This round: How do I deal with my mom’s anxiety about my life, how do I tell a roommate that their helpfulness is not actually helpful, how do I preserve a friendship over distance, how do I build a family relationship over distance, and for a little #ThisFuckingGuy seasoning: I planned a birthday celebration for my mom and now my StepDad has made his own totally conflicting plans.
Q7: How do I get my mom to feel less anxious about my unusual (to her) life choices? I am not actually in danger. For ex: yesterday, my mom kept stress monologuing about my commute, because it involves two buses and takes over 1hr. She thinks public transit is dangerous. I genuinely enjoy it, and don’t want rides or to learn how to drive. This is one of many fears that I don’t share. (They/them)
A7: You can’t get your mom to feel anything. But you do have choices about how you respond and adapt to her behavior, such as:
- Tell her less stuff about you when you sense that it’s a topic that she will anxiously monologue about. This might cause her to notice or complain that “you never tell me anything” or “we’re not as close as we used to be” to which you can either say, “Well, telling you x was really stressing you out and then it was stressing me out, so I will go back to telling you but you can’t do that thing anymore, ok?” or say, “Hrmmm, Mom I don’t know what you mean, but how’s your day going?” This is sometimes called an “information diet.” When people respond to your reasonable life choices in a way that stresses you out, they reasonably get less included.
- Put her on a “monologue diet.” When a monologue gets going, 1) Interrupt her 2) Don’t argue with the facts or give reasons her worries are unfounded (it just gives her something to argue with, this isn’t actually a case you have to prove) and 3) Change the subject. Start with“Mom, I can tell this really worries you, but I like public transit and I don’t want to go through all this again. Let’s talk about something else.” If she won’t change the subject you can end the call pretty soon after, it’s a way of not giving the monologues attention, like, Mom, we’re going to have to find something to talk about other than your worries about me, read any good books lately?
- Worth mentioning: I don’t know if this is a factor for your mom but I know that some of the worry about Big City Living (“Is it safe living… in Chicago” “How do you ride the eL all the time, it’s so crowded“) etc. I hear from faraway family boils down to racist media narratives about who lives in cities, which is one of the reasons I don’t give it much attention beyond a “Whatever do you mean” to see if they’ll actually say The Fox News Thing All The Way Out Loud.
Q8: Our friend lives with us for free. She’s disabled and we have a big house. Where it gets complicated is chores. She feels she owes us. She wants to help but her “helping” is often unhelpful. This week she cleaned the kitchen while she had a bad cold and I had to talk her out of cooking. Can I have a general script for unhelpful helping? (She/Her)
A8: A general script is probably “Oh thanks for helping, but I’d prefer to do _______ myself.” Framing it as your preference means at least partially un-framing it as her failing to be sufficiently helpful. Does that make sense?
I’m assuming she wanted to cook for you/everyone (vs. just for herself, in which case, Clorox wipes and soap and Lysol exist to re-wipe surfaces and sometimes the process of making a big pot of soup is part of the remedy of eating the soup). You could be pretty frank: “Thanks for cleaning the kitchen, but I’d prefer to cook tonight, esp. since you’re still contagious” and deflect her “But you do so much for me, I just want to help” equally frankly with “You do help, and you’ll help again when you’re not so under the weather! When you’re feeling better, let’s go over the Big List of Household Chores and figure out if the balance is working.”
‘Cause there’s something down in the grout of this question about the dispiriting nature of needing help and being grateful for help but feeling like you are never the one who is allowed to give help, or the difference between being a beloved and welcome guest vs. being home. It sounds your roommate would like a dedicated chore or two next to her name on your house chore wheel and that a general re-figuring of duties is in order, not because she owes you, but because it’s good for her to have a role in taking care of the place where she lives. That doesn’t mean you have to accept everything she offers when she offers it when it is actively unhelpful, just…idk. Context.
