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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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Hi Cap!

So, there’s this community space I enjoy using with my toddler and babies, and there’s this older lady volunteer there who will. not. leave. the. babies. alone. (With the framing of “she’s just trying to help.”) She hovers over the babies, she micromanages where we’re sitting or where we put our stroller, and it feels as though she’s just poised waiting for my partner or myself to stumble or fail so she can swoop in and grab a baby.

The other day, she grabbed at a bottle of milk that a baby was literally drinking, that my partner was literally holding. (My partner’s a guy, and this definitely felt like that sexist thing of, men are incompetent parents, let’s forcibly take over!) I reported this as harassment, but have no faith she’ll ever change (and she’ll definitely not be leaving the space). Help, what do? I’d really hate to have to walk away from the community space: my family and I could get so much good stuff out of it (and give loads back.) So:

How can I even show my face back there again after reporting a volunteer for harassment (who won’t change)? There’s something in this about the mortifying idea of being known: I made it clear that something that hurt me, and that I needed things to change for me to be able to use a service safely, and I know things won’t change: all of that makes me feel so naive and foolish, like it would have been better to swallow it than to make a fuss?

How do I talk myself down at events there and stop feeling as though I’m going to be pounced on any second?

When she does show up and grab at the babies or their milk, how can I defend them? (She’s already shown that she’ll ignore a loud, clear “please give them space!” from me.)

Thanks so much for all you do!

Twin Mom On Display (she/her, I’m a thirtysomething lady)

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Parenting in these Interesting Times is pretty awful sometimes.

It’s also incredible and brings me more hope than nearly anything else has in the last 3 years, though.

My husband and I have three kids. They’re 12, 9, and 8 years old and we’ve been open and honest with them since they were born. We’re both white, and we have worked to raise them with knowledge of their privilege as well as helping them understand anti-racism (instead of “colorblindness”), sexism, and homophobia since a very young age. White families especially need to teach our kids about these things because the wider culture isn’t going to do it for us. We’re “the norm” and it’s unacceptable for us to just let our kids grow up assuming that’s fine.

Our parenting goals have been to respect our kids as autonomous human beings while balancing that with their safety and others’ autonomy. In practice, this means that my kids don’t have to hug people they don’t want to hug, but they had to sit in carseats even if they threw a tantrum. They can choose when to use their screens or read or play outside, but they do have limits that they have to respect.

We aren’t perfect parents by any means. I struggled with undiagnosed, unmedicated postpartum anxiety when they were young and yelled more than I should have. We get frustrated because kids are frustrated and kids are FRUSTRATING! But our parenting priority is treating all kids like the autonomous human beings with fundamental rights that they are.

Which brings me to… today. The Interesting Times I mentioned above. The creeping tide of fascism. Our subculture of xenophobia and jingoism that got put into power by a long process of undemocratic and treasonous gerrymandering and the subjugation of democratic rights.

This is a toughie when you’re talking to sweet, innocent toddlers and preschoolers and idealistic elementary students and sarcastic but still idealistic middle schoolers and high schoolers who just realized their education was false and the democracy (and teachers and pastors and authority figures) they believed were wrong at best, or much worse – liars.


However, there are a few ways to make these discussions a bit more fruitful as a parent, aunt/uncle, or any other loving caregiver.

The first, and the most important for every single age group:

Welcome kids’ emotions and feelings and hold them together with the kids in a safe space. Kids who feel like strong emotions that are coded as negative are “bad” or otherwise unwelcome won’t be open with you. Tears and yelling and anger and hurt and grief are all completely normal and okay – and feeling them with you there for support will mean the kids will learn they don’t have to repress themselves.

For toddlers and preschoolers:

Use the Mr. Rogers method of looking for the helpers. Children at this age desperately need to feel safe with their caretakers. It’s incredibly easy to talk to kids this age about stuff like sex (make it simple, use the correct words for body parts, talk about consent, and discuss it pretty clinically), but discussing death and state-sanctioned kidnapping is REALLY SCARY.

A toddler or preschooler needs to know that they are safe and their parents have the power to keep them safe. Even if it’s not technically true these days (especially if you’re a person of color or an immigrant!), and even if it feels incredibly unfair to get to say “we’re citizens so we are safe” – keep kids’ hearts safe while you’re talking to them about the news. “The government is doing some things that harm these families and the kids and parents are being kept apart right now. This isn’t something that’s going to happen to you, and we and all the other adults we know are working hard to make this better for all the people in trouble. We’re giving money and we’re protesting and we’re making sure new people are put into the government. But it IS terrible, and we’re angry and sad about it. We love you, and we want these kids to have their parents back with them as soon as possible because they love their kids just as much as we love you.” 

