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Dear Captain Awkward;

Hello! I am 48 years old, pronouns she/her, and having trouble with my parents, specifically, my mother and her hoarding. My mom is trying to give more stuff to me than I can handle, and the lever she pulls to make it more painful is, “but it was your grandmother’s.” if I take everything that falls into this category, my home will be a literal shrine to my grandmother, and that’s spooky.

A year and a half ago, I quit working full-time to take care of my parents. For various health-related reasons, they couldn’t care for themselves anymore. They are due to move into a retirement community in about six weeks. My mom’s hoarding problem has been Bad since the 90s, and worsening since. They can still use normal sanitation (toilets, trash cans), my mom can bathe and groom herself when she wants to, they have clean bathrooms available, my mom can prepare meals and do laundry, as long as I’m there at least three days a week to clear her clutter away from high-traffic areas.

My father’s mother was a nearly perfect person. She was a perfect hostess, wife, mother, friend, volunteer, grandmother, great-aunt. Everyone who knew her loved her. She was always generous with time, effort, money, support. I look a lot like her, and apparently a lot of my mannerisms are similar.

My father’s mother died when I was 23. I went into a spiral of unhealthy behavior for about ten years after that, but managed to pull myself out.

When I was growing up, my mother’s mother died when I was about five, and my father’s mother filled that void for my mom. When my dad’s mom moved into a retirement community, we inherited most of her furniture. When she died, we inherited the rest of it. My mom developed a fascination with antiques and ceramics, and a bad shopping habit. She started volunteering at her church thrift shop (as my grandmother did), and brings home stuff every week, unless I’m there to stop her from doing it.

My husband and I moved into a new house, to take on the responsibility of having my brother (who has autism) move in with us. My mom feels that “part of the deal” is that I will take her furniture and collectibles, most of which were my grandmother’s. This “deal” feels like I’m taking on all the physical and emotional responsibilities that my grandmother did in the past: being the family maternal type who does all the physical and emotional labor, creating the perfect home, etc.

So, now, “but it was your graaaandmother’s” is an argument that’s applied to everything from the armchair upon which she stitched the needlepoint cushions, to warped Tupperware from the 1950s. It’s bad enough that my mom thinks she should save everything (jars, twist ties, junk mail, anything) and re-use it, because my grandmother was always thrifty. My grandmother wasn’t a hoarder. She used the same wrapping paper for Christmas every year, she had a “waste not, want not” mentality, but that was an exception to a general rule.

I’m already getting therapy for my own hoarding tendencies. My husband gets exasperated with how slowly I sort out a box of stuff, but I have practice getting rid of things that I don’t need, and I’m getting to be good at it. I like making a box or bag of donations on a Saturday or Sunday morning, taking it to a donation center and going for brunch at the diner afterwards.

The rock-and-a-hard-place moment happened a week or so ago. I said that I regretted not being able to develop my own taste. That made her really mad. I have said to my mom that I need to make my own living environment look the way I like it to be. I’ve said that I need to make my home comfortable on my own time table. These statements made her angry. She expects that I will furnish and decorate my home with my grandmother’s things, in my grandmother’s style. She wrote me an angry email saying that I have no taste, that I need to develop an eye, and that someday I would come to realize that my grandmother’s furniture was better than anything else out there. When I asked my mother about it, she pretended it wasn’t a big deal and laughed it off.

If I accept all of the stuff that my mom is pressuring me to take, my house will look like an overloaded furniture store from the 1920s, with framed family photos on every wall and surface, and my grandmother’s wedding dress on a mannequin. I don’t want to live in a shrine or museum.

Behavior, rather than stuff, is an issue here too. Because of my dad’s health issues, he behaves like a child most of the time. If I treat him like how his mother would treat him, we get along fine (i.e., “sure, you can have another cookie before your nap.”), but if I treat him like a daughter, he gets angry, My mom needs me to indulge her rather than give her structure, i.e., “we don’t have to fold the laundry, you can take a nap.” I think they expect me to take care of them as my grandmother took care of others.

I miss my grandmother every single day, and no objects will change that. I’d rather remember her for the things she did and said, rather than the things she bought and kept. I’d like to move on with my life and do new things.

So, how do I say to my mom, “please stop expecting me to be Grandmom?”

