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Hello!

I didn’t find anything in the archives so I hope I’m not asking this when it’s been covered before. My boyfriend and I live together with his 11 y/o daughter, and I’m having some trouble figuring out how to be “dad’s girlfriend.” Quick background: My boyfriend (we’ll call him A) had his daughter (N) when he was 16, married and divorced N’s mom, moved two states away for work and when N’s mom was visited by CPS N was taken away. When A finally got a phone call about now N had been taken he was there as fast as he could be (18 hour drive one way) and has had N in his custody ever since (6 years now?)

One of the things I love most about A is how dedicated of a parent he is. Where the awkward happens is that I’ve only been out of my family’s home for 3 years (2 of which A and I have been dating) and I’m still struggling to figure out how to be the adult figure. A takes care of most discipline and dictates chores, rules, etc for N, and that’s great, but I don’t know what is acceptable as the girlfriend.

I don’t feel comfortable taking a motherly role, because N still has a mom even if she’s states away, and N is still at the age where EVERYTHING ABOUT ABSENT PARENT IS COOL. It breaks my heart, my (very basic) understanding of psychology makes me think that she misses having a mother regardless of all the crappy things mom did. Even after N had a telephone call where mom put the phone to her chest (or simply thought no one could hear over the phone) and said “Why doesn’t she just get over it already?” N talks about how much she loves mom and wishes to go visit.

That ball is totally in A’s court, but I’m stuck wondering what I’m supposed to be. I’ve had step parents myself, both of which took controlling/authoritative roles. I -hated- it. I’ve avoided doing that (out of my own fears of being “evil dad’s girlfriend”) but now I’m stuck in a limbo where when I’m alone with N I don’t know what might be out of line, so I turn into a wet noodle and clam up. It doesn’t help that I’m incredibly introverted and N isn’t so I have a hard time relating.

I just want some outside perspective on what I might do as Dad’s girlfriend. I’ve gone over the subject somewhat with A but he’ll usually give me a “You’re doing fine!” answer and I’m still stumped. Any awkwardeers have experiences to share?

Yours truly
Perplexed Girlfriend

You know what I like best about your question? That when you ask how to be “Dad’s Girlfriend,” it’s clear you don’t mean “how can I deal with the unfortunate fact that the guy I love has this pesky kid,” but “I think Kid and I could maybe be more to each other than we are, and I’d like that, but I want to get it right and I’m not sure what right is from Kid’s perspective.”

Which makes perfect sense to me. When you started dating A, you didn’t know how things were going to go with him, much less with Kid. And even if she was the coolest 9-year-old on the planet who wanted her dad to be happy and understood that having an awesome woman in his life would increase the chances of that, and even if she was prepared to accept that you might be an awesome woman, she’d have been wary, wondering if you were going to be around long enough for it to be worth letting you into her heart, and if you were going to be around how it would change things for her. And you’re an introvert, so not the kind of person who could’ve jumped in and been instant BFFs even if she’d been primed for that, which she probably wasn’t. So try not to feel bad that you’re not closer already.

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Greetings! I have a question about Team You. Mainly, how does obtain such a wondrous thing?

I am in a situation where I am the primary caretaker for an elderly parent with serious health issues. She requires a great deal of time and energy- mental more than physical.

The rest of my family is basically useless. They have straight up said that she is ‘mine’ to handle. They don’t call when she’s in the hospital, etc., etc. I’ve basically written them off as horrible people and being around them stresses me out. I’m pressured to ‘keep the peace’ and not tell them off for basically abandoning dear old mom (while still claiming they love her ever so much.)

I’m naturally introverted with a strong need for ‘me’ time (that often goes unfilled because of my mom.) My one very good friend just moved to another state and neither of us is good about talking online.

So basically I am without without Team Me. There’s just- me. I don’t have time to join any kind of social group. I’m really mostly okay with being alone (I’m not lonely by any means.) I’d just like someone who would pop by once in awhile and drag me out to a movie. Someone’s whose company would break up the cycle of ‘take mom to this doctor’ then ‘to this other doctor’ then ‘argue with mom about what the doctors actually said.’

I was also laid off earlier this year. I worked mainly from home (because of mom), but it did help break things up a bit when I had to go into the office two or three times a week. I don’t know how I’m ever find a job that allows me that much leeway again (they were SUPER good about letting me control my schedule.) So I’m frustrated and frightened that I’m using up my savings and again could really use a Team Me pressure valve.

So how does one put together Team Me when you’re starting absolutely from scratch?

