You are a Freaking Warrior: Carolyn Hax Live (Friday, Aug. 22)

Aug 22, 2014

In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Carolyn was online taking your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

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Hello everybody. Feeling the back-to-school blues. Anyone else? 

Picking up on your advice from Wed.'s column, as we raise our child, how do my wife and I make sure we're permanent?

When I was writing that, I typed out a qualifier--something like, "... to the extent any of us can be, of course." But I backspaced because it weighed down the point only to underscore the obvious.

The whole point was to settle this before bringing kids into the world and/or becoming a stepparent. So, toothpaste's out of the tube for you. Still, any of us can benefit from giving the idea some thought, to make sure we're coming through with whatever kids need at whatever stage of life. 

For the kid in the column, the right thing to do was to make sure both of them were committed to a life together. Again, it's stating the obvious that not all of these commitments last. Especially because of that, though, it's incumbent upon the adults in a child's life to make sure they're not moving in together as one step in a progression toward commitment. It's got to be, "We've answered all the open questions we've wanted answered, and this person is the one I want at my side for the duration." Then you start the process of introducing/becoming a stepparent.

The stepparent, too, needs to see this as a lifelong role, not a, "Well, the kid'll be out of the house in 3.7 years and then I'm free." Maybe technically that's true, but it's dehumanizing and not what you'd want anyone doing to you. I do know that sometimes stepparents are shut out after a divorce, against their will, and sadly that's not something they can always fix, but the most important thing is for the step to be -in it.- 

[more]

 

In your case, when you're already parents, in means continually renewing, in words and actions, your choice to be present. It means giving your partner and child what they need with the same persistence and passion that you bring to meeting your own needs.  

And, since we're all mortal and because life is hard enough without money problems, it also means facing up to the fact that you won't always be around, and that it's an act of love to do whatever you can to ensure you don't leave your survivors in legal or financial peril. (A little movie called "Men Don't Leave" makes this point memorably.)

Hi Carolyn, As someone whose life has been profoundly affected by ALS, I was curious about your opinion on the ALS ice water bucket challenges. Care to share?

Overwhelming gratitude. 

ALS is awful in a bunch of ways, but one crucial way is that it doesn't affect a lot of people, but devastates the ones it does. So, what that produces as far as fund-raising is a small, haunted core of people who wonder if they will ever make enough noise to get something done. Remember, there has been progress in research  as there has been with so many other things, but in actual treatment, we haven't got much more than was available to Lou Gehrig himself. 

Enter the ice bucket, and we've got money that might, just might, make a dent.

The only down side for me is that I'm back to crying at strange times as all these memories and feelings are back at the surface, but fortunately for me my inner circle is so used to that by now that I can pretty much emote erratically in peace.

 

 

It seemed like you jumped to conclusions about the strength of the couple's commitent, based solely on the fact that the LW called her partner her "boyfriend." Why the big lecture--because you've heard from a lot of people who felt like one of their parents introduced them to too many romantic partners who ended up not sticking around?

The letter started with "I ... ha[ve] been dating ..."

Dating. 

All I said was to make sure. Call it a "big lecture" if you want, but it was the same as any other column I write: my best shot at good advice for making the specific situation work.

I hear from a lot of people, period, and a crappy or unstable or just changed-too-many-times home of origin is one of the most reliable culprits in unhappy situations. How you put a family together is up to you--gay, straight, step-, foster, birth, single, married, paperless partnershipped, divorced, I don't have any stake in it. My advice was, and is, and will continue to be, just: Mean it.

 

 

But what if one of the open questions you still have about taking the final commitment step is "can I live with this person in the same house for the rest of my life?" Is it really realistic to demand that people "know" they'd want to make that kind of lifetime commitment before they take steps that a lot of people normally take in order to comfortably get to that point?

A couple of things here.

First, I think we all have to accept that "know" is a nearly impossible standard to meet. It's the future, so it's a guess. Period.

Next, you need to be ready to dig into why you don't "know." Is it that you have hints of possible problems, enough that you wouldn't say yes to a life commitment, but you're not confident enough in your judgment to break up over them? And so you settle on the middle ground of road-testing them (i.e., kicking the decision down the road)? Or is it that you have no hints of possible problems, you're just a realist and know you can't predict everything based on how you get along from separate homes?

