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Oh Captain My Captain:

I’m running into a communications problem, and could use some advice.

First the backstory: I live with my parents. My mother, who is nearing seventy, is having arthritis issues and needs a little bit of extra help around the house; generally more help that I can reasonably provide while being a full-time student. A year ago, a friend of mine had to choose between an abusive situation and homelessness, and I convinced Mom that we could offer her a third option. Now we have Kat in our guest room, doing dishes and minor housecleaning tasks for ten dollars a day plus room and board.

Now, the problem: Mom is unhappy with Kat’s performance. A lot of this is coming from the fact that Mom isn’t actually talking to her. She doesn’t remind either of us of routine tasks (because we’re intelligent people and she shouldn’t have to explain the obvious), and deals with extraordinary requests by telling me that they need to be done (with the unspoken riders of “so get Kat to do it” and “you should already know how I want that task performed” and “I will be Very Upset if you do this yourself instead of making sure Kat does it to my specifications.”) When, somehwere along the line, communication inevitably breaks down and something *doesn’t* meet with her approval, I get to listen to Mom rant about how she’s not getting what she’s paying for and how Kat isn’t ever going to be able to make it in the real world if she can’t complete simple tasks. Mom does not, generally speaking, ever voice concerns directly to Kat.

Do you have advice/scripts/etc. for how to stop being the Mom-to-Kat translator in this arrangement?

Sincerely,

The Messenger Is Tired Of Being Shot

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Dear Captain Awkward:

My father and his lovely new partner – she’s really nice – recently visited my area. They planned to spend a day or two with her relatives first, but wanted to know if I wanted to meet up with the two of them after that, for a meal at my brother’s new restaurant.

I agreed. I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of spending cab-fare to the city for a sub-standard meal (my brother hasn’t changed things yet), but wanted to see them, so sucked it up, gathered up my introvert spoons and headed out into the wilds.

I got a text about an hour before the meal – my father asked me to change the booking from 3 to 5 people.

Wait, what?

Apparently they wanted to bring along NewPartner’s granddaughter (teenager) and one of her teenage friends.

I didn’t handle that very well.

The next hour was a tangled blur of considering “calling in sick” to the meal, changing the booking at the restaurant, frantically checking the number of social-interaction spoons I had remaining (not enough for sudden dinner plans with strange teenagers), and resigning myself to my fate.

The reality was even more awkward than I’d feared. I sat there for a good 30 minutes of tense, stilted conversation.

I made my apologies and fled before the mains arrived (I hadn’t ordered anything).

Dad called after I got home, worried that I might not have been feeling well.

I ended up admitting that I just hadn’t wanted to stay. That I didn’t want to spend time with his partner’s family. He said he was disappointed in my behaviour.

I’m honestly not sure what to do.

I love my father, and want to be supportive of his relationship. I also really like his partner, I’d hate for her to feel bad in any way.

But I don’t want to spend time with her family. It feels weird and creepy when they’re around. I feel like my father is thinking of us as one big, happy family – when I barely know their names, and don’t actually want to get to know them better. I end up feeling stressed and resentful.

Part of me thinks that the best thing to do would be to talk to my father about it – to come to a new shared understanding of what our expectations are of each other going forwards.

But another part of me worries that, if I do that, I might end up with no relationship with my father at all. That I might have irreparably damaged it anyway. So I’m currently a little bit paralyzed with fear.

Am I being unreasonable? What do you think?

– Possibly unreasonable person.

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CA,

I have a great stepdad, and a pretty not good dad. My dad has been in my life the entirety of it, so he’s not an absentee dad- but he’s controlling, emotionally abusive, financially manipulative (he’s a millionaire, and uses that to try to exact control over you) and just pretty cruel in general. He is married to a woman who hates me and my siblings, and they have both been honest with us about this since we were kids and they got married. They both think we haven’t tried hard enough to get her to like her or to “earn” our way into being part of their family, which we currently don’t deserve (his words.) I have tried to keep him in my life as much as possible and do what I can to prove to him I’m a good person, and always have.But he’s been pretty consistent in his vocal belief I’m not a good person, and never will be.

Now I’m an adult and I take nothing from him, and pay my own way 100% of the time. I wanted him to see what I wanted was the relationship, not the money. When I got engaged, he offered to help with the wedding, which I should have just said no to. But I was seduced by the idea we could all be a family and do this big day together, and as dumb as it is, I love my dad. Of course, by two weeks after our engagement, things had devolved. My dad, and then his wife had called to insult me and my mother (whom my dad still hates, almost two decades later) and call me names etc. My dad was apparently in the room and let her do it. We haven’t spoken since. That was 3 months ago.

