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Hey Captain!

I (she/her) really appreciated your response to Miserable In Quarantine. My partner (he/him) and I are fortunately getting along better than ever. It’s nice to remember that we are friends first with all this extra time. Even with (especially with) all this extra closeness, my partner and I totally agree with the importance of alone time. Here’s the rub: we have young kids. Five years old and two years old. They are delightful but they are also small yet loud bundles of need. So for one of us to get that coveted alone time, the other has to be on kid time.

Here’s an example: let’s say partner has six hours of meetings in a row. I’m with the kids, keeping everyone alive. He comes downstairs after work is done, genuinely says thank you and acknowledges my labor of caring for our kids. Then he asks if he can go for a run. I look at him like he asked me to walk on lava. I need some alone time! I’ve had a little monster attached to my boob most of the day! But I also realize, work calls are not alone time. Phone meetings are the worstttttt. He also needs time to recharge and be a human. There’s so little time in the day to give each other what we need, and we are floundering a bit. We are both committed to making sure we each get work time and self-care time, but sometimes commitment doesn’t make up for the logistical challenges to quarantining with young kids.

We recognize we are super fortunate and privileged to have this be our big issue during COVID-19. But I also believe that in order to sustain the mutual aid we’ve been doing, we have to make sure that we take care of ourselves as well. You’re so good at hacks and systems for dividing housework fairly and compassionately. Any tips for those of us stuck at home with sweet little bundles of need?

Thanks,

Please stop touching mommy for two minutes

Hello, (Please Stop Touching) Mommy!

I asked two of my favorite moms to weigh in on your question, and before I post their suggestions I will offer several observations about co-habitation & co-parenting conversations that the pandemic has made clearer and more urgent.

People often write to me looking for the one big meta-conversation they can have that sets up the parameters for How The Relationship Should Work From Now On so they can skip over the annoying day-to-day conflicts. Surely, we can both Outline Our Needs and Agree To A System for How This Should All Go, and once we do that, Nobody Will Have To Be Hurt Or Feel Weird Again! It’s so efficient!

Please know that I love everyone who thinks like this, I see you, I get you, I AM YOU. There are some people and some relationships where this kind of thing works – “Let’s agree to the big picture so the small picture will be easier!” – and when it does it’s so very lovely! Agreeing to ground rules and setting clear expectations is a useful skill, it gives everybody a starting point and a chance to be heard, it’s a useful project for figuring out how compatible people are, and trying it probably won’t worsen anything that’s already bad.

And yet!!!!!!!! (There’s always a yet) I also know without a doubt that there are people and relationships and topics where this approach 100% doesn’t work and might never work. You can have the big picture conversation, everybody can nod and agree, and you’ll still have to sweat some or a lot of the small stuff some of the time. The guy setting fire to his toilet paper in the office bathroom was never going to notice or respond to a general review of policies or guidelines, passive-aggressive notes (“Can we all remember not to create fire hazards in the office bathroom, thanks so much! 🙂 🙂 Cheers!!”), or the horrified and shocked faces in the neighboring cubefarm every time he needed to move some product. It was always going to take someone saying, “Hey you – SPECIFICALLY YOU – Do! Not! Light! Things! On! Fire! In! The! Bathroom!” every single time he does it until it stops or it happens enough times that he’s fired.

It’s easy to laugh at ol’ T. P. Burns in the office loo or think of all the ways that we are not like One Single Pancake Guy, but truly, stress doesn’t generally make people better at noticing things, and it’s even harder to extrapolate and apply knowledge to future behaviors, especially if – theoretically – all one’s extrapolation energy has been temporarily re-routed to catastrophizing worst case scenarios in an endless anxiety loop.

By which I mean, if you’re waiting for your partner to notice that you need respite from kids or waiting for a housemate to notice that a household task is piling up, you might wait a long time, and you’re probably going to have to ask, poke, gently remind, etc. even if you think you already had a good system going, even if you thought the other person got it, even if you think it should be obvious, even if in the other person’s shoes you would definitely notice and step up in that moment. If you’ve been stewing for a while about an ongoing thing, that’s valid, I believe you that there’s a reason for it and I recognize and honor your frustration. But it’s possible the other person doesn’t know about the psychic debt they accrued during the lengthy brining process and stewing-time for full grievance marination, and that their clock starts (and restarts) whenever you tell them it’s a problem.