In the former instance, I posit that you do know, you just don't like the answer; and in the latter, I posit that you know as much as you can, enough to make a decision, and are just aware that you don't and can't know everything.

If there's no child involved, then you have a lot of latitude in how you handle either. If you're looking to minimize stressful or messy entanglements, then I'd suggest not moving in for Case A and moving in for Case B, but that's just me; what two independent adults choose to do in these cases is up to them.

But when there is a child involved, there's very little latitude. In the former case, I think it means you don't combine households unless and until any doubts are settled. In the latter, I think you make up your mind on what you know, commit or not. In the case of the column, it's possible they can move in while the child continues to remain fully with Mom, to get the hang of shared living before the kid moves in part-time. But whatever they do, the key is to put "dating" or "planning" (two words used in the letter) behind them first.

 

My son has started expressed that he "hates" certain people/kids. How do I go about getting to stop using that word. FWIW he told me hated some kids at camp and I asked him why and what did he do about it. He said they cheat when playing games and he told me he ignored or walked away from them.

"'Hate' is a strong word. What makes you say that?"

Then you listen, then you can offer alternatives that you think are more appropriate and accurate, drawing from your adult vocabulary. Kids use simple words all the time for complicated feelings, because those are often all they have. It's up to us to draw out the complexities and help kids understand and manage them.

I humbly suggest, too, that you give a think to the "how do I get him to ..." construct. It's more productive, and less frustrating, to treat all his behavior as originating within him, in which light "get him to" looks like you holding puppet strings. You can't "get" anyone to do anything, ultimately, but you can teach him new words, or encourage him to think a different way, or even just challenge him gently to think further about others' actions and motivations.

The discussion about the step-parenting column has reminded me of an ongoing discussion my friends and I have about how unsatisfying the vocabulary options are for relationships, especially as we get older. Girlfriend/boyfriend - I had a boyfriend in fourth grade and now that word seems pale. Special friend? Partner? LOV-AH? I would love to have some better descriptors.

This has been a nagging concern among readers since I started the column, the lousy vocabulary, but I've come around to embrace "partner." It says commitment without making any further assumptions about who or how, which, to my mind, is just right.

About a month ago I caught my mother being physically and verbally abusive to my kids, whom she had been watching daily while I work from home. After we fought about it, she left my home and I haven't seen or talked to her since. I'm horrified, both by her actions and that it took me a while to catch on (well, when you grow up with it, I guess it's hard to recognize). My kids don't want to see her again. My mother is apparently waiting for an apology from me for getting mad at her. And I just don't know what to say. She does not accept blame, or criticism, or questioning anything she says. But my beloved brother is coming to visit next week, so I owe it to him at least to try and talk to her, but what do I say? How do I try and get my mom to understand why I'm upset and to listen to me for probably the first time ever?

Why do you owe this to your brother? Seems to me there's a break in the logic there.

If you don't already have a good family therapist lined up, then I urge you to start with that. What just happened to you and your kids, the latter especially, is traumatic, and while your concern for your brother is generous and kind, he's not your top priority here. 

Teach him to distinguish between the behavior and the person. "I hate it when they cheat" is much more accurate and nuanced than "I hate them".

Great point, thanks.

I was pretty floored by all of the people this week who accused you of pushing marriage to the woman who was discussing becoming a stepparent. You regularly advise people whose marriages are clearly not permanent, and you support people who are not married but who are looking to strengthen their bond. I've been married and at no point would we have been prepared to care for a stepchild. I am now with someone, unmarried but longer term, with whom I would feel confident assuming the care of a child. I understood what you were saying, which was: "Do not add new instability to the life of a child."

Apparently taking care not to use the words "engagement" or "marriage" didn't suffice. No good dodge goes unpunished.

Anyway, thanks for this. Dropping the subject now ...

 

Sorry for the delay--just had to reboot my temperamental wifi. 

