If this is abuse, what are my options?
May 21, 2018 4:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm a man married to a woman, and we have two toddlers. We love each other, and for the most part we have a good relationship. Lately, though, I've come to feel that my wife's behavior is sometimes abusive, and I don't know what to do about it.

My wife is a part-time stay-at-home-mom, and 99% of the time she's a loving mother. She takes the kids out to the park, museum, library, and play dates 4-5 days a week, rocks them to sleep, changes their diapers, and wipes their runny noses. However, she comes from a cultural background where spanking and (what I consider fairly harsh) verbal criticism of small children is completely normal and accepted. Before having kids, we agreed we wouldn't spank ours, but she's recently begun threatening to spank them for various minor reasons.

The following examples are not daily occurrences, but similar things have happened often enough that I feel like I need to do something.

Example 1: Kid indicates he wants a bite of food, but pushes it away at the last minute. Wife yells at him and attempts to force the spoon into his mouth, and when he cries, she throws the (plastic) spoon across the kitchen.

2: Another throwing one - kid knocks a non-fragile item off the end table. Wife yells at him and throws one of his rubber balls at him.

3: At dinnertime, kid throws food on floor. Wife raises voice and says, "What's wrong with you?! If you throw food on the floor mommy won't love you!"

4: Kid gets hand stuck in a toy. Wife says "Why are you so dumb? Why can't you be smart like your brother?" When I ask her not to call them dumb, she says, "Oh, we're Americans, so we have to say everything they do is smart and amazing. [Sarcastically to child] You're so smart!"

I've tried talking about this with her both in the moment and when everyone is calm, and her response is "if you don't like the way I parent, you can watch them 24 hours a day." Sometimes followed by door slamming, always followed by hours of huffing and pouting. My ideal solution would be some sort of counseling or therapy, but when I've brought it up with my wife, she says, "You can go to therapy, you're the one with mental problems!" (referring to my depression and anxiety). What do normal emotionally mature people do in this situation?

Throwaway email: anonymouseconcernedfather@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (64 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What do normal emotionally mature people do in this situation?

Apologies for the bluntness, but tell her she has to go to counseling or you're filing for a divorce and full custody. Document the abuse and ideally videotape it. Your wife is abusive. Your kids only have the two of you. You need to put an end to this. So she either gets help or you take the kids and leave her. You don't really have any other options here.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:58 AM on May 21, 2018 [96 favorites]

What do normal emotionally mature people do in this situation.

They do whatever it takes to get their kids out of a situation where a parent is yelling at them, berating them, throwing stuff at them and telling them that parental love is conditional on developmentally-inappropriate expectations of behavioural compliance. This is the most important thing. The implications for your family and marriage come second. #1 priority should be to make sure your kids are in a safe place where people don't treat them like this.

None of this stuff is normal or emotionally healthy parenting, even if it's only a some-of-the-time thing. It's great that your kids have at least one parent who recognises this is an issue - that means the kids are way more likely to get the help they need, and sooner.

The biggest red flag for me here is your wife's contempt towards your (totally reasonable) request that she look into therapy, and her contempt for ideas like "not calling your kid dumb". The fact that she immediately escalates to "you can watch the kids all the time if that's what you want/maybe you're the one who needs therapy" even when you approach her about this during "calm" moments also sticks out. This does not bode well.

My dad behaved in very similar ways, and my mother wasn't able to recognise that this was abusive, and was complicit in some of the abuse. I now have PTSD from the experience of being raised like this, and barely a day goes by (even good days) when I don't wish that I hadn't been born or that I'd died during childhood, because it is seriously hard to live a good life as an adult when your internal makeup gets scrambled during childhood by this kind of parenting.

It's easy to brush this kind of behaviour off, especially if your wife is otherwise a good mother most of the time, but the outcomes for your kids will be so much better if you're able to deal with it early (including age-appropriate therapy or psychological support). I don't remember the times my parents were fun or actually met my needs, but I do get near-constant flashbacks to all the times they yelled at me, hit me, criticised me, intimidated me and generally made me feel worthless.

This is the stuff that will really stick for your kids, and you have a gift right now in being able to deliver them from this kind of abuse. From someone who survived this kind of household with no intervention: don't let your kids turn out like me, all humans deserve better than this kind of treatment.
posted by terretu at 4:59 AM on May 21, 2018 [57 favorites]

I have 2 toddlers and they can really push you to the limit and my husband and I often wonder how people with shorter fuses or less (I do t know the word I mean, but an awareness of how you are effecting your children in the long term, maybe empathy?) manage without losing it. I think the best advice is “positive parenting” courses? I think the big red flag for me is not that she is saying these things, because in the heat of the moment sometimes a parent says something bad- but that she thinks it’s normal and fine and in no need of improvement. She sounds like she lacks an awareness that she is lacking in some skills.
posted by catspajammies at 5:01 AM on May 21, 2018 [24 favorites]

They take on at least half of the care of their children and if they are not with the children as much as their spouse is they do more than half when they are at home. They back up their spouse verbally when she is maintaining discipline and standards with the children. They model, if they can, gentle but firm parenting. They do some research about appropriate age-related milestones for their children and what can be expected from them. They direct resources within the marriage to support what the spouse does, like babysitting or cleaning or paying somebody else to do that.

And when you discuss different cultural expectations and a different approach to communicating with your children, recognise that your approach is just as culture-bound as hers but without, from what you've written, the practical experience of having to get the parenting done along with all the other demands and duties in life.

From what you've written, she needs practical, supportive help with what she does for the family. Why would she need counselling, in addition to part time work and looking after two toddlers? How would she fit it in, is she a time wizard?
posted by glasseyes at 5:04 AM on May 21, 2018 [58 favorites]

None of this is okay and she can’t be allowed to treat the children that way. You need to intervene.

However: is she the sole caretaker? Watching the kids 24 hours a day (and working?) is brutal and, for some people, wholly unsustainable. It can exacerbate anger issues and depression and frustration. As well as therapy (now!) I would seriously recommend you take a hard look at your contribution to the child rearing and at whatever childcare arrangement you currently have.

You need to tell her “I won’t let you abuse our children. We need to change our family dynamics and we need help to do so”.
posted by lydhre at 5:05 AM on May 21, 2018 [55 favorites]

Also, having to look after 2 toddlers when your spouse is depressed is really awful, just awful... it damages your relationship because you’re not able to support each other or enjoy time together and meanwhile two munchkins are maxing out their credit cards all day long on your mental resources.
posted by catspajammies at 5:09 AM on May 21, 2018 [16 favorites]

The advice you're getting is good normal advice. However in the US, you're not going to get the kids away from their stay at home mom unless there's regular physical abuse being documented at the hospital or documented substance abuse.

This is abuse and it really sucks for your kids. Your wife will deny it. Unless you've had several people witnessing your wife throw things which hit your kids, you're going to end up with minimal parenting time if you leave her.

You need a therapist and divorce lawyer to help you craft a plan. Really experienced ones. Because it will be virtually impossible to remove your kids from their mom.

It sucks she's doing these behaviors (which yes are abusive) but you need professional help to craft a plan for your family. Ask her to go to therapy? Try to document and get witnesses? Leave any way for yourself and hope you get 50% parenting soon? Idk, you need these people to help you.
posted by Kalmya at 5:12 AM on May 21, 2018 [9 favorites]

Apart from any issues of abuse, anything you scream at kids they're going to scream at other kids at school, and perhaps they'll throw injurious non-rubber-ball things at their classmates. So purely on the level of trying to get your wife to stop doing these things for the moment, perhaps a persuasive argument might be that you'll save yourselves headaches in the future. (And have a moral basis to demand that the kids never treat other people these ways.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:15 AM on May 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

While it doesn’t excuse the abusive behavior, my first thought was that your wife sounds exhausted. You say she’s a part time stay at home mom, are you an equal caretaker for the kids the rest of the time? It sounds like she’s doing a lot of the activities, caretaking, etc for the kids on top of what I assume is a regular part time job. I remember my own mother having outbursts at us as kids, but she was quite isolated and my father didn’t help her around the house/with us (minus “fun” activities) because “he had a full time job” unlike my mother. She was tired and frustrated and exhausted. If you want your wife to go to therapy, I nth that you’ll have to consider how you can change your schedules to fit that in for her.
posted by buttonedup at 5:24 AM on May 21, 2018 [67 favorites]

i grew up with a mom like this, whose fury still echoes through my life. Please do not let this go. It will be hard but you are these kids’ parent. You also don’t know if it’s worse when you’re not there.

I think she does need rest and breaks, and it’s possible that the best thing long run would be for her to have regular hours not parenting, whether that’s a preschool or a daycare with a job, whatever. You could look for lower cost solutions to get her that space. I would start there - you take the kids regularly every Saturday to the park/activity/museum/whatever so she gets a guaranteed break, and make sure the chores are well-distributed.

