Tag Archives: parents

Dear Captain Awkward,

My parents and I have a very strained relationship. There is obviously a lot involved, but since I left home 12 years ago I’ve slowly been setting boundaries with them and trying to have the kind of relationship we can manage (which is a superficial though mostly friendly one as long as I’m not in the same state as them). While a lot of the things my parents do bother me, I’ve been coping with them. However, I have a pet peeve that I just can’t get over, and I need help!

My dad insists on talking to me in baby-talk and in the third person. I am 30 years old, a successful attorney, married, and 100% an adult. He tells me all that time that I’ll “always be a widdle girl to Daddy” and other similar nonsense, and I want to reach through the phone and show him what’s what. I have far exceeded what he thought I would become in life (no thanks to him) and I feel like he’s infantalizing me to ‘keep me in my place.’ I hate it.

But how do I make it stop? This has been going on my whole adult life, and I feel like I’m in deep to just say “actually that bothers me a lot, please stop.” Ultimately I know this is indicative of his whole attitude toward me, which will never really change, but if I could just carry on a conversation were he says “I changed the oil today” instead of “Daddy changed the oil” (in a cutesy voice) I would take it.

Not Widdle and Not Buying It

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Hi, Captain,

My mom and I have had a fraught relationship for most of my life. Her parenting was often verbally and emotionally abusive, she spent much of my adolescence self-medicating with alcohol, and she’s both extremely volatile and prone to interpreting criticism as an indictment of her entire being (so, for instance, “Mom, I feel like you don’t really listen to me” is met with “Well, I’m SORRY that you have the WORST MOTHER in the WORLD!” and similarly manipulative, derailing crap).

Because she’s very conscious of how others see her, she’s a pro at turning on the Cool Fun Mom routine, which she used to win over most of my childhood friends. Any time I was critical of her parenting or expressed frustration about not having my needs met, she would invalidate me by pointing out that my friends thought she was awesome, and therefore the problem must be me. It made me feel terribly alone and doubtful of my own perceptions, which of course was the point.

Our relationship is marginally better now that I’m an adult and we live in separate states, but lately she keeps trying to pressure me into a closer relationship that I’m frankly not interested in. After years of reaching out to her and being rebuffed, her newfound zeal to be my pal feels like too little too late, and very one-sided. Like, “I know I was checked out for most of your childhood, but please get over it because being your mother is finally convenient for me.” I also can’t help but notice that the way she talks about being closer always necessitates me changing to accommodate her, but never includes any explanation of how she plans to meet me halfway by, say, addressing her anger issues and constant need to criticize with the help of a therapist.

As far as I can discern, her vision of our new and improved relationship basically amounts to me giving up my boundaries for her comfort. Example: I asked her to stop prying into my dating life because a.) it’s annoying and b.) it’s not a subject I feel comfortable discussing with her, and I assured her that if there was anything she needed to know I would clue her in. She responded by telling me how hurt she was that I wouldn’t be more open with her and then asking if I was secretly gay.

Occasionally she’ll get tearful and ask why I won’t give her more of a chance. This is a trap, because then if I try to explain (“Well, Mom, you’re relentlessly judgmental and kinda mean, you refuse to admit fault for anything, and you won’t respect my boundaries, all of which makes you not a lot of fun to be around”) the inevitable outcome is a heated, defensive lecture about why my feelings are wrong and her toxic behavior is totally defensible.

This does not make me want to be closer to her.

Captain, I would like to have an amicable, well-boundaried relationship with my mom. I would like for Christmas Eve to never again involve “IT’S OBVIOUS THAT YOU HATE ME!” being shrieked in my face. I would like to be able to work through disagreements with her peaceably instead of getting baited into a shouting match over who’s right and who’s wrong. But I don’t get the sense that my mother is prepared to do her share of the emotional heavy lifting that building a better relationship would require.

What do?

Difficult Mom Is Difficult

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Dear Captain Awkward,

A couple of weeks ago, I tried one of your scripts on my parents to ask them to stay in a hotel when they visit.

