Content note: Letter mentions the long-ago death of a child.
Dear Captain Awkward
I (she/her) am having some issues with my father’s partner (also she/her). I don’t know how much of my discomfort and dislike of the woman stems from the adolescent area of my brain screaming “you’re not my mother, you don’t get to tell me!” and how much of it is legitimate and may be tackled or minimised.
A little context – my mum died 11 years ago, when she was 59 and I 26, from cancer. A couple of years after that, my dad met Cersei and hit it off. She was also recently widowed, they were each still in love with their spouses but willing to explore a new relationship together. So far, so happy. It’s now a number of years later and it seems like they’ll be together until death does them part (but with no suggestion of marriage being on the cards – a fact of which I am quite thankful).
Here’s the rub, though – Cersei will make every situation about her, and will make it clear that a) no-one has ever suffered like her, and b) your suffering is nothing. A recent example; I have been diagnosed with moderate-to-severe hearing loss. This is a very emotional thing for me. I’m 37 and have no family history of hearing loss, it’s pretty frightening that I’m going to be wearing hearing aids very soon. Cersei’s response was two-fold. First – “Oh, I should probably get my hearing checked too, I’m forever asking people to turn the TV up!” (Great! OK! Fine! I’ll tell you where I went, the test was free. Go forth and get your testing done.) Secondly – “I don’t think your hearing’s that bad. You can hear everything I’m saying.” Stop. Stop right the fuck there. You haven’t seen my hearing deteriorate over the last 3-4 years from jokes about “wow, your hearing’s lousy!” to friends saying “no, seriously, I am concerned about your hearing, for it is lousy.” You don’t know how much detail I miss in conversations, you don’t see me struggling to hear the TV and trying to avoid switching subtitles on for everything (my husbandface finds them distracting) and FUCK OFF do you get to minimise what is a very frightening situation because I can hear you clearly in an enclosed space when you are sitting 2 feet from me with no background noise.
My usual tactic is to be quite abrupt. “I don’t think your hearing’s that bad” – “Yes, it is. It really is, and here are examples of how bad it is.” My dad will step in and tell her to rein it in when people are getting visibly frustrated with her but she will then laugh this off all cheerful – “Oh I’m in trouble again!” – and I know that it’s going to happen again next time.
Captain, it’s got to the point that I avoid seeing my dad if I think Cersei is going to be around. I don’t want to lose my relationship with him, but I don’t want to spend more than a couple of hours with her at a time because I know that I’ll get angry and try to keep my cool, I’ll be upset by what she’s said this time for days after, and I won’t actually enjoy seeing my dad.
Is there a way that I can get her to self-moderate more? (Possibly not, she’s in her 60s, and what’s that saying about old dogs and new tricks?) Is there a way I can teach myself to react less? Do I need to just stop telling my dad anything significant that’s happening in my life, on the assumption that telling him is akin to telling her?
– Desperate and Going Deaf
I’m 24 years old, and next year I’m undergoing the “consecration of virgins” ceremony from Catholic tradition, where essentially I agree to give up romantic attatchments and “marry” myself to God, like halfway to being a nun. I’m very excited about this, and have already started plans for the ceremony, including dresses and rings and whatnot. Hurray for future fancy clothes day! \o/
My problem is with my family. None of my family are invited to the ceremony – I haven’t even told them that I’m undergoing it. I’m keeping the ceremony strictly in-faith, mainly because of the “woo” factor, but my family aren’t Catholic, and while my family are subscribed to the Big Man In The Sky idea, they’re not sold on the more “woo” aspects like divine intervention or godspousery. While they can believe what they like, freedom of faith and all that jazz, I’m not comfortable handling the spiritual disbelief of half my guests at my “wedding”. There’s also complicated history between us which I don’t want encroaching on what is a really important day for me. But I know they’re going to be hurt if I don’t invite them, and I feel horribly guilty about it, especially since this’ll be the closest thing they’ll get to a big white wedding for me!
How do I explain to my family about my upcoming “marriage” and why they’re not invited?
All The Lace
(ps: although I know you probably wouldn’t do this, I just want to make it clear that I’m not interested in any advice on finding “real” datemates to have a “real” marriage ❤ )
:Captain Awkward Opens Mailbox:
:Captain Awkward Stares At Mailbox:
CONGRATULATIONS, ALL YOU BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE GETTING MARRIED SOON.
