Archive

Families

Hello lovely readers!

Whenever I write about family estrangement, setting boundaries with family members, difficult parents, etc. a) I’m usually answering a bunch of letters in one, if that makes sense, like, there are many of this kind of question so I am picking one to tackle at length and b) immediately afterward I get an influx of letters that are like “Hey, MY family is a lot like the Letter Writer’s, but also different, can you help me unpack the situation?” 

This is not a bad thing, I appreciate the letters and comments so much – we are not alone, I am so glad people are seeing patterns and finding the posts helpful! – but also I know 100% that I am not going to get to the influx of similar questions on the site or with a personal reply, and I’m reasonably sure that I’m not going to make any more posts about specifically this topic for at least the next month or so. I’d like to invite folks in similar straits to comment on the open discussions ( #1247 & #1248) and also refer back to this omnibus collection of past posts and summary of the best of the existing “family boundary” advice. Everybody’s situation is obviously unique (heeeeeey Tolstoy, hey!) but my overall approach and suggestions for scripts and strategies is probably going to be covered somewhere in that mix in a way that you can hopefully take to your own support system and tailor for your own purposes.

If you think online peer support around a sticky family situation would help you, the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com are back up after some temporary technical difficulties (I am told), and there are many communities on Reddit (r/raisedbynarcissists, r/CaptainAwkward are a few that come to mind) where people discuss these topics with a lot of gentleness and encouragement. If readers have suggestions for additional off-site “this is a good place to hang out and talk about this stuff” spots, that would be useful – email me those and I’ll add them to the list.

Let me leave you with one reminder: It’s not your job to fix every relationship or clean up every mess in your family, even if you could. (You can’t). Even when we’re armed with all the best advice, planning, strategies, counseling, support from safe friends and loved ones, safety plans, boundaries, kindness, patience, good intentions, etc. fraught family relationships can stay a total mess. Even when the worst of it stops (usually ’cause we grew up and got out), some people will never be what we need. Some people will never make us feel all the way good or relaxed. Some places will always feel haunted, and some situations will always have us double-checking under the bed or behind the shower curtain or between the lines for danger. The absence of danger is no less eerie! No monsters under the bed this time, but are the dust bunnies filled with menace? No monsters in the closet, just these wire hangers. The yellow wallpaper in the hall got paneled over long ago, observe the faded spots where the portraits of what looked like a happy family from outside used to hang. Don’t forget to jiggle the toilet handle after flushing and step over the broken stair. Oh yes, that sound you hear is definitely ghosts, The Ghost of The Childhood That Should Have Been likes to come out this time of night and wail for a while, she’s pretty friendly if you want to say hi! But come away, come away, you don’t need to repair or renovate this wreck, it’s time to hop in the rental car or catch your train back to where your small quiet room awaits. Come in, close the door behind you, nobody is going to knock on it. Hang up your coat, take your shoes off, fix yourself a beverage, sit in your comfiest chair, and open your presents:

  • 1 dog-eared copy of A Wrinkle In Time with “I give you your faults” highlighted.
  • 1 yellow post-it note with “Do less work to manage relationships with people who are unkind to you 2019” scrawled in teal glitter pen
  • 1 “Bless This Mess!” sign, $1, slightly cracked, purchased in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart

<3,

Not Just A Captain, She’s Also A Member

This is another one in a series about difficult parent relationships: A dad who wants to talk on the phone for hours about only the things he wants to talk about and who reminds his daughter, when she tries to set boundaries, that he has nobody else to talk to. It’s about guilt and about how the hardest part of boundary-setting can be a negotiation between us and ourselves. Maybe the key to this negotiation is figuring out the difference between “should” and “want to.”

Read More

I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.

Read More

Dear Captain,

I (34/she/her pronouns) have a new stepfather as of this summer. He has been with my mom off and on for the last 10+ years, and they finally married in July 2019. I think this man is a Garbage Human, but we have to let our parents make their own adult decisions.

