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Hi Captain,

I’m the youngest kid in a South Asian family. I’ve lived with my parents for four years because I have a career in the arts and have only recently started to earn enough money to pay rent and also, like, eat. I’ve also stayed with them this long because my frail grandma lives with us and I know it’s a big help for my mom to have me around.

Although my parents are good providers and generally supportive of me, in recent years I’ve come to realize that their home is not a very healthy place for me to be. They aren’t great about boundaries or understanding the behavior of a child that’s different from them. I’m gay, and not out to my parents, so I have to hide a big chunk of my life from them. My mom is also a textbook emotional manipulator – the type of person who makes every conversation about herself, gets angry with no warning, calls me crying when I’m out of the house, that kind of thing. I know she’s like this because she had a difficult upbringing and I sympathize with that, but I’m ready to be out from under her influence.

I had plans to move this summer, but Covid-19 threw a wrench in that. Recently a friend reached out with an opportunity to move to a new place in the fall, which would be perfect for me! The problem is, in the time between plans, my grandma’s health has gotten much more volatile. She always needed a lot of care, but lately she’s having scares a couple times a week. I worry that if I leave, I’ll be leaving my mom without any support. She has my dad, who helps physically, but she’s told me many times that I’m what gets her through the day. I know I need to leave, but I feel so selfish. I feel like I could just hang in there while my grandma is still alive, but that logic is what kept me here for so long in the first place. There’s definitely a cultural pressure, too. I’ve always felt a little distant from my big extended family, and I know this choice will drive me even farther away from them.

What do you think? Should I prioritize myself, or my family?

Hello! Thank you for your question.

Here are the choices as outlined in your letter:

  1. Move out, ABANDON YOUR MOTHER, and YOUR DYING GRANDMA and accept you are a SELFISH (gay!) daughter, FOREVER LOSING YOUR FAMILY
  2. Stay indefinitely, be your mom’s #1 shoulder to cry on and grandma back-up care system until your grandma dies, and eventually move out, at which time, presumably, your mom will…not…think you are being selfish and abandoning her?

My immediate thought is, what if these aren’t the only possible choices?

And what if your (very real) limitations also hold some keys to your freedom?

Ok, here are some questions – some logistical, some emotional – that may help you start building a good decision matrix for what to do about this.

  1. Is the potential new place within driving distance or public transit reach of your parents’ house, or are you GOING-going? (No wrong answer, just, this will anchor a lot of options one way or another).
  2. Are you able to get in touch with extended family or at least lay your hands on their contact information?
  3. Is your mother your grandmother’s only child or does she have siblings in the extended family?
  4. How close are your siblings (geographically-speaking) and what’s your relationship like with them? And how do they get along with your parents?
  5. You help with your grandma’s care, what’s your relationship with your grandma like? Is she somebody you can talk to?
  6. Do you think there is ever a time you could tell your mother something like “I am going to get my own place with a good friend” and have her response be even in the same postal code as “Well, I’ll miss you so much, but if that will make you happy, you should do it?” 

I suspect what you’re actually looking at from your mom (a textbook emotional manipulator, as you describe) is more like:

Present day: “Your grandma is sick, I need you.” Legit! Being a full-time caregiver for a relative is hard as hell, your Mom is not silly to want to hold tight to reliable and loving support.

Fast-forward in time, your grandma has died and you’re ready to move out. Your mom: “How can you leave me now? You know I’m grieving, I need you.” Sure thing! Grieving is really hard, and the empty feeling in the house is going to be even emptier if your mom’s last baby moves away and she feels like she’s losing everybody all at once. You can stay awhile longer.

So then you stay while she grieves. Fast-forward some more: Your mom isn’t as young as she used to be, she’s going to need care herself, how can you leave when she needs you? Also probably legit! Aging parents need care, somebody has to do it, you’re her favorite, it’s natural she’d want you.

Plus, the longer you stay at home, and the longer you go without getting married (to a man, they assume) and without having children of your own, the more the weight of cultural and family expectations is going to pull at you, and the more other family members will buy into the idea that staying put and taking care of your mom is your entire job within your family, a view your mom will do nothing to dispel.

If my guess is right and this is the case, it’s limiting to the point of suffocation. How can you ever leave somebody who needs you so much?

But, hear me out, what if she can need stuff from you and it does not have to be your sole job to fulfill her every need, especially at the expense of all of your own? It’s actually extremely not okay for parents to make their children responsible for their emotional needs. When do you get to have your big beautiful truthful gay artist life and also be the loving daughter and granddaughter that you clearly are?

If there is never going to be a good time where your mom will support you and let you go, if you are pretty sure all the times are going to be bad and come with a lot of roadblocks, why not find the time that works best for you? You’re going to have the fights anyway, you’re going to be called selfish anyway, you’re going to beat yourself up about whether you made the right decision anyway. If you’re dealing with a person who can never be pleased, perhaps the default choice does not have to be the one that guarantees your misery.

There are good reasons to stay close if your grandma doesn’t have much time left, not because of your mom’s needs, actually, but because of your own. If you would feel like you are doing right by your family to spend as much time as possible with her and do whatever you can to support your mom for a little while longer, and if knowing that you did your best when it counted would help you feel freer to leave when the time comes, then choosing to stay put for a while might in fact be the best among imperfect options, especially during the pandemic. 

Just, I don’t think staying is your only option, I don’t think you leaving means your whole family automatically falls apart, and I think you potentially have many untapped resources. For instance, where are your grandma’s other children, your mom’s siblings? You say you’re the youngest, so where are your siblings? You say your dad helps but your mom still leans on you more. That doesn’t mean he can’t take on more of the load, just that so far everybody prefers it this way. People can adjust in all kinds of surprising ways when they have to, so why are we jumping to “Letter Writer is a terrible daughter, obviously” when there’s a whole list of people who haven’t even been offered a chance to rise to the occasion?

Being a round-the-clock caregiver is hard work, your mom deserves tons of help and respite and support from her entire family, that’s not in dispute! But does it have to be you, all the time, and does it have to be only you? Or could you move to your own place and work with your family to make a rotating schedule of caring for grandma or reducing your mom’s overall workload? For example:

  • Who can drop off a few days’ worth of meals every week so your parents don’t have to cook so much?
  • Who can do the grocery runs, pharmacy pickups, who can tech support the telehealth appointments?
  • Who can take all the laundry off the back porch in big bags and bring it back folded and fresh?
  • Who can video-chat with grandma for an hour every night while your mom eats dinner and has some time to herself?
  • Is Grandma’s space at home set up for how her life is right now, does it need some rearranging and some tech solutions to make it more comfortable & safe for her & possibly give her more autonomy? [Stuff like: Installing safety rails near the toilet, making it really easy for her to reach things, minimizing how many stairs are involved in every facet of her life. I recall that at some point we bought my grandpa a glow-in-the-dark remote-control the size of a small skateboard and attached it to his chair with a telephone cord so he wouldn’t ever lose it.]
  • Who is on call for your mom for emotional support & logistical support when she needs it, and can that be a rotating cast of family members when you’re busy with work and your own life?

If you’re thinking, “That sounds nice, but it will never work because my family will never go for that,” you are probably right!

  • Your mom sounds like a lot, her extreme muchness is not a family secret, and you presently bear the brunt of that which means the others don’t have to. Why would anyone mess with this sweet situation unless they absolutely had to?
  • They will especially never go for that if they sense that you will keep doing all of these things on your own if they fail or refuse to step in.
  • They will never go for that if they think there’s a chance you won’t actually move out. If they sense the path of least resistance is “lean on nice baby sister who likes helping” vs. “spend more time with mom, a known difficult quantity” there should be no surprises if they try rolling downhill instead of up.
  • They will never go for that in a way that gives you permission to move out before you do it, they will never go for that as long as it’s a “Hey, what would happen if I moved out and everybody else stepped in more to take care of Mom & Grandma?” question. Often families will play around with agreeing with the designated scapegoat or Eternally Responsible Child in theory and then fail to support or do any practical steps when it counts.

“Why would anybody change if they don’t have to?” Good question. Answer: You can ask nicely and try to lead everybody to the right path, but there’s a chance you’re going to have to make it so they have to, which requires exercising a degree of ruthlessness and firmness that has never been encouraged or allowed for you, the youngest daughter, and you’re going to have to let things like “but you’re just being selfish” and “don’t you care about Mom” and “why do you insist on being so difficult” and “don’t you care about your family?” roll off your back when you stop picking up the phone on the first ring sometimes because there are lots of people who could be handling whatever this call is about.

And even with seemingly small stuff you’re going to have to go against a lot of  “nice girl” training, the stuff that says that if you’re moving out you should probably give everyone in your household a lot of notice and time to discuss it and let it sink in because you’d want the same consideration in their shoes, and you probably can’t go until you’re sure that every possible detail is covered, and yes you can go to the ball, Cinderella, you just have to handle all the things on this magic list that has no end first.

You’re going to have to do lots of things that make you ask, if I love my family and they love me, wouldn’t it just be easier to be who they want? Hopefully whenever that happens your self-preservation instincts will kick in and ask “Easier for who and at what cost?”

