wanting to "divorce your kids" ?
October 8, 2009 8:52 PM   Subscribe

How can I help someone who has three young children but who doesn't want to be a mother anymore? I know that this sounds completely irresponsible and selfish and cruel but I would appreciate help if you can take the time to read the details.

My friend is a strong person, intelligent, sensitive to people but has struggled with empathy and compassion - not second-nature to her.

This woman is educated, has been employed in care-taking occupations with high stress and high responsibility. She stopped working after her first child was born. She and her husband had been married for seven years before they had any children. She was never sure if she wanted them, but he did and in her late thirties before the clock stopped she had a boy and then two years later had twin boys.

Since the twins were born, her husband was downsized and then went into training to become a police officer which meant he was away for six months training. Since he graduated they have been moved three times in four years. She feels that he has changed significantly because of his new occupation. Their relationship is disintegrating. She had to set up a separate email account just to communicate with me about this because her husband reads her email.

He has never had much patience with the children - a nice guy but without the education she has had and with a background of famiiy dysfunction - an abusive father who was a heavy drinker - a tough man who raised lots of kids on very, very little money.

What this means is that she is largely responsible for home and kids and she is at her wits end. I've been giving her some of the most obvious kinds of advice - find playgroups, multiple birth support groups, counseling, a sympathetic minister or woman's issues worker of some kind. I've told her to take time for herself, time with just her husband, sports and arts with the kids, exercise for herself - she has tried to do much of this but when they try to go out he gets called away (few officers in their small rural town). When she hires a sitter - if she can get one who will sit twins plus one all under 6 years old - she says she comes home to a destroyed house and broken toys/equipment and sometimes bruised kids (from falling, fighting, tumbling). It sounds like they are quite a handful.

I know that the children may be reacting to all of the moves and the obvious tension and tiredness in their parents and from the very little I have seen these two have two conflicting parenting styles.

Finally, I asked her to try to focus on a few things that she felt made her the most unhappy and then we could brain storm ways that she could get help with them. I asked what she would change most if she could change anything and her reply was to never have had children in the first place.

She has felt this way for at least the last six months, probably longer.
We live 2,000 miles away from each other. I can visit but not for long. They live in a small isolated community now with few sophisticated resources. She has little in common with the other mothers in her community though she has joined the parent council at the local elementary school that her oldest has begun to attend. She just can't see her way to going back to work full-time but has returned to on-call service a day or two a week.

She is trying to find a lifeboat but nothing seems to hold. How can I help?
I am quite anxious about the direction this is going and I feel too old to offer to take care of the children for more than a week or two if she felt no other way out than to leave. My daughter is 30, newly married, not ready for children yet either. I have a career, live in a tiny space, have been single for over 25 years - retirement is still 6 to 7 years away. Though I love children, I have already raised one alone - I can't do it again.

But she is very alone. No siblings anywhere nearby, parents both deceased and no close friends to speak of because of the frequent moves, in-laws far away. I'm frightened for her. I know how hard it is to be a good parent even though I wanted and adored my child and loved (love) being a mother.

Is this just an expression of stress or are their some people who reject their children? I'm so worried that the kids have already been seriously affected by this. I'm worried about her state of mind. Can post-partum depression last for years, or turn up years after the children are born? I'm worried about what stress can do to a man who knows very well how to use a weapon. What can be done?

I've got some parenting books to send her but it feels like so little.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I know she's in a small town, but she needs therapy at the very least--because part of this rejecting the children could be more about the state of her marriage and the instability of her family's life than about actually being a mother. (Could be. Not "definitely is.")
posted by liketitanic at 9:04 PM on October 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

This is stress, pure and simple. I can't imagine the stress of 24/7 care of three children two of which are 3-4, if I'm doing my math right, without any help whatsoever. Here's the advice I can think to give:

First, give her that week or two. It won't be anywhere near enough, but it will help immeasurably. Tell her to use that time for a vacation and to put herself back together. Leave the house, go to Hawaii, and just sit on a beach. (This helped me, in a high pressure job, *a lot*.) After that, if you can take them for a night every so often, do it.