Let’s talk about some stuff I know about weddings. This is probably my one wedding-related post for at least the remainder of 2019. I’m going to try to hit all the bases I know how to help with. If you don’t see your concern addressed, comments are open.
Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix your family.
Your wedding invitation list does not exist as a communication device to convey exactly who you like best and how much you like (or don’t like) someone in your family or social circle. You can leave the homophobes, Nazis, and child molesters off the guest list and you don’t have to explain yourself. Here are scripts for anyone who wants to pressure you about this:
- “Eh, we’re not that close.”
- “He knows why.” (CN: childhood sexual abuse)
- “But he’s a Nazi. It’s not that complicated.”
- “Everyone will live if this one person is not at one party.”
- “[Relative] and I do have a problem, and that’s our business. It’s not your problem to solve, so please stop trying. If you keep pressuring me about this, my problem is going to be with you. Surely you don’t want that, so let’s change the subject.”
- “You’re going to have to drop this topic, forever.”
My general recommendation is “Invite someone or don’t, avoid half-measures,” “I want to invite X but also control and head off everything about how they behave that day” or “I want to invite X on the condition that we work out everything that is fraught and stressful between us during wedding planning, a fraught and stressful process in itself” is a setup for stress and failure. If this person sucks and makes you uncomfortable? You can not invite them. If the stress of not inviting them is greater than the stress of just giving in, consider that you can invite them and plan to give them a wide berth. There will other guests, brides & grooms are in demand, maybe don’t think of it as “Many hours trapped with this difficult person and our unresolved issues,” think of it as “I’ll spend a quick few minutes of accepting congratulations from someone I don’t like so much before I get distracted with someone else.” People say weddings are a blur and they are right, it’s actually a challenge to slow down and pay attention to every single person, so let the blur work for you! But it’s my strong opinion that half-measures are doomed.
This is because you can’t change people or fix them. People in your family who annoy you will go right on annoying you on and after your wedding day. You can sometimes create buffers against jerks but you can’t control them, and the things that are fucked up in your family will still be messy at your wedding. Sometimes people can rally and behave themselves for one photo op, I hope that’s the case, sometimes people can surprise you with how decent and loving they can be even if things are messy in the relationship, but if they don’t, nobody at your wedding will blame you. Your guests just want to be happy for you and with you, everyone’s related to at least one total asshole, one story-topper, one person who laughs at their own jokes, one person who can’t hold their liquor. Your guests know the deal and they don’t expect you or anyone else to be perfect!
Your wedding (esp. your wedding party, if you have one) doesn’t exist to fix your friendships, either.
People can be great friends and shit bridesmen and groomsmaids. What is it that you want your wedding party to do? Who in your life that you love is best set up to do what you need them to do? Do you need a wedding party at all? It’s possible that charming, loyal, delightful friend who would give you a kidney but can’t be trusted not to kill a succulent in their care is not the one you want as your logistical XO for a complicated affair, but maybe you want them around anyway for Dionysian hilarity. Set people up to succeed.
“Be in my wedding party?” is an invitation, not a command. So be respectful and up front about budget & time commitments. Let “So sorry, I can’t, but I’d love to celebrate as a guest!” be a good, happy, loving answer when it is the honest answer. Also, don’t expect people to read your mind if there’s something you want them to do, you might have a playbook in mind but it’s far from universal, so spell it out! Help people make a good decision, help people give you what you want and need.
Friends/Family of engaged people: You’re allowed to answer “Will you be in my wedding?” with “Theoretically I’d love to but can you spell out what that looks like for you so I can make sure I can follow through?” before committing. You can say no and you can resign from being in a wedding party. Will it affect your relationship with the person who asked you? Probably? Yes? You still don’t have to go broke or tie yourself in knots to meet impossible tasks. This is one of those times to check in with yourself and give an enthusiastic, committed, excited YES or a NOPE, SORRY. Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between or make it a constant negotiation.
Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix your (or anyone else’s) body.