And there will be cost, because you know your family and I think you already know there might be no way to do this that feels good or where you can be sure that everyone will see it your way eventually. You might have to just…go. And let your relatives, who are all fellow adults, work out for themselves how to care for each other.

Since we’re imagining options, here’s one possible order of operations for getting out in one piece:

A. Quietly make sure you have sole possession of all of your identity documents and banking information, and change any passwords your parents might have access to. You may want to move your personal money to a bank they don’t use or know about and store copies of your personal documents outside the house. Consider renting a post office box if you can and starting to redirect your mail to somewhere that isn’t the house. Hopefully this is just a precaution, but if tempers flare, you want to be sure you *can* actually leave when the time comes.

B. Quietly gather contact information for all relatives you know and start making friendly regular casual contact with them that isn’t mediated through your parents. Even just, “Happy birthday!” or “Mom told me about the new house, how cool!” positive messages. Who responds in kind?

C. Gently feel out who will be a supportive helper without spilling your beans. Test out some messages:

    • “Mom is working so hard and could probably really use [a phone call to check in and see how she’s doing if you’ve got time this week][X specific practical support].
    • “I’m doing my best to help Mom & Grandma out, but I could really use some backup this week with [make a very specific request that would take something off your plate.]

Which ask works better? Who follows up and actually helps? Maybe this will be much smoother than you fear.

D. Rent the new place & secure friends to help you move your stuff.

E. Decide when you’re going to break it to your mom. However much advance notice you give her is how many days of fighting about it you are going to have while you still live there, so, do with that information what you will.

F. Make an advance plan for an elsewhere you need to be right after you break it to your mom, so there is a firm ending time to that first discussion. “I can’t talk more right now, New Roommate is picking me up to go curtain-shopping in a minute.” If you reasonably think her reaction might be violent, the plan to have someone else step in at a certain time so you aren’t alone can be part of making a safety plan.

G. Actually break it to your mom. “Good news, I found a place, here are the logistics.” You’re not asking permission, you’re telling her information. In a functional, supportive family relationship your happy news would be at least a little bit their happy news, so try treating it like it is and letting your mom do all the work of reacting (vs. trying to manage and anticipate it all for her).

H. Withstand her immediate reaction, which is not going to be awesome. You’ve weathered this before, you can again. You know that this is not a negotiation, no matter what she says, so you can afford to let her vent a bit. It is actually completely understandable if she has a strong reaction to hearing that her favorite support person is going to be elsewhere, or has a lot of stress about the possibility of doing everything herself, that’s not inherently manipulative, it just is!

I. Respond strategically. “Mom, I’m not ‘abandoning my family,’ I’m getting a different apartment. I understand why you’re worried, you’ve really been handling so much on your own, but please don’t worry. I have a plan for how I can still help out, and I have a plan today to talk to all of our relatives about how hard you’ve been working to take care of Grandma and talk about how we can all come together as a family to help you.” 

J. Get out of that room and that conversation as soon as you reasonably can. The longer you spend in that room alone with her, the more likely it will be that someone will say something unforgivable. You’ll do better if both of you have space to process emotions away from each other.

K. Present your extended family with the fait accompli: You are moving to a new place on x date, you’ve already told your mom, yeah, she’s pretty upset, also, these last few months at home have shown you that your mom & grandma could use A LOT more help.  What would really help the most is if they called your mom today and asked her what she needs, ’cause she’s kinda upset and could use the reminder that there are a lot of people in your family and she’s not all alone in the world.

L. Find a way to turn off your phone or massively screen your calls for at least the rest of the day once you’ve talked to everyone in the family. Hopefully they’ll flood your mom with attention and let her vent some of it out at Not-You.

M. Assume that the family will talk amongst themselves and there will be a lot of backchannel complaining about you from all sides. Repeat after me: “They can complain all they want, let them get it out of their system. I’m moving out anyway.” Resist the urge to clear your name or defend your reputation, your best bet is to disengage from trying to prove anything right now. You’re leaving, you’ve tapped multiple people on the shoulder to figure out solutions, you aren’t actually leaving your mom to the wolves even if she chooses to see it that way.

N. Memorize the following sentences:

    • “Really only Mom can tell you what she needs, I suggest you talk directly to her.”
    • “Mom, it sounds like you should talk to [relative] directly, I’m sure they want to help but they will need a lot of guidance from you about how, and you’re the expert on Grandma.” Deploy these often and get out of the triangulation radius.

O. Move as scheduled. Yay! Buy a houseplant. Name it and tell it your dreams.

P. Be prepared for an extinction burst as your mom supplies new and improved ways to persuade you that it is always an emergency that only you can solve, immediately. There may be actual crises with your grandma, but there will also be “crises,” probably. Engage within your abilities and safe limits and let the rest wash over you.

Q. Be prepared for the possibility that…it will go fine! You’ll move, you’ll check in as planned, and the rest of your relatives will pick up the slack and do their best, and everyone will adjust to the new normal over time.

(If it doesn’t go fine, and your family absolutely refused to step in to help your mother and your grandmother more, for whatever reason, does that mean you failed (the selfish daughter narrative) or does that mean that lots of people in your family need to reckon with their own priorities and repair their relationships?)

R. Be prepared for friction to re-occur or even increase as your siblings, etc. realize that they might actually have to do work. This friction can take lots of forms, and if the rest of your siblings are brother-shaped be especially vigilant about “sudden extreme helplessness” or “agreeing to do the thing but peppering you with so many questions & interruptions that it starts to feel easier to just do it yourself.” These are traps. They will figure it out.

S. Accept the “selfish” label strategically for the time being if it gets you the rest of what you want. Imagine in one of the waves of friction you get messages from your relatives about selfishness, like, “You’re so selfish for leaving our poor mom and grandma all alone!”  This is an easy one. This is a gimme. You were raised by the CHAMPION of the guilt trip, you’re not gonna fall for this old thing!

“Oh, sibling/aunt/uncle/dad, you’re right, Mom really does need her family…all of her family…around her. I may be selfish for moving out, but are you trying to tell me you can’t [Call your own mother twice a week when it’s your scheduled block][Facezoom with your grandmother now and then so our mom can get a little break][Make an extra grocery run now and again][Insert actual concrete task of caring here in place of the omnibus of “But don’t you caaaaaaaaaaaaaaare about faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamily?” they’re trying to dump on you.]?

I’ve been happy to help whenever and however I can, and honestly I’ve been fortunate to get so much time with Grandma, but what’s too much for Mom is also too much for any one person, and we all really need to pull together right now. Can I count on you to step up, for Mom’s sake? She really needs you.” 

KAPOW! Guilt trip returned to sender! They won’t know what hit them, or they will (because they’ve also met your mom) but they won’t be able to fight back without also admitting they are selfish and just don’t wanna.

T. Hold up your end. Call your mom at regular intervals (vs. waiting for her to chase you). Tell your grandma you love her a lot while she’s here to hear it. Do the support and care tasks you agreed to when it’s your turn. Drive home the message “Of course I still love you, I just live over here now” with your actions.

They may not recognize or thank you for this or forgive you, but you will be able to say that you behaved with integrity.

U. Remind yourself that it shouldn’t be this hard and it’s not your fault that it is.

Your parents should support you and love you and you shouldn’t have to hide your sexuality. Yes, your cultural background means that adult children – especially daughters – might live at home much longer than they do elsewhere in the world, but your work in creating a career as a working artist and moving into your first place is a thing to be celebrated and admired, not forbidden, not a reason to blame you. You shouldn’t have to sneak around like a thief in order to safely move to your own place, but the sneaking isn’t happening because you are untrustworthy, it’s because you are reasonably afraid that your family doesn’t think you are really allowed to live on your own and because you can’t fully trust them to let you go.

Is wanting your own place selfish? Maybe, but you have a self, you get to consider what you want and need and dream about at least some of the time. My strong sense is that you’re worried about leaving your grandma in the lurch or your mom in the lurch with grandma not because you intend to be like “eff off, fam, smell ya later” and stop doing any emotional support or caregiving, but because you’re afraid that once you leave and your mom blows up at you, you might not be allowed back unless you agree to live by their rules and never leave again.

When homophobic families punish and banish their queer kids for being who they are, and when they don’t make it safe for those children to live truthfully in their homes, they don’t get to complain if they don’t get the whole truth all the time or when their children don’t want to live in those homes. Not coming out to your family, and quietly preparing your move to your new home without keeping them in the loop may involve lying sometimes, but it’s not betrayal, it’s protective camouflage. That’s not your fault. You should never, ever have had to carry so much or tie yourself in these knots.

V thru Z: Live your life. Be happy. Fall in love. Make great art. Find your community and love your friends and let them love you.

Love your family, do what you can for your family, but love yourself, too.

That’s one happy ending I can imagine for you, here is another.

