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Hi Captain,

Thank you so much for your blog, which I’ve been reading for several years now. I know this is a pretty low-stakes question, but I need scripts, and I just cannot find a way to respond to this particular situation.

I visit my future-MIL maybe two, three times a year, and have done so for the past four or five years. This involves staying in her house. It’s rough because I’m an introvert and she is very much not, and I struggle to find alone recharge time when she is offended if we don’t spend all our time with her. But that’s another issue. The thing is, she insists I should feel comfortable and wear pajamas around the house. Great! I love pajamas and like to wear classic loose plaid pants, camisoles, etc., when I am relaxing *inside.* Except the following exchange happens literally two or three times every time we stay there:

Her: Time to go to dinner/ drinks/ etc.! [Or if I’m lucky, I get a ten-minute warning. They don’t do specifically timed plans. Also another issue.]

Me: I’ll just change!

Her: Why?

Me: Because I’m wearing pajamas.

Her: But why?

Me: Because I can’t wear pajamas outside?

Her: Whyever not?

Me: . . .

Please help. This is not in a place where it is acceptable to wear pajamas outside; I would get stared at. And even if it were socially okay, I am not comfortable with that. I would feel gross getting outside dirt on my inside pajamas. I don’t take forever to get ready, I just spend five to ten minutes changing my clothes.

I also cannot comprehend why she feels the need to repeat this conversation over and over. Is this her way of telling me that I actually should not wear pajamas in her house? Am I being subtly called out for not being able to accurately predict when it’s time to leave? Can I please have scripts?

– At a Loss

(feminine pronouns, and my fiancé is male, if that’s relevant)

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Dear Captain,

Longtime lurker, first time LW. Thanks for providing such a safe, thoughtful & humorous space for thinking through life’s issues.

My ex-stepfather (XSF) is elderly, ill & failing. I foresee him dying sometime in the next year or so. I do not wish to go to his funeral, but I believe many members of my family will view that decision as unforgivable. Allow me to elaborate:

XSF & my mom were married for about 13 years, but since their divorce they have had an on-again, off-again relationship. I lived with them both for six years, then left the state for college & grad school, never to return. He was financially generous (more than my bio father was able to be at the time), but that is the only positive thing I can say about him. My mom, who had worked since age 12 in a difficult industry, stopped working when I was in high school. XSF paid for everything: a beautiful home, clothing, vacations, etc. I accepted these things without question. He paid for half of college-I paid for the other half. I went on to borrow for grad school, pay for my own wedding & home, etc.

Unfortunately , XSF was and continues to be unapologetically misogynistic, racist, homophobic, alcoholic, verbally abusive, and paranoid. I grew up in a culture which actually embraces many of these qualities, & while I fled the state out of gut instinct to get the hell out of there, it was only with time & growth that I recognized that I needed to get him out of my life. This was pretty easy to accomplish because even when living in the same house, our relationship was managed through my mom. To give you a flavor of our relationship: XSF is fond of nicknaming people: one of mine was “Mouse” because I (uncharacteristically) was always so quiet around him. Another of my nicknames was “Sprout”, in reference to my developing breasts. Need I say how utterly impossible it was for me to have a real relationship with this man? My younger brother has always had a better relationship with him, since XSF had no other sons & my brother was eager to bond with a father figure (bio dad was largely absent).

Since the divorce XSF has made no effort to contact me. My long-suffering stepsisters (with whom I never lived) made minimal efforts as well, which was fine with me. At the time, it seemed to me that if my mother was allowed to divorce & not speak to him, I was also entitled to do so. It was a huge relief to not spend time with him during my brief visits home.

During times they have been back together, I made a few gestures (some big, some small) to reach out to him & establish at least a civil relationship, for Mom’s sake. She convinced me to invite him to my wedding (to a man of a race he frequently mocked while I was growing up!), because they were once again dating, & she wanted him there. Fortunately, he behaved civilly.

Since XSF has become more frail, my mom has become one of his primary supports: cooking, shopping, cleaning, etc. He is rude to health care providers, refuses basic supports such as physical rehab, & continues to be verbally abusive to his daughter & (probably) my mom. In short, he has not changed. Despite this, during a recent social event with friends, Mom characterized XSF as “a good stepfather” to my brother & me.

I fear that when the time comes, I will go to the funeral out of a wish to support Mom, be a “good” daughter, avert conflict, “pay my respects”, etc. I want to have a preemptive conversation with Mom, saying that I think it will be more awkward for everyone if I attend. She tends to believe in doing what is socially expected, rather than being true to oneself, but she fully knows how strongly I feel about XSF. I know she will be sad if I don’t go, but I think that sadness is really grief about the relationship XSF & I never had.

I guess what I need is a succinct way to explain to friends & family why I am not going, without coming across as a bitter, ungrateful, disrespectful grudge-bearer. They all know he is a jerk, but “he gave you so much!” In a culture where the standards for male behavior are so low, he is viewed as a “Good Ol’ Boy”. But….I just can’t.