As a bonus question, I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to tell off my siblings at mom’s eventual funeral. I even have the eulogy all planned out. It won’t be a big scene, just a little stinger at the end about having no regrets but that they should. It isn’t worth the upset to her confronting them while she’s alive. But once she’s gone- it’s mean and nasty and bitter, but I really want to get that jab in before cutting off all relations. Or maybe write them a letter expressing my anger. Would that come under closure, or just cruelty for the sake of it?

Wow. Taking care of an ailing loved one with no support from the rest of your family, no local friend-network to hang out with for relief, and not even the outlet of working outside the home to give you a change of scenery and company – I don’t care how introverted and emotionally self-sufficient you are by nature, that’s tough. Yes, you do need to beef up Team You!

The first person I think you need to get more squarely on Team You is you, though. Yes, I know you’re trying! But your mother only has so much time left in this world, and she is miserable, or in pain, or scared, or all of the above, so I’m guessing it feels selfish to rank anything you might want or need above anything she might want or need. Which would explain why you feel you “can’t” take time to yourself or join any kind of social group. Even though she actually would be ok for the couple of hours you were gone. Even if taking it would make the difference between miserable vs ok for you, and no discernible difference for her.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m a 20-something who’s had a hell of a year. I was in an accident earlier this year and am still recuperating: I’ve had three major surgeries and have one more coming up. I just restarted therapy for childhood trauma, and I have moved several times this year due to bad roommate situations. I also have a full-time job as a social worker, specializing in personality disorders and trauma care for homeless adults. I feel like I am handling my life well, but my plate is very full!

One of the things that’s helped me get through this year is my amazing group of friends. I’m very social, and I really lucked out when I found this group of folks. They make me soup after surgery, they help me move, and they are generally really supportive. We frequently go out to bars for board games or casual drinking, host barbecues at our houses, and cook giant brunches.

Often, at these large gatherings, somebody will quietly say to me that they’re having a very hard time, or drop a hint that they’re struggling, or pull me aside in the bathroom and tell me about current problems they’re having. I clearly like being a support to people and have no problem having intense conversations one-on-one, but these occasions seem really inappropriately timed.

I’ve tried the obvious line of “Hey, I really do want to hear about Problem X, but I’m not able to give you my best advice right now. Can we talk about this on Friday over dinner?” While some folks have responded well, a few people have taken this to mean that I never want to talk about anything serious. Some have voiced that, as they have supported me after my accident, the “give and take” of our friendship is out of balance. Also, sometimes somebody will just corner me in the kitchen and start crying, and it seems inappropriate to defer talking to them then.

This problem has been going on for years. My friends sometimes joke that instead of sexy-time pheromones, I emit “TELL ME YOUR FEELINGS” pheromones. I really appreciate that I’m a person that people trust in crisis situations, but I need some time off! How can I better explain to my friends that, while I’m happy to have serious conversations at times, parties should be parties?

Thank you!
Girl, Overworked, Avoids Weird, Awkward Yakking

Dear GOAWAY,

Do you even realize how awesome you are? You have indeed had a hell of a year! You are recovering from childhood trauma, a major accident, and ensuing surgeries; you are working full time in a job that (while I’m sure it’s rewarding, too) has to be emotionally exhausting; home has not been a sanctuary for you for much of that time, yet you are fully prepared to lend a compassionate ear to your friends’ troubles (without playing the one-upmanship, my-troubles-are-bigger-than-your-troubles game)… All you ask is to be able to relax and enjoy yourself at social gatherings, and to save your counseling sessions for other times. You rock! And to answer your unasked question: no, that should not be too much to ask.

The problem isn’t that you aren’t expressing yourself effectively, either. Not only are you setting a very reasonable boundary, you are articulating it pretty much perfectly: “I’d love to help, but I’m not really in the right frame of mind right now, so how about [specified time in the very near future], when I can give you the quality of attention you deserve?” That cannot reasonably be interpreted as a brush off – which is why your more reasonable friends are not giving you guff about it, they’re pulling out their calendars to set up that date and counting themselves lucky to have such a great friend.

No, the problem is that some of your friends’ brains are infected with Entitlement, so that when you say anything other than “Oh dear, you are feeling down? Nevermind how badly I needed to recharge my batteries, let’s find somewhere quiet so you can coopt my social occasion and turn it into a free therapy session!” what they hear is “I am a selfish jerk!”

It’s like the Nice Guy phenomenon: the way a Nice Guy tells the story, there you are, exuding sexy hotness, making him want you. He does nice stuff for you. He brings you soup when you’re recovering from surgery! He helps you move! He has earned some serious Tokens! Yet when he tries to cash them in for some of that sexy hotness, you tell him “Sorry, Tokens aren’t redeemable for sex!” which is totally unfair, means you are a selfish bitch, a user, blah blah blah.