If you’re usually the non-noticer in your household for whatever reason, no judgment, no shame, this is a great time to work harder on specifically that skill. At very least, if somebody you live with asks you to handle something, a) Probably…do…the thing? b) Do it between “now” and “soon” so they don’t have to keep reminding you? c) See what happens if you mentally add “from now on” to the request even if they didn’t say that, and act accordingly, by which I mean, do that thing/make that your task from now on unless you hear otherwise? d) Consider thanking them for telling you instead of resenting them for “nagging” you? e) Just, like, own the fact you’re not always on the ball about x and that reminders are necessary sometimes? f) If hairs are to be split, split them in the direction where you pick up more of the slack? Cool? Cool.

If you’re the designated noticer, I think that both the kindest, and the most productive way to handle this with people you like and love is to 1) be very direct about what you need to happen right now 2) without attaching the baggage of the past and what should definitely have happened there, to the extent you can manage that, and 3) experiment with not assuming that each request will automatically carry over to the future, like when you cancel the weekly exercise class you optimistically put in your online calendar back in January and the app helpfully asks if you want to cancel all future events and you pretend that you don’t, every week, literally forever. If you want a thing to happen from now on? Say “from now on.”

When I said “the most productive way” I meant: The way that has a chance of getting the person to do the thing you want them to do with the least friction or delay.

If you feel that Exasperated Parent Voice coming on in reference to another adult, like “An adult should know by now that ____” or “We’ve talked about this already, they should have learned by now!” you might not be wrong about what should be happening (toilet paper + fire = a general no-no even before it was legal tender for all debts public and private) and it’s okay to have a feeling about that, but – and I cannot emphasize this enough – when whatever should be happening isn’t happening, sometimes it’s a hierarchy:

  1. I need X to happen
  2. I need Y to realize that X should happen
  3. I need Y to realize that X should happen without me telling them or having to remind them
  4. I need Y to realize that X should happen without me reminding them, do X on their own, and also I need to express my feelings about Z
  5. I need Y to realize that X should happen, process Z feelings, and also repeat this reliably in the future without conflict or work from me.

What we generally want  – both practically and deep in our souls – is #5, all the time, always #5, the best number on this list is #5.

I am not a parent but I have 12+ years teaching adults to do complicated things with a steep learning curve and expensive, breakable equipment, and it is from that experience that I say: With the best of intentions on every side and every skill you possess, you can tell a person something that they deeply want to know, show them what to do and how to do it, give them many resources, references, and examples about how and what and why it’s important, remind them how and what and why and when, and then send them off to execute all of it on their own and it can still not quite take.

When that happens, shame, blame, exasperated reminders of what should have happened, “But how could you not knowwwwwwwwww,” “Come on, it was on the syllabussssssssss!” actually do literally nothing to change it. What sometimes changes the dynamic is going back to #1, breaking it down to the smallest next step, keeping expectations VERY small and VERY gentle, and trying to build up again from that.

Is it wise to build a permanent committed interdependent life with somebody where, you need #5, would be cool with #2-4 a lot of the time because nobody’s perfect or a mind reader, but with this person you feel like you always have to go back to #1, downgrade your expectations, and start negotiating again from scratch, especially when applied to the daily tasks of domestic life? No! Abort! Nobody is that sexy! (Letter Writer, fortunately this is not you, but it is definitely for some people in the Inbox.)

Does that mean you always have to be chill and never express frustrated feelings? Also no! Sometimes the answer to “do you want this to get done or do you want to be mad” is emphatically BOTH, and maybe exactly how pissed off you are is important information.

But when “please just get it done, preferably now (and from now on)” is the priority for survival or well-being, the gentle parent-voice, the one that uses lots of encouragement for good stuff and avoids shame, is the one you want, not the one that makes you secretly worry that you’re turning into your [most critical parent].

My inbox, my experience, and every single instinct I possess are all speaking with one voice about this kind of thing these days, and that voice says:

1) Yes, a global pandemic requires resetting lots of things, and the perceived value and gendered division of household labor and caregiving has got to be one of them.

2) Deep, involved, meta-conversations about How Should Our Relationship Work From Now On? and What Is The Platonic Ideal of Co-Parenting? can drain more energy than they save in the long run, or more accurately, drain more energy than everybody currently has budgeted in the short-run, and also become a magnet for all the upset and anxious feelings swirling around. With that in mind, a conversation you want (specifically you, Letter Writer) in your toolkit can be as simple as interrupting your husband’s runward trajectory, saying “Actually, can you pause your run until after dinner, I have got to hand you this baby for at least 30 minutes or I’m gonna freak out, thank you.” 

