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“Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to give this book to my mother. To present it to her as a precious gift over a meal that I’ve cooked for her. To say: Here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.” – Michele Filgate, Introduction, What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence

I just devoured this essay collection curated by the wonderful  Michele Filgate (whose title-essay about her mother’s refusal to believe her about childhood sexual assault at the hands of her stepfather is in the book) and it’s really good. There are love and appreciation stories aplenty, though many essays cover seriously harrowing ground around mental illness, addiction, emotional abuse, and other kinds of abuse without holding back. It’s not a light read, is what I am saying.

I feel like almost every piece in the book maps to a letter that someone has sent to my inbox about how to say the unsayable thing, how to know when it’s time to let go, how to tell your own truth, how to dig into the past without letting it define you, how to set boundaries, how to see a parent as a separate person who existed before you, how to honor the gifts our mothers give us and be honest about the poisoned apples they sometimes pass on. I kept highlighting as I went because I knew that some Letter Writer somewhere needed to see that sentence, see themselves on that page. “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado‘s chapter about estrangement is one of the best things about that topic I’ve read. Some quotes from that essay:

“Whenever I saw her, she found some way to let me know that despite my accomplishments, I was failing. ‘You need to learn to make better choices,’ she told me, though what choices they were, she never specified. Besides, all I could hear was, ‘I wish I’d made better choices.’ And I couldn’t help her with that.”

“A reader might think that this is, obviously, a kind of misplaced parental anxiety and love. And they might be right. But I felt like I was losing my mind. There was no trust, no affection, no listening, just ignorant micromanagement. It felt like I was existing in a parallel universe, where everything I’d just done with my life, everything I was doing with my life, hadn’t made any difference at all. I was a kid again, useless. Nothing was mine–not my time, not my schedule, not my choices.”

I’ll stop before I accidentally re-publish the whole thing. If you spent Mother’s Day curled up in a ball because of a difficult relationship and/or if you have a letter hanging out in my queue about this topic, this might be a healing book for you. ❤

I’m working on a book proposal for a collection of essays, so I’m on a tear of reading essay collections of late. Here are some other collections I couldn’t put down:

  • Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which is an essay collection about race and politics and identity in America AND a memoir about family and love and being from a particular place in the Midwest AND a chronicle of how the music we love carries our dreams and tells our stories, how the music brings us back to particular moment in time, how it helps us remember and see. It’s a fucking stunner.
  • Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel which is, among many other things, such a love letter to the teachers who taught him to write. Chee has an essay in the What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About collection as well.
  • JoAnn Beard’s The Boys Of My Youth (I discovered her work through the outstanding 1996 essay The Fourth State of Matter which, if you are unfamiliar, could use a content note for everything from “school shooting/gun violence” to “dying pet” but it’s one of those pieces that says EVERYTHING and never lets go).

No comments, as I don’t really like debating about the books I read in my free time, I like what I like and you like what you like, but since people always want to know what I’m reading, here’s some of what I’m reading. I hope you’re reading things that speak to you!

Finally, I just got an advance copy of Jessica Pan’s “Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want To Come: One Introvert’s Year Of Saying Yes” in the mail, I’ll update here when I’m done since I think “What would happen if a shy introvert lived like a gregarious extrovert for one year?” is a question that lots of us might like to see answered, if only vicariously and from a very safe distance.

Dear Captain,

About a year ago I was able to save just enough money to say, “F@&$ you!” to a really depressing living situation and moved cross-USA into my mom’s new house in the very expensive area near where I grew up. I’m lucky that my mom and I are fairly compatible personality-wise (and that my younger siblings are as well; the one I get along with best also lives here) and she doesn’t want me to pay her rent. After a few months of depression, followed by temp work, followed by getting into a great volunteer gig, a great part-time job, and re-entering community college to change careers (from the arts to a very applied science, which is un-coincidentally not viewed as prestigious or intellectual unlike my previous field), I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting back on my feet emotionally and financially.

The problem is, my room is still crowded with unpacked boxes and is not very clean (I have pets which are creating messes I am slow to clean up). We bought paint and furniture months ago but I’ve been too busy and overwhelmed to put my room together and so I’m living out of laundry bags. I know this situation is untenable and unpleasant (for me) but I do try to keep the worst of the mess to my own room and to keep up with my pets’ needs. (UfYH has helped with that and is helping me keep the worst of the mess down.)