Then remind her she's at the worst time of it. In about a year, the twins will be past their craziest stage. In about 2, she can start having the older kid help her with the younger ones. So she just needs to get through a year or two before it gets easier.

I don't know what else you can do that you haven't done.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 9:08 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anon, it's really, really nice that you are there for your friends when they're in trouble, but understand that - much like with children - you can be there for someone, but you can't live for them. The support you have thus far shown is exemplary, and lovely, but the fact you're even contemplating raising someone's else child demonstrates to me that your anxiety and compassion may be over-riding some of your other instincts.

I would be shocked to find that most parents haven't had those feelings regarding their own children from time to time. I think, as a friend and someone who cares about children, the best thing you can do is encourage her to contextualise her problems within the broader scope, like you have here (husband, no friends, etc. etc. etc.) and gently remind her that children are little conduits: they simply channel the unhappiness (or whatever) around them, as opposed to producing their own.

It sounds like she is depressed and overwhelmed with feelings of inertia. Encourage her to a) get a sitter, b) get hubby more active c) get out of the house and make some friends, you can't just wait around for them to strike you like lightning.

But all this said, remind yourself that you are not responsible for her emotions. You can highlight solutions or possible strategies, but if the desire and willpower is not there, your efforts to help your friend will be for naught.

Good luck.
posted by smoke at 9:12 PM on October 8, 2009 [5 favorites]

Can she put the kids in daycare for some of the time? Maybe go back to work, at least part time? I'd be going crazy too if I had to watch three kids all the time, especially without spousal support.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:27 PM on October 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

A lot of cop's wives often feel like they are raising the children alone. A lot of cop's wives often feel that if they had to do it again, the would never have married a cop. The stress of being for all intents and purposes a single mother, as well as the stress of wondering if your husband is going to come home that night is sometimes overwhelming. I would suggest highly that she get in touch with the other wives of the other cops on the force. they likely have an established informal support group, and often watch each others' kids to give each other a break.

Finally, this is a separate issue, but by no means unrelated - her husband has a control issue. He shouldn't be reading her email. No wonder she is at her wit's end. If she feels like she has no privacy or agency, I would be less worried about her husband knowing what to do with a weapon than her at home, with three kids, and likely a home security weapon in a safety box somewhere.

Finally, it is natural to sometimes hate your kids - especially if you weren;'t sure if you wanted them in the first place. The disruption in her life - the lack of resources, the lack of a supportive partner. She needs help, but Anon, I agree that you can only do so much from where you are. Have her get in touch with the other wives of other cops on the force. They know what she is going through. They would be in the best position to help her and get her in touch with resources that can help her. If, however, her control freak husband doesn't want her to make friends with these women - sometimes people are afraid other people are talking about them behind their back - then I don't know what else to suggest.
posted by Sully at 9:31 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd go for therapy, but that's the psych grad student in me talking. Sometimes, as great as it is to have a friend to talk to, a concerned yet "neutral" party can make a huge difference. Not to mention, they can help target her depressive symptoms as well.

As for her relationship with her children, there are therapies that have components designed to enhance the relationship of the parent and child. Sometimes the relationship is strained due to the child's disruptive behavior or sometimes parents just don't know how to most effectively relate to their young children. The program I'm familiar with is called Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) but there are others out there as well. Most parents come in overwhelmed and feeling like they can't cope with their kids, and leave being able to better manage typical child behaviors and able to enjoy the time they spend with their kids. Hopefully a similar parent training program could give her some skills and resources to cope with her semi-single parenting.
posted by gilsonal at 9:44 PM on October 8, 2009

Maybe it'd be most helpful just to keep doing what you're doing - be her phone friend, and allow her to vent. Because little kids can be assholes - let her say that - and just admitting it out loud might be just what she needs. If you're serious about being willing to babysit for a week - tell her. Let her know that the lifejacket is there, listen to her complaints without judgment, and you'll be the best friend a mom of three toddlers ever had.
posted by moxiedoll at 9:50 PM on October 8, 2009