My wife and I have a two-month old baby. Any house guests are disruptive, especially with a newborn in the house. But my parents are the most disruptive. They don’t visit so much as descend. They arrive when they want, regardless of what I’ve asked – usually obscenely early in the morning. They bring all their own food and cook every meal, which always includes things my wife and I don’t eat and often includes things my wife is allergic to. My mother insists on sleeping on the couch instead of in the guest bedroom, even though the couch is in the main living area and she goes to sleep hours before anyone else. They wake up before dawn and proceed to bang around the house until we get up. They find “projects” to do when they come, like cleaning out the gutters or washing the siding and expect us to be available to help, regardless of whether or not we even want or need these things done. Basically, they don’t listen because they think they are always right. “Please put the baby down so she can sleep.” “She can sleep on me!” (She couldn’t.) “Please don’t give her a pacifier – fussing like that means she’s hungry.” “Maybe she just needs to cry to exercise her lungs.” (…..No.) It’s big things and small things. “Please don’t give the dog toast.” “We’ll just wait until you’re not looking.”

Learning to parent my daughter has finally allowed me to overcome my fear of setting boundaries with my narcissistic mother, who strongly resembles Alice. I want to put my daughter’s needs first in a way that I have struggled to do for myself before now. When my parents announced their plans to visit again – they never ask – I jumped in. Armed with my script, I announced my boundary. I let them know they could come down to visit just for the day, or they could stay at a hotel if they wanted to visit for the weekend.

It didn’t go well. I expected there to be push-back, but I thought their desire to visit their granddaughter would overwhelm their objections. What actually happened is confusing: they seem to be acting as though the boundary is completely unacceptable.

First, they agreed to come just for the day. Then they canceled at the last minute. Then my mother started the silent treatment. My father was the one to deliver the news that they were “uncomfortable” with staying at a hotel and felt it was a rejection of them. They couldn’t understand how they could be so disruptive, and that’s kind of the issue.

I had more phone calls from my father where he reminded me my mother just has so many emotions. My mother sent a package of clothes (all seasonally inappropriate and/or too large for my daughter to wear) with an emotionally manipulative note addressed to the baby about how much she loved spending time with her. Finally, my father told me my mother was heartbroken, and that it was time I fixed things, or it was implied that things would continue on this way indefinitely, with my mother never finding it in herself to speak to me again.

My mother tells herself stories about how she is wronged and how people are against her, and I know all of them well because it was my job as a kid to support her, agree with her, and above all, make sure she was never upset. I watched my mother alienate person after person, family member after family member for slights against her. And now it’s my turn, because I’ve done the one thing you’re never supposed to do: I upset Mom. My father is buying into her narrative. He says he can see both sides of the story, but he’s willing to “overlook” the hurt I’ve caused and temporarily honor my request until I decide to change my mind down the road. He claims to be the peacemaker, but his solution is what it has always been: for me not to express my needs in the first place.

Are boundaries really this dangerous and scary? Do parents really stop talking to their daughters over seemingly reasonable requests? Do I continue to stand firm even though I will be cast as the worst daughter in history ever? Can I maintain a sane relationship with my father while he continues to believe my mother is acting reasonably? Is he actually just as unreasonable as my mother?

I’m writing because I want to know what to do now. I would like for my daughter to have a relationship with her grandparents, but I need to protect her from the emotional manipulation I’ve experienced, and right now those two things seem mutually exclusive. My parents are so far off script, I don’t even know how to talk to them. And I want to know how to tell when it’s time to stop talking to them at all.
-New Mother, Worst Daughter

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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?

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.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a slightly complicated situation that I don’t know how to talk (or better yet, avoid talking) about with my parents.

Recently, I’ve met a guy and had a couple dates with him. We hit it off and would like to continue seeing each other. Fortunately, he has his own place; unfortunately, I still live with my parents (yay poorly paying retail jobs), and my mother in particular feels like she needs to know everything going on in my life. It’s impossible for me to just say that I’ll be home late from work, or going out in the evening on my day off without her wanting to know exactly why and where I’m going. I’d be willing to tell her that I’m going on a date, except:

I have a wonderful boyfriend of several years that the parents have met and like. Sadly we live in different countries and only manage to see each other about once or twice a year. This is not a cheating letter! We have an open d/s relationship in which we both are switches, and we’ve both encouraged each other to find other people to play with, although neither of us has taken advantage of it until now. My boyfriend has known about this play partner since I met him, is aware of the play dates, and finds it sweet and very hot.