 

 

 

 

Dear Captain,

My partner (P) and I (both mid-30s, she/her) are happily engaged, and have been living together for a few years now. Things have been great. We’ve both had a lot of trauma to work through, and have been nothing but supportive and understanding with each other as each we’ve dealt with our own shit. We respect each other’s boundaries, make time for difficult conversations, understand each other’s quirks and are accommodating as we can be.

We both come from a background of polyamory, but until recently have been functionally monogamous as we’ve worked through hard stuff. Last year I worked out I was asexual, and so P started looking for new partners. A month or two ago she started dating a new person (M). It’s been wonderful, honestly, seeing different parts of her shine through in her new relationship with M, but I’ve started to come up against a wall I don’t know how to climb.

I am something of a hypochondriac, and I have general anxiety and ME/CFS. Coronavirus has inflamed anxieties that have been dormant for years, and my CFS has worsened hugely since the start of the pandemic. Some days are okay, but some weeks are awful. I’m lucky to live in an area where transmission is not high, but the threat is (of course) still very much real.

P has always shown a lot of compassion when it comes to working with my pandemic!anxiety, and we’ve talked about what we see as others’ recklessness when it comes to distancing and e.g. needless trips to the mall, but I learned recently that M sees a lot of different partners, including new people on a regular (weekly) basis. M also lives in a locally designated “hot spot” for new cases. This stresses me out to no end. When I asked P how it’s not a concern to her, her reply was just “there’s only so much you can do.”

This level of flippancy about risk, my health and my anxieties is new. It looks like cognitive dissonance — agreeing that the pandemic is serious and that we can’t risk getting sick, but acting helpless when her new partner doesn’t take precautions. I know her new relationship is important to her; that she gets needs of hers served that she simply couldn’t in her relationship with me, and that she suffered for a long time while I was working my (a)sexuality out. But this.. this sucks. I can’t help but feel she’s privileging her desire to have fun over my safety and mental health.

I don’t know what to do. I love her and the life we’ve been building together, but as long as she keeps seeing someone who doesn’t care about pandemic precautions — and they’re seeing each other more and more regularly — it means that *I’m* effectively living with someone who doesn’t care about pandemic precautions. I don’t know how to stop my anxiety escalating and health deteriorating in the face of that, save something drastic like moving out.

Thank you for reading, and any advice you might have,

Anxious Ace

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Dear Captain

My fiancé and I were supposed to get married this April but the wedding was postponed until May 2021 due to the pandemic. We are both in our early 30s. He’s always been keen to start a family, I’m open to having a baby but really want to be married first. This is very important to me but he doesn’t understand why, as my belief in marriage before kids doesn’t come from religion. It’s more the importance of having a secure family unit, my parents weren’t married and my dad took off without a second thought.

When I try to explain this my fiancé says “I’m not your dad though” or “it’s not like you’re a virgin!” He’s desperate to have kids now as he’s concerned we’ll be too old when they’re grown up. (He also hasn’t seen his family much during shelter-in-place – and has been frustrated by their lack of adherence to the health guidelines – so I think he’s also a bit lonely and wants to fix his sense of distance from his parents and siblings by creating a family of his own.) He doesn’t get my point of view and I don’t understand his either as if we waited till next year to start trying we’d be mid-30s at the latest when having a baby.

Bringing the wedding forward isn’t an option for various boring reasons I won’t go into. Can you help us communicate better? I’m firm on not getting pregnant before marriage and I’m frustrated he keeps nagging at me.

Hello there, thanks for the question.

If you don’t want to be pregnant, don’t be. That’s a good enough reason.

You’d like a recognized legal tie with the other parent first: That’s also a good enough reason.

Pick a reason, any reason: Your personal pandemic risk-assessment says: Not quite yet? Great reason. (By the way it is okay if your risk-assessment is subjective, unfair, not what anyone else would do, might be perfectly safe, cleared by your doctor, etc. “I’m not ready yet” or for other readers, “This is the right time for me!” is a good enough reason on its own.)

Having a kid to fix your loneliness is a highly suspect reason to become a parent and you’d rather make that decision from a joyful place? Reason logged.

You don’t want to be pressured into pregnancy before you’re ready: EXCELLENT REASON, THAT.

This is really, really tough, because you love this person and you do want to marry him and start a family, just, not quite yet.

But what you’re perceiving as a communications problem about getting your reasons across better is reading to me like a consent problem. And that is a relationship-shaking sort of problem that isn’t about finding just the right words. What happens if we step back and assume that actually, you’ve been explaining yourself just fine so far?

If you have to give your fiancé a good enough reason that you don’t want to be pregnant yet before he’ll stop pressuring you about this, and he shuts down and pokes holes in any reasons you supply, where does it stop?

Does he actually understand that you get to say “no” to this until you are absolutely ready, even if you never supply a good-enough-for-him reason?

Does he truly think that people who can become pregnant get to be the boss of when and if they ever do that?

This is not a negotiation. You actually do get the final say on when and if you do want to start a family. So let’s stop treating it like a debate tournament where if you lose* the Lincoln-Douglas session in the afternoon you get a baby you aren’t ready for instead of a runner-up trophy with your name misspelled.

My immediate recommendation is to lock down your contraception situation to a method that only you control and one that does not require your fiancé’s participation to implement successfully. Also, stock up on emergency contraception methods for just-in-case. I would suggest this even if you aren’t currently having sex (or having sex yet). Contraception & reproductive choice is one of those Girl Scout Motto situations: Be prepared!

You do not have to consult your fiancé or even inform him in order to do this. Forgoing contraception & trying for a pregnancy should be a joint decision with consent from both partners, but preventing one isn’t actually up for negotiation. You get to be the sole decision-maker about that.

And I have to say this: If he does find out on his own or because you do want to discuss it with him, and he increases pressure or tries to punish you or accuses you of “breaking his trust” or blames you & shames you ’cause you made a medical decision about your own body, your next step is: RUN. Get a door, a city block, a tri-state area, or an ocean between you and a man who yells at you about birth control, ’cause that’s not a fiancé, that’s a coercive ex you just dodged signing expensive paperwork with.

Does that seem extreme? When a communication issue is really a consent issue, reckoning honestly with the ways that can turn into a control issue is part of protecting yourself. If your fiancé would never actually yell at you about this or sabotage your birth control or get lax about condoms or pressure and wheedle and coerce you break whatever “let’s not get pregnant just yet” protocols you currently use, then, great! That’s by far what I hope will happen, that it’s a total non-issue anticlimax with zero friction.

Shoring up your situation doesn’t actually hurt any of that, but it does default to protecting you if something does go wrong. And enough guys who “would never do something like that” actually do do “something like that” I feel ethically obligated to at least point readers to the possibility.

Now for conversations.

I think your script next time this comes up could be something like:

I don’t want to get pregnant yet, so the answer is, we’re not doing that right now. I’ve told you my reasons, and I’m not going to argue about them anymore. I need you to accept my decision and I need you to accept that I’ll be the one to let you know when I’m ready to try for a family. I predict & hope that will be sometime after our wedding next year, if we do get to go ahead as planned, but I need you to take the pressure off completely.” 

He’ll say a bunch of stuff, you can hear him out, but don’t budge. “I understand how much you want this and why you think it’s a good idea to get started now, but the simple fact is, I don’t want to yet, and since I’m the one who has to be pregnant, that’s a good enough reason. You must stop pressuring me about this.” 

Stop asking for permission or trying to find just the right supporting arguments. Stop negotiating. Stop treating it like a decision where he gets the final say. You have been treating it like a respectful joint collaboration all this time and he’s been trying to steamroll you, so it’s time to stop assuming that there is a secret mutual decision that makes everybody happy if you just word your “nope” gently enough. You know your own mind and heart and “I don’t want to” is a good enough reason.

I know you love this guy, and you want to be gentle and reasonable and be on the same team and not create ultimatums or escalate conflict. But some decisions really do have to be this simple: You are the boss of your own body and your own reproductive choices, and anybody who is going to love you and marry you has to treat that as the bedrock for the decisions you make together. His feelings about his own readiness to be a parent and his family can be whatever they are (and he can work through those with a therapist, a friend, a relative, a pastor, a mentor, etc.), but the intensity of his feelings don’t compel you to do something you’re not ready to do. Feelings are information, not the deciding vote. You’ve got the uterus so you’ve always got the quorum and the floor in the “pregnant y/n?” discussion.

You do not have to find a gentler, more reasonable, more logical, more airtight way to communicate with him about this because your logic is already airtight. He’s the one who needs to fix this, he needs to get it and stop pressuring you, and he needs to take you at your word. I sincerely hope he does and I do wish you every happiness. ❤

P.S. * “It’s not like you’re a virgin” = BIG YIKES

That is an automatically losing argument with a side of YEESH, NO, AAAAARRRGGHHHHH, WHAT THE FUCK?

I reiterate for the record that you’re not the one who has to do any work on communication skills & practices in this relationship.

Behind a cut for mention of physical and emotional abuse of adult children by parents as well as some frustrations and victim-blaming attitudes that are common in friends and support networks of people who are embroiled in abusive situations.

Abusers ruin everything, pretty much.

