thanks for all the amazing content you put out there.
I had to include that, because I love that moniker.
So, there are a few points I want to make in response to this dad. One is to understand that he is the one doing the work that children crave and need by being the one who has boundaries and isn’t afraid to say no to them and allow them to feel whatever they feel in response to that (that’s up to them). But he’s setting the limits. He’s giving them consistency and that structure that young children need. By doing so, he’s the trusted one.
He’s going to be closer in the end to his children because children sense when we’re stepping up to do the hard stuff. They’re not going to tell us that. They’re not going to say, “Oh, thank you for giving me those boundaries.” They’re definitely not going to give us that in the moment, but deep down, I am convinced children appreciate this and that they do feel closer and safer with those people that aren’t afraid of them.
So I would love to encourage this mom to see beyond the smiley face or the child that she can make feel better when she’s crying in those moments. I would try to see beyond that. I understand where this mom is coming from so much, and I think a lot of times, this is in reverse, that the father is the one that works away from home and the mother is home and I hear similar stories from stay home moms.
It’s really, really hard when we have only a few hours with our child every day. I really understand how hard it is when you only have a short time with your child. You want it to be nice. You want it just to be smiley and fun and happy and laughing.
But children actually need something else. They need to maybe yell at that parent for not being there, and the way they do that is by pushing these limits that they want us to hold for them so that they can release the feelings, release the stress or whatever’s built up during the day. They need to share that with the parent that’s only there for a shorter period of time. They need that parent to be a trusted parent, too. That’s what I would love to encourage this parent to do. So that she doesn’t miss out on being that really trusted person who’s willing to do the hard work in the time that she’s home, because she understands that that connection — a child melting down with us while we help them through their routine with love — is the closest that we can be. It’s very, very connected and it’s quality time.
I wrote about this in a post called “Confessions of a Pushover Parent ” and I talked about my own journey, because I am also the one who wants to just have a good time. Let’s just smile and I never want to be the “bad guy.” I never want to have to lay down the law, if it hurts your feelings or if you seem to be saying no. I want to please you. I had to learn …
I got a wonderful daughter who is strong-willed. She pushed limits and she needed to meltdown a lot. She needed to unravel, and I wanted to be somebody that gave her what she needed. I learned that what I thought being loving was… was not as loving. It was the easier way.
You know, it’s cheap to get a smile out of a child. It’s really not that hard. What’s hard is to be present for the other feelings that they have and to be able to move through those with our child, allowing them to feel what they feel. Not letting it break us. Not letting it make us a weaker parent — a give-in parent that gives them all this power and now then they’ve got to feel so grown up, calling the shots with us. They don’t really want that role. They’re going to seem like they do, but they really don’t.
You know when we’re kind of getting our way as a child and we’re “winning.” The feeling, it’s uneasy. It’s like going down a rollercoaster that’s a little too scary for you and you’re kind of, “Aaah! This is fun,” but underneath you’re not comfortable.
And I may sound very sure of myself, that’s because I’ve worked with, not only my own daughter, but so many families. When I do home consultations, I come in as someone who’s almost always a stranger. I come in and I help the parent hold limits on things that they’re not as comfortable holding limits with. The children cry. They get angry. It seems like I’m the meanest person in the world and I really feel like that sometimes, but I know that’s not the truth. And then I see in these 90 minute long visits that the child will find a way to reach out to me, showing me that I built trust in that short period of time.
In the post, “Confessions of a Pushover Parent,” I talk about how these two neighbor children would come over. They were three years old and my daughter was two. They would come play, and I would be the one that made them sit while they ate or drank anything, and this was years ago before I was as totally convinced as I am now of what love really is to children. I was sure that they wouldn’t want to come over again. That they would think I was mean. And it was actually quite the opposite.
They seemed to love that effort that I made to be “strict” with them, to love them enough to insist that they sit down and focus on their little snack or whatever it was. I had rules. They loved that! I could see that and that was one of the first things that really convinced me, besides my own daughter, but it’s always hard to see with your own child. That was one of the first things that really convinced me, Wow! Children love boundaries. They love confident leaders. They get to be little kids. They get to relax.