BUT after that, she needs parenting help and boundaries from you, serious ones. You cannot give up. I think you need to take positive parenting classes, invite her to go but go anyway, and if you can get her to therapy great, and keep hammering home empathy to her. Let her know what your concerns are specifically over and over. I very rarely but occasionally do slam doors...or did until my husband came to me and said very clearly “our boys are tense and scared right now.” Simple but powerful statement of fact. Keep talking about your family values. Some of ours are kindness and respect. What are yours?

Ultimately I think you may have to choose your kids first.so also get help for yourself.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:40 AM on May 21, 2018 [25 favorites]

I don't know what culture your wife is from my my parents/family are Chinese/Viet. My mother and the extended relatives who cared for me as a young child are not people with whom I'm on speaking terms with. Your wife's behavior is abusive and the fact that she dismisses your concerns by making that comment about being Americans really shows a snide, smug and sanctimonious side of her. I'm infuriated just from reading it, and if she were my friend I'd be giving her several pieces of my mind.

My mother's reasoning was always that we were Chinese and that's how we do things. However you convey the message, she should know that abusive behavior is abusive behavior regardless of where the people are from and what the cultural background is. It's just a shitty excuse from abusers. If you don't have a therapist at the moment get one. Bring this up with your therapist to talk about it more (you need it) and ask if they can do a couples/individual therapy session or if they can recommend someone. Then bring it up to your wife and ask her to agree to a few sessions. If she really truly doesn't believe it's abuse then what's it to her? Make sure you're stepping up helping to arrange for the kids care while you're both in therapy, all my advice is based on the assumption you're managing your share of all the labor. This will remove any objections or barriers she may have to couples and her own therapy.
posted by driedmango at 5:52 AM on May 21, 2018 [25 favorites]

She doesn't want to change, she doesn't want help, and the way she's speaking to you is also abusive.

Both I and my husband are very even-tempered, stable, mellow people who were both raised in families with no spanking or verbal abuse, and even he and I can sometimes lose our shit with our kid and snap or say something we don't mean, but what your wife is expressing is beyond that. She does sound exhausted, she does sound just burnt right the hell out, but the healthy, mature way to deal with that is for her to say, "Look, something has got to give, I don't like the parent I've become and I need help. What can we do to get some help happening here?" The shitty, abusive way to deal with it is to pout and throw your mental health problems back into your face and refuse to think about changing anything.

You need to set some clear boundaries on behalf of your children and for yourself. Maybe seeing what you are willing to do in order to maintain those boundaries will get her some insight into what the ultimate choices here are because I really can't see your marriage surviving long-term if this is how she talks to you and your children.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:55 AM on May 21, 2018 [9 favorites]

She takes the kids to enrichment activities 4-5 times a week and does part time work? Honestly she sounds exhausted, and exhausted people at their wit’s end say horrible things. That doesn’t make it okay, but if 99% of her parenting is truly good and these things are exceptions, it means it’s not necessarily part of her character and can be correctible.

Is there any way to get some daycare or respite care for her?
posted by corb at 5:56 AM on May 21, 2018 [33 favorites]

Parenting toddlers is exhausting and frustrating. This is abuse of the sort that is very unlikely to result in action from Child Protective Services, but I agree that it must change. Look for Parents Anonymous, Parent Effectiveness Training and call Child Protective Services to ask for referrals to parenting courses.

You have to tell her that it has to stop. Talk to her about how she was raised, what worked and what didn't, how unkind words felt to her as a child. Work with her to develop resources. Do more of the child care when you are home; you'll quickly understand the frustration and difficulty. Do more of the house work and cooking; she needs time to rest. Remind her of the no-spanking agreement. She's spending plenty of time with other kids and parents so she has some understanding of what other families do. Many people still spank even though it's considered ineffective and abusive.

When her parenting is effective and calm, praise her. Recognize how hard she works.

Don't suggest therapy; find a therapist and Go. Go to parenting classes. Find a behavior specialist and take the kids to parenting therapy. If she is in a snit, the best response is to ignore it. Be an active involved parent and learn how to be the kind of parent you want her to be.
posted by theora55 at 6:25 AM on May 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

First of all, my heart goes out to all of you. This is a hard situation and I can tell you from experience that you are not alone.

1.) Your wife needs breaks. You need to take the kids when you are home, and you need to find a good sitter and set up a system whereby he or she takes the kids for three hours a day, three times a week, or something similar, while your wife goes away and does something only for herself during that time - nap, bath, exercise, movie, read, shopping, a class, part time work, whatever. Budget the money. Eat less meat, buy cheaper clothes, find a church daycare, arrange a babysitting co-op, do drop off playdates with some other parents. Make it work. If you don't, you'll watch things get ugly as your kids get older and start bullying each other and other kids, and YOU, this same way they've been taught.

Do more around the house WITHOUT BEING TOLD. Cook dinner or arrange dinner delivery. Do the grocery shopping. Scrub the toilet. Build a routine for yourself every day where you LOOK AROUND YOUR HOUSE. Whatever sticks out at you as needing doing - tidy the living room, stock the diapers, take out the garbage, mop the floor - do it. Don't tell her it needs doing. Just do it.

Your wife needs breaks from two toddlers. Toddlers have zero executive function and it sounds like she regresses to their emotional level when they act like toddlers. She's going crazy, plus she has the example of what many of us feel is abusive parenting. This is a bad combination and that is step one.

1a.) This is step 1a because it needs to be done immediately, also: you have to set a firm boundary with your wife, and stay in the adult role throughout the entire fight that is going to happen afterward.

Somewhere between silence and capitulation on your part and a huge fight with the threat of you "raising the kids 24/7", is reality. She can't be abusive and stay in this marriage and this family with you and these kids. Just because something is the way someone's always done things doesn't make it right. Otherwise, we'd all be eating steaks at breakfast and reading by candlelight. The idea that things can't and shouldn't change because our parents did X is incorrect.

This is going to be a hard thing to do because you have contributed to the dynamic in your household where your wife's "cultural" baggage is the dominant mode of being while you withhold and hide emotionally. Nope, not going to work anymore. You have to, calmly and unequivocally, state that you are not going to have your kids talked to that way, you're not going to have their bodies treated abusively, and you are not going to walk on eggshells for the next 15 years.

After she gets really pissed and attacks you - she will, she's deeply angry right now - which you're going to hang in with without losing control, you're going to tell her you love her and your kids, you hear her, you support her. Then, you're going to propose Step 1, after having already investigated the practical aspects of it. You're not going to make her find the sitter alone. You're not going to make her do all the leg work of arranging for herself her safety and sanity net in her community. You are not going to abandon her to do all that work, too. No. You are going to come to this come to jesus meeting with a workable plan.

2.) Therapy.

It is not just her that needs therapeutic support. You're going to need it to find your spine and support your family through this. You have to be the strong one now because your wife is struggling. You all need help.

Lots of people make the excuse to themselves or buy into this narrative about motherhood that women who love their kids and are good at mothering just love to hang out with their kids all the time and tolerate the monotony of babies and toddlers just fine because they just love their kids so much and, well, that's just the way it is with small kids. Bluntly, bullshit. That narrative comes from a time when family units and communities rallied around each other and looked after each other's children. We are isolated now spiritually and practically, with people living out their lives in houses out in the suburbs, or working themselves to death and losing decades of time to actually LIVE working to afford outrageous rents in the cities. Stand against that by helping your wife and supporting yourself and your children through this really hard time through action, firmness, engagement, and a new level of commitment to ENJOYING this time in your lives. Because both of you are going to look around in a minute and see that your kids don't need you as much, that time has flown, and you want to be able to turn toward each other then and be proud of who you are as individuals, and as a couple, and how far you've come together as a family.

Lots of us have been in either a similar situation or something exactly like this. You have the power here and you have to use it. Good luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 6:41 AM on May 21, 2018 [36 favorites]

However you convey the message, she should know that abusive behavior is abusive behavior regardless of where the people are from and what the cultural background is.

I couldn't agree more with driedmango. I grew up with a mother very much like your wife and have PTSD to show for it. My mother was also an immigrant and the times that other people witnessed her anger and violence (she liked to break my stuff when she got mad and I wasn't in range) or I tried in a small way to ask for help I was always told that her behavior was "cultural" and she couldn't help it. After I was grown and out of the house she became a child care worker for other people's children, and I saw her with them often -- she praised them, coddled them, and never, ever, raged at them -- yes, this "cultural view" can be overcome when the person whose view it is learns to see it as inappropriate.