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Hi, Captain,

To cut to the chase, I (she/her) have an autoimmune disease for which I take several immunosuppressant medications — none of which are working particularly well. My parents are both over the age of 60. You can probably tell where this is going.

My sister (she/her) is getting married at the end of July. Her fiancé is great, I think they’re very well matched, and I’m so happy for them both!

However, my sister is still planning on having a ceremony and reception despite the pandemic. She will follow the state guidelines (at this point, my state allows groups up to 50, although it’s possible that could increase by the time of the wedding) but will not hear anything about cancelling/postponing/switching to Zoom/etc. I understand it, I really do — she wants to have a public celebration of their commitment, plus the small issue that, unless the venue chooses to close, she’s looking at losing thousands of dollars.

My resentment about this keeps building and building because, from my perspective, this is unconscionably risky behavior. I know it’s not fair and it’s not the way she’s looking at it, but it feels like she’s saying “I know this could be a matter of life and death for you, but I really just want to have a party”.

I think I need to not attend her wedding. We’ve already talked about it and she says she’ll understand if “people” don’t attend for pandemic reasons, but I don’t know if she’ll really understand if her only sister doesn’t go.

But honestly, I think the bigger issue is that my parents are gung-ho about attending. I am so, so worried for them. They are not taking this situation especially seriously anyways, so I don’t think they’ll exactly be stringent on mask-wearing and hand-washing at their daughter’s wedding. I know that if they get sick I will blame my sister (I would never say this out loud, but it would be in my head and heart) even if there’s not way to prove it came from her wedding.

I suppose this can be boiled down to:
1. Do you think I should attend her wedding? If no, how do I tell her?
2. Either way, how do I move past the feeling of resentment that she is willing to risk the lives of her family during a pandemic?

Thank you so much for any help!

We’ll call this #1274. Hold tight for #1275 and I’ll be back to you in a sec.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My parents live outside Atlanta. We live in Colorado. Mom has lots of family and old friends in Iowa.

They are going to drive across the country, just as everything is opening, and do two reunions in Iowa before coming here to Colorado. Fortunately, they own a condo out here.

We have two small children (5 & 7), I am an only child, these are their only grandchildren. My dad owns a used bookstore and has kept it open the *entire* time. Fortunately, as of now, everyone is healthy. The kids have been going to daycare, and are masked constantly. We trust the staff there and measures are taken to keep possible exposure to a minimum.

I am very concerned for their health, and ours. I am worried that their trip will expose them to COVID (among other things). I feel like they have not taken the last few months very seriously. 5 days after they get here, they are expecting us to do a dinner out (probably) for my dad’s birthday. And then a day later my dad is flying back to Atlanta to his bookstore!

How can I politely tell them that I feel very uncomfortable about the whole situation and that I would prefer that they quarantine for a minimum of two weeks before seeing grandkids in person? I mean, yes, I could say it exactly like that, but see only child, and mom is…dramatic and has a bit of a persecution complex at the best of times.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Hello to both of you, thanks for writing.

Our government is not going to protect us. Not in time. So we have to protect us. Which means making some tough decisions about our own risk tolerance and what we are willing to do for our neighbors and ourselves.

These questions are both versions of the same question.

Quick, which is scarier:

  1. Having a series of arguments with family members who have set their minds on something you suspect is a bad idea for them and know is a bad idea for you?
  2. Attending a party or parties where everybody in your family will be exposed to potential illness and death?

They also have the same general answer:

  • To set boundaries with others, you need to know what yours are.
  • You can’t control other people, you can only control yourself. So what will YOU do?
  • You can consider other people’s feelings in your decisions, but you cannot prevent or control their feelings.
  • Nor can you prevent your own feelings. Saying “no” to people who want a “yes” and who will berate you to get one isn’t ever going to feel awesome. Let’s build that in to deciding what to do.

Letter Writer #1274, sounds like there’s no way you are going to be able to safely go and have fun at that wedding.

Letter Writer #1275, I think you’re still figuring out what your boundaries are here. You’d prefer that your parents not take the trip at all, for their safety. But the thing you can control here is your own safety and your kids’ safety and the precautions that you & your kids plan to take to not be virus-spreaders to others. What would you need from your parents in order to safely spend time with them?

The scripts come out of knowing what you need and what you’ll do to take care of yourself. For Letter Writer #1274, that could look like this:

  • RSVP “no” to the wedding when the invitations go out, with personal note that says “Congratulations on your marriage. Given [immune system junk], I’m going to have to congratulate you from afar that day.” Send them a nice present for their wedding and let that be your answer.
  • Stay firm in your “no,” even when the pressure from your parents and your sister comes your way and they try to make it about how inconsiderate you are for not wanting to catch a debilitating and possibly fatal respiratory illness on her special day.
  • You could try…logic?: “The government has made almost no progress in testing, no progress on creating a meaningful contact tracing and quarantine program, no progress on enforcing universal mask use, nor have they taken any of the measures that would actually quell this thing. Until they do? There’s probably no safe party. I’m so sorry, I know how much you were looking forward to this, but I honestly think the right thing to do is to cancel and try again next year. But if you’re set on this? I hope it’s the party you want it to be and everyone is very lucky. I still can’t risk it, not even for you.”
  • You could skip directly to the end: “I’m sorry, my decision is made. I hope it’s the party you want it to be, I’ll have to celebrate with you another time.” 
  • Stay firm in your “no” no matter what your parents and your sister throw at you. “Don’t you want to see YOUR ONLY SISTER get MARRIED?” “I do! I hope someone will run a camera or have an open video-conferencing link so I can watch from home.” You don’t have to die for a party to prove you love people. Your sister has choices that would make it possible for you to participate in her wedding. Let her use up all the ones where you don’t die before you accept blame for possibly “ruining” her special day.

For Letter #1275 it could look like this:

  • “Mom, Dad, can you walk me through your trip again? You’re going to see us how many days after you see [reunion bunch]?” Make sure you have the facts of their plan right before you argue with their plan.
  • From there, it’s what you’re willing to safely do.
    • Masks on, park or back yard, set up chairs 6+ feet apart, everyone stays in their chair, no hugs, but you can see everybody’s faces in the flesh? Maybe kids stay on the other side of a screen door to minimize hug temptations?
    • Yes to family dinner (w/hugs) if they quarantine at their condo for 10-14 days after the rest of their trip and before they see you and the kids?
    • No to all of it because you don’t feel safe or comfortable and you don’t trust your parents to respect the rules once you’re all in the same place?
  • Yes, your kids are their only grandchildren, which makes them precious grandparents you don’t want to lose for preventable reasons and also makes you & your fellow parent your children’s only set of parents, which means YOU get to decide for your kids as well as yourselves. You are absolutely allowed to say “I don’t want to put the kids and us at risk like that, I’m sorry, an actual visit will have to wait until it’s much safer or until you have enough time to do a real quarantine.” 
  • You can make this their problem to solve and keep putting the onus on them. “If you can arrange to quarantine for at least 10-14 days before you see the kids, we’d love to see you. If your current trip doesn’t allow for that, we understand, we’ll catch you next time.” i.e. You can refuse to accept the framing that this is about you  being an unreasonable worrywart and keep reframing it as, “Hey, I understand that Dad can only be away from the store for so long, so if you can’t build in the necessary quarantine, that’s ok, we’re not mad at you that you won’t be able to see us, but surely you understand that I have to look out for my kids and put them first.” From the Twitter Peanut gallery: “I’d rather skip a visit now than have to introduce your grandkids to the concept of a Zoom funeral.
  • This is an optional vacation. Your parents do not have to take these trips. Just, idk, keep the relative stakes in perspective when you’re like “I don’t want to risk my kids getting ill because you wanted a vacation” and your parents are like “DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT FAAAAAMILY.”

Both Letter Writers: After you say “no,” prepare to be pressured and prepare to be gaslit. The magical thinking about “reopening” is exactly that: magical thinking.

Edited to Add: In many cases those of us negotiating with “come on, it’s not that bad!” relatives are fighting both propaganda that is trying to reshape reality so that wealthy people can keep right on making money no matter how many people get sick and die and normalcy biaswhich is the notion that if a problem were THAT serious, surely someone somewhere important would be doing something about it. Normalcy bias is a useful tool for autocracy and kleptocracy because it conditions citizens to minimize threats, and that is why the deliberate incompetence of the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic is so dangerous. The longer they keep not doing anything about it and reassuring people that it will blow over any second, the more people die. The more we get used to people dying, the more the “If it’s really that bad, surely …someone will…do… something?” reaction gets challenged. The cognitive dissonance gets louder and louder and eventually people have to concede either “It really was that bad, and our government totally failed and nobody was doing anything about it” or “It must not have been that bad, just another case of the worrywarts overreacting.” Since one of these options lets people feel comfortable and safe and entitled to keep getting haircuts and abusing the waitstaff at Red Lobster and the other requires some uncomfortable rethinking of priorities, it’s easy to see why the “fun” option (that’s secretly full of DEATH except it’s not a secret) keeps winning out.