Thanks for your time and consideration.
Sincerely,
Shackled To Heirlooms

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Dear Captain Obvious,

My mom has always been on about how I look, but since I’ve turned 16 it seems to have gotten worse. She got me a fitbit that she makes me use (which I hate because it tells me I eat too many calories a day, even though it’s the recommended amount), made me diet with her, and constantly makes comments on how “I should go to the gym more,” even though I’m a perfectly healthy weight for my height. If i’m about to leave the house with no makeup on, she says “Oh why don’t you put a little foundation and mascara on before you go?” and is visibly embarrassed if she sees m in public wit none on. She also hates me wearing my glasses, as they “cover up my beautiful face” and will make more comments on them if I wear them outside the house instead of my contacts. My boobs aren’t very big, but my thighs are, so she’s always pushing me to wear push up bras and slimming clothes. It’s gotten to the point where I’m embarrassed to not be made up, am starting to obsess over my weight, and am just downright lacking in self-esteem. I’ve tried bringing it up before, but she either plays the victim or pretends like she never did any of that. Any advice on what I can do?

Sincerely,
I’m only 16. I’m not a model.

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Stinkor from He-Man, a humanoid skunk in an orange costume.

This is Stinkor, from He-Man. What would the action figure for Clingor look like?

Dear Captain Awkward:

My partner has told me that he is afraid that he’s boring and that he has an irrational fear that my ‘self-improvement’ means I will leave him for somebody “more exciting”.

A few years ago I was feeling really down, and during that period I decided to really work on myself by changing my lifestyle. I took up a sport, started eating better and got involved in my community. Now I can hardly imagine life before – the improvement in my life and moods has been significant.

It is now to the point where he’s jealous if I have too engaging a conversation with one of his friends, and has insisted that he comes along to anything I do that runs the risk of me so much as talking to men who aren’t related to me. I find this behaviour anywhere from irritating to suffocating.

I am not sure where this fear of his has come from, I don’t think I’m just ignoring my boyfriend and getting annoyed when he wants to spend time with me. I think the problem is that he has low self-esteem and that this feeling of low self-worth has turned into a fear that I’ll leave. In the past he has said he likes me because I ‘make [his] boring life interesting’, which I find extremely concerning. To me it sounds a lot like ‘I am making you responsible for making my life interesting’. Perhaps that is a harsh assessment, but I am frustrated that he has enough free time to latch on to my plans, but apparently not enough to go find something to do by himself.

He is a great guy when he’s not being gnawed on by the hounds of insecurity, but I cannot carry on like this – I don’t have a problem with telling him where I’m going or who I’m with, but sometimes I just want to do things without having to justify why I want to be alone. I am at a loss – what can I do? I’ve suggested therapy and a hobby, but he doesn’t seem to understand that his attempts at keeping me close are pushing me away.

Thanks,
Pushed not pulled

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poster for sliding doors

Spoiler: Whether or not she caught the train, her shit would have worked out pretty okay in the long run.

Comments on this thread are closed as of 8/17. Thank you. 

 

Hi Captain Awkward,

My mother and my boyfriend HATE each other. I know you’ve heard this all before, and until now I’ve learned to just deal with it. Until now.

My mother is my supporter, I am currently a 19 year old undergraduate, about half way done my B.A. My mother has supported me my whole life, she always babied me. I didn’t have to work, pay any bills, as long as I was in school and getting good grades all was okay. Then this summer my long distance boyfriend from France, who I’ve been dating for 1 year and a half decided to come visit for a few months in our house. This is where they started hating each other. This won’t change no matter what, she even kicked him out of our house just last week, because they argue about stupid pointless things. Even though it has only been a year and a half, I love my boyfriend more than anything in the world. I know I want my future to be with him, and its important to me that I start my future with him.

My mother began agreeing that she would support me as long as I am in school, but recently she’s changed her mind. Now, either I go live with my boyfriend in France for 1 year (firstly, I don’t speak french so University and working is not possible), and then support myself in University in my homecountry Canada, or I am unable to live with my boyfriend for another 3 years or so. My mother has made it clear that whether were in the same city or not, if she’s supporting me, I am not allowed to live with him, and even if I attend school and live with him, her support for everything is gone. I need your help, because my mom is not someone you can sit with and have a reasonable calm conversation. She is illogical, and for her, as long as she’s paying, she doesn’t care what I have to say unless I’m doing exactly what she says.

Here’s my issue. Do I stay in school and stay in long distance/ not live with my boyfriend and basically say whatever to my relationship? I don’t want to do this because he makes me so happy, and I want to be able to live with him, we’ve been trying for this for a year to transfer schools to be together. Or do I go to Paris and then go back to school in Canada and depend significantly on him, and loans from the government? Should I leave school all together, and work until I am stable and can pay for myself? This option is also hard for me, I don’t know if I could do it. I’ve never supported myself and I know absolutely nothing about it, how would I make ends meet with no savings, no money at all?

