Season’s felicitations, Awkward Army! Elodie Under Glass here with two letters about accommodating your loved ones during stressful celebrations. Goodness, could this be a TIMELY POST? Here’s Letter #1.
I have a weird situation going with my dad. There’s a lot of history here so I’ll try to be brief.
When I left for university, mom took that as her chance to quit the soul sucking job she hated and move her and dad to the other side of the country for a job she loved. Five years later, a couple months after I graduated, she went to sleep and never woke up. It’s been three years since then.
I’ve spent every holiday and Christmas with my dad since, including one where he joined us at my in-laws place, because I don’t want him to be alone. But he’s got it in his head that I should be adjusting my life to accommodate for him more. The first time he bitched the entire time about our apartment not having a guest room or an elevator to the top floor where we lived. He’s got MS and walking is hard, stairs are worse, and a lumpy couch is a crappy bed even if you’re healthy, so I sympathized. But he complained every other time too even though I warned him that nothing changed.
We recently bought our first house, and he came to see it. Because we’re kind of poor, it’s a real fixer – upper with three floors and no railings. I warned him and he said it was fine… but then complained constantly about how we keep getting these places with all these stairs. I spent the whole visit basically carrying him up and down between floors.
I work in construction so I’m not allowed to take time off. The two weeks I get over Christmas are the only rest I get for the year. This year, I really want to spend it just me, husband and cat. But when I suggested I wanted a quiet Christmas he just assumed he was part of that. How do I tell him I don’t want him here all the time, that it’s not quiet and restful for me when he’s here, without hurting him? I already feel super guilty for thinking of him as a burden.
A Terrible Daughter
Dear Terrible Daughter,
I want to say that I know how hard it is to open your home and your heart to parents who seem to take pleasure in criticizing your adulthood.
I know what it’s like when you clean up to the best of your energy, groom yourself to the point of snapping a proud selfie, and cook with the finest things you can afford… and instead of appreciating these gestures of love and respect, your parents comment that you’ve ruined your hair, that they don’t like your weight, and they don’t see why you live in this dump. I know that this stings like a slapped face, and that for days afterward you’ll be probing this hurt, feeling around its edges like a bruise, unable to let it go. “This little world you’ve built for yourself is total crap!” is never going to be something you’re grateful to hear.
So I know that when you strive and struggle and spend energy to be with your father at Christmas, when you’re at the end of your money and energy and your ability to take blows, and he shows up like “Your house. I don’t like it” …
… Well, it’s not exactly easy to go “Wow, thanks for that totally constructive criticism, Daddy, gosh, I will absolutely take all of YOUR feelings on board when I just casually BUY MY NEXT HOUSE.”
I know. I get it.
I get how hard it is to move past “being fucking pissed off” into the sphere of “calm, generous and forgiving daughter.” And I know, that with our societal narratives of daughters being pressured to be all-forgiving and all-loving and never-outraged, that this anger is something that insulates and protects your boundaries. I am not angry with your anger.
So we need to talk about how you are being kind of a jerk about your father’s disability. He isn’t being disabled at you. When he complains about your house having stairs, he isn’t complaining because you’re The Worst Daughter Who Bought A Bad House and Should Feel Bad, he’s complaining because your stairs hurt him and cause him pain.
There’s a thread of ableist thinking in your letter that will improve your life to examine. There’s this idea that disability is a burden, that accommodating disabilities is “extra work,” and that disabled people are being deliberately annoying by existing in the same spaces as you. It’s a very common form of ableism in our society, and it’s insidious. When you read LW #2’s letter, I hope that it’ll be a kind of lightbulb moment for you, but for now, addressing your ableist thinking is something I’d like you to take on as homework.
If this is a completely new set of thought for you, please start with a nice 101-level thought exercise about how our concept of “disability” is societally defined. A “disabled” person isn’t an inherent scientific definition; they’re someone who isn’t “able” to conveniently use the world we’ve constructed. But we, people, have deliberately constructed a world that excludes people. And we’ve done it rather thoughtlessly.
Think about how nice accessibility ramps are for anything with wheels – whether you’re trying to move wheelchairs or walkers, or baby strollers, or mop buckets, wheeled luggage, bicycles, paramedics with stretchers, hand trucks, wheely shopping baskets, heavy pieces of equipment or whatever. Nice rampy slopes are a preferable alternative to stairs for huge swathes of society doing diverse amounts of things – and we’re not even talking people with canes, injured people, toddlers, even Elodies who are afraid of heights…!