A bit of background – my highly narcissistic mom and I have reached a detente after several years of fighting and NC (no contact). She knows what sort of leash she is on, she knows that access to her only granddaughter depends on her good behavior. We mostly get on ok.

SF seems to be of the opinion that he can smack talk my mother’s shopping habits to me when she is not there. I could use some scripts to help deflect him, because while I am very frequently in my first class compartment on the “My Mom is Awful” train, I do not want my stepfather as a seat mate.

Help?
This Train Has No More Room

Hello This Train Has No More Room:

Oh yeah, shut it down.

Your stepdad humorously venting or having “Hey, is this normal, or…?” or “Here’s what’s going on with me” conversations with a close friend or other trusted member of his personal council of advisors is within bounds, but you don’t have to join that advisory board.

He’s either trying to bond (badly), assuming y’all are much closer than you are, or sending out a triangulation advance scouting team to test things like “Will LW not repeat mean stuff to her Mom?” and “But will she repeat the stuff I strategically want her to, so it comes from her and not me?” but it doesn’t really matter what he’s after, you can still opt right out. He could be like “I’m just making conversation, your mom is what we have in common” and you could still decide “Nope!” He doesn’t have to be aware of the history of how much effort it’s costing you to even be around him and your mom for you to decide “I’d prefer not to,” and you don’t have to explain yourself.

You don’t have to explain yourself, but silence will only encourage him to continue, so the next time he tries this you’re going to have to say something. Possible scripts:

  • “Wow, what a weird thing to say to me about my mom.” + redirect your attention away from that topic. 
  • “Sounds like a good one to talk about with Mom, a therapist, and…nope, actually just those two.” + redirect your attention.
  • “I thought we covered this: Don’t say anything to me about my Mom or anyone in my family that you wouldn’t say when they’re in the room.” Then, redirect your attention.
  • “‘Ladies be shopping’? Whoa, save it for the comedy club!” There is a decent chance he is one of the legions of shame-proof straight, cisgender men who are convinced they could do stand-up professionally despite never once having made a person who wasn’t dependent on them for a salary, lunch tip, or lucrative sales contract authentically laugh. If he comes back with “Ha, I’ve always known I could do stand-up!” try “Sure. Pose as a time traveler from 1983, and let me know when it is so I can not be there.” Then redirect attention, etc.
  • Use your “Yikes.” “Wow.” “What.” “Nope!” “But jokes are funny.” as necessary and then redirect your attention.
  • You could ask him, “When you say mean stuff about my mom what is the reaction you are hoping for?” but do you actually want to know? If you think he’s looking for an excuse to expound, don’t use this one.

Redirecting your attention could mean:

  • Being very terse, flat, and boring in your reactions.
  • Changing the subject.
  • Leaving the room. Doesn’t have to be a dramatic exit to make a point, wandering away because you need a glass of water or to make a phone call or use the rest room does the job.
  • Ending a phone call, social media back-and-forth, or text conversation. Anything from “Ok, gotta go” to not replying to selective replying to using “mute” and other filters to best serve you.
  • Starting up a pleasant side conversation with someone else in the room.
  • If you are a person who tends to space out, harness it. Were we still talking about that thing? Who knows? You kinda spaced out there for a second. (Might as well make it work for us for once).
  • “Rudely” disappearing into your phone. Sometimes the people in the internet are much nicer than the ones we’re related to, sometimes “Oh, sorry, I’m getting distracted by this work message, I need to handle it, if you’ll excuse me” is what gets you out of the moment.
  • Over time, limiting contact with people who routinely stress you out. You know all about that, Letter Writer!

I know I’ve recommended all the above actions individually a whole bunch, but I started thinking of them as a unit to be filed under “redirecting your attention” during the holiday posts, some of the “reasons are for reasonable people” and “why do we spend so much time and energy on the worst people?” discussions, and definitely as part of a “do less” approach to fraught relationships. We spend so much time and energy worrying about communicating with people who don’t give a single shit about our feelings or our comfort. Can “do even less!” in 2020 be about changing that equation?