The only difference is that in this case what you’re exuding is kindness, compassion, and professionally trained listening skills, rather than (or perhaps in addition to!) sexy hotness, and that’s what your friends are demanding a piece of. But you are not a Compassion vending machine any more than you are a sex vending machine. You need to be in the mood for that kind of thing, and to feel the connection. And you have a right to say “not right now” for no better reason than that you aren’t feeling it, or that you came to have fun. Going out in public while Kind is no more an invitation to be cornered in the hall for free therapy than going out in public while Female is an invitation to be groped.

(Note: I say “for free therapy” instead of just “to listen to their troubles” because I think part of what’s happening here is something doctors, nurses, lawyers, computer-professionals (and probably others) get all the time: people wanting them to provide professional services for free on personal time. Which is ok if it’s a VERY brief description of a problem requiring only an off-the-top-of-the-head answer, not so ok if it goes on and on.)

Which means the real question is not “what do I say?’ but “How can I enforce this boundary better against the ones who are giving me guff without them getting hurt or mad?” and as always, since that’s about trying to manage their emotions, trying to make them be satisfied with what you are willing to offer when it’s less than what they want, the answer may be that you can’t. You have to know that.

Then again, because there’s at least a chance your friends are not doing the Nice Guy thing on purpose (though yeah, some friends do “kindnesses” to create indebtedness, too), here are a few things worth trying:

(1) Go with the repetition thing. Perfect your preferred wording for the “this is not a good time” mantra, and repeat it pretty much verbatim. It will highlight your willingness to help, and that they are being boorish by insisting you do it this very instant. Feel ok with being increasingly curt about it; people don’t deserve the same level of courtesy when they make you say the same thing over and over.

(2) Try toning down your awesome (especially with the friends who burst into tears and fling themselves at you, or who drop hints about how they’re struggling). Just because you are capable of being the World’s Best Listener doesn’t mean you have to do it every time. It’s all right to “not notice” every plea for attention, or to listen a little, say some “wow, that sucks,” offer to go to the bathroom with them while they splash water on their face, then offer to find their ride (or public-transit buddy)/call a cab, or fob them off on someone who’s closer to them than you are. You are not the only nice person in your circle of friends; someone else can carry the ball sometimes.

(3) With those who explicitly invoke the “I have been there for you, you oooooowe me!” try a little consciousness-raising. “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I want to be as good a friend to you as you’ve been to me, but I don’t think you realize what you’re asking of me. My job is about listening compassionately to people in very difficult situations, trying to help them find solutions; that’s what I do all day. As rewarding as that is, it is also really emotionally draining. One of the reasons I socialize as much as I do is that I need to recharge my batteries doing stuff that’s just plain fun! That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to listen to your problems – but it does mean that I need that not to be at the expense of the social occasions. That’s like unplugging my phone when it’s at 2% and plugging yours in, when this is my only time to charge it!”

(4) If they keep pushing, hold up a mirror: “Are you saying that if I’m not willing to stop in the middle of a party to give you my undivided attention it makes you wish you had not brought me soup?” “Are you saying that if I won’t give you what you want the second you want it I’m a jerk? Because I’ve been pretty clear I’m willing to listen, just not this instant!”

(5) Work on not feeling guilty. If you try all this stuff and they’re still disgruntled, the problem really is 100% theirs. Don’t let them try to shove it off on you, like the bill for stuff you didn’t order. Their bad feelings are not your responsibility.

Good luck with that,

Alphakitty.

Dear Captain Awkward:

My dad’s health is declining- in the past three years he’s had a quadruple bypass, and is now on dialysis. My mom, who doesn’t have a big support network and who isn’t talkative about her feelings at the best of times, is running herself ragged keeping up with his doctors appointments, sorting out contradicting information regarding his medicines, researching what the doctors are telling him, and generally taking care of my dad and the house that they live in. I would like to give my mom as much support during this time as I can (I live 8 hours away, unfortunately, so giving physical support will be few and far between).

However, I find it really emotionally draining to talk to my mom these days because it’s a continuous conversation about what’s wrong with Dad, how the doctors are doing everything wrong, how Dad is in horrible health, and underlying all of it is the fact that I know my mom doesn’t really have anyone to help her mentally or physically throughout all of this. I’d like to be there for her as much as possible, but how can I do that when I find it takes me a day to get back to normal (as in, not bursting into tears every five minutes because I’m so worried about her and my dad) after I talk to her on the phone?

Alphakitty here.