I don’t want his money. I just wanted him to be a good dad. The shitty part is, I LOVE my dad! I wanted him to be a part of it and walk me down the aisle and be my dad. But I don’t think he can be. My stepdad is a good dad and always has been. I want him to walk me down the aisle, but I know this will break my dad’s heart. And frankly, now that my dad can’t show off his money, which he loves to do, and the event won’t be about him, I don’t even know that he’ll come.

My fiancé hates him and doesn’t want to invite him. I don’t want to invite my dad’s wife, but know I will have to if I even want a chance to have my dad there. Which I’m not sure if I want, either, to be honest.

How do I even begin to decide how to handle this? to be fair to my dad, my fiance, and my stepdad all at once? And most of all, to keep our wedding the happy day it’s meant to be, and not the Divorced Family Dysfunction Hour?!

Thanks,
K

PS- Yes, I do have a therapist. Specializing in family conflict. And a great support network.

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Hi, Captain and company,

Recently I was reading through your archives and I found a great discussion on how to deal with a parent’s significant other who co-ops all conversations into another round of ‘Who’s right-er?’ with the answer always being “me.” (of course I cannot find that question now to give you context)

You gave some great advice about how to disengage from the conversation, how to change the subject, and how to set boundaries with that person, and I’m wondering if you have any advice on how to take this a step further, with a group discussion where you are not being addressed personally, in which you are one of say, six or so, who does not agree with one person.

Because this all feels very vague and theoretical, let me give you an example:

I am a very liberal person in all aspects of life: political, social, and religious. I am part of an extended family who cares very deeply about these things in a much more conservative way. Most of my family is super cool and can accept that I disagree (while still thinking I’m wrong) and I’ve had good discussions with them about these issues before.

My uncle, however, is mean and loud about it. He says awful, hateful things about our president and social issues and most of the rest of my family lets him talk until he’s done, even though I suspect (and in some cases, know, like with my mother) they do not agree with him or the way he expresses himself. No matter what the group is talking about, he’ll turn it into a discussion of politics, religion, or social issues. As I am writing this I realize that he’s a bit of a missing stair.

I am usually the youngest family member in these conversations, and also a lady person. Leaving the room would mean that I don’t get to spend time with the other family who is there, like my grandparents.

How do I co-opt a conversation from the man who has co-op’ed it in the first place? I’m not as loud as him, nor as pushy, nor as heard in the family, due to my age.

Signed,
There Will Be No Third Term

Dear There Will Be No Third Term,

Hi! Your sign-off made me literally LOL, so, good work there.

I think the old response you are looking for is this one. Or maybe this one.

You’re not the hostess of these gatherings, so you have less standing to say, loudly, “How interesting, Uncle. Cousin, how is your landscaping project going?” and redirect the conversation of the whole table like Ye Dowager Countess of Olde. But one thing you can do is tune him the fuck out on the micro level, by turning to the people sitting close to you and saying, quietly, “Cousin, however did you grow this pumpkin?” or “Grandma, I loved reading about the new church choir in that last letter you sent, how is that going?” and starting up a murmur of side conversations. Do it quietly, so you aren’t challenging your uncle directly , but also rebel by visibly tuning out and physically turning your body away from him while he talks and focusing your attention solely on the person you’re asking.

No lie: It will feel incredibly rude and weird the first time you do it, but no more rude than making the entire group listen to his rants. Think of it as throwing a conversational lifeline to your neighbor. If they pick it up, you two can have a little side conversation. Others may see this and gratefully flock to it. Suddenly the overall subject will be changed, and Uncle will flail, as he will not quite know what happened. If they don’t pick it up, try it again with someone else. You can start small and sort of work your way up to it.

Uncle may attempt to turn the conversation back to himself, and he may pick on you in the process, like “How rude, didn’t you hear that I was talking?” If he just talks louder, or whatever, without picking on you, keep doing what you’re doing without comment. If he makes it about you, this is where the advice to Have The Argument, Already kicks in.

  • “Sorry, Uncle, you seemed to show know sign of stopping, and I really wanted to catch up with Grandma since I’m here for such a short time.”
  • “Wow, Uncle, I wasn’t aware that we’d hired you to lecture us for this gathering. I thought this was a family dinner, and that everyone is allowed to talk.” 
  • “Uncle, I really didn’t feel like arguing with you about politics, so I asked other people at the table to talk quietly about other things.” 
  • “Uncle, I kept waiting for you to come to the end of your point, but then 30 minutes passed, and I wanted to talk to Grandpa while he’s still with us.”

This is one you could deploy in the moment, or one you can ask your parents & grandparents about ahead of time:

  • “I don’t know how everyone else feels about this, but maybe it’s time for a No Politics At The Dinner Table rule. I know I get really fatigued by discussions like that, especially when I get so little time to see you all.” 

Others may be willing to adapt a “no, really, this rule is for everyone!” stance rather than take on your uncle directly. You may get some friction from your family around this, like, you’re the one making it weird. Stay strong and keep trying, little by little! There is *someone* else in that room who is grateful to you and who will pick up your conversational lifelines and throw you lifelines in return.

