"Dear Thelma" is a relationship advice column that appears in The Star, a publication that is part of the Asia News Network.
My children are obedient and seldom fight.
I help them with their homework, ferry them around and, cook and clean by myself.
Because I am so efficient, my husband need not lift a finger at home.
But he is an absent father and refuses to take on responsibilities or make decisions for the family.
He adores us and just enjoys the nicer parts of being a father, like buying toys and boasting about his children.
When it comes to disciplining or important issues, he leaves it to me.
Last November, I noticed that my sons, who didn't quarrel, stopped talking to each other.
My older son refused to tell me what happened but from our conversation I deduced that the problem was his younger brother taking advantage of him, making him do all the house chores and being inconsiderate in sharing the WiFi.
Being the oldest, he is responsible, but he resents that responsibility. And so, he wants to cut his younger brother out of his life.
When I approached the younger one, he told me he didn't know why the older brother was not talking to him. The younger one is self-absorbed and oblivious. Sadly, their father wants an easy and quick fix to all problems. I have hinted to him to talk to the boys.
He said he would slap them and tell them to make up. I then stopped asking him for fear that things would get worse.
My older son sees his father as lazy and his mother having to shoulder everything at home.
Things are awkward now, should I keep nagging or let things be, and how should I act when we're together?
- Depressed Mother
Dear Depressed Mother,
I agree that you cannot ignore this battle. As parents, it is your job to make sure that your sons deal with this, or it may poison their relationship for the rest of their lives.
So first things first: your husband. Being a parent is not an opt-in position; it's a duty.
As a father he has a responsibility to his children, and he can't blow it off because he doesn't like to do unpleasant things. It's not negotiable so sit him down and tell him to man up. You are not a single parent.
Having said that, I suspect your husband is frightened of making a mistake. Bringing up children is the most difficult job on the planet. Part of him standing at a distance and admiring is probably founded in fear.
So after you have read your darling a stern lecture, comfort him with the fact that this issue is about conflict management, a skill that he's bound to have practiced at work.
Conflict management is a six step process:
- Define the issue.
- Establish a common goal for all parties.
- Discuss ways to reach the common goal.
- Determine what barriers must be overcome.
- Agree on the exact steps that must be taken to get to the goal and decide who is responsible for what.
- Agree on a time frame that includes meetings where you assess progress.
Before you go in, understand that you have two goals: you want your husband to take on more responsibility and you want your kids to make up. I therefore suggest that your husband leads. Your husband needs to run this so he gets used to stepping up. So even if he isn't as efficient as you, don't be tempted to step in and take over. Let him struggle and learn.
Now about your kids. When I read your letter, it looked very much as if your younger boy is acting like your husband: doing things he likes, and blowing off everything else on his brother. But unlike you, the older boy is fed up and not taking it anymore.
I suspect that when you and your husband start to talk, this is bound to spark some discussion about your own relationship. Be nice to each other and take it slowly, okay?
As for your mediating for your boys, this is tricky because you are dealing with children who are on the cusp of becoming adults. This is probably their first serious disagreement centred on who they are and how they relate to each other. Little kids tend to have fights that are settled by adults stepping in and laying down the law; your sons can only resolve their issue by negotiation.
You and your husband have to act as mediators. You and he are to be a solid front, gentle and loving but guiding firmly.
Your daughter cannot be involved as this is between the boys only. Have her go out when you run this first meeting.
When you start defining the issue, the boys need to each state their case.
In therapy, the victim talks first, and discusses actions and emotions. The other parties then state their case and emotions. Expect resentment to flare! Hopefully blowing off some steam will help release some of the frustration.
While you go through the steps, keep your cool and take breaks. This is not going to be easy but you have a foundation so you will eventually get through it. Just remember that the negotiated agreement has to be embraced wholeheartedly by both parties, or it won't hold.
Also, please take this into account: we think of 18 as being adult but this is inaccurate. The front part of the brain, the bit associated with emotional control, doesn't fully mature until we are 24 to 26 years old. So the boys may look like adults, but you must remember that they aren't quite capable yet of controlling their emotions.
So go gently but firmly and make sure you and your husband lean in on this one for mutual support. Good luck.