Cautious Canadian

So, basically, “solve my entire life, my two most important relationships, and my economic future in a blog post, please?”

I cannot promise to do any of that, but maybe I can help you form a basis for making a good decision.

I don’t know your mom or your boyfriend or what these arguments were about or who was starting them. It is possible that your mom is being unreasonably controlling and trying to sabotage your relationship with a really good man, and that this is a story about how you fight for your autonomy & your right to choose who you love. It is also possible that your mom has a little bit of age, experience, & distance from the situation and sees something about him that you do not. Maybe your boyfriend is an argumentative tool who picks a lot of fights. Maybe she thinks he doesn’t treat you well or that you will be unhappy. Maybe this is a story about a concerned parent wanting you to complete your education and figure out who you are and what you want outside of the context of some guy, even if he is a good guy.  Maybe this is “I love you, but I do not think you are ready.”

Using purse strings to control & compel the personal life of an adult someone who is not you is:

a) Doomed. Even if the controlled person outwardly conforms to the rules you lay down, your relationship with them is destroyed forever and they will never trust you again. This is what your mom is risking by making this ultimatum.

b) A point in favor of narrative #1.

I can relate. When I was 19-20, I was involved with a guy I’d been with about a year. My second year of college we were long-distance, with me in DC and him in New York. My mom did not really like him and definitely did not want me taking the bus up to New York to see him. It was fine if he visited, but she did not want me to be running around New York when I was supposed to be studying (quite expensively & at considerable financial sacrifice to her) in D.C. I visited him anyway, she found out, and she threatened to pull financial support. Into this story-stew, shake a giant shaker of slut-shaming, teen pregnancy fears, and Catholic guilt & judgment and stir it up reaaaaaaaaaal good.

Guess what.

1) I think she was wrong to use money & education as a bargaining tool to control my sexuality & romantic life and it damaged our relationship severely.

2) That guy was an awful boyfriend and she was completely right in her assessment of his character & whether he was worth my time.

I don’t think my mom reads this blog, but just in case:

YOU WERE RIGHT ABOUT GREG

HE TURNED INTO A CLINGY STALKER

HE WAS TERRIBLE IN BED

THE MEMORY OF HIM MAKES ME CRINGE

MY GRADES & COLLEGE EXPERIENCE WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER IF I HADN’T GONE TO NEW YORK SO MUCH

Letter Writer, you are not me, your mom is not my mom, your dude is not that dude, but that’s been on my chest for a while and if we solve nothing else in this post, I appreciate the opportunity to say Happy Mother’s Day, 1993-present. To counterbalance, a family member met her current husband when she had just started college and “her whole life was ahead of her” and a lot of voices were telling her not to settle down just yet. She took the lumps & the judgment, did what she thought was right, and in return got the love of her life.

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My mom’s mistake was to try to control when she could not persuade. And that is one of your mom’s mistakes here, too. (There are others. We’ll get to them). And this relationship & these questions are things that you might want to sort out, at length, with a mentor or counselor.

However badly designed, your mom has put some choices in front of you and issued you a test. That test is called, “Okay, How Badly Do You Want This Dude?”

It is but one essay question on a larger test that you were always going to have to take eventually. The bigger test is called “What Do You Want Of This One Life That You Get?”

With the caveat that I think your mom is wrong to try to control you in this way, I want to try to look at this test as a thing made up of things that you would have to figure out for yourself anyway.

  • Where do I want to live?
  • What do I want to do?
  • Is this guy a person I can make a happy life with?
  • How will I support myself?

Here is your terrifying/comforting thought for the day:

Even if we could answer all these questions “correctly” right now, today–

Even if we could make a pretty good guess at an optimum path that will make you the most happy in the long run–

The only way to really know is to choose something and see how it works out.

Terrifying: Mistakes carry real costs. Opportunity costs, sunk costs, relationships strained to a breaking point, and time that you will never get back. You got exactly what you wanted and then found out you wanted the wrong things.

Terrifying: Things are always in flux and many things are out of your hands. You can prepare very hard and make yourself a good candidate for a certain career….and still not get a job. You can swim in a lake and a bacteria amoeba can swim up your nose and eat your brain from within. People get sick, die, leave you. Tornadoes. People who drive while texting. Men in expensive suits behind expensive doors making expensive decisions. A butterfly flaps its wings on the other side of the world and the envelope with your resume in it accidentally falls behind the file cabinet.

