My husband feels that our two daughters, aged eight and three, are neglecting him and he resents me because they want to spend all their time with me and we enjoy a very close and cuddly relationship.
He works long hours and often comes home long after they have gone to bed but is often around to help in the mornings and at weekends. He asks and longs for hugs but rarely gets them. I encourage them to spend time together without me and last year I even went away by myself for a week (he took a week off work) and left them to it. He reported that they did spend time hugging him in my absence. When we argue, he suggests I leave home for a while. Which, in my view, is rather extreme but, I think, belies a desire he has to be on his own with the children.
I am the stricter parent. We both play with the children and show an interest in them in equal measure. When our youngest daughter says she loves me and wraps her arms around me, he is openly jealous and resentful.
Our relationship is suffering badly because of his work stresses and then he comes home and doesn’t get the love he feels he deserves.
Children often “act out” things that aren’t working at home between the adults. They are like canaries, sensing something is not right before it is apparent to others.
I consulted Dr Ged Smith, a family therapist (aft.org.uk). “The biggest thing that stands out for me,” he says, “is that this is about one or both parents, it’s not about the girls. It’s relational.”
He thinks it is interesting that you present the problem (or your husband’s problem) as the girls neglecting their father: “It’s not the job of a three and eight year old to be affectionate or pay attention to the parents – it’s the other way round.”
Dr Smith wonders what it is like for your husband when he comes home: “After all, in lots of families one partner works away from home a lot but doesn’t feel like your husband does when they come home. What sort of things do you do to mitigate against his absence? Parents can enable or disable the relationship [between child and the other parent].”
Some people find the intimacy between a mother and her children intimidating, and instead of forging their own relationship with the children, try to dilute the mother/child one. But I wonder if the issue here might be resentment between you and your husband. Could your husband complaining about a lack of affection from the children be more about the lack of attention or affection between the two of you?
I don’t say any of this to apportion blame – to either of you – by the way, but you gave me so little to go on that I can only present possibilities for you to think about. I agree that your husband’s idea of you going away so he can forge more of a relationship with his daughters is extreme, but more importantly, it doesn’t address the problem. You need to work together as a family. I think that time spent with just one parent can be enormously beneficial, but I think you two need to work at being a family first.
What sort of message do you think the children get from you about their father? Do you feel resentment that he works away a lot? Do you say anything negative about him? “What do you say,” asks Smith, “about their father when he’s not there? Do you try to include him when he is absent?”
I wonder if your husband knows where he fits in when he gets home. Sometimes, when one parent has been out of the house, the re-entry can be difficult. Especially if you come into a house where everything is running super smoothly and you don’t know where your place is. Some partners aren’t great at letting the other “back in” either and feel resentment that they can swoop in and take all the fun bits, while they have been doing the hard slog all day.
Ultimately, says Smith, “It isn’t about your children needing to change.”
Nowhere did you give any hint about your husband’s personality, so it was very difficult to work out what you even think of him.
You and your husband need to sit down when you are both calm and talk about what it’s like for both of you, and try to see things from each other’s point of view. I think you also need to look, honestly, at how you feel about each other. Some children are very mummy-centric for a good long while and will naturally default to their mothers, but it doesn’t usually mean they do this to the exclusion of their fathers. As always in parental issues, it’s also a good idea to look at how you and your husband were yourselves parented, and what your expectations are.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 17 July 2015.