For example, politely changing the subject is useful, I’m a fan, I like to let people save face and de-escalate situations when I can. But how long do we have to knowingly walk into certain rooms with a list of safe, innocuous topics that we extensively strategized about beforehand, and then cheerfully toss them out like a gym teacher distributing tennis balls at the beginning of class and pretend this is normal, neutral thing to have to do?

Do we have to pull every mean and annoying person we know aside and earnestly and patiently discuss our boundaries, or spend all family gatherings navigating patiently around the people we don’t like and didn’t come to see? Or can we say a quick “hello” for routine politeness’ sake and because it would take more effort to freeze them out, and then go talk to the people we actually like?

When someone says something out of line, can it be enough to say “Jeez Louise! What a weird thing to say” and then skip right to “Oh hey, there’s Louise, I’m going to bring her a glass of water” and keep it moving right out of that conversation? Not as a way to “reinforce the boundary” or convince anybody of anything, more like, that’s done, now I’m reclaiming my attention and re-directing it where I want it to go, somebody else can change the subject for a change.

‘Cause sometimes what the person who is behaving badly wants most is more of your attention, by any means necessary, and if they don’t get the initial high-five or commiseration or invitation to expound they hoped for, they’re willing to be loud and wrong if it means they can suck you into a longer conversation where you discuss the subject by which they mean they get to talk more about it. 

If your stepdad is one of these people, being told “no” is just fine, he’ll promise he won’t say mean things about your mom anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna shut up, not when he’s just gotten started, can he interest you in a long, involved back-and-forth about why he is the Normal, Cool, Reasonable One Who Is Trying Here and you are the Touchy, Humorless One Who Can’t Take A Joke, Just Like Your Mom, now with extra bad faith? It’s entirely possible that the more you try to talk about stuff you don’t want him to share, the more opportunities he has to try to “discuss” your mom with you, which…is exactly what you don’t want.

Emotional sea-lioning is still sea-lioning, someone whose opinions you don’t care about being “very concerned” (or whatever) and wanting to “get to the bottom of things” or “work on our relationship” doesn’t mean you have to play along. “Ok, stop doing the behavior and the relationship will be fine” is your way out of that one. Resist the pressure and the urge to play the “what if” game. What if your mom’s shopping is excessive and causing financial problems or making him think dementia is happening and he’s worried about her? ‘kay, maybe, then he should talk to someone who is close to your mom (clearly not you) and someone who didn’t just get finished telling him “Hey don’t tell me stuff like that about my mom” i.e. Not You. What if your mom is mean to him and he’s regretting the marriage? He should talk to someone who likes him (Not You, again!), someone who cares about their marriage (this role will be played by…Not You!). Does he want someone to talk with about aging, wills, elder care, and the like? Simple, he can ask people he knows for recs or type those words into Google and click any results that do not contain your name. Is he trying to loop you in because that’s what would happen in other families? Cool, cool, somewhat understandable, but he’s known you for 10 years and he knows you don’t have that relationship. Does he think he can repair the relationship you and your parent have with each other? What an unusual hobby, he should get that looked at by (you guessed it) Someone Who Is Not You. Is your mom perhaps deputizing him to talk to you on her behalf? She knows where that game ends by now, it ends with You, Not talking to Her for extended periods of time. It doesn’t matter why. Hold fast to the safe, happy life you have created and don’t let either of these people make their problems into your problems. 