You are lovable and beautiful at the weight you are now and with the personal style you have now. You can obviously use your wedding attire to experiment and play with different looks – ROCK ON, FANTASY GOTH UNICORN PIRATE QUEENS OF THE WORLD – but you do not have to become a different person to take up the space marked “bride” or “groom.” “I don’t plan on losing any weight” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say to people who expect you to starve and sculpt and spray and disguise your body.
For people nervous about being photographed and looked at in a way they aren’t usually, one thing that helped me was taking lots of selfies and having friends take lots of casual photos of me in the months before my wedding, so the whole act of photography was normalized, and my view of my body and face was normalized for me. I also talked to my photographer about this, telling him “I get anxious with a lot of posed photos, can we knock those out and then you can shoot documentary style so I don’t have to stop and worry about it”‘ and he was like “YES” and it worked out great. Be kind to yourself and your body, ok?
Be kind to other people about their bodies, too. “I want you to be in my wedding, but only if you change your weight, get rid of your piercings and tattoos, and modify everything about your face and body so you look more like the other people” = a crappy invitation! Either work WITH your most punk rock friend to find something that they can flaunt as they are, or ask someone else to pose beside you in photos.
“I want you to be in/at my wedding, but only if you cover up how queer/trans you are” is an abomination. Do not do this. YOUR SHITTY OLD RELATIVES WILL FUCKING DEAL, they can tamp down their prejudices for one day, and if they can’t, they should be disinvited. Like, if the mere reminder that queer people exist is upsetting enough to kill Grandma, I gotta consider that it was just her time to go.
Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix your romantic relationship with your intended spouse.
Problems and doubts that exist before you get married will exist after you get married. They don’t just solve themselves, you have to solve them, together, you have to trust this person to solve them with you in a transparent way. Nobody gets magically better in bed, better at money, better at household chores, better at communication b/c a wedding ceremony happened. “I do all the household chores now, but after we get married it will naturally become 50/50” is 100% magical thinking. People change slow if they change at all, they almost never do it for you or another person. If your church or officiant has some kind of premarital counseling, take advantage of it. If not, bring on a couple’s counselor. Work this stuff out now, while everyone is hopeful and invested.
Wedding planning can be an interesting crucible to see how you execute complicated things as a team. If you’re arguing a lot about party planning details, if your intended spouse cannot be trusted to handle wedding planning tasks without tons of input and work from you or if they won’t let you take charge without micromanaging? ABORT & REGROUP. I’m not talking about joint discussion and budget and planning to make sure you’re on the same page, I’m not even talking about never arguing (Is rice a grain or a seed?), I’m talking about a situation where you end up having to check on a fellow adult and do all the work yourself and you’re constantly bummed out because the person who is supposed to be on your team is the one adding stress to your life. Either you need practice letting go of control or your spouse needs to show more ability and follow-through or y’all need more clarity between you, either way, figure this out before you legally combine all your money and your stuff with this person.
If you can’t be a united front about wedding planning stress, postpone the party, seek counseling, work out the issues between you. You need that person to be on your side and they need to be on yours. You need to trust them and they need to trust you. If you don’t have that, abort!
Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix everyone’s feelings.
Planning a wedding means making decisions. Not every decision is going to make every person in your life happy. You have to decide anyway.
There is literally no guaranteed way to deliver news that someone doesn’t want to hear “without offending them,” “without hurting their feelings,” “without making it awkward,” “without upsetting them.”
There is no script, there is no font, there is no “I’m fat and gay and poor and also I don’t like your church or your country club or Grandma’s veil so we’re taking this whole wedding thing in a totally different direction from the one you imagined your child would follow someday, but I’m so happy and I hope you can be happy for me, and if you can’t, keep it to yourself ’cause this is the plan anyway even if you don’t like it!” singing telegram that can control how someone will feel about or react to news they don’t want to hear. It doesn’t exist. I can suggest wording for scripts, I can cheerlead you, but I can’t make your relatives feel a certain way about your decisions or make the especially difficult ones behave themselves this one time. It’s out of my hands the same way it’s out of yours. Other people are gonna say, do, feel what they’re gonna do. Your job isn’t to manage that, it’s to act with integrity, make decisions, and communicate those decisions with integrity and let the rest be what it is.
