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Wife’s feelings are hurt when kids fight over Dad at bedtime

Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn:

My wife and I are both hardworking professionals. We have a 3-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. We do our best to divide duties fairly and wisely, but, generally, I work significantly more and she runs the house and kids significantly more.

By and large, we are a happy family and the routines go well.

But sometimes there’s an issue at bedtime. When she takes one kid and I the other to read one last book and put each child in bed, they sometimes whine over who gets to go with me. This bothers my wife and hurts her feelings, and she voices that, sometimes in dramatic fashion — storming out and saying, “Fine, then Dad can just put you both to bed,” and not coming back. Then the kids just get quiet and seem confused as to what just happened.

My concern is the kids will feel they have to exercise caution to make sure their mom’s feelings are not hurt, and feel guilty when they are. I feel it’s our job as parents to take these things in stride and provide unconditional love. I generally want them to be living free and unhindered in our presence, as long as they are not being disrespectful.

I have expressed these feelings to her, and get a couple of responses: (1) “This is between me and the kids, stay out of it”; and (2) “Then it would just be easier if you did not do bedtime at all.”

I think because she is with them more, it seems unfair to her that the kids “love Dad more.” But it’s all just phases, in my opinion — they come and go. I’d appreciate your opinion.

— Dad

Huh … when our three were little, bedtime never unraveled.

Kidding. I’m typing this only because the flashback finally passed.

There’s a lot going on in the scene you’ve described, so I’ll start with this: Everyone’s feelings are normal.

And on your kids’ part, they’re uncomplicated, too. They see their mom more so they see time with you as special. I’m sure your wife thinks her version is rational — more time invested (equal sign) more love — and time might prove her right, but at the moment it’s adult thinking. Kid thinking is that Mom is spinach and Dad is cake.

Your wife is acting on her feelings inappropriately, but the feelings themselves are normal to set a watch by — of losing herself to all this.

Your dismay at your wife’s acting out is also normal and apt. You want your kids to grow up mindful of others’ feelings but not feel responsible for them, and your wife’s out-storming — if it becomes a habit — will indeed send them the message that it’s their job to keep Mother happy.

This precursor to eggshell-walking could warrant counseling, for you alone if your wife refuses. However, she might have veered close to an answer herself. You don’t “stay out of it,” though — she does. You do bedtimes solo, just through this phase, canceling the competition and giving your wife some time for herself. It checks every box: more you for your kids; more kids for you; less of everyone for your wife; less emotional pressure on kids. Ahh. Ask her, kindly, to grant you this rare one-on-one time with the kids.

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