Seconding the idea to take those children off her hands for a week and send her on vacation, either with her husband or alone. Once she has decompressed from stress she can try to find a way to get herself together. I would be careful about giving her advice at this point. Anything you say might just making her feel worse because she is smart enough to know better but too exhausted/depressed/overwhelmed to act upon common sense suggestions for improvement.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:50 PM on October 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wishing you'd never had kids is not the same as wanting to (or planning to) divorce the kids you have. The former is an understandable, probably temporary, response to an overwhelming situation and a crumbling marriage. The latter would be an extreme cyclone of devastation. Not the same. The woman clearly needs a support system, even if in her small town there isn't a lot of sophisticated therapy -- there's going to be a social worker therapist and day care -- and that's what you should keep stressing to her. It's wonderful that you care deeply about your friend and her kids, but to be honest, you sound panicky and as if you're overreacting, if, based on her saying she's often fed up and would rewrite her choices if she could, you're getting that she might actually give up her children.
posted by keener_sounds at 9:53 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Most parents report that their kids make them significantly less happy. It's a hard truth but worth remembering. So in this case, if your friend finds that her kids make her stressed and unhappy -- well, maybe she shouldn't blame a lack of empathy and compassion. It's normal for kids to make you stressed and unhappy.

Not a solution but maybe a helpful thought.
posted by grobstein at 9:58 PM on October 8, 2009

FWIW, my mother said the years her three children were little (we're all 2 years apart) were the hardest years of her life.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:04 PM on October 8, 2009

Can she fast-forward in her imagination to the point where all her kids resent her because they felt rejected their whole lives, which will probably coincide with the time when she discovers that they mean more to her than anything?

She's not dealing with this or anything rationally She's letting her exhaustion and her depression make all her family decisions. Getting over the exhaustion and depression may take a lot of time, but meanwhile there's a lot she can do to try and mitigate their impact. And they will not get better on their own. Try and convince her that she can either get help right away, or that she can wait and suffer longer and worse and then get help -- her choice. With no family to turn to and more problems than any friend can help her with, reaching out to a professional may be her only hope to sort things out.

Otherwise, time has its own ways of working these things out, and they ain't pretty.
posted by hermitosis at 10:12 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was a family lawyer I had a handful of mothers who felt this way and wanted to hand off their children onto someone else. I always told them the following:

What your friend needs to be aware of is that if she voices these wishes/intentions that she no longer wants to have the responsibility of caring for her children to anyone in authority (teacher, social services, nurse, police officer, etc.) then this may trigger that person into taking some kind of official action and could set in motion a chain of events over which she has no control. She might change her mind, but could end up having her children removed from her care by social services in any event.
posted by essexjan at 12:45 AM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

It absolutely sounds like she has some symptoms of depression (whether it's postpartum-related is probably irrelevant, because depressed is depressed is depressed)--and yes, MANY other moms have felt the same way before, but it's not openly discussed in our culture unless the mom acted in an extreme way (and then we disparage her for being so crazy, but do not look at the fact that no one helped her GET HELP).

Encourage her to seek therapy, help her find therapy resources in her area, call her up on the phone with regularity to check in, visit when you are able... just help her in general to get some of this pressure off.
posted by so_gracefully at 3:41 AM on October 9, 2009

I think some other replies hinted at this, but I read the original post twice and found no mention of direct antipathy to her kids or motherhood.

All her complaints seem centered around the circumstance that she has allowed herself to be led into by her husband. I'd feel like throwing in the towel too with as little support as she is receiving and I never even had twins.

To paraphrase (by which I mean "utterly reverse the sense of his statement") the philosopher George Clinton "free your ass and your mind will follow". She doesn't need therapy, she needs to alter her isolation either with her husband, or if need be, without.
posted by fydfyd at 5:11 AM on October 9, 2009

One suggestion I didn't see upthread was to help her find a young mother's helper, by which I mean a young teenager who may be perhaps too young to babysit on her own, but can come in when the child's mother is present in the house.

Because you are looking for a young teenager who wants to develop experience in babysitting and because they generally come when the mother is home, sometimes a mother's helper can be more affordable than a formal nanny or housekeeper. Even if it's 5 hours a week, those 5 hours (strategically planned) could give your friend a break. The mother's helper can for example entertain the twins for an hour, or get the dishes and laundry done, or other tasks that can take some weight off of your friend. If the kids get out of control during that time, your friend is there to step in and put a stop to it.