So what are some things she could do and wants to do fairly reliably that are actually useful to the running of your household? Is she the person who opens the utility bills when they come in and sorts them and triages them for payment and calls Customer Service and waits on hold when the Wi-fi breaks? (Not like that’s a task I hate and am actively avoiding today or anything). Idk, the specifics of what and how are really going to depend on y’all, but I sense the less her contributions are framed as “helping out” and more as “Everyone who lives here has a few jobs, can these be yours, and if you can’t do them for whatever reason just tell us so we can, no worries!” the better it will go. You can always make it an explicit part of the plan that you’ll check in with each other every three months and re-assign or re-configure.
Q9: A close friend of mine is moving away soon. What can I do to keep the friendship alive? We mostly talk or communicate IRL; we rarely text, and their preferred social media (Twitter) gives me hives. Bonus complications: we’re co-workers, and I have a crush on them (which I don’t plan on doing anything about, since I think it’s not reciprocated). (He/him/his or they/them/theirs )
A9: I wish you could see how much mental love I am sending you right now so it will soften the next part:
(Picture me squishing Daniel, who had just crawled into my arms as I read your question, and saying “BUDDY!!!!!!!” really loud and transfer the emotional part of that squishing to yourself.)
Some friendships really are best served by proximity and this might be one of them. Especially since your feelings about them are (as far as you know) much bigger than theirs about you, you’re not planning on telling them about that, and you don’t want to engage on their preferred social media platform.
Between #ADHD [wanting to Say All The Things, Right Now] and my form of introversion [I want to be alone almost all the time][Except for talking to everyone in the entire world all at once!] I love Twitter, but, I get it if you don’t. Unfortunately, it is one place you could have occasional brief interactions with your friend in a way that feels organic to them and doesn’t require them to make a lot of effort to stay in touch with you. If you’re sure you can’t throw them a “like” or an “@” to something particularly awesome once a week or so and then close the app, then you can’t, and it doesn’t mean the friendship will definitely die, or that this person doesn’t like you and won’t miss you, a lot too, but the vibe will change a whole lot when they move, so probably some of what’s ahead of you is grieving. (And figuring out a new work lunch buddy or lunch book-reading situation.) (And possibly, just possibly, leaning into the separation a bit to starve your crush and see what, if anything, remains.)
And now for a story about a friendship that changed from a proximity friendship to a pen-pal one and kept the best of itself intact:
My friend Z. from film school is living back in Tulsa these days with his awesome wife and adorable dog and close to his parents, his lovely mom who used to come up to Chicago for a week and cook for his film crews when we’d shoot, meaning that every set would close down with the crew crying and hugging their new “mom,” and his hilarious dad whose favorite movies are the Twilight Saga and who will announce to anyone who asks, “It’s a beautiful love story!”
Sometimes I see something or hear something that I know Z. alone would appreciate in the exact right way and I miss him with physical ache in my chest. We visit when we can and it’s great, but it’s not the same as ten years of daily rituals, of being able to say “Diner?” and know that a whole plan for the rest of the day had just formed without another word needing to be spoken, ’cause we’d just fall into step after class and take the train to the diner (no need to specify which one) and the server would say “The usual?” (because of course we had A Usual), or I’d have to order for both of us because it was the waitress who was so attractive that Z. became unable to speak at all when she was near and I could at least stammer out a few words when her beauty hit us both like an oven blast.
(It’s not that I would wish us back to those years, which definitely had a “I guess what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and if we die at least we’ll go down laughing” cast, or that I don’t have other “Diner?” type friends with effortless, perfect rituals. It’s that I selfishly want all my favorite people to be accessible to me all the time, forever. And also to be alone on my couch, Tweeting about them.)
During grad school when we weren’t making movies, we used to exchange upsetting gifts based on private jokes, the more macabre the better, like the time I cut a bunch of photos of Suze Orman out of a stack of recycled O Magazines, then I carefully cut all the eyes out of all the Suze Orman faces and cut out images of flames to glue behind the eye-holes, so it looked like inside her there was only burning. Then I turned it into a pop-up card, where Suze Orman rose from the center, holding a smaller Suze Orman like a hand puppet, and that Suze Orman also held a smaller Orman, eyes aflame, and so on, in an attempt at an M.C. Escher-like Orman cascade, an impossible waterfall of Suze. Then I left it, unsigned, in his faculty office drawer at work.