I keep saying that the great American pastime is not baseball, it’s deciding the exact right amount someone else should have reacted to a situation after the fact. I keep meaning to write a full-length essay about that horrid pastime and the damage it does in interpersonal relationships,  and I mention it now because that automatic victim-blaming and minimization tendency was already strong in our culture. Normalcy bias mixed with American exceptionalism mixed with actually malicious propaganda is a perfect storm for continued death and suffering and continued “Who could have possibly known this would happen?” handwringing (and gaslighting) from pundits and people who were supposed to be fucking doing something about this, especially down the road when the history books are written and the answer was, anyone could have known if they were willing to be honest about certain things. I know. So do you, Letter Writers. It is possible for ordinary non-expert citizens to know, which means it was always possible for the people in charge to know. We aren’t magical Cassandras cursed by Apollo, we are just people who would rather have truth than comfort, in the middle of the extremely uncomfortable realization that nothing’s changed in human nature in 2800 years (give or take).

I keep saying that what I fear the most from the pandemic is not death, it’s cruelty; it’s normalization of indifference and cruelty toward suffering and death.

What I’m seeing in these “for the love of god, wear a mask and take precautions!” pleas to family members who are like “lalalalala I’m not listening” is part of this normalization of cruelty and indifference. It’s people who suspect that they are doing a wrong or selfish thing turning on the people close to them who call them to account for doing that thing, it’s people deciding that it’s easier to blame you for ruining their fun (and try to guilt, shame, or browbeat you into compliance) than it is to acknowledge the dangers that are still very much with us, and it’s not surprising to me that it’s running along entrenched power structures in families (parents to adult children, parents to daughters or daughter-coded adult children, known Difficult Family Members doing what they always do and everyone else leaning on The Reasonable One to go along to get along and keep the peace).

Does that make sense? The same kinds of fights over “You’ll ruin Christmas if you don’t come home and let everyone abuse you this year” and “You know how [Awful Relative]  is, why do you argue with [racist things they say], it’s just giving it attention!” are happening now, with even higher stakes, around the pandemic.

Power and propaganda work the same in families as in governments, the application being “We can keep doing what we like as long as we can convince most people that it’s not that bad, pressure the few who can’t be convinced to shut up about it, and control flare-ups of honesty by keeping everything endlessly debatable and focused on personal intentions rather than outcomes. If we can rewrite history enough, we can create the narrative that the people who pointed out the problem were really at fault for creating the problem. If we can get them to blame themselves for not doing enough soon enough? We can make a self-renewing shame-blame cycle that lasts forever.” 

So what do we do when our families are jerks and then try to scapegoat us about that? We keep telling the truth, we refuse to let ourselves be mistreated to serve the illusion of other people’s comfort, and we return the awkwardness to sender. Consider the political applications of that as you parse the personal ones. [/Edit]

Letter Writers, probably neither of you can convince your parents to stay put. You can try? But if they’re just tuning you out, at some point, it’s their life, they get to choose their risk tolerance.

But here’s the deal: They can’t actually make you participate. They can plan all the dinners and parties they want. You can still keep your ass at home. They can accuse you of overreacting and they can make scenes and call you names. You can still keep your ass at home. You can try to explain nicely, with plenty of advance notice, the reasoning for your decision but if that turns into a giant argument and manipulation campaign you can also quietly keep your ass at home on the day – like you told them clearly that you would – and they can’t make you show up to somewhere you know is probably dangerous for you and other people. If you know that for sure, you can reclaim some of your power in the situation. “I already told you no. Do you want to keep fighting about it, or do you want to talk about something else?” 

Letter Writer #1274: You’re afraid of resenting your sister and want help not doing that. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, ok? If the party goes well and nobody gets sick, your sister will have her day (minus you, a thing she will just have to live with). I hope it goes like that.

If your parents  (or your sister, or other guests, or the venue catering staff who are forced to work, Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate) die or develop debilitating health problems because they insist on attending a wedding during a pandemic,  IT WILL BE OK IF YOU GET BIG MAD ABOUT THAT. (I closed comments, but please imagine all the people who HAVE cancelled their expensive, much-longed-for weddings sending a silent Internet FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU in your sister & her fiancé’s direction right now). You can probably resent your sister proportionally less if you decide you’re mad at her for throwing the party and also mad at your parents for going to it, but please trust that if the worst happens there will be enough mad and sad that you can spread it out a bit and decide what, if anything, you want to express or do with it. But one thing at a time! Right now we want you to not get sick. That is a thing you can exercise control over, so start there.

Letter Writer #1275, you mentioned that your mom can be dramatic and have a bit of a persecution complex. Fun!

Here’s my question for you about that, a variation on the first question in the post. Which is more scary:

  1. Your mom being dramatic and accusing you of persecuting her when you don’t do what she wants?
  2. Everybody in your family exposing each other to illness and death?

You’ve survived a lot of #1, probably, and lived to tell the tale. You hold the cards of the sole grandchildren, so if everybody can actually survive the next two years, chances are your relationship can survive, too. If it can’t, I promise, it wasn’t you who destroyed it.

For everyone reading, I get being sick of this, and being sick of not just the need to mask up and socially distance and be very careful about interacting with humans and have all the things you counted on be off-limits, but also being sick of the morass of conflicting guidelines and information and the truly sickening knowledge that so many people died and the people in charge didn’t really do anything about it and aren’t going to do anything different than they have about it in the forseeable future. Everybody with power seems to be hoping that we’ll just…forget? The deadly pandemic?

It would be so easy to tune out of all of it and just accept the magical thinking that it won’t be that bad and that you’ll be one of the exceptions and that this has all been an overreaction. Just, before you accept any wedding invitations or fun dinner events, do me a favor:

Google “Covid-19 lung transplant images” from the past week. [IT IS GRAPHIC AS FUCK, THIS IS YOUR WARNING]

Still feel like going out?

That’s your choice, then, and may your god or gods go with you, but you’re not allowed to pressure anybody else to come with.

P.S. I got everyone’s VERY CONCERNED letters about protests and pandemics, so I’m ready for the “HOW can you say it’s not cool to have a WEDDING when you advised people to mask up and join the protests if they could, GOTCHA!”

  1. I’m very sad about people having to cancel weddings, I’m sad for all the students who worked so hard not having graduations, I’m sad for all the grieving people having to log into video funerals instead of being hugged by family and delicious casseroles, I’m sad for all the rituals of human togetherness that we are missing right now.
  2. Quick, what’s scarier:
  • Open, unapologetic extrajudicial murder by armed state security services, which disproportionately kills Black (and Indigenous) people?
  • COVID-19, which disproportionately kills Black (and Indigenous) people?

To me, these are the same fight, and in the words of my friend Mikki, there’s no wrong way to fight for your life.

I said in my initial post that if you don’t feel safe going or can’t protest, no argument from me, there are plenty of other ways to get involved, pick one of those! But the “people are protesting state-sanctioned murder and passive genocide, so it’s not fair that an internet advice columnist said I shouldn’t have a dinner party!” takes are not making the case you think they are, and I’m actually very cool with being seen as “unfair” about this.

 

 

 

 

Hi there,

My husband (27M) and I (27F) have been married for 3.5 years and we live in the US. Generally, we click on just about everything major – kids, faith, goals, finances, etc. We have the same type of humor, can laugh together and all-around can just have a good time together.

To be frank tho, we argue almost all the time… about really dumb, insignificant stuff. Sure, we go through short periods of no arguing, but it always comes back around to bickering constantly. We’ve made great strides in the way we communicate with each other, me tending to be more emotional and working to overcome them as we work through issues, and him tapping into his emotions, but I just don’t understand why we argue so often.

There is one thing to note – my husband started taking anxiety meds about a year and a half ago, as well as ADHD medication a year ago (I won’t go into all the details). Overall, his mental health has vastly improved. The only downside to this, is that he has a very difficult time achieving orgasm during sex, and all around just doesn’t really have a strong sex drive. I can’t say that this isn’t a contributing factor to our constant bickering…

However, my husband feels that I make a big deal about everything – small and insignificant things – that lead to us arguing. He’s not entirely wrong… I do feel like that’s something I really need to get better at. Letting small things roll off my back and not letting stupid stuff affect me. This is where I need advice. I’m not sure how to get better at this.

Thanks!

– Stressed Wife

Hello Stressed Wife:

The changing sex drive thing is hard and is going to take time and patience to find a new normal that works for both of you. My advice about that is to remove pressure wherever possible, I wrote a ton about specific strategies for that here. Short version: Explore ways to have good sex with yourself, find a way to enjoy and share touch without expectation that it will always turn into sex, find a way to enjoy the sex you do have without being so goal-oriented around his orgasms.

The real reason I snagged your question today was your last paragraph and the shared assumption that the problem in your marriage is that you’re “too emotional” and that your concerns are almost always trivial ones. The assumption that whoever cares the most or feels the most strongly about something can’t possibly ever be the most right about it has got to go. It’s got to go on the macro level, it’s got to go on the micro level, it’s got to go when it shows up as racism, it’s got to go when it shows up as misogyny, today we fight it in your marriage so that tomorrow we can fight it in newsrooms that assume black reporters are “too biased” to cover protests about white supremacy (true story). (Oh hey, also, men aren’t naturally “more logical” than women, stop that).

