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Hey Captain Awkward!

First off, I hope you’ve had a lovely holiday season so far! Hopefully it’s been less stressful than mine.

I wasn’t able to quite find an answer to my situation (and I admit, it’s sorta weird). Basically, shopping for the holidays has become quite an event. Maybe it’s because my family’s Asian, but I feel like often times the value of the gifts is measured by how much or how little is spent.

I’ll give you an example. My mom’s birthday is on the 19th, so having a birthday and Christmas close to one another means double-trouble for gifts. My mom says she doesn’t care about “expensive” things, just so long as there is “effort” put into the gift. Last year I had purchased her a bunch of succulents and a terrarium set for her birthday and a fair trade sculpture of a church building for Christmas. She loved them both, but demanded the price for each. The birthday gift was around $40 and the sculpture was $15. Hearing the price, she was immensely pleased with the sculpture and loved it more but said that the succulents/terrarium lost “value” because they cost “way more than she was willing to pay for them.” What? She appears to be the worst at this, followed by my brother (who seems to have picked up her habit). My dad seems to be the complete opposite and in the same boat as me (aka: stressed out about buying gifts because the price is scrutinized).

So this year – thanks to the fact that I have a job and am making a decent amount of money – I got her a custom wooden bowl thanks to a close woodworking friend of mine (it’s super fancy with carvings and copper inlay) for her birthday (a $120 value, but my friend only charged me $60 despite my insistence that I pay him more for it) and an iPad Mini 4 split between my brother and I.

The iPad Mini has its own separate issue – I had purchased it from the Apple Store for $400 (adding in the case it totaled to $440). When I had messaged my brother the cost, he flipped out. Said it was way too much money for an iPad Mini and chastised me for not going online and buying it from Best Buy (where it said it would cost $300). He told me that the value of the gift had been lost because I was “wasteful with money,” “was giving away $100 for free,” and that “Mom won’t like it because you spent way too much.” Kept going on about how he’s right and I’m wrong, and even threw in a weird analogy (I quote, verbatim): “Say it’s your friend’s birthday. You wanna get him or her a pencil. You find two pencils exactly the same. One is 1 dollar. The other is 101 dollars. Which one do you buy?” Um, what?

I ended up returning the iPad Mini and purchasing it and a case online (for $340, and yes, we saved $100). But I didn’t expect to get shat on for the $100 difference. Sure, I’m wrong in that I should’ve bought it for less, but I didn’t expect to be berated by my younger brother about how I’m being reckless with money when I really only spend money on friends/family the holiday season!

I feel like I put a lot of thought and effort into finding something that my mom wants/likes/needs. The same goes for my brother (he’s getting a shirt, a phone holder for his car, and a pair of Nike running shoes). Yet I feel like worrying about the “value” of things has almost ruined the spirit of Christmas (though my brother said I have ruined the holiday spirit and am using this as an excuse to recklessly spend).

I’m getting incredibly anxious for when Christmas happens, and I guess my question is: how do I handle the potential “tsk tsk” when Christmas gifts are exchanged and opened? I feel like if this Christmas turns out to be a dud, I’m just going to stop investing in giving them certain things, but then I know I’ll be chastised for not caring enough in giving them something of value. How do I handle the awkward situations when they arise? My dad will probably keep quiet and agree with whatever my mom says, but this whole thing is driving me crazy!

Thanks!
Gift$ or $hit

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My parents and I have a very strained relationship. There is obviously a lot involved, but since I left home 12 years ago I’ve slowly been setting boundaries with them and trying to have the kind of relationship we can manage (which is a superficial though mostly friendly one as long as I’m not in the same state as them). While a lot of the things my parents do bother me, I’ve been coping with them. However, I have a pet peeve that I just can’t get over, and I need help!

My dad insists on talking to me in baby-talk and in the third person. I am 30 years old, a successful attorney, married, and 100% an adult. He tells me all that time that I’ll “always be a widdle girl to Daddy” and other similar nonsense, and I want to reach through the phone and show him what’s what. I have far exceeded what he thought I would become in life (no thanks to him) and I feel like he’s infantalizing me to ‘keep me in my place.’ I hate it.