But I think my mom has been going in my space (expressly against my permission) and she keeps giving me bullshit ultimatums disguised as “help”.
Example: Mom non-sequiturs: “This weekend we are *going* to move your desk into the dining room so you can unpack.”
Me: “I don’t want to move my desk (because I have other more important things to do like laundry for work and eking out a little self-care and also I use my desk and also where TF did that come from?)”
Mom: “But you *can’t* live like this!”

Captain, I know it’s not great, but it isn’t a pigsty and I am already barely keeping up with my new responsibilities and I just don’t have the energy to do polishing touches on my room. There are too many steps to take before I am even close to that. My mom talks to me like an incompetent child whenever it comes to cleaning (or calling out sick from work!) and rags on me whenever I try to talk about the volunteer work I’m doing in my new field. She has *suggesti-told* me to quit whenever I say I’m tired (because it’s physical, outdoor work), and it makes me so, so angry. How can I tell her my priorities are different from hers and how can I express my feelings without her complaining that I’m just bad at managing my life? (I’ve been trying to keep her on an information diet because she’s been so critical but it’s backfired because now she thinks I have “sleep issues.” Which she just *told* me to see a doctor for, like that’s so easy or even the problem. I snapped back that my health is none of her business. Have I mentioned that I’m fat, queer, and happily single? I.e., failing at traditional womanhood?) I’m tired and overwhelmed because I’m still not out of my depression, but volunteering and working is helping, and if my room stays a mess for the next year it will still have been worth it for me! I know it’s her house but it is *my* room and *my* stuff she complains about.

I think part of the problem is that my new career is lower-status than what I originally went to school for (and declined to get an expensive Master’s for). I have heard her dismiss my work in conversations with family like she thinks it’s some sort of phase. Captain, I am in my thirties, I know I’m making good, sensible decisions for my future. I am “behind” my peers because I decided to start over, not because I’m incompetent. My life trajectory is different because I am different. I feel like my otherwise-lovely, supportive mother sees my room as visible evidence that I am a failure at adulting.

Thanks for any kind of scripts/assistance/creating this vaguely friendly void of an email account to scream my frustration into!

Darling daughter is doing just fine. (She/her)

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Hi Captain Awkward!

I came out to my parents about 3 years ago, when I was still living with them before moving abroad to start my PhD. They were horrible – and it made the next 6 months of my stay a traumatizing experience, to say the least. I think you could describe my parents as controlling, and when I came out there was a lot of ‘we HATE all the career choices you’ve made, but we had the goodness to tolerate them, and now this!’ Anyway. Moved out, moved countries, got a fuckload of therapy, and started the process of healing.

I told my mother (via a text) that I was moving in with my girlfriend and she freaked out. She is “devastated”, and my father, with whom I have not had an actual conversation since my coming out (made summer visits home real fun, if you can believe it), is “furious, and wants to disown you”. I… am not sure how to cope with this? The worst part is that I have a ticket home to visit them for nearly a month, in three weeks. Captain, I’m not sure I want to visit them (for three whole weeks!) after this terrific display of parenting. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that not visiting them will be taken as this huge display of disrespect and an indication that I *want* to be estranged from them. So the options are to either stay away for my own peace of mind and be a bad daughter, possibly irrevocably so, or to grit my teeth and spend 3 weeks at home enduring silent disapproval at best and emotionally abusive confrontations at worst.

Like I said, I don’t have a relationship with my father. My mother is the one I speak to on the phone and text with. I told her “I’m sad and disappointed that you feel this way about my moving in with my girlfriend. I don’t feel safe coming back to visit you, and I don’t think you’d feel comfortable either.” She replied and the preview contains another allusion to my disappointing career (for the record, worked at a non-profit, doing a PhD now, only a failure insofar as “not earning hundreds of thousands as a corporate lawyer” is a failure) and… I haven’t seen the rest of it because I get avoidant when I’m anxious. Do you have any scripts for like… how to respond and how to navigate what may potentially be a long, torturous process of becoming (formally) (even more) estranged from my parents?

Best,
Bad Kid

P.S. My pronouns are she/her!