Finally, when you’re not all at the dinner table together, consider pulling favorite relatives aside and hanging out with them in twos and threes and volunteering for tasks away from the main action. “Let’s go on a nice after-dinner walk.” “We need more milk from the store. Grandma, want to come with me to get some?” “Cousin, want to stay out here with me while I clean the grill?” That way you get some quality time in without anyone having to make a scene.

Readers, what strategies do you have for rescuing a gathering from That Guy or That Lady?

Hi Captain!

I’m going to be going on a vacation with my family soon. We are visiting multiple countries in Europe. I have planned every detail of the entire vacation because I plan all the complicated travel that our family does. No one else knows how to internet and I’ve been on a lot of trips by myself and have a lot of experience with them.

The problem is my mom. My mom does not really like to go out, let alone go on expensive trips, but she’s going anyways because of the family culture and I already know she’s going to complain about everything. (She’s done it before, on other trips I planned.) I feel bad for her- we suggested to her that she stay home several times, but she refused- but I also feel very attacked and unhappy when she starts to criticize the things that I spent so much time researching so that everyone would enjoy them. When we went to Vegas she pitched a fit because she wanted to see ‘a show’ but didn’t want to go to any of the shows we offered to take her to. She does this- picks something, decides that she wants it, bullies everyone into going with her or sulks when people don’t want the same thing, or sees how expensive it is and decides she doesn’t want it after all. I tend to plan things very carefully, so it’s really annoying when she just decides to go off on some improbable side path. Now that we’re going to Europe, I don’t trust her not to decide that she wants to go to some random city in Italy and then sulk when it turns out that we can’t do that because we already booked our hotels.

I’ve already tried asking her in advance if there was anything she wanted, and her initial suggestions were impossible (I want to go from Paris to Madrid by train- and I want it to take three hours!) When I explained why that wasn’t really doable, she sulked and now refuses to give me any input at all. I put a lot of effort into planning these trips and I really want people to enjoy them. Do you have any advice on getting her to complain less or for helping me feel less anxious and attacked when she does complain? I know on a surface level that these complaints aren’t always directed at me, but I still feel very unhappy when I hear them.

Best,

Harried Planner

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Dear Captain Awkward,

One year ago my father passed away. It was a several year battle against cancer that he eventually lost, and I still miss him deeply.

My mother has struggled in the aftermath. She has been overwhelmed with loneliness and sank into a depression. She loved my father deeply and he was her rock, both emotionally and in a more practical sense (bills, caretaking, house upkeep).

Lately she has struggled more deeply because a chronic pain issue flared up. She has been to numerous doctor appointments, tried multiple medications and treatments, with no improvements. The medications make her groggy and confused, and she has been having trouble sleeping on top of everything. It seems like her life is a waking nightmare.

I love my mom very much, but I am struggling with how to help her. I am an only child, and we have few extended family members – none she feels she can rely on. She has friendships, but does not trust her friends easily/well and has withdrawn lately because she is too exhausted to reach out. She usually rejects the idea of outside/paid help and feels very vulnerable.

My relationship with her has always had some tension. She is a wonderful mom and a caring person, but our personalities have always clashed. She has always needed more from me than I felt capable of giving, but that need has grown immense and my ability to help her has, if anything, decreased. My own life has been challenging – a stressful new job, a wonderful-but-complicated marriage, and grieving for my father.

I try to visit as often as I feel can, have offered help in various forms, but visits are filled with her lamenting that she doesn’t have anyone to help, and my offers of help are turned down more often than not because they aren’t the right ‘kind’ of help (she has rigid parameters and a deep need for control). Her control issues are also triggering for me, because control issues are something that I struggle with as well.

I have always found visits with my mom draining, and even more so now in this acute time. Every interaction with my mother has the ability to send me into my own tailspin, but setting boundaries makes me feel incredibly guilty in the face of her deep need – and the fact that she is a good person and mother.

How can I navigate this tricky balance? How can I help my mom without losing myself in her bottomless pit of need? How can I maintain my own mental health without feeling like the worst daughter ever?

Sincerely,
A

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m in my late 20s and have achieved a considerable amount of success in my creative field. I earn a sizable living and have a good reputation in my field both nationally and internationally.  My father and I do not have a very good relationship (short backstory: he is a professor who left my mom for his T.A. when I was young, attempted to gain custody of my brother and not my sister or I, refused to acknowledge my sister’s depression was real despite her suicide attempt, other bad parent things).  At this point in my life, I prefer to keep things cordial but distant- get lunch one day if we are in the same city, phone calls on holidays.