For elementary students:

These kids can understand a lot more about the difficulty of pushing back against the government than younger kids can. My kids started learning about the Civil Rights Era in school, and by 2nd grade they were learning about Ruby Bridges being screamed at by white adults and MLK getting assassinated. This varies based on school system. My kids are in Chicago Public Schools where they don’t whitewash it as much as many places do, but I still had to do some “homework” with them about the way people teach this history and how it whitewashes MLK and erases the contributions of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

Speaking to kids about how we are working hard to improve the people in charge of our country by protesting, voting, donating, etc. is crucial, as is bringing kids to protests and letting them see you living out your ideals. Stand up to family members who are saying hurtful things, “Uncle John, I don’t feel comfortable with you saying that, especially in front of kids. Please be respectful of us.”

Make yourself available to questions the kids have even if they’re scary or upsetting to you. If you can’t answer questions because of your own anxiety or similar mental health struggles, find a trusted adult who can help them. (In my family, my anxiety acts up severely about school shootings, so I refer the kids to my husband when they want to have those discussions.)  Ensure the kids feel like their concerns are important.

Helping kids have something to do to help will help them feel secure AND help them learn activism. Kids can:

  • Make protest signs
  • Help look up charities for your donations
  • Write letters to elected officials
  • Help you call elected officials (call your favorite “family values” politician and tell them your 5th grader has something to say and enjoy the guilt trip!)
  • Look up youtube videos about stepping in when people are being bullied. Non-violent conflict resolution is a great keyword here.

For middle and high school students:

These kids are learning sarcasm and humor and often need reminding that empathy and love and friendship is not uncool. They can do everything the elementary kids can, and they need the same reassurance that little kids need, but they can also start to make their own choices about when to step in. They need to practice how to stand up for people with marginalized identities, how and when to go to an authority figure, and how to stand up to their friends.

You’re not going to be able to teach all of these things but you’re going to be their soft place to land while they practice living out their values. You’ll give them ideas, support them, sometimes maybe march angrily into the principal’s office if they’re treated poorly by authority figures – and you’ll answer their tough questions. Practicing telling the truth when they’re little is so crucial because 1) you’ll have more practice and will feel less awkward and 2) they’ll trust you to tell them the truth and they’ll know you won’t laugh at them for whatever they ask.


The big takeaway to all of this? Teaching kids about difficult topics doesn’t have to be a miserable slog. Kids are smart, interesting, invested human beings who want to make their world a better place. Help them figure out how to do it by giving them ways to take ownership of the world they live in, and help them understand that parents all over the world want nothing more than to protect their babies and children. We can all help, but pretending nothing is going on is going to do kids a major disservice in the long run.

 

Leah Chibe is originally from northern Michigan but has been living on the south side of Chicago for 15 years with her husband and, eventually, kids/dogs/a biergarten in the backyard. She is currently in seminary working to become a Lutheran chaplain. She can be reached at @LeahChibe on Twitter.

Moderator Note from Captain Awkward: 

Could we keep the discussion on this thread for parents of kids under 18, by parents of kids under 18 today? If you don’t have the problem of trying to explain world events to kids right now, cool! This is not your catch-all drive-by politics-feelings-thread. Thank you.

Dear Captain Awkward,

A couple of weeks ago, I tried one of your scripts on my parents to ask them to stay in a hotel when they visit.

My wife and I have a two-month old baby. Any house guests are disruptive, especially with a newborn in the house. But my parents are the most disruptive. They don’t visit so much as descend. They arrive when they want, regardless of what I’ve asked – usually obscenely early in the morning. They bring all their own food and cook every meal, which always includes things my wife and I don’t eat and often includes things my wife is allergic to. My mother insists on sleeping on the couch instead of in the guest bedroom, even though the couch is in the main living area and she goes to sleep hours before anyone else. They wake up before dawn and proceed to bang around the house until we get up. They find “projects” to do when they come, like cleaning out the gutters or washing the siding and expect us to be available to help, regardless of whether or not we even want or need these things done. Basically, they don’t listen because they think they are always right. “Please put the baby down so she can sleep.” “She can sleep on me!” (She couldn’t.) “Please don’t give her a pacifier – fussing like that means she’s hungry.” “Maybe she just needs to cry to exercise her lungs.” (…..No.) It’s big things and small things. “Please don’t give the dog toast.” “We’ll just wait until you’re not looking.”

Learning to parent my daughter has finally allowed me to overcome my fear of setting boundaries with my narcissistic mother, who strongly resembles Alice. I want to put my daughter’s needs first in a way that I have struggled to do for myself before now. When my parents announced their plans to visit again – they never ask – I jumped in. Armed with my script, I announced my boundary. I let them know they could come down to visit just for the day, or they could stay at a hotel if they wanted to visit for the weekend.