Comforting: These questions are asked and answered over and over again in the course of your life. The “right” answers will change because you will have changed.
Plenty of people have chosen the wrong partner, the wrong college major, the wrong place to live, the wrong roommates, the wrong paint color, the wrong career, the wrong pants for those shoes, etc. and lived to tell the tale and do better.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.  ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia was eating from a pretty privileged fig tree. Certainly not everyone has the same crisis of “All the choices are awesome, how do I pick just one?” But your choices are not horrible, either. Keep going to school with full financial support of your mom and no need to take out student loans, on the condition that you do not share an address with this guy vs. Take a year off from school, live in Paris, make sure that this guy is really who you want to be with, at the cost of supporting yourself much sooner than you planned.

Here is a helpful process for me when making a big decision, developed from one part therapy, one part storytelling, and, weirdly, about four parts management consulting.

1. If I choose this, and everything goes really well and works out exactly how I want it to, what does that look like? What is the fantasy/best case scenario/perfect world version of this? Does that seem like a good goal to have in the first place?

2. If I choose this, and everything does not go well, what does the worst case scenario look like? What do I stand to lose? How likely is it to happen?

3. If the worst case scenario happened, what would I do?  DO NOT SKIP STEP #3. STEP #3 IS WHERE POWER, RESILIENCE, CONFIDENCE LIVES.

4. What are the questions I still need to ask myself? What research do I need to do? Is there some way I can expand my information base to anticipate potential problems and set myself up better to succeed? Are the logistical issues (money, space, time, etc.) surmountable?

5. What is the real obstacle here – The risk, the cost, the thing I am not seeing? Where is my blind spot?

6. What would Old-Me tell me to do? On my deathbed, what will I regret NOT having done? This is the call to adventure

If we were to take your dilemma briefly through that process, here’s what it might look like. These are not meant to be comprehensive or even likely. This is just storytelling. What *could* happen?

Team France

The Dream: You move to France with your boyfriend. You find some kind of au pair or tutoring gig, your housing & visa situation works out, you spend the time that you would have spent on your schoolwork studying French and becoming fluent in it. Taking some time off from school gives you some more clarity and focus about what you do want to study if & when you go back. Gaining independence and distance from your mom helps you gain breathing space and confidence in your own abilities. You figure out how to apply for grants and loans and some way of supporting yourself and/or continuing your studies, leading to [vague future happiness]. You and your boyfriend are incredibly happy together, and you feel confident that this is the person for you. Or, maybe things don’t work out between you, but you are confident that you tried and know more about what you want from life & love.

The Nightmare: You burn your bridges with your mom, and then…..You hate France. You hate this guy. You hate croissants. You need to break up with him and come home and admit that you made a mistake, but your mom enacts your worst “I told you so” nightmare. Now you have no dude and no promise of college and no mom’s house to go to. So you stick it out in a bad relationship. Or you leave him and find yourself stranded. In France. Student loans and debt force you to stay in bad situations, bad jobs and curtail your freedom.

I’m not going to go through all of the questions – that’s between you and your journal and actual discussions with your boyfriend and your mom – but I do want to say two things:

-Being 19, not quite sure what you want to do with your life, and having no parental support or safety net describes A LOT of people’s circumstances. Couch surfing, roommates, a string of part-time jobs, thrift stores, furniture you find in alleys, rice & beans, work-study jobs, student loans, military service, scholarships, night school etc. – If you had to do it, you could do it.

-The “what am I going to do with my life?” question is not going away whatever you decide.

Team Debt-Free Degree

The Dream: You finish your degree. You figure out what you want to do when you grow up, or at least what you want to do next, or, at least a thing you can do for money while you figure the rest of it out. Because you have parental support and no student loans, you are able to take on many internships, volunteer opportunities, and interesting projects that you might not otherwise have had. You are also able to throw yourself into student activities and non-study related passions and friendships. You keep seeing your boyfriend- long distance when you can, visiting when you can. Maybe he manages to transfer to your school. Eventually, you find a way to be in the same place at the same time and start your lives together, and you feel confident about the health of something that can survive so much time and distance. Or, you break up, which is sad, but you meet someone else at the student newspaper or at your theater group and that person is also great. You leave college debt-free, having gotten the most you can out of your education and having tried out many interests.

The Bad Dream: You feel constantly torn between your boyfriend and your college life. You spend all your time Skyping and writing emails and fantasizing about the future at the expense of the now. You miss out on friendships, opportunities, and experiences because you are tied to the future and the distant. You wonder constantly if you are doing the right thing and should have made a different choice. Your relationship with your mom is full of controlling behavior and resentment. The conflict with your mom and distance from your boyfriend drag you down and affect your mental health, and you spend three years of your life feeling resentful, depressed, and torn.