If you do that, probably what will happen is you will hand your partner the baby, and he will run later. And you may have a great bigger-picture conversation using the guide our guest posters outlined below about, hey, let’s figure out how to rebalance this load.

But also, you might have to renegotiate some of it every single day even if the big conversation goes great, if that makes sense, like some days he will definitely remember that it goes Work, Give Partner A Kid-Break, THEN Run and some days he might go on autopilot, some days you may schedule it all out and then his work will be extra sucky and he’ll be like “Please, please hang in for 1 more hour and then hurl the baby in my direction as you go to the room with the door that shuts, I got u, but I MUST run this off” and it’s not ’cause he doesn’t care or he secretly hates you or deep down he thinks it’s not really his job or because you didn’t Make It Clear Enough. Yep, it’s a deeply gendered issue, and yep, one can be both a Tool Of The Wretched Patriarchy and A Pretty Good Dude, and yep, until The Revolution comes sometimes you gotta take it one day – and one specific thing that needs to happen right now – at a time.

I will now turn you over to Actual Moms.™ First up is Mikki Kendall, code name @Karnythia, author of Hood Feminism and Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight For Their Rights, gorgeously illustrated by A. D’Amico.

Mikki says:

It’s great that your partner thanks you, but your partner also needs to recognize that he doesn’t get to extend your workday in order for him to decompress immediately after work. If he wants to get off work and take a run? This is why jogging strollers were invented. Or taking turns on who gets to take a run first at the end of the workday. Because frankly caring for kids is work too, and your alone time should not be sacrificed because of 6 hours of meetings. He got to talk to adults (however ridiculous because honestly most meetings should be emails) while you dealt with breastfeeding and whining and neediness. He can spend an hour with at least two parts of that, and then take a run after you have a chance to take a break.

5 & 2 are super challenging ages, but only if you don’t start making them do some things without you! Five is a great age to be expected to play with your two year old sibling long enough for either parent to go to the bathroom or make a call. 5 & 2 are old enough to be assigned some chores too. Like sorting laundry or picking up toys. Bigger chores can be done together to keep them busy and engaged when they are awake (I actually cannot stress this part enough because so much of what you’re describing sounds like the kids aren’t doing as much for themselves as they could be) and kids will not fall apart if they are expected to contribute and then entertain themselves quietly in a room.

And yes, they get restless being inside all day. So, a dance party to tire them out mid-afternoon so that they will nap. My favorite trick, when our kids were little and January was a deep freeze that meant no time outside, was to get those glowsticks that you snap, turn off the lights and throw a baby rave in their bedroom with all of their favorite songs on a loop. I would cheat and put snacks & drinks in unspillable containers to minimize the need to leave the party. Finish up with a trip to the potty and wind down with softer music (and those lavender scented candles/sprays if that’s your bag) and you buy yourself an hour or two of afternoon nap. Do not spend nap time on chores. Spend nap time on yourself, whether that is eating a meal in peace or a shower or just staring into space, treat that break as sacrosanct.

Also, honestly now is a wonderful time to consider weaning your toddler. It sounds like you are consistently touched out and there is no reason to sacrifice your own emotional health in this way when you can start taking back your body. Yes, even from your child who loves to nurse but doesn’t actually need to do it to access good nutrition. You need to be kinder to yourself in general and gift your family the wonderful experience of doing more to take care of themselves without relying on you for literally everything. Also, though I don’t know your partner’s work environment, he’s going to need to step up and push back on this back to back meeting expectation whenever he can, because honestly no one should be subjected to 6 hours of phone calls during a pandemic.

Thank you Mikki! Your books are great and everyone should read them.

Next up is my dear Commander Logic:

CommanderLogic (she/her) reporting for duty. My kids are 5 and 7, MrLogic has a job that a) he can work from home and b) earns enough to support the family, and I am currently unemployed and therefore fully responsible for remote teaching the kids. We are lucky as HECK.

Letter Writer, you don’t say if you are also trying to work; it sounds like you have a similar situation to me. Lucky as it is, it’s still FRIKKIN’ HARD. There is a reason I did not choose teaching as my profession. There’s a reason that, even when I’m seasonally unemployed, we still pony up for childcare and camp and stuff. I love my children, but I am a better mom when I have some time entirely to myself. Right now, as I’m writing this, my 5yo is asking me “What should I doooooo?” while shooting down every option I give him, and my 7yo is trying to wheedle me into making a snack for her that she has known how to make herself for 2 years. They’re the best, but they are a lot.