Yet society acts like accessibility ramps are this massive obstruction to the “normal” flow of life, granted to those ungrateful disabled people by the Politically Correct Police, at the expense of the happiness of Normal People. So that’s something we need to learn here, Terrible Daughter. Ableist culture can take something as universally pleasant and useful as an accessibility ramp, and get angry about it because it reminds us that some people don’t use stairs. Meanwhile we’re apparently forgetting that we invented both ramps and stairs for our own convenience, and there is no natural evolutionary reason why we should be so obsessed with the Righteous and Proper Use of Stairs. See also: disabled parking spaces. See also: most forms of accessibility and accommodation that remind able-bodied people not to make assumptions.
Basically, I want you to realign whatever justifications you’re using for giving a lumpy sofa bed to an older person with chronic pain, and understand that accommodating disabled people is not a cause for glorious martyrdom, but a simple part of living in this world.
If you want your dad to visit you, LW, you have to accommodate him, and you have to let go of this idea that accommodating him is an inconvenience. Just like you ought to feed your guests and let them use your toilet, you ought to make sure that your dad can move around your home. If you want your dad to sleep in your house, you will have to provide him with a comfortable bed on the ground floor, even if that means moving your furniture around and sleeping on the couch yourself. If you see “Dad visits” as an important part of your future life, you will have to make sure that he can access the bathroom. If you want your father in your life, you will have to help him up the stairs.
Otherwise: go visit your dad instead. Otherwise: put your dad in a bed and breakfast. Otherwise: build a comfortable yurt in the backyard. Otherwise: sell the house. Otherwise: don’t see your dad.
The problem here is not your father’s pain. Carrying your father up stairs is not a burden. It is the job of one who has both stairs, and a loved one who cannot use stairs.
When Dr Glass and I were buying the narrowboat that we now live on, we went into every potential boat with our hands held high over our heads, fingers brushing the ceilings. Many narrowboats have low ceilings, and as a charmingly travel-sized couple, we were aware that all boat ceilings would work for us – but that we would also like to have our awkwardly tall friends and family be able to visit our future home. We bought an expensive futon that would sleep a six-foot-plus person, because the other bunks are for Glass-sized folks, and some of the people we love are over six feet tall. We measured the narrow and awkward corners to see if our wider-hipped friends – and possibly future pregnant people – would be able to walk around our boat. We wondered, “what if a baby happened? How could we accommodate a baby on this boat?” and “If one of us broke a leg, could we still get through the engine room?” and “if one of us died, could the other single-hand it?”
This is what you ask yourself, when you’re making big decisions like marrying, purchasing homes, planning degrees, making babies, moving to different places, getting pets. “Will this choice be good for me now – and will it be able to accommodate the ways in which my life will change?” And your life will change, Daughter. Your dad will certainly die, just as it is certain that your job will end, that your cat will get sick, and your husband will age and one day become infirm. You bought your house, knowing all of these things, because you believed it was the best choice for your life.
Your dad is right: knowing that he has chronic pain and limited mobility, you consistently offer him really bad houseroom.
And LW … you really don’t seem happy about doing it. You’re making pro and con lists of having him in your house. You complain about helping him up the stairs. I kind of wonder how much of a loved one the man really is – and that’s okay.
So I want you to take apart your ableist thinking, sit with your pain, feel your feelings, run around the block with your Rageasaurus, admit to yourself that you really did choose a home that hurts your father and admit that you don’t seem to like his company very much.
I want you to sift through those feelings and whatever they bring up – even if they make you feel terrible – and see what you come up with.
It’s very possible that you will come up with the option where your dad just doesn’t visit you any more.
See, I’m approaching this letter with good faith, and I’m not seeing a lot of warmth and affection for your dad here – just your weariness. It could be that you wrote this on a really down day, but it sounds like you feel like your dad isn’t worth the effort of accommodating him. And you know what? He could be a massive jerk. His critical comments could come from him being a tired man in pain who gets things wrong when he’s hurting, or they could come from a nasty man with a long history of emotionally abusing you. I genuinely do not know. That’s your “lot of history,” that’s something that only you know.
Disabled people are allowed to be jerks too, because disabled people are complete people, not a monolith. And you’re allowed to draw boundaries about jerkish behavior. It’s very possible that your dad is a difficult person to be around – someone you genuinely don’t like, someone whom you find draining and upsetting, someone who disrespects you and exhausts you.
