Archive

Parents

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

Dear Captain,

I have read and enjoyed your advice site for several years and appreciate all the work and thought you put into each situation and your response. That being said, as someone who is on the far side of 50, I have noticed that the vast majority of your current audience seems interested in relationships with SOs or with parents. I’m wondering idly if you are anticipating a shift in the focus of questions (toward parenting, menopause, etc.) as your audience ages, or whether you expect they will move on to different sites? What would you most like to happen?

I ask in part because so much of your advice is stuff I have found useful as a parent myself: ask directly/no one can read your mind, you can be angry at someone but not abusive, respect someone’s desire not to communicate, don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm, etc. Just as relevant for me and my middle-schooler and high-schooler as for anyone.

And yet there are some things that kind of squiggle around the edges. Sometimes as a mom you HAVE to take one for the team. Be the alarm clock. Give the last piece to the kid. Sacrifice needed sleep to weekend matches. You DO have to snoop in your kid’s phone if she’s just out of suicide watch or has been self-cutting. etc.

There is always going to be some grey, in part because teens flip back and forth between toddler and adult about every 90 seconds. And the stakes are so high. My mom friends and I are constantly counseling and consoling each other over real or imagined parenting mistakes. And we are always asking each other the magic question: “What Would A Normal Mother Do?

But here’s a problem — how can we set firmly the principles and boundaries of self-care when our roles are to protect and nurture? You can’t go no contact with a kid. You can’t refuse to feed or drive to school a kid who just called you a fucking bitch two minutes ago.

Or here is a problem a friend (for real) called me with today. My friend and I both are very pro-choice, intersectional feminists. Her oldest daughter (in college)has decided that she is “feminist but pro-life,” and has spent all of today at a pro-life rally, while simultaneously bombarding her mother (my friend) with pics, of ultrasounds, signs, pics of dismembered fetuses, etc., and texting her about how she has met “real” feminists today, and how strong and brave they are.

My friend is devastated and furious and hurt, of course. But she doesn’t know at all how to handle this. Does she grey rock/broken record/refuse to discuss the topic? (My recommendation.) Is it her responsibility to argue with and further educate her daughter? (Her inclination.) And where to draw the line between meeting her daughter’s need to bait her and get her attention versus meeting her own needs for some calmness and serenity?

This situation is in my mind a bit simpler because my friend’s daughter is a fledgling adult, though all her bills are still paid by her parents.

But beginning from infancy, this kind of dilemma emerges and while it changes faces, it always comes down to the same question. To wit, what guiding principles and strategies are most useful when trying to keep one’s own boundaries sturdy, and yet keep up your obligations and duties to whomever you are parenting?

A child is a sacred trust. It must be. If you choose to take it on, that child’s needs must always be considered first whenever possible. But where does that leave parents?

I’ve learned an awful lot from your site about how not to be a terrible parent. But I’m hoping it can tell me more.

Thank you so much.

Read More

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

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.