If you say “no” as politely as you can or make some other decision and someone has feelings about it, but you know that you’ve made the right decision for you, it’s time to stop trying to anticipate or manage or soothe their feelings away. People get to feel their feelings. They don’t get to be assholes to you. You get to set boundaries about how much you want to or can absorb their feelings. You get to tell people “Ok but this is what we decided,” use the “Sorry you feel that way, I know that this is what’s right for me, you’re very loved and important to me so I hope you’ll be able to celebrate with us on the day” non-apology and then put the thing to bed.
Consider that people who use your happy life events as an excuse to pressure, berate, blame, or try to control you or otherwise unload a bunch of negative feelings in your direction are marking themselves out as people who deserve minimal information and can expect to forgo any expectation they might have had of reasonable discussion. These people get put on an information diet, they get an invitation in the mail (if they get invited at all), they get a blanket “Oh, thanks for the input but we already decided that,” they get no more discussions of decisions that are in process, only communication of decisions that have been made jointly by you and your future spouse.
Invitations aren’t commands and traditions are not commandments.
Invitations aren’t commands. At a certain point, someone’s attendance or non-attendance is more about “do I gotta rent u a chair or no” than it is about anything else. People have their own reasons for not being able to travel or show up. Try to celebrate with the people who can make it, the ones who did make it. It’s okay to be very sad if someone won’t join you, but to me, that’s an invitation to connect with them in other ways and make sure they know you’re important to them and that you love them in long-term ways over time (and vice versa), not a time to exert pressure. I’ve missed my share of weddings b/c it was “awesome party vs. rent/food/health.” My good relationships stayed good, even when I missed the celebrations. The ones that apparently demanded choosing unaffordable travel over my own well-being have drifted, and I don’t think that being one of many faces in the crowd on a certain day was the thing that made the difference. If it did? We’re going to have to live with that. I still made the right decision for me.
If someone elopes, trust that they had their reasons. Are you happy for them? Then be happy for them knowing that you’ve got the next 60+ years to be happy for them. You weren’t Left Out of anything, it wasn’t about you.
Traditions – which I recently saw defined as “peer pressure from dead people” – can be beautiful and important but they aren’t everything. They can be remixed and adopted selectively in a way that works for you. Nobody has to walk anyone down an aisle. Consider that anyone who tries to pressure you (“But you have to have _________ kind of food/drink/tchotchkes/toast/dance/bouquet toss/level of fanciness/a white poofy dress/church ceremony/decoration”) is free to have exactly what they like at their own, personal wedding. Their fantasies about what weddings are supposed to be like are not binding rules for you. If traditions are stressing you out and causing a lot of arguments, “Why are we even doing [tradition]” is a great question. Maybe it’s time to list out all the traditions in the families of both spouses, and opt into them one-by-one as it suits you instead of accepting a template.
You’re also allowed to enthusiastically embrace what’s traditional, there is no need to reinvent everything with the right amount of Pinteresting “authenticity.” “Parents/grandparents, I have no idea what I’m doing, what is the usual thing our family does about weddings, lay it on me!” can be a relief. Probably nobody is immune from the pressures of tradition, family dynamics, marketing or the Wedding Industrial Complex, you don’t have to make everything a life-or-death negotiation with The System to show how original you are. Templates can be incredibly useful!
If you are a lady-person marrying a man-person, people will expect you to have tons of opinions, fantasies, and be doing all the work. They will project all kinds of cultural bullshit onto you, and you probably can’t escape the maelstrom entirely, but you don’t have to accept it. The phrases “Oh, thanks for the suggestion, I’ll run it by my partner in case they have something specific in mind,” and “Ask partner, they are handling the food & music” can be a godsend. Also, YMMV, but sometimes reminding myself that planning a single party was not the sole creative act of my adult life and that said party did not have to communicate Who I Am Both As A Bride And A Woman, Plus Honor Everything About Two Families Including Honored Traditions And Exact Markers of Social Class, Especially Considering That I Create Other Stuff And My Chosen Medium For Expressing My Creative Vision Is Generally Not Napkin Colors was a healthy perspective-resetter.
Weddings cost money. How much & what you spend it on is up to you.
Even if you elope, the license and ceremony still cost some money. If you want to have other people there, you gotta budget, since throwing a celebration that is comfortable and enjoyable for guests costs at least some money. “We’re going to the courthouse and then for brunch after” = you still gotta think about stuff like accessible bathrooms, climate control, comfortable seating, all that stuff.