After you sit with your feelings, you might go “Actually, looking at everything – yeah, I do sound exhausted. Maybe my job is terrible for me, and it’s drained me to the point where I can’t even love my loved ones. Maybe it’s time to make changes.”
Or maybe you’ll say: “Actually, I just don’t want Dad in my home. I’d rather do a flying visit at his place in January.”
And you know what? That will be fine.
You don’t have to love everybody.
But you do have to make room for the ones you love.
Dear Captain Awkward
I feel like my partners family is choosing to exclude us from family events because we are disabled. Unfortunately, I very much doubt they see it that way, believing that my partner and I are ‘choosing’ not to attend family funerals that are five mile ‘memorial walks’ with no wake, Christmases that require us to drive for twenty hours within three successive days and holidays centred around long beach walks.
Due to careful management of our health and what often feels like a constant juggling act not to ‘overdo it’ and make ourselves (more) ill, my partner and I have a relatively good quality of life, and to casual acquaintances probably don’t appear disabled. Nonetheless, we are both disabled and often housebound, and have to spend days or even weeks resting ahead of something we want to do, like having friends over or going away for the weekend.
My partner deals with my in-laws on my behalf most of the time, but he is exhausted by them and increasingly alienated by the way they so rarely consider his health needs before making plans. This has lead to his parents accusing him of being kept from his loving family by me, and when he stands up for himself, he is told that it is my words coming from his mouth.
Now, my brother-in-law is getting married, and every idea I have heard related to the wedding sounds like something my partner physically can’t do – from the paintballing bachelor party to a full two-hour long Catholic mass to a destination wedding in a castle. Weddings are a lot of effort at the best of times, and high-energy event with a family with such a long history of minimising or ignoring both of our disabilities, I just know it will negatively effect my health for weeks or even months. My husband feels the same, but feels like the inevitable Drama and Friction of our not attending will be unbearable.
Have you any scripts for letting the family know in advance that if they book something we can’t do, we won’t do it? It feels like such a pathetic thing to ask, but they have well-and truly steam-rollered all my attempts to set boundaries.
Excluded by necessity, avoiding you by choice
(See, society? This is what excluding your disabled loved ones looks like. It looks like people deciding to give up on you FOR THEIR OWN HEALTH. Is it so fucking hard to think about other people? Is it so hard to believe them about their lives? Because your choices are fucking deliberate, and you seem to think you shouldn’t suffer any consequences for them, and I am calling bullshit on that. ANYWAY.)
I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you this, and I regret that it has to be said, but you have literally married into a family of aliens. I’m really sorry, because this must be very difficult for you. BECAUSE LITERALLY NOTHING ABOUT THEIR ALIEN ACTIVITIES SOUNDS FUN.
And I can’t believe that you are the only person your in-laws are totally failing to accommodate, because the mental image I’ve received from their idea of Fun Family Celebrations is like that strange British tradition where people throw themselves down a cliffside in pursuit of a rolling cheese?
“And this Christmas got off to a great start when the cheese immediately brained a babe-in-arms – welcome to the family, kid! Aaaand we’re off! First to fall out is our weak-ass niece Pleura, who seems to be complaining about having just had a C-section. If you weren’t prepared to go hard on Christmas, then you shouldn’t have had major abdominal surgery, PLEURA. And there goes Aunty Moanie, who has stage three colon cancer but isn’t letting that stop her from enjoying healthy outdoor pursuits! Also doing well is Cousin Dave, whose prosthetic leg has flown off into the distance after the cheese, but good ol’ Dave is rolling down the hill anyway.
“Eighty-three-year-old Grandma Camela has always known how to participate in family adventures – look at her just fall down that hill in a tangle of brittle limbs! Oh, she says she’s fallen and she can’t get up. Well, that makes our inheritance problems a lot easier! Props to my brother Sarge, who is just straight-up punting toddlers down the hill – oh, shut up, Excluded, toddlers BOUNCE, they’ll be fine. What do you mean, it’s inappropriate? FAMILY EVENTS ARE ALL ABOUT INAPPROPRIATE AMOUNTS OF DANGER AND PERSONAL INJURY. God, Excluded, you’re such a negative person. It’s like you hate Christmas.”
SERIOUSLY, WHAT MAGAZINES ARE THESE PEOPLE READING? If you were seeking validation that these events sound AWFUL, then you have come to the right place. Alienating? I don’t even know these people and I’m uncomfortable sharing a planet with them.