The occasion? He had told me he found Suze Orman terrifying and had the occasional nightmare about her.
He has gifted me with similar cursed offerings, disturbing flags from imagined countries you’d never want to visit, snippets of a song that was an attempt to recreate the exact feeling of using the urinal in a bus station men’s room and feeling a touch on the back of your knee but you turn around and no one is there and you don’t know if you’re relieved or even more uncomfortable because maybe it was a friendly ghost and not a creepy drifter, and a real-time voice narration of what he was seeing inside The House On The Rock during a visit, his hysteria palpably rising with each possessed doll and suit of armor he observed.
For years we played a game called “Sex Kryptonite” where we posited a theoretical mix tape made only of songs where, you could be having the best sex of your life, every fantasy come true, every part of you lit up like a carnival ride, and if you heard one of these songs, you’d have to stop. You’d just be like, no, sorry, Impossible Fantasy Diner Waitress, I’m done now, call me in a year, maybe, or don’t, there is just no fucking to “Guy Noir.” We’d send links to each other buried in emails about lesson planning, not necessarily to bad songs, just, what is the most un-make-outable audio? Examples (You knew there would be examples): (Need to kill A Mood?) (Click if you DARE)(A reliable antidote to pantsfeelings)(Your family’s line probably ends with you, now, sorry)(A sonic cold shower if there ever was one).
I realize this game is HIGHLY subjective so if you find those songs sexy, I honestly salute you? The Letter Writer is trying to kill a crush, I’m just doing what I can to help. 😉
“Highly subjective” is also the point. What’s the glue of your specific friendship with this person? What’s the dime-store postcard or silly Mr. T keychain or meme that makes up the links in the chain of “I don’t know about the rest of you, but we get through our workday by floating on a cloud of secret diabolical laughter” that holds you and this friend together?
Whether it’s collecting salt & pepper shakers shaped like U.S. States (see poem) or like how last Sunday a photo of a French bulldog in a tiny pink cowboy hat popped up on my phone as if to say: “Well, howdy, there sister-from-another-mister,” if your friendship lasts, that’s where you’ll find it, those small ways of saying “I remember how you see the world, I still have my YOU-colored lenses for joyfully weird shit, I can put them back on any old time..”
Because of your crush you’ll probably have a harder time not going overboard than I did with a fraternal bond, so maybe don’t lead with your Suze Orman collage and definitely do not suddenly relocate to West Covina, California. You’ll have to start small, go slow, and see if your small overtures (like texts, which you said you don’t do now but it’s okay to ask about “Hey, I’m gonna miss seeing you every day, is it okay to text or talk on the phone sometimes?”) are returned and appreciated or if it’s gonna be one of those summer camp friendships which are definitely real friendships but can’t always go the distance. And (:gently squeezes Daniel:) be honest with yourself if what you’re trying to keep alive is a real friendship or your unrequited crush. Space and time and distance can be friends in determining that.
I love any excuse to share this poem:
The Seven Friendships – Erica Funkhouser
They were friends from the first look
the first day of work and friends
they would remain. Not lovers.
Never, though they thought of things
to whisper about all day.
At night, when they sat at home
hunting for something to say
to their actual lovers,
they longed to be back at work,
where the home life they described
to each other seemed larger,
funnier, more colorful.
They were playful as gods and,
at the same time, serious.
Once, in a car, on the way
to a conference, they worked out
the seven possible forms
of friendship between people
who aren’t related by blood.
First: the fortunate friendship
of two who feel equally
attached but not attracted
to each other. No desire.
a reliable membrane,
keeps them wholly separate
while holding them together.
You can always tell these two
in the kitchen: they can share
a cutting board — two different
sharp knives chopping two different
vegetables, and no one gets
in anyone else’s way.