It’s okay to want a big fancy party, don’t let anyone tell you that it’s silly or you’re breaking Feminism or whatever. It’s also okay to want to be rustic and keep it simple, but consider truthfully whether your frail elderly relatives want to go camping in the woods with you. I reject shaming on both ends of the frugality spectrum, the “How dare you not have an ice sculpture on a yacht named after the diamond mine your grandparents left you” crowd and the “Well, I wove my own wedding dress out of cobwebs and gasoline-soaked rags I picked out of the trash over a series of months, unlike all the shallow, basic people who spent more than $3.50 on their crass, inauthentic parties which could never match my unique and perfect love” crowd are equally irritating in my opinion. Especially since the “Our relatives made manicotti and we chilled in the back yard with some beer and soft drinks” weddings and “There was a swank catered affair at a historic site, everyone looked amazing!” weddings I’ve been to all run together as “awesome weddings where people I love married someone they loved and we celebrated!” in hindsight.
Don’t let anybody shame you about doing what you can afford and what will make you happy or set you up to compete about this, okay? I know I’m more in the “it’s one party, not your whole relationship or life” camp, but it is an important occasion if it’s important to you, please don’t let anyone shame you about caring about a big deal event in your life. Especially given the sexist double-bind of “You must execute this perfectly, female human” and “You’re a selfish trivial asshole for caring about a thing your entire culture is pressuring you to execute perfectly” is a real one. I want to empower people to push back against expectations like this and outright evade them, but I’m not going to pretend that they don’t exist or that they didn’t affect me.
It’s great when families offer to pay for weddings, it can be such a lovely, generous gift, as long as you know that money with strings attached – money that is dangled as an excuse to control and abuse you – is very expensive money. You know best if this is the kind of money your family usually offers you, chances are if it’s how they’ve offered money in every other circumstance before, your wedding isn’t going to change that. You’re allowed to accept the money and still do what you want with your wedding, you’re allowed to negotiate compromises as you can, please consider how important “Big Dream Wedding” vs. “Thanks But No Thanks, I’ll Handle It Myself” is to you. Giving an abuser the power of the purse is going to take a toll on you. Is it worth it?
Vendors who work on weddings professionally can roll with dysfunction, they do it all the time. Coordinators, planners, and photographers can be buffers, they know all about directives like “Spouse’s parents divorced, so while we want one or two shots of both parents + newlyweds, you should also photograph them separately.” Ooh, also, it’s easier to take a few giant group shots that include some of your not-so-favorite relatives or your sibling’s shitty date that you hope to never see again and dispatch them to the bar or buffet while you whittle things down to smaller, specific groupings than it is to constantly be like “you, you, NOT you.” Be strategic, let any pros you’ve hired help you, they’ve heard it alllllllllllllllllllllll before.
If you have questions about specific wedding etiquette or traditions beyond “Be nice to people and don’t try to manage everyone’s feelings,” good news! Offbeat Bride and A Practical Wedding were great resources for me, a person who had no idea what I was doing and who was not rich or particularly attached to traditional weddings. If you don’t know about them, now you do.
Comments are open, bring us your wedding grievances, bring us your wedding sanity-savers, bring us your tales of things you worried about that went just fine in the end, bring us your disasters – planned & unplanned – and how you handled it all. If you sent me a recent wedding question and do not see anything here that answers your specific issue, these comments are open for you to get some peer support, too!
Now, before we go, say it with me, all together:
Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your intended spouse, your relationship, other people’s feelings, your body or anyone else’s bodies, your entire relationship with money, capitalism or the concept of parties, your friends, or your family.
You can have a great day with imperfect people at an imperfect celebration where compromises and mistakes were made, and still have all the love and happiness in the world in your married life. Marrying a great person surrounded by loving people at an awesome party is pretty fucking great, not gonna lie, but I hope there are many more happy days, lots of kinds of happiness in store for all of us, including all the Awkward Future Spouses in Awkwardland.