When my first kid was first born, I had three months of paid maternity leave, and MrLogic and I had a biiig discussion about this:

  • Kids are a FULL-TIME job (and then some)
  • Keeping house is ALSO a FULL-TIME job
  • One (1) job is also a FULL-TIME job
  • And I could handle about 1.5 jobs.

In talking it over, we planned for when we were both employed (sooo much daycare money, y’all), and we planned for when one or the other of us was out of a job. It looks the same no matter who is the stay-at-home parent.

When your partner asked if he could go for a run, it’s the SAME as if, after his marathon of calls his boss had said “Oh, and I’m sure you wouldn’t mind one extra 2 hour presentation?” You are working. It is a job that we HIRE and PAY (not enough) for: teachers and nannies and babysitters and housekeepers and therapists and cooks (through the magic of takeout) and and and.

I suspect that it wouldn’t have been so bad if at the beginning of the day, your partner had said he wanted to go for a run after work. You could have planned! You wouldn’t have been expecting the sweet release of Not Being In Charge at that time! You could have said “Yes, that’s fine if you’ll watch the kids right now while I go [do what you want].”

Your time is equally valuable to his. You have a workday. You need to not be at work sometimes, too, and it’s even harder for you because right now your work IS your home.

You and your partner sound like a good team, so this isn’t necessarily an argument, so much as a series of questions you need to talk through:

  • Do we agree that childcare and house management are two full jobs? (I MEAN OBVIOUSLY, but asking the question makes it a discussion instead of a lecture)
  • How do we schedule those jobs to give us both some downtime?
  • What would each of you want if your roles were reversed?
  • Is there a way to create a kid-free zone in your home? That either of you can use?
  • How do we create time for just the two of us together?
  • What are the rules of downtime?

If you’re both trying to work, there’s additional issues:

  • How do we schedule so one of us is the on-call parent for half each day?
  • What do we do if we both have a critical meeting at the same time?
  • What are the rules that your kids (may) understand about “I’m working”?

Early on in the lockdown, I was making lunch for everyone, and MrLogic watched me for a minute and said, “I feel really guilty that you’re making me lunch and doing all the kitchen stuff on top of teaching the kids.” And I said, “Well, this is my job right now, and I do it so you can do your job, so it’s ok. But DO PLEASE keep feeling guilty, and make dinner this weekend.” And he did. He’s really good at it.

Thank you Logic and LogicHaus!

Fun fact, MrLogic is the Dungeon Master for our weekly D&D game (now remote) and the NPCs all sound like he’s reading us a storybook and doing All The Voices, Dad-Style, and it’s just the best. My character doesn’t really like killing things, especially intelligent beings (D&D is so goblinist!), so I keep asking everyone and everything we meet its name both because I think it helps with persuasion and because once you Have A Name maybe we don’t have to have Teh Violence, and it’s very fun to make him have to brainstorm names on the fly, which is how you get an entire squad of bugbears named Steve, Other Steve, and Steves III-V (who we did NOT kill, though there was some unfortunate wounding). ❤

Letter Writer, I hope somewhere in there is a framework to hang these conversations on and get yourself some respite. You sound like a great mom and partner and I’m glad things are going mostly okay. You also get ❤ emoji.

There is literally no way I  – a non-parent – am moderating a parenting discussion on these internets in the year 2020 even without heightened pandemic anxieties, so, Awkward out, and ❤ emojis for all.

Hi Captain,

My mother and I have always wanted different frequencies of interaction. After I moved out for university, at a holiday party my mother announced the only gift she ever wanted from me was daily phone calls – even her friends were incredulous. She tends to call any hour of the day, hitting redial up to a dozen times if I don’t answer. Calls can be about anything, from “are you free tonight” to an extended vent session about my father or brother (who still lives at home). No call has ever been an emergency – I found out my father broke his wrist a week after it happened, via Facebook, despite my mother and I talking in-between.

Over the last few years, I’ve become better at enforcing manageable levels of communication – proactively calling her on weekends for a chat, making up vague excuses, explicitly saying I won’t answer/call back unless I’m free. This had the side effect of every conversation starting with how I’m too busy and don’t prioritise family. After the first few hour-long complaints, it’s now usually only a throwaway comment per call.

