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Dear Captain & Crew,

This is a question about Xmas boundaries + the ever-awkward subject of money. I know, it’s completely ridiculous to be worrying about Xmas in July… I don’t want to think about Xmas before Turkey Day! However, Husband’s family starts planning Xmas far in advance, and they’ve started poking us about Xmas plans alread. Cue holiday anxiety!

After a blow-up at Xmas time 5 years ago by MIL (who is generally very sweet and kind), I have become very anxious about holiday plans with Husband’s mother and his extended family. MIL insists on spending waaaaay too much money on us, especially at Xmas time. For last year’s extended family visit, MIL bought our plane tickets ($2K+) before I’d agreed to the dates, paid for the rental car Husband and I used ($500+), insisted on paying for all the meals, and bought everyone a ton of gifts.

MIL’s trend of insisting on covering all expenses makes me very uncomfortable and anxious. 3 years ago, we all agreed on a Secret-Santa arrangement for Husband’s family, and set a spending limit of $40. Although MIL agreed, she bought gifts for everyone and blew right past the $40 spending limit per person.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with how much money MIL is spending on me. While it’s her money (and her choice to spend it), I really dislike how she insists on paying for everything whenever we see her. I really want to speak up about it. However, because of my own “I want them to like me!” issues, I feel like my mouth is glued shut & can’t speak up in the moment. I also know that my Husband really doesn’t want me to “rock the boat” by contradicting his mother.

I’m reaching my wits’ end in this situation, and I’m hoping you can offer me some scripts. I want to find my voice again and have agency in this relationship.

My questions:
1) After setting spending-limit boundaries in advance, how do I enforce those boundaries in the moment when everyone (but me) is all “yay, gifts!” on Xmas day?

2) If I can’t speak up to MIL in the moment about #1, what can I say to her after the fact to gently+firmly express that all the money she’s spending on me is making me really really uncomfortable?

3) What can I say when we go out to eat and MIL insists on paying? (Saying “we’ll get the next one” doesn’t work because she stubbornly insists on paying at every meal).

4) What do I say to Husband when he pressures me to keep quiet about Xmas/general over-spending?

Signed,
Stressing and Exhausted about the Holidays Months in Advance (DAMMIT)

(she/her pronouns)

Hi Stressing,

I’m sorry, I don’t have good answers or scripts to your specific questions. You are already doing & saying the right things. I think your best choices going forward are:

Go. And go knowing what you’re in for, including too much money spent on you, awkward gifts, & her picking up every check. Go wholeheartedly and try to enjoy what there is to enjoy about your in-laws and the way they celebrate. After this many years, you are not going to change your Mother-In-Law. She already knows how you feel. You can refuse to accept the gifts, fight every restaurant check, make a point, etc. but she is still gonna roll how she rolls. Choose your battles (like, making travel arrangements around YOUR schedule). Let your husband take the lead in all interactions, bring a really good book with you, stick to your own spending limits, and peace out of looking for middle ground where there is none. When you feel uncomfortable, go for a walk or go to bed early to read or go to the movies by yourself for a little while and give yourself some space.

Vs.

Don’t go. Celebrate the holidays your way, according to your preferences & values. Create a holiday tradition of your own with just you and your husband. Be low-key and thrifty and quiet and relaxed. Visit your In-Laws another, less-gifty time of year. In the meantime, let the guilt-trips and the “It just won’t be Christmas without you!” furor and the prospect of too-expensive gifts sent in the mail wash over you for the next half a year.

My recommendation would be “Go sometimes as a gift to your spouse, don’t go sometimes as a gift to your own well-being.” Reminding yourself that it’s a choice will hopefully give you more feeling of control. You went last year, so this seems like a good year to respond to the questions about your plans with “We’re planning to stay put this year and do Christmas with y’all every other year.” This is your husband’s family, yes? Then let him be the one to deliver the news and sail his non-rocky vessel through the guilt-storms.

P.S. “It’s July, I haven’t decided yet/I’ll let you know when that changes” is a perfectly fine answer to all winter holiday inquiries btw. Leave out “It’s fucking July, WTF fam?” part for best results.:)

 

 

Hi Captain and Goat Lady:

I love my sister but she has a tendency to be negative and critical. I’ve tried to address these issues directly in the past (“e.g., when you nitpick me I don’t want to be around you”), so she’s started using her five year old son to side-step my boundaries. This allows her to disown any comments “he” makes and allows her to get angry under the guise of protecting him if I try to talk to her about it.

For example, one weekend I canceled plans with my sister and her son because I had a migraine. She told me that her son was worried I didn’t love him anymore. She will also tell me he has said things like “Aunt Anon got an apartment too far away” or “Aunt Anon is too fat” which directly mirrors what she likes to pick at me about. I’m certain he doesn’t actually say these things, but if he *does* say them it’s not a huge deal and she should be able to explain to him that yes, Aunt Anon does love him and it’s unfortunate she had to get an apartment so far away. How can I talk to her about this without inciting any protective outrage?

Thanks.

(She/her please).

