Dear Captain Awkward,
I am working towards going on a year-long trip around the world. Besides the fact that it’s just this dream I’ve always had, I’m doing this for a few reasons.
1) I hate my life where I’m living and who I’ve become. It’s nice enough, if you’re already married with children. But I was recently in Berlin and I loved being in a city that had 24-hour public transport and interesting artsy things to go to all the time. I felt wonderful there, like I was an interesting, capable, sexy person, and I didn’t want to come home. Here I feel stagnant and boring. I moved across country to live here after college because my parents live here (big mistake, although at least now I have my own apartment).
2) I’ve always wanted to have children, and in particular adopt children. I’m 32, so I’m hitting the age where I have to start thinking of that as a serious goal if it’s going to happen at all. But I want to travel the world first, because after I become a presumably single parent it’s going to be a lot harder to travel. Possible, but harder.
The issue is with my parents. I have a troubled relationship with my dad, who is neurotic, has used money as a means to control me, and constantly orders me around like I’m his employee, so I knew he wouldn’t be on my side. But I had high hopes that my mother would be more supportive. That’s not what happened. They both recently held a little intervention in which they basically told me not to do it. Specifically, they said that they thought I should have a job lined up when I got back. I feebly told them what my therapist told me when I expressed worries about that same thing, that this trip was going to open doors for me and that it wasn’t important to have everything set in stone just yet. That did not go over well. I’m planning on having an extra $10,000 saved up as a cushion when I get back to the states. They don’t think that’s good enough. They don’t think that $20,000 is enough for the trip budget even though I have studied the budgets of other travelers who have succeeded to do this. They told me that I should just keep the soulless job that I have and travel somewhere for two weeks every year. I’m nauseous even thinking about that.
There’s a familiar pattern when it comes to my parental interactions: I want to do awesome, scary thing. They disagree with the thing, most of the time bringing up money or them not wanting to support me as the reason why it won’t work. I either do what they tell me or come up with some sort of compromise. Eventually, I realize that I should have just done what I wanted and become regretful and bitter. I don’t want to keep doing that. I’m tired of trying to manage their anxiety over my life choices on top of my own worries. When I was in Berlin, they insisted that I email them twice a day, once when I woke up and once at night like I’m on curfew or something. What the hell? I know they do this because they love me and they worry, but their worries really trample all over my self-confidence.
Compounding my problems is that, aside from my therapist, I don’t really have a lot of people that I can talk to. Many friendships from college have faded due to distance, and I haven’t made any new ones. I have a night job, so social stuff that is usually held at night is off limits to me now.
So I’m asking for 1) scripts to deal with my parents, because when they get into intervention mode I tend to shut down and not say anything, and 2) avenues to find emotional support for making my travel dreams happen.
Wants to be Nellie Bly (she/her pronouns)
Dear Nellie Bly,
I am so excited for you and this potential life-changing year and trip.
I have been privileged enough to travel the world a lot in my life, from parents supporting me to go on club and choir trips in high school to studying abroad in Czech Republic during undergrad to working internationally for years with short-term assignments in Ukraine, Romania, Poland and Hungary, to traveling to France & to Indonesia with good friends to the most recent honeymoon trip. One of my dearest friends is in Tunisia with the foreign service right now, and another is moving to the Czech Republic and this passport is burning a hole in my desk drawer because I want to go see them so badly. You know from your time in Berlin that there is nothing like waking up under a different sky and feeling simultaneously that the world is so very small and connected and also so much bigger than you knew.
During my travels, I sent my grandparents a postcard from everywhere I visited. Even in small towns, I’d find the local shop and buy a postcard and send it, and they’d all say some version of the same thing: “I’m in (place), it’s beautiful here, I got to try (food), I met an (interesting person) or saw (some amazing historical sight). I miss you and am thinking of you. Love, Jennifer.” When my grandmother died, she left me two things: A pair of earrings from when she got her ears pierced to celebrate her 80th birthday and a box full of all the postcards I had ever sent her. There’s a map of the world in the box and she’d drawn little dots on the place every time a postcard came to map my travels. As her last gift to me she gave me back the world as I had told it to her.