Again, not going through all the questions here, but DO NOT SKIP STEP #3. Step #3 is where you have power & agency, always, no matter what happens. There is no shortcut for Step #3, and no one can do it for you – even if we listed 10-,000 helpful & exciting suggestions, Step #3 is not complete until YOU can articulate what YOU would do if things went wrong.

I am going to cheat and tell you about Step 5 (What is the real question or obstacle here?), as I see it reflected in your letter.

I do not think that you feel particularly invested in or confident in your studies and in your ability to take care of yourself away from your mom’s influence and protection. You cannot quite envision the future where you know how to take care of yourself. “I’ve never supported myself and I know absolutely nothing about it, how would I make ends meet with no savings, no money at all?”

Whether or not you stay or go, I think that is the question you must work on. You don’t have to solve it immediately – there is no shame in not being ready to leave the nest and in needing some time and help to figure this out, and college is a good time and place to do that. You are right exactly where you should be, so don’t use that as a stick to beat yourself up with.

I said earlier that being controlling isn’t the only mistake your mom potentially made here, and that we’d circle back. So here’s my (rhetorical!) question: How the hell did your mom raise a 19-year old with no confidence in her own abilities to take care of herself and no idea how jobs and money actually work?

Because one way I used to win arguments with my mom when she was judgmental or worried-in-a-way-that-basically-adds-up-to-judmental about my choices is, “Well, you either raised me to be able to handle this or you didn’t. I guess we’ll find out.” (She did).

It’s awesome to take care of your kids and provide for them and give them a safety net, but controlling parents can foster dependency pretty hard. If that’s what is going on here, it’s another argument for sorting this out with a counselor. However the problem originated, “but that’s how I was raised by my controlling mother” does not age well as a thing you say out loud to people who are not your therapist.

I’m not under the illusion that capitalism = freedom, or that having good skills and education automatically leads to a paying job, or that the ability to get and hold a job is a statement on a person’s value. We know too much to believe in that anymore, and you’re not stupid or naive to be anxious about this aspect of planning the future. But the ability to earn a living (or at least envision a future where you know how!) is a kind of freedom. It’s the freedom to say “Mom, I am sorry you feel that way, but this is the right choice for me.” It’s freedom from finding yourself in a foreign country dependent on some dude you even aren’t sure you like anymore.

Whatever you decide about France vs. school this year, work on building autonomy and confidence. Get a part-time job – ANY job – and earn a little money with your own sweat. Learn some concrete, practical skills that someone might pay you for at some point down the road. Those skills don’t have to be tied to any college major or degree. Fully half of my professional skill-set comes from managing and being a part of performing arts groups. Seek out counseling & advising through your school, if available.

Finally, if I do all the work of putting my choices through a detailed analysis, and I still don’t feel like I can decide, I add a 7th step. When that fails, I go to an 8th step. I know, they conflict directly with each other. Life is complicated.

7. In the absence of a clear right choice or best choice, which choice preserves the most options for me down the road?

8. I’d generally rather regret a mistake than stay stuck and afraid forever.

I wish you well, Letter Writer. This is an exciting journey that you are on, and these are big, hard questions that you are tackling in a brave and honest way.

Dear Captain Awkward, 

My wife has contributed so much to my life.  In college, I made a difficult transition from developmentally-challenged homeschooled Evangelical missionary wannabe to Libertarian to a proto-value-actual-people-and-outcomes-and-recognize-cognitive-biases-and-reject-satisfying-internal-consistencies-ist.  The latter doesn’t actually have content; I was shattered and adrift, trying to find my voice.  Hell, discovering the phrase, “find my voice” was actually a huge win for me.  I was painfully undersocialized to the point where I was leaving huge cash tips to avoid having to asking waitresses for change.
 
And then I met someone.  She was smart and knowledgeable and funny.  My company delighted her.  She taught me all kinds of things.  She created a space wherein I was able to develop emotionally in ways I’d been fundamentally lacking.  Due in no small part to her, I have become awesome.  And life is so good.  We read together.  We take long walks together.  We watch interesting films together.  My heart still leaps when I come home to her.  I am happy.
 
What’s the problem in this picture?  Well, she has an atypical emotional framework.  Outside of well-established routines, she has difficulty with the idea of me not being with her.  Even my cleaning the apartment causes distress.  The last time I really tried to push hard against this, I went to hang out with some friends, and she called me while I was on the highway, sobbing, wailing, and begging me to come home.  I turned my car around.  This was years ago.  She doesn’t like this about herself, and under her initiative, she’s been seeing a psychiatrist for years.  I think she’s a lot better with this kind of thing now, but at this point, I’m pretty well conditioned, and we reinforce each other.