Thanks ,

Ex-Stepdaughter
(She-her pronouns)

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Dear Captain,

Earlier this year my uncle (mother’s brother) coerced my 85 year old grandmother (his own mother, who is increasingly blind and deaf, has been housebound and reliant on in-home care for the last few years, with some memory loss/mild dementia) into “lending” him a four-figure sum of money that represented a significant chunk of her overall net worth. He claimed he had a mortgage coming through in a few days and would pay her back then. That was several months ago and he has still not paid her back. My grandmother admitted to other family members, but not to him, that she didn’t want to give him the money and felt coerced but didn’t know how to say no.

Since then we’ve taken steps to protect my grandma and her finances (my mother now has power of attorney but my uncle doesn’t, her chequebook is no longer kept in her house, her bank have been alerted that she is at risk of financial abuse and have put a watch on her account for large sums going out), but there’s nothing we can do about the money she already gave my uncle; in the eyes of the law and the bank it’s assumed she’s legally able to consent to giving such a gift, though I have serious qualms about her actual ability to properly consent, the fact that she said she felt coerced, the ugly power imbalances in play etc.

My mother’s reaction has been disappointing but not surprising. I learnt at a very young age that I couldn’t rely on her to have my back if her own anxiety was in play, and in this situation she refused to intervene because she was afraid that her mother/my grandmother “would be mad at her for getting involved” and she prioritised wanting to avoid that conflict over actually keeping her vulnerable parent safe. She doesn’t approve of what my uncle did, but she’s been expressing this mostly in Marge Simpson disapproval noises rather than, say, actually having a conversation with him about the fact that he did something so gross and unethical.

No one, as far as I can tell, has actually called my uncle out about what he did. I know I can’t presume to understand someone else’s financial circumstances, but this is a man who owns and rents out multiple properties, who pays no tax because his job is overseas most of the year and who has non-vulnerable family members with significant savings – there are at least two other people in his life whom it would have been more appropriate for him to try to borrow money from, and it sickens me that instead he strongarmed the most vulnerable person in the family.

My uncle and his family still send me a Christmas gift each year, usually a small amount of cash. What he did to my grandma is a huge violation of my own ethical boundaries, and I feel really uncomfortable taking money from him. I’m also experiencing a strong desire to call him out somewhere publicly and make him suffer and feel afraid the way he made his own mother suffer and feel afraid, in spite of not generally being a vengeful person.

However, I’m a pretty reserved person and don’t generally share how I’m feeling, and the idea of making a big deal of this (either on social media or in person) is horrifying to me despite the fact that I feel like there should be more personal consequences for him as a result of his actions than he’s currently experiencing. I’m feeling strong pressure from my mother to keep my mouth shut about this, because she doesn’t want drama either, but the idea of him getting away with this eats at me. I also don’t know whether my aunt and cousins know that he did this, and whether they approve of his actions or not if they do know about it. On the whole they’re a more emotive/dramatic family than we are and I can see a public callout going wrong if they decide they’re on Team Uncle rather than Team Grandma.

So, my questions: are there any classy ways to make my disgust and disappointment clear to him? To refuse a cash gift at Christmas (I just cannot take money from someone who thinks it’s okay to do what he did)? I’m really torn between wanting him to suffer and really not wanting to make a scene. It’s been a bad year to be a man who abuses power, but I’m also really aware of the extent to which I’ve been socialised to give bad men who abuse their power the benefit of the doubt – part of my discomfort around calling him out is that small voice saying “well maybe there are extenuating circumstances you don’t understand and you should avoid making a fuss just in case”. But I really don’t think he should be able to walk away from this with his reputation intact.

What to do?

Thanks,

Fuck You, Uncle Dickbag

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Dear Captain,

My sister and I need some help with a potential situation this Christmas. My mother’s extended family has Christmas at her house every year on Christmas day and my sister and I usually stay with my parents in the days leading up to Christmas.

However, at Thanksgiving we ran into a situation. My cousin Amy’s husband Dan is demonstrating inappropriate behavior. In the past, he has come up and hugged us without asking or anything like that which we have dealt with by staying away from him. However, at Thanksgiving he thought it was funny to flick his lighter on and hold it under my sister’s arm. When she told him to stop, he did it again. She told him to stop a second time and he did but then he tried to hug her like he hadn’t just attempted bizarre act against her. I am apparently the only one who saw this and I got us out of there quickly. I mentioned it to my parents but as far as I know, no one has done anything about it.

In the past, anytime we have said something against any type of behavior, everyone shrugs it off as harmless and “he was just playing.”

We know we are going to be sharing the same space with him for a couple of hours on Christmas day, do you have any advice on what we can do?

Thank you,

Worried Sister

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Dear Captain,

This problem is tough to describe without getting perilously close to breaking the “no diet talk” rule, but I’m hoping I’m describing it neutrally enough that you can still help: my mother (almost 60) has a lifelong obsession with “health”, and it’s getting worse, and I’m worried what will happen if I don’t try to get her to stop.