So reframing love is what I hope this parent might do.
To the dad I want to say… this work that seems, again, uncomfortable and why do you have to be this one? Right now, he’s the chosen parent, which doesn’t mean he’s the one children are always going to ask for. But even when this little girl says, “I want Mum Mum to come home. I don’t want her to work!” That’s being intimate with him. Again, there’s no better way to bond with a child than to be able to hear that and not get all ruffled by it and feel like it’s a problem and take it personally, that why am I not enough?
He is enough. In fact, he’s such a good parent that she feels comfortable to let these feelings out.
And I do understand how it feels like he has more work on his plate when he’s unsupported by his partner. That is definitely frustrating. It’s hard to feel alone in this work. It’s demanding. It’s exhausting and sometimes it feels so fruitless when children are pushing limits and expressing feelings. That’s why we have to reframe this.
Those days are when we’re all heroes, us stay home parents. We’re heroes for facing that. And working outside the home parents can be heroes, too, in the few hours they have with their child.
I understand both sides of this. Really, I’ve been both. I’ve been the parent that didn’t want to set limits. That’s always going to be my personality, and I’ve also been the parent that really had to. And it wasn’t so much my husband, but other people, you know, family members or whatever, and they’re different and that’s okay. It’s okay for children to understand that people are different and they treat them differently, and sometimes, you know, people get your child all riled up and then they leave you with the mess.
In a practical sense, if Mother’s going to come home and wants to be the one taking care of those children for the rest of the day, then she should follow through and actually get them to bed, so that she can see how she does have to set limits at some point, or she’s gonna have a mess on her hands.
I would say also that, just what we know about 3½-year-olds with 13-month-old siblings is that 13 months an be kind of a milestone for the older child in terms of seeing that younger child as more of a person. The younger child is now walking, maybe. If not walking, can get around pretty well. This is more of a person, which means this is a little more of a threat than a lying down baby that seems sort of in control in the older child’s view. Now we’ve got, Whoa! I can’t control this person. They’re on the move. That can be hard for an older child.
So a lot of this stuff that’s going on that this dad is talking about … He starts by saying he’s having struggles with his 3½-year-old. I think she may be at a point where she has a lot of feelings to express, and so that is probably an element of this.
And when he says that the parents agree on the big picture stuff, “your advice on how to foster an environment of confidence, independent play, and explorative learning,” well, it’s wonderful that they agree on that.
I would implore the mom to understand that setting limits is what gives children confidence. That’s the framework that they have to start with. Without those limits in place firmly and consistently and the feeling that they have parents that are leaders that can take care of them, children don’t feel free and they don’t develop with that confidence. The structure has to be in place for children to feel comfortable. One cannot happen without the other. It’s freedom within boundaries or it’s not real freedom. It’s just children always looking for boundaries.
Now, Mom coming in from work ready to play, ready to engage one on one is wonderful, but it would be helpful if she also came in ready to play as their leader, not leading their play, but leading them through the routines of the evening, and allowing them to flail and meltdown with her as needed.
I don’t know the details because this dad doesn’t provide them. This dad says the daughter, “wins something that I wouldn’t give her during the day.” So, the parents have to sit down and figure out together what those rules are and be a team, because if one parent has completely different rules, then there really are no rules. We have to back each other up.
But again, I think it will help if mom gets the chance to follow through a couple of times, where dad isn’t coming in to set boundaries at the end of mom’s playtime. Mom does the whole experience with one of the children at least.
And when she says, “I don’t wanna make my one to two hours about that,” I’m totally with you. I get that, but “that” is actually where children feel the love. It’s “that.” It’s the rules. It’s fearlessness about disappointing them. The competency as leaders.
So, I would encourage this mom again to reframe “that” and see “that” as this magical key into a relationship of more trust, and children who feel more relaxed with her and can let go of all the pushing and defying and demanding, and be little kids.
So I hope that helps.
Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.
Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are six individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.