If you want to go, and you can go, then you have to go. Accept no substitutes.
If you want to find some community and people who will be excited about your plan, maybe try to find an online forum for people who plan budget travel, or who freelance while living abroad, or the international guild of house-sitters (link is to a how-to house sit your way around the world article) or whatever? I bet if you started a “Here’s my proposed itinerary and budget for my cool awesome year of traveling the world” at the friendsofcaptainawkward.com forums you’d find some people who would want to live vicariously along with you and some potential new friends around the world. I can vouch that the Paris, France Awkwardeers are LOVELY.
In the meantime, you have to stop telling your dreams to people who shit on them.
This means: Stop running your dreams and your plans by your parents. Your parents are not safe stewards of your dreams. You are trying to perform “good daughter” by including them in your plans like you would reasonable parents, but they are not that kind of parents. Think of your dreams as tiny crocus shoots coming up through the soil in early spring, when there might or might not be another killing frost before they can mature. You’ve got to protect those tiny vulnerable green shoots and not expose them to danger before they are ready to bloom.
Reasonable, supportive parents get to hear “I’m thinking of going on this amazing trip around the world, I’m 60% toward my savings goal.” They may ask how you plan to solve certain issues, or worry about your safety traveling alone, or try to reconcile (place) with (version of place that’s shown on the news). This is normal, it’s cool if not every parent is immediately in the “Yay, when do you leave?” mode without needing a little reassurance or time to process before they are on board. Reasonable parents also eventually get on board. When they raise potential problems, like, “Are you saving enough money to make sure you’ll be okay?” they do it hopefully in the spirit of wanting you to actually find solutions to those problems, not to sabotage your momentum. They understand that you get to make your own decisions and that they raised you to be able to take care of yourself.
Your parents have shown you they have a pattern of trying to keep you “in your place,” whatever that means to them, in this case literally. Their “worry” and “concern” for you is about control, is about them getting to define what your life is like. Therefore, your parents get “I bought my tickets and I leave in 3 weeks.” Or they get a postcard from Berlin when you’ve already gone.
And you email them, say, once a week while you’re traveling, not twice a day. (You make this happen by telling them: “I’ll check in once a week while I’m gone” and then you follow through with that).
In the meantime, no more details. No more money/budget/job/itinerary/future plans talk. Stop trying to convince them and let the topic die for now until it’s safe and you can leave. You’re not being mean or lying if you stop including them in your planning. You’ve tried including them, they’ve shown you that they can’t be trusted to nurture your hopes, so, it’s time for Small Talk Only (or Safe Talk Only) until you’re ready to go. It sucks to have to feel like you are reverting to Sullen Teenager mode ( “How was school today?” (long pause) “Fine.”), because you love them and you want to have a cool honest authentic adult relationship and you want to be able to talk about the thing you’re most excited about, but they are Lucy with the football and you are Charlie Brown and it’s time to take a break from setting yourself up for more of their “nurturing” for the time being.
Also, you laid out a very clean and logical case for why you want to do this and why now is the right time in your letter – the kind of case I recognize from growing up as a kid who was overruled a lot and told that what I wanted to do wasn’t a good idea or wasn’t possible and surely I wanted something else instead – so I think it’s important to say: You don’t have to convince your parents of anything in order to still do this. You don’t have to have airtight reasons for wanting to go or make the perfect case. You want to. Your heart wants it. It’s calling you. That’s a good enough reason. You will get old and die waiting for them to be convinced. Put your energy elsewhere.
If you go from talking about this plan to never mentioning it, they will notice and they may try to check in to make sure that they’ve really murdered the dream all the way, like, “You haven’t mentioned your trip lately, thank goodness you’ve finally come to your senses!” They will also become experts on everything bad that happens in places you’ve mentioned you want to go, aided and abetted by shitty international reporting designed to scare Americans. “Oh, terrible about what happened in [place]. Didn’t you say you wanted to go there when you were planning your trip? Good thing you stayed home!”