Second: the friendship founded
on suppressed desire. All
the accessorizing takes
the place of real nakedness.
The servant’s invocations
to his master; the master’s
adulation of the slave.
Michael Jackson / Liz Taylor —
yes — Regis and Kathie Lee.
Letter writers are the third,
their correspondence floating
safely above and beyond
their problematic bodies
like a vial of scented oil.
They use each other without
apology — an excuse
to shape the simplest moment
into something memorable
ending with “Write soon, write back,”
that frank plea for affection.
Then there is the electric
communion that’s awakened
between two people vastly
different in age, like the
dowager one of them knew
who’d had to wait ’til she reached
ninety to meet a young child
she recognized as herself,
the adventuress she’d been.
At long last, the right playmate!
Fifth: the fireproof friendship
that has survived desire.
This includes all the ex-wives
and ex-husbands whose shared grief
unites them as love could not.
They drift back to each other,
grateful for a cup of tea,
for someone who remembers
that their first dentist in Troy
collected brass hose nozzles.
Next, a love of argument —
not bickering or nagging,
but the brainy brakes-without-
pads kind of arguing, no
attachment to conclusions,
no transparent right and wrong,
just the delirious pleasure
of competing for airspace
with someone you trust never
to take you personally.
And the seventh form? Friendship
based on the exchange of gifts,
Someone would get the idea
to buy odd salt and pepper
shakers, and once he’d purchased
the first set, a whole history
of silliness could begin.
That was when they stopped counting
and pulled off the interstate
on the way to the conference.
They found a small antique store,
Junkian Analysis —
really! — and in the windows
pairs of perfectly ugly
salt and pepper shakers shaped
like airplanes and bowling balls,
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
They liked the ceramic clams,
the Taj Mahal in Bakelite;
they loved the milkglass cabbage,
the jaguars, the shooting stars,
the stainless state of Vermont
side by side with New Hampshire.
May this find its best, truest shape.
Q10: Hi Captain! I’m wondering about building new relationships with one’s extended family. I was only close with my immediate family growing up, but recently I’ve had a chance to get to know a cousin/her young kids. She seems to be equally excited about building a closer relationship. What does being a good extended family member mean, especially for kids? I don’t feel I have role models, and I don’t live nearby, so I’m feeling adrift! (she/her/hers)
A10: I’ve been writing these answers pretty much in the order I’ve been reading them, so I love it when topics resonate closely together, and this is also a great question because family relationships come with so much “should” built in but like everyone has a different idea of what that means. Families are unique cultures, and no two are the same, and that there’s this sense that How to Family is obvious (or “should” be obvious) to everyone in the family, and yet, families are reshaping themselves all the time and nobody wrote the rules down anywhere but certain people seem Very Aware if any get broken.
As a kid and even as an adult, a lot of my extended family relationships are and were mediated through my parents, since they all live close and they see each other a lot, my parents collect their news and pass on mine, and I see everybody when I see them at holidays and weddings. Grandma Louise is gone so I don’t get the greeting card full of newspaper clippings and a personal check for $5.00 with “Do something fun!” in the memo field every few months like I used to, but my godmother and I text each other when we see really good art, or sometimes a cousin arranges for all the cousins to grab a drink together, or we have dinner when one of us drops through each other’s towns, or someone sets up a “people [who are not relative’s mom] who can see [relative’s] whole-back tattoo in progress” filter on social media. There may not be a rule book for how to hang out with family as an adult, but “Postal mail that isn’t bills” and “I saw this nice/funny thing that reminded me of you” texts that don’t carry a heavy obligation to respond immediately are simple gestures that say, hey, I love you because we’re family and I’ve known you or at least been aware of you all my life, but I also like you – specifically you – a whole lot. You don’t have to be fair, you don’t have to send little cards to every single person or try to establish the exact same bilateral relationship with everyone, same as when you make friends, it’s okay to bond with certain people more.