So if I tell my mom that I’m going on a date, she’ll be wanting to know if I’ve broken up with boyfriend, or think I’m cheating on him, and I don’t really feel comfortable trying to explain an open relationship or that it’s strictly a kink thing to her. (Even more complicated to explain since it’s not sex, either.) >.< Using generic excuses or saying I have work only works for certain times of day, and will no doubt be discovered at some point by calling work when I’m not there. I can’t even say that I’m going out with friends because … well I don’t have any local ones. I don’t really want to get too tangled up in maintaining a lie – this isn’t something I’m ashamed of or feel a strong need to hide, but I really don’t feel comfortable trying to explain it to my MOM.

I guess basically I need some help putting together scripts to either try and explain this or politely tell her it’s none of her beeswax without provoking a tantrum. She has no real sense of privacy, and when I’ve asked her to not do things I find invasive before (like ignoring my closed bedroom door/refusing to knock, or going through my trash) she’s acted offended that it bothers me and then hurt because ‘I never tell her anything’, so I don’t really see a way to set up strong boundaries that isn’t going to result in disaster and endless fights, which I’d love to avoid.


I know people want to be open and honest in all of their relationships, but you get to hold certain things close to the vest if you want to, especially with nosy/judgy parents who go through your trash and can’t knock before entering your room.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

So, I’m having trouble with my mom and I’m not sure if it’s a me-problem or a her-problem or a “no one did anything wrong but it’s just uncomfortable” problem.

When I started college (and became an adult-ish) my mom has opened up to me about a lot of things that she didn’t want to talk to me about when I was younger. In general, this is fine. However, it’s changed the way we talk about my dad and it’s starting to make me very uncomfortable.

My parents are happily married but they’re in a tough situation–they have five kids (I’m the oldest) and my dad works about 5 hours away from where we live. He commutes Monday and comes back Friday, which leaves my mom shouldering a lot of the day to day burden of running the family. I totally understand that my dad isn’t perfect and that she might want to vent about him sometimes. However, I’m really uncomfortable with her venting about it to me. I can’t commiserate, as I’m not around to experience things the way she does, and I really don’t like hearing negative things about my dad.

Some of the stuff she says is true (he can’t do as much with a lot of problems because he’s just not accessible) but I feel really defensive whenever the conversation turns that way.

Basically, is there a script or something that can help me deal with this? Should I deal with this?

Growing Up is Hard

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poster for sliding doors

Spoiler: Whether or not she caught the train, her shit would have worked out pretty okay in the long run.

Comments on this thread are closed as of 8/17. Thank you. 


Hi Captain Awkward,

My mother and my boyfriend HATE each other. I know you’ve heard this all before, and until now I’ve learned to just deal with it. Until now.

My mother is my supporter, I am currently a 19 year old undergraduate, about half way done my B.A. My mother has supported me my whole life, she always babied me. I didn’t have to work, pay any bills, as long as I was in school and getting good grades all was okay. Then this summer my long distance boyfriend from France, who I’ve been dating for 1 year and a half decided to come visit for a few months in our house. This is where they started hating each other. This won’t change no matter what, she even kicked him out of our house just last week, because they argue about stupid pointless things. Even though it has only been a year and a half, I love my boyfriend more than anything in the world. I know I want my future to be with him, and its important to me that I start my future with him.

My mother began agreeing that she would support me as long as I am in school, but recently she’s changed her mind. Now, either I go live with my boyfriend in France for 1 year (firstly, I don’t speak french so University and working is not possible), and then support myself in University in my homecountry Canada, or I am unable to live with my boyfriend for another 3 years or so. My mother has made it clear that whether were in the same city or not, if she’s supporting me, I am not allowed to live with him, and even if I attend school and live with him, her support for everything is gone. I need your help, because my mom is not someone you can sit with and have a reasonable calm conversation. She is illogical, and for her, as long as she’s paying, she doesn’t care what I have to say unless I’m doing exactly what she says.