Here’s some things that you already know, Excluded, because you seem to have a good read on these people:
A lot of this mess is your husband’s job to clean up, and when you say that he handles this “on your behalf,” it sounds like he’s generally trying to do it.
He seems to be the one concerned about the consequences of stepping back from the family – possibly because he’s more informed than you about what the fallout will be? Because the catching point here seems to be his anxiety about the possibility of “DRAMA” and “FRICTION,” which seems to override his apprehension about the pain/exhaustion that will definitely happen. (I’m a pretty conflict-avoidant person myself, but I’d have to be VERY anxious about people’s feelings before I drove for twenty hours for them, and I am able-bodied. I am feeling like there is some stuff happening in your husband’s head, there.)
It is slightly possible – I don’t know your exact situation so I’m just spitballing here – that setting boundaries with your family makes your husband feel terrible. It takes at least two surfaces to make Friction.
I think you know all of this, and I bet you’re being a really supportive spouse.
His family may never GET IT. And your husband probably knows this on multiple levels.
The thing that you have to do, Excluded, is figure out exactly how much of the Household Energy Budget is going to be spent on this, and how much of your portion of the Energy Budget you can commit.
Because all members of the household contribute to the Budget and draw upon it, you have some say in how your husband spends/uses his portion of it. But if he’s genuinely saying to you that “I have to spend a lot of our Budget this week on my family, because the alternative is spending all of the Budget to cope with my resulting anxieties” then that could actually be something that is Best For Your Husband … even if you hate every second of Catering To His Alien Family.
If he decides to spend his Budget on his family, it is totally okay for you to say “hahaha have fun with that (you won’t), but I have to sit this round out.”
The only script I’ve found that work for willfully obtuse aliens are the ones where you drill down, robotically and clearly, until you have all of the information. Then ask them how they’re going to accommodate you. Ask how they’re going to make their weird-ass plans work. Ask how they’re going to have you there. Ask “What will you be doing to fix this?” and “How will you make this work?” and “Where will the rest area be?” Like:
Alien: So for the wedding we’ll all be throwing ourselves off a cliff in the pursuit of a cheese! Isn’t that great?
You: Oh. Please describe exactly what this entails.
Alien: It will be literally flinging ourselves off a cliff.
You: Please describe exactly how tall the cliff is and how long we will be expected to do this.
Alien: … It’s a cliff? We’ll do it until we drop?
You: Please explain your plan for transporting the party to this cliff.
Alien: … walking?
You: Please explain how long the walk is.
Alien: … I don’t know, far?
You: Describe what hard standing there is, what seating arrangements there are, and what the people who are not jumping off the cliff will be doing. Will we be having a knitting bee?
Alien: Uh? This is an outdoor activity?
You: So you haven’t planned any other activities. Thanks for this information. Unfortunately, as you know, I am not able to walk “far” or jump from cliffs, and as you know, Husband needs to be able to sit down or use a wheelchair after long periods. What will you be doing about that?
Alien: Oh, come on, it’s not that bad, you guys can WALK.
You: Information received is: walk for unspecified distance, run down cliff. We can offer: walks for short distances. How will you make this work?
This might force the issue where the Aliens go “Oh, fine then, DON’T COME if you hate your family.” But then you (and your husband) will have had the benefit of knowing that all you did was ask where the bathroom would be.
If they have a family culture of being conflict-avoidant, this might make them so frazzled that they pick simpler activities to make you stop asking questions.
It could be that your husband goes “God, it just feels like they don’t care about us at all, doesn’t it? It’s just not worth it.”
Drill-down scripts might wake them up to the fact that they’re being extremely obtuse about activity-planning. It’s vaguely possible that they’re actually that useless and unreliable. After all, we all have That Friend. The one who says “come over, I’ll cook dinner” and you say “Ok, but remember that X has a nut allergy” and they’re like “yeah, yeah” and then when they serve the dinner they go “Oh, wait… are almonds nuts?”
And you’re like:
Hey, maybe that’s a happy ending for your household, Excluded. I’d like you to have a happy ending at Winterval.
I’m truly sorry about these aliens. I hope that as your household develops, you’ll be able to rely on other sources of Family Togetherness.
Awkwardeers, any suggestions for more scripts for Excluded?
Happy Holidays, Awkward Army. I wish you every flavor of joyful houseroom.