Letter Writer you are smart and realistic, you obviously have some hard-won boundary-defending skills, and correctly, you don’t want to change this dude, you just want to avoid this dude slightly more and slightly more skillfully than you already avoid him. So when your stepdad says weird stuff about your mom to you, tell him to stop in the quickest and most efficient way possible and then redirect your attention. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, if your stepdad thinks you don’t like him much or that you are unreceptive to his confidences, those things are true, so…:shrug emoji:?  If someone you don’t like, whom you see incredibly rarely, under highly-controlled circumstances decides you’re not exactly his cup of tea, I think you’ll manage to carry on somehow. 😉 If the train called “Mom is Terrible” and the train called “Both Of You Are Terrible” leave the same station at the same time, they will be necessarily be on parallel tracks that can’t meet without causing a serious accident. It doesn’t matter if they are headed in the same direction part of the way, or how long it takes to get where they’re going, or if they double back and cross each other’s paths sometimes, this isn’t the fucking SAT and you don’t have to show your work.

Let us close with a video montage. Is Miranda Priestley (antagonist of The Devil Wears Prada) a paragon of warmth and human kindness? No.

Is Miranda Priestley going to get three visits from three spirits one Christmas Eve to examine her past, present, and future? No, every rich mean person doesn’t get issued a personal redemption psychopomp, but I would watch the hell out of that movie, twice if there were Muppets.

Is Miranda Priestley extremely good at getting people to stop talking when she’s done listening and might you want to harness some of that “I said what I meant and I mean what I said kthxbye” energy when you talk to your stepdad? Oh yes.

 

Thank you all for the kind words and end-of-year donations and patronage that have flowed in over the last week or so. I’ve been traveling and kind of made a point about not touching my laptop for a week or so, but I read everything and I’m very grateful. ❤

Everyone’s doing decade-retrospectives and my brain is melting at the thought of it. Ten years ago, I was still technically a grad student/adjunct teacher, I lived with roommates, I’d just finished my very last student film, Captain Awkward Dot Com didn’t launch until January 2011, and I didn’t meet Mr. Awkward until 2012.

But let’s do a 2019 round-up, yes? Here were the most-viewed/shared/discussed posts from the site in 2019:

First, a timely seasonal carryover from the very end of 2018,  “#1162: Is there room to compromise when it comes to alcohol and driving? (Answer: Why not set the default at “Don’t drink and drive”? I made a chart and everything.)

Next: #1215: ” ‘So…about your private reproductive decisions’ and other ‘small’ talk.” 

Let’s please stop asking people about their intense private life stuff out of passing curiosity, the idea of politeness, or because we think we’re entitled to know. When people have big news about babies, THEY’LL TELL U.

While the rest of the world catches up, this post has lots of strategies for answering (and deflecting/de-escalating) potentially fraught “small-talk” questions that can unknowingly hit real sore spots.

P.S. Letter Writer #1228 you’ve been in my thoughts and the offer to fight your family in real life if necessary is still incredibly open.

Third, #1219: “My friend’s boyfriend keeps ‘negging’ me.” 

This post has THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY ONE comments strategizing about whether it’s okay to tell a serially annoying dude “Look, could you stop?” and is often re-shared/cited for mention of “Schrödinger’s Autist,” a theoretical construct who only comes out in Internet discussions of cis men behaving badly toward women as a way to pre-excuse bad behavior (and has nothing to do with actual autism).

Fourth-most viewed is #1186: “How do I restore trust in my relationship?

Like the faux rank of “Captain” Awkward, “The Marie Kondo of Breakups” is a self-assigned comedy title because it’s one of my life’s missions to tell my younger self young people, especially young women, that a partner who keeps letting you down and leaving you wondering in the early stages of a relationship is probably not going to change for the better, and there’s nothing you can do to “love somebody more” into being who you need them to be.

It’s okay to want love, to risk, to try to make things work, but working at somebody who isn’t doing any work to be a good partner to you is a lonely and disappointing bet.

Fifth, #1218: “Irritability and constant criticism in a marriage. The post and comments are a good roundup of previous discussions of verbal abuse and safely extricating oneself from a draining and damaging partnership.