Learn to recognize this for what it is: Bait. They want to trick you into exposing more about the plan so they can go back to shitting on it (and display their dominance and control). Don’t take the bait.
Eventually your script is probably: “Hey, either you raised me to be able to handle a challenge like this or you didn’t. I guess we’ll find out, but I just don’t share your worries about what will happen. If you can’t be excited for me I can’t make you, but I also don’t have to listen to your constant doomsaying or make the same choice you would make in my shoes. If you can’t be supportive, be kind, and if you can’t do that, let’s drop the topic and talk about something else.”
In the meantime your script is probably some version of:
“Huh, well, there’s nothing new to talk about” + GIANT SUBJECT CHANGE.
“Well, you’ve given me a lot to think about, I’m just chewing on all of it before I make any big decisions.” + GIANT SUBJECT CHANGE
(You are thinking about what they said. You’re also quietly rejecting it, but they don’t need to know that).
“Let me stop you there – I was not asking for advice, I was telling you about something I want to do. When I need advice, I’ll ask.” + GIANT SUBJECT CHANGE
See also – “You may be right.”
Your parents: Objection objection objection objection!
You: “You may be right.” Silently: “I’m totally still going, though.” Not silently: GIANT SUBJECT CHANGE.
You will be amazed at how this totally takes the wind out of some people’s sails.
Your parents can feel worried or disappointed or disapprove about your choices, but they don’t get to treat you badly and expect you to sit still and comply. They can be anxious about your safety, but their anxiety does not define the borders of your world for you. And fuck their whole “intervention mode” while we’re at it. Interventions are extreme, last resort measures for people who are seriously suffering. They also bear a heavy risk of backfiring, where the person remains unconvinced about seeking treatment for whatever it is and cuts off the family & friends who participate. “I’m a grown-ass woman and I’m saving up a bunch of money so I can do a thing I’ve always wanted to do” is not even close to something that needs an emergency family meeting of any kind. Good grief.
Also, disappointment goes both ways:
“I’m disappointed that you would make this choice.”
“Cool, I’m disappointed that when I try to tell you about something important to me you rain negativity all over it to try to get me to do what you want.”
“I think this is a terrible idea and I am worried about what will happen to you.”
“Okay, you’re allowed to have your opinion. I am still going to do it because I want to, and if it’s a mistake, it will be my mistake. I’d rather try and fail than stay stuck.”
“I love you and worry about you and I’m your parent and I know what’s best for you.”
“I know you love me, and you did your best to raise me and look out for me. Good news, you did your job well, and now I’m the person who has to decide what’s best for me.”
“But what if (catastrophe) happens?”
“I very much hope that won’t happen, but if it does, I’ll figure out how to handle it.”
Or (this is the time for it): “”Hey, either you raised me to be able to handle a challenge like this or you didn’t. I guess we’ll find out, but I just don’t share your worries about what will happen. If you can’t be excited for me I can’t make you, but I also don’t have to listen to your constant doomsaying or make the same choice you would make in my shoes. If you can’t be supportive, be kind, and if you can’t be kind, let’s drop the subject entirely and talk about something else.”
If these seem like daunting things to say to the people what raised you, practice them and talk them over with your therapist. Put them in your own words. Keep them in your back pocket in case you need them. Complying with your parents is a habit that they have groomed and reinforced, and you’re not going to suddenly snap out of that habit and become the Amazing Comeback Queen overnight, nor do you have to become that. Sometimes there is value in speaking up and resisting, even if you won’t win the argument or the day, just to show yourself that you can and the world won’t end. Sometimes there is power in holding on to all the things you could say and deploy them strategically.
Time for one of my favorite literary quotes:
“Adulthood isn’t an award they’ll give you for being a good child. You can waste… years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just… take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I’m sorry you feel like that and walk away. But that’s hard.” – Ekaterin, A Civil Campaign
When you do go, email me and I’ll send you my mailing address because I’d really like a postcard or two…to add to The Box.
❤ ❤ ❤