With COVID-19, we’re all under Shelter-in-Place. Now she knows I’m not busy and she wants the daily calls again. Additionally, she wants to use them to teach me her native language. Even if I didn’t find daily calls with my mother draining – daily phone calls that require homework and family/diaspora guilt?

I know we’re in anxious times and we should all reach out and connect with each other. I am also worried about my parents – my father is likely high risk, my brother maybe so, and my mother is a healthcare worker (not frontline, but still in a hospital).

I’ve tried suggesting using a language app/online course and having weekly conversation practice – no dice. I’ve tried suggesting weekend catch-up calls without the homework, but then comes the guilt. We text occasionally with pictures of the garden, but that doesn’t cut it. Digital game nights and Netflix-parties are also out.

I’m tired and stressed and I want to connect with my mother – but not at the expense of my own mental health. Suggestions? Scripts?

– At home doesn’t mean on-call (she/her)

Thank you

Read More

I got to be on the radio last week, talking about Love & Politics & is it possible to date across political divides.  My segment starts about 35 min in if you’re curious.

Two questions I think about a lot (A LOT)(Really, honestly, so much):  When we say “Oh, let’s not talk about politics right now” or channel my Grandma Louise (“We have a secret ballot for a reason, and we can all keep our secrets at my table for one day!”) what are we really (not) saying? (And is this a question about manners or about morals?)

Some of the things I’ve probably meant when I’ve said “Oh, let’s not talk about politics right now:”

  1.  “I am unhealthily glued to the news the way everyone is, but this is my fun time and I need a break. Help!”
  2. “[Objectionable Politician] takes up enough of my headspace, s/he doesn’t get to have this time, too.” 
  3. “We generally agree about politics but the way you talk about it is exhausting/annoying/draining and I’d rather not spend my free time this way.”
  4. “We generally agree about politics but I know that once I get started I can’t stop and I don’t want to annoy the heck out of everyone.” 
  5. “Talking about politics isn’t the same thing as doing politics, I only have energy for one of those things.” 
  6. “I can’t spend my whole life obsessing about the election of one person when there is so much else that urgently needs attention.” 
  7. “I am the host of this thing and I do not want to spend the whole event as a referee.” 
  8. “If we avoid talking about politics maybe we can get thru this without anyone doing a racism.” 
  9. “I think I know what your politics are, but we’ve never confirmed them out loud and I’m afraid that if we do it will change how I feel about you.” 
  10. “You assume I agree with you and if you find out for sure that I don’t, our relationship will fracture.” 
  11. “I’m afraid that if I say what I believe politically or who I’m voting for, it’s like painting a big ‘come abuse me’ target on myself.” 
  12. “I’m afraid of finding out that you don’t think people like me are important or even fully human.” 
  13. “If we talk about politics, there is a 100% chance that we will argue.” 
  14. “You and I don’t have the kind of relationship where I can count on mutual respect and real discussion from the heart about contentious subjects, it’s better to not even try to engage.” 
  15. “We would have to spend 90% of the conversation on fact-checking and countering disinformation and propaganda and I fear you are too far gone.” 
  16. “If I want to hear white supremacist, xenophobic, and authoritarian talking points repeated, I’ll just turn on Fox News – talking politics with you is just recycled bigotry.” 
  17. “Growing up we didn’t talk about this with each other and we have no track record or road map for these conversations, it feels too late and too risky to start now.” 
  18. “I’m afraid that if I get it wrong I’ll push you away.” 
  19. “We see the world so differently, I don’t know where to start.” 
  20. “I’m not that interested in or knowledgable about politics and the whole topic makes me feel stressed out and ignorant.” 
  21. “I’m afraid that talking about politics with each other will shatter the pretenses that we are on the same side of important things.”  
  22. “I despair of every convincing you to see my point of view and I do not want to subject myself to yours.” 
  23. “I’m already so angry and upset, why invite more trouble?”

When you make an agreement to not talk about politics today/just now/with certain people what do you think you and the other person are *really* saying? Is it one of these or is it something else?

Do you think there’s a way to change that – not in the media landscape necessarily – but with the people we love and want to be close to?

Is what is broken between us about how we talk or more about how we (fail to) listen?