Good “Could this be abuse?” guideline: When someone who is supposed to love you is constantly mean and you start asking yourself “what’s wrong with me that’s making this person be so mean, how can I fix myself?” it might be time to visit LoveIsRespect.org from a private browsing window and start making plans.

Sixth, #1198: “How do I deal with work burnout and make my partner* happy?” (*My partner = my boss, who is *a* partner in the law firm where I work)

Notable for link to description of “insecure overachievers”and how capitalism hijacks anxieties and perfectionism in search of star performers, not caring who burns out along the way or how unsustainable and unhealthy the culture can get.

VERY GOOD NEWS: This Letter Writer sent me an update and is doing MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BETTER. ❤

Seventh, #1197: “He broke up with me but hasn’t moved out yet. How do I not ruin our last chance to make this work?” 

I had the worst time moving on after breakups (rejection sensitive dysphoria, yaaaaaaaay) and learning how to let people go was one of the hardest and best lessons I ever learned. I’m proud of this heartbreak omnibus and hope it can make a difference to others. There are enough ballrooms in you, Letter Writer, and I hope you are in much better straits now.

Eighth, #1194: “I’m moving in with my girlfriend and now my homophobic parents want to disown me. One of a series of posts on family estrangement and how to close doors to protect yourself and leave some open in hope of better things. “Forever is a long time, Sally.” Letter Writer, your parents don’t deserve you and I hope your new home with your girlfriend is a cozy and happy one that is everything you want it to be.

Ninth, #1233: “Is it ever safe to take a parent off a low-information diet?” 

People have choices about how they treat you, and relationships don’t get messed up overnight or for no reason, so when a parent wants you to have a “closer” relationship, does that obligate you to try to repair things in some way? Can they acknowledge why distance made sense at the time?

Probably one of the most personal posts I’ve made on the site, this brought up lots of stuff for me and was very much on my mind during holiday visits with my folks. When people talk about the past, my mom says “I don’t remember that” a lot ( A LOT) in a sharp, pointed way that clearly means “So, obviously it didn’t happen.” She’s telling the truth (she doesn’t remember) but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen or that my memories are lies. I still don’t know how to ever ethically tell our story or tell her about my writing here, but I know our story lies at the heart of many of the things I write here.

In tenth place, several posts around the topic of “WEDDINGS, WHY ARE THEY SO WEIRD?” came in within 100 page views of each other so I’m re-sharing them all:

  • It’s Mother-Effing Wedding Season Again So Let’s Chat. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your friendships, your partnership, your body. It does not have to be your sole creative act that communicates your exact social class and crafting ability.
  • #1223: “Feminist Etiquette Wedding Help”. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your relationship, your body, or the world. It’s a party so try to throw a good one that makes you happy and invites your guests in to what you want vs. trying to argue with each of them about why you’re allowed to want what you want. “Oh thanks, but we’re all set!” is a very useful phrase.
  • #1188: “Grief and empty chairs at the wedding feast.Maybe the idea of ghosts first sprang from the divided vision of grieving people, the way we can both see the party as it’s happening and see the echoes of what the party should be like, our longing giving shape and color to the empty spaces where our loves should be.”
  • #1189: “Fox News, Immigrant Family, and the F**ing Wedding Invite List.Probably the Uncle could have behaved himself for one day, but this thing where we tiptoe around bigots and keep negotiating with non-bigots for “more tolerance” toward bigots has gotta stop. We can work on tolerating/convincing/courting them once we’ve out-organized and out-voted them, let people who aren’t their direct targets run interference for a change.

I should also highlight the awesome series of guest posts from Lenée aka dopegirlfresh aka the GOAT who filled in for me during surgery in the spring. I plan to have her back in 2020, as well as some other exciting guests (Rae McDaniel has volunteered to peek into the inbox to answer questions about gender, we’re just trying to get a meeting on the calendar to figure out the logistics).

The blog motto for 2019 was “Quit working so hard on relationships that aren’t working for you” and I’m still ruminating on 2020’s. How do people feel about “Do even less work than that and see how you feel?”