So, not quite back to school but back to old school friends. I'm going through a rough patch with my best friend since highschool (we're in our 30s now) and I'm hoping you can help. About a year ago I went through an extremely difficult personal experience, I was in shock, sad and dealing with all kinds of internal stuff. It was very private and BF was one of the few people I told at all and she was a big support to me but it turns out that she had really specific ideas of how I should be relying on her for support, how much I should be telling her, calling her, etc. She was frustrated that I didn't do these things and ended up dumping all of her frustration and anger on me; then, a few months later she apologized, recognizing that we all handle things differently. The problem is that, despite the apology, I can't really get past the fact that she turned something that was about me into something that was all about her, that instead of really supporting me she was simmering at how I wasn't meeting her expectations. It has fundamentally changed my relationship to her and I'm not sure how to go back (or even if I should).

Normally my advice in these situations is to add what you've learned into your pool of knowledge of this person, and adjust your relationship and expectations accordingly. But, you know what? This is your best friend, and this was probably the most difficult experience either of you had ever faced before, she came back to you and apologized.

Add those up and the sum is an excellent case for top-to-bottom forgiveness. Both of you wound up in a place you'd never been before, and she knows you were counting on her, and she knows now that she blew it. It's possible that, in the moment, she thought she was helping you since her "simmering" could have been of the "I can't help her if she won't ..." nature--i.e., a cry against her own sense of helplessness. A lot of people do that and never grasp how unwelcome such pressure is to someone in pain.

So it's also possible this experience has fundamentally changed your relationship for the better. You could be smarter about each other now, more aware that a crisis can affect you in surprising ways.

Just something to mull a bit.

Dear Carolyn, I'm a chronic self-sabotager, the kind of person who never quite lives up to my potential. I sailed through school, making easy As with little effort, and though I have dreams and ambitions, I seem to always sabotage them -- it's as if I'm addicted to the potential of things, so that actually achieving those things isn't what feels satisfying. I want and need to break this horrible habit. But I don't know how. I can tell myself, "Hey, no more Netflix! Sit down and write that novel!" But I usually fritter away my time anyway, with little to show. I'm in my mid-30s, and I feel like my potential is evaporating. Any concrete suggestions for how to instill myself with more discipline? This is affecting my marriage, not to mention my own sense of self-worth.

Dreams and ambitions are overrated. What do you actually enjoy doing?

Hi Carolyn, I want to take a year off to finish a book. I'm so busy I know I'll never get it over the line without devoted (and time bound) time. I have the finances ready (savings, grants) but the prospect SCARES THE GLASSBOWL OUT OF ME. I worry I'll never get another job again, that I'll have wasted the time and end up penniless with nothing to show for it, etc. How do I work through these? What do I need to prepare to get there?

What is the longest stretch of time you can take off from your job? Is it long enough to do a convincing dry run of your time off? 

For example, if the best you can get away with using your accrued vacation time to be off for two consecutive weeks, then can you do that, and commit yourself to using that time to write? 

I expect that if you're able to be productive in that time, you'll feel a lot less terrified by the prospect of leaving your job for real.

Of course, I'm just assuming you inquired about a leave of absence (i.e., keeping your job). That would be the ideal.

 

How do I stop feeling so… small? I feel like I’m failing some “grown-up” test, but I am honestly overwhelmed with the children, aging parents, sick husband, workplace stress (I think I work with a bully), too little money, too many wants, and just fatigue. Did our parents feel like this and I just didn’t get the memo that adulthood is *this* hard? Am I solely responsible for making my life different? Where do I start that? I have this thought that I am supposed to stop bailing water long enough to find the leak, but I also think I might take the ship down holding my family in it if I slow down enough for that. And then, when I talk to other moms, wives, friends, and they have time to do things (like watch tv), which sounds really blissful right now. Well, I guess I found the time to get here, so life isn’t that draconian. But I’m finding it hard to move right now, so It seemed like a good time to ask for thoughts.

Caregiving on three different fronts while also holding down a job is legitimately exhausting and scary. You don't specify what ails your husband, but if there's a diagnosis, then chances are there's a support group. There are also services available on the "aging parents" front, which you can track down via eldercare.gov

I know money is an issue, but if your kids are little (i.e, in the constant supervision phase), then you might be able to swing a mother's helper in the form of a teenage neighbor who comes over an evening or two a week, for not much money, to give you a break while you do other things around the house.

