When wife vs. nanny becomes husband vs. wife

Columnist May 19, 2011

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My wife and our nanny argue every few weeks. Our nanny has been great: She’s been with us for nearly 21 / 2 years. And my wife, to be honest, can be unreasonable at times. They asked me for my opinion last time (a disagreement on whether my wife overruling the nanny’s decision is healthy for our son, since he now goes straight to the “appeal” process). I agreed with the nanny, and my wife was furious. Should I stand up for my wife in a disagreement if I think she’s not right?

Washington

No, it sounds as if you did the right thing — in this particular situation. When the nanny has been charged with caring for your children, it’s her job to make decisions on the fly based on her understanding of your (the parents’) rules and sensibilities. If she does something that goes against the way both of you want to raise your kids, then it’s necessary to overrule her. But if this happens more than rarely, then you need a new nanny.

(Nick Galifianakis/Washington Post)

In this case, you apparently agreed with the nanny’s call, so she wasn’t clearly going against Parental Policy, and by your account she’s a good nanny and your wife overrules her frequently, so agreeing with your wife just to be a dutiful husband would just be throwing a rug on a foundation crack.

But now that you have sided with the nanny, you definitely need to follow up with an in-depth conversation with your wife about where you both stand on the general philosophies at work here. They include, by my count, philosophies on consistency and child-rearing, on supporting your spouse, on being true to your principles, on standing up for an employee who is being treated unfairly and on facing big problems head-on instead of yelling at them every few weeks.

You’ll want to save this conversation for when neither of you is freshly upset about an incident — but even then, given what you and the circumstances are saying about your wife, there’s a good chance it will turn into a fight anyway.

If it does, then it’s time for a good, licensed referee; either that or a reputable workshop on parenting or marriage (check www.smartmarriages.com and www.loveandlogic.com). Backing the person you believe is right is important for isolated incidents, but it won’t solve a recurring wife-nanny problem; it’ll just cause marital problems instead.

Re: Nanny Wars:

Has the husband considered that the wife might be having trouble with the nanny dynamic? As a working mom, I know it can be hard to accept that someone else is helping to raise my kid. Even if she’s totally happy with her decision to be back at work, it can still be hard when someone’s questioning how you want to do things with your child. Just food for thought when talking with her about these recurring arguments.

Anonymous

Yes, that’s another general philosophy for the list — the philosophy on maternal (or paternal) instincts and hired child care. However, if that’s the case, after 21 / 2 years it’s time for the wife to put her conflicted feelings to rest, not wield them against, essentially, her child, since that’s who suffers when their parents/caregivers fight.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com.

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