It didn’t go well. I expected there to be push-back, but I thought their desire to visit their granddaughter would overwhelm their objections. What actually happened is confusing: they seem to be acting as though the boundary is completely unacceptable.

First, they agreed to come just for the day. Then they canceled at the last minute. Then my mother started the silent treatment. My father was the one to deliver the news that they were “uncomfortable” with staying at a hotel and felt it was a rejection of them. They couldn’t understand how they could be so disruptive, and that’s kind of the issue.

I had more phone calls from my father where he reminded me my mother just has so many emotions. My mother sent a package of clothes (all seasonally inappropriate and/or too large for my daughter to wear) with an emotionally manipulative note addressed to the baby about how much she loved spending time with her. Finally, my father told me my mother was heartbroken, and that it was time I fixed things, or it was implied that things would continue on this way indefinitely, with my mother never finding it in herself to speak to me again.

My mother tells herself stories about how she is wronged and how people are against her, and I know all of them well because it was my job as a kid to support her, agree with her, and above all, make sure she was never upset. I watched my mother alienate person after person, family member after family member for slights against her. And now it’s my turn, because I’ve done the one thing you’re never supposed to do: I upset Mom. My father is buying into her narrative. He says he can see both sides of the story, but he’s willing to “overlook” the hurt I’ve caused and temporarily honor my request until I decide to change my mind down the road. He claims to be the peacemaker, but his solution is what it has always been: for me not to express my needs in the first place.

Are boundaries really this dangerous and scary? Do parents really stop talking to their daughters over seemingly reasonable requests? Do I continue to stand firm even though I will be cast as the worst daughter in history ever? Can I maintain a sane relationship with my father while he continues to believe my mother is acting reasonably? Is he actually just as unreasonable as my mother?

I’m writing because I want to know what to do now. I would like for my daughter to have a relationship with her grandparents, but I need to protect her from the emotional manipulation I’ve experienced, and right now those two things seem mutually exclusive. My parents are so far off script, I don’t even know how to talk to them. And I want to know how to tell when it’s time to stop talking to them at all.
-New Mother, Worst Daughter

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Hello!

I didn’t find anything in the archives so I hope I’m not asking this when it’s been covered before. My boyfriend and I live together with his 11 y/o daughter, and I’m having some trouble figuring out how to be “dad’s girlfriend.” Quick background: My boyfriend (we’ll call him A) had his daughter (N) when he was 16, married and divorced N’s mom, moved two states away for work and when N’s mom was visited by CPS N was taken away. When A finally got a phone call about now N had been taken he was there as fast as he could be (18 hour drive one way) and has had N in his custody ever since (6 years now?)

One of the things I love most about A is how dedicated of a parent he is. Where the awkward happens is that I’ve only been out of my family’s home for 3 years (2 of which A and I have been dating) and I’m still struggling to figure out how to be the adult figure. A takes care of most discipline and dictates chores, rules, etc for N, and that’s great, but I don’t know what is acceptable as the girlfriend.

I don’t feel comfortable taking a motherly role, because N still has a mom even if she’s states away, and N is still at the age where EVERYTHING ABOUT ABSENT PARENT IS COOL. It breaks my heart, my (very basic) understanding of psychology makes me think that she misses having a mother regardless of all the crappy things mom did. Even after N had a telephone call where mom put the phone to her chest (or simply thought no one could hear over the phone) and said “Why doesn’t she just get over it already?” N talks about how much she loves mom and wishes to go visit.

That ball is totally in A’s court, but I’m stuck wondering what I’m supposed to be. I’ve had step parents myself, both of which took controlling/authoritative roles. I -hated- it. I’ve avoided doing that (out of my own fears of being “evil dad’s girlfriend”) but now I’m stuck in a limbo where when I’m alone with N I don’t know what might be out of line, so I turn into a wet noodle and clam up. It doesn’t help that I’m incredibly introverted and N isn’t so I have a hard time relating.

I just want some outside perspective on what I might do as Dad’s girlfriend. I’ve gone over the subject somewhat with A but he’ll usually give me a “You’re doing fine!” answer and I’m still stumped. Any awkwardeers have experiences to share?

Yours truly
Perplexed Girlfriend

You know what I like best about your question? That when you ask how to be “Dad’s Girlfriend,” it’s clear you don’t mean “how can I deal with the unfortunate fact that the guy I love has this pesky kid,” but “I think Kid and I could maybe be more to each other than we are, and I’d like that, but I want to get it right and I’m not sure what right is from Kid’s perspective.”