Also, it sounds like you think her abusive behavior is an aberration because she's not neglectful. The two are not mutually exclusive. And your kids are toddlers -- she's not going to go lighter on them as they get older and assert more independence. That's not how this works. My mother was recently placed on hospice care and is dying. A big part of me is feeling more free than I ever have in my life. Don't have kids like me.

My father was afraid of my mother, and his way of handling her rage was to tell me to "behave more and do what she tells you" (difficult, because what she told me was essentially "read my mind to know what I want"). He would sometimes try to calm her down or deflect her anger but subside when she turned on him and started berating him, and generally dealt with it by working a lot of overtime and staying out of the house. I loved my father and was very close to him, but he let me down a lot and I didn't respect him. Don't be like my father.
posted by camyram at 6:50 AM on May 21, 2018 [35 favorites]

My dad behaved in very similar ways, and my mother wasn't able to recognise that this was abusive, and was complicit in some of the abuse. I now have PTSD from the experience of being raised like this, and barely a day goes by (even good days) when I don't wish that I hadn't been born or that I'd died during childhood, because it is seriously hard to live a good life as an adult when your internal makeup gets scrambled during childhood by this kind of parenting.

If I could favourite this a thousand times, I would.

I went through something similar — though solely verbal/emotional abuse. I had an emotionally distant father who allowed his children from a previous marriage to mistreat and belittle me in my home. He was apparently oblivious to this; my mother, who wasn't, facilitated the visits and allowed this to go on until well into my teens because she felt bad my father didn't have much of a relationship with his children and grandchildren. She was a housewife, and would take her frustrations out on me with nasty, hurtful words and silent treatment, and going from telling me she loved me to asking what was wrong with me and spitting that I was 'just like my father' ... who she otherwise described as someone I should aspire to emulate.

As comparatively mild as this shit was, it fucks me up to this day. Her complacency in seeing the abuse from others and saying nothing taught me it was only what I deserved, because if I didn't deserve it she would have stopped it. Her using the same metric to both praise and belittle, her lashing out for trivial or no apparent reasons, taught me nothing I did was right, or good enough. Depression, anxiety, fearful-avoidance, self-esteem issues, trust and intimacy issues, I can trace them all at least in part back to these early experiences. I can't remember the last time I didn't wake up wishing I'd died in my sleep, and if I got the proverbial genie-wishes my first one would to never have been born.

I tell my lame little tale of woe here not as a bid for sympathy, but to show that even small things can be hugely influential on a young mind, and kids automatically look for guidance and approval from their parents. If your wife is flipping back and forth between being loving and yelling, throwing things and declaring that the loss of her love is contingent on a single act, that's setting some bad mental precedents for those kids. You may be able to mitigate it somewhat by showing your kids that your love is unconditional, that you may be upset with things they do but not who they are, but toddlers are still going to learn bad lessons from being exposed to this behaviour.

Can you take more responsibility for child care yourself? Hire some part-time help? If she's stressed or exhausted or feeling trapped, as others have mentioned, this may give her some respite and help to prevent her acting out with them. If she does believe that this style of parenting is fine, some kind of intervention — parenting classes, therapy, &c — may be necessary. But if this is a parenting style that she sees not as personal or familial, but cultural, and therefore 'different' but not 'wrong', you may have an uphill battle convincing her that her behaviour needs to change.
posted by myotahapea at 6:51 AM on May 21, 2018 [15 favorites]

I come from a culture where spanking and verbal abuse is normalized, too. Because of this, I disagree with everyone who is suggesting that you say to your wife's face that she is abusing the children. Abusive is a loaded word, one that is usually understood to mean "deliberately monstrous." Of course it doesn't actually mean that, but because of how it's understood, I believe it's unproductive to use it to start conversations with otherwise reasonable people.

Instead, I would advise starting with: "I know it was different in your experience, but most people consider spanking, namecalling, and yelling as abuse, and I know we both want our kids to grow up without having to feel like their home life needs to be kept shamefully secret." As you move forward with the conversations and practice resetting, use the word abuse more and more frequently to refer to these behaviors, so that the accurate description becomes normalized for the behavior. But like I said, I don't think it will be productive to use "abuser" or "abusive" as a label for your wife at any point except long, long after your new behavior becomes a routine habit and she is past considering her former behavior acceptable.

Therapy is great and it might help to frame it as something BOTH of you need to do together. Family counseling is where it's at. It isn't even a ruse on your part, because you have parenting work to learn of your own too! As for books, I highly recommend "How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk." The methods in that book are perfectly applicable to toddlers and teenagers (there are extensive discussions of age appropriate parenting strategies and tools). Again, reading this stuff together and making shared goals for both of you will stigmatize her less and make it more likely that you will all follow a consistent style.

I do agree with everyone who is suggesting that you step up your parenting time and effort, for all the reasons outlined - but mainly because you are a parent, and there is no excuse for you skipping out on your equal share of it. She could step up to working fulltime, and you might step down your working hours to make this happen. This might mean taking a pay cut as a family but the way things are right now is not fair to her, simply because she is doing the much larger share of unpaid work in your household. If you and she are absolutely opposed to equalizing hours of paid and unpaid work, then at the very least you both need to be paying her out of your household budget for her labor, retirement, and opportunity costs. You will probably find that equalizing paid and unpaid work hours is much more affordable than that.

So that's my advice:

1) Work together to reset parenting practices gently, kindly, and without antagonism, but firmly. Do bring up the word "abuse" and normalize its use as an accurate description of spanking, namecalling, and yelling; however, do not use "abusive" as a label for her or for her behavior directly, let alone angrily or in a blaming way, in the beginning of this process.

2) Become a fully involved and equal parent. This means respecting her time and effort as concretely as yours, i.e. with pay and/or by equalizing both your paid and unpaid work hours.
posted by MiraK at 6:52 AM on May 21, 2018 [35 favorites]

I don't have a full answer to how to deal with this very difficult situation, but I agree with people upthread who say that it sounds as though your wife may be strained past what she can handle. Raising kids takes a colossal amount of emotional labor—sometimes too much, depending on the parent and the circumstances. Sometimes when people feel trapped in a situation that's taking more out of them than they have to give, they start to think ugly thoughts and act in ugly ways. This is something that I could see possibly happening in myself, and is one of the reasons why I am so sure I never want to be a parent.

I think this is likely what's happening with your wife. She feels emotionally exhausted and trapped and maybe is having a hard time accepting that she's not quite pulling this off, and she's taking out her frustration on the kids. It doesn't excuse her actions, but it might help explain them. It might also help point the way toward a solution: you need to remove a significant portion of the childrearing burden from her shoulders. Like, probably a big enough piece that you are going to have to rearrange your own life somewhat, perhaps by cutting back on your work hours while increasing hers, if such a thing is possible. We're talking a major adjustment here, not a minor one.

Hopefully, once your wife has a little breathing room, she'll both stop the abusive behaviors (which I bet she knows are bad and privately feels terrible about) and also be able to climb down from her defensive posture and work with you on doing things like getting therapy and beginning the process of healing. I think there's a really good chance at this stage that this can happen, but you need to make the changes now.

Also, you unfortunately need to start documenting what's going on in case it never gets better and starts to escalate instead. I agree with Kalmya that at this stage, divorcing your wife and taking the kids isn't an option—you'd almost certainly end up divorcing your wife and losing the kids. However, abuse tends to escalate if unchecked and if she continues down this path you may eventually find yourself in a position where divorcing and taking the kids is the only realistic answer. So you need to work with her on this, but at the same time you need to document in case the day ever comes when you need to argue for your children's safety in a divorce proceeding.

I'm sorry you're going through this, this is super hard.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:54 AM on May 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

I realize we're only getting a tiny fragment of the whole picture here, and your wife's behavior does sound bad, but reading your description I got no sense of what you are actually contributing as a parent. You sound like a passive observer in all of the situations you describe, where your kids are behaving badly and it's up to your wife to do anything about it. Is she doing all the cooking too?

Your wife's outbursts are not okay, but to me she sounds completely overwhelmed and exhausted by doing what comes across as the vast majority of the parenting on her own. It makes sense that she becomes upset and defensive when you suggest she go to therapy if that is what's going on.

What I'm saying might be inaccurate, but if it is at least a little accurate then it sounds like there is more you could be doing to be supportive, rather than just watching your wife do all the parenting and then criticizing her when she snaps.
posted by wondermouse at 6:55 AM on May 21, 2018 [20 favorites]

I do think your wife sounds overwhelmed, and is flipping out in a way which she either understands is bad, or justifies as the best she can do given her workload. In particular, 1 and 2 are completely inexcusable.

If there's any way for you to get her some help, either by doing more yourself or appealing to friends and family for some respite care, I think that would be the first step. I don't think it is realistic to expect any improvement until her workload is reduced.