So my answer for you is also my question to you: What you do if you made a new friend or reconnected with a really old friend from when you were little as an adult and were trying to get to know them better but they lived far away? Great. Do the same stuff with your cousin. Maybe ask to connect on whatever social media you both like (keep it light at first and respect privacy/filters/if the person doesn’t want to include you in EVERYTHING, some people don’t like crossing professional or friend or creative streams with family streams for a reason), have the occasional text convo or Skype or phone call, send cards, postcards, letters, trade books and other media recommendations, follow your sense of enjoyment (vs. your sense of obligation) and see where it goes.
When you are in the same area, like if your family does do reunions or celebrations with everyone, try to make time just for the two of you to grab coffee or breakfast. Focus on forming a real friendship with your cousin, and the relationship with her kids will probably flow out of that. If you admire their Halloween costumes, remember their birthdays, send the occasional tiny no-reason present (“Is SmallCousin still really into narwhals?”), read them stories and listen to them tell you about their interests when you do see them, you’ll start to exist at first as a fuzzy, pleasant character on the edge of their awareness and resolve into Cousin You, Who Knows Cool Things as time goes on. You’re going to be related to each other your whole lives, no rush for it to be any kind of specific shape, and there’s no “how to be good at this” that isn’t mostly a combination of “show up as you are able” and “don’t be an asshole.”
Note: I especially recommend courting extended family for people who might be estranged from parents but have positive memories/associations with others they grew up with. I mean, trust your instincts and your gut, but keep in mind that the meanest, most homophobic, abusive, etc. people in a family don’t get to speak for everyone, maybe they don’t decide what your role gets to be and who you get to love or where you belong in more ways than one. ❤
Q11: Best Friend and I have known each other for 20+ years and were often chaotic younger friends. Often there’s still a lot of “you’ve ALWAYS done this.” Over a recent weekend she told me I was being selfish/immature where I thought I was learning to focus on self-care and since requested I not talk to her. I’m respecting the request, but how do I know for my own growth the boundary between healthy self-focus and narcissism?
A11: I’m sorry to answer you so briefly when I wrote so much for everyone else, but it’s because I don’t know what happened here and as with Question 4 last week I don’t want to play Internet Detective to spot a culprit. I can tell you that I’ve been told I was “selfish and immature” mostly as a neg to get me to do something unhealthy I didn’t want to do [scary substances][unsexy-to-me sex stuff][stay in a miserable relationship or job] so I’m prickly about those specific words, and hey, narcissists don’t often wonder or ask people if they are narcissists, so you’ve got that in your favor? I mean, even if she was right about you, what would you really change about your life to please this person who told you to not talk to them anymore?
It’s also because I already maybe wrote the things that answer this and they are some of the posts about friendship that I’m proudest of and they could use a re-circulation to new readers:
It sucks when a friendship implodes, but sometimes we do outgrow each other, maybe you’ve always had the reputation/role of The One Who Is About To Be Outgrown in this friendship but maybe you were the one who grew past the limits of this person’s idea of who you are, and that’s okay, even if it’s really sad right now.<3
Q12: My step-father was going to be away for my Mom’s b-day. I planned a party for her and told him the date. Then I bought tickets to a show on Mom’s actual b-day. Now he is flying home on her b-day and planned a surprise party. I’m mad he didn’t talk to me, mad he made my party not the “real” one. This is typical SF. Do I lose the argument, my $ and go? (she/her/hers)
A12: I hereby offer you:
- Validation that your stepfather sucks.
- A recommendation to watch Fleabag******* if you haven’t, you might find it unfortunately incredibly relatable. Narcissistic step-parents who have to be the center of everything orchestrating events deliberately at others’ expense! Surprise parties! One of the best-worst family dinner party scenes in cinema history!
- Re-confirmation of my utter dread of surprise parties.