The problem is that he undermines my achievements at any opportunity that presents itself. When I graduated from art school he flew to New York and showed up at my thesis exhibition unannounced, making my mother (who had been planning and saving to be able to fly up for the day) hugely uncomfortable and making comments like “So is this all you had to do to graduate?  I would have thought you’d at least have had to write a paper or something” and “I mean I’m just glad you’re graduating, it took you long enough.”

Now I am having my first solo art exhibition in London in the fall, and I got a call out of the blue from my dad telling me to let him know the dates because he’d like to attend.  He even had the audacity to say “maybe we’ll just drop in on you like we did for your thesis show!” I know that if he comes it will ruin what should be a major milestone in my art career.  He will make passive-aggressive and rude comments to my coworkers and friends and undermine my accomplishments by speaking negatively about me (“Oh you’ve met her mother?  Now you see why she’s so fucked up”

I’m worried that if I ask him not to come he will show up just to spite me.
How can I keep him from attending without turning it into a major dramatic argument?

Sincerely,
Stop Asking Me if I Make A Good Living From My “Etsy Store or Whatever it is You Do”

Dear Stop Asking:

Bad news: You probably won’t be able to prevent him from attending, and it will turn into a major dramatic argument no matter what you do, because that’s how your dad rolls. Whatever will cause the most turmoil and get the most attention is what he will do. So I think you should risk the drama and the argument, but do it on your terms.

The exhibition will be up for a while, yes? It’s not a One Night Only thing? I suggest you pick a date or set of dates that starts after the opening festivities. That way you can have the opening events and enjoy your success without his shadow.

“Dear Dad,

Sometime between X date and Y date would be the best for me.”

Keep it really terse. If he asks specifically about opening parties and events, etc. just repeat yourself: “Between X and Y is the best window for me.”

Do not elaborate or give reasons. He doesn’t think he behaved badly at your thesis event, he thinks it was awesome that he came. He doesn’t think he said horrible and insulting things to you and about you, he thinks y’all were bonding. He has a selective memory, he’ll never be convinced otherwise, so don’t waste your energy. Ignore follow-ups. You’ve said what you needed to say.

You could also say, “I’d prefer it if you didn’t come, but if you insist, sometime between X & Y is best.” This response would rock the illusion of cordial relations you have now though I would argue that if you are filled with dread at seeing the dude, things ain’t that cordial. I think he would still come if you said that (because you are issuing a direct challenge to him), but it strips away the illusion that he is somehow doing this for you and returns some of the awkwardness to sender.

He might well look up the event online and crash the opening to spite you (and torment your mom). Against this contingency, you could recruit some of your most thick-skinned and gregarious friends to be your Dad-buffers. If your dad shows, you can give your dad a brief (& confused) hello, like “Oh hi, Dad, I didn’t realize you’d be here” before excusing yourself to the rest room for a good 10 minutes, while Dad-buffer Friend #1 swoops in to give your dad a personal tour of the gallery and keeps him far away from you for the rest of the evening. Buffer Friend #2 is there should you get cornered by your dad, to swoop in and call you away for something urgent, like, a buyer (fictional or real), i.e. “Letter Writer, so sorry to interrupt you and your Dad, but Sting is here and wants to ask you about your work.” Your script is “Sorry, can’t talk now!” as you walk away from him to somewhere else. If/when he releases the word-kraken of undermining nonsense and backhanded compliments, your friends will know that it doesn’t reflect on you, at all. He is only embarrassing himself.

Depending on what kind of venue it is, you could also deploy the guest list or “invitation only” qualities of the opening to your benefit. It would involve telling your agent or the venue manager (or other person in charge): “My dad and I are estranged, but he likes to crash my openings and make a big weird scene. Can we make sure he does not acquire tickets or guest list privileges?” Savvy people who are invested in your career (literally, they are literally invested in you) will realize that a shaky, seething, distracted You is a You Who Sells Less Art and do what they can to buffer you. There will be drama if your dad is escorted out by security, but security people are totally capable of saying “Sorry sir, it’s invitation only, and you’re not on the list. The show runs through (date), please come back another time.” They don’t have the same emotional engagement as you do, and they give zero fucks that he’s your dad.

If he doesn’t crash the opening, and shows up later, you can decide whether you want to meet up with him at all. You could reward him for at least respecting the time window boundary with a brief lunch and collect a few more inappropriate Dad sayings, or you could be all “Sorry, didn’t realize you were actually coming (since you insist on surprising me at these things). I’m actually in France for the weekend. Enjoy the show!

Congratulations on your show, I hope it is a great success and that it is relatively asshole-free.

Moderation note: Readers, if you have kind, normal parents, flying across the ocean to see your child’s art show would be a tremendous show of support and love. If you don’t relate to a scenario where this all fills you with dread, that’s okay – it means you’re lucky, and it also means that this question and response isn’t really about you. Please no “but he’s faaaaaaaamily” hijacks.

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