Perhaps ideal would be to get to know some of the other cops' spouses, turn to them for support and advice, build the supportive emotional relationship, etc. Perhaps they know a nice teenager in the neighborhood who could assist? Also, once that relationship is built, there might be more options. They bring their kids to your friend's house for an hour or two, the parents cooperatively keep an eye on the kids but can also chat, have coffee, and commiserate. I have one friend I visited from time to time just after she had a child, for the specific goal of showing up and offering to hang out with the baby for an hour so that she could soak in the tub and read a trashy romance awhile.

Call me an over-optimist, but I think if your friend felt even a little bit of stress release and the ability to re-engage in having her own life and own personality, it might make a big difference.
posted by bunnycup at 7:06 AM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes post partum can last for years if it is untreated and if she is under this amount of stress, depression and wants to leave her children, it can be turning into post partum psychosis, which can be deadly for the kids (sorry to go there but it does happen).

She needs serious therapy stat, even if it means in patient. If she is worried about her husband being incompetent too then she needs to find a relative or close friend who will take care of them during her treatement time so she can have them back when she is better. I would hate to see her make rash decisions.
posted by stormpooper at 7:07 AM on October 9, 2009

We have three children a total of 30 months apart. Man, those early years were stressful. Would my life be easier if I never had kids? Sure, but that does not mean I wish I never had kids. I think your friend's issue is not that she would rather not have had kids, but that she is not leading the life she thought she would have. This is her reality now and she needs to find a way to view it differently. Maybe that is through therapy, maybe through her own self fulfillment like work, or maybe through finding out that there are many like her with similar problems. The glass can be half full. She needs a local friend. Someone to come over and have coffee and shoot the shit.

Is there anyway her husband can find a job in a larger town? Being a peace officer is a very transferable skill.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:32 AM on October 9, 2009

Therapy or a doctor who can help with her depression and stress are the FIRST step.

Second step is dealing with husband's response to the situation, which seems to be to ignore how she is feeling and what she is dealing with. She needs to sit down with him and tell him that she is not getting the support she needs from him and it is threatening their marriage.

Also, they should keep up those "date nights" if they can, and if he gets called away, she should continue to go out to dinner, shopping, movie, anything alone.

She needs the time away from her children to be a better Mom when she is with them, no question. Also, if she takes the time she needs regardless of whether her spouse is there or not, it will help her to become more independent, and may wake him up to the fact that everything doesn't, and shouldn't, revolve around his schedule. This is a marriage and family, not his personal fan club (sorry if that sounds harsh, but we are only getting her/your side of this, and he is not sounding good in it!).

A little more about that, by the way, the fact that you are only getting her side of the story--is it possible that she got another email account, and that her husband reads her emails, for another reason entirely, which maybe she feels ashamed to share with you?

Because if one or the other of them has been unfaithful, that would explain even more her desire to give up on the kids and the relationship. Even if the husband is the one who has cheated, it could explain why he reads her emails, as cheaters are very quick to suspect in others what they are doing themselves. Just food for thought--and another reason she should see a therapist for help, so she has someone she can talk to about her feelings without worrying about being judged if she has been unfaithful.
posted by misha at 8:44 AM on October 9, 2009

If a parent is unable to properly care for her children, a good 1st step is licensed child care, and especially non-profit care, with an emphasis on an affectionate atmosphere. Even a few days a week might give her some space to cope. Therapy, definitely, to help resolve marital , family and depression issues.
posted by theora55 at 8:50 AM on October 9, 2009

I don't know that I have a lot to add, except that I can relate to the feelings of being overwhelmed by isolation and young kids. I had 3 kids in 3 years and am expecting a 4th (4 kids in 4.5yrs) and my oldest is just shy of 4. I also have a home daycare, so I have an extra 4-5 kids 3 years and younger here each day.

We live 3 time zones from any of my family or friends, and while we are close to my husbands family they can only handle our 3 kids for a few hours once in a while. I am lucky, in that my husband is a wonderful partner, but when he's working he's away from home for 11 or 12 hours a day.