Here’s my issue. Do I stay in school and stay in long distance/ not live with my boyfriend and basically say whatever to my relationship? I don’t want to do this because he makes me so happy, and I want to be able to live with him, we’ve been trying for this for a year to transfer schools to be together. Or do I go to Paris and then go back to school in Canada and depend significantly on him, and loans from the government? Should I leave school all together, and work until I am stable and can pay for myself? This option is also hard for me, I don’t know if I could do it. I’ve never supported myself and I know absolutely nothing about it, how would I make ends meet with no savings, no money at all?

Cautious Canadian

So, basically, “solve my entire life, my two most important relationships, and my economic future in a blog post, please?”

I cannot promise to do any of that, but maybe I can help you form a basis for making a good decision.

I don’t know your mom or your boyfriend or what these arguments were about or who was starting them. It is possible that your mom is being unreasonably controlling and trying to sabotage your relationship with a really good man, and that this is a story about how you fight for your autonomy & your right to choose who you love. It is also possible that your mom has a little bit of age, experience, & distance from the situation and sees something about him that you do not. Maybe your boyfriend is an argumentative tool who picks a lot of fights. Maybe she thinks he doesn’t treat you well or that you will be unhappy. Maybe this is a story about a concerned parent wanting you to complete your education and figure out who you are and what you want outside of the context of some guy, even if he is a good guy.  Maybe this is “I love you, but I do not think you are ready.”

Using purse strings to control & compel the personal life of an adult someone who is not you is:

a) Doomed. Even if the controlled person outwardly conforms to the rules you lay down, your relationship with them is destroyed forever and they will never trust you again. This is what your mom is risking by making this ultimatum.

b) A point in favor of narrative #1.

I can relate. When I was 19-20, I was involved with a guy I’d been with about a year. My second year of college we were long-distance, with me in DC and him in New York. My mom did not really like him and definitely did not want me taking the bus up to New York to see him. It was fine if he visited, but she did not want me to be running around New York when I was supposed to be studying (quite expensively & at considerable financial sacrifice to her) in D.C. I visited him anyway, she found out, and she threatened to pull financial support. Into this story-stew, shake a giant shaker of slut-shaming, teen pregnancy fears, and Catholic guilt & judgment and stir it up reaaaaaaaaaal good.

Guess what.

1) I think she was wrong to use money & education as a bargaining tool to control my sexuality & romantic life and it damaged our relationship severely.

2) That guy was an awful boyfriend and she was completely right in her assessment of his character & whether he was worth my time.

I don’t think my mom reads this blog, but just in case:






Letter Writer, you are not me, your mom is not my mom, your dude is not that dude, but that’s been on my chest for a while and if we solve nothing else in this post, I appreciate the opportunity to say Happy Mother’s Day, 1993-present. To counterbalance, a family member met her current husband when she had just started college and “her whole life was ahead of her” and a lot of voices were telling her not to settle down just yet. She took the lumps & the judgment, did what she thought was right, and in return got the love of her life.


My mom’s mistake was to try to control when she could not persuade. And that is one of your mom’s mistakes here, too. (There are others. We’ll get to them). And this relationship & these questions are things that you might want to sort out, at length, with a mentor or counselor.

However badly designed, your mom has put some choices in front of you and issued you a test. That test is called, “Okay, How Badly Do You Want This Dude?”

It is but one essay question on a larger test that you were always going to have to take eventually. The bigger test is called “What Do You Want Of This One Life That You Get?”

With the caveat that I think your mom is wrong to try to control you in this way, I want to try to look at this test as a thing made up of things that you would have to figure out for yourself anyway.

  • Where do I want to live?
  • What do I want to do?
  • Is this guy a person I can make a happy life with?
  • How will I support myself?

Here is your terrifying/comforting thought for the day:

Even if we could answer all these questions “correctly” right now, today–

Even if we could make a pretty good guess at an optimum path that will make you the most happy in the long run–

The only way to really know is to choose something and see how it works out.

Terrifying: Mistakes carry real costs. Opportunity costs, sunk costs, relationships strained to a breaking point, and time that you will never get back. You got exactly what you wanted and then found out you wanted the wrong things.