It might help to say the non-American culture of your wife. By Chinese standards, none of your examples rise to the level of abuse, although I would consider 1, 2, and 4 all examples of bad parenting.

If your wife is Chinese, there are a couple of specific roadblocks here:
  1. Therapy is really not a thing people do. I have no idea what advice to give you on approaching that subject, especially if your wife is first-generation.
  2. Unconditional love is also not a thing. My mother, the first time she heard of it, said something like, "Unconditional? Of course not. It must, minimally, be conditioned on your not being rapists and arsonists, right?" I think she was kind of baffled by the thought of anyone holding unconditional love up as an ideal. Maybe an understandable human failing, at best. So you're going to have a hard time convincing your wife that it's inappropriate to threaten to withhold love.

posted by meaty shoe puppet at 7:19 AM on May 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

GET MORE OUTSIDE CHILDCARE. STAT. She can't hear you because she is stressed out and physically in Flight or Fight mode. Her nervous system is on high alert all of the time. She can't think straight. Get her a regular day off, or a half day twice per week. Toddlers are so hard, dear god.

After a month, when your wife has physically and emotionally recovered somewhat, re-address all of these issues with her. Maybe do it in couples counseling? You need perspective and techniques to communicate effectively about this - acquire these tools!

If after multiple calm discussions she sees nothing wrong with her behavior, then yes please consider divorce. I can't advocate for that because children are hard and she sounds dreadfully over-taxed. She's not thinking clearly right now, I don't understand what you are expecting.

If you don't want to get divorced, this is what you can do to start. Then you guys have to address your childhoods, family/work balance, etc.. For now, get your wife time off duty.
posted by jbenben at 7:49 AM on May 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

I was also raised in an emotionally, verbally, and sometimes physically abusive environment like this, with no intervention. Everyone just enabled, made excuses, and basically saw only what they wanted to see. I also have PTSD (as well as other anxiety disorders) to show for it. The anxiety has been a life long problem that I am still trying to heal. I'm going to also suggest, and nth, that your first priority needs to be working with your own therapist and lawyer (both of whom should be very knowledgable about these issues, interview and choose carefully) to get your kids away from that. Your wife's family of origin and cultural issues are not the top priority here. Breaking the cycle of abuse is.
posted by jazzbaby at 7:55 AM on May 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

99% of the time she's a loving mother.

That really doesn't make it better. I'd argue it makes it worse, because the behavior is unpredictable and the periods of better parenting cause kids to let their guard down, when in fact, they should not.

That shit scars for life.

It is very disturbing that she is defiant about her behavior.

Your options are to leave or not leave. Is your question 'whether this behavior is leave-the-marriage-worthy?' It is. It meaningfully undermines the safety and healthy upbringing of your kids. Maybe she has good reason to be at the end of her rope. Maybe if you discuss this with her it will be a wake-up call to her that her behavior has gone off the rails. Maybe she has enormous compassion that has somehow been thwarted. I don't know.

If you're looking for validation about whether her behavior is fucked up: it is.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:18 AM on May 21, 2018 [14 favorites]

[This is a followup from the asker.]
I hope this doesn't come off as defensive, because I really appreciate the responses so far, and I'm sure there is more I can do to be supportive of my wife. To clarify, though: It's not exactly a 50/50 split, but I take care of the kids when she's at work, and we both parent together when we're both home. I also do virtually all of the cooking, half the cleaning, half the dishes, and half the laundry ... even proactively most of the time.

We've discussed sending the kids to daycare 2-3 days a week, and even prepaid for a block of time, but haven't followed through and set a regular schedule. That's one "easy" thing I can do to help relieve some pressure.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:22 AM on May 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

Joining in with those who say that (a) child-rearing is a very tough job and your wife sounds exhausted and in need of more help and (b) that she doesn't recognize that her behavior is harmful even when the moment is over and she's had a chance to cool down is very disturbing. I grew up in a home like this. While there were other kinds of dysfunction, too, what others have said about the life-long damage this kind of parental behavior can wreak is 100% true. The fact that there was a "good" parent who did not act that way themselves but did not protect us, either, may only have amplified the damage, because it made it seem like that behavior was at least acceptable. You really need to act; to get her into therapy, to document what's going on, to prepare, if necessary, to divorce and fight for custody. Your kids need this more than almost anything else you will ever do for them.
posted by praemunire at 8:24 AM on May 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

I’m not a parent, but grew up with abuse. Your wife will likely get worse over time, and even if not there’s plenty there that’s already doing long-term damage.

Tell her that she goes to counseling or you’re out and taking the kids, and start documenting, not necessarily in that order.

Also, start doing as much of the childcare as you can because when you’re in court her lawyer is going to say she should get custody because she’s been the primary caregiver. You need to protect your kids in the immediate as well as long term, and that means you have to step up now.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:43 AM on May 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

I agree very much with praemunire here:

Joining in with those who say that (a) child-rearing is a very tough job and your wife sounds exhausted and in need of more help and (b) that she doesn't recognize that her behavior is harmful even when the moment is over and she's had a chance to cool down is very disturbing.

I would try and address this with her not as a childcare issue, but as a marriage issue. You have a disagreement about how some essential tasks should get done. Will she consider some sort of compromise? Are there other things that each of you have compromised on before that worked out well? Can you remind her of those other times? If she is not willing to compromise, I would ask her how she thinks you two can resolve this conflict. It's not realistic for you to watch the kids 24 hours a day - even if you became a stay at home parent, she would have to step in from time to time - and it is not fair of her to say that you have to just suck it up and accept something that you think is harmful to your kids - whether she agrees with that assessment or not.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:43 AM on May 21, 2018

I'm just going to echo one more time what driedmango and camyram said. My mother was very harsh with me when I was growing up and it definitely caused major damage that took years of therapy to undo, and she wasn't half as harsh as your wife is. She would have cut out her tongue before saying if I did such and such she wouldn't love me. That's just an appalling thing to say to a child, I'm sorry, and I don't care what cultural background you come from.

I don't have children of my own so I can't tell you exactly how to handle it, but I was in the same position as your children once, and I can tell you that whatever you do to fix this, you'd best do it quickly.
posted by holborne at 8:57 AM on May 21, 2018 [15 favorites]

I'm not saying she is handling things correctly at all, & the behavior needs to be fixed, you can repair the cause of the problem or simply hide the symptoms. But seriously your wife sounds exhausted & unhappy & frustrated & it's leaking out in ways that aren't good for your kids, you need to help her find out why she is feeling like this, & either help fix the problem or help her build better coping skills so she isn't taking it out on the children.

Either you pick up more of the workload, your wife goes to full time, or you get some help in. I'd also see about some therapy for her to help her develop tools she can use to channel the stress she is feeling in a less harmful manner. She is currently trying to mother at a full time level with a part time job as well. I'm exhausted just imagining it.
posted by wwax at 8:59 AM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't know what your wife's cultural background is, but as a kid born out of the Asian diaspora, this kind of response is super-typical among East Asian parents, particularly in first-gen immigrant parents. Not only is this kind of verbalization and parental behavior normalized, but parental burnout is also normalized. There are very few cultural models for East Asian women to express burnout, in part because all cultural models of motherhood are simultaneously premised on (i) mothers give their all for their children, and (ii) living among extended family networks where grandparents and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters are all present to share the burden of child-raising.

Add in the me versus America thinking (Oh, we're Americans, so we have to say everything they do is smart and amazing), and it's a toxic brew.

Which isn't to say that any of this is acceptable, but I'm seconding MiraK and others who say that if you want to actually fix this problem, I don't think you can go in, American guns blazing, calling this and that abuse. It's an incredibly loaded term, as it should be. But particularly if your wife is East Asian, try solving it from another angle -- arrange respite child care. Make additional time for her -- you mention taking care of the kids while she works, but what about when she wants to pursue her hobbies? Do you ever say to her that you'll take the kids out for _____ hours and just let her putter around the house? When you clean, do you clean to your standards, or hers? Because my white husband does more than half the housework, it's true, but when he wipes out the sink, it's still dirty by Chinese standards and it makes me wild with irritation. Can you pay for professional housecleaning?

And then, maybe, sometime when she's calm and feeling happy, ask her about her childhood. Ask her about how family members showed their love. Ask how she knew they loved her. And it may be that you get something hard in response -- because they pushed me, because they didn't let me be X and Y, they yelled at me. But you may start gears turning. Even if she won't admit it to you, she may start thinking about herself in the position of the hurt, scared child she was, rather than the angry, put-upon mother at the end of her tether.

