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Dear Captain Awkward;

Hello! I am 48 years old, pronouns she/her, and having trouble with my parents, specifically, my mother and her hoarding. My mom is trying to give more stuff to me than I can handle, and the lever she pulls to make it more painful is, “but it was your grandmother’s.” if I take everything that falls into this category, my home will be a literal shrine to my grandmother, and that’s spooky.

A year and a half ago, I quit working full-time to take care of my parents. For various health-related reasons, they couldn’t care for themselves anymore. They are due to move into a retirement community in about six weeks. My mom’s hoarding problem has been Bad since the 90s, and worsening since. They can still use normal sanitation (toilets, trash cans), my mom can bathe and groom herself when she wants to, they have clean bathrooms available, my mom can prepare meals and do laundry, as long as I’m there at least three days a week to clear her clutter away from high-traffic areas.

My father’s mother was a nearly perfect person. She was a perfect hostess, wife, mother, friend, volunteer, grandmother, great-aunt. Everyone who knew her loved her. She was always generous with time, effort, money, support. I look a lot like her, and apparently a lot of my mannerisms are similar.

My father’s mother died when I was 23. I went into a spiral of unhealthy behavior for about ten years after that, but managed to pull myself out.

When I was growing up, my mother’s mother died when I was about five, and my father’s mother filled that void for my mom. When my dad’s mom moved into a retirement community, we inherited most of her furniture. When she died, we inherited the rest of it. My mom developed a fascination with antiques and ceramics, and a bad shopping habit. She started volunteering at her church thrift shop (as my grandmother did), and brings home stuff every week, unless I’m there to stop her from doing it.

My husband and I moved into a new house, to take on the responsibility of having my brother (who has autism) move in with us. My mom feels that “part of the deal” is that I will take her furniture and collectibles, most of which were my grandmother’s. This “deal” feels like I’m taking on all the physical and emotional responsibilities that my grandmother did in the past: being the family maternal type who does all the physical and emotional labor, creating the perfect home, etc.

So, now, “but it was your graaaandmother’s” is an argument that’s applied to everything from the armchair upon which she stitched the needlepoint cushions, to warped Tupperware from the 1950s. It’s bad enough that my mom thinks she should save everything (jars, twist ties, junk mail, anything) and re-use it, because my grandmother was always thrifty. My grandmother wasn’t a hoarder. She used the same wrapping paper for Christmas every year, she had a “waste not, want not” mentality, but that was an exception to a general rule.

I’m already getting therapy for my own hoarding tendencies. My husband gets exasperated with how slowly I sort out a box of stuff, but I have practice getting rid of things that I don’t need, and I’m getting to be good at it. I like making a box or bag of donations on a Saturday or Sunday morning, taking it to a donation center and going for brunch at the diner afterwards.

The rock-and-a-hard-place moment happened a week or so ago. I said that I regretted not being able to develop my own taste. That made her really mad. I have said to my mom that I need to make my own living environment look the way I like it to be. I’ve said that I need to make my home comfortable on my own time table. These statements made her angry. She expects that I will furnish and decorate my home with my grandmother’s things, in my grandmother’s style. She wrote me an angry email saying that I have no taste, that I need to develop an eye, and that someday I would come to realize that my grandmother’s furniture was better than anything else out there. When I asked my mother about it, she pretended it wasn’t a big deal and laughed it off.

If I accept all of the stuff that my mom is pressuring me to take, my house will look like an overloaded furniture store from the 1920s, with framed family photos on every wall and surface, and my grandmother’s wedding dress on a mannequin. I don’t want to live in a shrine or museum.

Behavior, rather than stuff, is an issue here too. Because of my dad’s health issues, he behaves like a child most of the time. If I treat him like how his mother would treat him, we get along fine (i.e., “sure, you can have another cookie before your nap.”), but if I treat him like a daughter, he gets angry, My mom needs me to indulge her rather than give her structure, i.e., “we don’t have to fold the laundry, you can take a nap.” I think they expect me to take care of them as my grandmother took care of others.

I miss my grandmother every single day, and no objects will change that. I’d rather remember her for the things she did and said, rather than the things she bought and kept. I’d like to move on with my life and do new things.