Terrifying: Things are always in flux and many things are out of your hands. You can prepare very hard and make yourself a good candidate for a certain career….and still not get a job. You can swim in a lake and a bacteria amoeba can swim up your nose and eat your brain from within. People get sick, die, leave you. Tornadoes. People who drive while texting. Men in expensive suits behind expensive doors making expensive decisions. A butterfly flaps its wings on the other side of the world and the envelope with your resume in it accidentally falls behind the file cabinet.

Comforting: These questions are asked and answered over and over again in the course of your life. The “right” answers will change because you will have changed.
Plenty of people have chosen the wrong partner, the wrong college major, the wrong place to live, the wrong roommates, the wrong paint color, the wrong career, the wrong pants for those shoes, etc. and lived to tell the tale and do better.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.  ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia was eating from a pretty privileged fig tree. Certainly not everyone has the same crisis of “All the choices are awesome, how do I pick just one?” But your choices are not horrible, either. Keep going to school with full financial support of your mom and no need to take out student loans, on the condition that you do not share an address with this guy vs. Take a year off from school, live in Paris, make sure that this guy is really who you want to be with, at the cost of supporting yourself much sooner than you planned.

Here is a helpful process for me when making a big decision, developed from one part therapy, one part storytelling, and, weirdly, about four parts management consulting.

1. If I choose this, and everything goes really well and works out exactly how I want it to, what does that look like? What is the fantasy/best case scenario/perfect world version of this? Does that seem like a good goal to have in the first place?

2. If I choose this, and everything does not go well, what does the worst case scenario look like? What do I stand to lose? How likely is it to happen?

3. If the worst case scenario happened, what would I do?  DO NOT SKIP STEP #3. STEP #3 IS WHERE POWER, RESILIENCE, CONFIDENCE LIVES.

4. What are the questions I still need to ask myself? What research do I need to do? Is there some way I can expand my information base to anticipate potential problems and set myself up better to succeed? Are the logistical issues (money, space, time, etc.) surmountable?

5. What is the real obstacle here – The risk, the cost, the thing I am not seeing? Where is my blind spot?

6. What would Old-Me tell me to do? On my deathbed, what will I regret NOT having done? This is the call to adventure

If we were to take your dilemma briefly through that process, here’s what it might look like. These are not meant to be comprehensive or even likely. This is just storytelling. What *could* happen?

Team France

The Dream: You move to France with your boyfriend. You find some kind of au pair or tutoring gig, your housing & visa situation works out, you spend the time that you would have spent on your schoolwork studying French and becoming fluent in it. Taking some time off from school gives you some more clarity and focus about what you do want to study if & when you go back. Gaining independence and distance from your mom helps you gain breathing space and confidence in your own abilities. You figure out how to apply for grants and loans and some way of supporting yourself and/or continuing your studies, leading to [vague future happiness]. You and your boyfriend are incredibly happy together, and you feel confident that this is the person for you. Or, maybe things don’t work out between you, but you are confident that you tried and know more about what you want from life & love.

The Nightmare: You burn your bridges with your mom, and then…..You hate France. You hate this guy. You hate croissants. You need to break up with him and come home and admit that you made a mistake, but your mom enacts your worst “I told you so” nightmare. Now you have no dude and no promise of college and no mom’s house to go to. So you stick it out in a bad relationship. Or you leave him and find yourself stranded. In France. Student loans and debt force you to stay in bad situations, bad jobs and curtail your freedom.

I’m not going to go through all of the questions – that’s between you and your journal and actual discussions with your boyfriend and your mom – but I do want to say two things:

-Being 19, not quite sure what you want to do with your life, and having no parental support or safety net describes A LOT of people’s circumstances. Couch surfing, roommates, a string of part-time jobs, thrift stores, furniture you find in alleys, rice & beans, work-study jobs, student loans, military service, scholarships, night school etc. – If you had to do it, you could do it.

-The “what am I going to do with my life?” question is not going away whatever you decide.