I know you're looking for bigger answers here, and I can throw out a few, like: We're all small, in the scheme of things. And: Yes, our parents felt like this, when they had too much to do, though what overwhelmed them and how they sought relief were probably different. You don't have to dig too deeply into history (or drive too far in the present) to find human hardship. Sometimes all any of us can do is keep taking small steps, small steps, small steps, to get us through whatever [dirt]storm has settled in over our heads, and accept relief where we can find it.

As a writer myself, I can tell you...not having time is in your head. There is always little snippets of time, be it an hour here or another there. If you have people like spouses in your life, get them on board to help with chores/kids/motivation. Also, look for writers groups, which are emmensely helpful. This goes for any other hobby or dream you want to fulfill. There are ways to reach for your dreams, and making excuses like time are just that...excuses. If nothing else, write all the roadblocks you feel you have, and start deconstructing them one at a time until you have no more left and you can move forward.

I don't understand this fixation we have with banning kids from using the word "hate". When I was a kid I wasn't allowed to "hate" anything. Never mind that there were many things I absolutely detested. When we prohibit children from expressing their true feelings, we are telling them that what they feel and care about isn't valid. That's just wrong. I'm fine with digging a bit deeper, but as you pointed out, kids use simple words and that's age-appropriate. 63 AND STILL HATES CUCUMBERS

Fair enough, but when the hate is for people, I think some redirection is called for. It doesn't lead anywhere good.

My parents are coming to visit my husband and me in NYC over the long weekend next week. They've come to visit before and have failed to be impressed by or enjoy much of anything in the city. They don't like shows, they don't like movies, they don't like walking, they don't like shopping and they are unimpressed by food or museums. They have no hobbies and they don't know how to relax. They live for work. The last time they came out, the best time my dad had was when we drove into New Jersey to visit my husband's family and he got to compare gas prices. So with this visit, I'm just at a loss at what to do with them. When asked what they'd like to do, they always reply, "We'll do whatever you want," but then they never enjoy anything I plan. If I leave the weekend unplanned, I know we'll all just end up staring at the television for three days not speaking or worse, arguing. Should I just go ahead and plan things that I'll enjoy that I think they won't absolutely hate and just deal with their being unimpressed? It makes me feel guilty to do that, but I don't feel like there's any alternative.

This is a job for Sedentary Touristy Things. It's not an option in every location, but NYC is prime. Boat tours, trolley tours, pedicab tours, views from tall buildings ... basically you get to get out of the living room, and they get to watch a TV equivalent. Also, for one day, riff off the New Jersey drive that was so successful, and schedule something you want to do that will allow a whole new gas price comparison. New England is lovely this time of year.

Plus, I don't see why there's any guilt involved with your just planning things you hope they won't hate. What alternatives have they left you?

You are caring for children AND aging parents? AND an ailing husband? I had the first two, still do, but kid is in school now and parents are in a retirement community which stopped the hospital merry-go-round and PRAISE THE SAINTS, life is better. They call us the sandwich generation, but it's more like being on The Rack, pulled in opposite directions. And while I was dealing with all of that, I only worked part-time with a schedule I could set. When prepping my parents house for sale, I didn't work my contract job for weeks at a time. And it all still about killed me. YOU are not small, no matter how you feel. You are a hero, saving lives and slaying dragons every d@#& day.

If I had a full glass, I'd raise it to Freaking Warriors. Thank you.

I have no idea about previous generations. All reports seem to say it was easier then, but rose colored glasses and 20/20 hindsight probably apply in various measures. I just want to say you're not alone. Parenthood is a lot. A full time job is a lot. Aging parents is a lot. A spouse with health challenges is a lot. All of those together can be staggering in any combination. Try to remember that you take care of others best when you take care of yourself, first, and carve out a little time each day/week just to work on what YOU need. And other than that, know you're not alone. A lot of us feel trapped in these tiny cells of responsibility, and all alone, when we're really just part of the honeycomb, and if we can poke our heads up out of our cells once in a while, we'll find our neighbors to commiserate with and lean on.

I love this too, thanks.

A close friend got me and my husband an incredibly lovely, thoughtful, baby gift, and the only problem is that we already have another version of the item. I feel like we have to tell them we already have one because we're close enough that they will easily be able to see the one we already have is being used. It can't be polite to mention that in the thank you note, but pretending we're going to use it seems wrong, too. Thoughts?