What I mean is that she maintains a near-constant focus on exercise, severe calorie restrictions, and self-imposed rules around what foods she won’t eat. [Additional details available, but I don’t want to get sidetracked with diagnostics.] In the past, I’ve tried not to worry — she’s an adult and she gets to decide what she puts in her body. But the last few years, things have gotten more intense:

1) She externalizes it A LOT. “Health” is all she talks about. She uses her restrictions to dictate what my father eats, and where and what we can eat whenever we’re together. Holidays are really stressful — trying to meet her requirements, hold these constant conversations, AND eat any actual food myself (I have no dietary restrictions) makes meals absolutely exhausting. (And, OF COURSE, meals are the focal point for my family’s socializing.)

2) Her ideas about health are increasingly fringe. She reads pseudoscience blogs, and is constantly repeating “facts” she’s found (“Actually, skipping meals occasionally is good for you”). Recently she switched to a naturopathic “doctor” who ran a barrage of unnecessary blood tests in order to sell her his line of supplements. This feels like REALLY dangerous territory to me — financially, physically, mentally.

I have two younger siblings (we’re all early 30s), and they’re also concerned. We’ve tried, over the years, to enlist my father’s help, but he refuses to hear any “criticism” of her. We’ve tried to talk directly to Mom about it, but — well, we’re not good at confrontation (conflict TERRIFIES ME, because even the slightest wrinkle can turn into a blowout), so we just end up hinting and laughing nervously (“Maybe you shouldn’t listen to EVERYTHING that doctor says, haha!”) before changing the subject.

To be clear: she has no allergies, no sensitivities, no chronic illnesses. Anxiety runs deep in the family, but she refuses to see a therapist (I suggest it frequently, as a good hygiene practice). I’m sure her behavior is coming from a desperate fear of aging, and I feel for her. But I’m worried about how this obsession will play out as she gets older and her health DOES change.

I guess I’m writing you now because a holiday visit is looming and I’m either going to spend it miserably, silently tamping down my frustration yet again, or completely losing my shit. How do I get her to see that her “interest” is actually an unhealthy obsession?

Signed,
Please Mom Just Eat Something
(she/her)

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Hi Captain,

I’m such a fan of your kind and logical advice! I’m hoping for scripts to deal with a nasty pattern that my family falls into at mealtimes when we’re visiting my parents and brothers- it’s kind of like the abilene paradox on steroids, but while hungry.

I tell spouse and my parents that I’m going to make salmon and a salad for dinner, and do they want any. Parents counter with a 40 minute discussion of whether I eat fish (only if not baked), whether chicken would be better (Mom is pescetarian) whether we can bake the salmon (yes, but then I won’t eat it). I circle back to what I started with, because I’m hungry and this is what I wanted for dinner.

Spouse then asks why I’m cranky and Dad finishes with the ‘whatever you want dear’.
I start prepping, then deal with another 2 attempts to bring chicken back into the mix and a quick derailment of maybe we should have gotten takeout.

At this point its been over an hr of discussion for dinner, and as far as I can tell, no one is happy with the choice of food. And this sort of nonsense happens every night we visit, and is only amplified when my brothers and their spouses are in the mix.

I’ve tried the escape with spouse for dinner, but then I have to deal with the parental ‘oh can we come with, since we’d like to have dinner with you, but we don’t like any of the restaurants you’d want, but we’ll suck it up since that’s what you want’

How on earth do I avoid this nonsense?

Thanks!

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Dear Captain,

This is probably a lot more low-stakes than a lot of other questions, but I’d like to get your perspective on Christmas/wish lists.

My Mom is a thoughtful gift giver who often misses the mark in a well-intentioned way (clothes in the wrong size, portion control lunchwear, a poster for a musician I don’t really listen to). She just sent out an (early!) email to my siblings and me asking if there’s anything we want for Christmas, which has brought up FEELINGS, mostly anxiety-flavored.

I feel really, really weird coming up with a wish list. I don’t want to come across as issuing a list of demands, I like surprises and always appreciate whatever I’m given even if it wasn’t what I would have chosen (looking at the poster right now, it’s kind of cool!), I never know how to gauge what to put on a list (small things like books I’m interested in? Things I don’t have the money for but which would be useful? Genres of gift?), plus there’s additional background where when I fought with my parents as a teen I was often called selfish and I do not want to be that! Also I don’t know if my mom will wind up sharing this around to relatives or not and that also feels weird.

I know that this is really a lucky kind of problem to have….but it’s still worrying me. What is a non-weird way to let it be known what I want for Christmas and other gift giving occasions? In this case I know she asked first, but how do I handle this in a thoughtful way with grace and tact and an overall low level of awkward?

Most sincerely,
Anything But Too-Small PJs
(she/her/hers)

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