So, how do I say to my mom, “please stop expecting me to be Grandmom?”

Thanks for your time and consideration.
Sincerely,
Shackled To Heirlooms

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Hello Captain.

I’m of an age where people are starting to ask if we do/are thinking about having kids. In truth, we’ve been trying, and failing. I’m not ready to give up at all, but every time someone asks me this, it’s a sucker punch. I usually spin it with something like “I have a dog and a cat, does that count?” in a lighthearted kind of way, but every once in a while, I hit them with “We’ve been trying for a while, and it just hasn’t happened.” That leaves the conversation awkward, and I hate it. How else could I handle this?

Maybe Mom
(she/her)

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Hi Cap!

So, there’s this community space I enjoy using with my toddler and babies, and there’s this older lady volunteer there who will. not. leave. the. babies. alone. (With the framing of “she’s just trying to help.”) She hovers over the babies, she micromanages where we’re sitting or where we put our stroller, and it feels as though she’s just poised waiting for my partner or myself to stumble or fail so she can swoop in and grab a baby.

The other day, she grabbed at a bottle of milk that a baby was literally drinking, that my partner was literally holding. (My partner’s a guy, and this definitely felt like that sexist thing of, men are incompetent parents, let’s forcibly take over!) I reported this as harassment, but have no faith she’ll ever change (and she’ll definitely not be leaving the space). Help, what do? I’d really hate to have to walk away from the community space: my family and I could get so much good stuff out of it (and give loads back.) So:

How can I even show my face back there again after reporting a volunteer for harassment (who won’t change)? There’s something in this about the mortifying idea of being known: I made it clear that something that hurt me, and that I needed things to change for me to be able to use a service safely, and I know things won’t change: all of that makes me feel so naive and foolish, like it would have been better to swallow it than to make a fuss?

How do I talk myself down at events there and stop feeling as though I’m going to be pounced on any second?

When she does show up and grab at the babies or their milk, how can I defend them? (She’s already shown that she’ll ignore a loud, clear “please give them space!” from me.)

Thanks so much for all you do!

Twin Mom On Display (she/her, I’m a thirtysomething lady)

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I have some questions about romantic feelings and dating and breakups accumulating and I don’t know if they all belong together, but maybe they don’t all need separate threads? I think what they might have in common is people who are trying to rules-lawyer their own hearts.

Let’s find out!

Hello Captain Awkward,

I’m not sure if a good friend of mine [20F] is over me [20] or not, please help!

I’m in a tough spot with a good friend of mine (let’s say Carroll) that I’ve known for about a year at college. Early this past freshman year we both hit it off really well, and she’s a great person. We both seemed to like each other for a while but we both got cold feet around the first third of the year. Thinking about a relationship with her, I constantly came to the conclusion that I was happy with my lifestyle, and starting a relationship wouldn’t be preferable (I haven’t gotten into too many relationships). However, with sophomore year approaching, our living situations seem to be more compatible, and my attitude towards a relationship with her has changed to be more positive.

Over the course of the year, things weren’t really awkward and we are still good friends. However, at several points near the end of the year, there were points where it seemed like she was talking to her friends about me and laughing about it. I wouldn’t consider her gossipy, it seems like the people she hangs with always want to discuss things in secret with her. This might be me just being paranoid (I’m not the center of their universe lol), but there were also points where my own friends poked fun about the whole situation to me (in the presence of her, ugh) and she seemed to think it was funny as well. To be more specific, she didn’t really join in on the joke, she just kinda whispered something to her friends shortly after, finding it amusing.

Thus, I’m in a sticky situation. To be honest with myself, I’ve found it hard to get over her. I’m not sure if we’re both still in the stage of cold feet, or if she’s gotten over me and thinks of me as a joke to her friends. I know a lot of this is paranoia, but I want to be able to get closure on this, since all I feel when talking to her sometimes is that I’m a big joke to her. My main point is how to clarify this with her given this worry. It’s hard to clarify with her because for all I know, it’s the latter and things will only become more awkward by speaking to her, furthering her attitude and preconceptions. She’s a great friend and if she’s truly moved on, then I don’t want to hinder our future as friends. But if she does have feelings, it’s something I don’t want to ignore.