- A question that is maybe a therapy question and definitely a think before you act here question: When is it time to loop your Mom in to all of this? What is the root of the fear/hesitation/whatever is preventing you from talking to her about her birthday celebrations and how they’re about to go pear-shaped? What are you protecting her from, and is it her you’re protecting? This might be quite a legitimate fear/worry/desire/reason [not wanting to be the “ruiner” of your Mom’s birthday][not wanting to be seen to be creating conflict by being the messenger of conflict your StepDad made][afraid she’ll choose his shitty party over your carefully planned events][afraid he’ll be even worse to you if you “ruin” his dramatic surprise and things will get even worse in your family][All of this?], just, sit for a second and think about what it is you’re most afraid of and what you most want to happen.
There’s the option where you quietly give away or resell the show tickets and cancel your party and show up to your stepdad’s shitty affair as a favor to your mom, smiling Fuck-You-Fuck-You-Fuck-You at him out of your eyes, because that’s what your Mom wants and expects from you. Could we safely call this the Status Quo?
There’s the path where you cancel the other party, tell your Stepdad that unfortunately you can’t make her actual birthday thing, and go to the show with your favorite cousin or something and take her to a nice lunch later? He “wins” but you don’t have to dance attendance on him? Your mom is disappointed but you say, “Sorry, StepDad and I talked about a totally different plan before he left town, his surprise took me by surprise too! But happy Birthday, Observed!”
There’s the path where you brazen it out with StepDad and say, “Hey, you should probably cancel your party, since Mom and I are going to Hadestown, but you can probably try to buy a ticket to join us at [link] if you want, or just come surprise her after the show, we can meet somewhere fancy for dessert.” Don’t surprise parties need co-conspirators, who’s gonna get her to the venue, etc. if you won’t? Maybe let him do the embarrassing part of calling all the guests and explaining his mistake and complain how you “ruined” his big surprise. He chose this, he can fix it.
Or there’s the path where you talk to your mom and tell her what the fuck is happening and ask her what she wants her birthday to be like.
“Mom, looks like Stepdad and I got our wires crossed when planning your birthday celebrations. Since he was going to be out of town, I planned a party for [date] and invited everybody for then and got us tickets for [Concert] on your birthday. He knew all this, but surprise! he’s flying home on your birthday and arranged a surprise! party for then. I wanted to handle all this without bothering you or spoiling his surprise, but I’m torn about what to do – do I cancel the other party and give away our tickets? Too Much Birthday is a good problem, right? Help me figure this out!”
That might be called Letting Your Mom Sort Out Her Possibly Shitty Marriage Herself, which is not the greatest birthday present and I’m sorry. And it feels like tattling on him, and again, I’m sorry. You sound like a good daughter who was doing her best to both celebrate your mom and accommodate your stepdad and this is not your fault.
I DON’T LOVE ANY OF THESE OPTIONS OKAY (except: Fleabag********) but like, this guy is deliberately fucking up your carefully planned shit and then kind of forcing you into the position of being the Bad Guy if you question it. You are not on the same team right now, and I think it’s both okay if you decide to go along with his plan for your mom’s sake and it’s also okay if you are angry about that. Also I hate surprise parties and do not consider them a sacred trust, why not just tell people you’re throwing them a party so they can put it on their calendar and pick out what to wear and then if everyone likes surprises so much you can have a cool surprise AT the party, like “I didn’t know you were going to have Phoebe Waller-Bridge direct a staged reading of my TV pilot script and also hang out with me all night telling my my hair is pretty, what a great surprise!”
********Content Note: Since I wouldn’t even know where to start with giving Fleabag-Related Content Warnings (LITERALLY ALL OF THEM?) here’s a summary of the plot, if you hate spoilers don’t read it, if you hated the show and want to argue specifically with me about it we can do that here for my usual arguing fee otherwise know that I probably completely agree with you about whatever you found problematic or potentially upsetting but I love it anyway. I also think the specific family dynamics – wanting the people you love to be happy but suffering at the hands of their toxic partners – will be particularly relevant to this Letter Writer.
Thanks again for so many thoughtful questions and the opportunity to revisit some topics. And thanks also for supporting and reading the site! The latest Patreon post is me screenwriting a happy ending to a terrible relationship story from Reddit.