First of all, let me say I’m so sorry you and your family are going through this. It happens to most of us sooner or later that someone in the circle of people we love develops severe health problems, and we watch someone else we love shoulder the crushing burden of being their primary caregiver. It hurts so much, and distance makes you feel helpless. If you’re like most of us, you honestly can’t up and move to take on some of the on-site caregiving, but you feel as guilty as if you had that option and were choosing not to use it.

And in your case, even if you manage to forgive yourself for not being able to be there more, you have a collision between what your mom is (implicitly) demanding of you even from afar and what you need to get through this yourself.

(Before I move on to the specifics of your situation, let me say that my mom is like your mom. She is horrible about asking for help; she’s much more comfortable with the role of help-er than help-ee. She doesn’t have much of a local support network, either. And together, we’ve been through my Dad’s sudden death about 14 years ago, and her best-friend-for-70-years’s death of cancer a couple of months ago. So yeah – I feel your vicarious pain.)

Anyway, the first thing I suggest is to figure out if there is any way you can lighten her load even from afar. If one of her burdens is researching drug compatibilities, can you take that on? Maybe ask her to e-mail you a list of his medications and let you know anytime one is added or changed, and you will talk to a pharmacist and/or do some research (like so many things, I think there are apps for this!) if there are issues. If she doesn’t have one and you/she can afford it, maybe get her a smartphone or small tablet with a calendar app that will make it easier for her to keep track of appointments? Maybe (again depending on the finances) see if you can pay for someone to come in and clean every couple of weeks, or do a once a month deep clean? Doing any of these things has both actual value and symbolic value (making her feel less alone).

Also, is there anything you can do to increase her local support network, like a friend or neighbor you could talk to about checking in on her periodically – in a deliberate way, rather than a casual catch-as-catch-can way? If your mom is now or ever has been active in a church*, and you think she’d be ok with it, can you talk to someone about them doing some outreach, giving her the support of their community? I’m not a church person myself, but one of the things churches are usually good at is being there for members of the congregation in times of trouble – and they generally don’t even care if you only became a member of the congregation because of that trouble. Even if she’s already going to services, if she’s doing the stiff upper lip thing, people might not know what she and your dad are going through. Call her local hospital or senior center and find out if there are support groups for caregivers. Or, if there’s a hope in hell she’d do it (mine wouldn’t), suggest that she get a therapist to talk to about what’s going on – both for her, and so she feels less desperate to unload by the time she gets to you.

Remember, too, the community where geography doesn’t matter: the Internet. Guide her to an online support group or blog for folks in her shoes (her own Captain Awkward!), or help her start her own. Her situation is so common, in the unlikely event it doesn’t exist there is surely demand for it.

When you do go visit, help her with household stuff without being asked. Leave some meals in the freezer. Do some of the tasks that used to be your Dad’s job but he can’t do anymore – if she’s like my mom, those tasks will particularly weigh on her.

And now (at last!) for you. First, you need to make sure she knows how distressed you are by what they’re going through. Sometimes, because you hold it together on the phone, the person who’s in the trenches imagines you going blithely along emotionally unscathed – like as soon as you hang up the phone they and their troubles wink out of your mind. My mom used to say “well, I should let you get back to [some relatively pleasant thing she imagined I’d be doing when I hung up].” And I’d be like, “Really? You figure I can just go la la la la la back to that after this phone call??” Without laying a guilt trip on her for making you sad, make sure she knows it bums you out to hear what they’re going through and it takes you a while to recover. Tell her, “I know you’re scared. I’m scared, too.”

Explain that for you to keep functioning in your day-to-day world (succeed as a student, keep/prosper in your job, be a decent spouse/parent, not suffer a mental health crisis…. whatever applies), you can’t have the full-scale everything-horrible-that’s-happening type phone calls all the time. That you absolutely do want to know how she and your dad are doing, but that you need her to tell you most of that stuff by e-mail, so you can read it at a time when you’re in a position to process it, and so that on your once a week (or whatever) phone call you can have room to talk about less emotionally charged (and exhausting) things.

Unfortunately, that’s all I’ve got. This is one of those times when what you need and what someone else needs directly conflict – and since the other person is your mother (with whom I gather you have a decent relationship) one of the things you need is to not feel like you’re letting her down. When that happens, all you can really do is (1) try to reduce the conflict (by addressing their needs or yours in ways that don’t conflict), (2) figure out what you can offer without doing violence to your own mental health, and (3) be as articulate as possible about what you can offer and what you need. The good thing is that because this is a mom with whom you have a decent relationship, you should assume that she does not want you to do violence to your mental health for her sake… so treat it like a partnership to get you both through this as whole and hale as possible.

And, of course, good luck with that.

* church/synagogue/mosque…