Imagine a world where you get to have one honest, constructive conversation with someone close to you who you’ve been afraid to or reluctant to talk about politics with in the past. Ground Rules: No interrupting each other, no name-calling, no whataboutism (“but your side is just as bad!”), maybe even no mentioning of specific politicians, parties, or personalities. I have this fantasy where there’s something like StoryCorps, with a chess clock giving each person equal time and a respectful back-and-forth and a list of questions like:

  1. What do you need from your government (at any level – national, state, local) in order to be safe and well?
  2. What would need to happen (politically, financially) so that you can always get what you need to be safe and well?
  3. If you were the supreme leader in charge of everything and knew for sure we could do/have/pay for everything you think would make this country a good place to live, what kinds of things would you do?
  4. What’s a political policy (law, political decision) that has deeply affected your life?
  5. Can you think of any political decisions (policies, laws) that have made your life better?
  6. Can you think of a political leader from when you were growing up who you admire and who you think made a difference for the better? What did they do that made a difference?
  7. This is who I am thinking about and fighting for when I do things like protest, call my elected officials, advocate, and vote. If you do these things, what/who motivates you to be politically active?
  8. You say you’re “not particularly interested” in politics. Is there something that would convince you to get interested?
  9. What’s the first election you remember, from childhood? How did you feel about what was happening?
  10. What’s one thing about politics that makes you afraid for the future?
  11. What’s one thing about politics that makes you hopeful for the future?
  12. This is one thing I wish I knew about you. What do you wish you knew about me?
  13. Where do you go to be informed about politics?
  14. Is there anybody you like talking about politics with even though you disagree? What makes that enjoyable?
  15. Is there somebody in the media you think speaks about politics with a lot of knowledge and integrity?
  16. If you could assign me one thing to read or watch to better understand how you feel about politics, what would it be? Would you read or watch one thing I recommended?
  17. This is one area where I’ve really changed my mind from how I used to think, and this is why I changed my mind. Is there something that made you change your mind?
  18. This is something I learned from you about how politics work in the world. Is there something you learned from me?
  19. What did your parents/elders teach you about politics? If you could hand one thing down to your children about how politics work, what would it be?
  20. This is something I love and admire about you and always will no matter what. Is there something like that you could share with me?

If you could ask someone you loved but who you felt pretty sure disagreed with you politically exactly three questions and listen to the answers without interrupting, what would they be?

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Hey Captain,

I (she/her) am getting married in May! Besides all the awful that is wedding planning, my fiancé (he/him) and I are excited and happy to celebrate this milestone.

His parents had a short, violent relationship that resulted in their divorce and going no-contact with each other when my fiancé was a child. I, perhaps naively, assumed that they would be able to navigate their own discomfort in order to be present for my fiancé on his wedding day (it’s been 20 years, after all!). We invited both of them to the wedding.

Now, we have been informed (indirectly) that his father will likely not come if his mother is there. My fiancé is wrecked. He doesn’t want to be in the middle or have to choose and it is bringing up old hurts for him.

I want to support him, but I also don’t want to fall in the trap of us telling one or both of his parents to suck it up because faaaaaaamily, ya know? It’s not our decision and I don’t want to pressure anyone into seeing someone who had hurt them in the past… but I get why he feels kind of betrayed by the people who are supposed to put him first.

Any advice for scripts? I’m out of my depth on this one.

Thanks,
Three degrees of separation

Hi Three Degrees of Separation:

I am making an exception to my “not publishing letters where a woman is writing to sort out a man’s problems with his family/friendships/work situation” practice because I do want to help you sort this and because this letter is a textbook case as to why I/we need to make this shift.

Your fiancé’s relationship with his parents is HIS issue to sort out (hopefully with a licensed therapist) and the more you muck around in it without the knowledge of how it got this way or take it upon yourself to manage it, the more counterproductive it will be. You can be supportive by 1) asking your fiancé “How do you want to handle this?” and “What do you want me to do, if anything?” 2) listening carefully to the answers and then 3) figuring out where your boundaries are and what you can or even want to do about it. Your future spouse is the boss of how he handles his relationships with his family-of-origin, please do not default to a role where you navigate this stuff for him (or instead of him) or decide that it’s your job to be the peacemaker in a war you didn’t start or even witness. Cool? Yes? I’m glad you wrote, I’m not upset with you, you didn’t do anything wrong, but the “I must help” instinct is so strong and the cultural narrative that “ladies exist to help men be emotions” is so prevalent that I gotta fight it wherever I can, and “great, have him write to me” is one way I am trying.