I think that if you can get out to see her for a little while giving her a break would be an amazing gift. Even if she can spend 1 or 2 nights in a motel close to home, I think she would feel 100% better. I am almost brought to tears by the thought of 24 hours to myself, with or without my husband.
posted by Abbril at 9:03 AM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm nth-ing the suggestion that if you could watch the kids for a week and she could have some time on her own, that might help her sort things out.

It sounds like she wants to divorce the husband, not the kids, but that she doesn't want to be the struggling divorced mother of three because that would be the only thing worse than being the struggling mother of three whose partner doesn't do much parenting.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:23 AM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Listening to her and advising her, when her situation sounds so hopeless and there are children involved, must be frustrating and scary. You are trying very hard to give her resources and attention, and you seem to be feeling burnt out and discouraged.

Please know that you have been a great, non-judgmental friend, and by being there for her you have already given her a great gift, no matter what happens after today.

Okay, back to her.

It's okay for her to feel like she doesn't want her kids. Of course, it is scary for you to hear her say this because you care for her and you care for her children.

Kids are enormously stressful and some people regret having them. It's not socially acceptable to say so, so you probably haven't heard it a lot. She gave up much of herself to have these children for her husband and he's not even around. It must feel like a waste to her. Like she wasted so many opportunities, like she is all used up and spent. Like she is trapped in a controlling marriage to a man she no longer sees, in a town that isn't home, because she has to take care of her children and they are tying her to a life that she wants to escape.

Right now you're giving her advice--however, there are three things that people need to do when they're in a crisis situation. They need to

1. Explore
2. Understand
3. Act

Can you help her explore her feelings, and understand them so that she will be better prepared to act? Can you use active listening* to support her until she is ready to make her own decisions?

In two years or so, her younger boys will be at school and she will be able to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Until then, I know you can keep being a great friend and supporting her no matter what she decides.

*this is a link to a prior comment of mine, I haven't found an internet resource about it yet that really gets across what I want to get across, but I would love it if someone else linked one.
posted by kathrineg at 11:07 AM on October 9, 2009

Yes, a mother's helper p/t (or f/t) if she can afford it would help a lot in easing stress. Even if the MH just did laundry and dishes, there are two things that your friend doesn't have to do. Sittercity is a great resource for finding childcare online and they run background checks on applicants.

(As a nanny, I also want to put in that this is exactly what we're here for.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:09 AM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

My reaction:

Of course she loves her children and will continue to care for them. Of course she also feels exhausted and frustrated and lonely and likes to vent to a friend. Give her more credit and stop double-thinking her. Look at her actions not her words.

Ask her again when she's less tired and frustrated. She'll tell you how amazing her kids are. All Moms feel that way sometimes!
posted by MiffyCLB at 12:23 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Therapy, vacation, all that stuff will only be a bandaid until she gets what she needs most: a support system. You know that business about "it takes a village"-- it's true. Humans were not designed to parent by themselves or in couples. We are cooperative breeders-- in other words, for 99% of our history, we raised children in multiple generational, often multi-family groups. Not one isolated person or one isolated couple for her/themselves.

Doing this with an uncooperative husband and few friends or family is a recipe for insanity. Mother's helper is an excellent idea (even just part time if that's all they can afford), serving as babysitter when you can is a great idea, finding support in mother's groups and groups for mother's of multiples especially is a great idea-- as is moving somewhere that she *does* have friends who can help. PCIT is a good idea to help the interactions-- but without support, she's going to continue to be intensely stressed and that will make actually changing her actions with the kids (if they are indeed problematic) very very difficult.

Can she move to where the in-laws are? Can they come and help for a while? This is a situation where she needs a network of support.
posted by Maias at 3:58 PM on October 9, 2009

Please let her know that police training is a culture all its own, and she is probably right that her husband has changed a lot. Suspicion and mistrust are necessary for the job, and a cop is often "on" all the time; it's just terrible to bring those qualities home to one's spouse.
This has coincided with some of the most difficult years of child rearing. I agree with an above commenter who suggested talking to other police spouses. They may have similar experiences, and talking (ranting) about it may help her hang in there.
posted by Knowyournuts at 4:50 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

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