Mismatched sex drives, a sudden change in your sex life with a beloved partner is a big deal, actually! One that requires a lot of patience and care and adaptation from everybody!

What if the other things that you need and the other things that bother you are also actually pretty important, and the fact that they are important to you is what makes them important? I’m not suggesting that you mine every possible activity of your shared life for conflict and an excuse to criticize your partner (pls. don’t), but I am suggesting an experiment where you stop pre-dismissing the things that are bothering you as automatically unworthy of mention, and where you stop automatically assuming that your emotions should be discounted as important information about what you need.

Most of us are taught some version of The Golden Rule (“Treat other people as you would wish to be treated”) and that is a very useful ethical guideline, until it’s translated as “I would be fine with this, so what’s wrong with you if you aren’t also completely fine with this?” Stuff that bothers you doesn’t have to bother your husband in the exact same way for it to be real, and the exact way he would approach a problem doesn’t have to be your way.

If you find yourself picking fights or escalating fights about other things because of your unhappiness at the change in your sex life, yep, that’s a problem, stop it. If you pressure a partner about sex and punish them (with sulking, silent treatment, fights, bickering) when they don’t want to or can’t have sex with you, it creates a very, very bad cycle. You’re smart to want to interrupt it now.

But is every argument you are having totally baseless or a proxy for something else? Are you ever allowed to say, hey, this is just really my preference, so can you do x/stop doing x as a favor to me, because it would make me happier this way, and have your husband say, “Sure thing, honey, that seems reasonable, I’ll do my best”?

If you can find a marriage counselor who does video/telemedicine, this is probably worth taking to an outside referee who can work with you both over time.

If you truly feel like the problem is that you and you alone are extra irritable right now, you know for sure that you’re picking fights about things that wouldn’t normally bother you, and you’re looking for ways improve your overall distress tolerance so that you can choose your marital battles better, then work on your own mood and emotional well-being to the extent you can.

If it’s somewhere in the middle (which I suspect it is), try an experiment for a couple weeks:

  1. When something is bothering you about husband/husband’s behavior, try taking a wee time out before you speak up about it. Walk around the block, comb the dog, wash your water glass, visit the rest room, count to 100. Is it still bothering you? It’s okay if it’s still bothering you, you can now know for sure that it is vs. beat yourself up for “over-reacting” in the moment.
  2. Can whatever is bothering you be expressed as a positive preference vs. a criticism? “I really like when you do x, more of that please!” vs. “Why don’t you ever do x?”  This doesn’t work for everything (nor are you obligated to only and forever express upset feelings as net positives and win-win situations, we’re just trying something out), but even when used as an exercise for thinking through how you want to talk about something, this can be a tool for both practicing assertiveness and for de-escalation.
  3. My art teacher stripes are showing here:  If you can’t express it as a positive assertion, can it be a question? “Is there a reason you’re doing x that way (instead of how I assume it should be done?)” can yield valuable information. Only do this if you can make it a genuine question, everybody knows that “Interesting choice with the lighting there, what prompted that?” probably means “Your lighting: not amazing.” 
  4. When you take your time out, think about what you actually want out of a conversation with him. Are you communicating a feeling? Are you asking for his input on how to solve a joint problem? Is there something you’d like him to do differently? Think of it as gently applying the thing you’d want from a good friend – “Do you want advice or are you just venting right now?” – to yourself.
  5. When you do argue or raise an issue, can you try not automatically taking the blame for overreacting or assuming that you are “making a big deal out of nothing” or whatever the prevailing narrative in your house is? Skip the part where you pre-apologize, skip the part where you start sentences with “It’s probably nothing, but could you just _____.” If you’ve made it through steps 1-4 and the thing is still bugging you, it’s not nothing, so you don’t have to apologize or set yourself up as a supplicant.
  6. Listening skills review! Sometimes when we get along with somebody really well and we’re on the same page about mostly everything and we’ve known them forever, we get into habits of assuming things about them, like what they really mean when they speak and what they’ll say next. When things get tense, it’s easy to start reacting based on our assumptions and stop listening to their actual words. If you’re arguing or having a tense discussion, before you respond to what your husband says to you, try mirroring it back to him before you add your input. “What I’m hearing you say is that you  feel _____/want ______. Is that correct?” [Then actually listen to the answer and adapt as necessary]. “Okay, in that case, what I really need is _____.” 

Is this just quarantine-close-quarters irritability? Is this a need to work on your own reactivity and anger and make an effort to be more intentional in your communications? Do you both just need a reminder to slow down and be really, really nice and kind and polite to each other? Who can say? Not me! But I do have some confidence that if you try these communication strategies for a few weeks, at very least you’ll have more information about what’s happening here* that can point you in the right direction for what to do about it. Good luck and thanks for the question!

*STRONG HINT: If you do get much more thoughtful about choosing your battles, and if you remove the automatic “it’s probably nothing but…” framing from your conversations but your husband keeps putting it back there? That’s not a you-problem. ❤

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Cap,

I’ve (she/her) got White Family Facebook Drama over police racism, regarding my (male) officer cousins, D and A. I began publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016, and they became distant but civil. (It was hard because D and I had been friendly on social media before that, but I didn’t want to hide anymore.)

A’s family supported #BLM lately. We agreed often. Then Aunt L (my godmother and A’s mom), posted a “don’t let the bad apples define your view of police” meme. I wrote what I thought was a sensitive but firm refutation: (1) American policing is an institution, (2) the institution is systemically racist, (3) all members are culpable and responsible for fixing it, even the officers we love. I re-read and rewrote it several times. 

I really hoped L would at least reconsider the tone-deaf meme, instead all hell broke loose.

The word “disrespect” was thrown around constantly – I disrespected D and A’s families and our great-grandfather who died in the line of duty, questioned D and A’s integrity, etc. I argued I’m talking about institutional culpability and the blue wall of silence. None of my relatives agreed. A few days earlier, I’d posted an image of the “thin blue line flag” with the blue line peeling away to reveal a swastika underneath. L’s family found that and ripped into me again. I provided sources on how the Blue Lives Matter phrase and that flag are racist symbols used in opposition to BLM. Aunt L vehemently disagreed and defriended me.

My mom says I’ve caused an irreparable breach in my once-close-knit extended family and was insensitive because my police families are scared for my cousins. Friends involved in BLM say I was right. I don’t think my words were wrong, but it eats at me that I’ve estranged so many at once. Many of my (white) family love the blanket “but I’M not racist” excuse, which I loathe because I think we too have systemic responsibility. So I’ve wanted to break that disclaimer, but wasn’t trying to use dynamite, let alone on a Facebook post!

I know what’s done is done. Is there anything I can/should do now, either to fix things or come to terms with this estrangement? Right now I just feel alone and lost.

Signed,

“Becky”

Dear “Becky”:

Well, this is certainly topical. 🙂

I made an action plan for you and for any of my fellow white readers who are getting sucked into the same set of racist Facebook arguments with family we’ve been having since there was a Facebook that also serves to answer the influx of “I want to help but what do I actually do” questions.

Ready?

Set!

LET’S DO STUFF. 

1. You mentioned that you’re feeling lonely and isolated, so it’s important that you check in with your close, trusted friends who don’t make you feel awful. Get some love and comfort. Eat a food, drink some water, take some deep breaths.

2. Real quick, read this Twitter thread by Ijeoma Oluo (Author of the excellent book So You Wanna Talk About Race) about whether individually convincing every single white supremacist relative you have is the best use of your time right now.

3. Read How To Talk To Relatives Who Care More About Looting Than Black Lives by Rachel Miller. If and when you want to dig in and have some of these conversations, she’s made you about the gentlest road map you could hope for.

4. Still in a reading mood? Try Michelle Silverthorn’s heartfelt piece about talking to children about whiteness instead of asking Black friends for reading material or tutorials about Blackness.

5. CLOSE FACEBOOK. Turn off notifications, uninstall it from your devices (so you have to open a browser and log in if you want to use it), and ignore your family for right now. 

You’re clearly taking up space in your relatives’s heads, good work! Don’t let them take up all the space in yours.

6. There are better uses of your time. Your racist relatives are still going to be racist in a couple of weeks. There’s stuff happening right now that needs your power more, people putting their lives on the line right now who need your help.

7. Redirect your energy and do something tangible to support the protests and end racist policing in your community. (Don’t worry, I’ll elaborate later).

8. You don’t have to do it alone. Those supportive friends you checked in with?  Once you’ve got them together, ask them what they’re doing right now that gives them hope and purpose. Can you help? If they don’t have anything going already, congrats, you’re an organizer now, so make a plan of action for what you are going to do together to end racist policing in your community. Use the buddy system to create accountability and safety for following through and doing it.