Love and good New Year wishes to all of you in Awkwardland, comments are open.

Got an update for us (never an obligation, but we love to read them)?

Is there a post from the past year that you found especially useful?

Did you kick ass at setting a difficult boundary this year?

Did you decide to put in “less work” with a thorny relationship? What happened?

Ahoy Captain,

This past year I (31/F) finally received a diagnosis for what I’ve been struggling with for over half my life. I have Complex PTSD/PTSD (I’ll spare you the differences and overlaps) (Ed. Note: No worries! I, Jennifer, will link people to a basic explainer.) Encouraged by my therapist I shared the PTSD with my parents. The main reason being because, with the enthusiastic support of said therapist, I am pursuing a service dog (SD).

Being able to acknowledge that yes, I have experienced multiple traumas and that I deserve to seek help and healing in a way that’s actually beneficial has been huge for me. I am very fortunate that my dog turned out to be an excellent candidate and I am owner training with the help of a professional service dog (SD) trainer. For the first time in forever, I can even sometimes think positively about the future!

The problem is that my feelings of being valid and deserving of help are new and fragile. My mother is extremely dismissive about my having PTSD, deciding to go the SD route, and the legitimacy of my dog being a service dog in training (SDiT). It often gets to the point of being triggering. And when I tell her she’s being hurtful she says she loves me, has good intentions, and somehow I end up apologizing for getting upset.

In the past I had her/the family on a very lean information diet, particularly when it comes to mental health stuff. I am worried about introducing my dog as my SDiT and it making the family feel as entitled to information and judgement as my mom. They mostly follow her lead when it comes to me. Although there have been times when my dad will privately admit mom is super critical of and often cruel to me, he has no intentions of intervening.

We live in different states so Holidays mean my siblings and I return to my parents’ house for several days. If it was just a dinner, I might be able to get through it, but I doubt I can last days in close quarters without utilizing my SDiT and I’d prefer not to lie since the truth will come out anyway.

Do you have any scripts for navigating what is essentially a medical treatment plan they don’t/won’t agree with? Tips on how to introduce my dog as my SDiT and have that be respected?

Signed,

Letting the Service Dog out of the Bag

Hello there! Captain Awkward here with a beta-read and practical service-dog suggestions from The Goat Lady. I hope we’re reaching you while there is still time to cancel or radically alter your plans for this upcoming trip to see your folks.

Because that’s my practical advice: Strongly consider cancelling the trip and probably DON’T talk more in detail about your diagnosis or treatment with your mom right this second if you don’t think it will be safe or productive. More words/context/recommendations after the jump.

Read More

Hello, Captain,

Quick aside: I really like your switch to allowing comments only on select posts. It makes the whole site somehow calmer and more inviting. Being able to read your writing without the distraction of subconsciously wondering what sharp poky things might turn up at the bottom is relaxing in a way I wouldn’t have predicted. So thanks!

Of course, now I’m going to ask a question that might benefit from commenter input. Or not?

One afternoon a year and one Christmas present a year are the entire extent of the contact I and most of the extended family have with a 10-year-old niece (an only child, daughter of my spouse’s sibling). What kind of present would be the most helpful and most grounding for a child whose parents are out of touch with reality even on their best days and who are now separating and using her as a pawn?

More frequent communication is impossible. Parents are paranoid and intelligent: giving their child a book called “Your Parents’ Booze and 420 Abuse Is Not Your Fault” or “You’re Not Wrong: Most People Don’t Actually Say Whatever Lie Comes into Their Head Just to Get What They Want Right This Second” or “We All Sure Hope the Dream Fairy Who Told Them Their Bipolar Meds Were Poison Changes Her Mind” will be seen for what it is and may sever all communication with them entirely. I don’t know that the child is a big reader anyway.