If it's a thing you can return, then it may be lovely and thoughtful but it's still just gear you can return. You thank your close friend and say you had a duplicate already in use, so you exchanged his/hers for a badly needed [other piece of gear].

If it's one-of-a-kind, then you keep it and find a way to use it, even if it means donating the one you already had.

A true friend won't guilt trip you for this, btw. The gift will be about helping you, vs. publicly getting credit, and so an exchange is just a different way of helping you than originally envisioned.

2 p.m., past that, but I'll post a few comments before I go:

I can relate. Part of it is focusing too much on massive stuff, instead of the small steps involved in getting there. If you see your choices as "watch netflix or write a novel", well, writing a novel is a HUGE task-- it's hardly something you can do in the space of time you could bingewatch Breaking Bad. Instead, start a blog, or write a short story, or simply have a journal you use regularly. Also, talk to your spouse about what aspect of not following through is problematic for himmer. Do you have a half renovated kitchen? Have you quit your job to write a novel, and now you watch netflix all day instead? Do you buy expensive materials and immediately lose interest in the project for which they were purchased? Once you understand their beef, you can address it specifically (hire someone to finish the kitchen, go back to work, sell the materials on craigslist, and limit new purchases to a specific budget...) Once you've got yourself down to achievable goals, you can start nibbling at the procrastination part of the self-sabotage. But it's a process and you won't fix it immediately.

I wish self-saboteur had written back, because the "what do you enjoy doing?" question is paramount. A goal too often is just a label--"author" is a classic one--on something we hope to have accomplished, vs actually want to do. Goals that arise from our natural ways of using our time are much less vulnerable to procrastination.

If writing is what OP loves to do then, yes, the small-bites advice is on point, thanks.

Years ago, when my children were little, I felt like I was teetering on the brink of a breakdown. And then I realized that I had stopped reading, and reading had always been so, so important to me. Wasn't conscious, but I just never seemed to have time. I started carving out 5-10 min every day to read the newspaper and it really, really helped with my incipient insanity... never did fall off the cliff. These days, I am dealing with a lot all over again. But technologu had made it easier. I have my kindle on my smart phone and I grab minutes to read all over the place... Dr's offices, lines in markets, waiting for the computer to reboot, when a bad accident completely closed the highway I was on for 2 hrs. You name it, I read during it. Definitely my sanity. I have also always done the same thing with knitting and crocheting.... crocheted my way through some truly boring lectures in college! :)

One of the few 'NY' things my in-laws liked in NYC was a 'tour' I put together of places relating to their cultural background - there are lots of ready made ones for cultures / ethnicities that have a strong history in NYC, but they are from a smaller place, and were delighted to find that there wer places that had direct links.

I grew up sure I wanted to be a writer, told everyone I was going to be a writer and after getting out of college tried to write and write....until the day I realized that I DIDN'T WANT TO BE A WRITER, I just liked to write. I will never publish a novel or short story, but my writing skills have helped me enormously at work, my friends ask me to edit their CVs, cover letters, theses, even THEIR novels and short stories. I enjoy this immensely and also do a lot of other stuff. Yes, I wanted to be a writer when I was 12. But who the hell lets a 12 year-old run their life?

I was a kid who had a revolving door of boyfriends/stepparents. I can't emphasize enough the importance of commitment and permanence. It took years and thousands of dollars worth of therapy to stop expecting the people in my life to leave me (friends, boyfriends... heck, even acquaintances and coworkers.) Marriage isn't necessary, but the people who get involved in children's lives in a significant way need to be prepared to stick around.

No, you owe it to your kids to save them from her. My mother knew my grandmother was very verbally and emotionally abusive. But she decided she owed it to a lot of other people to keep the relationship with my grandmother, and said we did too. Nevermind what she owed us. Forgive yourself for not knowing up until now, but from here on out it is up to you to protect your kids.

And:

I lost my father 3 years ago after a long, terrible, and difficult to watch battle with ALS. I find myself tearing up about 15 times daily and have had to retreat from FB for a while to mitigate the raw emotion..... Thanks for making me feel a little less alone.

Likewise.

Bye everybody, have a great weekend. The column is on vacation next week, but it's still uncertain whether the chat will be. Look for notices on Facebook, at the end of the columns and/or on my column page here: Yes, here, this link.

 

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Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on washingtonpost.com. She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.

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