Thank you!

Hi there! You are now Letter Writer #1211!

Do you want to be in a romantic relationship with Carroll now? y/n

Do you want to just go on being friends with her, but without this weird vibe you’re getting that there’s a joke you’re not quite getting? y/n

Have you ever had an out loud conversation with Carroll along the lines of “should we date each other? y/n”? Where she was “y” and you were more “n” (or something else)?

I ask because I can’t tell from this whether you and Carroll had a little bit of a romantic relationship earlier this year, almost had a romantic relationship, talked/joked about dating but never took it there, or whether everything about your attitude, living situation, “lifestyle,” etc. was entirely in your head and she had no idea (or she had some idea but it never got spelled out). People don’t forget the time they confessed a crush and got turned down, so there’s no pretending that didn’t happen if it did, I’m just trying to figure out where “start” is, if that makes sense.

You keep talking about Carroll’s (possibly assumed?) feelings for you but mostly not your feelings. Except right here: “To be honest with myself, I’ve found it hard to get over her.” A-ha! Eureka! Start there, sit with that, work with that. What do you feel and what do you want from Carroll now. Not “what you would be sort of okay with settling for” or “what you would possibly consider” or “what you could make work if you just knew for sure what she wanted.” What do you most want to happen now. If you’re going to risk rejection or  making things slightly weirder than they already are between you before they resolve into the eventual right shape, at least you can know that you’re acting from a place of integrity and honesty with yourself.

Once you’ve got your feelings…”under control” isn’t the right term, let’s go with…admitted? It’s decision time. Awkward or not, there’s no “clarifying” Carroll And Her Feelings without talking to Carroll about her feelings. Depending on what you want, there are plenty of scripts:

  • “Carroll, would you like to go on a date with me on (day) and (time) (and yes it is a DATE date.)” Maybe you don’t have to decide everything about the future with this person, maybe you can take it one date at a time and try.
  • “Carroll, I know when we talked before I wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship, but I have changed my mind. Would you still be open to that?” If she took the risks of speaking up last time, it is definitely 100% your turn now.
  • “Carroll, buddy, friend, I feel like there’s some joke that I’m the subject of but not quite in on. Am I imagining that? Mind letting me in on it?” If you just want to stay friends but you want to clear up the strange vibe you’re picking up on, this is the way. If you want to be with Carroll, this is not the place to start.

Friendships can survive awkward crushes that don’t quite go anywhere, as long as everyone is honest and kind and keeps their senses of humor. If you want to be with Carroll, ask, try, risk, be vulnerable, put it out there. If you don’t want to be with her, especially if you’ve already rejected her, the kindest thing to do is probably let this subject drop. stay pleasant and friendly, let her have her comic asides with friends, and put your energy into other friendships while the Good Ship Feelings About Carroll rights itself after passing through a few rough straits.

That’s the heart of my advice: Start from what you feel and what you want, and don’t work so hard to manage or predict other people’s feelings. 

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Hello, Captain!

Could you talk about how to be good at setting boundaries in a non-situation-specific way? You get a lot of letters from people who are having trouble with someone else not respecting their boundaries, and obviously that is not the time to say “are you sure you really communicated what you meant?” But I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored. I sometimes worry that people may generalize your excellent advice for a specific situation –

1) Express boundary
2) Hold firm on boundary
3) Minimize contact

to –

A) Gently hint at boundary
B) Gently hint at boundary again
C) Walk away.

Because that is definitely a thing that has happened to me. Not all friendships/relationships are meant to be, of course, but I really enjoy being able to be friends with people who see the world differently than I do, even when it requires a little extra communication work. So I’m wondering what you think the best way is to check in with oneself early in a relationship, when things are just barely irritating (when you, Captain, are very unlikely to be getting letters), about whether the actual, literal word “no” (or “stop”) has been said and ignored? Because I’m also pretty sure I’ve been on both sides of this, because who loves provoking conflict? Not me!