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Dear Captain:

My parents get along pretty well with my father-in-law, let’s call him Peter. He is a widower so they usually invite each other to visit, my husband and I included. We usually have lunch, some bottles of wine and everyone has fun. Last time my parents visited Peter my mother stumbled across an old newspaper. It had a eulogy for my mother-in-law (let’s call her Nora). She was a great woman, a social worker and activist. Unfortunately, she passed away before I met my husband.

After my mom read it, Peter came back with some printed documents and handed them to my parents. They were some poems written by Nora, that he found after her death. My mom started immediately to read them and after finishing the first page said if I wanted to read them too.

Peter and Nora had had problems during their marriage. By the time of her death, they barely speak to each other, and were practically divorced. For that reason I think Peter probably didn’t know what Nora wanted to do with her writings.

So I said “Thanks, but I don’t want to, it makes me feel uncomfortable.” And everyone asked why. So I said “well, because I don’t really know if Nora wanted them to be public. Maybe is personal stuff, and it feels wrong.”

Awkward silence ensued and then they replied the following:
Mom: “It’s no big deal sweetie, I’m sure Nora wouldn’t mind”.
Peter: “Well, it doesn’t matter much because she’s dead”
Dad: “But the only reason people write poems is to be published, isn’t’ it?”

They insisted, but I kept firm and refused to read anything. But as my parents read them and I didn’t, I was the one that ended up feeling out of place. (In case you wonder, my husband was taking a nap and missed the conversation.)

I’m super defensive about my privacy and the idea of being exposed terrifies me. My mom and I used to have big arguments about this topic. Some of the things she did include: Throw away T-shirts claiming that they made me look fat. Open bank slips with my name on it. Go to my University and asked my teachers about my grades. She finally stopped doing these things long time ago, but I still feel threatened when she starts asking me personal stuff or comments on photos or personal things I have around in my house.

And I also used to write a lot during my twenties. I have at least a dozen handwritten notebooks, with tons of personal stuff: poetry, therapy tasks, ideas, cooking recipes, drawings, rants about people, etc. I really would hate if someone reads them but I don’t have the courage to toss them.

So, I honestly don’t know if I did the right thing or if I just got defensive and missed a chance to get to know Nora better. Would you please give me your advice and opinions? And also, what can I do with my notebooks? Any ideas?

Thanks a lot.

Privacy Champion.
(she/her pronouns)

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Hi Captain Awkward!

I have a younger sister (very close in age – Irish twins). She is beautiful, talented, intelligent, witty and fun — one of those life of the party types, kind of universally beloved. I am more of an average person, and had a tough time growing up under my sister’s shadow. My family is very competitive and I always came up short. One hilarious/tragic example is that my first two (TWO!!!! BOTH OF THEM! as if this happened more than once!) high school boyfriends both told me that they only started dating me to get closer to my sister since she’s the one they were actually crushing on. Other high school kids called her “the hot one.” I was not. People in my grade would invite her to parties but not me.

This was not her fault! She didn’t ask other people to be cruel. She did kind of act like your typical popular teenage girl, though, and we were pretty bitchy to each other — but I don’t think it was any worse than normal teenage siblings. I just took it really hard. My parents tried to be understanding, but they also have very high expectations and growing up I just always felt out of place, didn’t feel like I belonged or was valued.

Anyway, the result is that in my midtwenties, I now live very far from the rest of my family and try to limit my time with them. I see them three times a year at major holidays. I call my mom almost every day and I have a good relationship with her one-on-one, but I always feel sad when I have to spend time with my extended family — in fact, the sad feelings last for a couple weeks even after I return to my home in a different city. I also notice that when I’m with my family, I have trouble being my best self. After moving away I became an outgoing, happy, well-adjusted, confident person, but as soon as I get home I turn into a shy sad little clam (although I think they would describe it as sullen and ungrateful).

My sister has grown up into an accomplished, non-teenage jerk-y person, and she has a GREAT relationship with the rest of my family — they all live in the same city. The issue is that my mom regularly bugs me about why a) my sister and I aren’t closer (we don’t talk to each other apart from holidays, although it’s definitely always civil); b) I don’t come home more often; c) why I choose to live so far away.

My question is just … how to deal with this?? For my own sanity, I’ve kind of taken the “run awaaaay!!!” route and it’s worked for me. I’m happy when I’m not around them. I’ve got a great “chosen family” of friends that I’ve made since leaving home. But I realize that a lot of my family drama is my own issue now, and my mom’s feelings especially are hurt that I don’t spend more time with them so we can be a happy close family that does all kinds of stuff together. For example, soon I’ll be in their area for a weekend with my boyfriend (for a non-family event), and my mom keeps asking “but I just don’t understand why you won’t just stay with your sister?!?? they have a spare room!” (he and I have booked a hotel room instead).

It’s hard for me to just say “Hey, I’m just going to be home for Christmas for a couple days but then I’m going to travel” when it’s not really THEM that’s dysfunctional, it’s me. I think my mom is getting increasingly twitchy about this because we’re approaching marriage and baby-making age, and also she and my dad are getting older so she worries about us staying in contact when they’re not around anymore.