I used to be your wife. On bad days, I still am. But most of the time I'm not, and as with other people in this thread, the key for me was recognizing that while my parents helped me become the successful person they admire today, and that you can draw a direct line between the way I was pushed and am now successful, and the ways that my laid-back, loving white husband was not and then was not as """successful""" in our shared career -- the price wasn't worth it. I never want my children to feel as sad and lonely and scared as I did. I never want my children to have to lie to their friends and teachers and doctors.

There's a truism about immigrants working hard so their children can have a better life. I'm second-gen, but it's a value that I still hold closely -- except that for me, it means working hard not just to make sure my kids have everything they need to thrive materially, but in all ways, emotionally and socially.
posted by joyceanmachine at 9:07 AM on May 21, 2018 [32 favorites]

I'm super perturbed that people are saying that these things are typical for Asian parents:

Example 1: Kid indicates he wants a bite of food, but pushes it away at the last minute. Wife yells at him and attempts to force the spoon into his mouth, and when he cries, she throws the (plastic) spoon across the kitchen.

2: Another throwing one - kid knocks a non-fragile item off the end table. Wife yells at him and throws one of his rubber balls at him.

Sure, maybe some people call this abuse and some don't, but I think it's really important to stress that throwing things around the house and at your own children is not okay and it is not an accepted cultural norm for anyone.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:33 AM on May 21, 2018 [14 favorites]

Wow, yeah that's a familiar dynamic that is not easy to get out of. She is stressed and taking it out on the kids, then rounding on you when you call her on it. She needs to step back and get some perspective. It's really important that she see what is happening here, and it is very hard to admit that you have a problem when you are in the middle of it. It's easier to get results when framing it as "you have been stressed and aren't handling it well" versus "you are being abusive" even though both statements are true.
If she can get that perspective, you both can make this work. If she can't, well... cross that bridge when you come to it. But start by getting her the hell out of the house and away from the kids.
posted by domo at 9:44 AM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's kind of shocking to see so many people downplay and excuse the abuse or even turn it on the asker. Lots of people raising kids are tired and stressed out and they manage not to abuse their kids or partners.

"I'm tired and stressed out" doesn't explain child abuse.
posted by This time is different. at 10:07 AM on May 21, 2018 [28 favorites]

This seems like a workable situation until you get to the end with her openly hostile refusal to cooperate (which seems like an unusual behavior compared to how she treats you the rest of the time?), and I wish I could give you a sympathetic way to go at this gently but I kind of think that not only is her violence toward the children untenable, if she could in any way be framed (accurately or inaccurately) as an "immigrant" in this country in this climate, there will be no second chances once someone hears her, sees her, they tell a teacher, she leaves marks, or she snaps so bad you have to go to the ER. That's putting aside the effects on the children, as serious as those are, just to say that there may be no chance to fix this once she gets caught, if she doesn't get help before that point.

You may want to speak to a lawyer, just to know what your options are, in case you do have to leave with the kids for their safety.

But this also doesn't sound like a person who once had philosophical feelings about spanking. This sounds like a person in some kind of crisis. Postpartum Depression/Anxiety doesn't end when they start walking, and can present in very unusual ways including anger management issues. There are other things, treatable things, that can leave a person without enough resources to parent appropriately. There are also classes and coaches for helping overwhelmed parents learn better skills.

I think your requirement should be that she first get a full physical from the doctor of her choice (probably GP or OB/GYN*), but you need to walk in with her and say to the doctor, "I asked my wife to come here today because her frustration level with our children is alarming and I believe she is in trouble and it is not getting better on its own" and then leave the room for her to complete the exam. Just so she can't go in there and be all "nothing's really wrong, my allergies are bad this year that's it". Maybe the doctor can get through to her in ways you can't, and will also know to pay attention to her bloodwork results looking specifically for issues that might cause fatigue, short temper, depression, or other difficulty managing her emotions.

(*but keep in mind a lot of women are walking around with unrecognized/untreated medical PTSD from even a decent birth experience, not to mention what's starting to be recognized as assault/abuse during labor and delivery, in particular against non-white women, so don't push an existing doctor if you think there might be issues there)

From there, you see if she's willing to take some guidance from the doctor, maybe start some meds just to see if it helps, and treat anything that comes back funky on the bloodwork.

If she is unwilling to do this, to take any steps to improve the situation, you'll have spoken with the lawyer.

In the meantime, I believe you that you feel you are doing your share of the domestic work and childrearing tasks, but does she feel that? I mean, she might be wrong, but if she feels like she's doing everything or that she's never alone or if there's some aspect of the work she's doing that you don't even know about, or if she is feeling the real pressure women feel to be perfect (regardless of culture, but these things are also culturally nuanced), that can grind someone down pretty bad.

And then, also: would your mother or hers be any help? I get that she was likely raised similarly by her mother, but people tend to gain perspective as they get older.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:57 AM on May 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

I think both things can be true: that she's stressed and at a snapping point, and also that she has no understanding of what's wrong with her behavior and, more importantly, no interest in thinking seriously about it.

I mean, I have, in moments of great frustration, acted towards kids in ways I'm not proud of. But that's the thing: I'm (extremely) not proud of it, I feel empathy for how it must have affected the kids, I see the ways in which it's counterproductive, and I think hard about, and practice, ways to either not do those things or not enter situations where I'm liable to do those things.

Throwing things at kids is going to teach them to throw things themselves (and a kid doesn't need to be very old to pick up on the contradiction between his mother throwing things at him and being told she won't love him if he does the same). From a purely practical standpoint , does she not believe in the idea that you need to model the behavior you want to see from your kids as they get older? Because they will treat others the way they're treated.

Also, aside from the damage that this kind of behavior does to kids emotionally... those kids are growing up in the US. Not in a culture where yelling at your kids, throwing things at them, and especially telling them that your love is conditional, are considered desirable or in most cases acceptable behaviors. And the thing is that the older a kid gets, the more they start to understand what is considered acceptable by the society around them and what isn't. A kid born in a culture where this is normal might not see it as something that should affect their relationship with their parent. Maybe for them being called stupid by their parents wouldn't have as much weight. But for a kid in the US, if they're surrounded by friends' families and decent schoolteachers and the general cultural soup that seems to be spreading wherein being gentle with or at least thoughtful about others' feelings is really a basic value... it might happen when they're still kids and it might not happen until adulthood, but at some point it's extremely likely that they'll feel fury and bitterness and betrayal and a general sense that a close relationship with their mother is just not entirely possible for them.

So maybe she should think a little more seriously about this, and talk with some friends who don't act that way, or read some books about child development, or find a child psychologist she can respect and consult with. She has no idea what she's doing right now, and it's a tragedy both for the kids and for her.

(Oh, and even if only one of your parents treats you badly... at some point you start to ask yourself why your other parent didn't do more to stop it, and realize that maybe your parent put their relationship with the abusive parent first, and even if you understand and can't fault their intentions... it's not a good feeling.)
posted by trig at 11:00 AM on May 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

It's not so much that I want to downplay this as that I don't see a way of dealing with it without trying to recognize the cause of the behavior and fix that. If this were a stay-at-home mom and an abusive dad, "divorce and take the kids" might be a real option. As it is, that gambit would probably end with "divorce and leave the kids in the sole care of their abusive mother." I think the OP has no choice but to work with his wife on this one, and a good understanding of the root causes will be key to his success.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:05 AM on May 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

(Also, if you do go for some joint counseling, try finding someone who has experience either with your wife's culture specifically or with cross-cultural parenting in general. Ideally, someone who has a similar cultural background but still sees the merits of modern/American approaches.)
posted by trig at 11:17 AM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

This might be a derail but I just wanted to pop back in here to reinforce what I said earlier. Abuse is abuse. Drink the kool-aid if you want but no one here should be normalizing abusive behavior. So call it what it is. May I remind you (reader) that any justification of abuse using "cultural background/upbringing" just reinforces that cultural norms, whether they're harmful or not, should never be questioned. That a child who suffers from these abusive actions should just accept it. Sorry this shit really gets to me, and it's just the same shit that my mother/extended relatives would say to me. Spare me, I've heard it all and nothing justifies it.