Despite the fact that their daughter’s emotional needs don’t seem to be of interest to either of them, they seem to love her to the extent that they can, and she seems to have food and ice skating lessons and clothes that fit, and I see no evidence of physical abuse. They don’t live near any of us, so who knows, really, but I don’t have anything to report to her school (if I even knew what school) or CPS.

The child is intelligent and relatively outgoing and wants to be a part of things. It is heartbreaking to hear her asking desperately confused questions and to hear them answer with baldfaced lies in front of us.

She is so young and so dependent on them, and we have no means of contacting her, even through her parents, 364 days out of the year. What can we do to support her from afar, through gifts that won’t set the parents off?

Auntie Out of State

Dear Auntie Out Of State,

Re: Your Quick Aside:  I am very relieved to hear this. Sometimes I really miss comments and the community culture, and I know others do, too, but it became absolutely unsustainable for me to read 10,000+ words every time I wanted to write any words or deal with the 1% of people who are A Problem (but who absorbed 99% of moderation time and energy). I’m still experimenting with the right mix of discussion vs. just writing, and I hope people who value in-depth discussions will take advantage of the reader-led forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com and the subreddit. Thank you so much for reading and hanging in.

As to your question, I am not going to open comments on this because in my strong opinion gifts aimed at “fixing” or “helping” tend to suck unless they are specifically asked for by the recipient, there is no “right” Christmas gift that will fix or make up for or counteract your niece’s present home life, nor do I wish to curate a bunch of links to extremely specific toy and other gift suggestions, no matter how thoughtfully recommended. Your “Holiday Gift Guide For Possibly Sad 10-Year-Olds” Princess Is In Another Internet Castle.

Fortunately, I know from experience that good presents from a faraway aunt one never sees can actually foster a permanent “Aunt _____ LOVES ME and is AWESOME!” feeling in nieces and there is one method that works, namely:

Get your niece the MOST FUN stuff you can think of while she’s a child.

It’s okay to ask her parents for ideas as a courtesy even if you aren’t close, and to briefly check stuff like clothing sizes and favorite colors. If they’re forthcoming great, if not, no worries, you can also ask your friends who are parents of similarly-aged kids what their kids go apeshit for. Stuff like:

  • Art supplies! Craft kits! What is shiniest/glossiest/has the most colors? Glitter pens? Stickers? Beautiful notebooks? Do that!
  • Books! – BUT ONLY FUN, ADDICTIVE STORYBOOKS, NOT “HELPFUL” BOOKS!  If you’re stumped your local librarian will probably know what they can’t keep on the shelves in the children’s section, and they’ll also probably know what extremely fun stuff will fly under the radar of, say, strict conservative parents who are Terribly Concerned About Wizards. Graphic novels absolutely count as reading, Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl might be good places to start.
  • Toys! The prettiest dolls if she plays with dolls, the best Legos, Lincoln Logs, and other “building” sets (there’s this one that has magnetic balls and multi-colored rods that is like, my favorite thing ever though maybe it’s a better fit for littler kids and middle aged people like me, who knows), the niftiest action figures and spaceships or robots or dinosaurs or dragons or fancy horses.
  • Costumes/dress-up clothes in her size! The little girls I’m around most these days are in the 6-8YO demographic but they show zero signs of slowing down with questions like “can I be princess, a firefighter, a princess who is also a firefighter, a scientist (who secretly fights fires)(and is possibly the heiress to a mythical royal family/a unicorn)?” 2) I know the princess thing can get tedious and hella gendered, but honestly, who doesn’t need a sparkly floor-length purple velvet cloak and a tiara in their size? Not me! Wait, I mean me! (As in, I might need that).
  • Tech/Games/Videos – If you come across whatever the coolest 10-year-old you know can’t put down, and get inspired, do that.

