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Carolyn Hax: Dissing pregnant wife was just his first mistake

By Carolyn Hax
Sunday, September 5, 2010; E10

Dear Carolyn:

I think I screwed up, but I'm not sure how badly. My wife is pregnant with our first baby -- a girl. Full disclosure, I expressed mild disappointment when we learned the sex, but I was mostly joking. Also, my wife was really sick for the first few months, couldn't keep anything down, but she's doing great now. I think this might be relevant.

So here's the screw-up: I was working on a brief for work. My wife was in another room watching TV. She called out for me to come feel the baby move -- she's felt it before but I never have. I was semi-distracted and said, "Can you come in here?" She said, "No, I'm afraid she'll stop if I move! You come here!" So I yelled back, "I can't come right this second, I'll come later." Then honestly I somewhat forgot about it till I was done working, at which point my wife was asleep.

That was Thursday, today is Sunday. Since then my wife has been polite but closed off and spent most of the weekend out of the house. No sex and very little conversation. She also has not mentioned again about feeling the baby move. Was what I did really insensitive, and what can I do to redeem myself?

Insensitive Dad-to-Be

You "think" you screwed up?

That's your worst mistake of many. It's one thing to be insensitive, but quite another to follow a trail of evidence right up to the very brink of self-awareness . . . then to sit down and unwrap a sandwich.

Your wife is not blameless. She could have said, the next morning, "I felt really angry and alone when you didn't come feel the baby kick." Presumably you'd have apologized, and explained your unfortunate hyper-focus on work -- i.e., your lunkheadedness (vs. insensitivity).

Also in your favor: You get that your girl-dismay was damaging, and that your wife's difficult pregnancy also matters.

However, that mitigation is itself mitigated, if not wiped out: You've apparently gone four days without apologizing, the most forehead-whackingly obvious remedy for treating your wife like a throw pillow.

That alone upgrades your transgression from an accidental episode of detachment from your wife -- the boo-boo you describe -- to what may well be chronic dismissiveness. That's the cancer lurking between your lines.

Consider: Your scoffing at a girl was partly serious. Meaning, you told your wife -- a woman, remember? who just spent three months puking on your family's behalf? -- that hers is the less desirable sex. With that as your message, choosing work over your wife and baby becomes reinforcement.

I may be reading too much into this; you did, after all, supply the ammunition I'm using against you. If this was an isolated mistake, then it's a trifle that we're all handling badly.

But your distancing yourselves from each other since the incident doesn't say "oops." It says habit. It says Cold War.

So please at least weigh the possibility that your wife withdrew after Thursday's snub because she's tired of being devalued and/or of having to spell things out for you. The only way to redeem yourself then would be to stare down your own biases -- and to invest in your wife, consistently, as much of yourself as she watches you invest somewhere else.

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

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