Here’s what you know: You invited both parents. That was a nice impulse. They get to take it from here. I get the whole “Can’t you show up for one day to make your kid happy?” impulse but like, maybe they literally can’t, and you tried your best but it’s not happening. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix everybody’s family, you can’t possibly present your fiancé with a tidy bow on his parental situation, so what’s the worst that happens if you do literally nothing about this information? It’s second-hand from a relative (the dad isn’t even communicating with his son directly), and until you get the RSVP card back or website checkboxes checked, it’s not even something you know for sure. If the Dad isn’t coming, he’s made the choice for you about what comes next. He won’t be there, and you don’t have to rescind the invitation to the other parent, or broker a peace deal, ’cause it’s already done.

The Dad has choices like, I don’t know, just off the top of my head, calling his son on the phone and talking about it, finding an alternate way to celebrate (“Howabout I get the rehearsal dinner and Mom gets the ceremony?”). He’s not made any of those choices, so…it’s not your job to fix it and it’s not your fiancé’s job to track the dude down or to give into a manipulation attempt if the dad’s goal is to punish the mom or get her disinvited or make it difficult for her or even just to make his son chase him and agonize about it. It will be sad if both parents can’t be there mostly because it’s sad when two people have a relationship that deteriorated to this point.

If your fiancé were here, he could answer questions like “Who was violent to whom during this short violent marriage?” and “Is/was going no contact about dislike or about safety?” If the dad abused the mom, I would say all of the above applies even harder, and I would see this as a power play to try to force his son to disinvite his ex-wife to punish her. If the mom was violent to the dad, then the polite routing of issues through a relative is about protecting the dad’s safety and was actually a way of being kind and not forcing the issue while also not opening himself up to be abused more. “I invited both you and your abuser to the same party, that’s a neutral thing to do” isn’t actually neutral at all nor is it precisely a party-planning sort of question. If your fiancé doesn’t know what happened between them maybe it’s time he found out? (Again, and I cannot stress this enough, this is a very good problem to take to a therapist). He was a child when they split and it’s completely, completely understandable that he wouldn’t know the whole story, it’s completely understandable that his parents would want to protect him from the full picture of what happened, but without this context, all we can do is speculate. I would 100% back him up if he decided “Hey, my wedding is not the time to excavate this whole deal, Dad said he probably won’t be there, let’s take him at his word and move on.” 

The situation sucks, it’s not weird or an overreaction to be very upset, but I would encourage you both to remind yourselves that one party – even one very meaningful and wonderful party – isn’t going to be the thing that made their relationship awful and it won’t be the thing that fixes it. Also your wedding will be a lot more relaxed if it’s not broken into two hostile camps, so maybe the Dad’s choice to bail is a gift and the right thing to do is to accept it without comment and let the older generation make up their own minds about what they can safely and comfortably do. Your impulse to want to help and support your fiancé is a good one, but these were people who were never able to co-parent effectively and civilly, clearly it hasn’t changed, fixing that has always been out of anyone’s hands but theirs.

What you can both actually do is remove pressure from yourselves to fix the parental relationship or further engineer the guest list. You’ve sent the invitations, it’s time count the replies and rent enough chairs for the people who will be there.

My wedding gift is a few scripts your fiancé could use if this keeps being a problem between now and the day:

  1. For the relative who acted as a go-between. “That’s sad to hear but Dad should call me himself if he wants to talk about this.”
  2. For the Dad (but only when and if the Dad contacts him, DO NOT CHASE A DAD WHO WON’T EVEN CALL HIS CHILD ABOUT SAID CHILD’S WEDDING): “I will be very sad if you can’t make it, but I understand if it’s just too painful for you to be around Mom.We’ll miss you but thanks for letting us know!”
  3. For the situation: “Weddings bring out the weirdness, right? But we are in party-planning mode, not family-therapy-excavate-my-whole-childhood-and-fix-my-parents’-horrible-marriage mode, so, how many people said they wanted the salmon?” 

And one script for you, for your fiancé:

  • “We invited them both, that’s all we can do. The rest is up to them, and this sucks, but at this point we’re not disinviting anybody to please somebody else.”

Congratulations in advance, have the best day and the best marriage.

P.S. If both parents do show up, your wedding photographer is your ally and has seen every possible “these two aren’t speaking so we’ll need to repeat certain photos” scenario before.

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