1 - super typical does not mean right. 2 - while it isn't uncommon, there are plenty of Asian/immigrant families who do not abuse their children. My mother used this excuse a lot, and that shit just can't continue to be recycled. You normalize what you accept. Normalize abuse and it just keeps on going into the next cycle/generation. So I'll have to respectfully disagree with what some of the above posters say is inappropriate wrt how your wife's behavior is labled. Solve it from "another angle" if you wish, but it's abuse. Full stop. Don't call it anything else.
posted by driedmango at 11:17 AM on May 21, 2018 [12 favorites]

Please listen to the Asian women in this thread. Going in with "this is abuse" and "we need to take you to the doctor" are NOT going to go well.
And then, maybe, sometime when she's calm and feeling happy, ask her about her childhood. Ask her about how family members showed their love. Ask how she knew they loved her. And it may be that you get something hard in response -- because they pushed me, because they didn't let me be X and Y, they yelled at me. But you may start gears turning. Even if she won't admit it to you, she may start thinking about herself in the position of the hurt, scared child she was, rather than the angry, put-upon mother at the end of her tether.
THIS. Can you hear the "well, this is America so we have to be happy happy supportive!!!!" as an expression of hurt from the pain of recognition of failure? Don't get me wrong -- don't think for a second that I think her behaviors are acceptable or your fault -- but this is the effective way to approach it. I think she recognizes that she's failing at these points, but can't stop because it's what she knew, and what choice did she have about it? The natural next step, then, is seeing that her only action is to help her kids not know these things.

Of course, this is assuming that you didn't have these chats before marriage -- to me, these chats are part and parcel of starting a family with someone outside your own background. Definitely second the suggestion to find a mediator who is familiar with cross-cultural parenting.
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:24 AM on May 21, 2018 [12 favorites]

Get a lawyer, now and follow their advice.

I get the cultural differences, and one of my parents comes from a culture that spanks and can be stricter with kids than the standard American culture (although they are also more lax in some ways).

At no point would anyone ever mock a child for a developmentally normal mistake (like getting a hand stuck in a toy). That is disgusting. I honestly do not know what to say, I'm so shocked.

At a minimum, you need to shift her away from being a part-time SAHM and find alternate, healthier childcare. She may be exhausted and burnt out, and this may not reflect her real personality. What you're describing sounds like her "snapping" and losing her shit. This kind of behavior can be situational. Not everyone has the patience to be a caregiver for two toddlers for an extended period of time. If that's her, then it's like the story about the guy who goes to the doctor saying "it hurts when I do this" and the doctor says "then stop doing it."

In other words, if she's losing her shit because she's overwhelmed and out of patience, then stop doing it. Get alternative childcare and transition her away from being a SAHM now. At a minimum.

If this isn't her snapping, but is, instead, her real personality (controlling, contemptuous, degrading to those weaker than her) then I would lawyer up and get out of there. But at a minimum she needs to not SAH.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:31 AM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Please listen to the Asian women in this thread. Going in with "this is abuse" and "we need to take you to the doctor" are NOT going to go well.

We don't know if OP's wife is Asian. I'm just here to present my side of how things felts as a child of Asian immigrant parents. Others like me have already chimed in on how they feel whether from an immigrant/asian/other perspective. It's abuse.

An Asian Woman.
posted by driedmango at 11:36 AM on May 21, 2018 [14 favorites]

Trying to force food into a kid's mouth? Physical abuse.

Mary Pipher described in one of her books how she pointed out to a 1st gen/immigrant Asian patient that the girl's father might not directly say that he loved her but showed it by his actions.
posted by brujita at 11:47 AM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

And then, maybe, sometime when she's calm and feeling happy, ask her about her childhood. Ask her about how family members showed their love.

This is all very well, but, in the meantime, while OP is waiting for her to feel calm and happy, she is throwing things at their children and telling them she won't love them if they do the wrong thing. Maybe a little less if some of the childcare burden is lifted off of her, but it'll still be happening. Every time this happens, it does harm. Every time. Every time the child sees that OP will not defend them, it does harm. Every time. Regardless of whether it's cultural background, character, past PTSD playing out--if she can't take serious steps, right now, towards learning how not to abuse the kids, she needs not to be around them. This is not something you can wait and hope gets better. It needs to be addressed immediately. I recognize that some may feel there are tactical reasons for delay--that therapy might help, that divorce might not gain OP custody--and I see the merit of those arguments, but delaying just to coax and soothe and gently persuade an abuser in the hopes that maybe she will stop inflicting physical and verbal violence is flat-out morally wrong. Especially because it is very unlikely to work. Let's keep in mind that OP's wife does not think there is anything wrong with throwing things at her children. You don't reason or cajole abusers out of being abusive.
posted by praemunire at 12:40 PM on May 21, 2018 [24 favorites]

Thank you for your update, OP.

Given the information you provided, I would like to amend my advice, and I apologize if you feel mischaracterized in your contributions to your household. I was projecting my own experience onto yours. I'm sorry.

I think you have to insist on counseling, and you might even go so far as to suggest a trial separation if she will not seek treatment for her abusive behaviors. You have to be resolute and she needs to see that you are serious. Otherwise, she will not change.

I have some questions you might ask her. Be prepared for her ensuing cognitive dissonance to cause a fight. Try to stay calm and focused and hold space for her reaction, but don't capitulate or let her minimize what you're really asking. The questions are these: would you tolerate a caregiver outside our home forcing food into our children's mouths? Would you tolerate a caregiver calling them stupid? Would it be okay with you if our children's caregiver threatened not to care about them if they make mistakes?

It is one thing to be stuck at home with two under two or three, without ample support, not working and feeling overwhelmed. It's quite another to have an (unused?) daycare placement, part-time out of the home work, and parity with your spouse in terms of the household management, and be treating children with this level of contempt and disrespect.

Your wife doesn't sound house-bound or suffering from a lack of support. She sounds like she, herself, endured abusive treatment and has rationalized it such that she cannot take in any criticism. To do so would threaten her self-image as a good person and good mother, and challenge her feelings of loyalty to her parents. How does she handle feelings of shame, in general? Is she overly-sensitive?

This is very hard. I think you need to consider what you will do from a legal standpoint if she refuses to get help for her behavior. I am sorry you're going through this. Thank you for sticking up for your kids.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 1:39 PM on May 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

The key is this: However, she comes from a cultural background where spanking and (what I consider fairly harsh) verbal criticism of small children is completely normal and accepted.

This is what you married into and there’s nothing to “fix” via therapy or counseling. By suggesting therapy, you’re telling her her own upbringing and culture are wrong. I come from one such “tough love” culture and most kids turn out fine. If you can’t put up with her parenting style, tell her it’s too much for you and you want to part ways. Maybe that will prompt her to adopt gentler ways, if she loves you and does not make this the hill she’s ready to die on. Throw some parenting books her way, if she is so enclined, and explain why lashing out at children is an old habit from time immemorial but is not the only way to discipline them. Otherwise, accept that she loves her children as much as you do and there will be no irremediable damage done to the kids.

This reminds me of France, a Western country no less, where a previous Government muttered something about outlawing spanking, as recommended by the Council of Europe, and the uproar and outrage that ensued. The law didn’t pass and spanking is still legal (so far and probably not for long).

In short, the definition of abuse (in this specific circumstance only) varies from one culture to another and if you can’t keep your cool about the way your wife disciplines your children, accept that your marriage was an ill thought out decision based on cultural differences, and move on.

Good luck!
posted by Kwadeng at 1:45 PM on May 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thank you for the update, OP. Sending the kids to daycare 2-3 days a week sounds like a good start, especially since you've already talked about it and are paying for it.

It might help if you were able to have a real conversation with her about what's going on in her mind when she acts like this, but not everyone is up for that sort of self-analysis and she sounds pretty resistant to it, for whatever reason. Maybe you don't have the kind of relationship where you could really discuss things like that?

If her parenting style is considered normal in her culture and she doesn't already disapprove of it, it will probably be very difficult to get her to change.
posted by wondermouse at 2:16 PM on May 21, 2018

Figuring out what counts as abuse in cross-cultural contexts is something that a lot of third-culture kids grapple with. And as you can see from this thread, OP, people come down in different places on it. People also tend to project their own experiences -- some as the kid, some as the parent about to snap. I've been on both ends, and am in therapy for it. While I've never actually thrown anything at my kid, there have been some arm grabs that I have not been proud of myself for.

At the end of the day, I don't think it matters whether this gets called abuse or not. It's clearly not good. It isn't healthy. You don't mention how your kids reacted, but even if they didn't react much now, they'll know more in the future. If your wife is like this now, what will she be like the first time the second kid brings back a sub-par report card? Or either of them willfully defy her? This clearly isn't coming from a place of kindness or even measured intent. She's PISSED and DEFENSIVE and FURIOUS and this close to clawing everyone's eyes out, including her own.

Fortunately, it sounds like there are a lot of intermediate steps you can take, and that you guys have the resources to take them. I hope that they give your wife your the space she needs to reflect on her own upbringing -- at some point, she agreed that the two of you were building a family that wasn't going to spank. If that came from a genuine conviction, then I think it's a real beach head. Maybe she can find that place again?
posted by joyceanmachine at 2:57 PM on May 21, 2018 [9 favorites]

Man, I've been really thinking about this one. I grew up with a mom like this, who is also from a cultural background where that kind of parenting is normalized (not Asian). A lot of the time, when I think about what I wish was different, I think about things I wish she did differently. What do I wish my dad did differently? I don't know if I wish they had gotten divorced. But there's a few things he could have fixed. If none of these things below apply to you, please ignore.

