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Reader Questions

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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Hi Capt. Awkward,

I/she/her am a high school teacher and we’re not returning to campus until next year. That means we have 12 more weeks of distance learning. Right now we’re completing Week 3.

I have a student (11th grade, so around 17) who has a variety of mental health needs, gender identity stuff, etc. This student and I got along very well when we met on campus, and I was able to make a good and empathic connection. The kid likes and trusts me. I knew before we went into the shelter-in-place that the kid’s parents aren’t very keen about the gender identity issues that this kid has.

Fast-forward to now. All of my students are sheltering in place and all of us teachers are trying to figure out distance learning. I figured very early on that we wouldn’t be coming back to campus for at least 2 months, so as soon as we were sent home I started a Slack workspace and invited my students into it. We keep in touch on a daily basis and I help them and, overall, Slack’s been great.

Except this student of mine, who I am very fond of, is stuck at home with their unfortunate parental situation. Like most of my students, being at home with the parents 24/7 is wearing on them. Add to that the gender stuff and the mental health issues, and the student really needs someone to talk to. They’re in pre-crisis mode. So the student has been reaching out to me.

I spent several hours last Thursday evening chatting with this student in Slack, and they told me several things in strict confidence (nothing alarming or that would require CPS reporting, but very personal, like what you would say to a friend). I was really trying to be there for the kid, but I ended up with searing pain in my legs from sitting for so long in my office chair – this was after a solid day of sitting at my computer, working. I was there for the student, but I also suggested the student find their own people, their peer group, folks with the same gender identity experiences, mental health needs, and so forth.

I’m worried that the student currently sees me as the only person who is sympathetic and approachable, and that the student will then want to talk to me for several hours at a go, several days a week. I am sympathetic to the student, but the student isn’t my friend, and I have my own family concerns and mental and physical health issues. I don’t want to leave the student in the lurch. I want to be supportive. I want to do a good job as a teacher. And I recognize that these are strange times and that nothing is going the way anyone expected and I should have added empathy and availability for my students, but I’m already stretched pretty thin here as it is.

How do I tell the student that, while I’m there and interested, I can’t do these 4 hour long conversations while my legs are screaming in pain without hurting their feelings, making them feel rejected, etc.? How can I further reinforce that they need to find their own Team You without sounding dismissive?

–Just a teacher

Hi there, Just A Teacher,

You did a very, very kind thing for your student that day.

Can you try to sit with just that for a moment?

Let go for a moment of framing this in terms of boundaries, professional conduct, the future, the fear of  letting someone down in the future, or the panic of being stretched too thin and wanting to conserve your resources for yourself and your family. You’re skipping ahead to anxiety and guilt about “what if I can’t do this next time/all the time” before letting yourself feel good about what you did do, i.e. When the chips were down and a struggling student needed you, you were there.

You might not always be able to be there in exactly that way, nobody should expect you to do that all the time, it’s okay to set limits and offer alternative support systems, you can’t singlehandedly stand in for a school full of peers and counselors and fellow teachers or make up for the lack caused by faulty parenting, that’s all true! But none of that changes the importance of what you did that day. Can you let that generosity and service and grace be the starting point of the story, just for today, instead of coming at it from a place of scarcity?

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Hey Captain!

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

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

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

Thanks,

Please stop touching mommy for two minutes

Hello, (Please Stop Touching) Mommy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikki says:

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

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

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

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

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

Next up is my dear Commander Logic:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you Logic and LogicHaus!

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

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

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

Hi Captain,

(I’M SORRY THIS IS SO LONG I’M SO BAD AT TL;DR’ing)

I’ve (she/her, 26) been with my partner “T” (he/him, 29) for close to a year and a half. The first year of our relationship was almost completely smooth sailing and we were both pretty sure we’d found The One. We used to joke that the “honeymoon phase” hadn’t ended for us yet.

Around a year in, we started to hit a rough patch related to our relationship being non-monogamous (but that’s not what I plan to talk about in this email). We started going to couples therapy. I was satisfied with that solution and felt good and hopeful about being able to solve the bumps we’d been going through.

Somewhere around then, T and I happened to be on a day trip to visit old friends of his several states away in VA – where he used to live before moving to NYC (where we both live now). While on this trip to VA, a friend of T’s basically begged him to move back there and take his old job back. I suggested that we move to VA. He often speaks of that job quite favorably and only moved to NYC to achieve a personal goal for himself. I have been unhappy in NYC for a while now and am VERY ready to leave. Despite the bumps in the road, I was confident we were on a good path to get through them. Moving several states away with T felt exciting and like a comfortable leap for us to take. We already spend 5-6 nights a week together here and its basically as if we already live together. He agreed and over the next month or so we began to seriously put our moving plans in motion. We found an apartment in VA and signed a lease for June 3, 2020.

Jump forward about 3 months and we are now quarantined together for going on 4 weeks now thanks to COVID-19. Things have been…..bleak. Both T and I are newly out of jobs. We both have pre-existing mental health issues and are now…..both incredibly depressed. I am struggling big time with the fact that T now seems to have no capacity (/interest?) for affection, romance, etc to me. We’ve been fighting a fair amount (which in the first year of our relationship was quite uncommon). When we aren’t fighting we’re usually sitting on opposite sides of the couch or lying in bed next to each other doing separate activities. We aren’t having sex, we are barely even cuddling. I have to ask him for hugs, kisses, sex (which gets turned down), ANYTHING and I’m starting to get insanely resentful. I don’t remember the last time he did something nice or thoughtful for me “just because.” I’m at the point where I’m doubting my feelings for him and starting to doubt the impending move too. I should note that I’m also quarantined at his apartment (I have my own apartment but my roommate has COVID – its not safe for me to go there or bounce back and forth between both places) and there are no signs of the quarantine being lifted so it seems that I can look forward to another month or 2 here, receiving the same treatment. I am miserable.

I have told T that I need more verbal and physical affection from him. He has been receptive to me voicing my needs but also told me that his mental state is focused on keeping himself afloat and not feeling suicidal so he has very little bandwidth for me. He also says “I’m just not really good at the type of romance you’re asking for.” (I asked him if we could do one nice thing for each other per day and if we could tell each other something we appreciate about each other each night before bed.) While I understand his struggles with mental health, this sucks. I am a person who needs affection and romance from my partner and sometimes I want to not be the one initiating it. I’m happy to model that affection and romance I’d like to receive….for a while. After a while of it not being reciprocated I start to get resentful, sulky, and stop wanting to put the effort in myself.

No idea if I can take 2 more months of this. I don’t even know if I want to move with him now. I feel incredibly emotionally neglected. I’ve asked for what I wanted and haven’t gotten it. I know I need to be sensitive to his mental state during an unprecedented and incredibly stressful time, but I also need to feel like my partner loves and appreciates me. What conversation should I be having with T about all this? Should I still be trying to save the relationship and have my needs for affection met.. or should I be ending it and cancelling the move? Do I need to adjust my expectations and be more sensitive to him?

Please help me

Miserable in Quarantine

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