Team Debt-Free Degree

The Dream: You finish your degree. You figure out what you want to do when you grow up, or at least what you want to do next, or, at least a thing you can do for money while you figure the rest of it out. Because you have parental support and no student loans, you are able to take on many internships, volunteer opportunities, and interesting projects that you might not otherwise have had. You are also able to throw yourself into student activities and non-study related passions and friendships. You keep seeing your boyfriend- long distance when you can, visiting when you can. Maybe he manages to transfer to your school. Eventually, you find a way to be in the same place at the same time and start your lives together, and you feel confident about the health of something that can survive so much time and distance. Or, you break up, which is sad, but you meet someone else at the student newspaper or at your theater group and that person is also great. You leave college debt-free, having gotten the most you can out of your education and having tried out many interests.

The Bad Dream: You feel constantly torn between your boyfriend and your college life. You spend all your time Skyping and writing emails and fantasizing about the future at the expense of the now. You miss out on friendships, opportunities, and experiences because you are tied to the future and the distant. You wonder constantly if you are doing the right thing and should have made a different choice. Your relationship with your mom is full of controlling behavior and resentment. The conflict with your mom and distance from your boyfriend drag you down and affect your mental health, and you spend three years of your life feeling resentful, depressed, and torn.

Again, not going through all the questions here, but DO NOT SKIP STEP #3. Step #3 is where you have power & agency, always, no matter what happens. There is no shortcut for Step #3, and no one can do it for you – even if we listed 10-,000 helpful & exciting suggestions, Step #3 is not complete until YOU can articulate what YOU would do if things went wrong.

I am going to cheat and tell you about Step 5 (What is the real question or obstacle here?), as I see it reflected in your letter.

I do not think that you feel particularly invested in or confident in your studies and in your ability to take care of yourself away from your mom’s influence and protection. You cannot quite envision the future where you know how to take care of yourself. “I’ve never supported myself and I know absolutely nothing about it, how would I make ends meet with no savings, no money at all?”

Whether or not you stay or go, I think that is the question you must work on. You don’t have to solve it immediately – there is no shame in not being ready to leave the nest and in needing some time and help to figure this out, and college is a good time and place to do that. You are right exactly where you should be, so don’t use that as a stick to beat yourself up with.

I said earlier that being controlling isn’t the only mistake your mom potentially made here, and that we’d circle back. So here’s my (rhetorical!) question: How the hell did your mom raise a 19-year old with no confidence in her own abilities to take care of herself and no idea how jobs and money actually work?

Because one way I used to win arguments with my mom when she was judgmental or worried-in-a-way-that-basically-adds-up-to-judmental about my choices is, “Well, you either raised me to be able to handle this or you didn’t. I guess we’ll find out.” (She did).

It’s awesome to take care of your kids and provide for them and give them a safety net, but controlling parents can foster dependency pretty hard. If that’s what is going on here, it’s another argument for sorting this out with a counselor. However the problem originated, “but that’s how I was raised by my controlling mother” does not age well as a thing you say out loud to people who are not your therapist.

I’m not under the illusion that capitalism = freedom, or that having good skills and education automatically leads to a paying job, or that the ability to get and hold a job is a statement on a person’s value. We know too much to believe in that anymore, and you’re not stupid or naive to be anxious about this aspect of planning the future. But the ability to earn a living (or at least envision a future where you know how!) is a kind of freedom. It’s the freedom to say “Mom, I am sorry you feel that way, but this is the right choice for me.” It’s freedom from finding yourself in a foreign country dependent on some dude you even aren’t sure you like anymore.

Whatever you decide about France vs. school this year, work on building autonomy and confidence. Get a part-time job – ANY job – and earn a little money with your own sweat. Learn some concrete, practical skills that someone might pay you for at some point down the road. Those skills don’t have to be tied to any college major or degree. Fully half of my professional skill-set comes from managing and being a part of performing arts groups. Seek out counseling & advising through your school, if available.

Finally, if I do all the work of putting my choices through a detailed analysis, and I still don’t feel like I can decide, I add a 7th step. When that fails, I go to an 8th step. I know, they conflict directly with each other. Life is complicated.

7. In the absence of a clear right choice or best choice, which choice preserves the most options for me down the road?

8. I’d generally rather regret a mistake than stay stuck and afraid forever.

I wish you well, Letter Writer. This is an exciting journey that you are on, and these are big, hard questions that you are tackling in a brave and honest way.


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