* I'm not sure whether she's a stay-at-home mom or not, because your comments are a little confusing, but I wish my dad had pushed my mom to go back to work. Her job before she became a SAHM was her passion and a place where she was valued. Instead she tried to find that passion and fulfillment at home, as women are so often pushed to do, and well, kids don't exist to make you feel emotionally fulfilled as it turns out.

* If she was screaming at us, Dad would try to intervene with her, and then she'd scream at him, and then storm out of the house and threaten to never come back. I wish he'd intervened with us. I wish he'd picked me up and said, "hey, [her name], you're really stressed out, I'm going to take the little guys for an hour and let's discuss this when everyone is calm".

* Given us a support team. I mean therapists for the kids.

* I wish he'd treated her--wish he would treat her now--with more respect. It's obvious to me that he thinks her interests are stupid, that he isn't attracted to her anymore because she's fat, and that he engages with her in discussions in a patronizing way. It's funny because he's totally all for female empowerment but only for a model of empowerment where women share his beliefs, interests, and visions of success. (Again, if this doesn't apply, please ignore. Just want to cover this base, and it is worthwhile to reflect.)

* Granted, she has also often acted disrespectful to him, like he's a child. I wish he would calmly stand up for himself when she does this. Yes, I've typed this and I still don't think they should divorce. Even though I would personally divorce the shit out of a partner who treated me like either of my parents treats each other. It's complicated.

* Stepped up his game around the house; I know you're saying you contribute 50% but does she see you as contributing 50%? Are you contributing 50% of the shitty, down and dirty, grimy, un-fun parts of being a parent and homeowner? Make sure it's not like John and Allison (as discussed in MeFi comments).

* Not positioned himself as the fun parent. It was always "yes you know your mom is so strict, just do the thing, ask for forgiveness not permission". Obviously, that made me happy at the time, but it just showed his lack of respect for her in another way.

One last note. After threatening over and over to spank us, my mom did in fact hit one of my siblings. Sibling's horrible transgression was...not wanting to take a bath. It only happened once, and mom regretted it deeply, but I certainly did not forget it. I have not forgotten it now.
posted by robot cat at 3:42 PM on May 21, 2018 [11 favorites]

Oh for gods sake no this isn't divorce, this is just marriage and parenting. Solve it as a team. Specifically - she sounds like she's at the end of her rope. Do more around the house, like quite a bit more than you feel you should, for a few weeks. See what happens. She may be a lot more open to talking when she doesn't feel like she's about to explode.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:21 PM on May 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

[One comment deleted. I know this question is close to home for some folks but this needs to not become a debate among commenters. Don't dig into "you other answerers are deluded" etc. -- just give your helpful constructive suggestions directly to the OP, and trust that they will be able to read and judge for themselves.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 4:54 PM on May 21, 2018

Before jumping to divorce,
You specifically state she is a wonderful parent 99% of the time and these occurance are rare. Labeling someone as abusive over this doesn't make a lot of sense. Are you certain that 100% of your own behavior 100% of the time does not fall under a single category of abuse.
Divorce seems like a catastrophic way to deal with the situation before trying anything else.
Have you yourself considered switching roles , responsibilities and jobs with her for a few weeks to see if you yourself woukd fare any better under the same conditions.
Have you considered the negative impact upon your children in separating them from their primary caregiver to put them under another person's care who also may or may not be loving and competent 99% of the time.
Sleep deprivation and long exhausting hours will bring out the worst of many people.
Marriage and a family is a cooperative team effort, are you playing your equal part in that?
posted by OnefortheLast at 6:05 PM on May 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maybe you already are, but since I haven't seen it mentioned yet, are you stepping in and modelling better strategies for dealing with these (universal) kid problems? You can show her you support teaching the same values (eat your food, don't knock things onto the floor, etc) and show her ways to teach them to the kids without being cruel. Intervene, and model.
posted by kitcat at 6:06 PM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Daycare is the most efficient solution to the immediate problems: safe emotional environment for the kids and breathing room for you and your wife. Daycare costs pale in comparison to the costs (actual + lived) of an impulsive, contested divorce. Don't be shortsighted about the money.

Find quality care for them for as much of the week as possible. If this is what it is like when you are around I'd be very concerned about times when there is no accountability.

Get the kids safe. Full stop.
posted by this-apoptosis at 6:44 PM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

her response is "if you don't like the way I parent, you can watch them 24 hours a day." Sometimes followed by door slamming, always followed by hours of huffing and pouting

You have my sympathies, OP. This is hard stuff. The response you describe here is not mature, and it must be difficult to deal with in the moment. But that's also the time to take the kids for a walk, to get them out of the house and away from the emotional weather system created by your wife's anger. I know it's not that easy to do (ugh, the complicated mechanics of getting kids out the door!), but it might shelter them a little bit and give your wife a chance to cool down.

Ideally, you'd have someone to talk to about how to handle your wife's refusal to process concerned feedback, and the rift that this creates in a partnership where there are kids involved; if she won't go, you should. Her comment about your mental health was mean. You can be anxious and depressed and still have a legitimate concern about her behavior and her verbal ultimatums.

When she's like this, one of you has to be the adult, and the priority is the kids. Be their umbrella. I wish you strength in this tough situation.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:00 PM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I hope you are still reading this thread.

I was not triggered by your descriptions of your wife and do not think this is DTMFA territory yet.

FWIW, my mom was emotionally and physically abusive when I was growing up to the point where I have been estranged from her and my entire family of origin for over 20 years. I'm in a culturally mixed marriage and we have a 7 yr old. Again, I was not triggered by your descriptions and do not think this is DTMFA territory yet.

Parenting is hard. Your wife just made two people, she made your family with her body.

Over the past 7 years, I feel like I just watched myself and a bunch of other new parents go bonkers and get it back together around kindergarten. Some marriages made it, some didn't.

If you want to be in a marriage that makes it, get good supportive childcare, parenting lessons, in-home parenting therapy, counseling. Do your children need screening for interventions insurance will cover? Get that.

If you want to be one of the families that thrive, seek all of the help and intervention you can lay hands on. Don't wait. Seek a divorce if nothing else works, but try all of the reasonable stuff that will most likely work for a mom who is 99% a great parent, first. Parenting is so hard. Making new people with your body is hard. Get help. That's my advice.
posted by jbenben at 7:48 PM on May 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

wow. So much divorce talk.

Seeing as how divorcing her would make both your lives harder and more stressful, and leave her alone with them and a LOT angrier, I can't see why anyone is waving that flag.

Here's something I haven't seen suggested yet. Sympathize with her. When she starts to freak out, don't reprimand her; certainly not in front of the kid. Instead step in with a gentle restatement to the kid. Kid throws food on floor and wife has horrible outburst? Pick up the food, tell kid "absolutely no throwing please" and rub your wife's back for a moment. Later tell her "sweetie it worries me when you say something like that to junior. I know it's how you were raised, but I really don't think it's right. I know you don't mean it. Is there something on your mind?"

I can tell you that there are few things more rage inducing than being accused of being a poor parent; so don't do that. Instead, defuse her frustration by demonstrating that you are "on her side." You can do this while providing an example of gentle discipline. And follow it up by addressing it without being accusatory. This is going to be a lot more effective than accusations, divorces etc.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:10 PM on May 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

Go to parenting classes together - there are probably some offered locally. Sign up for family therapy as parents together. Be vulnerable and tell her that you want to be a better dad and ask for her to be on the same team - don't treat this as a separate problem for her alone to get fixed. Parenting is best done as a joint (or more! the more alloparents kids have, the better) activity.

Sit down with her and write out all the household tasks and re-allocate them. Make sure your idea of 50% matches her idea of 50%, and that you are both taking a roughly equal share of the dull-grimy tasks. Talk to her about getting back into work full-time if that's what she wants, or what are the enjoyable parts of parenting she'd like.

My oldest kid used to slap her toddler sibling for any infraction. She loved him deeply, but that was what you did when a toddler was naughty, smacked them hard. It took me about six months to get her to truly understand WHY we don't hit small children through intensive coaching and talking, and now she's horrified at physical child abuse as an adult. It was just so common that it was very hard to unpick. In the same boat, I had no idea initially how to comfort a sick child because my parents just ignored us or made fun of us when we were ill. I had to bite down on all my first instinct behaviour and follow a script from parenting books I'd read that felt totally alien the first dozen times. Childhood patterns of parenting are HARD to undo.