A Libra Who Doesn’t Really Believe in Astrology Except For That Balance Thing Which Is Awesome

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As promised…more “If you’re ‘not allowed’ to say no to someone, they are not acting like friends” content. I have kept the Letter Writer’s subject line as the post title so that readers too can have the “Wait, where is the part where this person is an actual mom” “Oh wait, phew, this person isn’t anyone’s actual mother, that would be even more horrifying” realization that The Goat Lady (my trusty inbox sorter) and I did.

Dear Captain,

I (she/her) have a friend, “Mary” who is, by her own admission, a “mom” friend. Mary is very kind– but emotionally overreaching. She feels responsible for making sure her friends are well cared for. Mary has even joked that if it weren’t for her, her friends would buy nothing but junk food and toys at the grocery store, instead of groceries. When we get together, Mary will insist on cooking, even when somebody else volunteers to cook instead. If one of us DOES cook, Mary will hover, or “help” by essentially taking over the cooking–adding ingredients and more or less pushing the other cook out of the kitchen. Mary will consistently cite any accident or mistake any of us have made as an excuse to swoop in. Then she will complain that she is always the one stuck with the cooking.

Mary also feels very much–if she thinks her friends are upset or potentially upset, she will become upset for them. (For example, I have been very stressed at work and with personal projects, and Mary started crying because I “am going to burn out” and that I am “such a perfectionist that you are going to hurt yourself!”) If I complain to Mary about anything, be it annoyance over traffic to a problem with a coworker, it becomes a “problem” and Mary is quick to give me unsolicited advice, get defensive for me or otherwise volunteer to help me solve this “problem.”

If she knows I am struggling with something, Mary will constantly bring it up (probably in an attempt to reinforce what she thinks is the “positive” message), or turn even a casual comment (“I wish could sleep for five years,”) into a big referendum or discussion on my mental health. If we have a difficult conversation or discussion, it will end with Mary crying, clutching me like I am some sort of child and even kissing the top of my head while I am just feeling frustrated. If I try to establish boundaries (“This isn’t a topic I am willing to discuss with you, let’s talk about something else”), my boundaries are immediately overridden. In fact, it seems as if my attempts to establish boundaries are interpreted by Mary as a further excuse to involve herself in me and my life!

I know that Mary is coming from a place of love and care. What reads to me as “manipulative” and “immature,” aren’t necessarily that–it’s just that it is to me! (Ed. note: IT’S NOT JUST YOU) I care very much about Mary but I am reaching the end of my rope. I understand this is part of the “mom” friend aspect, but Cap, I HATE being mothered. My own mother doesn’t even “mother” me. It has never worked on me, and will never work on me, no matter how many times Mary tries to become my surrogate mom. I’m trying hard not to become a hallmark-movie-style troubled teen and start yelling “You are not my real mom!” at her.

Sometimes, I just need to vent or talk about my issues without needing a “solution” or it turning into an “argument.” I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around Mary because even a casual joke (the kind that everyone in our generation and friend group makes!) becomes an emotionally exhausting exercise where I am left feeling emotionally infantilized and I start to resent Mary’s lack of maturity.

On top of this, Mary is attending therapy and seems to think herself the authority on all matters now–she declares herself an expert on conflict resolution but her form of “resolution” is to cry until she gets what she wants or can manipulate the narrative to seem like she was correct (in case it wasn’t obvious by now, Mary has an INTENSE martyrdom complex.)

I don’t want to lose Mary as a friend, and I can’t really get away from her for now. I don’t know how to explain to Mary that I don’t need a “mom” or a “mom friend,” and that her “mothering” is making it impossible to just be “friends.” How do you get a “mom friend” to stop “mothering” her friends?

I don’t know how to ask Mary to emotionally detach herself from me and my problems without making it seem like I am asking her to get out of my life. I also don’t know how I could possibly have these difficult conversations with Mary without it turning into an emotional meltdown on Mary’s part that she then projects onto me, as further evidence that I “need” her. Can you help me find a script to deal with Mary?

Thanks,

She’s not my mom (friend)

Optional P.S. Neither of us are parents, apologies if it was confusing!

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