9. Every time you open Facebook or another social media platform to share an important take or spend time arguing with a racist relative, do something tangible to end racist policing in your community instead (or in addition to). Aim to spend 5% of your time Collecting Your Personal Timeline Racists Like Off-Brand Pokémons and 95% of it Making Them Irrelevant because the necessary reforms are happening in your community with them or without them.

Several Tangible Actions White Readers of Captain Awkward Could Take To End Racist Policing Starting Now: 

  • Join the protests in your community. Maybe there needs to be a visible-from-space wall of white women in those photogenic pink pussy hats from the Women’s March between police and Black protestors right now. I don’t remember cops beating us up?

 

 

  • If you can’t physically join a protest, I and my delicate lungs believe you. Disabled people have been organizing actions and supporting street protesters online for years, so find something else you can do and do that. Here’s Teen Vogue with a starter guide.

 

  • If you can’t join a protest, clogging the mentions of organizers who are directing people to the streets to explain why you, personally, can’t possibly be expected to protest is derailing and distracting as fuck. Do what you can do. Don’t do things you know will harm you. Don’t make me let The Good Shepherd (formerly known as The Goat Lady) loose on you for their incredibly thorough lecture about this. (They have a spear now. 🙂 )

 

  • If you have money to spare: Free somebody (donate to a bail fund or legal aid organization that gets people out of jails). Feed somebody (donate to a food bank, mutual aid fund, or other organization that keeps body and soul together). Here is a very user-friendly guide and here is a really, really detailed spreadsheet of nationwide resources I’ve seen organizers I trust share.

 

  • If you have no money to spare, that’s okay! Amplify & share fundraising that will free somebody or feed somebody.

 

  • Find out what your community is doing about ending racist policing, and find out what local Black organizers want your community to be doing about ending racist policing. Most of us (me included) don’t know because we’ve never had to know. Heads’ up, Chicago, check and see if your alderman supports the Civilian Police Accountability Council, or CPAC ordinance. There are a few holdouts on the North Side who need to get their inboxes and phone lines rattled. I’m not going to pretend that I knew about this before exactly this week, but it took me about 15 minutes to get familiar and send a couple of emails. That’s a start.

 

  • Use your best “Hello, may I please speak to the manager?” voice to move those organizers agendas forward. That could mean:
    • Call mayors and public officials where you live to demand release of protestors from jail. Demand that they lift curfews and stop “kettling” protesters.
    • Ask elected officials to support specific policy proposals. “Hello, I’m a voter in your ward concerned about [topic]. I’d like you to [support/do/vote yes on/vote no on X].” “But phone calls make me anxious Captain Awkward.” Me too! Use phone, fax, email, social media, text, ResistBot, postal mail, postcards – whatever method you can sustainably do – to add to the pressure on public servants to do the right thing.
    • Give public comments on city council proposals and proposed state legislation on line. Virtual meetings are on Zoom (and similar platforms) now, you don’t even have to leave your house.
    • Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Is the paper covering police brutality even close to as much as they are expressing concern over every broken window? Are they repeating police talking points without fact-checking? Are they actually talking to local protesters and organizers and making sure their concerns are front page news? Can you publicly state that you support the aims of the protestors and demand that your mayor or city council stand down the police from violence toward protesters and investigate police killings and violence like any other crime? Politicians really pay attention to this stuff, especially if you mention a politician by name, since they tend to have staffers who track all media mentions.

 

  • Yes, voting still matters. Time to look hard at the people running for local and state positions like prosecutor, district attorney, state’s attorney, attorney general, and judges where you live. Also past time to look at everybody in charge of the logistics and security of elections and ask what they are doing to make sure that votes can be safely cast and counted during a pandemic and in light of known election security issues. Is the president terrifying? Yep. He’s gonna do what he does and you’re going to keep doing all the stuff you’re hopefully doing now to bounce him from office like a bad penny. You don’t have to comprehensively debate and track every single nuance of everything he sharts onto the timeline. These local offices matter a ton to justice and quality of life and have been neglected too long.

Bonus Workplace Edition: 

If you’re a manager or corporate employee and you’re trying to figure out how to support Black employees and show that your company is moving with the times, here are some suggestions I’ll give you for free: 

  • Give Black people you manage mental health breaks, unofficial flex time and time off (that doesn’t come out of paid vacation balances) and tons of flexibility on deadlines wherever possible. If there’s something you could take off a coworker’s plate that would relieve stress, that’s probably better than white people awkwardly “checking on” Black acquaintances (vs. friends) to ask if there’s “anything” you can do. If you’ve got the power, lighten their loads, literally!

 

 

  • Before you, a white person who manages people, try to do ANY “roundtables,” etc. on racism in the workplace, I think you have a duty to look through all the notes from the last time or seven you did Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion stuff in your workplace, and also look at the exit interviews of all the non-white people who quit your organization in the last five years. In those files, chances are you already have all the data you could possibly want about what Black people need to thrive professionally at your organization and how to make sure your company doesn’t publicly embarrass itself with racist messaging. Be honest with yourself and your management teams. Did you do any of it?

 

  • If not, maybe don’t put everyone through the fantasy that you care about this a lot, and better yet, start doing whatever you can right now without forming a committee or commissioning a study or making people sit through yet another planning meeting. If past and present Black employees said “We need pay equity” and “We need more recognition and professional development” then you obviously need pay equity and more recognition and professional development. “But Captain Awkward, we don’t have anything like that because not enough Black people work here.” Well, you’ve identified your problem as a recruiting & retention problem. So what are you going to do about that?

 

  • If you’re asking Black people (and people from other marginalized groups) to do public speaking, sit on panels, author papers, social media posts, and other communications and otherwise be the “face” of your corporation, try a) backing them up with sufficient resources for a change b) not making them the only non-white person at the dance (for once?) and c) asking them to present on topics *other* than race (gender, etc. etc.).

 

  • Re-examine the way your organization contributes to the problem of racist policing and a white supremacist justice system. How does your company use, support, and cooperate with police? What data do they supply to law enforcement? There are numerous organizing efforts within tech companies, universities, school systems, and unions to divest from intrusive surveillance, militarization, and profiting from human misery. This bus driver refused to transport protestors for the NYPD. How can you be like that bus driver in what you do for a living?

 

  • Review tactics for de-escalation and bystander intervention and use them on your known loudmouth trolls. Debating “but what about looters, tho” with Racist Dale from Accounting in the company Slack might feel really righteous and satisfying, and it’s not that racist harassment doesn’t need to be shut down, but consider that giving space and energy to nonsensical debates continues the notion that a) “white supremacy” vs. “howabout….no?” is still somehow debatable b) “winning debates” is the most important thing we can do about white supremacy and c) it forces all of Dale’s targets to have to deal with his crap. Even if your “Dale” outranks you, it doesn’t mean you’re powerless, you can distract him and occupy him with something else. “Oh hey Dale, now that you’re online, here’s this absorbing and urgent work task that needs your immediate and thorough review.” 

 

  • “But Captain Awkward, shutting down debate won’t change anybody’s mind and might actually make him more racist.” Oh no, not a slightly-more-racist Racist Guy From Work! That was definitely caused by not hearing him out and perhaps answering his debate club gambit too tersely. Look, people are dying, this isn’t a White Supremacist-fostering rescue where you try to gently make racists adoptable to a non-racist forever home someday. Protecting people from racists is more important than redeeming or reforming them, and by the way, don’t you have a protest to get to? It’s almost curfew.

Get And Stay Informed To The Point That You Can *Act*

Hey, look, as a white person who likes to know things, explain things, and be good at school, I know that the catching up we individually and collectively need to do on the subject of racism can feel like those anxiety dreams where you are sitting for a final exam for a course you don’t remember even registering for, sweating bullets over your blue book while the clock ticks loudly down to the time where Everyone Will Be Able To See That You Don’t Know The Answers.

Except the things we don’t know about race mean that people in the real world die of neglect and violence.

If you’re feeling like you’re in one of those dreams right now, like, “There’s so much I don’t know. How can I not know? What if I get it wrong because of the things that I don’t know?” that feeling is real. You gotta feel it for a minute so you can do something about it.

Then, your family says a bunch of racist stuff, and the feeling gets worse. These are, in some cases, the people who should have taught you this stuff. Why didn’t they know? Why did I go on 10,000 family trips and school trips to a place called The Freedom Trail and have to memorize “One If By Land, Two If By Sea” every year, without anybody ever mentioning that the building we ended our trips with ice cream and souvenirs was named after a slave trader? That feeling of betrayal and disconnect is real too, and you gotta feel it for a minute so you can do something about it.

You know you’re supposed to act on this feeling, so you start to think, maybe if I learn everything there is to know about this, I can find the perfect way to make the case to my family, and maybe if they know what I know, they’ll finally agree with me. If I can just find the right book, the right syllabus, the right reading list, the right resource, I’ll know exactly what to do and say and I won’t be so anxious about messing up and getting it wrong.