But how do I make it stop? This has been going on my whole adult life, and I feel like I’m in deep to just say “actually that bothers me a lot, please stop.” Ultimately I know this is indicative of his whole attitude toward me, which will never really change, but if I could just carry on a conversation were he says “I changed the oil today” instead of “Daddy changed the oil” (in a cutesy voice) I would take it.

Best,
Not Widdle and Not Buying It

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Hi, Captain,

My mom and I have had a fraught relationship for most of my life. Her parenting was often verbally and emotionally abusive, she spent much of my adolescence self-medicating with alcohol, and she’s both extremely volatile and prone to interpreting criticism as an indictment of her entire being (so, for instance, “Mom, I feel like you don’t really listen to me” is met with “Well, I’m SORRY that you have the WORST MOTHER in the WORLD!” and similarly manipulative, derailing crap).

Because she’s very conscious of how others see her, she’s a pro at turning on the Cool Fun Mom routine, which she used to win over most of my childhood friends. Any time I was critical of her parenting or expressed frustration about not having my needs met, she would invalidate me by pointing out that my friends thought she was awesome, and therefore the problem must be me. It made me feel terribly alone and doubtful of my own perceptions, which of course was the point.

Our relationship is marginally better now that I’m an adult and we live in separate states, but lately she keeps trying to pressure me into a closer relationship that I’m frankly not interested in. After years of reaching out to her and being rebuffed, her newfound zeal to be my pal feels like too little too late, and very one-sided. Like, “I know I was checked out for most of your childhood, but please get over it because being your mother is finally convenient for me.” I also can’t help but notice that the way she talks about being closer always necessitates me changing to accommodate her, but never includes any explanation of how she plans to meet me halfway by, say, addressing her anger issues and constant need to criticize with the help of a therapist.

As far as I can discern, her vision of our new and improved relationship basically amounts to me giving up my boundaries for her comfort. Example: I asked her to stop prying into my dating life because a.) it’s annoying and b.) it’s not a subject I feel comfortable discussing with her, and I assured her that if there was anything she needed to know I would clue her in. She responded by telling me how hurt she was that I wouldn’t be more open with her and then asking if I was secretly gay.

Occasionally she’ll get tearful and ask why I won’t give her more of a chance. This is a trap, because then if I try to explain (“Well, Mom, you’re relentlessly judgmental and kinda mean, you refuse to admit fault for anything, and you won’t respect my boundaries, all of which makes you not a lot of fun to be around”) the inevitable outcome is a heated, defensive lecture about why my feelings are wrong and her toxic behavior is totally defensible.

This does not make me want to be closer to her.

Captain, I would like to have an amicable, well-boundaried relationship with my mom. I would like for Christmas Eve to never again involve “IT’S OBVIOUS THAT YOU HATE ME!” being shrieked in my face. I would like to be able to work through disagreements with her peaceably instead of getting baited into a shouting match over who’s right and who’s wrong. But I don’t get the sense that my mother is prepared to do her share of the emotional heavy lifting that building a better relationship would require.

What do?

Difficult Mom Is Difficult

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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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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m in my late 20s and have achieved a considerable amount of success in my creative field. I earn a sizable living and have a good reputation in my field both nationally and internationally.  My father and I do not have a very good relationship (short backstory: he is a professor who left my mom for his T.A. when I was young, attempted to gain custody of my brother and not my sister or I, refused to acknowledge my sister’s depression was real despite her suicide attempt, other bad parent things).  At this point in my life, I prefer to keep things cordial but distant- get lunch one day if we are in the same city, phone calls on holidays.

The problem is that he undermines my achievements at any opportunity that presents itself. When I graduated from art school he flew to New York and showed up at my thesis exhibition unannounced, making my mother (who had been planning and saving to be able to fly up for the day) hugely uncomfortable and making comments like “So is this all you had to do to graduate?  I would have thought you’d at least have had to write a paper or something” and “I mean I’m just glad you’re graduating, it took you long enough.”