P.S. Just wanted to give a heads-up that you’re almost definitely going to recommend therapy, which I know is a big part of the answer! The most recent therapist I had didn’t really work for me, and since I’m moving in 2 weeks, I might not have a huge amount of time / resources to devote to finding a new therapist.

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If it’s not obvious why from the subject line, we’re putting this post behind a cut so people can choose whether to engage further. FYI there are mentions of past assaults and predatory behavior in addition to describing sex offender registries and designations. Upsetting stuff, though the LW is doing a good job with an impossible situation.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve met somebody lovely and we’re getting married in the summer. (My pronouns: she/her, my fiancee’s: they/them) I’m thrilled to celebrate with all my family and friends…except one person.

My uncle has mainlined Fox News for longer than I’ve been alive and has selected me, his queer, liberal niece, as a prime audience for his rants. He’s also an aggressive alcoholic who has sent me crude conservative memes on Facebook.

If it were just me involved, I’d probably invite him and assign somebody to make sure he couldn’t make trouble (or have too many drinks). But I’m marrying a Latinx immigrant, exactly the sort of person he spent my entire childhood ranting about. Our wedding is going to be catered by a taco truck. I don’t want him to say something horrible to my fiancee’s family.

I can’t invite him. My father is lecturing me on forgiveness. My mother is brokenhearted and fears this will cause a rift in the family which can never be repaired. My uncle is a proud man and will quite probably never forgive me. But the whole point of a wedding is that I’m starting my own family – and I refuse to have our first day as family marred by somebody who hates the very idea of my future in-laws.

I’m not always a forgiving person but I think this is a very reasonable boundary. Am I wrong? Is there compromise to be had? And how do I stand it throughout the months until the wedding, fighting this invitation fight over and over again with everyone my mother recruits to talk to me about it?

-Wish We’d Eloped

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Dear Captain Awkward,

After almost a year of planning, we’re in the home stretch before my wedding day in early May. Everything was lining up smoothly until I reached out for RSVPs that hadn’t been received yet, namely my stepdad, my aunt, and my grandmother (my dead mom’s sister and mother). These are my only family members from mom’s side of the family. And I was informed that none of the three are coming. My stepdad says he “doesn’t feel up to it” but honestly we’re not super close so I kind of get it; my aunt can’t afford it (no loss there, honestly, she’s a pain).

My grandmother at first said she can’t afford to come. When I offered to pay her way, it became “well I just cain’t (said in an East Texas drawl)”. I’m not proud of it but I was sobbing on the phone with her. She then wrote me a passive-aggressive letter, full of “I” statements, talking about how she has all these wonderful memories of going and doing things for and with me throughout my childhood. I’m glad for her to have those memories. Problem is, the memory I’m going to get to keep with me for the rest of my life is that she couldn’t be arsed to make an effort for me. I’m feeling really abandoned and very, very sad. Am I off base here? How do I let this go (short of going in to therapy for it – I already am looking for a new therapist after a little over a year out of therapy because of insurance reasons)? I also haven’t spoken to her since the phone call where I cried – she hasn’t called me, and I don’t know what I would say if I called her. After the letter, I’m not even convinced I want to talk to her.

I guess what I desire right now is to be told I’m not insane to be hurt by this, because past-trauma-brain is gaslighting me super hard right now and I’m tired of crying every time I think about it.

Fucking why.

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Hi Captain,

My estranged father is about to die (I am working with family to make the degree of peace with which I feel comfortable). My mother died about a decade ago. Besides the problem of anticipatory grieving and emotions feelings around an estrangement, I am struggling with a desire not to go to his funeral.

The church and hometown I situation in which I grew up were small and sometimes a little cult-like. The church left me with a lot of trauma. I have almost no contact with anyone from that period of my life any more and I like it that way.

However, it was my dad’s church and he’s known some of these people since the 70s. Particularly because of the estrangement, I don’t have a right to plan the funeral/memorial or decide to exclude some people. I expect to see a lot of people there whom I last saw at my mother’s funeral and whom I hope never to see again.

But I will be grieving. I need to go.

Might you have any scripts for how to handle people either bringing up the estrangement or attempting to make small talk? I don’t want to talk about the estrangement with anyone but my siblings. I don’t want to make small talk. I want to grieve and see him buried.

Thanks,
/Not A Bad Daughter I Swear

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