If she's loving 99% of the time, and this stuff is emerging only when she's super-stressed, that's not her 'true' nature, that's childhood stuff re-emerging in a panic. Give your kids lots of love, make sure they know that they didn't do anything wrong (model apologising to kids for her! Make it a family practice - parents apologising to kids is a huge step forward because it means you can talk about feelings and fixing hurt) but be on her team.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:03 PM on May 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

The children are the most important people in this situation. Keep that rule in mind, and it will guide you in all of the small and big decisions you'll have to make over the next while.

Sometimes you'll make a decision and it'll turn out to hurt your children. Don't beat yourself up over it; instead, make sure that you don't let it happen again. That's your job now.
posted by clawsoon at 5:04 AM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Look, I directly know two moms, one white and one Asian, who use the same damn threat of "I don't love you if you don't..." with their young kids. We've talked about it as moms and I've been all "hmm, maybe try this instead because it's very hard for a small kid to hear that" and they were defensive (as I am! when my parenting is criticised, fairly or not) but we had more conversations.

For them it was because they were looking for alternatives to physical hitting and screaming which had previously been the main discipline model they knew of. This was supposed to be the "kinder softer" replacement. Both of them were very worried about being too soft and having kids who ran wild and couldn't cope with life and school later on, and felt they would fail their child if they didn't make sure they were obedient.

I am not a great example as I've clearly never held obedience as a value for my kids, but fortunately another (Asian) mom in our group with great obedient kids uses time-outs etc too.

The "I will no longer love you..." is not good parenting and it is emotionally abusive, BUT a lot of otherwise good parents use it because they don't know better. Please don't turn a molehill into a mountain. And y'all realise the idea of unconditional love for your children as a widespread social norm is still pretty recent? There is a reason The Prodigal Son stands out. Conditional love was the norm.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:36 AM on May 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Nthing that Divorce is absolutely not the right solution right now. So many other helpful strategies to try here first, especially you stepping in and modeling the positive parenting behavior you want to see. The next time your wife starts to blow her top STEP IN and take over the parenting in that moment. “Mommy is feeling angry right now and needs to go take a break.” Etc. Because if you are continuing to just stand there mute when she harms your babies, that’s on you and now you are the problem.

The stress of a divorce often renders even vaunted “great parents” neglectful, bereaved caregivers for a time. I am divorced from a man who was on rare occasion emotionally abusive to our children, and trust me, he is even more emotionally abusive now that he has to care for them even more than he was when we were married. The trend in a majority of family courts these days is joint custody, often 50/50 or close to it. If you divorce you will suddenly get zero say over how she parents under her roof. What you’ve described here is horrific but sadly, probably would not shock and awe most family court judges at all. This is how a lot of them are and were behind closed doors with their own children, unfortunately, but there of course are exceptions. Society has a long way to go.

I read your wife’s statement “if you don't like the way I parent, you can watch them 24 hours a day” as a call for you to love and support her more. Divorce at this juncture when you haven’t even tried any therapy or parenting books yet would be neither loving nor supportive right now. It sounds like she wants you to do even more of the parenting, so first try that.
posted by edithkeeler at 5:38 AM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Back when I was a family therapist, I would sometimes do a parenting activity called “keep, leave, and add.” Basically, looking back at your own childhood and saying what do I want to do the same way with my own children, what do I definitely not want to do, and what do I want to add? Looking at her behavior, I wonder if she is valuing the high standards of her own upbringing, and trying to bring that benefit to her children without seeing the damage she is causing. Or maybe she is trying to leave behind harsh physical discipline by being verbally tough or “only” throwing things rather than hitting the kids directly... and then not seeing the harm in these substitute behaviors. Or maybe she looks back on her upbringing as perfect as a defense for how hurtful it was, and would say that she wouldn’t change a thing. It could give you more information if you find a way to talk to her about both of your own upbringings, separately from talking about how to change her parenting now. (I am not trying to excuse or minimize her abusive parenting, but I think understanding can bring change. And I think that abuse can be a spectrum, and abusive parents can learn to change.)

I obviously can’t give professional advice on the internet and don’t have nearly enough information if I could. But just personally in your shoes, I might try to get her into couples or family therapy by temporarily agreeing with her that she is not the problem. Don’t stop intervening in the moment when she is being abusive, but when you bring up counseling don’t do it as related to her parenting. Eg, it’s so hard to parent in this permissive American environment, the kids are really difficult. I am struggling to parent because of my anxiety and depression and really want someone to coach me, will you please come to see this person with me.” Or ask her to come to your therapist as a favor to you, even if she “knows” it won’t work. Maybe appeal to whoever she thinks is an authority.. “my internal medicine doctor says the stress is really bad and I need family therapy, I’m skeptical but maybe we should try it if Dr. X said.”

If you can’t get her to try after a while, no need to continue with this. But aligning yourself with her point of view and her concerns could help get her through the door. I know that this might be controversial advice because doing this plays into the pattern where the whole family is walking on eggshells around the abuser... but it might be worth a try to get her into an environment where she can change. A good family therapist will have experience with an abusive parent who is in does not see the harm in their actions, and parents from a cultural background where love is conditional and the emotional lives of children are not thought about. I worked with many parents with behaviors almost exactly like these, and saw big changes in many of them. It’s a good thing that you are trying to handle this now, rather then waiting for years for things to get even tougher.

FWIW, and I’ve always felt weird about this, partner abuse is contraindicated with family/couples therapy. But abusive parenting is not. (Though of course it needs to be reported if it rises to a certain level, etc).

Even if your wife refuses, you should get therapy for yourself and your children. Full disclosure, her parenting sounds very similar to the parenting of my mom, not just of former clients. Looking back, I think having therapists would have been protective for us.
posted by sometamegazelle at 7:22 AM on May 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

I also come from a culture (East Indian) in which behaviour like this is considered normal. I don't think the answer is divorce! The answer is education. I'm born and raised in Canada but even I didn't think it was necessarily a bad thing until a few years into becoming a parent. I used to occasionally spank and/or yell at my kids when I lost my temper (which, like your wife, was very infrequently). In all other ways, I was a great parent. So I was discussing this with a close friend of mine (also Indian) who said to me -- gently: "it doesn't feel like abuse to you because you yourself were abused. So it feels normal." That comment alone wasn't enough for me to change my view, but it did lodge in my brain. At the time, I used to think: my parents spanked me...and I turned out ok...so spanking must not do any real damage. But as my kids got a little older, I began to realize that it was a terrible thing to do, and DID cause damage, and I vowed to stop. And I did. Now, 10 years later, I greatly regret how I disciplined my kids when they were very young. But I didn't know better. Now I do.

Try to educate your wife. Talk to her about the things that are great in both your cultures, and the things that aren't so great. Talk about what you'd like to take from each culture, and from each of your families of origin, and instill in your kids. Her way is the only way she knows; talk to her and show her that there are other ways. She doesn't sound like a horrible parent, just an ignorant and misguided one.
posted by yawper at 7:32 AM on May 22, 2018 [10 favorites]

A lot of these examples sound familiar to me as a child of 1st gen E.Asian immigrants. Doesn't excuse them but I have seen, in particular, a sort of female poutiness dynamic play out in my experiences w older generation of women in my family and w some folks I knew when I lived overseas. I now have enough distance from my childhood to accept that my mom was not raised with the tools or pop-psych language to articulate her emotional state, effectively vent her immediate frustrations with wrangling us, or talk in what we now culturally accept as a "mature" / adulting fashion with my father about her needs. And key layer on top of that, I now think she felt really abandoned and isolated and defensive about not having those tools. She did not have a network of similarly cultured / easily accessible moms she could talk to to get a sense of normalization. She just saw a bunch of white American moms around her who behaved bafflingly, parented in a crazily indulgent and useless manner, and who she could not imagine truly connecting to, values- and perspectives-wise. So in times of stress she absolutely doubled down and lashed out about 'In America You All.'

I don't have a lot of advice but I guess - folks have suggested alleviating her burden w daycare, getting parenting classes, more drastic measures -

I would ask - does she have a network of other moms from her culture and who share their struggles and knowledge in your area? That can be a powerful thing. I'm in a local group of Taiwanese-ish moms and the conversations that play out - "Is it normal for kids to want --- at such a young age here?" "Why don't American moms want their kids to start --- lessons so young?" "Is my husband unreasonable for ---" and a range of insights from parents more newly introduced to American culture vs been here a longer time seems like it can be really helpful. I really really wish my mom had had something like that. I really think she would have been a better, less lonely, less burnt out, less freaked out parent and we would not have had experiences like you described.
posted by sestaaak at 8:34 AM on May 22, 2018 [13 favorites]

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