Now I am having my first solo art exhibition in London in the fall, and I got a call out of the blue from my dad telling me to let him know the dates because he’d like to attend.  He even had the audacity to say “maybe we’ll just drop in on you like we did for your thesis show!” I know that if he comes it will ruin what should be a major milestone in my art career.  He will make passive-aggressive and rude comments to my coworkers and friends and undermine my accomplishments by speaking negatively about me (“Oh you’ve met her mother?  Now you see why she’s so fucked up”

I’m worried that if I ask him not to come he will show up just to spite me.
How can I keep him from attending without turning it into a major dramatic argument?

Sincerely,
Stop Asking Me if I Make A Good Living From My “Etsy Store or Whatever it is You Do”

Dear Stop Asking:

Bad news: You probably won’t be able to prevent him from attending, and it will turn into a major dramatic argument no matter what you do, because that’s how your dad rolls. Whatever will cause the most turmoil and get the most attention is what he will do. So I think you should risk the drama and the argument, but do it on your terms.

The exhibition will be up for a while, yes? It’s not a One Night Only thing? I suggest you pick a date or set of dates that starts after the opening festivities. That way you can have the opening events and enjoy your success without his shadow.

“Dear Dad,

Sometime between X date and Y date would be the best for me.”

Keep it really terse. If he asks specifically about opening parties and events, etc. just repeat yourself: “Between X and Y is the best window for me.”

Do not elaborate or give reasons. He doesn’t think he behaved badly at your thesis event, he thinks it was awesome that he came. He doesn’t think he said horrible and insulting things to you and about you, he thinks y’all were bonding. He has a selective memory, he’ll never be convinced otherwise, so don’t waste your energy. Ignore follow-ups. You’ve said what you needed to say.

You could also say, “I’d prefer it if you didn’t come, but if you insist, sometime between X & Y is best.” This response would rock the illusion of cordial relations you have now though I would argue that if you are filled with dread at seeing the dude, things ain’t that cordial. I think he would still come if you said that (because you are issuing a direct challenge to him), but it strips away the illusion that he is somehow doing this for you and returns some of the awkwardness to sender.

He might well look up the event online and crash the opening to spite you (and torment your mom). Against this contingency, you could recruit some of your most thick-skinned and gregarious friends to be your Dad-buffers. If your dad shows, you can give your dad a brief (& confused) hello, like “Oh hi, Dad, I didn’t realize you’d be here” before excusing yourself to the rest room for a good 10 minutes, while Dad-buffer Friend #1 swoops in to give your dad a personal tour of the gallery and keeps him far away from you for the rest of the evening. Buffer Friend #2 is there should you get cornered by your dad, to swoop in and call you away for something urgent, like, a buyer (fictional or real), i.e. “Letter Writer, so sorry to interrupt you and your Dad, but Sting is here and wants to ask you about your work.” Your script is “Sorry, can’t talk now!” as you walk away from him to somewhere else. If/when he releases the word-kraken of undermining nonsense and backhanded compliments, your friends will know that it doesn’t reflect on you, at all. He is only embarrassing himself.

Depending on what kind of venue it is, you could also deploy the guest list or “invitation only” qualities of the opening to your benefit. It would involve telling your agent or the venue manager (or other person in charge): “My dad and I are estranged, but he likes to crash my openings and make a big weird scene. Can we make sure he does not acquire tickets or guest list privileges?” Savvy people who are invested in your career (literally, they are literally invested in you) will realize that a shaky, seething, distracted You is a You Who Sells Less Art and do what they can to buffer you. There will be drama if your dad is escorted out by security, but security people are totally capable of saying “Sorry sir, it’s invitation only, and you’re not on the list. The show runs through (date), please come back another time.” They don’t have the same emotional engagement as you do, and they give zero fucks that he’s your dad.