Do I have the right to just set these boundaries for myself even though I’m pretty sure I’m the messed up one here? If so, how do I do this kindly and appropriately while still taking care of myself?

Thanks!
Sibling Rivalry Up the Wazoo

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My husband and I (cis-woman), are adopting our first child. We came to this decision after we learned that I have a medical condition which will make it difficult, if not impossible, for me to have biological children. We were very excited to tell our families about this decision. And, for the most part, the response has been positive.

However, my husband’s parents have not been as enthusiastic as I had hoped. The week after we announced our plans, they gave me a ton of brochures about in-vitro and fertility treatments, as well as information about embryo adoption. I politely explained that the same condition which makes it difficult for me to conceive makes it more likely that I’ll have a miscarriage. I also explained that we had already submitted the first part of our application, and were committed to adoption.

Explaining all of this seemed to put the issue to rest, until the holidays. While we were visiting them, I accidentally overheard my husband’s mother say some pretty unkind things about me and my body (the same condition which limits my fertility also makes it harder for me to manage my weight), as well as suggesting that my husband should divorce me and find someone who can give him children. She doesn’t know I heard her say this.

In the months since then, my inlaws have insinuated that they don’t (and won’t) consider adopted children to be “real” grandchildren, even asking me point blank why I would want to take care of “someone else’s child”. My mother-in-law also seems particularly concerned that the child that is placed with us will be disabled in some way, going on about how adopted children are often “emotionally damaged” (after which I pointed out that no child comes with any guarantees, and mental, emotional, and/or physical disability are not limited to adopted children).

I’ve asked my husband to talk to them, but he has social anxiety, and confrontation (especially with his parents) is really hard for him. And his family is close-knit. We’re over his parents house for dinner about twice a month. I don’t want to ruin his relationship with his family, but I also don’t want to hear the constant stream of criticism, and, more importantly, I don’t want to subject any potential future child(ren) of mine to that kind of talk. Lately, I’ve started using work as an excuse to skip dinner with them, but that can’t work forever. And I just don’t know what to do anymore.

Sincerely,
Anxious Mom-To-Be

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m 37 and DMAB but identify as agender tending towards feminine. I have long been socially “out” to my friends, and I medically transitioned years ago although I’ve maintained a male presentation. But that’s finally changing – as of now I am finally transitioning publicly and in my family and professional life. So far my immediate family and my coworkers are all being incredibly supportive, which is great! But one bit worry that my parents and I all have is regarding my extended family. Here are some of the issues: 

  • I haven’t been particularly close with most of my extended family, but my parents have been and really want to maintain a connection with them
  • Most of my cousins and extended relations are fairly liberal, but I have a couple of aunts who are incredibly conservative and have expressed very strong transphobic beliefs in the past (“I hope they die of AIDS” is literally something one of them has said on several occasions – yikes!)
  • So, there’s obviously a fine line to walk here. The big concern is that these conservative family members are all on my dad’s side, and they always accuse my mom of having “corrupted” everyone with her liberal beliefs. Usually when I say something that ends up upsetting my aunts, they end up emailing or calling her and heaping on the verbal abuse, and that’s completely unfair to her.

My mom and I, as such, both need a bunch of scripts for how to deal with the eventual fallout. I guess some of them wouldn’t hurt for my dad either. General tips for dealing with this situation would also be great.

Thanks,

The Agender Agenda

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Hello Captain,
I’m 29 years old, living with my parents, my older sister and my niece.

My mother stopped work when she gave birth to me, so she’s pretty much been a housewife all her life. My father is that wonderful combination of breadwinner and financial abuser (i.e, he has enough money to buy expensive shoes and perfumes for himself, but asking him for money so we can have food and power supply is like talking to a wall), so when things are down, it falls to my sister and me to pick up the slack when it comes to money. My sister just started a new job, and I’m still entry-level at the job I’ve had for nearly three years.

The thing is, it usually falls to me to pick up the financial burden. I’m asked to pay the cable, the internet, the groceries etc all the time. I’ve asked my sister for both of us to split the bills, but she doesn’t agree. And when I ask my mother to talk to her, her preferred method is to placate me rather than talk to my sister. Usually, this means that I’m counting every cent until payday because I don’t have a lot for myself. Despite this, anytime I buy food/toiletries for myself, I’m expected to share with the two of them. I plan out my groceries and needs for the month, and I literally cannot afford to be replacing items if they finish earlier than expected.

I need help saying no, especially to my sister. Every time I try to be firm, I’m called ‘selfish’ and ‘I used to be so nice’ and ‘we’re family, so we share everything.’ I don’t think it’s selfishness to want to let my personal groceries last as long as possible, especially when I can barely afford to look after myself, and especially when my sister won’t do anything. I’m at that point where I’m seriously considering buying a small cupboard/fridge, putting it in my room and keeping everything locked up when I’m not home. What should I do?

– Not Selfish

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