Illustration by Andrew Condell
I’m 49 and my husband is 57. We’ve been married for four years, and we get along well. I have no kids, but he has a grown daughter from his first marriage who now has a 3-year-old child. She’s a single mom as the dad disappeared. She and her child live about an hour away.
I also got along well with his daughter, “Brenda,” until recently. She likes to drop off my husband’s granddaughter for occasional weekends. This gives her a break and allows some bonding time between granddad and granddaughter. This is fine with me. I spend the weekend golfing, shopping, and rollerblading with my girlfriends, and I even enjoy binge-watching some British period dramas during those weekends.
I’m not into kids really and don’t know how to deal with the very young ones. From what I’ve seen, a 3-year-old requires constant eyes-on attention or something tragic could happen. I’m inattentive and need time on the weekend to unwind from my demanding job. She is an adorable child and I’m happy that my husband takes time to be with her. However, I noticed that if I am in the house, he will tune into football, take a nap, etc. So, I opt to be mostly busy on those weekends, forcing him to fully take on the role he voluntarily chose.
The problem is that next weekend is his agreed-upon weekend and my DIL has a cruise scheduled. My husband is under the gun for a work deadline. As I discussed (and we agreed) from the beginning, that I would not be doing childcare, he thinks I should just be more flexible. So now both he and my DIL are angry with me. Honestly, my heart races at the thought of taking care of a toddler even just for one weekend. Plus, I can see this boundary being pushed more often in the future. I suggested he hire a sitter, or better yet, get her grandma to watch her, but they have objections to these suggestions.
I’m standing firm but it’s awfully chilly. Any advice? — Reluctant to Babysit
As I was reading along, I thought, “Hire a sitter!” And “Is there a grandmother in the picture? Ask the grandmother to watch the toddler!” But if those suggestions are out, you’re going to have to work with your husband to figure a solution here, and the stance you’ve taken is not going to serve you well going forward, no matter how much more fun a weekend of British period dramas might sound over watching a toddler all weekend (especially when you’d like to unwind after a demanding week at work).
Before I get into my advice for you, let me say that I am not unsympathetic to your position. I’ve raised two three-year-olds myself, and I know they’re a handful! Most parents of a toddler can only dream of a weekend break, let alone multiple weekends, so it’s wonderful that your husband has been able to provide such a gift to his daughter. I would imagine those breaks are extra meaningful for a single mother who is doing everything herself during the week, and I hope she’s equally generous with her gratitude as your husband is with his time and support.
All that said, I see your husband’s point that you could be more flexible. Sure, it’s his choice to babysit his granddaughter, and you could certainly argue that he doesn’t need to babysit her so frequently, but that would be asking for flexibility from him. He’s asking for flexibility from you, and you’re not interested. But flexibility is something we strive for in healthy marriages. Making sacrifices and compromises and stepping outside our comfort zones are things we do on occasion in healthy marriages. It’s one of the ways we show support and love. It’s part of the investment that one would hope would be returned in kind.
I want you to consider a hypothetical situation for a minute. Let’s pretend you have an elderly mother who is a widow and you’re her only child. Let’s say she lives three hours away and you go visit her once a month for a weekend to provide some companionship and help with some household chores and running errands for her. Maybe those weekends are both rewarding as well as emotionally and physically draining for you and it would be nice sometimes to have your husband along to support you – to keep you company on the drive, to be an additional person for your mother to visit with, and to lend a hand in any of the chores that might be a lot for one person to handle.
Wouldn’t it be a little weird if, instead of occasionally accompanying you on these visits, your husband said he would never go with you and that helping your mom is a CHOICE you’ve made and, therefore, you shouldn’t expect him to help ease any of the burden? Doesn’t that seem a little… selfish? A bit unloving? Kind of… sad? It would make me sad, anyway, if my husband said that to me. One of the reasons I married him is because I wanted a partner – someone to be by my side, through thick and thin. I imagine this is why most people get married these days. Probably even you.
There’s an expectation in marriage that our spouses will support us – not just through the things that happen against our will, but through the things we willfully choose. But rather than support your husband – rather than find a space in these weekends when his granddaughter is visiting to get to know her and to witness your husband in his role as a grandfather – you disappear. Is there not a happy medium here? Can you not bend even a little and spend some time with the two of them in a way that doesn’t completely blow up your boundaries? I think you can. I think there’s a way!
What if, instead of disappearing all weekend, you put in two hours with your husband’s granddaughter? Or, if two hours sounds too unbearable, how about starting with one hour and you spend it alongside your husband and not in place of your husband? What if the two of you took his granddaughter out for ice cream and then to a playground where you pushed her on a swing for a few minutes before heading home, where you then binge-watched your British period dramas or headed out for golf or shopping with your friends?
One hour in a weekend isn’t going to deprive you from the activities you love and the re-charging you need, and it will serve multiple purposes. It will help you build a relationship with your husband’s granddaughter, who is going to be a part of your life forever so you might as well get to know her a little bit; it will show your husband support, which is an investment in your marriage; and I think it will help build a deeper bond with your husband in much the same way his accompanying you to your hypothetical widowed mother’s house one or two weekends a year likely would.
You can still hold firm boundaries, but maybe the boundaries can be re-drawn to make space for one hour of time with the granddaughter. Your husband may argue that this won’t be enough for his granddaughter’s upcoming visit when he’ll be under the gun with a work deadline, but you can argue that you ARE, in fact, being flexible. You’d be giving an hour (and this doesn’t even have to be an hour where you go to the playground—-it can be an hour of watching Daniel Tiger together while your husband works in another room). But you need to explain to him what you’ve said here: You feel incapable around a toddler, and you don’t trust yourself to be as attentive as she needs. But you can probably handle an hour. As you spend time with her, and as she grows and matures, I think your fear of her will begin to dissipate. (Also, side note: It would be worth exploring this fear of children with a therapist since it seems pretty debilitating and is affecting your marriage.)
If you can offer something instead of absolutely nothing, I suspect that would go a long way. And it would give you some negotiating power to ask your husband to consider re-drawing his own boundaries. If you’re willing to give an hour (or maybe two??) of your time each weekend that his granddaughter visits, you can ask if he would be willing to make these visits a little less frequent (or shorter – like one day instead of two). Boundaries are important to have, but when they’re so rigid or unreasonable that they don’t leave space for true partnership, you risk losing the most important and meaningful relationships in your life. If you want to avoid that – if you want to stay married to your husband – you need to practice more flexibility here.