Moderation Reminder: Please review the site policies if you’re new or if it’s been a while, and keep comments constructive, kind, briefer than the entire blog post, and on-topic. Additionally, it’s worth pointing out since it comes up every time we talk about weddings, there is nothing quite like a person who goes out of their way to type “I don’t see what all the fuss about weddings is about” in a comment field on a thread about weddings to make their unique and special brand of nonchalance stand out, especially when there are so many things on the internet to performatively not care about! Don’t spend all your Not Caring on us, kind stranger! Maybe someone out there is discussing their favorite TV shows and they need to know that you don’t even have a TV, or you can chime in with the full details of exactly how much you hate a book you’ve never read when someone is pleasantly discussing it with people who have. :-p ❤ ❤ Kisses!
Edited To Add:
- Commenters, you’re knocking it out of the park today.
- I can’t believe there was no “Weddings” category on the site before, but I’ve made one and done my best to add old posts to it to help with searching for more specific dilemmas.
- Here’s a link to the “brochure”-style program Mr. Awkward and I made for our wedding, which we folded in thirds and put on chairs inside mugs our friend acquired from thrift stores. Yay for free clip art! Yay for telling people how things are going to be so they know when they’ll get fed and when it’s time to go home!
- Here’s us in the middle of getting married & right after, fat, happy, and surrounded by the best people. Click to embiggen.
Low stakes question here regarding the delicate situation of my housemates’ generally lovely parents. I live in a house with several people, including a couple with two kids who are also my landlords (the couple, not the kids). I’ve been here for five years and I love it! The situation is wonderful, the dynamic is relaxed and positive, and we’re all on the same page re: cleaning, respect, visitors, whatever. The couple (I’ll call them Fred and Joe) will sometimes invite Joe’s parents to stay and look after the kids while they go on vacation, a situation which we are all generally fine with.
However, I am becoming increasingly annoyed that Joe’s parents completely take over the house when they are here. For example:
1) Joe’s mother has a predilection for cleaning, rearranging and reorganizing the house. I’ll come home to find dishes reorganized, things put in different places, etc. I realize she is trying to be helpful, and I don’t mind (and am in fact grateful) for the fridge to be cleaned or the shelves dusted, but I find it annoying to open a closet and find things completely reordered. It’s my stuff too, not just Joe’s — though I have to say, even if it were just me, and MY mother came and reorganized things without asking, we would have words!
2) Things get loud, especially in the mornings. Loud talking, Facetiming, playing with the kids (it’s a big house and usually Fred and Joe move the kids away from the bedrooms in the mornings so others can sleep), etc. I work late and have a night-owl schedule. I have a white noise machine and ear plugs, but last night the noise in the morning was loud enough that I woke early anyway. I addressed this once and it briefly improved things, but time passes and maybe they forget…?
3) They don’t seem to realize that I am an actual member of the household and not a guest of their son. For example, I left a note out to inform everyone that my friend was coming to stay for a few days. They insisted that I call Fred and Joe to ask permission. I believe Joe’s father’s exact words were, “Please text Joe — it’s not my house, so I can’t say yes or no.” Captain, I’m a grown woman who pays rent, utilities, and groceries at a home I’ve lived in for years. I realize not everyone can be privy to a group dynamic of which they aren’t a member, but is it weird that I find it deeply insulting that they, who are themselves guests in the place where I live, are treating me like a child? Am I being oversensitive here?
I’d like to find a way to preemptively deal with these things, either internally for myself or externally with Fred, Joe, my other housemate, and Joe’s parents, without causing friction for anyone. Joe’s parents are actually really nice people, and I’d like to have a cordial relationship with them. I also don’t want to jeopardize the dynamic of the house. What do I do? Do I just put up with this because they are only here a few times a year (though it is usually for a week or more)? Do I say something? If so, to whom, and how? What do I do preemptively and/or in the moment? If they were my parents it would be one thing, but they aren’t. I realize this is low stakes, and maybe I should just deal and try not to be around much, but it feels shitty to be made to feel this way in my home, however well-meaning they are.
Thanks, Captain! Love your site and look forward to your take.
The dog treats are on the low shelf for a reason kthx
P.S. As of the time I’m writing this, Joe’s mother has moved the Tupperware to the place SHE wants it for the SECOND TIME THIS WEEK — after I moved it back to its home *again*. Please help.
“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.
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)