If he doesn’t crash the opening, and shows up later, you can decide whether you want to meet up with him at all. You could reward him for at least respecting the time window boundary with a brief lunch and collect a few more inappropriate Dad sayings, or you could be all “Sorry, didn’t realize you were actually coming (since you insist on surprising me at these things). I’m actually in France for the weekend. Enjoy the show!

Congratulations on your show, I hope it is a great success and that it is relatively asshole-free.

Moderation note: Readers, if you have kind, normal parents, flying across the ocean to see your child’s art show would be a tremendous show of support and love. If you don’t relate to a scenario where this all fills you with dread, that’s okay – it means you’re lucky, and it also means that this question and response isn’t really about you. Please no “but he’s faaaaaaaamily” hijacks.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a slightly complicated situation that I don’t know how to talk (or better yet, avoid talking) about with my parents.

Recently, I’ve met a guy and had a couple dates with him. We hit it off and would like to continue seeing each other. Fortunately, he has his own place; unfortunately, I still live with my parents (yay poorly paying retail jobs), and my mother in particular feels like she needs to know everything going on in my life. It’s impossible for me to just say that I’ll be home late from work, or going out in the evening on my day off without her wanting to know exactly why and where I’m going. I’d be willing to tell her that I’m going on a date, except:

I have a wonderful boyfriend of several years that the parents have met and like. Sadly we live in different countries and only manage to see each other about once or twice a year. This is not a cheating letter! We have an open d/s relationship in which we both are switches, and we’ve both encouraged each other to find other people to play with, although neither of us has taken advantage of it until now. My boyfriend has known about this play partner since I met him, is aware of the play dates, and finds it sweet and very hot.

So if I tell my mom that I’m going on a date, she’ll be wanting to know if I’ve broken up with boyfriend, or think I’m cheating on him, and I don’t really feel comfortable trying to explain an open relationship or that it’s strictly a kink thing to her. (Even more complicated to explain since it’s not sex, either.) >.< Using generic excuses or saying I have work only works for certain times of day, and will no doubt be discovered at some point by calling work when I’m not there. I can’t even say that I’m going out with friends because … well I don’t have any local ones. I don’t really want to get too tangled up in maintaining a lie – this isn’t something I’m ashamed of or feel a strong need to hide, but I really don’t feel comfortable trying to explain it to my MOM.

I guess basically I need some help putting together scripts to either try and explain this or politely tell her it’s none of her beeswax without provoking a tantrum. She has no real sense of privacy, and when I’ve asked her to not do things I find invasive before (like ignoring my closed bedroom door/refusing to knock, or going through my trash) she’s acted offended that it bothers me and then hurt because ‘I never tell her anything’, so I don’t really see a way to set up strong boundaries that isn’t going to result in disaster and endless fights, which I’d love to avoid.

Thanks!

I know people want to be open and honest in all of their relationships, but you get to hold certain things close to the vest if you want to, especially with nosy/judgy parents who go through your trash and can’t knock before entering your room.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

So, I’m having trouble with my mom and I’m not sure if it’s a me-problem or a her-problem or a “no one did anything wrong but it’s just uncomfortable” problem.

When I started college (and became an adult-ish) my mom has opened up to me about a lot of things that she didn’t want to talk to me about when I was younger. In general, this is fine. However, it’s changed the way we talk about my dad and it’s starting to make me very uncomfortable.

My parents are happily married but they’re in a tough situation–they have five kids (I’m the oldest) and my dad works about 5 hours away from where we live. He commutes Monday and comes back Friday, which leaves my mom shouldering a lot of the day to day burden of running the family. I totally understand that my dad isn’t perfect and that she might want to vent about him sometimes. However, I’m really uncomfortable with her venting about it to me. I can’t commiserate, as I’m not around to experience things the way she does, and I really don’t like hearing negative things about my dad.

Some of the stuff she says is true (he can’t do as much with a lot of problems because he’s just not accessible) but I feel really defensive whenever the conversation turns that way.

Basically, is there a script or something that can help me deal with this? Should I deal with this?

Growing Up is Hard

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