Tony Viveiros is 64 years old. He’s been married 25 years and has a 20-year-old son, 20, and 17-year-old daughter. As a standup comedian — professionally, he’s known as Tony V — he works for himself, a schedule that’s allowed him to be active in all phases of his kids’ lives since they were born. When his kids were young, he says his wife, Kristin, always made a point of reminding him about the specifics of everything from how tight the car seat straps should be to how to set up the train tracks.
Viveiros thought it would stop after the kids got older. But it hasn’t. Last month, she told him what apple his daughter liked and asked if he had given their son some money. He says that he knew the first and had already taken care of the second, because, as he reminded her, and which he has hundreds of times, “It’s not my first day on the job.”
On various occasions, Viveiros says to Kristin on various occasions, “I’m not an employee. I’m also a co-owner.” Many dads will certainly agree with the sentiment, as it can often feel as though a partner doesn’t trust them with the kids. Well, not that specifically. It’s more that it doesn’t feel that they’re trusted. The sense of micromanagement makes sense in the early years of parenthood when stress is high and tasks are new. But, as Tony’s example illustrates, it often persists. So, why is it that so many fathers in healthy marriages feel as though they’re not trusted to watch their own kids?
Why is it that so many fathers in healthy marriages feel as though they’re not trusted to watch their own kids?
There’s no one reason. But, assuming everything is benign, Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Dallas, says it’s likely a mix of perfectionism, control, fear of the unknown, and being genetically wired to be the primary caregiver — a natural maternal gatekeeping instinct.
Whatever the motivation, a mother’s idea that her husband needs constant reminding or patronizing falls into the category of functional anxiety. “It has a purpose, to make us stay alert and vigilant,” says Jude Currier, licensed psychotherapist in Amherst, New Hampshire who adds that it also doesn’t really prevent anyone from doing anything. As Viveiros says, his wife’s suggestions usually hit him as funny to mildly amusing to occasionally annoying, and he knows enough to laugh them off and put on the hat that she wants a child to wear. “I don’t get into it,” he says. “Unless I’m in a mood, and then we’ll get into it.”
So why does the behavior bother so many guys? If one knows a command coming that might seem belittling, the easy response is to let it go. But sometimes you’re just in a mood. It doesn’t matter that what your partner says is reasonable and probably correct. You feel the need to speak. “We’re grown men,” says Viveiros. “We don’t want to feel like we’re just following orders.”
Preventing a spouse or partner from exhibiting such belittling behavior completely is unrealistic. Expecting it to stop on its own, however, is probably a more bone-headed strategy. The achievable goal, then, is to rein in the comments and not be bugged by them. What’s called for is assessing the situation. First, you have to ask: Does your partner act like this with others? Chances are that they have to give directions to anyone who’s looking after the children. And while it feels personal to a husband, it’s not entirely personal, says Dr. Robyn Landow, an NYC-based psychologist.
“It’s an acknowledgment of your different approaches, but it’s giving her due credit,” Currier says. “It’s a sign of respect and sometimes that’s all people want.”
The next thing you need to figure out is if there’s anything that you’re doing, or probably not doing, that would give her cause to monitor your parenting. It’s not about devotion, but it wouldn’t be the first time that when a dad was in charge, the kids had fun, were safe and he still said, “Oh right. I didn’t give them any food.”
The simple remedy, per Viveiros, is to just say yes to what your wife asks. Otherwise, you’re looking at losing 20 minutes of your day to a meaningless beef. “In the long run, what does it matter? Aside from your ego being slightly bruised,” he says.
But being silent doesn’t mean you’re mute or without an opinion. You approach, per Landow, it as though it were a negotiation. The kind of breakfast toast your kids eat? It doesn’t matter. But there will be bigger issues that do, so you wait, and your words will get through.
Also, it’s not that everything is meritless, so fully embrace a partner’s hand washing directive, because you know it matters to her, with an “That’s important. It’s done”-attitude. Since you’ve acknowledged and accepted the presence of The List, it’s easier for a partner to not hold so tightly to some of the other bullet points, Landow says.
There’s also just asking your partner, What would be most helpful: hourly updates, texts only when there’s a question? “You’re putting it back on her to figure out what she actually needs, and that will help clarify your behavior,” McBain says.
And then there’s just validation. Your wife worries. She’s not the only mother who does. You know that not wearing gloves for 10 minutes has no lasting effect. She might know that as well, but if you have a casual attitude it won’t help.
“Your lack of anxiety can make her more nervous,” Currier says. So recognize how much she cares and tell her that you’ll do what she’d do as best as you can, although it won’t look exactly the same. “It’s an acknowledgment of your different approaches, but it’s giving her due credit,” Currier says. “It’s a sign of respect and sometimes that’s all people want.”