Which makes perfect sense to me. When you started dating A, you didn’t know how things were going to go with him, much less with Kid. And even if she was the coolest 9-year-old on the planet who wanted her dad to be happy and understood that having an awesome woman in his life would increase the chances of that, and even if she was prepared to accept that you might be an awesome woman, she’d have been wary, wondering if you were going to be around long enough for it to be worth letting you into her heart, and if you were going to be around how it would change things for her. And you’re an introvert, so not the kind of person who could’ve jumped in and been instant BFFs even if she’d been primed for that, which she probably wasn’t. So try not to feel bad that you’re not closer already.

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Dear Captain Awkward:

Quick backstory: my mom and stepdad babysit my daughter for free one afternoon a week while I work (I telecommute the rest of the time). My mother offered to do it right after my daughter was born and I was thrilled. I’ve checked in with both of them a few times to make sure they’re still ok with it, and they’ve responded enthusiastically every time.

Lately things have been weird. A few weeks ago I had an appointment before I went into work and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to take the baby, so I asked Mom ahead of time if they could take her a bit earlier and she said yes. I told her I’d let her know for sure if it would be at the usual time or earlier, but forgot to call when I’d promised, and then my phone died just after I left my appointment, so I ended up showing up at the usual time (without calling) and apologizing profusely to both of them for making them wait around for me. I was expecting them to be annoyed, but I don’t feel like it was a HUGE deal – it was an honest, though inconsiderate mistake on my part, and I promptly apologized for it. 

When I got there Mom berated me for half an hour until I finally got a word in edgewise to ask her what she wanted me to do, other than apologize and not do it again. She told me that she needed to vent at me because she was angry, and she needed me to show more remorse. I apologized again and prepared to leave, but on my way out Stepdad confronted me (he’d been in another room, not out of earshot, for the preceding conversation) and began an identical tirade. I cut him off almost immediately and told him that while I was sorry for inconveniencing them, I really couldn’t stay to talk right that second because I had to get to work.

Ever since that afternoon, Stepdad hasn’t spoken a single word to me. I tried to talk to Mom about it, but she simply said that Stepdad is angry for good reason and that I should apologize to him more. I feel like an asshole, but also kind of unfairly treated, and I’m not sure how to move forward, or how to deal with this should something similar arise in the future. Though obviously I will be more considerate going forward.

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Hi Captain Awkward,

Congratulations! It’s a girl! And a free pass for everyone to tell you what you’re doing wrong!

 
Thank you so much for your wonderful column.
 
My parents are very loving and I have a generally good relationship with them. I see them once a week or so, and I generally enjoy spending time with them. My mother and I have opposite ways of communicating, though: she simply can’t take criticism (I know that no one enjoys criticism), and will break down when any is given to her. She is passive aggressive, and in the past when I’ve talked to her about this kind of behaviour she defends it because she thinks that “being passive aggressive is kind because you don’t have to come right out and tell someone what they’re doing that’s bothering you”. She is also a fan of the silent treatment, although less frequently now because I no longer respond to it.
 
I have the opposite approach: I tell people how I’m feeling immediately, but I am known for being a bit blunt sometimes. These two approaches don’t really work well together.
 
She also deals with tremendous self-doubt and anxiety. I’ve encouraged her to go see a therapist, and she went for one session and then stopped because she found it too painful to talk about some of the issues that weigh on her.
 
While I’ve generally been able to reject her manipulative behaviour, it has taken me years to recognize how her anxiety has affected me. I find it very contagious, and have worked hard not to take it on, especially in her company. It was a behaviour I learned from her when I was growing up that I’ve had to dismantle as an adult.
 
My sister has just had a baby, and my mother’s anxiety has reached a new level. She is constantly worried that something is wrong with the baby because she’s too loud/quiet or moving too little/too much, and she yelps when the baby gets passed around because she’s terrified that her neck won’t be supported properly, etc. It’s a constant barrage of worries. It’s hard to be around, and it’s not useful for my sister and I to tell her that everything is fine. She just doesn’t hear us. 
 
I’m newly pregnant now, and I know my parents will be thrilled. My husband and I wanted to wait until after the first trimester to tell our parents (another two weeks from now), and I realize that part of this is because I have a medical condition that puts me into a ‘high risk pregnancy’ category and I just don’t want to take on the anxiety around the pregnancy that my mother will thrust onto me. I also don’t want the baby to have to take on her anxiety, especially as the child gets older. I can certainly refuse to take that energy on, but my child will be subjected to it and it’s very damaging.
 
My husband and I feel that having some sort of conversation with her before the baby is born will be important for us, but we’re just not sure how to navigate this territory. I suspect that she will either start sobbing and stop listening, deny/justify the behaviour or end the conversation. Is there a way for me to begin the conversation that can prevent her from feeling defensive? How do I talk through this with her? Any suggestions are deeply appreciated.
 
Sincerely and with thanks,
Trying to keep calm Read More