The bad news is that white supremacy isn’t an education problem or an arguments problem or a proof problem or an information problem, it’s not still around all these years ’cause it just needed a few more facts to get thrown on the bonfire to reduce it to ashes for good. It’s a power problem, calcified in our institutions, including the most hallowed educational institutions with all the best libraries and archives you can imagine.

The good news is that whatever we were taught in school and in our families, whatever gaps there are in our knowledge and understanding, the information we need is available. We can do the reading, and we can try to be people who do antiracism work in our families and maybe eventually win a few hearts and minds. It’s just not the most urgent task, the way our feelings of shame and weirdness about white supremacy are not more important than what’s happening to the targets of it.

The right-the-fuck-now news is: Knowing stuff and doing something about it are not the same thing. Black people have imagined, articulated, designed,  and advocated for multiple visions and concrete plans, adaptable in real time, for what needs to happen next to shift the balance of power away from white supremacy and make their communities safer, happier, freer, healthier, and more prosperous. Right now. Today. The right things to do next are not only knowable, they are known. You don’t have to become the world’s foremost expert on this topic, you just have to listen to the ones we already have and follow their lead.

White people are the world’s busiest procrastinators. We (collectively) loooooooooove to study a problem, analyze it, form commissions, hire consultants to prepare reports, debate the merits of each individual bullet point on every slides, request more data, debate the problem some more, try to build consensus, debate some more, form a task force, disseminate findings, and then restart the whole thing again. We also love to talk about how there is no point in doing anything at all unless we can diagnose and fix every possible underlying issue, oops, time for another study. We love to do literally everything except believe Black people the first time when they tell us what they’re experiencing and give them exactly what obvious thing they told us that they need. That’s the one solution that never gets tried, or in the rare instances when it does get tried, it immediately gets cut from budgets and abandoned when racist white people object to it, which means that we all lose. (This episode of the 1619 podcast succinctly explains how racism killed universal healthcare for all U.S. citizens better than anything I’ve ever read or seen btw)

I’m never going to tell people “eh, don’t do any of the reading, it doesn’t matter if you’re ill-informed.”

But I am going to tell my fellow white people that if Black people say that starving their neighborhoods of city services while spending half (and sometimes more than half) of the city budget on violent policing isn’t working for them and here’s what would work better instead, we don’t actually need to do 400 years of reading catch-up to know that that’s the right thing to do before we do something about it. They are experts on shit that we just admitted we don’t really understand! We just showed up yesterday! Let’s do it their way! That is our urgent project, right now. Lives depend on it. We have power to help and a duty to fight in solidarity.

So yes, do your homework, and yes, don’t let your racist relatives say racist things unchallenged in your homes and your online spaces and your workplace, but also, do not fall into the trap of treating this as a project in building and perfecting better white people who know more stuff about racism.

If you’ve got one hour today, do one hour of something that accomplishes the goals of Black activists and protesters who are fighting for their lives and communities.

If you don’t know where to find any of that, use today’s hour for research and vetting purposes and tomorrow’s hour for helping.

If you’ve got one extra dollar, use it to free somebody or feed somebody.

You Have More Power Than You Think

You didn’t make the rift in your family by saying true stuff on your social media, so reject the notion that you need to apologize or repair it in some way and return that awkwardness to sender.

It’s telling that your family has made this about your supposed “disrespectful” behavior. You a) expressed solidarity with an important and popular civil rights movement b) shared a true comparison about racist policing. *Edit* As readers have rightly pointed out, throwing swastikas around on your timeline means that your Jewish friends and have to see and deal with swastikas, so maybe find another way to make the point about white supremacist infiltration and recruitment of police from now on, like this long fact-checked article about known white supremacist infiltration and recruitment of police.

Still, if “D” and “A” aren’t speaking to you directly about this or even following your posts, why do you have to offer them and your incredibly dead ancestor “respect” in absentia? If they are good men, they’ll be the first to say, “Yep, I work with some totally racist dudes and they are the ones who make my job harder, not Black people for existing.” Your meme isn’t the thing that’s making police look bad right now. Like, come on.

Your family uses the word “disrespect” because they want your silence and compliance. Withholding your silence and compliance from authoritarians is how you reclaim power, that’s true whether the power struggle is big or small. Your family is treating you like someone who they think they have the power to bully into being silent and compliant. And yet, if the truthful things you say didn’t have power, they wouldn’t press you so hard to shut up.

If you have family who seem to really want to talk about the protests a lot and you do want to engage with them, see if you can leverage their concerns into actions. (Donations count as actions).

  • They’re concerned about property damage? “Oh hey, did you know there’s a fund to help some of the local business owners clean up and rebuild?” + Link them to it and (for best results) ask for a specific amount of money. “I bet even $10 or $20 would go a long way.” 
  • They say they support “peaceful protesters”? Great! Interrupt them before they get to the “but” part of the sentence, since what comes next will almost certainly be racist, then link them to a local activist organization that does work year-round. “I love Assata’s Daughters in Chicago, they do a ton of youth programming and organizing with young women. I was planning to send them a little money this week, wanna match my donation and we can bundle it together?”  
  • They say they don’t agree with what the officers who killed George Floyd or Breonna Taylor did? That’s a start, you can work with that. “Hey, I’m not okay with it either, that’s why I’m tuning into the city council meeting stream tonight. I want to learn about what we do about violent officers and police brutality here where we live. Want to join me?” 
  • They say they’re worried about the protests spreading Covid-19? Me too, and while it would be true to point out that the surge in infections we’re seeing right now is from the Memorial Day frolicking and the anti-lockdown people who really, really wanted to bear arms and get haircuts, maybe a more strategic thing to say is, “Me too, and the jails are real hot spots for spreading the illness, which is why it’s important to get people out of confined spaces as soon as possible. Here are some legal aid organizations that are working on that, could you throw in a few dollars?” 

Let’s be real, I know that most of our racist relatives who want to express their deep “concern” about the lamp supply at the local Target and who only share videos of people hugging the police are not going to suddenly donate money to Black Lives Matter-bail funds or be inspired to civic participation. Ask them anyway. Keep on asking. Part of organizing is meeting people where they are and inviting them to join you in changing things.

If your family members realize that every time they run their mouths or keyboards with the same racist set of “concerns” that accompanied “kneeling quietly during a song during football,” you now actually expect them to do something constructive about those concerns, they’re gonna either get real helpful or real quiet.

The protests are working. The pressure is working. If we keep pushing, eventually your more persuadable family members are going to act like “Black Lives Matter!” was *their* idea all along and you won’t have to persuade each one individually, and also, good news, the country will be less racist.

Keep your receipts, but also, take your victories where you can get them.

I love you all so much, be smart, be safe, be kind.

 

Behind a cut for mention of child abuse, sexual abuse, and abuse from a therapist. See also, bullying about weight and fat-shaming. Basically a bingo card of triggering, problematic shit and a very awesome Letter Writer trying to handle it all gracefully. ❤

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Hi Captain! I hope today is treating you gently. 🙂

Last year, I (twentysomething, they/them) moved across the country to be with my partner. The relationship is good and healthy! The town is friendly, walkable-ish, mild weather, etc. When I visited, I could see myself living here – and more importantly, working at this one specific business. (Uh-oh, right?!

I had worked in a specialized retail shop for years in my previous city. My entire life basically revolved around this particular lifestyle. I loved having conversations about shared ideologies all day and getting to explore products and methods that came up in the environment surrounding me. I’m going back to school to specialize in this field, and want to work in it for the rest of my career.

There’s only one business in this industry in my new, much smaller town, so I applied. They were hiring full-time for several positions to start in a few months and needed someone with my exact experience, so I thought I had a good chance. I had a bit of a time crunch with my lease, so I moved to this new town without securing a job first. (Yikes!)

I went through the lengthy interview process at Dream Business once and then was invited back. But the winter, repeated rejections elsewhere, dwindling savings, and not knowing anyone in town apart from my partner had really put me in a dark place, mental-health-wise. I stumbled through this interview, misspoke, wasn’t prepared enough, got so anxious I frantically emailed the interviewer in the middle of the night about a mistake I had made and had panic attacks about it for days afterward. Unsurprisingly, about three weeks later I got a curt email that basically boiled down to, “we didn’t think you were a good fit, don’t ask for feedback.” It was devastating – I didn’t see myself having any other options in town after this place.

Luckily, I’m now medicated, in therapy, employed (though not in my field), and going back to school – so things have looked up since then.

BUT. I miss this industry – socially, intellectually, ethically. Imagine you’re really into…specialty coffee. And this Dream Business is the only place in town where you can get your…organic, locally roasted, shade-grown beans, and everyone who shares your views and interests also shops here and talks about it constantly. I’m absolutely mortified at the thought of going back in. In my mind, I screwed this up so badly that I can’t ever go back! I’d rather MOVE TOWNS than go inside while my interviewers might be working, but I want to put my money where my mouth is, values-wise. And I miss shopping for my specialty goods, and this Dream Business is my only option locally.

What would you do? Do you or would any readers have any scripts, battle plans, suggestions for full-body disguises so I can go shop without panicking about having to interact with people I feel super embarrassed about seeing?

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