Don’t overdo it, pick one or two special things every Christmas, and put a gift receipt inside to make exchanges easy. If it’s something that makes you squee inside because you would have loved it at her age? So much the better. That’s a genuine connection and pleasure you are handing down, even if it’s invisible, even if it’s not the exact thing she already thought of to want. You’ll probably have some misses but more hits, and over time your niece will notice and remember that you and your spouse love to give her presents.

Throughout the year you could also be the Aunt Who Sends Postcards  – silly ones, ones with beautiful art or from wonderful places – write a few innocuous greetings that communicate some version of “Hello there, we like you!” on the back and don’t worry about getting a reply. If you’re only allowed a few crumbs of interaction now and then, think of holiday gifts and the odd postcard as safe, no-pressure bread crumbs that might lead her to your door someday when she’s older and more in charge of her family relationships. If not, they won’t make anything worse than it already is. Sometimes “not making it worse” is all you can do.

Edited To Add: Reader Suggestion! In addition to fun gifts, you and other family members could quietly divert some $ from the toy budget into a savings account or savings bonds for your niece every year. Don’t put anything in her name now (the parents might not let you, and they would 100% have access to it while she’s still a child). It could be a lifesaver someday when she’s old enough to leave home.

How I Know That Fun Works: My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary, lived in Ohio most of my life and we rarely saw her in Massachusetts. But she sent the best Christmas presents every year, you cannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnottttttttttttttt imaginnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne the anticipation with which we opened the annual package from her knowing that if there were clothes they would be cool, trendy, name-brand clothes that we would wear into rags alongside our hated Toughskins, and if there were toys they would be fancy toys that we’d want to go to bed with that night so as not to be parted from them even for a second.

Aunt Mary didn’t necessarily know us or our changing interests well, and she never bought anything from our lists painstakingly compiled out of The Sears Christmas WishBook complete with SKU# or based around whatever Star Wars movie was out at the time. Her daughters were much older than my brothers and me, so I think she asked our parents about our sizes and her friends who had children our age “What’s the coolest thing your kid wants for Christmas right now?” and then went with that.

She’d get enthusiastic Christmas Day thank-you phone calls from us when we were kids and hearing she was coming for a visit or we were going to Cleveland to see her was always incredibly exciting. She died in the early 2000s (fuck cancer) and I just have to say, all “blah blah gifts are soooooooooo commercial and distract from the real meaning of the season” aside, every memory I have of my aunt is based on a) 20% how funny and delightful she was when we did hang out (I’m so glad I got to see her one last time when she was pretty much on her deathbed, and she was still the life of the party cracking up the whole room) and b) 80% childhood memories of my siblings and I staring at the boxes with her return address on them in hungry anticipation all week, trying to ask “Can we open Aunt Mary’s presents first?” on Christmas morning without hurting our parents’* feelings, and then wearing or playing with the well-chosen things inside until they disintegrated.

Above all, I knew she loved me. She didn’t have to re-parent me from afar to get that across, her gifts weren’t competing with my parents, they were just chosen with obvious enthusiasm, and that’s why I wanted to tell you about her, my lovely Letter Writer. You are so limited in what you can do for your niece right now, but I think you absolutely can do this one thing well by following fun and joy and pleasure rather than concern.

Honestly, now that I think of it half the “holiday survival” stuff in my inbox for adult relationships boils down to “Can’t you just please like me and enjoy today with me without trying to fix me/my life” in some fashion, so here’s your chance to start young. 😉“I like you so much and want you to have fun on Christmas!” is a message that will go deeper and linger longer than any “I’m very worried about you and I pretty much hate your parents” “solution” or “message” could possibly hope to do.

*I should note, cursèd E.T. statues are outliers in my family (and the aunt who made that for me was a solid A+ present-giver every other year and obviously genuinely thought I would love it). My parents are great gift givers and definitely the “Aunt Mary” to their nieces and nephews, to such a degree that someday I should collect all the home videos of little cousins’ mouths dropping open in awe as they unwrapped whatever Uncle Frank and Aunt Anne brought them this year. It would be a joyful montage indeed.